Those are your Midwest League champion Kane County Cougars, honored before yesterday's game at Wrigley Field. This was a dominant champion, too: The Cougars finished the regular season 91-49 and then swept their way to the pennant with seven consecutive postseason wins.
(In 2013, by the way, the Cougs finished a delightful 55-80, the worst team in the Western Division. The Eastern Division's worst team was the 54-83 Lake County Captains. Naturally, the two clubs met for the championship this autumn. Kane County's PDC with the Cubs is now up, and it's unknown whether they'll extend their PDC another two years -- but, hey, it was fun while it lasted.)
The 98-49 Cougars were a true powerhouse, which started me thinking about other dominant Midwest League teams who won the league title. We're skipping 2010-2013, where the team with the best won-lost record in the regular season lost in the postseason. (This includes the 2010 90-win Great Lakes Loons, the 2011 Billy Hamilton-led Dayton Dragons, and the 2012 Lugnuts of Sanchez/Syndergaard/Nicolino fame.) This brings us to...
2009 Fort Wayne TinCaps, affiliated with the San Diego Padres: 94-49 in the regular season, 7-2 in the postseason. Go ahead, make the case for the inaugural TinCaps, rebranding from the Wizards and moving into brand new Parkview Field, as the best team in MWL history. Future Major Leaguers: Mat Latos, Blake Tekotte, Dan Robertson, Jaff Decker, Matt Clark, Cole Figueroa, James Darnell, Dean Anna, Ali Solis, Vince Belnome, Andy Parrino, Simon Castro, Erik Davis, Anthony Bass, Brad Brach, Colt Hynes, Nick Greenwood. That's a record-breaking 17 Big Leaguers on one team, and when Allen Dykstra makes his MLB debut (likely next year), it'll be 18. The atmosphere at Parkview Field was ridiculous; any time you handed these guys a defeat, it was like an enormous accomplishment.
2006 West Michigan Whitecaps, affiliated with the Detroit Tigers: 89-48 in the regular season, 7-2 in the postseason. Remember when Cameron Maybin was going to be a superstar? This was his team, and the 19-year-old Maybin dominated. Other notables: Will Rhymes, Matt Joyce, Michael Hollimon, Burke Badenhop, Luke French. And thus ended the Whitecaps dynasty, which had reigned over the Midwest League since the 1990s.
2001 Kane County Cougars, affiliated with the Miami Marlins: 88-50 in the regular season, 5-0 in postseason before MWL championship series was halted after one game due to Sept. 11th terrorist attacks; named co-league champions with South Bend. One of my worries in compiling this list was that in looking solely for impressive won-lost record I would be neglecting teams boasting truly great talent. No worries here - the 2001 Cougars had 19-year-old Adrian Gonzalez at first base and 18-year-old Miguel Cabrera at third base. In retrospect, that's sensational.
** Special 1997 note: The '97 West Michigan Whitecaps finished the regular season 92-39. Your 1997 postseason champs? The 69-68 Lansing Lugnuts. **
1995 Beloit Snappers, affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers: 88-51, 7-1 in the postseason. In their first year going by the Snappers name (a change from Brewers), Beloit eased to the MWL crown behind 18-year-old Ronnie Belliard, slugger Derek Hacopian, and the pitching of Brian Tollberg and first-rounder Jeff D'Amico. More than anything, though, the Snappers won thanks to offense, compiling a .354 team OBP to offset a 3.91 team ERA. Good pitching beats good hitting? Not always.
** Special 1987 note: The '87 Springfield Cardinals went 94-46 thanks to the hitting of phenom Todd Zeile, but they lost in the playoffs as the 82-58 Kenosha Twins hoisted the league trophy for the second time in three years. **
1982-1984 Appleton Foxes, affiliated with the Chicago White Sox: The home field for Appleton was Goodland Field, and it certainly was good for the faithful. The 1982 Foxes were 81-59, riding the pitching of Mike Tanzi and the slugging of 19-year-old Daryl Boston and 21-year-old Wade Rowdon. The 1983 Foxes were even better, finishing 87-50 behind 18-game winner Rich Devincenzo and relief sensation Al Jones. (I love Jones's numbers: 11-1, 0.97, 55 appearances, 22 saves, 102 innings, 54 hits, 124 strikeouts; what a relief pitcher!) The next year, Appleton was a mere 87-49, knocking out Springfield in a hard-fought championship series to grab a third consecutive league title. It is the last time that an MWL squad has accomplished the threepeat.
1978 Appleton Foxes, affiliated with the Chicago White Sox: 97-40, 4-1 in the postseason. Tigers TV broadcaster Rod Allen is probably the most well-known Fox in retrospect, but Appleton (with 11 future MLBers, including a cameo from future All-Star Britt Burns) was feared in its time. The patient Foxes drew 705 walks, averaging over five walks per game, and starters LaMarr Hoyt (18-4, 2.90), Jackie Smith (11-3, 2.89), and Ross Baumgarten (9-1, 1.82 in 10 starts) were aided by ace closer Dewey Robinson (10-3, 1.72, 17 saves). The only disappointment was 1978 7th overall pick Vic Walters, who would be out of baseball by the end of 1979.
1975 Waterloo Royals, affiliated with the Kansas City Royals: 93-35, 2-0 in postseason. The Kansas City Royals were establishing themselves as a force in the AL West, with two major talents on their way up the pipeline in speedy Willie Wilson and submarining Dan Quisenberry stopping by Waterloo to buoy a terrific Royals squad. (In case you're unfamiliar with the Quiz, here are some of the quotes that made him legendary... and here's a fantastic eulogy to him, with even more of his thoughts.)
1969 Appleton Foxes, affiliated with the Chicago White Sox: 84-41, no postseason necessary, as Appleton won both halves and was declared the champion. Heck, Appleton was so good, the Foxes took on the Midwest League All-Stars on July 21st and beat 'em 5-3. The winning pitcher in that game was 19-year-old Bart Johnson, who finished the year 16-4, 2.17. 22-year-old teammate Don Eddy was even better at 18-3, 1.81, as the Foxes notched a 2.61 team ERA.
1965 Burlington Bees, affiliated with the Kansas City Athletics: 82-40, no postseason necessary due to winning both halves. Four-time American League All-Star Sal Bando was the standout talent in the Bees' lineup which batted a meager .233. The pitching corps was another matter, putting forth a 2.54 ERA thanks to aces Gordon Riese (14-2, 1.99), Tony Pierce (9-7, 1.84), Raul Medrano (12-1, 2.06), and the fantastic Joe Bosworth (6-2, 1.12), who allowed only 41 hits and 10 earned runs in 80 innings. Only Pierce, though, would make the Major Leagues.
1963 Clinton C-Sox, affiliated with the Chicago White Sox: 83-41, no postseason necessary due to winning both halves. There strike me as zero notable Major Leaguers on the C-Sox --- C-Sox? --- but Jerome Rozmus's amazing professional debut deserves note. The Illinois product went 17-5, 1.44 in 25 starts, allowing only 136 hits in 200 innings. He then pitched well for Tidewater in both 1964 and 1965 and was done in baseball after one Double-A appearance in 1966.
1958-1961 Waterloo Hawks, affiliated with the Boston Red Sox: The Hawks weren't great in the first half of 1958, but they won the second half and then won the league title. In 1959, led by Galen Cisco, they finished 76-48 and won both halves, capturing the title again. In 1960, they posted an 81-43 record, winning both halves for a third straight MWL championship. And in 1961, they won the first half... but lost both the second half and the league playoffs to the Quincy Giants.