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Introducing the Kane County Cougars10/21/2009 5:56 PM ET
By Tom Gauthier, Bowling Green Hot Rods
The fourth installment of our Midwest League team features a club that's probably pretty well-known around South Central Kentucky. It's not a team popular because of its affiliation, but rather one player who donned its uniform just a few seasons ago. That team is the Kane County Cougars and that player is getting close to another shot at a World Series title.
TEAM: Kane County Cougars
MLB AFFILIATE: Oakland Athletics (2003)
LOCATION: Geneva, IL
FIRST SEASON: 1991
STADIUM (CAPACITY): Elfstrom Stadium (7,400) 2009 RECORD: 76-64, 3rd place Western Division, 1st Half Western Division Champion, Swept 2-0 by Burlington in Round One of MWL playoffs
LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIPS: 2001 (11 postseason appearances)
NOTABLE MLB ALUMNI: 109 players; Alex Gonzalez (1996), A.J. Burnett (1998), Josh Beckett (2000), Miguel Cabrera (2001), Joe Blanton (2003)
VS. BOWLING GREEN: 3 games; June 4-6 at Bowling Green
When it comes to boasting a location near a major city, Kane County may be the head of the MWL class. Based in Geneva, Illinois, the Cougars are located just 35 miles from Chicago. The Cougars are Kane County's first modern venture in pro baseball after two clubs played in nearby Aurora and Elgin in 1915 during the long-defunct Bi-State League's one season. After a long spell without minor league baseball, Geneva and Kane County celebrated after the 1990 season when the Wausau Timbers left Wisconsin bound for the borders of the Windy City.
When the club first arrived in Kane County, the Baltimore Orioles affiliate opened up a brand new stadium, Elfstrom Stadium, which still serves as the Cougars den. In its first season, Kane County set a high bar for on-field success, racing to 42 wins during the first half of the season. Ultimately they advanced to the playoffs that season before being swept by Madison in the first round, 2-0. A year later, after a 61-76 record, the Orioles left town to be replaced by the Florida Marlins.
The first three years with Florida were winning seasons, ending in a 1995 first-round playoff loss to West Michigan. After a losing season in 1996, things looked bleak again in 1997. The Cougars found themselves at the bottom of their division with a 33-37 record at the all-star break before a big turnaround. Led by Chicago White Sox outfielder Scott Podsednik, Kane County 'flipped the script' with a 37-31 record to win the second half championship and a trip to the playoffs. Once in the postseason, Kane County swept both Wisconsin and Cedar Rapids to advance to their first championship series. While giving Lansing all it could handle the Cougars ended up just short, losing a decisive game five to give Lansing the title.
That 1997 season became the epitome of what Kane County has done for the last dozen years: a good team that will likely make the playoffs while housing some future big league players. In 1998 they just missed postseason baseball but featured current New York Yankee A.J. Burnett. After a playoff appearance in 1999, Josh Beckett pitched in Kane County for the 2000 squad, helping them rack up 74 wins. A year later, with a team led by big league all-stars Miguel Cabrera (Tigers) and Adrian Gonzalez (Padres), Kane County piled up a franchise-best 88 wins while sweeping their way through the playoffs. The title was well-earned, but bittersweet, as the championship series against South Bend was called after one game due to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The club switched affiliations in 2003, moving from Florida to the Oakland Athletics. The A's prospects continued the Marlins' winning ways by returning to the playoffs in five of the next seven seasons, ultimately finishing as MWL runners-up in 2004 and 2006.
In addition to relatively successful teams on the field, one more thing has remained a constant in Geneva: Cougars advancing to the major leagues. In addition to the aforementioned players, the Marlins affiliation produced major league all-stars in Charles Johnson (1993), Ryan Dempster (1996), and Alex Gonzalez (1996), as well as 2003 National League Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis (2002). Under the A's umbrella, reliever Huston Street (2004) grabbed the 2005 AL Rookie of the Year award while another Oakland closer, Andrew Bailey (2007), is among the favorites for this year's rookie honor.
But, the greatest Cougar of them all, at least in South Central Kentucky, is none other than Joe Blanton. After being drafted in 2002, the Edmonson County native pitched in Kane County in '03, remarkably his only full season in the minor leagues. Blanton led the Cougars to the playoffs with a modest 8-7 record, but sterling 2.57 ERA. He averaged more than six innings per start while striking out 144 batters, a 9.7 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio. A year later, on September 21, 2004, Blanton made his major league debut with Oakland, never to return to the minors again.
NEXT WEEK: Peoria Chiefs (Chicago Cubs)
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.