It's never too cold to talk hot stove baseball.
Despite some of the year's lowest temperature readings on the thermometer, minor league baseball fans warmed up and helped themselves prepare for the upcoming season during the Kane County Cougars' "Meet the Cubs Party" Friday night at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva.
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The Cougars' new affiliation with the Chicago Cubs has everyone involved excited about the opportunity that awaits when the first pitch of the 2013 campaign is thrown on Thursday, April 4.
"There's definitely a different feeling," Cougars general manager Curtis Haug said of the Class A team's first year as an affiliate of the Cubs. "We haven't had this type of buzz around here in a long time. Ticket sales are hot and media exposure is up.
"With all the Cubs fans in this area coming out to experience a Cougars game is going to be great," added Haug. "I think it's going to cultivate a whole new fan base for us."
In addition to cocktails, a buffet dinner and dessert, the fans in attendance received the chance to partake in a question and answer session with Cubs front office members Jason McLeod, senior vice president of scouting and player development; and Brandon Hyde, director of player development; and Cougars manager Mark Johnson.
"I've been impressed with the support of the fans coming here last year," said McLeod, who spent 6 seasons together with current Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein in Boston (which included a pair of World Series titles). "This is a very good place for players to come, play, and develop."
Having a minor league affiliate like Kane County just an hour or so away from the parent club has its advantages.
"For us, the obvious part is the convenience of coming down the road and getting to watch multiple games," said McLeod. "Brandon (Hyde) and I are roving throughout the minor leagues all through the year but it's still a convenience for us. I live here and he's going to be moving up here.
"It's also great for the front office guys who aren't out as much -- they're coming right down the road," he added. "If we have a Major League rehab, it's going to be so easy now to funnel that guy here.
"On the flip side, we think it's a great opportunity for our players to play in this environment. They're certainly going to get more exposure to the Chicago media, and I think that's helpful to their development. We had it in Boston with three of our teams being so close (Pawtucket, Portsmouth and Lowell)."
While player development is first and foremost to the Cubs' brass, fielding a winning team can also help.
"Winning is an important part of development," said Hyde. "From 2-7 p.m., it's development time. At 7:05 p.m., it's about competing and developing winners. It's a balance that is touchy at times."
A year ago, Johnson managed the Cubs' Short-A team in Boise to the Northwest League championship series.
Several players from that team, which included highly touted prospects Albert Almora (18-year-old outfielder) and Dan Vogelbach (6-foot, 250-pound first baseman), could begin the season with the Cougars on Opening Day.
"They're in for a shock," said Johnson, who spent portions of 8 seasons as a catcher, beginning with his major league debut with the White Sox in 1998. "They have no idea of what a market is. No matter how much you prepare them, they've got to go through it."
Right before the festivities ended, Johnson noticed another "shocker" as he looked out the window of the Super Suite.
"Hey, it's snowing outside," said Johnson. "I haven't seen that in a couple of years."
Welcome to Kane County.