GENEVA – John Clark sported a garish T-shirt and a perpetual smile at Northwestern Medicine Field on June 29.
The day that would have been lifelong friend Craig Sager’s 66th birthday offered no other choice.
“He lived life to the fullest to the end,” Clark said. “Never a dull moment with him.”
Kane County Cougars staff worked diligently to match that energy during a Craig Sager Night promotion to celebrate the late, colorful NBA broadcaster from Batavia.
The night doubled as a fundraiser for the Sager Strong Foundation, which finances clinical trials and cancer research for leukemia and other blood cancers. Sager was 65 when he died of leukemia in December 2016 following a three-year battle. Sager’s hometown mourned in tandem with sports fans throughout the nation.
“He always remembered Batavia,” said Clark, who graduated with Sager as part of the Batavia High School Class of 1969. “The town and the people made the man.”
Along with Clark, Cougars staff wore splashy Sager Strong Foundation T-shirts, designed to appear like one of Sager’s trademark multicolored blazers so often seen on the air. In addition, the first 1,500 fans through the turnstiles for the Cougars’ game against the Clinton LumberKings received a commemorative Sager bobblehead.
A contingent from the Batavia Bulldog Boosters also represented Sager’s hometown while contributing toward a separate boosters fundraiser. For many members, the Cougars’ promotion was but the latest in a long string of lowercase Craig Sager nights.
Boosters president-elect Lori Biddle, a 1988 Batavia graduate, said many Batavians relished watching the NBA games Sager broadcast for TNT and Turner Sports for 26 years, and not simply to monitor his wardrobe. If the contest featured the Chicago Bulls, all the better. But it turns out Sager had a way of localizing games between West Coast teams, too.
“When he would mention Batavia – and he had a tendency to do that quite often – we always waited for that. … So, it was always fun,” Biddlesaid. “He always ended up trying to bring something from Batavia back into his job and throw us a little bone, shall you say. And it was always exciting for us.”
Although Cougars manager Butch Hobson never met Sager, he still boasts a connection to another sports fashion icon, playing college football for Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, signature wearer of the houndstooth hat.
Hobson, who once played for and managed the Boston Red Sox, lauded the Sager promotion and all the others he’s experienced in 2017.
“That’s part of minor league baseball, and they do an awesome job here,” Hobson said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and [Cougars general manager] Curtis [Haug] and the front office do a great job in their promotions and getting the fans involved, and they draw well here. It’s an awesome place to be.”
Attending his first Cougars game, Morris resident and bobblehead enthusiast Josh Wrobel concurred. Admittedly lukewarm to the NBA after Michael Jordan fueled the Bulls’ six championship runs in the 1990s, Wrobel, 31, nonetheless arrived early with hundreds of others to stand in line for the coveted giveaway.
“I’m an avid bobblehead collector,” Wrobel said. “Mostly hockey. But hey, if the head bobbles, I’m usually buying it.”
The Cougars presented a check for $1,000 to the Sager Strong Foundation in the middle of the third inning. Clark, a left-hander who threw a ceremonial first pitch, returned to the field to receive the donation.
It began to rain moments later, prompting a short delay, albeit not for Clark. Having retreated to the press box in the interim, he commenced telling Sager stories to pass the time.
To be sure, accommodation ran thick in this friendship.
“He loved life,” Clark said of Sager. “He loved the fans, and he gave them the same respect that he gave the players.”