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Schwab: Cubs deal a game-changer for Cougars

Wednesday’s announcement confirming the Kane County Cougars are the Cubs’ new Class A, Midwest League affiliate would have been a great day for the Cougars no matter the timing.

But the partnership coming to fruition now – in the early stages of the Theo Epstein organizational rebuild – makes this a day to ignore the perils of hyperbole.

With all due respect to the 2001 Midwest League champion Cougars, Wednesday was the best day in franchise history.

The Cougars characterized partnering with the Cubs as a “natural fit.” Agreed. So what took so long?

This is like that couple that dated other people for years while everyone else around them whispered that they were perfect for one another. It took a Cubs regime change to recognize what was right under their nose for 20-plus years – a well-supported, professional outfit close enough to Chicago to make extensive scouting, major league rehab assignments and other organizational logistics a snap.

While it’s confounding that it took 22 seasons for the Cubs and Cougars to hook up, the emphasis the Cubs are placing on their farm system in the Epstein era make this a glorious time for Cubs loyalists to better acquaint themselves with Geneva.

As any Cubs fans who have tried to stomach much of the big-league product this year can attest, what’s going on at the organization’s lower levels is arguably more compelling and certainly more consequential than the day-to-day doings at Wrigley Field.

This is a team that is years from competing for a World Series and, for a change, knows it. That’s why Cubs vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod described the draft in June as “our Super Bowl,” and why the Ricketts family is devoting unprecedented money toward inking promising international prospects such as Jorge Soler, who signed for $30 million before spending a chunk of his summer at Class A Peoria.

Geneva is the new Peoria, and there are more dynamic prospects like Soler on the way.

“Their whole philosophy, it seems like, is to develop players and to bring them up to the farm system and almost take a couple years to do it,” Cougars general manager Curtis Haug said. “[Epstein] seems to have a plan that’s going to require patience out of Cubs fans for the time being, but eventually will produce a world champion, something Cubs fans have been waiting for for a long time. Obviously, he’s been successful in other places, and he knows what he’s doing.”

The Cougars do, too. Since arriving in Geneva in 1991, the Cougars have been at or near the top in Midwest League attendance, providing family-friendly food and entertainment, with minor league baseball serving as a dandy backdrop.

Those fans who turn out for fresh air, fireworks and to let their kids romp around a ballpark aren’t going anywhere. Now, add in the more ardent segment of the Cubs’ enormous fan base – many of whom live right here in the west suburbs – who are curious to scope out the Cubs’ up-and-comers, and there’s every reason to believe the Cougars’ modest attendance slide will reverse itself.

The 2012 season marked the first since 1993 that the team attracted fewer than 400,000 fans. For a combination of reasons – the struggling economy certainly among them – the Cougars have not been immune to an increasingly cutthroat fight for entertainment dollars.

Wednesday’s development is a surefire box office slump-buster.

At this point, it’s only natural for fans to wonder how Ozzie T. Cougar will look in Cubbie blue.

But even if a uniform change is in the offing, the Cubs coming to town ensures the Cougars’ traditional color of choice – green – will be flowing throughout the Fifth Third Bank Ballpark coffers for years to come.

• Jay Schwab is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or jschwab@shawmedia.com.

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