Life Unaffiliated – Part 4: “Love for the Game and Fear of the Real World”


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 final chapter of his four-part story on how they survived. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

***

GENEVA, Illinois, June 29 – “We’re in just about every single game, and we just found ways not to win them. In the last week or so, we’ve pulled some out. That’s what good teams do.”

Tsamis is undeniably upbeat, and for good reason. Kane County has won six of its last eight, triumphantly topping Gary SouthShore with a walk-off victory. The Cougars rallied from behind twice, showing fortitude not seen in previous weeks. They’ve made up ground in the standings, and no longer strand runners at a time when scoring is needed most.

“It’s getting those big hits with guys on base,” Tsamis says. “From when we were losing to lately when we’ve been playing better, that’s the difference. We’re coming through with the big hit with guys on base.”

Kane County looks poised to regain the momentum it once possessed early in the season. There is revived belief in the clubhouse that playoff aspirations can indeed be met.

Spotted outside Tsamis’ office sits a tribute to recently bought out pitcher Vance Worley. A piece of athletic tape is holding his nametag to the inside of the locker room door. On the tape, written in sharpie, are the words “Hall of Fame.” A glimpse at how players react when one of their own finds out his big-league dreams have been reactivated.

***

“Have you heard his story?”

Bring up Josh Allen’s name to anyone around the minors and you’ll likely be asked that question. His journey is a baseball urban legend, the kind of tale coaches point to as defining dedication to the game.

Allen assumed his playing days ended after college, seeing his inability to get drafted as proof it was time to pursue a new path. He entered the police academy, but failed to shake the desire to stay on the diamond. A chance Google search with his father directed him to an independent league tryout in Tennessee, where he received an offer from the Evansville Otters. But he figured he would first finish what he started, wanting to graduate from the academy before moving to Indiana.

And then he got shot.

A stray bullet caught Allen in the chest during shooting proficiency exams. Afraid the freak occurrence would derail his suddenly resuscitated big-league hopes, he joined the Otters fully intent on keeping his injury a secret. It would’ve been a successful mission, too, had a team assistant not accidentally nudged the contusion during practice.

Seven years later, Allen is in Kane County, still clinging to his baseball dream. Outside of a 2018 stint with the New York Mets’ Double-A affiliate, the bulk of his career has been in independent ball. Asked what kept him playing all this time, Allen doesn’t beat around the bush.

“Love for the game and fear of the real world,” the 30-year-old said. “You’ve got your whole life to work a job. If you’re going to be a kid, you might as well do it as long as you can.”

Allen represents a new breed of Cougars in Kane County. Gone are affiliated players buoyed by draft status and the accompanying entitlement. Replacing them are minor league castoffs and overlooked college prospects. Men whose desire is fueled not by dreams of an eight-figure paycheck, but by wanting to prove MLB was wrong to give up on them.

In the eyes of many within the organization, it’s exactly the kind of player you want to associate with.

“Every person that’s selected, we’re selecting them not just to help us have a winning product on the field,” Froehlich said. “We really want to be part of that person’s journey to the major league level. To be a part of someone’s dream, especially when they know this is probably their last shot at grabbing the ring, it’s really fulfilling.”

The Cougars send their fans home with yet another walk-off victory. (Photo courtesy of Casey Drottar)

It’s one aspect that has made the loss of affiliation easier for Kane County to embrace.

There is an air of endearing optimism any time a front office member discusses the team’s newfound ability to jump-start major league aspirations. The Cougars proudly announce when an MLB club selects someone off their roster, seeing it as a message to any forgotten players still looking for an opportunity. And it’s an invitation that can be fulfilled by any means necessary.

Allen had initially signed with Sioux City, but convinced his manager to trade him to the Cougars upon hearing they hired Tsamis. For Jack Fox, the route to Kane County was slightly less traditional.

The then 23-year-old pitcher had recently left school, moving to Savannah, Georgia to play in a collegiate summer league. He soon received a call from Kane County, sparked by an Instagram highlight reel he recently posted. One of his former classmates happened to be Tsamis’ daughter, who sent Fox’s video to the Cougars’ manager to see if he would be interested.

“I didn’t even know how high of a level this league was,” Fox said. “I called my college coach, and he got back to me 20 minutes later saying, ‘This is an incredible opportunity. You should leave right now.’

“It was the second or third highlight video I posted. You never know who’s watching.”

Fox’s big-league aspirations were just getting started in Kane County. Meanwhile, Kacy Clemens’ were being resurrected.

The son of seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens had joined the Cougars convinced pitching was his only path back to an affiliate. But a lingering shoulder injury prevented him from returning to the mound.

“I was really excited to see where I could go as a pitcher, especially having my dad be my coach,” Clemens said. “Mentally, I was like ‘man, I just don’t know if we’re going to be able to get this done.’ I decided to stay, pick up the bat and see if I could enjoy the rest of the summer here.”

Clemens suddenly becoming one of the Cougars’ most productive hitters certainly helped that cause. What once appeared to be a swan song was now proof a shot at the bigs was still out there.

“All I can do is keep knocking on the door,” the 27-year-old said.

That portal remains difficult to unlock in Partner League ball. While MLB scouts are a frequent presence in the Cougars’ press box, they’re often just seeking someone to plug holes on a minor league roster. Few see in Kane County a hidden gem with major league promise.

“It’s minute, it is so small,” Pittsburgh Pirates scout Les Pajari said of these players’ big-league likelihood. “You look at the numbers, and it’s like why is anyone playing? Maybe some of them make it, but it’s tough. These guys know it. Every one of them.”

This current crop of Cougars may indeed understand the unfavorable odds of landing on a major league roster. If it has them thinking about giving up anytime soon, they certainly aren’t letting that on.

“Once all 30 teams tell me I’m not good enough, then I’ll be able to peacefully know it’s time to hang up the cleats,” Karaviotis said. “For now, I’m still having fun playing baseball. Hopefully I’ve got a lot more to come.”

Said Fox: “As long as I can throw over 90, I’m going to keep the dream alive that I can pitch in the majors.”

Kane County entered this season looking to prove it could still thrive as a franchise despite losing its MLB affiliation, that a passion for baseball was enough fuel to carry on in uncertain times. In the end, it only made sense for the team to lock arms with players who felt the same way.

“I’ve been on this earth for 30 years, and I’ve played baseball for 26 of them,” Allen said. “Everything that I am is baseball. If you’ve been working at something your whole life and you’re doing something you love, it’s not easy to walk away from that.”

***

GENEVA, Illinois, July 22 – Libraries are louder than the atmosphere inside Kane County’s clubhouse. Most of the players have departed, while Tsamis is slumped into his chair, straining to digest what just unfolded.

Once again, the Cougars triumphantly rallied from behind several times in their bout with Fargo-Moorhead. And once again, shakiness from the bullpen and a lack of one clutch hit combined to undo all of it.

“It’s a pretty devastating loss,” Tsamis says. “You just have to move on to the next day. I’ve sat here and said that 20 times this year, because we’ve had 20 devastating losses like that.”

Kane County’s recent slump severely damages hope for a late-season playoff run. The Cougars are continually relentless, the effort is never absent. Their nightly navigation through minefields just always seems to end in one late misstep.

Up in the press box, as the game begins to unravel, Haug laments the lack of time Kane County had to assemble a roster.

“We got a late start,” he says. “We’ll be better next year.”

***

Joe Brand was just as perplexed about the Cougars’ affiliation loss as everyone else in Kane County. Entering his seventh season as the team’s radio broadcaster, he initially struggled to grasp the reality of the situation. But like many of his colleagues, he wasn’t interested in endlessly dwelling on the news.

“You can cry ‘oh poor us’ for not being affiliated anymore, but I think everyone is just happy to play baseball again,” Brand said. “It’s not like we’re making millions doing this. We’re all in this business because we love to do it.”

“Whatever,” he said of MLB’s decision. “It’s their loss.”

This mindset permeates throughout the front office in Kane County. The loss of affiliation was a moment that could have derailed the entire franchise. The Cougars could have crumbled under the financial load placed atop their shoulders; they could have let the shock of last winter’s news hinder their ability to recover.

Instead, they endured.

They transformed their entire operations model in the span of 14 weeks. They found a manager who could mine undiscovered talent from a barren landscape. They became a bastion for players still clutching hopes to one day play in the bigs.

And their fans, who have shown steadfast support since the dawn of Kane County’s existence, unflinchingly stayed along for the ride.

By the end of the 2021 season, 177,705 fans had entered the gates at Northwestern Medicine Field, the highest total attendance number in the American Association and over 22,000 more than the next best team in the league. Of the 40 other clubs within MLB’s four Partner Leagues, only one averaged more than the 3,554 attendees Kane County drew per home game.

It seems even without affiliation or the local media coverage they had once grown accustomed to, the Cougars still know how to attract a crowd.

“That team, the newness never wore off,” Milos said. “That’s what happens in baseball; the park is new, the team is new, people show up, and then over time, eh, it’s just kind of there. That never happened there.”

The Cougars entered their first normal offseason since 2018 unsure of what the future holds. Perhaps their status in a Partner League lasts well beyond next year. Maybe the door to affiliated ball creaks back open sometime down the road.

Regardless of what happens, the tribulations they’ve withstood have yet to chip away at their optimism for the days ahead.

“It’s been exhausting, nerve-racking, stressful,” Haug said. “It’s been a rough two years, but we feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s a new chapter in Cougars baseball. And we’re going to make the best of it.”

Photo by Thomas S./Unsplash | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)



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