Minor league baseball is starting to get its props. For obvious reasons, we think this is a great thing. We've been Kane County Cougars season ticket holders for four or five years now, and we have no intention of abandoning our seats anytime soon.

Recently an article about the Cougars appeared in The Daily Southtownnewspaper's Elite Magazine section.

Regrettably, the article is not available online. However, the journalist who wrote the article, Karen Sorensen (ksorenson@dailysouthtown.com), was gracious enough to allow us to publish the article here on our little family website. The full article is published below, with credit to the author, Karen Sorensen, and to the magazine that published it, Elite Magazine, part of The Daily Southtown Newspaper empire.

By Karen Sorensen

Last Memorial Day weekend, John Needham embarked on what he calls a three-day "baseball trifecta."

On Day 1, he, his wife and their 3- and 5-year-old sons boarded a Metra train for downtown Chicago, took a cab to a CTA station, and then caught the el to Wrigley Field for a Chicago Cubs game. On the second day, it was out to Geneva to watch the Kane County Cougars, the Class A minor league team that plays 20 minutes from their Aurora home. Day 3 found them back in the car for a two-hour drive to U.S. Cellular Field to catch a Chicago White Sox game — the first inning of which they missed because they couldn’t find a parking place.

Hmmm, can you guess which Needham enjoyed the most?

The Cubs game: "Let’s just say it was a long day." The Sox game: "Parking was a nightmare, traffic was a nightmare and it was really crowded." 

As for the Cougars game, well, here’s what he wrote on his www.needhamfamily.net Web page: "It seems to me that going to a Cougars game, or any minor league game for that matter, would be the relative equivalent of going to, say, a Chicago Cubs game (my home team!) roughly 75 to 100 years ago. (And) here is an absolute statement of fact: The food you get at a Cougars game far exceeds anything available at Wrigley Field. That counts for a fair amount in our book!" 

Needham is a walking, talking advertisement for the Cougars, a farm team for the Oakland Athletics. His enthusiasm is so over the top he should be on the team’s payroll . 

"Why would you even drive into the city ... when you’ve got this stadium so close?" said Needham, 45, a computer software company employee who’s had season tickets for the last four or five years. "You can literally park right next to the front gate." 

That’s music to the ears of Jeff Ney, one of two assistant general managers who does everything from scheduling promotions to selling advertising to serving as the company liaison to the players. He’s been with the Cougars for 13 of the team’s 16 years, over which time they went from being a Baltimore Orioles affiliate to being part of the Florida Marlins system to inking a two-year deal with the As. 

The Cougars are owned by local investors who lease Elfstrom Stadium from the Kane County Forest Preserve District. Until a couple of years ago, it was the top-drawing team in the 14-member Midwest League, which includes the Peoria Chiefs (a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate), the Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts (Cubs) and the Beloit (Wis.) Snappers (Milwaukee Brewers). 

And even though it’s had to cede its top spot to the Dayton (Ohio) Dragons, the Cincinnati Reds affiliate that used to play in Rockford, the team has a firm grasp on the No. 2 slot and was 14th in ticket sales among all minor league teams in the country last year, Ney said. 

In 205, they sold 518,394 tickets — that’s an average of 7,623 people for each of its 70 home games. The single-game attendance record is 14,452, set on Aug. 16, 2003; not bad considering the park has only 7,600 "real seats," according to Ney. The rest of the crowd found places on the lawn or on one of the three party decks that surround the outfield. 

Ney knows the draw is as much entertainment as it is baseball. He says he’s quizzed people after a game, and many couldn’t tell him the final score. 

"We try to create a three-ring circus where there’s plenty of things going on — in a good way," he said. "Our goal is to provide plenty of family fun." 

That can be fireworks after Friday and Saturday night home games; theme events like Scout Night and All Faiths Night, where discounted tickets are available for members of specific groups; and live music from the likes of Coco Loco (who perform on the Jimmy Buffett theme day) and British Import, a Beatles tribute band. "Bark in the Park" is the day on which dogs can attend a game with their owners and participate in contests. 

This is in addition to the standing events take place before the game and between innings, including toddlers racing team mascot Ozzie around the bases, human bowling ball competitions and random drawings for prizes like free rounds of miniature golf. 

From a budgeting standpoint, going to a Cougars is not terribly hard on the wallet. Tickets are $8 to $12 — a far cry from the $14 to $65 you’ll pay at Wrigley Field or the $14 to $55 you’ll drop at Sox park, not including parking. 

There are three other minor league teams in the Chicago suburbs — the Schaumburg Flyers, the Joliet JackHammers and the Windy City Thunderbolts, who play in Crestwood — but none are affiliated with a major league team. Despite the competition, the Cougars have not seen a drop in ticket sales because of them, Ney said. 

"Minor league baseball has become something (that people now know), and the Chicago area is our market," he said. "There are enough people to go around." 

What the Cougars can offer more of than their counterparts are players who may end up at the "show." As of this year, nearly 80 have gone to the major leagues after spending at least some time in Kane County. Some of the best-known include 2003 Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis (Marlins), 2003 World Series MVP Josh Beckett (Marlins), All-star shortstop Edgar Renteria (Cardinals) and four-time gold glove catcher and All-star Charles Johnson (a one-time White Sox player who’s also done stints with the Marlins and the Colorado Rockies). 

Most recently, Oakland A’s pitcher Huston Street — who landed in the big leagues after just one season in the minors, including a few months with the Cougars — was named American League Rookie of the Year for 2005. 

One of Ney’s tasks is to help team members — most of whom are in their early 20s — find places to live during the early-April to mid-September season. The majority are placed in the homes of fans who agree to house them in exchange for minimal rent (the players make about $1,000 a month). 

But don’t be fooled, baseball is hard work and the players take it seriously, Ney said. Team members will start practicing at noon for a 7 p.m. game, and they’re expected to sign autographs, make special appearances and do other things for the team as part of the deal. They get one day off a month. There can be anywhere from 20 to 30 scouts watching them on a daily basis, he said. 

And some fans are just as serious as the players. Take David Malamut, a 27-year-old restaurant manager from Darien, who goes to about 100 of the Cougar’s 140 games every year, started a Web site devoted to the team (www.malamut.net) and last year penned a 128-page book, "Kane County Cougars (Images of Baseball Series) (Arcadia Publishing, $19.99). "The players are what make it fun," said Malamut, who’s been following the team for nine years and admits to being a fanatic. "I enjoy watching them move along in their careers. It (provides) a human side to them, besides the side you see on the television." 

And team members get a kick out of it, too, Ney said. 

"They get to play in a park full of people who are pulling for them," he said. 

w/breakout: 

KANE COUNTY COUGARS 

Location: Elfstrom Stadium, 34W002 Cherry Lane, Geneva 

2006 Season: April 6 to Sept. 4 (or Sept. 15, if they make it to the playoffs) 

Ticket cost: Field box seats, $12; box seats, $10; reserved seats, $9; lawn seats, $8 

Information: (630) 232-8811, www.kccougars.com 


Here is a link to an MS Word document with the article. We'll generate a PDF file in the next day or so and put that out here too, for non-Windows readers. Until then, I'd be happy to share the article with any requesters - just use the links above to e-mail us!