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Cougars announce new affiliation with Cubs

GENEVA – Kane County Cougars general manager Curtis Haug used the word “unique” when discussing the club’s 2012 exploits well before bringing credence to a longstanding rumor Wednesday.

With respect to a Fifth Third Bank Ballpark concert from alt-rockers Wilco and an inaugural 5K that started and finished on the field, the Cougars have landed a conversation piece with staying power. Here come the Cubs.

Haug and fellow Cougars brass went searching for more superlative adjectives shortly after noon Wednesday, when officials agreed to terms with the Cubs on a two-year player-development contract at the Low-A level. A respectful affiliation with the Kansas City Royals simply gave way to fate – or something like it – with the Cubs.

“It’s a natural fit for us,” Haug said. “They’re 35 miles away, there’s a lot of Cub fans here in the area, obviously, and I think out of all the Major League Baseball teams, this is a great fit for us. Nothing against Kansas City. Kansas City was outstanding and a class act up and down. But the Cubs is the best opportunity that we could possibly have, and we’re just thrilled to be partnered with them.”

Cubs president Theo Epstein echoed Haug’s excitement as the sides concluded meetings that began Sunday, the earliest date for discussion of new PDCs. Haug and Co. predominantly negotiated with Cubs vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod, and asserted talks took place no earlier than this weekend despite August reports the Cubs would be leaving longtime parent club Peoria for Kane County at season’s end.

“I’m a big fan of having as many affiliates as possible close by the home city. It just creates a lot of efficiencies with rehabs and allows front office and staff to see the team play a little bit more often,” Epstein said. “Also, [it] gives our players a feel for the market before there’s too much pressure on them. They get an understanding of how important baseball is and get to know the fans a little bit.”

A Cubs affiliate from 1985-95 and 2005-12, Peoria announced a four-year PDC with the St. Louis Cardinals earlier Wednesday.

Haug said that while the Cougars nickname is “not going anywhere,” team officials might entertain thoughts of switching the color scheme.

Haug, who enters his 20th season with the club and second as general manager, said “the stars aligned for the first time” between the Cougars and Cubs during this negotiation period. Peoria signed a four-year PDC with the Cubs before the 2009 season. The Cougars finished an eight-season partnership with the Oakland Athletics and joined with the Royals in the same span.

Dayton, Ohio, a Class-A affiliate of the nearby Cincinnati Reds since its Midwest League inception in 2000, long has been the benchmark for clubs pondering greater proximity to parent affiliates.

The Dragons have sold out each of their 913 games at Fifth Third Field, breaking the previous North American professional sports record of 814 by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers during the summer of 2011.

Dayton again led the 16-team MWL in attendance this past season, drawing 588,689 fans in 69 openings, an average of 8,532 spectators a game. The Cougars (391,102) finished third behind San Diego Padres farmhand Fort Wayne, Ind. (396,531); Kane County had attracted at least 400,040 fans in every season since 1993.

“Overall, I thought the attendance was pretty good,” Haug said. “We got by without any rainouts and also had some heat issues, but I think things definitely will be on the increase going forward.”

Peoria opposed the Cougars in three of the 10 highest-attended games at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, including July 3, 2009, when the teams played before 14,872 fans, a record for a MWL venue. While there were fireworks on the night before Independence Day – a draw no matter a diamond’s locale – the presence of rehabbing former Cubs Aramis Ramirez and Reed Johnson offered at least an equal incentive.

Short of getting their club’s Low-A affiliate to defect from Kannapolis (N.C.) of the South Atlantic League, some Chronicle-area White Sox fans like the idea of seeing more identifiable prospects around, too.

Elburn resident Anthony Sperando, a Bradley University freshman and recent Kaneland graduate, roots for the White Sox and figures he’ll accelerate his usual casual intake of summer baseball at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark.

“I think there’ll be a few Sox fans that will refuse to go to a Cougars game, but I think overall the majority of us will actually be more interested because at least the players that we’ll see in Kane County will go on to play in Chicago and not Kansas City,” Sperando said. “They’ll be on TV where we live, you know.”

With the Houston Astros filing to explore other options from their previous Low-A affiliate – Lexington, Ky., of the South Atlantic League – it’s believed the Royals could transfer from the Midwest League.

The Royals and Cougars were aligned from 2011-12, forming a convenient “KC” connection that was an asset for both sides’ marketing departments.

Royals director of minor league operations Scott Sharp confirmed Kansas City had “agreed in principle with another city” on a Low-A PDC and an official announcement was set for the coming days.

“I didn’t believe when we signed two years ago that we’d be there two years and gone, because it’s a great facility, a great town and all the parties were great and fulfilled every aspect,” Sharp said. “It was a good relationship. They just had a business decision to make, which we respect and understand.”

The Cougars organization has raised prospects from several distant teams since relocating from Wausau, Wis., before the 1991 season, including the Baltimore Orioles (1991-92), Florida Marlins (1993-2002), Oakland Athletics (2003-10) and Royals.

Aligning with the Cubs might not be the most unique development given a handful of other set-ups in the league, but it’s undoubtedly a major boost.

“Kane County, they’ve had different affiliates and they’ve done very good regardless,” MWL president George Spelius said. “They’re very competitive and that’s important for fans. I’m sure the Cubs will be the same way with all the young players coming in. I think it’s a good marriage.”

• Shaw Media’s Meghan Montemurro contributed to this report.

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