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KC Cougars

Read 'em and leap: Ozzie's Reading Club matinees delight students, Cougars players

Kane County Cougars mascot Ozzie T. Cougar high-fives students as they leave the field after running the bases following a game against the Lake County (Ohio) Captains on May 4 at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva.
Kane County Cougars mascot Ozzie T. Cougar high-fives students as they leave the field after running the bases following a game against the Lake County (Ohio) Captains on May 4 at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva.

GENEVA – Susan Cunningham spotted serendipity well before monitoring her fourth-grade students in the Dippin' Dots line at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark.

She simply considered the reason she was watching a future generation consume the long-marketed "Ice Cream of the Future" on a recent weekday afternoon.

Cunningham teaches at Gates Elementary in East Aurora School District 101, and this was her latest outing for a Kane County Cougars' Ozzie's Reading Club matinee. A vast majority of her students met their third-quarter reading goals, and a day at the ballpark – de facto organized hooky – again provided the carrot.

"They just love coming here," Cunningham said. "It's exciting, and they get a great reward for doing something that enriches their lives."

Named for mascot Ozzie T. Cougar, Ozzie's Reading Club spans numerous Chicago suburbs. It is open to children in grades K-8, but a student's school must be a registered member of the program.

The club, naturally, has traditionally used baseball imagery to track students' progress during the eight-week program. The distance between home plate and first base, first base and second base, second base and third base and third base and home plate each represent two weeks of reading.

Should a student meet his or her individual reading requirements, he or she earns a free ticket to an April or May Cougars home game designated by the students' school. Other rewards may include bookmarks, food vouchers and an official Ozzie's Reading Club drawstring bag.

"I think they feel pride because they got here because they had to work really hard," Gates assistant principal Stephanie Brennan said. "They had to read a lot of books. Everybody had different goals. So it's really exciting for them to have this opportunity to step back and enjoy their accomplishment."

Schools have had the option to attend evening or weekend games, but Reading Club contests traditionally come to them, as they're dispersed throughout a handful of 11 a.m. or noon weekday matinees during April and May.

The Cougars, who are in the second season of a two-year, Class-A, player-development contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks, are slated to play their final Reading Club game of 2016 on May 18, hosting the Peoria Chiefs at 11 a.m.

To be sure, Cougars players take notice every time the crowd's average age – and cheering octave level – lowers considerably.

"You hear them the whole game," infielder Joe Munoz said. "It's definitely fun having fans come to the game, and then hearing the little kids just cheering and laughing and playing."

While students have displayed at least a yeoman baseball acumen through the years, any appearance from Ozzie T. Cougar traditionally has derailed their interest until the mascot retreats to his next obligation.

Certain prompts from the public address system – namely the refrain to "Who Let the Dogs Out" and the "SpongeBob SquarePants" theme – also are sure to enthrall students.

And, in many cases, the Cougars, too.

"It's kind of a joke with all the other guys," Munoz said. "I mean, every time we know there's kids here, we just wait for the 'SpongeBob SquarePants' theme song to come on. All the kids just start going along with it and singing, and we just can't help but laugh. It's funny, just because that's the show that we used to watch when we were younger. And it's still going on. Kids still love it."

Cougars manager Mike Benjamin, 50, hardly opposes the nautical nonsense himself.

"I think it's funny," Benjamin said after a matinee this month. "I wish they would have played it more. Just hearing the kids up there singing along, it's actually kind of entertaining."

As with the students they're playing before, the Cougars and their opponents stand to learn something, too.

Long catered to nighttime starts and a lifestyle that's miles from 9-to-5, professional baseball still throws its players a few daytime first pitches throughout the season.

"They've got to learn how to get themselves going," said Lake County (Ohio) captains manager Tony Mansolino, whose team visited Geneva for three games from May 2 to 4. "It's important."

Right around the time spring training heats up, Ozzie's Reading Club students are in the throes of their own ongoing preparation for a lifetime of literacy.

"I just think it's a great program," Cunningham said, "and I hope they keep doing it."

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