Believe it or not, the Bisons' second-last homestand of the season began Friday night at North AmeriCare Park. That also means time is dwindling to vote for the NAP's 10-year anniversary team.
There are 78 players and five managers on the ballot, all from the period since the 1-0 Opening Day win over the Denver Zephyrs on April 14, 1988. Winners will be announced during the final homestand.
The names include 28 of the 48 ex-Bisons from the NAP era who were on 1997 opening-day rosters in the major leagues. Choices are tough, even before you think about writing in Jeff Manto at third base.
Manto has a shot at the franchise home run record of 30 and an American Association MVP award. All that while playing only a half-season. I'm not ready to cross off my first choice in favor of Manto -- yet. Here's a look at this corner's checked-off ballot:
Manager: It's between Anaheim Angels manager Terry Collins (1989-1991) and current Buffalo skipper Brian Graham, who is challenging Collins' club record of 246 wins. Collins had to make many more moves managing a National League affiliate and also dealt with the monumental distractions caused by the impending major-league expansion decision. Voting now, he gets the pick. Graham has a good case if he breaks the record (he entered the weekend 18 wins shy) and gives the franchise its first Association title.
Starting pitchers (pick three): Go with the top three in wins and it's easy. That's Rick Reed (35-18 from 1988-1991), Dorn Taylor (34-22 from 1988-1990) and Joe Roa (28-11 in 1995-1996). All of them were almost automatic at home, too. It's great to see Reed and Roa finally get their big-league shots with the Mets and Giants, respectively.
Relief pitchers (pick three): Tony Menendez had a franchise-record 24 saves for the mediocre '93 club, so he gets one vote. Blas Minor's career-record 29 saves, including 18 for the '92 team, gets No. 2. The third goes to Danny Graves, who had a remarkable 19 saves and 1.48 ERA in 43 games last season.
Catcher: A runaway for Tom Prince (1988-92), who's now with the Dodgers. He's the only player to appear in five Association seasons in Buffalo and thus leads the franchise in games (400), RBIs (179) and home runs (42, tied with Russ Morman). We'll never forget his home run to win the Pilot Field opener and it's hard to imagine we'll see a better defensive catcher in Triple-A. He deserves to be the first NAP-era Bison inducted to the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame.
First base: Morman had a terrific 1993 season (.320-22-77), but the team stumbled to a 71-73 finish. The pick goes to Orlando Merced, who was solid in 1990 (.259-9-55) after bursting on the scene here in 1989. Merced, now with the Blue Jays, hit .341 in 35 games that year after getting a callup from Double-A Harrisburg along with second baseman Kevin Burdick. Until Manto's arrival, no in-season acquisition helped more.
Second base: Just back from Cleveland, 36-year-old Casey Candaele (1995-97) has had loads of success here. He ended the '95 season with a 15-game hitting streak and hit .311 in 94 games here last year. When he left for the Indians, the '96 Buffalo clubhouse lost its soul.
Shortstop: Wow. Absolutely the toughest call. Damian Jackson has been an acrobat the last two years and who could have imagined he'd turn into a .300 hitter? Carlos Garcia (1990-1992) is in the top five in seven major Buffalo offensive categories. Felix Fermin (1988) and Jay Bell (1989) were both standouts.
But the choice goes to Bill Ripken, the most valuable player of the 1995 Buffalo club that fell one win short of a championship. Ripken hit .292 with 34 doubles and 56 RBIs, made highlight-film plays in the field and was the pulse of a wacky clubhouse. And he it did it all while not bemoaning his fate of being stuck in the minors and dealing with the day-to-day hounding from national media as brother Cal approached Lou Gehrig's record.
Third base: Manto is creeping up and Don Sparks' 151-hit 1996 season ranks high, too. But Kevin Young's ascent through the Pittsburgh chain climaxed with his 1992 season that saw him hit .314 with a franchise-record 154 hits. Young's all-around improvement is akin to what we've seen from Jackson.
Outfielders (pick three): Al Martin's 1992 season is the best all-around campaign any Bison has had since the park opened. It was the kind of breakthrough year that told Pittsburgh he could someday be the building block he's become. A .305 average. Sixteen doubles, a franchise-record 15 triples and 20 home runs. Twenty stolen bases. Strong defense.
Greg Tubbs (1991-92-94) is the franchise leader in runs, hits, triples, walks and stolen bases. He sparked back-to-back August surges that produced a 47-17 record and consecutive division championships, culminating both of them by catching the division-clinching out.
Those two seem obvious. After that, I'll go with Brian Giles (1995-96), whose terrific defense was often lost in a .311 batting average that's second in franchise annals, 35 home runs and 131 RBIs.
Close behind Giles are Moises Alou (who only played 76 games but was a defensive star in 1990), Association RBI leader Jeromy Burnitz (1995), Albert Hall (1989-90) and Nigel Wilson (1996).
Designated hitter: Mark Ryal won the 1990 batting title at .334 but Brian Dorsett's amazing 1992 season gets the nod. His 102-RBI campaign was the first in triple digits for a Bison since 1962.
Utilityman: Scott Little (1988-91), Keith Miller (1991), John Wehner (1991-94) and Torey Lovullo (1995-97) were all key to their clubs' success. In a tough choice, Miller is the pick. He played everywhere for Buffalo's first division champion and led it in both home runs (nine -- yes those fences used to be a long way away) and RBIs (68).