Eric Wedge came to Buffalo in 2001 as a curiosity in the Bisons’ dugout, a 33-year-old manager who was even younger than a couple of his players. He left after two seasons as a rising star in the Cleveland Indians’ chain.
And now, after 10 years as a big-league manager who has experienced the twists and turns of life, Wedge is back again tonight to take his place in the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame.
Wedge will become just the third modern-era skipper inducted into the Hall in ceremonies prior to the game against the Durham Bulls in Coca-Cola Field. He will be joined by former Buffalo outfielder Greg Tubbs and legendary Western New York scout Bob Miske.
Wedge led the Bisons to a 178-108 record in 2001-02, a .622 winning percentage that’s the best in the modern era. He directed the Indians from 2003 to 2009, earning American League Manager of the Year honors in 2007 when the Tribe got within one game of the World Series, and spent the last three years managing in Seattle before joining ESPN this year as a baseball analyst.
Wedge met his wife, Kate, when he was managing in Buffalo and has two children with the Alden native – Ava (8) and Cash (6). They returned to Western New York after Wedge left Seattle last September and are living in Lancaster.
Wedge has earned nearly a dozen Hall of Fame honors, including accolades from the Indiana High School Baseball Association and his college alma mater at Wichita State University. But he said this is a particularly special one.
“With Kate being from here, I’ll forever have ties,” Wedge said. “That makes this even more important. So I was flattered to get the call. It was something I was really excited about. And this is an organization with a storied history so it’s humbling.
“The one thing I loved about Buffalo is that the Bisons are good people who run a good organization and who care about the right things. They’re vested in the community. I love that. It’s a reason we’re living here right now because of the atmosphere in this community.”
A special season
The 2001 Bisons under Wedge went 91-51 – posting their most wins since 1936, and taking the International League North by 13½ games. They started 6-0 and never looked back, enduring just one three-game losing streak the entire season.
It was a team featuring veterans like Orchard Park’s Dave Hollins, Karim Garcia, Greg LaRocca, Chris Coste and Tim Laker, as well as big Cleveland prospects like Dave Roberts, Mike Bacsik, Tim Drew, Jake Westbrook and David Riske.
But the Bisons had six players called up to Cleveland in the final week of the season and lost an excruciating five-game IL semifinal series to Scranton. The decisive Game Five was a 6-2 defeat in 19 innings, still the longest game in the ballpark’s history.
“I have no doubt in my mind that we could have run the table and won it all with that group,’’ Roberts said last year prior to his own induction. “We were the best team in the league by far. I truly believe that. ‘Wedgie’ just did a great job making us believe from day one in him and in ourselves.”
Buffalo went 87-57 the next year although it did not win the IL North as Scranton took the title. But the Bisons turned the fortunes in the playoffs with a three-game sweep of the Red Barons, only to be swept themselves by Durham in the IL finals.
Wedge played 39 big-league games for Boston and Colorado from 1991 to 1994 and retired as a player following the 1997 season with Scranton. He started managing the next year, moving up a level each a season in the Cleveland chain.
“I always felt I was ready to go forward each year,” said Wedge. “Buffalo was the first level I repeated and I thought that was real important, a real good thing for me. The first year was a dream, just some great players. The second year was much more difficult, but guys really battled hard.
“I’m a big believer in intangibles, and I had a lot of guys in the minor leagues in Cleveland or who went to other places. The work we put in really stood the test of time.”
The 19-inning loss to Scranton in ’01 came with a sobering life twist. It ended just 33 hours before the 9/11 attacks and the Bisons would have been stuck in Louisville, facing a long ride home after the cancellation of the finals, had they won the game.
“I was sitting in my apartment in Buffalo on 9/11 and I was supposed to meet the big club in Toronto,” Wedge said. “I just hung out for a few days while baseball tried to figure everything out like we all had to. The world sure changed in that week.”
The Buffalo Tribe
Wedge graduated to Cleveland in 2003 with many of his players and was a big-league manager at age 35. In 2005, the Tribe went 93-69 and lost the AL Central on the second-last day of the season to the Chicago White Sox.
By 2007, the Indians were basically Buffalo West and became winners.
They won the division by going 96-66 with a team led by Wedge and many players from Buffalo like Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, Travis Hafner, Ryan Garko and Fausto Carmona. Other Bisons alums included the pitching coach (Carl Willis), bench coach (Jeff Datz), third-base coach (Joel Skinner), a trainer (Rick Jameyson) and a broadcaster (Jim Rosenhaus).
“That was pretty special the way we did it,” Wedge said. “It was truly organizational and they all came through Buffalo. It’s something you always remember.”
The Indians clinched the division series in old Yankee Stadium in Joe Torre’s final game in the Bronx and had a 3-1 lead on the Red Sox in the ALCS before Boston came back to win the final three games. The Sox then beat Colorado in the World Series. The next two years, the Indians traded CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee and couldn’t contend.
“I take all pride out of ’07 and don’t think about what-ifs,” Wedge said. “We got close to that World Series and we were in great position. I felt we still could have been dominant the next 3-4 years, but things couldn’t work out. It’s nobody’s fault. That’s just how it went.”
A year to forget
Wedge was 561-573 in Cleveland, falling below .500 only because of a 65-97 record in 2009 that ended with his dismissal. He went just 213-273 the last three years in Seattle, never winning more than 75 games.
Last season was a turbulent one, both personally and professionally. Prior to a July 22 game in Safeco Field, against the Indians no less, Wedge started to feel dizzy. He went to the hospital and, a couple of days later, learned he had suffered a mild stroke.
It was rooted in blood pressure, diet, lack of exercise and mostly in undiagnosed sleep apnea. Wedge now sleeps with a mask and light oxygen tube and said his health is better than it’s been for a while.
“My heart was actually stopping and my blood pressure was spiking,” said Wedge, who missed 27 games. “The doctor said I was fortunate, that it could have been ‘game over’ real easy.”
Through it all, Wedge was burning about the dysfunction in Seattle that led to him announcing he was not returning on the final weekend of last season.
In December, Wedge blasted Mariners General Manager Jack Zduriencik, CEO Howard Lincoln and outgoing team President Chuck Armstrong in an explosive Seattle Times story that made national news.
Wedge detailed interference from Lincoln and Armstrong, including their demands that pitchers – including ace Felix Hernandez – throw live batting practice between starts. He said they were not committed to rebuilding with young prospects, like Wedge had done in Cleveland, and created a culture of fear and mistrust throughout the organization.
“I left peacefully but after two months what I did by speaking out I think has helped a lot of people there,” he said. “Not just within baseball but employees as well. The measure of a human being is your character and how you treat other people, and it’s not just about sports.
“I’m smart enough to know I would take a hit by doing it, but I would help other people and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m curious how it will be perceived down the road but so be it. You have to do what you believe.”
Behind the mic
Wedge is spending this season working for ESPN, doing some game analysis and plenty of studio work for “Baseball Tonight.” The network has given him a flexible schedule a few weeks in advance for him to commute for a few days at a time to Bristol, Conn.
“ESPN is an amazing place and I’ve enjoyed it, right through the production process prior to the show,” he said. “I’ve always been intrigued by it because I had to deal with the media every day. It’s been a smooth transition and I feel like I have something to offer.”
But he still has an eye on returning to the dugout. He interviewed with the Chicago Cubs last winter and it’s likely he’ll stay on teams’ radar.
“I chose to leave Seattle for all the right reasons ,and I definitely hope to have another chance to manage again,” he said. “I look back on my time so far with nothing but pride and really believe I’m far from finished.”