But one thing was different today. Rather than walking out of the dugout on to the familiar field of Elfstrom Stadium, the Cougars walked onto one of baseball’s cathedrals, Wrigley Field.
On Wednesday, the Cougars took part in the annual “Road to Wrigley” game, which has become an annual tradition of the Chicago Cubs organization to showcase one of their minor league teams on their historic field. The third annual game featured the Cougars against the Cubs' affiliate Peoria Chiefs.
The Chiefs topped the Cougars, 5-2, but the feeling in the Cougars' clubhouse was of thrill and excitement, which left most Cougars speechless.
“You’re kind of just in awe,” Cougar shortstop Michael Gilmartin, who finished the game 3-4 and a home run away from the cycle, said.
“Words can’t really describe how it feels to play in a place with so much history and tradition. So many great ballplayers have played here. Just to be on the field that they have played and be in the same batter’s box that they’ve been in, it’s pretty breathtaking.”
The game had added significance, as the starter for Kane County was 19-year old lefthander Ian Krol, a resident of Naperville, IL, which is located 36 miles from Wrigley Field.
Krol was a 7th round draft pick of the A’s, but admits to growing up a lifelong Cubs fan that saw many games at Wrigley Field as a kid.
Kane County manager Aaron Nieckula arranged for Krol to get the start at Wrigley Field, which gave the lefthander a great opportunity to play in a familiar building in front of hundreds of friends and family members.
Krol picked up the loss in the outing, as he went five innings, while surrendering four runs, three earned runs. After the game, Krol admitted being thrilled to play at Wrigley Field, but he was disappointed with his one mistake, a three-run home run to Jae-Hoon Ha.
“It was a great experience,” Krol said. “I’d probably do anything to take that home run pitch back.”
As a lifelong Cubs fan, Krol was able to appreciate the "Road to Wrigley" experience more than any other member of the Cougars. As a pitcher, he had to maintain his composure, but as a baseball fan, Krol approached the day differently.
“It was pretty exciting for me. I did my rituals before the game. I came down here early enough to soak it all in so I didn’t have to rush myself. It was just unbelievable,” Krol said.
The "Road to Wrigley" game gave another member of the Cougars a homecoming. Relief pitcher Bo Schultz is a native of Dallas, Texas, but he is very familiar with the Chicagoland area. Schultz attended Northwestern University, which is located in nearby Evanston, so he is very familiar with Wrigley Field.
With 20 family members from his mom’s side of the family and 30 friends from Northwestern all in attendance, Schultz was really hoping to get into the game.
Krol and reliever Connor Hoehn were in command of the mound, but when Hoehn got into a jam in the eighth inning, Schultz was given his chance to pitch on the Wrigley mound. His night was brief; just four pitches, but it was well worth it.
“To be perfectly honest, I was really worried that I wouldn’t get a chance to play, because Connor and Ian did a phenomenal job pitching. Luckily, I got a chance to go out there and it felt pretty cool. I’ve felt at a loss for words for the entire day,” Schultz said.
The "Road to Wrigley" game gave one other member of the Cougars an interesting opportunity. As a former member of the Cubs organization, Josh Lansford has seen an interesting transition throughout the past few years.
While the Cougars and Chiefs played the inaugural Road to Wrigley game in 2008, Lansford was a third baseman for the Tennessee Smokies, the Cubs Double-A club. Just two years later, he is now a converted reliever for the Cougars. Lansford did not play in the game, but the highlight of his experience at Wrigley Field was revisiting with old coaches and teammates with Peoria.
“It was fun to see those guys. I still have some good friends over there," Lansford said.
"It was good to see those guys. I’m disappointed we didn’t pull this out, but it was a fun experience either way.”
More importantly for Lansford, the game gave him motivation to reach the big leagues. His career has taken a dramatic shift, but his aspirations remain the same.
“It was a great experience. It’s definitely something that you look back on as motivation to get back up here and make it be for real next time,” Lansford said.
The Cougars were given a rare but exciting opportunity on Wednesday night. They played at one of baseball’s cathedrals, and played in a major league baseball field.
On Thursday, the Cougars travel to Beloit, Wisconsin to play the Beloit Snappers. They will play in a small, minor league field, in a seemingly different world from where they were on Wednesday. The "Road to Wrigley" game gives minor leaguers an exciting opportunity to play at Wrigley Field. As the Cougars head back on the road, they will surely remember their major league experience.
“You just have to step back and be thankful for the opportunity, because not everybody gets to do this,” Gilmartin said. “I’m just really thankful for the opportunity to be here.”
Stay tuned tomorrow for more coverage of the Cougars trip to Wrigley Field.