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Cougars approach baseball 'The Cubs Way'

Cougars, now affiliated with the Cubs, aim to be part of aggressive farm system

Published: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 5:35 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 8:11 a.m. CDT
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(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@shawmedia.com)
A Kane County Cougars player heads into the dugout during practice at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva Tuesday. The Cougars, now an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, open at home Thursday.

GENEVA – Cougars players flashing by the clubhouse whiteboard during their first few days in Geneva observe workout schedules, rental car recommendations and the official Fifth Third Bank Ballpark mailing address.

Nowhere is the phrase "The Cubs Way" written. That's largely because these prospects long have been acclimated to trying to define it.

About 11 months before the Cougars and Cubs agreed to a two-year player-development contract in September, new Cubs president Theo Epstein introduced the theory behind an organizational blueprint designed to cover all the bases. While "See The Future" and "It Starts Here" are sure to be more visible three-word expressions this season – just check your pocket schedule and new sign on the right field wall – "The Cubs Way" permeates everything.

"It's going out every single day, playing hard, going about your business, doing the right things, doing the little things right," first baseman Dan Vogelbach said. "But the biggest thing is, you're always a Cub, on and off the field. I think you're held accountable for everything you do."

To a championship-starved fan base, "The Cubs Way" at times has sounded like a series of uncertain cliches. Earlier in spring training, Epstein planned to release a manual on the philosophy, although the basic tenet, per pitching coach Ron Villone, is "starting from the ground up" by re-emphasizing a competitive culture throughout the farm system.

With the burly Vogelbach arguably the most visible, the Cougars enter the season with several prospects highly rated by Baseball America. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario and right-hander Pierce Johnson are among the other big names. Outfielder Albert Almora would have been another, manager Mark Johnson said, had Almora not broken the hamate bone in his left hand last month.

Johnson managed many of the same players to the Northwest League championship series at short-season Boise in 2012. That group rebounded from humble beginnings – namely an ultra-loose clubhouse that interfered with winning – to impress Cubs officials making late-season visits.

Villone, serving in the same capacity at then- Cubs affiliate Peoria last season, began with a recent White Sox marketing slogan when addressing "The Cubs Way."

"All in," he said. "Everybody's all in. We're here to develop, to help, to build. That's our level. And the guys upstairs [in Chicago] are already there. They're putting the best minds, best baseball minds together to kind of boil up a winning soup.

"I'm telling you right now, we're pretty excited. Obviously, down low, the talent we have here hopefully does trickle up the line. You never know how fast that pace is. But what we do know is that the talent here is going to speak for itself, I believe, as the season goes on."

Between former major leaguers Johnson and Villone – plus Dominican right-hander Lendy Castillo, who is expected to be a starter after making 13 appearances with the Cubs last season – players have plenty of resources.

The presence of lefty Michael Heesch, just an eighth-round pick last season, also figures to be beneficial. The Prairie Ridge graduate, whose family recently relocated to Bartlett, believes it's important to integrate teammates into the Cubs' culture in the years BTCW – Before The Cubs Way. Namely the fabled and lengthy championship drought.

"It's one thing to tell them, but it's another thing to really experience it. Because you can't really say, like, it's been [105] years … it's been over a century," Heesch said. "You can hear that has many times as you want. But until you've been a fan and really seen season after season aafter season and the way the organization has just kind of gone, you really won't understand what it really means to be a Cubs fan."

Heesch attended Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS with his father, Fred. On Tuesday, Vogelbach offered optimism to those still fighting repressed memories of fan Steve Bartman.

"The way things are going, it's going in the right way, and I think that we're going to win a World Series soon," Vogelbach said.

Should that occur, fans are sure to hear about "The Cubs Way" a few more times.

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