In Cougars’ league, fans are the whole ballgame
By Steve Lord email@example.com June 19, 2012 9:08PM
Miguel Sano signs autographs at the Midwest League All-Star Game at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark on Tuesday. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 19, 2012 10:36PM
GENEVA – Anthony Abbamonte shrugged his shoulders a bit and slightly twisted his neck around.
As he turned to face the catcher, the nickname “Abbo” across the back of his uniform top was clearly visible. Without much of a windup at all – this kid, this Abbamonte, doesn’t waste much time –he fired his first pitch.
The ball made a loud smack as it got to the catcher, and those around Abbamonte looked quickly at the radar gun to see the reading. It said 44. That’s 44 mph.
OK, not imposing by Major League Baseball standards, not even by minor league standards, but not bad for a 12-year-old youth league player who just got a cast taken off his arm earlier in the day.
Wait, you thought this was about what was happening on the field at the Midwest League All-Star Game at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark here? No, this is about what was happening around the field.
You see, a standard, regular season Kane County Cougars game is a carnival built around a baseball game. So it stands to reason the carnival atmosphere surrounding an All-Star Game would be, well, the All-Star equivalent.
And it was. Down in the picnic area, and the Kids Zone area, there were games of bags, Bozo buckets, basketball, spinning wheels, panning for gold, a DJ and five – count ‘em, five – bouncing houses.
And there was a little baseball, too, as Abbamonte, of Dundee, could attest to. He missed his entire season in the Central District Baseball League, based in Plato Center, due to a broken arm.
But on the day he got that cast off, wearing the jersey he wore little during the season, he notched that 44, which bagged him first place in his age range, at least for the moment. For the record, Abbo had predicted 43 as he stood in line at the Cougar’s radar throw.
“That’s what I did at my baseball practice,” he said.
Nearby, Kristen and Doug Van Vleet, of Elgin, also part of the Central District Baseball League outing, were entertaining their three small children, Kailey, Ellie and Evan with a game of bags. Evan is just starting out at this baseball thing, playing Tee Ball.
But Tuesday was for baseball fans of all ages and levels. At minor league games, the question isn’t, what do they have for fans, but rather, what don’t they have. Any kind of entertainment, food or diversion is there, somewhere.
And, yes, there is baseball.
The Midwest League All-Star Game has a history of showcasing players who end up stars in the big show. Consider the 2000 game, in which Albert Pujols, Adam Dunn and Jake Peavy played. The winning pitcher in the 2007 game was Clayton Kershaw.
No one knows for sure who the equivalent of those Major League stars were Tuesday night. Perhaps it was Jorge Bonifacio, Lane Adams, Danny Mateo or Matt Ridings, the four Cougars named to the team to play before the hometown crowd.
Or maybe it was Kyler Burke, of the Peoria Chiefs, affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, who came into pitch in the first inning and became what is believed to be the first player ever named to the Midwest League All-Star team as both a pitcher and a position player.
But the fan’s crystal ball apparently chose Miguel Sano, the starting third-baseman for the Western Division, a player for the Minnesota Twins affiliate Beloit Snappers, and a top prospect.
At the fan autograph session, a highlight of the Midwest League All-Star Game every year, he had the longest line of people, a melting pot of children, parents, hard-core baseball nuts, card collectors, giggling girls, awestruck boys and more.
Alex Meyer came all the way from Chicago to get “a Miguel Sano,” which he hoped to trade online with people from other parts of the country who get autographs from the top minor league prospects in their part of the world.
“It’s a hobby,” he said.
Right behind him were two 12-year-olds from Plano. The manager of their Plano 12 and Under White and Purple League, Mike Laman, organized the outing for players and family on the White team.
Laman saw the line for Sano, and, even though he was unsure who Sano was, he suggested the boys get his autograph, because the line was the longest.
They returned with baseballs filled with names.
On the other side of the field, where a player stood alone, the antithesis of Sano, 6-year-old Chris Cassidy, of Naperville, saw his chance for a signature. He shyly approached the player with a ball another player had given him.
“This is the first time he’s done this,” said Jennifer Cassidy, his mother. “But I have four boys (ages 6 to 12), so we come out to Cougar games a lot.”