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Life Unaffiliated – Part 2: “Two Big Punches in the Gut”

How Kane County survived its first year in an MLB Partner League.

In the summer of 2021, Casey Drottar followed the Kane County Cougars through their first season after the team lost its MLB affiliation. This is the second chapter of his four-part story on how they survived. Click here to read Part 1.

***

GENEVA, Illinois, June 6 – Kane County finally nabs a win after losing six of its previous seven. It does so today under the guise of its alter ego – the Atomic Pork Chops. The promotion is a nod both to the stadium’s signature pork chop sandwich and its proximity to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

The 10-5 victory over the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks is badly needed. Injuries were mounting for the Cougars, as was overall exhaustion. At one point in the week, Kane County had played a total of 35 innings in three games.

The team needed someone to prevent the skid from continuing, and Luis Roman accepted the challenge. It’s the Puerto Rican infielder’s first week in the lineup, and only once in six games has he failed to get on base.

“He’s getting some big hits for us,” Tsamis says. “We needed it because we haven’t been swinging the bats well at all. He’s done a nice job here.”

Roman was acquired in a trade with the Lincoln Saltdogs, but missed an early portion of the season due to COVID-19. He hadn’t played a pro game since 2019. Like many minor leaguers, he was unsure if he ever would again.

“I never thought I was going to be back in the States,” Roman says. “I know there are many guys that have lost jobs. I’m just really fortunate and blessed to be out here doing the things I love.”

***

Kane County officially found a new home on February 4, joining the American Association of Professional Baseball. The recently relabeled MLB Partner League featured 12 teams spread across the Midwest, spanning as far south as Cleburne, Texas and as far north as Winnipeg.

The announcement came 103 days before the Cougars’ 2021 season opener. With the mystery of where they would be playing now solved, the next three months would surely be a breeze.

They just needed to find a manager. And a coaching staff. And a trainer. And a clubhouse attendant. And 25 players with enough combined talent to ensure Kane County was competitive in its debut season.

And the money to pay for all of that.

“It’s like drinking water from a fire hydrant,” Cougars chief executive officer and president Dr. Bob Froehlich said. Froehlich purchased majority ownership of the team in 2014, driven by a passion for baseball developed from his days playing center field in the independent Pittsburgh Federation League. But even with experience on the field and off it, Froehlich struggled to adapt to the adjustments of unaffiliated life.

“When we were in affiliated ball, we just worried about the fireworks, the food, the beverages,” Froehlich said. “Everything else on the field was provided by your affiliate. Now, that is all our responsibility. It’s been three times more complicated because there are so many moving pieces.”

Like a young adult transitioning from apartment life to homeownership, the Cougars were aghast when realizing how much was no longer covered by the landlord. Salaries and workers compensation for players, pre- and post-game meals, travel arrangements, baseballs, bats, pine tar, pitching rosin. If it was required to maintain a team, it was now on Kane County’s dime.

“It wasn’t just the uniforms anymore,” Haug said. “It wasn’t just the caps anymore. It was everything. Between the pandemic and the contraction, it was like two big punches in the gut.”

Kane County had three months to determine how it would cover its elongated expense list. The team, like many minor league clubs, had no TV revenue to bank on. It also hadn’t generated a penny in ticket sales since September of 2019.

Taking on the drastically heavier financial burden required scouring for loopholes while keeping one eye on the bottom line. Escaping the ticket taxes and preferred vendor lists required of MLB affiliates gave Kane County savings to work with. An increase in non-baseball events held at the stadium provided a diversified revenue source.

Also coming to the rescue were the Cougars’ season ticket holders, a sizable group of lifetime loyalists who refused to see the team’s new identity as a reason to take their money elsewhere. Affiliation or not, there was no hesitation when it came to rolling ticket plans over from 2020 to 2021.

Even without an MLB affiliation, the Cougars can always count on their fans to show up every night. (Photo courtesy of Casey Drottar)

Had it not been for a drastic move in the early days of the pandemic, none of this would’ve mattered. That March, three months before MLB officially canceled the 2020 minor league season, the Cougars made the painful decision to furlough all but five members of their front office staff.

“It seemed draconian at the time,” Froehlich said. “But it’s probably the reason we are able to survive through this.”

Kane County was able to bring them back this past March, frantically getting everyone up to speed as the new season neared. The sight of familiar faces was a perk in uncertain times, but the Cougars’ front office soon found others. Particularly with the escape from MLB’s ever-present roster decisions.

“They made the lineup,” Haug said of Kane County’s previous affiliates. “‘Hey, we want this guy batting first. Hey, we want to groom this guy as a cleanup hitter.’ Our managers had no input. But now, we can call our own shots.”

While more freedom with the lineup card was an added bonus, actually finding players to fill it was another ordeal entirely.

MLB announced roster expansion at all four full-season levels of its minor league system in April, ensuring affiliated clubs felt less pressure to release players. That this occurred after said system was contracted also meant Kane County was competing against a new hoard of Partner League teams attempting to populate their rosters.

The Cougars were celebrating a newfound ability to manage their own players at a time when available talent was as scarce as early-pandemic toilet paper. Even when an obtainable player is signed, the possibility of an MLB club poaching him lies around every corner. It creates an incredibly desolate situation for Partner League teams to navigate through, something not lost on those facilitating the taking.

“They’re having a very difficult time finding replacements,” said Bill Milos, currently in his 28th year scouting for the Twins. “They’re just not out there. Affiliated teams are having injuries at three times the normal rate. They’re having to turn to independent ball to sign guys. They’re not releasing guys.

“In this particular year, it’s really, really difficult.”

To an outsider, this should represent the Cougars’ least favorite aspect of life in a Partner League. Trying to field a winning team while watching any driving culprits get whisked away in the blink of an eye? One would think this is a constant pain point in Kane County’s front office.

One would be wrong.

“I never have a complaint when we select a player, and he’s able to get one more shot to make it to the show,” Froehlich said. “We actually made that selection and gave them that chance. That’s about the greatest sense of pride we can have.”

The Cougars entered the 2021 season ready to embrace their new role. They had been discarded by MLB, and now wanted to welcome players who received the same treatment.

They just had no idea how to find them.

For that, they enlisted a fellow victim of the minor league contraction.

Life Unaffiliated – Part 3: “George Tsamis is Your Guy”

Photo by Thomas S./Unsplash | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)

Casey Drottar

Casey is a freelance sports reporter for The Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune and Shaw Media. His work has been seen in USA Today, Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report. He grew up in Ohio as a die-hard Cleveland sports fan, and recently received his masters in the science of journalism at Northwestern University.

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