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Druley: Cougars prepare for 10 millionth fan

Published: Thursday, July 18, 2013 5:34 a.m. CDT
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(Provided photo)
The Kane County Cougars expect to welcome their 10 millionth fan this weekend at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva. They will be the first Class-A organization to do so.

GENEVA – Bill Larsen pauses when asked whether “pioneer” too loftily assesses his role in the Cougars’ impending attendance milestone.

As you talk with the inaugural general manager of a club that expects to draw the 10 millionth fan in franchise history Saturday, it’s apparent these moments are rare.

Current Cougars GM Curtis Haug calls Larsen the “pied piper.” If not someone adept at snake-handling, that suggests a soul who loves to move and shake.

Larsen definitely was that during his six seasons as GM. He may have missed thousands of games and millions of passing bodies since leaving the team to pursue other baseball opportunities, but no one denies everything he did for the Cougars’ mobility as a brand.

“I didn’t want anybody to ever come and think, ‘Boy, I know what’s going to happen tonight,’ ” Larsen said by cellphone Wednesday. “I wanted someone to say, ‘Boy, this is the most fun I’ve ever had with my family, and I think if I come back tomorrow, I’ll have even more.’ ”

The Cougars promise to provide a memorable night for whoever passes through the Fifth Third Bank Ballpark (nee Elfstrom Stadium) gates as the 10 millionth fan since the team’s 1991 inception. Haug and mascot Ozzie T. Cougar will greet the fan at the gate before he or she is presented with a gaudy gift package.

Try to do the math and strategic line-tabulating now, fans. A No. 10 Cougars jersey, autographed team bat and 10-game customized ticket package for next season awaits. The fan also will throw out a ceremonial first pitch before the game and be honored on the field after the Cougars’ game against Lansing.

The Cougars forecast Saturday as the likely date because of pregame ticket sale projections. Team officials figured the milestone would come this season during annual planning meetings in October 2012.

“It’s going to be hard to say because you never know what can happen in the next few days,” Haug said. “If we were to have a rainout or something. Depending on what the attendance is in the next few days. It’s pretty hard to jockey for position, I think, but hopefully the person that is that 10 millionth fan, they’ll be pretty excited about all the recognition they’re going to get.”

Many Cougars employees past and present credit Larsen for even putting the team in this position. He’s the one who implemented so much of what fans associate with Cougars games these days, and all in the backyard of two major league teams in the Cubs and White Sox.

The underdog questions ceased nearly from the start, and stopped altogether when the Cougars set a then-Midwest League and Class-A attendance record by drawing 354,329 spectators in 1993.

While this season marks the first of a two-year player development contract between the Cubs and Cougars, the team made plenty of hay while aligned with the not-so-close Baltimore Orioles, Florida Marlins, Oakland Athletics and Kansas City Royals from 1991 to 2012.

The key: marketing the team as family entertainment, not just affiliated baseball. Dad and junior might remember the great play at third base, but mom and grandma might not.

Enter The Ozzie Race, Ozzie’s Reading Club, water balloons, Myron Noodleman, Jake the Diamond Dog et al.

“When you make that comparison to movie theaters and wholesome entertainment and making it fun for people, I knew I had everybody beat even before I started,” Larsen said.

Larsen, 60, said Cougars managing partners Mike Woleben and Mike Murtaugh spoke with him about returning to the club after his successor, Jeff Sedivy, left after the 2010 season. Larsen, who now lives in New York, “waiting for my next opportunity,” was dealing with health concerns then, but his main motive for not making another move was Haug, a Cougars employee since 1993.

Sensing Haug was due for a promotion, Larsen didn’t want to steal his thunder.

A number of current baseball executives – including MWL team presidents Mike Nutter (Fort Wayne) and Scott Lane (West Michigan) – also worked for Larsen. It took a village to attract 10 million fans to Geneva, but they’ll tell you it started with one pioneer.

“He’s a great guy,” Haug said. “He’s the man. I learned a lot from Bill Larsen. Everybody learned a lot from Bill Larsen.”

• Kevin Druley is a sportswriter for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or kdruley@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kevindruley.

IN THE COUGARS' DEN

Who’s hot First baseman Dan Vogelbach entered Wednesday’s series opener against Great Lakes batting .308 (12 for 39) with two home runs and eight RBIs in his past 10 starts.

Who’s not Before Wednesday, right fielder Kevin Encarnacion had two hits in his past 24 at-bats, a .083 average.

Star watch In its midseason report last month, Baseball Prospectus ranked Great Lakes shorstop Corey Seager as the No. 35 prospect in baseball. Seager was the 18th overall selection of the parent Los Angeles Dodgers in the June 2012 draft.

Noteworthy Before signing with the parent Cubs for $1.5 million in July 2012, Cougars righty Juan Paniagua had contracts voided by Arizona (2010) and the New York Yankees (2011) because of falsified paperwork. ... Loons manager Razor Shines goes by his given middle name, which he shares with his grandfather, father and son. He was born Anthony Shines in 1956. “I’ve had a lot of people wondering, saying ‘Wow, what a nickname. That’s tremendous,’ ” Shines said. “And I go along with it, but it’s a family name.” ... The first 1,500 fans at Friday’s 6:30 p.m. game will receive a Cubs “W” rally towel. ... Former Cougars Miguel Cabrera (2001) and Nelson Cruz (2003) represented the American League in Tuesday’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game. ... Shines coached in the White Sox organization from 1999 to 2007, including as the Sox third-base coach in his final season. He said he still keeps in touch with players and team executives from his time there.

– Kevin Druley, kdruley@shawmedia.com

LEADERS IN THE KANE COUNTY COUGARS CLUBHOUSE (THROUGH TUESDAY)

BATTING AVERAGE Albert Almora, .333 Dan Vogelbach, .282 Gioskar Amaya, .270

HOME RUNS Rock Shoulders, 15 Dan Vogelbach, 14 Willson Contreras, 6

RBIS Dan Vogelbach, 58 Rock Shoulders, 44 Oliver Zapata, 37

STOLEN BASES Marco Hernandez, 11 Oliver Zapata, 10 Gioskar Amaya, 10

ERA Nathan Dorris, 2.95 Michael Heesch, 3.53 Felix Pena, 3.60

WINS Nathan Dorris, 4 Tayler Scott, 4 Three players tied with 3

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