Joel Skinner left War Memorial Stadium for Chicago's Comiskey Park in 1985 and hasn't seen baseball in Buffalo since. He's never even caught a glimpse of Dunn Tire Park. That will change come April, when the former Bisons catcher takes over as the team's manager for the 2000 season.
"It seems like just yesterday I was there," Skinner said Thursday at Jacobs Field after the parent Cleveland Indians announced his promotion from Double-A Akron to Buffalo. "You look forward to challenges and I think managing in Triple-A will be that. Buffalo is a good fit for me."
Skinner, 38, has been the manager in Akron the last two years, posting records of 81-60 in 1998 and 69-71 this season after his club was decimated by call-ups to the Bisons due to the rash of injuries in Cleveland.
Skinner becomes the first modern-era Bison to return to manage the team. He was the No. 1 catcher on the 1985 club, Buffalo's first Triple-A team since 1970. Skinner hit .241 for the Bisons that season with 12 homers and 59 RBIs in 115 games.
He replaces Jeff Datz, who has been promoted to field coordinator for the entire Cleveland system after posting a 153-134 record in two seasons as Buffalo manager. Included was the Herd's 1998 International League championship and this year's 72-72 finish.
Datz will be involved with coordinating on-field policy between the major and minor leagues in areas such as fall instructional league, spring training and player evaluations.
"We're pleased to have Joel come back to Buffalo," said Bisons vice president/general manager Mike Buczkowski. "His managerial record is impressive and we're optimistic he will continue our winning tradition. The Bisons wish Jeff Datz continued success and thank him for bringing a championship to Buffalo."
Skinner's new post will mark his sixth straight year as a manager in the Indians chain, and he has a 364-277 record. He was Baseball Weekly's minor league manager of the year in 1998 and his best record was 87-53 in 1997 at Class A Kinston.
As a player, his major league career lasted 564 games from 1983-1991 with the White Sox, Yankees and Indians. He had a career batting average of .228, but a fielding percentage of .988.
"He has tremendous passion for the game and a great rapport with his players," said Neal Huntington, Cleveland's director of player development. "The knowledge of his craft is impeccable."
Next year's Bisons should have several of the players Skinner has managed in Double-A the last two seasons, including outfielders Scott Morgan and Mark Budzinski, and infielders Chan Perry, Russell Branyan and Marcos Scutaro.
"It's good to know a lot of the players and the way they handle success and adversity," Skinner said. "But I understand Triple-A is a different animal. A lot of players have their story for being there and not in the big leagues. You have to make sure they realize their manager is interested in their career."
"I loved playing for 'Skins,' " said Cleveland shortstop John McDonald, who has played parts of the last three seasons with Skinner. "He's a coach who looks after you. He knew when to give me a day off, when to say a few things to me or just leave me alone."
"Good for 'Skins," added Indians pitcher Jim Brower, who was 13-5 for Skinner last year at Akron and was an 11-game winner for the Bisons this season. "He knows at Double-A and Triple-A that you'll have down periods, but it helps that he's so positive to play for."
Skinner lived on Grand Island when he played for the Herd in 1985 and his wife, Jennifer, was pregnant with his oldest child, Kate. He said life at War Memorial was never dull because of the stadium's colorful cast of characters -- some real-life and others imagined.
"We always had a good laugh looking out to left field seeing the steps and silhouettes painted on the concrete," he said, referring to leftovers from the 1983 filming of "The Natural." "If you blurred your eyes just enough, you pictured a whole bunch of people out there. It was the old Rockpile and it had all kinds of character."