Burlington transplants dig in with Kane County Cougars
GENEVA – Fourteen members of the Cougars' 25-man roster encountered the Elfstrom Stadium diamond for the first time on Tuesday. They hit, they spit, they tracked fly balls.
Eleven other teammates had passed through the gates before, but they still could sense another novelty.
Elfstrom? Empty? It can happen when the season hasn't started yet.
The 11 players who visited Geneva as Burlington Bees last season remember various things about their new summer home, and foremost among them is the fans. Clearly, the parent Kansas City Royals' affiliate change to Kane County meant both a geographical shift east and a journey north up the Midwest League's attendance standings.
"Every time we walk in here, everybody is excited," right-hander Keaton Hayenga says. "We just feel like it is going to be a better experience here."
Leaning against a bat as he soaked up the sun along the third-base line, shortstop Gerard Hall Jr. came within a ballpark range of guessing the 2010 attendance disparity between Burlington and Kane County. The Bees averaged "hundreds" of fans last season – 906 to be exact – while the Cougars, their longtime Western Division rivals, drew "thousands."
Kane County's attendance of 430,831 spectators, an average of 6,244, ranked second in the league to Dayton.
Players casually followed the situation as Burlington and Kane County approached the end of respective player development contracts in September, navigating speculation that the former Bees may even migrate to the South Atlantic League.
When Oakland and Kansas City essentially traded affiliates, cities and stadiums, the newest Cougars rejoiced.
"Home should be your home. You should enjoy playing at home," Hall said. "And you had a sense that we didn't really enjoy playing at home as much because there weren't that many people in the stands."
Hayenga recalls looking out among the Community Field faithful and knowing most of the faces. Host families, die-hards, relatives of employees – the people in a town of about 30,000 who loved baseball traditionally showed their support.
With no slight intended to the city the Cougars will play in nine times this season, including six games in June, reliever Matt Mitchell calls Elfstrom "a better environment."
He's looking forward to scouting the western suburbs and eventually Chicago once the Cougars get a few games under their belts. The season opener at Wisconsin is set for 6:35 p.m. Thursday, with the home opener against Quad Cities scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday.
Until then, Mitchell will get a good grip on Geneva, where he'll share a host family with Hayenga. The only thing missing, perhaps, is former bullpen brethren Scott Kelley, an Arlington Heights native who was released during the spring.
Right-hander Greg Billo (Palos Heights) and lefty Jon Keck (Joliet) have suburban ties on this year's club. They've been among the players asking those in the know about Elfstrom and the 140-game grind of a professional season.
"Some of these guys are familiar with that, and some of these guys are familiar with the league. They know what to expect," said infielder Ryan Stovall, another ex-Bee who also logged time at the Royals' rookie-league affiliate in Burlington, N.C.,, last season. "I think the other guys, they'll just jump right in and we'll get it going."
In the minors, moving on and moving fast remains the goal.