The family-friendly ballpark is fun for baseball fans of all ages. Thanks to special promotions and themed entertainment nights, there’s plenty to enjoy during the game. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)

Cougars Baseball: Geneva’s Field of Dreams

In today’s fast-paced world, there’s still something classic about baseball. Paul Anthony Arco and photographer Rebecca O’Malley meet the fans and the personalities behind the Chicago Cubs’ newest farm team.

The family-friendly ballpark is fun for baseball fans of all ages. Thanks to special promotions and themed entertainment nights, there’s plenty to enjoy during the game. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)
The family-friendly ballpark is fun for baseball fans of all ages. Thanks to special promotions and themed entertainment nights, there’s plenty to enjoy during the game. (Rebecca O’Malley photo)

Baseball truly is America’s pastime.

And why not? Nothing compares to sitting outside on a warm summer day, watching your favorite team, devouring a hot dog lathered in sauce, hoping to catch a glimpse of a mammoth home run, or better yet, being lucky enough to snag a foul ball.

Northwest Quarterly Magazine took in a Kane County Cougars game at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva, to soak up the game-day atmosphere, as the home team hosted the Cedar Rapids Kernels. The Cougars are a Class A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, and play in the Midwest League, along with the likes of the Beloit Snappers, Bowling Green Hot Rods and the Lansing Lugnuts.

We roamed the 14,000-seat venue, talking to fans, players and behind-the-scenes staff, including the general manager, the head groundskeeper and a college student selling cotton candy, to get a feel for the mood beyond the white lines on the field.

Many Cougars fans enjoy the minor league baseball experience for its affordability and accessibility. Game tickets are priced between $8 and $14, general parking is $5, and food is reasonably priced. There are plenty of promotions throughout the season, including $1 beer night, kids-eat-free deals on select Sundays, fireworks shows, and themed nights covering everything from “Star Wars” to Jimmy Buffett.

There’s fuzzy Ozzie T. Cougar, the team’s playful mascot, and Nancy Faust, the former organist for the Chicago White Sox, who performs during Sunday home games.

“This is fan-friendly entertainment,” says Curtis Haug, the team’s general manager. “We put on a great show. It’s family entertainment. It’s affordable and convenient. It’s about the pre-game autographs, kids running the bases. It’s fireworks after the games. We constantly entertain the fans and put smiles on their faces. That’s the big thing.”

After serving as a minor league affiliate for several major-league organizations, including the Baltimore Orioles, Florida Marlins, Oakland A’s and Kansas City Royals, the Cougars this year are affiliated with the Cubs.

“With all due respect to those other organizations, this is the perfect match,” says Shawn Touney, director of public relations. “The geography, the proximity – it’s everything you’d want in a team. A lot of Cubs fans have come out here from the city, and from the far-reaching suburbs, to see the future Cubs play. This new partnership has brought a renewed sense of optimism.”

Over the years, more than 100 former Kane County players have gone on to become major league stars, including Miguel Cabrera, Josh Beckett and Ryan Dempster. This year’s roster includes such bright stars as Albert Almora and Dan Vogelbach – players who may be headed down the same path.

At some point this summer, the team will welcome its 10 millionth visitor since it started in 1991. It’s quite an accomplishment for a minor league organization. “It’s amazing,” Haug says. “I’m not sure how many teams across the country have reached that milestone. It’s a pretty impressive stat, and we can’t wait to celebrate with our fans.”

It seems that every day is a celebration at a Kane County Cougars game.

“Every player should be accorded the privilege of at least one season with the Chicago Cubs. That’s baseball as it should be played – in God’s own sunshine. And that’s really living.” ~ Alvin Dark

Cougars manager Mark Johnson knows what it takes to get to the major leagues. The first-year manager spent 17 seasons as a catcher for the Cubs, White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals.

“My goal is to get these guys as good as they can be, and try to make them understand what it takes to get to the major leagues,” he says. “I had my chance and was fortunate to play in the big leagues. My job now is to help these kids.”

Johnson sees his role as more of a parent or mentor. “It’s like being a father and having kids,” he says. “You have to steer them the right way. You know they’re going to make mistakes, but as long as they learn from them and adjust, they’ll be OK.”

For the past two seasons, Johnson managed the Cubs’ farm team in Boise, Idaho, reaching the league’s championship season a year ago. He sees another successful situation in Kane County.

“It’s good for these kids to be in this type of environment, with this type of fan base,” he says. “Who doesn’t want to come out and see these players in the beginning stages of their career as they make the transformation to major leaguers?”

“You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.” ~ Roy Campanella

Making the transition from college to professional baseball can be a major adjustment for any player.
Bijan Rademacher knows that well. The left-handed outfielder was a 2012 draft choice of the Cubs. This is his first season playing in Kane County.

“It’s been up and down,” he says. “I started off slow, but caught fire in the last month before going on the disabled list with a knee injury. It’s been a roller coaster ride so far. I look forward to a better second half of the season.”

The 22-year-old California native knows baseball is now his full-time job. “The biggest difference is the approach,” he says. “In college, I didn’t really have one. In pro baseball, you have to have an approach during every at-bat, and if not, you’re going to get beat. It changes from pitcher to pitcher.”

Rademacher hopes to reach the big leagues one day, but isn’t counting down the days. “My goal is to just get better every day and not worry about tomorrow,” he says. “The rest will take care of itself.”

“I know a man who is a diamond cutter. He mows the lawn at Yankee Stadium.” ~ Henny Youngman

Like the players, head groundskeeper Tyler Carter has aspirations of making it to the big leagues.

Now in his second season with the Cougars, Carter has already been to the majors, as a member of the Minnesota Twins grounds crew; he left the organization for a leadership position with the Cougars, and he dreams of someday returning to the big leagues. “That was a great experience,” he says. “I learned so much.”

Carter has one full-time assistant, an intern and two game-day employees. Before a night game, the staff arrives around 9 a.m. to mow and water the field. For an afternoon game, the team arrives earlier. In addition to Cougars games, this ballpark also hosts high school baseball games and occasional concerts.

“My job is to keep the field playable, safe and ascetically pleasing,” says Carter. “Last year, we didn’t get any rain, which caused us irrigation issues. This year, it’s more keeping our eyes on the weather and making sure the tarps are out there when they need to be. There’s a lot of stress. I don’t want players blaming me for bad hops.”

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” ~ Rogers Hornsby

For the past four years, Mark Sharf has ushered in fans to Cougars home games. Like the other ushers, Sharf greets fans, answers their questions and escorts them to their seats. “I make sure they’re comfortable and their day is fun, so they’ll want to come back,” he says.

A trainer in the St. Louis Cardinals organization from 1972-73, this Elgin resident has maintained his enthusiasm for baseball.

“I love the atmosphere and I love being around baseball,” he says. “I enjoy the people, especially the little kids who are coming out to their first ballgame. The best part is seeing the expressions on their faces as they watch the game, the players and the activities between innings. It’s a lot of fun.

“It’s affordable. People can get up close to the action and the players. It’s a throwback to how baseball was played when I was a small child and I could go to a big-league game for only $10 or $12 a ticket. It’s pretty cool.”

“Baseball, to me, is still the national pastime because it is a summer game. I feel that almost all Americans are summer people, that summer is what they think of when they think of their childhood. I think it stirs up an incredible emotion within people.” ~ Steve Busby

Hank DeAngelis, a Glen Ellyn resident, has been a season ticketholder since 1992, and his family has hosted players since 1995. Two of this year’s pitchers, Stephen Perakslis and Justin Amlung, stay with DeAngelis and his family during the season.

Every spring, DeAngelis and his family travel to Arizona for a month, to watch the team practice. “Being a host family gives us more of a personal interest in the team,” he says. “When one of our players is pitching, I feel like it’s one of our kids out there. It gets us involved, and we enjoy helping these young guys out.”

Over the years, DeAngelis has seen many players come through Kane County. He keeps in touch with some of his former houseguests, including a few who’ve reached the majors. Some come back for cookouts; he’s also traveled to other cities to see them play.

“It’s fun seeing the players mature and follow their dreams,” he says. “It’s a great atmosphere, and it keeps us pretty busy.”

“The other sports are just sports. Baseball is a love.” ~ Bryant Gumbel

Jim Vaughan, a Yorkville resident, is a die-hard White Sox fan, but that doesn’t stop him from making the 20-mile trek with his family to see the Cougars play. “It’s a nice opportunity to spend a day with the family, and it’s a much more economical way to enjoy baseball than it is to take in a game in the city,” he says.

On this day, Vaughn has brought his son, daughter and son-in-law, and his two grandchildren.

“This is a little more fan-friendly,” he says. “They do a lot with children. They’ve already been down on the field to get autographs, and later they’ll run the bases. Plus, it’s a lot less crowded than going to a major league park, and it’s easier to get to and from our home.”

“A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.” ~ Humphrey Bogart

Amanda Anthony is a college student looking to earn a few extra dollars during her summer break. What better way than to spend the summer working as a baseball vendor?

For the second summer, Anthony’s working at Cougar home games, selling cotton candy, popcorn and other assorted baseball fare.

“I like it,” says the education major, who’s entering her senior year at Elmhurst College. “It’s easygoing, relaxing, and the fans are friendly.”

Anthony has met several fans in the past two summers, but one stands out in her memory. “I had an elderly fan who didn’t want cotton candy, but paid $4 anyway because I reminded him of his granddaughter,” she says. “The best part of my job is knowing that the fans are having a good time.”

After all, that’s what the minor league experience is all about: making sure fans leave the ballpark with wide smiles on their faces.