GENEVA – With no coat covering his Cubs polo and long-sleeve undershirt, Cougars general manager Curtis Haug darted in and out of the morning chill to tackle one last bit of housekeeping Thursday.
The Cougars’ new baseball relatives were minutes away from Fifth Third Bank Ballpark when Haug retrieved a piece of wind-blown litter outside the lobby.
As expected, Cubs manager Dale Sveum joined several players and employees on a Cubs Caravan trip to the North Siders’ new Low-A affiliate moments later. The group left after about 30 minutes, completing a spotless visit that was among the first since the teams’ two-year player development contract was announced in September.
“We typically keep it nice and tidy here, but we definitely wanted to welcome them and be at our best when they arrived,” Haug said. “It’s great they included us.”
A contingent including second baseman Darwin Barney, outfielder Tony Campana and radio broadcaster Keith Moreland visited the ballpark, getting a breather after a calisthenic-filled morning at Fox Chase Elementary School in Oswego.
The Cubs group addressed students about fitness and healthy eating at a morning assembly in what Campana called “a pretty crazy atmosphere.”
Handshakes were more prevalent than hollering in Geneva.
Cubs officials presented their new Midwest League affiliate with a home, pinstriped jersey with “COUGARS” on the back nameplate, above a number 13. The gift figured prominently in a group photo situated at the foot of the stairs leading to the upper suite level.
While it took the Cougars and Cubs 22 seasons to connect, brass from both sides have trumpeted the partnership for the past four months. Opening Day at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark is April 4. A “Meet the Cubs” hot stove event for fans is scheduled for Feb. 1.
Haug said the organization – traditionally a top MWL draw even when it was aligned with Baltimore, Florida, Oakland and Kansas City – has “never had a buzz like this before.” It reflects in the single-game and season ticket sales Haug says have increased by “a large percentage” compared to 2012, and even has trickled up to the big leagues.
Cubs reliever Michael Bowden, who pitched at Fifth Third as part of Waubonsie Valley’s 2005 state tournament team, grew up attending Cougars games, usually watching from the outfield berm.
“It’s incredible to have an affiliate just over an hour away from the big league club,” he said. “For families out here that don’t want to drive into the city, they get to see players that will eventually be on the Cubs in the future, and I think that’s really neat. They come here, it’s very affordable and they get to see young talent and good baseball for an affiliate that is Chicago.”
They won’t see the familiar colors of the Cubs, however, other than in scorecards, programs and other stadium handouts. Haug said the Cougars will keep their usual black, green and gold uniform scheme, quashing rumors about a potential change.
Still, the Cougars are performing much more than trash detail to accommodate the Cubs, working to revamp video capability and connections at the ballpark in a nod to the organization’s emphasis on that aspect of analysis. A suite is reserved for Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and other upper management.
Addressing the Cougars front office before leaving with the rest of the caravan, Moreland indicated the route from Fifth Third to Wrigley would be a well-navigated one. Now all that’s left is the wait for spring.
“In the past – and no disrespect to Oakland or Kansas City or any of our other affiliates – but there weren’t a lot of those fans in the area,” Haug said. “Here, you’ve got all these Cubs fans, and these are all new fans, because they’re going to come out and see the future Cubs.”