Special memories, promotions and one of the best teams in franchise history all part of 25th anniversary season
September 14, 2015
Cougars fans, thank you for an incredible 2015 season! Our 25th anniversary campaign welcomed more than 400,000 fans to Fifth Third Bank Ballpark. Both on and off the field, our silver anniversary season was a special one, and we want to hear your stories and see your photos from 2015.
What was your favorite moment from the 2015 season of Cougars baseball? Your favorite promotion? The best Cougars game you attended? A special moment at the ballpark with your family and friends? The best food or drink item you enjoyed? E-mail your stories to [email protected] and we'll highlight some of our fans' submissions in an upcoming Cougars Den blog post. We'll award some randomly selected submissions with other goodies too, such as tickets for a 2016 game or a 2015 team autographed baseball.
In addition to the great on-field action, Cougars fans were treated to special events, promotions and more throughout the 2015 season. Opening Day on April 9 formally kicked off the 25th anniversary campaign.
But even before the first pitch of the season was thrown, the Cougars received a worldwide boost in promoting the season by being featured on the NASDAQ building in Times Square. The Cougars are believed to be the first team in Minor League Baseball history to be prominently featured on the famous MarketSite Tower that illuminates one of the most recognizable locations in the world.
The first Cougars alumnus to make his Major League debut occurred before Opening Night, too. '09 Cougar Tyler Ladendorf became the 129th former Cougar to reach the big leagues by appearing for the Oakland A's. As of September 14, a total of 9 alumni reached the Major Leagues, the highest # of MLB debuts by former Cougars since 2007. This year's list includes Ladendorf, Andrew McKirahan, Sugar Ray Marimon, Orlando Calixte, Kyle Schwarber, Dusty Coleman, Cheslor Cuthbert, Zack Godley and Scott Alexander. Schwarber's debut was a special occurrence as he became the first Cougar since Huston Street ('04 Cougar) to make his big league debut just one year removed from having played at Kane County. To date, a total of 137 former Cougars have made the Major Leagues.
On Opening Night, April 9, fans were able to view a newly-branded team bus on their way into Fifth Third Bank Ballpark. Once inside the park, fans enjoyed seeing a new state-of-the-art videoboard, capable of interacting with fans while providing instant replays and in-game highlights. New "Strike Zone" seating allowed fans to purchase a half-moon table with 4 swivel seats. The view behind home plate was perfect and seatholders enjoyed wait staff service when ordering food and drink. The debut of "The Patio" added a colorful array of Adirondack chairs on the first base lawn, along with modern landscaping work to further enhance the fan experience on the lawn.
Also as part of the Opening Night festivities, the Cougars formally unveiled some specialty food and drink items that received national headlines in the spring. "Raging Cougar Ale", the Cougars' new beer that was created by Two Brothers Brewing Company, received a ceremonial "first pour" and "first toast" that evening. The beer was also available at Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks this season, making the Cougars the first team in Minor League Baseball to have their own branded beer available at the ballpark of their big league affiliate.
The first of many "Heart Attack Burgers" were enjoyed by fans as well. The appetizing burger was a half-pound beef patty topped with grilled onions, a fried egg, slice of melted cheddar cheese, chipotle bacon mayo and two strips of bacon with a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches serving as its bun.
The April and May home games were dominated by throngs of enthusiastic Chicagoland youth who participated in Ozzie's Reading Club. The Cougars' reading incentive program included more than 400 Chicago area schools who improved their reading skills, then received complimentary tickets to attend a pre-game parade and Cougars game.
The Cougars welcomed a true hero in World War II veteran Walter Guzy on May 5. Guzy served under General Patton as a machine gunner and celebrated his 99th birthday at the ballpark by throwing a ceremonial first pitch that was caught by Cougars manager Mark Grudzielanek. Later that homestand, the first of many "Pitch in for Charity" events, sponsored by Acres Group, took place as fans purchased numbered tennis balls to throw and attempt to land on an on-field target. Proceeds this season went to the Gateway Foundation Alcohol & Drug Treatment Center of Aurora. Also that month, the Cougars unveiled a newly-expanded KidZone area, sponsored by Rainbow Play Systems. KidZone featured new inflatable attractions, a newly-constructed swingset and a Snack Shack with a variety of food and drink items.
On May 13, fans were treated to an appearance by Hall-of-Famer and D-backs Chief Baseball Officer Tony LaRussa in May. As part of the "Out to the Ballgame II" event, attendees heard several great stories from LaRussa during a pre-game event held in the Super Suite. Following the event, LaRussa reunited on the field with Cougars manager Mark Grudzielanek, who played with LaRussa while both were with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Several days later, the Cougars welcomed a new player to the roster in 2014 1st round pick Touki Toussaint. Entering the season, Toussaint was ranked the 3rd-best D-backs prospect by MLB.com (98th overall). Toussaint was part of a trade later in the season that sent him to the Atlanta Braves organization. Around that time in May, another highly-touted pitcher, Wei-Chieh Huang, joined the Cougars. Huang participated in the MLB All-Star Futures Game later that summer.
By Memorial Day weekend, special theme nights were in full force as fans celebrated Star Wars, Frozen, Pro Wrestling and Super Heroes, among many other nights, throughout the season.
On May 30, more than 300 runners and walkers endured the rainy weather to participate in the 4th annual Ozzie's Home Run and Walk 5K event. Participants crossed the finish line at home plate and enjoyed a post-race brat along with a beer or soda. A portion of race proceeds were donated to Ozzie's Outreach Foundation, the Cougars' charitable arm that donates to a wide variety of causes throughout Chicagoland.
The first of several "One Cent Wiener Wednesdays" took place on June 3. Fans were encouraged to bring loose change and an appetite as hot dogs (limit of 10 per transaction) were just one cent. To assist customers in garnering up the necessary change, Cub Scout Pack 63, based out of Wheaton, sold 50 cent rolls of pennies for a one dollar donation.
On June 4, several hundred fans eagerly lined up outside the ballpark gates for a special giveaway as 2014 championship replica rings were distributed to the first 1,500 fans, courtesy of Melrose Pyrotechnics. The beautiful keepsake ring brought back many memories of the Cougars' historic 2014 season which culminated in a Midwest League Championship.
On June 9, the Cougars announced their silver anniversary team. Fans, through an online vote at kccougars.com, selected starting and relief pitchers, infielders, outfielders, designated hitter and even a field staff to recognize some of the greatest baseball talent to ever wear a Cougars uniform.
A hot finish to the season's first half unfortunately didn't lead to a playoff berth. However, a half-dozen Cougars were selected to participate in the Midwest League All-Star Game, which was held on June 23 in Peoria. Outfielder Colin Bray was named a starter and was joined in the game by infielders Marty Herum and Cody Regis along with pitchers Ethan Elias, Cody Geyer and Markus Solbach.
The Major League Baseball All-Star Game held another strong representation of Cougars alumni as A.J. Burnett ('98), Miguel Cabrera (01), Nelson Cruz ('03) and Adrian Gonzalez ('01) were named to the mid-season classic, which was hosted by Cincinnati on July 14. It was the 19th straight MLB All-Star Game, dating back to 1997, that included at least one former Cougar.
As the Cougars sprinted out of the gates to open the second half, the team and staff took time out of their schedule to visit Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora on July 22. During the two-hour appearance, the team met with countless youth, cancer patients and hospital staff.
The Cougars welcomed a pair of wrestling legends to Fifth Third Bank Ballpark on July 23 as Sgt. Slaughter and The Million Dollar Man, Ted DiBiase, signed autographs, posed for photos, and participated in on-field activities during the game. Professional Wrestling Night welcomed 9,126 fans to the ballpark.
Easily one of the best highlights from the season took place on July 31 as the Cougars assisted a local military hero in reuniting with his son. United States Air Force Technical Sergeant Joe Amore surprised his son, Anthony, by suiting up as a Cougars player and catching his ceremonial first pitch that evening. Immediately following the pitch, Joe removed his mask to reveal his identity in front of his son. Joe had just returned from a six-month tour in Kuwait and received a standing ovation from fans following the pitch.
Also during that homestand, the Cougars welcomed Arizona Diamondbacks mascot Baxter for his first trip to Kane County. Baxter, along with Ozzie, visited several locations in the community and interacted with fans on the July 31 Superheroes Night game. The following evening, the World Armwrestling League showcased some of their star athletes and performed matches during and after the game.
By late August, the Cougars' tremendous second half had paved the way to a postseason berth. The team broke the franchise record for most wins in a single half of a season with 48 and on September 4, the Cougars clinched the Western Division Second Half Championship. Closer Zac Curtis broke the franchise record for saves, eventually finishing his season with a Minor League Baseball-best 33 saves. Despite a loss in the regular season finale, infielder Ildemaro Vargas was crowned Midwest League batting champion with a .321 batting average. Athletic trainer Rafael Freitas was named Midwest League Trainer of the Year. The Cougars' overall regular season record was 84-54 and those 84 wins were the 3rd highest win total in franchise history behind the 2001 and 2014 Midwest League Championship squads. The team's .275 batting average also broke a franchise record.
New league rules for the playoffs dictated that the two second half divisional qualifiers meet in the first round. The Cougars would face Peoria, the West Division Second Half Wild Card, in Round 1. The Cougars dropped Game 1 at Dozer Park on a heartbreaking walk-off walk. The following evening with their backs against the wall, the Cougars returned home for a must-win Game 2. However, Peoria held off a late rally to end the Cougars' 2015 season.