The Royals swapped A-level minor league affiliates this past offseason, letting the Burlington Bees go in favor of adding the Kane County Cougars. The Cougars’ Elfstrom Stadium sits in the western suburbs of Chicago, making it a great place to attract fans and a fun place to visit for Royals fans. I have a friend that lives in nearby St. Charles and can vouch for that fact that the local folks love and support the team to no end. It’ll be a great place for Royals prospects to play.
If you remember back to November, I posted a Q&A with Northwest Arkansas Naturals GM Eric Edelstein. I enjoyed that so much that I thought it would be a good idea to get some thoughts from the Cougars’ management as well, so I finally got around to sending them an e-mail as such. Assistant GM Jeff Ney was kind enough to respond and answer my questions about the team, its past, the transition to the Royals, and being in sports management.
First, I’ll give you an idea of Jeff’s experience in sports to the point, as said in his own words:
I got a degree in Communications from Northern Illinois Univ, then after some time in retail, came to the Cougars as an unpaid intern. I worked my way into a paid position as Promotions Assistant and sold group outings to start. I’ve moved up over the years to Director of Promotions then Assistant GM. I’ve spent my entire 17 year career in sports with the Cougars and couldn’t be happier about it. I’m a Chicago native and love this area, so I’m really lucky to have found a good career at home.
And now, the questions and answers themselves. Enjoy!
What made you want to work in sports management? Were there any particular experiences that led you down that path?
My intention interning with the Cougars was really just to test the waters and learn the business to see where it might lead. I’d imagined, I have to move up to an MLB team to be able to earn a living working in sports, but MiLB was really taking off by then (in the 1990s) and the Cougars were the best of both worlds to me. In a major market where there’s lots of potential customers and business opportunities and a minor league setting where we could have some fun with creative promotions and events. A fun job turned into a great career.
Who have been some of your favorite Cougars during your time with the club?
There have been so many I know by trying to name guys I’ll miss some, but here’s just a sampling of guys who’ve stood out. Adrian Gonzalez was wise beyond his years when he was here and a great help to me in my role as team liaison because he was like a big brother to our Latin American players who didn’t speak English and struggled sometimes with language and cultural barriers. Kevin Millar and Ryan Dempster were the same fun guys as minor leaguers as they became as big leaguers. Quincy Foster, Andrew Prater and Scott Deal are guys who never made it big, but will always be among my favorites because they were SO GREAT with kids…that’s always been especially important to us here. I call them our ‘clinic all-star team’, they were always volunteering to help and did a great job! This year we’ll also have two former players return as visiting managers: Matt Erickson for Wisconsin (Brewers) and Mike Redmond for Lansing (Blue Jays). We’ve been very fortunate to have more than 100 of our former guys reach the majors, the list of favorites goes on and on…AJ Burnett, Miguel Cabrera, Huston Street, Andrew Bailey, Josh Beckett, Matt Treanor, Nate Robertson, Josh Willingham, Gregorio Petit, Kevin Hooper, Walter Miranda, Jeff Gray, Nelson Cruz, Todd Dunwoody…
Tell me about the process of changing the Cougars’ MLB affiliate. What are the simplest and the most challenging parts?
I think the most challenging part is educating fans. The Royals will be our 4th different affiliate and each time we’ve changed, we’ve had to correct misconceptions about the management and ownership of our organization amongst fans and even the media. There’s always a bit of a learning curve with new relationships and learning how each other have done things in the past, but this transition has been smooth so far. The Royals have a great group of people making their organization go and we’ve gotten off to a very good start together. They’ve been very supportive of our history and routines with our fans so I think our fans will be pleased to see the things they like about us will continue for years to come.
Is it hard to have to completely change rosters this offseason or are you used to doing so as players advance through the farm system?
Rosters at this level are always changing, with or without an affiliation change, so it’s not much of an issue for us. As much as we like to have some continuity from year to year with a few returning players as ‘Cougars veterans’, it’s also nice to get a fresh start every now and again.
Have you had a chance to meet with any of the soon-to-be-Cougars yet? Any thoughts on those players or on manager Vance Wilson?
We have not met any players yet, but Vance Wilson, Scott Sharp, JJ Picollo and several of the roving instructors came to town in February for a Welcome Party with our fans and to teach a clinic for youth baseball coaches. They’re great guys all around and couldn’t have been better guests to introduce to our fans. They made a great impression and have our fans very excited about our future with the Royals already.
In your brief time being affiliated with the Royals, is there anything you’ve really enjoyed or been impressed with?
We’ve really been impressed with how quickly and warmly we’ve been welcomed to the Royals family. The visit from the guys in February, phone contact with Dayton Moore and the staff in K.C. and Phoenix, especially Emily Penning! They’ve all been great in helping smooth the way.
Do you have any tips for those that are interested in pursuing a career like your’s?
Hustle and prepare to get your hands dirty! The public side of the sports business always seems very glamorous and fun. It can be those things but it’s also a lot of hard work behind the scenes…evenings, weekends, holidays, and it’s not for everyone. My advice would be to first really think about if it’s a career to pursue and if it is, give it your all, doing anything and everything you can to contribute to the success of your company.
I’ve been by the Kane County ballpark and was impressed before I was even told about the great facilities there. What are your favorite things about the park and games there (outside of great baseball, of course)?
We are very proud of our facility. Our biggest and most recent renovation was completed two years ago (an upper deck with suites and private party space, which also covers the concourse) but to me, the best thing about our organization is our fans. There’s nothing like a full stadium with energetic people enjoying and appreciating the effort we put in to make sure they have fun each game, whether we win or lose. We’re in a very competitive market, but we have a great core of faithful fans who are very supportive of our efforts and help us spread the word of the affordable fun to be had at our games.
If fans of the Royals outside of the greater Chicago area wanted to come see the Cougars play, what else in the close area would you suggest they do/see before they head home?
As a native Chicagoan, I have to say to visit the city. Chicago has something for everyone from the lake and parks to the museums, theaters, neighborhoods, architecture and dining…K.C. BBQ and steaks are great, but don’t leave Chicago without having a real hot dog or deep dish pizza!
Bonus: Did you make a March Madness bracket this year? If so, how does it look?
Indeed! My uncle went to school with Coach K, so I was a Duke fan before that was cool! Rough night for them last night and I had ‘em winning it all again, so between them and Louisville, I’m an also ran.
I think we can all echo that sentiment about the bracket! Thanks again, Jeff, for taking the time to do this!