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On the fast track: Blue Jays' ties to WNY boosted by Bisons' affiliation

It’s been 20 years since Joe Carter’s walk-off home run clinched the Toronto Blue Jays’ last World Series championship. They haven’t made it back to the playoffs since, but a flurry trades of, a new manager and a highly touted GM make them serious contenders to unseat the Yankees and Red Sox atop the AL East, and it’s happening just in time to re-energize their connection to WNY as parent club of the Buffalo Bisons.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Can it really be that long? Is it really nearly 20 years since the swing that resonated across the baseball world became a piece of Canadian lore? Since the exaltation “Touch ’em all, Joe!” from the baritone of the late Tom Cheek became a clarion call for a franchise?

It is. Twenty years. And since that night in October 1993, when Joe Carter’s ninth-inning home run won the World Series for the Toronto Blue Jays for the second straight year, they’ve never been back to the postseason. But under the chill of a Southern Ontario winter – and through the bizarre chill of a 2013 Florida spring – the Blue Jays have announced to everyone who listened that they’re back, with their words and their actions.

After a flurry of trades, the Blue Jays are the talk of baseball, a favorite to unseat the Yankees and Red Sox as the power brokers in the American League East and to jump past the
built-by-prospects Rays and Orioles.

Quite a time for them to reconnect to Buffalo.

If you’re a Western New York child of the ’70s like me, there’s a good chance you went to your first big-league games at old Exhibition Stadium. Maybe plunked down $2 – Canadian! – for those bleachers in left field that were the only covered seats in a bizarre stadium meant for football. Journeymen like Otto Velez and Bob Bailor were stars for a franchise that averaged 106 losses its first three years after it was born in 1977.

Through the years, Buffalo fans have made many drives to the Ex and then the Rogers Centre, nee SkyDome. During the glory years of 1983-1993, when the Blue Jays were in contention every year, they counted folks from Western New York as a key side segment of their fan base as an astonishing 4 million annually broke through the Dome doors.

In later years, the trips continued even though they were largely to watch the other team. Especially the Yankees, Red Sox and Indians, who featured many former beloved Bisons.
Through 36 seasons of Blue Jays baseball and 28 years of modern-era Triple-A ball in Buffalo, the franchises had officially never been joined. That changes in 2013.
It’s World Series or bust for the Blue Jays. And the Bisons feel it’s time to get serious again about a Governors’ Cup run, to end their eight-year playoff drought and erase the indignity of four rough seasons with the downtrodden Mets.

Perhaps the biggest acquisition of the winter by the Blue Jays sees the symmetry in all of this. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey was just some typical journeyman when he arrived in minor-league camp as the first cut by the Mets in 2010. He came to Buffalo, came within one batter of a perfect game and was gone for three magical seasons in the big leagues with New York that culminated in last year’s National League Cy Young Award.

Lo and behold, Dickey gets traded to Toronto and can give plenty of folks in the Jays’ clubhouse some first-hand knowledge about things 90 miles to the south.

“Buffalo was a neat place for me because that’s the last minor-league city I’ve ever seen and, of course, hopefully ever will see,” Dickey told me last week in the Blue Jays’ right-field clubhouse at quaint Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. “I really enjoyed my time there so much. I think it’s the perfect place for a Blue Jays affiliate and it’s fairly poetic to say here I am playing for the Blue Jays after having left Buffalo three years ago and having it be such an important place in my career.”

Glory days

There are framed Toronto newspaper covers in a clubhouse meeting room and none is from later than 1993. There’s a reason. You celebrate excellence in the standings and the postseason.
Slugger Jose Bautista told Toronto reporters earlier in the spring expectations are just for paper and put it in stark terms for the Globe & Mail: “You don’t see any banners at Yankee Stadium the years they didn’t make it to the playoffs.”

From 1983 to ’93, the Blue Jays won the World Series twice, won the AL East five times and lost it two other times in the last week. Then closer Duane Ward suffered a career-ending shoulder injury, the player strike came and killed fan interest, the team got old and the Canadian dollar tanked.

Cito Gaston, the manager who won both Series titles, told me last September in Buffalo he felt things would go on forever but that players inevitably got old. But after Carter’s ball went over the wall, it seemed like the good times would never end.

“Being from California, when that happened, after the ’93 season I said to myself, ‘This is like Dodgers East,’” recalled longtime radio play-by-play man Jerry Howarth, who is entering his 33rd season. “Because the Dodgers for years were that team. It was playoff run after playoff run after playoff run.”

But in the mid-’90s, the front office mostly failed to keep the roster up to par and the Yankees and Red Sox pulled away. The culture is different again under GM Alex Anthopoulos.

Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio all came in the big trade with Miami. Dickey came from the Mets. But it’s not like this is going to be Marlins North, circa 2012. There were already parts here like Bautista, a former 50-home run man, and Edwin Encarnacion, who has hit 40. Third baseman Brett Lawrie opens on the disabled list but is a budding star.
“Alex is a genius and he would not want to hear that but the real competition is not on the field, it’s among the general managers,” Howarth said. “And the Blue Jays now can compete with anybody in baseball.”

The feeling is loose. Lot of big names, not a lot of egos. Most of the players have something to prove, especially in the wake of disappointments in Toronto and Miami.

“The vibe has been great during spring,” said starter Brandon Morrow. “Guys have been playing great. You can see in the last week or so guys turning it on and you see that starting lineup in there. I’m excited.”

“It’s not an egotistical clubhouse. It’s real down to earth,” said Jim Negrych, the St. Francis product who spent much of the spring in big-league camp and will open at second base for the Bisons. “They have a lot of guys that are confident in their abilities, guys that have ample big-league time. They’re confident in their ability.”

One reason it’s loose is the folksy, down-home style of manager John Gibbons, far less uptight than predecessor John Farrell.

“A lot of guys came in to try to make a good impression on Gibby,” said Bisons manager Marty Brown. “He’s a very relaxed guy and doesn’t put pressure on players. If you can’t play relaxed for him in that setting he puts forth, it’s going to be pretty hard for you.”

Like parent, like child

There are framed copies of The Buffalo News in the Bisons’ clubhouse, too. Just like the parent, none is from later than 2004 because there have been no championship celebrations since then. What does being with a winning parent do for the Bisons? Just look at the difference in the years the Herd was part of the Cleveland Indians.

The Mets were going nowhere, had financial issues and struggled to put good teams in Buffalo. But Triple-A was really the least of their concerns as the big club suffered as well.

When they were with Cleveland, the Bisons went to the playoffs nine times in the first 11 years of their affiliation. While the stretch from 1988 to 1993 at then-Pilot Field is the golden era of baseball in Buffalo in terms of fan and media interest, the period from 1995 to 2005 is the golden era on the field highlighted by league championships in 1997, 1998 and 2004.

And Bisons contributed on the national stage, too, with the Indians. Think of Herb Perry making a sparkling defensive play to keep Game Three of the 1995 World Series against Atlanta tied in the ninth inning. Think Brian Giles hauling in the final out in Game Five of the ’97 division series against the Yankees, Brian Anderson’s three-inning save in Game Four in the ’97 World Series against the Florida Marlins or Chad Ogea’s two wins in that series.

Send it all forward to 2007, when a team that was essentially the Buffalo Bisons Alumni nearly won the World Series. The manager (Eric Wedge), pitching coach (Carl Willis), bench coach (Jeff Datz) and third-base coach (Joel Skinner) had all come through Buffalo. So had the trainer (Rick Jameyson) and a broadcaster (Jim Rosenhaus). The general manager (Mark Shapiro) was the farm director who had built Buffalo’s title team 10 years earlier.

The lineup featured ex-Bisons Jhonny Peralta, Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, Ryan Garko and Franklin Gutierrez. Fausto Carmona won 19 games in the rotation. Rafael Betancourt, Rafael Perez, Tom Mastny, Jensen Lewis and Fernando Cabrera were key guys in the bullpen. All went through Buffalo.

The Indians celebrated on the field and in the clubhouse of old Yankee Stadium after winning the division series in Joe Torre’s final game in the Bronx. They had a 3-1 lead in the ALCS but dropped the final game to the Red Sox with a stale Colorado team sitting for nine days before the start of the World Series.

In more than 130 years of organized professional baseball, no group of players with Buffalo roots had ever come closer to winning a World Series together. It will take years for the Blue Jays to build a similar scenario here but that remains the goal.

In for the long haul

When they signed with Buffalo last September, Jays CEO Paul Beeston said it was a two-year deal Toronto hoped would become a 42-year deal. Bisons owner Bob Rich Jr. is in his 70s now and was emphatic this was the last parent club he wanted to sign with.

The Blue Jays signed nearly two dozen minor-league free agents. They want to win in Triple-A and know they have to so they can stay for the long haul. But it’s always tenuous.

“I remember in 2010 we broke camp with New York and put an absolute squad up there,” said catcher Josh Thole, who returns to Buffalo this season. “We were winning early in the season, there were some games where there were people there and the place was going crazy. Then we started losing and the fans just stopped coming.

“The people really cared and they were upset. When things weren’t going well, they would boo. That’s hard to do in Triple-A.”

The Bisons and Blue Jays are hoping for a lot of good feelings and plenty of cross-marketing chances and attendance is almost certain to improve in both places. Dickey laughed when I reminded him he’s the subject of a bobblehead night in Buffalo on July 24 in Coca-Cola Field, calling it “a real honor” and “something kind of cool.”

Then he turned serious, pointing out how he felt the Bisons had a chance to have a stacked roster and provide plenty of reinforcements.

“If that’s what they have, that means our team is pretty good up here,” Dickey said. “It’s great to have depth throughout the organization. I can guarantee you we’re not going to win a World Series without being able to call Buffalo and have people from Triple-A able to help. It just doesn’t work. They’re going to be vital to our chances this year.”

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