GENEVA – Pregame advertising reels, a recorded Ice-T greeting and those pesky vuvuzelas resounded throughout Fifth Third Bank Ballpark early Thursday night.
Before any extra fanfare surrounding Kyle Schwarber’s Cougars debut settled in, the usual bells and whistles of minor league baseball had the floor.
Through every blow and “Yo!” on World Cup Soccer Night, there was Schwarber, the parent Cubs’ first-round draft pick earlier this month, straddling the baseline. He held a bat and honed his swing, potential distractions be darned.
Two weeks after the Cubs drafted the Indiana junior catcher/outfielder fourth overall, eight days after he signed for $3.125 million and two days after he earned a promotion from Short-A Boise, Schwarber did what he always does: Dialed in.
“I was really excited about being able to sign quick and get out there and start playing baseball, you know,” Schwarber said. “I wanted to make it quick because baseball is my love, and that’s what I want to do. And we wanted to make an emphasis on getting out there and starting early and getting some experience.”
A crowd of 6,365 welcomed Schwarber and the second half of the Midwest League season. The Cougars, first-half Western Division champions, held serve at home yet again with a 7-0 victory against Cedar Rapids in a game shortened to five innings because of rain.
After winning 28 of 35 home games before the All-Star break, the Cougars returned to find one of their organization’s latest crown jewels waiting in the clubhouse. Schwarber got acclimated to his locker between center fielder Jake Hannemann and shortstop Carlos Penalver – a pair of seasonlong starters – before going 1 for 3 with an RBI and two flyouts.
“It’s good, because it could be hard for a new guy coming in, and they’ve pretty much taken me in as their own,” Schwarber said. “It hasn’t been much adjustment, and I’m grateful for that.”
While his family did not travel from his native Middletown, Ohio, for the game – Schwarber knows they’ll be around soon – certain levels of comfort emerged just the same.
For openers, Cedar Rapids starter Aaron Slegers is Schwarber’s former college batterymate at Indiana.
But those who know Schwarber realize he makes himself at home at nearly every ballpark. That’s whether he’s batting .600 with four home runs and 10 RBIs in 20 at-bats – as he did in Boise – or not.
“He comes to the field every day with his lunch bucket and his hard hat – and of course, his bat – and he just wants to play and he’s into it,” Boise manager Gary Van Tol said. “He’s watching every pitch.”
Schwarber grew up north of Cincinnati idolizing another left-handed power bat, Reds first baseman Joey Votto.
He’s especially fond of Votto’s aggressive approach, which was on display when Schwarber grounded Slegers’ second pitch through the right side for his first Cougars hit and RBI in the third inning.
“You might only get one pitch an at-bat, and if you let that pitch go, you know you put yourself in a hole,” Schwarber said. “So just don’t miss your pitch when you’re up at the plate, and when you get it, capitalize on it.”
Schwarber’s hit notched the third run of a seven-run outburst, all with two outs. Hannemann garnered arguably the biggest vuvuzela salute with a two-run, inside-the-park home run that opened the scoring after Trey Martin’s triple.
Add a first-round draft pick to the Midwest League’s best team that’s situated within an hour of its parent club and this buzz should have quite the shelf life.
“That’s the thing that makes the extra excitement,” said Dr. Bob Froehlich, who became the Cougars’ chief executive officer, president and majority owner earlier this month. “It’s always great to get a high, No. 1 draft pick to come to your minor league club, but this makes it so extra special. Because this is not like the No. 1 pick when we were affiliated with the Oakland A’s, and all of a sudden he comes through Kane County and then he’s shipped out to the West Coast.
“I mean, if this kid goes fast through the system, you’ll get a chance to see him play maybe for the rest of the year in Kane County, and then, before you know it, in two years he goes to be at Wrigley Field. I mean, that connection between the Cubs and the Cougars and those great players coming through there, that, to me, is what really is going to energize our fans in a big way.”
Addressing his torrid pace, Schwarber admits “you don’t really imagine it starting off this well.”
In the same breath, he acknowledges he still hasn’t faced the real rigors of pro ball: playing and adjusting every day amid streaks, slumps, fans, social media, bus trips and zany promotions.
“Just the daily grind of what it is, you know. I’m just getting a little taste of it right now, but, you know, I can’t imagine what those guys are going through,” Schwarber said. “It’s just got to be big on taking care of your body and making sure you get your work in, get your rest. That’s probably the biggest difference from what it is right now.”
Schwarber caught during much of his college career but also feels comfortable in the outfield. The Cubs plan to give him playing time in both spots.
He has started his past three games in left field, and knows he has a former major league catcher as a manager in the Cougars’ Mark Johnson, who allowed some eagerness to see Schwarber, too.
“Excited to watch him play, just like everybody else who comes in here and is new that I hadn’t seen,” Johnson said. “You know, it’s always fun to watch new guys and see what they do and start helping them out, and that’s always our challenge is to get guys better. Whether it’s a first-rounder or a 40th-rounder, you know, it’s all the same guy, and it’s always interesting to get that first look.”
Cougars (RHP Juan Paniagua, 3-3, 3.25 ERA) vs. Kernels (LHP Lewis Thorpe, 0-1, 7.27 ERA), 6:30 p.m. today, AM-1280
‘Candy’ comes back
All-Star third baseman Jordan Hankins climbed to Advanced-A Daytona amid a flurry of pregame roster moves while Jeimer Candelario returned to the Cougars from Daytona.
A 20-year-old undrafted free agent of the parent Cubs in 2010, Candelario was the Cougars’ everyday third baseman last season, batting .256 with 11 home runs and 57 RBIs in 130 games.
While his defense at Daytona was solid this season, Candelario had slumped at the plate. He hit .193 in 62 games with five home runs and 26 RBIs.
“Just work hard and get better,” Candelario said.
Manager Mark Johnson said Candelario is “going to play a good bit” at the start. With the team carrying just four infielders, his role could shift depending on future roster moves.
Because it’s the Cup
Cougars staff displayed inflatable soccer balls and a collection of international flags from the concourse ceiling as part of World Cup Soccer Night.
Giveaways included replica U.S. men’s national team jersey T-shirts and noise-making vuvuzelas, which proved plenty durable from the time gates opened.
A few Cougars tweeted Monday about Team USA’s World Cup opener, a 2-1 victory against Ghana. The tournament has gripped even those who are casual to “the beautiful game.”
“I’m not a big soccer fan, but when it comes on, I’ll watch it,” reliever Corbin Hoffner said. “Keeps me busy. … Only happens once every four years.”
– Kevin Druley, email@example.com