Cubs affiliation excites Cougars
So much for Spring fever.
It certainly hasn't felt like baseball weather these days.
Bone-chilling temperatures have been the norm instead of the exception this month while shoveling snow has been much more commonplace than seeing local baseball or softball players swinging bats outdoors.
At this point, I'd actually settle for a few 45-degree afternoons rather than the 30-degree temperatures that we've been experiencing lately across Chicagoland.
But believe it or not, baseball season is just around the corner — I think.
Weather permitting, of course.
Nobody is looking forward to the first pitch of the 2013 season more than Kane County Cougars general manager Curtis Haug.
For the first time in their 23-year history, the Cougars are an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. It is the franchise's fifth different affiliation with a Major League Baseball team after having spent time with the Baltimore Orioles (1991-92), Florida Marlins (1993-2002), Oakland Athletics (2003-2010), and Kansas City Royals (2011-2012).
"It's a different feeling," Haug said during last month's "Meet the Cubs Party" held at Fifth Third Ballpark in Geneva. "We haven't had this type of buzz around here in a long time.
"With all the Cubs fans in this area coming out to experience a Cougars game, I think it's going to be great and it will help cultivate a whole new fan base for us."
Suburban Chicago baseball fans have been flocking to Geneva since the Cougars' arrival from Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1991. More than 9.75 million fans have attended Cougars games over the past 22 years — with the 10 millionth fan in franchise history expected to pass through the turnstiles this season.
However, being a Class A minor league affiliate of the Oakland A's or Kansas City Royals is a far cry from a partnership with the Chicago Cubs.
"Since we announced the affiliation with the Cubs (last October), ticket sales are hot, media exposure is up, and everyone around here is excited," said Haug.
As recently as 10 years ago, I believe the Cubs were content with their longtime Class A partnership in Peoria and perhaps a little hesitant to field a minor league team within an hour's drive from Wrigley Field.
But times have changed — both from an economic standpoint as well as from within the Cubs' organization.
With the arrival of Theo Epstein as the Cubs' President of Baseball Operations in the fall of 2011, the farm system has already shown significant improvement.
Epstein, who helped engineer the Boston Red Sox to 2 World Series titles before he turned 34, is part of a new regime at Clark & Addison streets.
Once the leader of "Red Sox Nation," Epstein now is the man in charge of "Cubs Country."
Along with Jason McLeod, the Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development, Brandon Hyde, the Director of Player Development, and others, they've put together an organization-wide manual otherwise known as "the Cubs' way."
"It boils down to how we're going to teach the game," said McLeod. "It's not Theo Epstein or Jed Hoyer (Cubs' GM) or Jason McLeod or Brandon Hyde coming in and writing a manual about what we're going to do, it's us collectively putting all of our ideas together and saying this is how we're going to do things."
"It's something that is like a Bible to us — something we live by," said Hyde. "When we talk about the Cubs' way, that's what it is. It's a collective effort from everybody's input. What is being taught at the upper level is exactly what is being taught at the lower levels.
"So when guys go from level to level, they're moving up and the competition gets a little tougher but the game is still the same and how we're teaching it is still the same as they go through the affiliates."
According to McLeod, there are several advantages for the Cubs to have the Cougars so close by.
"From a rehab standpoint, it's definitely advantageous," said McLeod. "From a convenience standpoint and seeing players with our own eyes, that's certainly an advantage. And from the players' standpoint, just being able to feel the energy and getting up and reading local papers, I think it really helps show them what it's going to mean to be a Cub.
"We had it in Boston with three of our (minor league) teams being so close," added McLeod. "The players weren't like deer in the headlights when they went to Pawtucket because they dealt with it in Lowell and Portland.
"In Boston, these guys knew exactly what Red Sox Nation was all about from the time they signed and went to Lowell — 31 miles up the road."
Hyde agrees that having a minor league team close to the parent club is a plus.
"For a young player to have front office people come in and evaluate them — it can be nerve-wracking at times," said Hyde. "If they can kind of get used to that, it's a huge deal. If the game becomes a lot easier, it can only benefit the player."
Cougars fans should expect to see a lot of young players this season — with an emphasis on the word young — many of whom began their professional careers with the Boise Hawks (short-season Class A) last season.
"They're in for a shock," said Cougars manager Mark Johnson, who was a catcher for the Chicago White Sox, Oakland A's, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals during his playing career (1994-2008). "Number one, the weather will be a big shock. As much as you try to prepare them, they've got to go through it.
"They have no idea what a market (like Chicago) is," added Johnson. "They're 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds. They have no clue. I'm just going to let them play."
While the final roster has yet to be determined, the list of possible Cougars players includes 6-0, 250-pound first baseman Dan Vogelbach (. 322, 10 HR, 31 RBI in 37 games at Boise), third baseman Jeimer Candelario (. 281 with 6 HR, 47 RBI in 71 games), infielder Rock Shoulders (. 250, 10 HR, 37 RBI in 63 games), second baseman Gioskar Amaya (. 298, 8 HR, 33 RBI, 15 SB in 69 games), shortstop Marco Hernandez (. 286, 5 HR, 38 RBI, 8 SB in 67 games), and center fielder Albert Almora (. 292, 1 HR, 6 RBI in 15 games) — the Cubs' first round pick in last year's First-Year Player Draft.
Vogelbach and Amaya are 20-year-olds, while Candelario is 19, and Almora, who likely will miss the first few months of the season after breaking the hamate bone in his left hand last week, is only 18.
Despite the abundance of young talent, winning is still important.
"Certainly, the Cougars want to provide a very good experience for families but you guys want to win, too, and set off fireworks at the end of the game," said McLeod.
"We want winning ballplayers in the organization," added McLeod. "Winning is a part of the development. We're going to have a very young team here — a team that got to the Northwest League championship. We want to put all our players in positions to succeed and we also want them to win games. We don't want them our kids to come here and struggle."
Win or lose, it figures to be a fun-filled season for the Cougars — if Mother Nature ever cooperates.
You can reach Craig Brueske at firstname.lastname@example.org
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