I’ve been asked seemingly hundreds of times since last fall what I think of the Buffalo Bisons dumping the New York Mets and taking on the Toronto Blue Jays as their parent. Regular readers know I was in favor of the move — and wrote about it in July of 2011, more than 14 months before it actually happened.
And while I thought it would be a hugely positive move, I was going to hold back my opinion until I saw a season at work. In the interim, those never-stay-quiet Mets fans have been drilling me on Twitter all year about the alleged success of their farm system and how the Las Vegas 51s have been doing this year in the Pacific Coast League.
So what? You can’t possibly compare Vegas, which is battling Sacramento for first place in its division, and say that’s how the Bisons would have been this year. Different league, different ballparks, different parent clubs. No possible comparison.
As for the Blue Jays, they’ve pretty much delivered on their promises. They signed free agents with the intent to win here, put a strong staff in the dugout and have given the Bisons a playoff contender for the first time since 2007. That, in turn, has more folks in the stands making more noise than we’ve had downtown in a while.
Here’s how I judge a few key areas:
Playoff race: The Bisons took the field for Monday’s doubleheader with a half-game lead in the wild-card race with 23 to play. Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos brought Andrew Tinnish, his assistant, to town in November to show him Coca-Cola Field and had a blunt message for Tinnish: “See this place? We have to win here.”
The Blue Jays delivered on that and Buffalo fans can enjoy August for the first time in years. Come Wednesday night, in fact, the Bisons and first-place Rochester Red Wings will stage their most important head-to-head series since the 1961 Governors’ Cup finals.
In fact, there’s a good chance the teams would meet in the first round of this year’s playoffs since the North Division winner and wild-card draw the semifinal matchup.
Staff: The Buffalo front office really liked Mets-era managers Ken Oberkfell, Tim Teufel and Wally Backman. All three worked tirelessly and took losing hard. But there was no doubt, dating all the way back to his visit last year as the PCL manager for the Triple-A All-Star Game, that the front office cherished a chance to get Marty Brown back as skipper.
Best remembered for walking the Governors’ Cup around the warning track for fans to touch on championship-clinching night here in 2004, Brown has been his old self in becoming the franchise’s modern-era victory leader and its first 300-game winner since 1965.
And the Blue Jays didn’t stop with Brown either. Having a pitching coach with the kind of big-league experience that Bob Stanley has is a real coup in Triple-A. Same with hitting coach Jon Nunnally, who also has extensive experience as a big-league player and coach.
Players: Tinnish did a great job signing minor-league free agents (think Jim Negrych, Luis Jimenez, Andy LaRoche, Munenori Kawasaki and several pitchers). And the Blue Jays have really succeeded where the Mets failed in helping the roster during the season. IL home run leader Mauro Gomez and top starter Thad Weber were waiver pickups. So was veteran pitcher Chien-Ming Wang. Outfielder Kevin Pillar was a Double-A callup who has been more than ready to go at this level.
The Blue Jays have been terrific in sending rehab players here as well. Jose Reyes’ weekend was the highest-attended four-game series since 2001. Buffalo fans have also seen big names like Melky Cabrera, J.A. Happ and Josh Johnson, while Brett Lawrie played on the road.
Prospects: The Jays are a little thin here but the Mets had few strong positional players either. Outfielder Anthony Gose and Moises Sierra have shown their huge talent but have been guilty of plenty of braincramps, too. One of the worst all season came in the seventh inning of Monday’s opener, when Sierra ran the Herd out of a potential game-tying rally by foolishly trying to go first-to-third when his run meant nothing.
When Sierra wonders why he’s not in Toronto, Brown and the Blue Jays brass can simply roll out of the video of that play. Can’t happen. Unheralded prior to the season was infielder Ryan Goins, who has played a mean shortstop and will finish with more than 50 RBIs.
Attendance: Entering Monday’s twinbill, the Bisons were fifth in the IL in attendance with an average of 7,773 per opening and a total of 419,757. They have been seventh in the league the last two years.
Not counting last year’s two Triple-A All-Star crowds, the Bisons are up roughly 400 a date in what’s been a rough weather year (fewest number of openings since 2007). One of the rainouts was a killer, a crowd in the 13-14,000 range that was going to be on hand for the annual Kids Day game June 6.
The Bisons had six crowds under 7,000 last August, and the expectation is they won’t have anywhere near that this year so the final count might push close to a 1,000 more per game. The last seven home dates prior to Monday, in fact, averaged 9,508 (all figures, remember, are tickets sold).
There’s no question there’s been lots of Blue Jays gear in the audience. Canadians had no interest in the Bisons when the Mets were here. Not the case anymore.