The Cubs might be keeping their fans on edge, but fans of the Kane County Cougars have been put at ease--as befits the Class A Midwest League's mellow approach to baseball. The parent Florida Marlins loaded the Cougars with talent this year, and they ran roughshod over their division in the first half of the season. That's why they've already made their league's playoffs, which begin the first week of September. Where the Cougars of recent years typically combined brilliant pitching and anemic hitting, this season the Marlins stocked them with the top pick in last year's free-agent draft--first baseman Adrian Gonzalez out of southern California's prep ranks--as well as slugging 21-year-old right fielder Jim Kavourias, who recently broke the team record for homers held by ballyhooed big-league washout Josh Booty. Attendance has been strong--but attendance has always been strong for the Cougars; win or lose, they play a spirited, entertaining brand of baseball. So last Friday, which offered the added benefit of Cubs affiliate the Lansing Lugnuts being in town, I got in the car and drove out to Geneva and Elfstrom Stadium to check out our Class A juggernaut.
A nasty traffic jam along Route 59 kept me from getting there in time for the first game of the twi-night doubleheader. Actually, it was a game and a half, as the opener was the completion of a game interrupted by rain in the fourth inning the night before, and the nightcap was being limited to seven innings in order to get Lansing on the road at a decent hour. (The Midwest League plays a tight schedule, with long road trips done by bus, and it can't afford the big-league luxury of starting games over from scratch if they're halted before an "official" five innings are completed.) I arrived as the Cougars closed out the Lugnuts in the top of the ninth for an 8-3 victory. It gave the Cougars a 28-18 record for the second half of the season and lifted them to 75-39 overall--that's almost .667 baseball, approaching Seattle Mariners-style dominance. The Lugnuts, meanwhile, slipped to 23-33 and 50-66 overall. Yet the nightcap would offer another lesson in what Harry Caray used to call "the utter unpredictability of baseball."
A brief volley of celebratory fireworks popped overhead as the Cougars came off the field. They were replaced by a grounds crew that hopped around like roadies at a well-run rock show, and by a bunch of women in pink halter tops and black workout pants. This was the "dance team" from a local health center, though they seemed more like a regular step-aerobics class. As halftime entertainment they fell short of the Jesse White Tumblers, but their act was a pleasant diversion while I finished my brat and hometown Honker's Ale--this bush-league ball park has always had big-league food. And it was fun to see the husbands and boyfriends shooting them with video cameras or otherwise showing support, as the women slipped shy little waves or shot big, bright smiles in the men's direction. The dance team was replaced by a local school flag team, which gave way to a boy who delivered a deliberate but big-voiced rendition of the national anthem. The game began on schedule, at seven o'clock.
The pitching matchup looked like a good one. The Cougars were sending their ace, Ramon Castillo, 10-1 with a 3.62 earned run average, against Roberto Miniel, whom the Cubs picked up in a recent trade with the Milwaukee Brewers. But every baseball fan knows things don't always turn out to be what they look like. Castillo, a 22-year-old who despite his record isn't really a serious prospect, has a big kick and slings the ball a lot like his Dominican countryman Octavio Dotel of the Houston Astros, but on this night he had no stuff at all. I could hear Harry Caray moaning, "He's not fooling anybody." The very first batter, Lansing's short, solidly built right fielder Ray Sadler, hit one off his fists that kept going and going until it cleared the left-field fence. Castillo nicked Josh Harris when he threw one behind his back, walked a man, and gave up three straight crisply struck two-out hits. Five runs were in before he struck out the number-nine hitter looking.
Miniel by contrast was quite impressive. Though he came in at 4-6 with a 3.90 ERA, he had 120 strikeouts and 29 walks in 109 innings--numbers far more indicative of good command and promising stuff than mere wins and losses are at this level. Miniel held the ball in his right hand at the hip, brought his hands together at the waist in the manner of someone about to pray, kicked with his left calf pointed straight down from the knee, and exploded into his delivery, which left his glove flailing behind his head and his body falling off the mound to his left. He was Jekyll and Hyde in a single motion. He flummoxed the Cougars batters, though Gonzalez did work him for a walk leading off the second.
Gonzalez stepped to the plate with the distinctive ease of the pure ballplayer. He seemed totally relaxed entering the box, where most players in the low minors--even the talented ones--are just trying to get comfortable. At age 19 already a tall, thin, elegant player, Gonzalez stood erect with a slightly open stance, and when he swung--with a fluid, easy swing reminiscent of John Olerud--that seemed what he was born to do. Unfortunately, he wasn't as comfortable on the base paths. Fouling off three pitches on a full count before he walked, he got caught between first and second when Kavourias's bloop to short right field dropped in. Right fielder Sadler scooped up the ball and fired to second in time to force Gonzalez, which immediately cost the Cougars a run when catcher Dominic Woody homered.
That was the last hit Miniel would give up until the fifth. Meanwhile, Castillo, after retiring the Lugnuts in order in the second, got into trouble in the third, hanging a curveball to Blair Barbier, Lansing's stocky first baseman, who stepped into it, kicking high, and drove it over the left-field fence. Two more singles, a walk, and another hit batter later Castillo was done, with the Cougars down 7-2. The two teams traded runs in the fifth, with Miniel giving up a homer to Kane County's Matt Postell, before the game ended after seven with another 8-3 score.
If Gonzalez was clearly the cream of the crop, entering the game with a .344 batting average, 15 homers, and a team-high 94 runs batted in, he wasn't alone in being impressive. Kavourias, a bigger, more lumbering player, holds his hands close to the body at the plate, then draws them back and slugs; though he was batting only .252, he had 79 RBIs along with his record 21 homers. He made a nice shoe-top catch in right field late in the game, and earlier he'd fired a bullet home when a runner tried to score on a sacrifice fly. He'd have had him, too, but the one-hop throw skipped past Woody. Left fielder Will Smith, batting .294 with 15 homers and 87 RBIs, took the collar in the nightcap but also looked good.
In addition to Miniel, who might have the big leagues in his future, Lansing featured Sadler, with a .343 average, 12 steals, and now 8 homers, as well as Barbier, with a .320 average, 64 RBIs, and 16 homers. Barbier looked capable and professional at first base, settling under pop flies when most of the other players tended to stagger (two foul pops were dropped during the game, both of them ruled no-play to avoid errors). But Barbier lost his concentration late in the game and let a slow roller go under his glove. Third baseman Adam Morrissey, a small slap hitter with some pop in his bat, likewise made both good and bad impressions. He opened the bottom of the sixth by making a glistening short-hop stab of a grounder, snatching the ball with a flourish of his mitt and firing to first on the run as he crossed in front of the shortstop. Two batters later, he let a Gonzalez high hopper bounce off the tip of his glove for an error.
Such is the way of Class A ball. But as erratic as it can be, the Cougars clearly are less erratic than the competition this season, and in Gonzalez they have a future star whom Kane County fans will soon be able to boast they saw at close quarters on his way up.
If the baseball itself is sometimes not enough to keep one occupied--and I have to admit, my own attention began to lag in the late innings of a lopsided game--there are other diversions. Freight trains huffed past beyond the left-field fence, while commuter trains hurried their passengers home for the weekend. Planes circled overhead preparing to land at the nearby airfield on Route 64. The swirling mare's tails in the sky turned a delightful pink as the sun set. Kids ran up and rolled down the hills that rise along the foul lines beyond the grandstand. The popular Ozzie the Cougar mascot ("Oth-thee! Oth-thee!" shouted a nearby toddler as he came out on the field) was joined this night by BirdZerk, a traveling mascot in the tradition of the San Diego Chicken, and between innings there were the usual wacky races among kids from the stands. Families watched the game or shot the breeze, and though there weren't any fireworks, when the game ended and the kids lined up beyond the outfield to come in and run the bases, the whiny, nasal voice of the original George Bush was piped through the PA: "Good night, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America." After an evening of baseball, bratwurst, and beer, it was hard for even an agnostic to take issue with the sentiment.