Cougars find new life in changing baseball landscape alongside Dogs, Boomers
Despite spending the last 28 years working for the Kane County Cougars, Curtis Haug was never foolish enough to think he'd seen it all in minor league baseball.
Sure enough, along came 2020.
The team's vice president and general manager was among the many baseball veterans who couldn't have anticipated the events of the last year, nor the fallout that lingers.
After playing in the Midwest League as an affiliate of six different Major League Baseball franchises since moving to Geneva in 1991, the Cougars were without a season last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then they were without an identity when MLB contracted the minor leagues from 160 teams to 120 and placed the Cougars on the list of eliminated affiliates.
The storied franchise started over in February by joining the American Association, an MLB partner league with teams in eight states -- including the Rosemont-based Chicago Dogs -- and Canada.
"It definitely rocked everyone," Haug said. "We went from thinking we'd be back for Memorial Day to just being in limbo. The combination of the pandemic and the affiliation process created an entirely new landscape."
It no longer mattered how many Midwest League titles the Cougars won or how many attendance records they set. The 187 players sent to MLB teams became part of history, including the numerous players who helped the Florida Marlins, Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs win World Series championships.
Poised to start this season against the Dogs on Tuesday in Geneva, the Cougars begin a new era where for the first time fans won't be seeing first-round draft picks and future MLB all-stars taking the field.
Instead, it'll be a chance to witness the birth of new rivalries. The Cougars and Dogs play each other 14 times this season, so it shouldn't take long for the teams to get to know each other.
Even though the rosters won't be made up of can't-miss prospects, fans will watch good baseball players taking another shot at the dream of playing big-league baseball.
For all the dollar hot dogs and floppy hat giveaways, the American Association is not a Sunday afternoon beer league.
The Cougars remain charged with the same mission of sending players to the next level despite losing the MLB affiliation.
General managers compare the quality of play in the American Association to Class AA and AAA minor league baseball. Many players stall out and don't advance while others excel and join an MLB franchise.
Thirty-five players from the American Association have gone on to play in MLB, including a dozen current players. Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer, a five-time MLB all-star, once wore the Fort Worth uniform.
MLB rosters are peppered with former Kane County Cougars players, including the Cubs' Willson Contreras and David Bote, Nationals outfielder and former Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber and New York Mets outfielder Albert Almora, another former Cubs player.
However, each of those players was in their teens or early 20s and just starting professional baseball careers when they played for the Cougars. In the American Association, where the experience level is higher, it's a shorter path to MLB but also more difficult without the direct affiliation with an MLB franchise.
It remains a longshot for American Association players to reach "The Show" because MLB franchises have a financial investment in the players on their affiliated teams and are more likely to give those players a shot. But it's still a viable dream in the American Association, perhaps now more than ever.
The elimination of 40 minor league teams means fewer call-up options for MLB. Now that the American Association and Frontier League -- where the Schaumburg Boomers play -- are considered MLB partners, it'll be easier to exchange information about potential contract purchases.
Chicago Dogs Co-Owner Shawn Hunter has seen the success stories. In 2019 alone, the team sold the contracts of three players to MLB franchises.
With the MLB partnership in place and a new crop of talent, including Waubonsie Valley graduate and former Cubs pitcher Michael Bowden, Hunter hopes to see more players moving on.
"Us becoming a partner league was a big step," Hunter said. "Major League Baseball over the last few years began to recognize the talent that was in leagues like the American Association."
A new era
With nothing to look at but an empty Northwestern Medicine Field, Haug hired American Association veteran George Tsamis as the Cougars' manager to begin the process of leading the team into this new era. After 18 years with the St. Paul Saints, Tsamis understands the league and the level of talent necessary to succeed.
"This league might be a bump in the road, but by no means is it the end of the road," Tsamis said. "I've had plenty of players who have gone on to the big leagues."
Fans will notice a difference with this team, Tsamis said. The emphasis is less on developing young talent and more on winning, with every player hungry to impress potential MLB suitors.
Haug said while the Cougars in past seasons enjoyed the benefit of MLB franchises paying most expenses, the franchises also dictated player decisions. Now it's a Cougars team run by the Cougars.
"The biggest difference with Cougars teams of the past, these guys are much more experienced and have played at a higher level," Haug said.
The starting point
Tsamis cuts short a phone conversation because he's saying goodbye to a player he recently brought to the Cougars -- infielder Sherman Johnson's contract was just purchased by the Minnesota Twins. "That's what the league is all about," Tsamis said. "Guys getting opportunities."
It's a story the Cougars, Boomers and Dogs hope to repeat multiple times.
Whether it's a youngster out of high school, a college player who didn't get drafted, a former minor leaguer who lost his team or an aging veteran, there's a place in the American Association or Frontier League.
As long as they have the talent, and the dream.
"We've become a very meaningful and credible platform for player development," the Dogs' Hunter said. "It's a fun time to be part of the American Association."
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What to expect at Boomers, Cougars and Dogs baseball games
With a full season of minor league baseball ready to begin throughout the suburbs, here's what you can expect at games for the Chicago Dogs, Kane County Cougars and Schaumburg Boomers.
Location: Impact Field, 9850 Balmoral Ave., Rosemont.
Opening day: May 18 at the Kane County Cougars.
Tickets: Single-game tickets can be purchased at the Dogs' website, www.thechicagodogs.com. Prices range between $9 and $25.
Season highlights: Fifty home games and 14 games against the Kane County Cougars. In addition to weekly promotions and theme nights, the Dogs have several giveaway nights including T-shirts on June 4 and backpacks on Aug. 13.
Did you know? Pitcher Michael Bowden played for Waubonsie Valley High School and the Chicago Cubs.
Kane County Cougars
Location: Northwestern Medicine Field, 34W002 Cherry Lane, Geneva.
Opening day: May 18 at home against the Chicago Dogs.
Tickets: Single-game tickets can be purchased at the Cougars' website, www.kccougars.com. Prices range between $8 to $22.25.
Season highlights: Fifty-three home games and 14 games against the Chicago Dogs. In addition to weekly specials, theme nights and 14 giveaway nights, there will be four pregame concerts -- Haley Mae Campbell on July 31, Dueling Pianos on Aug. 7, The Wayouts on Aug. 14 and Planet Groove on Sept. 4.
Did you know? After being a Major League Baseball affiliated team since 1991, this season the Cougars joined the American Association.
Location: Wintrust Field, 1999 South Springinsguth Road, Schaumburg.
Opening day: May 27 at home against the Evansville Otters.
Tickets: Single-game tickets can be purchased at the Boomers' website, www.boomersbaseball.com. Prices range between $11 and $14.
Season highlights: Forty-eight home games including 17 nights with postgame fireworks. Giveaways highlighted by T-shirts, caps, jerseys and backpacks. There will be weekly specials and theme nights, and fans get to run the bases after every game.
Did you know? The Frontier League expanded to 16 teams with the addition of teams from the Can-Am League.