Remembering the first days of the Kane County Cougars
I worked my first newspaper job at a weekly paper in Geneva.
In an experience that foreshadowed working remotely, we operated out of an office in a house on a street near the Fox River in Geneva.
I had just graduated from the University of Illinois, where, at the Daily Illini, I had covered an Illini baseball team led by Scott Spiezio, who would later win a World Series ring with the Anaheim Angels.
So, even though my future was on the news side, it was only natural that I would get an assignment related to the Kane County Cougars, also new in town, having arrived the year before, in 1991, from Wausau, Wis., where they were known as the Timbers.
In fact, the assignment was a feature article on the "last Timber," Keith Schmidt, who cemented his place in Cougars history by hitting the very first home run for Kane County.
I thought of Schmidt and others like him when I read Matt Baron's recent column about Miguel Cabrera, a former Kane County Cougar who recently collected his 3,000th major league hit. Over the years, Cabrera has broken the hearts of both Cubs and Sox fans, but at least we can say for a time he was one of ours as a minor leaguer.
Needless to say, Schmidt's career trajectory traced a different path from Cabrera's. He never rose above Class A, spending 1991 and 1992 with the Cougars, before moving on to the Beloit Brewers, the Albany Polecats and the Macon Braves. Altogether he spent six years in the minors before leaving professional baseball after the 1994 season at age 23.
In 1992, the Cougars were affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles. They were managed by Joel Youngblood, whose claim to fame as a major league player came on Aug. 4, 1982, when he had two hits for two different teams in two different cities on the same day. As a New York Met, he hit a single off Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins in a 7-4 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field. He was then traded to the Montreal Expos and that night had a single off another Hall of Famer, Steve Carlton, in a 5-4 loss against the Phillies in Philadelphia.
Youngblood didn't have too much success as a manager at Elfstrom Stadium. The Cougars posted a lackluster 61-76 Midwest League record in 1992.
There were more Schmidts than Cabreras on that team.
That doesn't mean that several of the players didn't make it to the majors. In fact, nine of them made it to the bigs. But none were Hall of Fame caliber.
Pitcher Rick Krivda led the team with 12 wins, one more victory than he accumulated in four seasons with the Orioles, Indians and Reds.
Brewers fans may remember Alex Ochoa, who batted .300 for the Brewers in 119 games in 1999. He would eventually play on the World Series champion Angels in 2002 with none other than Spiezio.
Cubs fans may recall Curtis Goodwin, who played half a season on the North Side in 1999 before the Blue Jays claimed him off waivers.
But to be honest, baseball wasn't the primary interest in going to a Cougars game in 1992, and looking at the players, you couldn't really tell who was destined for the big leagues.
It was more about the experience of going to a baseball game, something that promoters like Bill Veeck exploited and many major league owners never understood. Imagine going to a game because it was fun. What a concept.
Much of that fun arrived between innings. There were the dizzy bat races, the comic antics of BirdZerk (a San Diego Chicken knockoff), Ozzie the Cougar playing with the kids, and such refreshments as Dippin' Dots, the ice cream of the future.
You could enjoy a Cougars game with your whole family or even a group of friends, without the angst of rooting for the Cubs or Sox.
I once took my dad to a Cougars game when Bob Feller was signing autographs. My dad had actually seen him pitch. So when it came time to sign the autograph, Rapid Robert asked him how he would like it signed.
My dad said, "To my good friend, Max." And so it was.
The very next year, 1993, the Cougars changed their affiliation, hitching their destiny to the Florida Marlins.
Under new manager Carlos Tosca, the team went 75-62.
The 1997 World Series champs included 1993 Cougars Charles Johnson, Edgar Renteria, Matt Whisenant and Tony Saunders.
But they also had a few Schmidts on the 1993 Cougars, never-would-bes that included Pookie Wilson, who never rose above AAA. Still, Wilson returned to Elfstrom Stadium in 2000 as a roving instructor for the Marlins, helping players hoping to have better luck than he experienced.
Someday, Cabrera will join the ranks of the immortals in Cooperstown. And a part of me hopes he wears a Cougars hat.