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 third chapter of his four-part story on how they survived. Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2.
GENEVA, Illinois, June 15 – Throughout the first month of the season, Tsamis has often been able to brush off defeats. There has been little dwelling on missed opportunities, no indication that patience is running on empty. Any negative trends from a particular night’s contest are often countered with bright spots that Kane County’s manager leans on as he shifts focus to the next game.
But he is in no mood for that tonight. Tsamis’ exasperation is difficult to hide, as his team’s recent string of losses has pushed him beyond the use of “we played hard” platitudes. When giving his thoughts on this stretch, subtlety is thrown out the window.
“It has not been good at all here in the last two weeks,” Tsamis says. “Even when we pitch well, we don’t hit. And when we hit well, we don’t pitch. Something has to happen. We can’t keep going like this.”
The Sioux City Explorers just handed Kane County its sixth loss in seven games. The Cougars’ hot start to the season feels like it happened decades ago. Clutch hits are few and far between, while an inexperienced bullpen is struggling to maintain what leads the Cougars can grab.
Tsamis doesn’t sound like he can handle the futility much longer.
“We haven’t shown that we can win tight games,” he says. “It needs to change. We need to start hitting better with guys on base. And it seems like every time we play a game, it’s three and a half hours because we throw so many balls.”
Max Kelton has as much familiarity with the American Association as the Cougars do. He is a year removed from his undergrad program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, entering his first season as the Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations for the Gary SouthShore RailCats. Yet, even he was able to recognize the stature of Kane County’s first managerial hire as a Partner League club.
“Your leader has already made the right decision,” Kelton said of the Cougars. “If you’re going to make a transition like this, and if you were going to choose a guy to do it, George Tsamis is your guy.”
Ironically, the Cougars were only able to make that choice thanks to Tsamis suffering a fate like theirs.
The one-time Minnesota Twins pitcher had been managing the St. Paul Saints since 2003, leading one of the nation’s marquee independent teams to two championships in 18 seasons. But when the Saints joined Minnesota’s farm system last winter as part of MLB’s minor league reshuffling, Tsamis suddenly found himself without a job.
“He was a victim like we were,” Haug said. “George was kicked to the curb, the Cougars were kicked to the curb, and we came together. It was a nice marriage.”
Kane County announced the union on February 23, 12 weeks before opening day. Not a single player had been signed to the roster, and resolving that was an issue for which the Cougars had little insight. Heck, they were still trying to figure out how the Partner League process worked in general.
This front office learning curve essentially added “head scout” and, at times, “de facto GM” to Tsamis’ list of job responsibilities. His title of “manager” was merely a friendly formality.
The Cougars greeted their new skipper by asking him to stock a clubhouse full of empty locker stalls in three months, which reads like a form of baseball hazing. Unfortunately for Kane County, there wasn’t an alternative option. Every hour was being spent determining how to properly function this season. Finding players took a back seat to ensuring they could actually be paid.
Yet, while the Cougars’ higher-ups frantically adjusted to their new lot in life, they soon realized they found a manager unfazed by the duties thrown his way.
“You just try to get the best team out there, get the best guys,” Tsamis said, describing the assignment with the casual nonchalance of someone planning a morning stroll. “We want to bring some winning baseball here. That’s what it’s about.”
If there was a hint of anxiety behind this, any sweat-inducing realization that said obligation was being taken on in a matter of weeks, you’d never know. The late start, the already glaring lack of attainable talent, none of it ever came off as daunting to Tsamis.
Find players, win games. It’s as simple as that.
It was also exactly what the Cougars needed. A calming presence they could trust to handle the most important aspect of a baseball team while everyone else doused daily fires. Someone who could not only find enough players to be ready for opening day but who also knew how to handle the omnipresent possibility of having one bought out at a moment’s notice.
It’s not the easiest aspect of Tsamis’ job. Even after a lengthy career in independent ball, the concept of finding instant replacements still causes noticeable strain. Yet, when it happens, he understands there is little time to sit and vent about it.
“I’ve been in this position so, so many times,” Tsamis said after infielder Galli Cribbs Jr. was bought out by the Miami Marlins in June. “It’s a 25-man roster, so it’s not like you can have seven or eight guys on the bench. You lose your best guys, and when that happens, it’s up to me to replace them. That’s the way it goes.”
Tsamis spends his days in a perpetual state of readiness. He needs a number on speed dial just in case he arrives at the stadium and discovers he is out a relief pitcher. He’ll keep a few names in his back pocket to go to if his first option is preoccupied. From nearby Aurora all the way to Denver, Tsamis is not one to set geographical limits when seeking replacements.
But Kane County didn’t just need someone who could routinely maneuver through constant roster turnover. In transitioning to the American Association, the club shifted focus from prospect development to winning. Its manager couldn’t just be there to cash checks. He had to ensure his players remained competitive.
Based on how he handled the Cougars’ early-June swoon, it appeared Tsamis was up to that task, as well.
“He just lit a fire on us,” said infielder Josh Allen, who played under Tsamis for three years in St. Paul. “He said, ‘What kind of season do you want this to be? Do you want to go home? Do you want to be just playing for the end of the year, or do you want to be playing for a playoff spot?’
“There is nobody in baseball that wants to win more than George Tsamis.”
An ability to find players – be it on three months’ notice or three hours – and a willingness to ensure they remained consistently engaged. It all helps explain why the impact of hiring Tsamis is rarely understated in Kane County. Ask anyone from the front office how they were able to adjust so quickly to the new surroundings. If “George Tsamis” isn’t the first thing they say, it’s because those words are preceded by “we couldn’t have done it without…”
Yet, the challenge Tsamis faced this year is not lost on those in and outside the team. The late start forced him to take on several raw pitchers which, along with limited replacement options, ultimately hindered the Cougars’ ability to compete.
“You’re talking about a guy who’s an expert at being able to put together a roster, and there’s just nobody out there to build it with,” Milos said. “You can be a great poker player, but if you keep getting dealt bad hands, there’s only so much you can do.”
But this year was always about survival for the Cougars. They needed a manager who could guide them through a tumultuous season of transition, and they landed one. Regardless of Kane County’s place in the standings, the hiring of Tsamis remains a source of pride in the front office.
So, too, are the new Cougars he brought with him.
Life Unaffiliated – Part 4: “Love for the Game and Fear of the Real World”
Photo by Thomas S./Unsplash | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)