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CLEVELAND SAYS DATZ THE GUY TO MANAGE '98 BISONS

New Bisons manager Jeff Datz understands eyebrows might be raised at his promotion to Triple-A after he endured a 51-90 season this year at Double-A Akron. That's why he's already made a New Year's resolution.

"Dec. 31 is coming and I can put '97 behind me and start '98. That's how I look at it," Datz said Friday in North AmeriCare Park after being introduced as the Herd's new manager. "If I didn't learn from last year, shame on me.

"I don't put any pressure on myself but it makes me more anxious to get to April, to have some fun and enjoy the game again."

Datz, 38, replaces Brian Graham, who has been named the Cleveland Indians' director of instruction after setting a Buffalo franchise record with 253 wins the last three seasons. Graham led the '97 Bisons to the American Association championship in their final season in the league.

In addition to Cleveland's hiring of Datz, the Bisons announced that pitching coach Gary Ruby, coach Dave Keller and trainer Lee Kuntz will all return for the club's first International League season since 1970. It will be Kuntz's fourth year in Buffalo, Ruby's third and Keller's second.

Cleveland didn't hold the Aeros' collapse against Datz. Akron was brutal defensively because it had no true prospects in the middle infield, and the pitching was decimated by injuries and promotions to Buffalo.

The Aeros had a team ERA of 5.26 last season, allowing 141 unearned runs and issuing 588 walks. By contrast, the Bisons' ERA was 3.66, the Herd yielded just 83 unearned runs and walked 469.

Things were no easier off the field. The Aeros moved into a new downtown stadium, Canal Park, and led all of Double-A in attendance by selling more than 7,000 tickets per game. But several ballpark issues became the subject of a messy public squabble between owner Mike Agganis and mayor Don Plusquellic. At one point, the mayor even threatened to evict the Aeros in the middle of the season.

"Every day it seemed it was one or two or three things causing a hassle and a headache," Datz admitted. "The Indians have been nothing but great to me. They knew coming out of spring it would be tough in Akron.

"It would have been easy for them to say, 'Wow, 40 games under. Maybe we better make another move.' I'm glad they didn't and I'm here to prove they made the right move."

"Jeff is a no-nonsense guy and I think he'll do a great job there," Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove told The News this week. "He hasn't had a lot of success at Double-A, but there's been a lot of turnover there with injuries and sending people to Buffalo. I think people in Buffalo are going to be happy. I know we're looking forward to him in that job."

Datz has a career managerial record of 250-249 in four seasons, starting with a 48-26 mark in 1994 at Class A Watertown and 80-62 in 1995 at Class A Columbus (Ga.). He slipped to 71-71 in 1996 at Double-A Canton-Akron before suffering through the '97 disaster.

Datz did, however, have a part in the Bisons' title. Fifteen players on last season's Buffalo club spent some time with him in Akron. That list was topped by first baseman Sean Casey, whose 10th-inning home run clinched the title for Buffalo in Game Three of the American Association Championship Series in Iowa.

Datz, who has a reputation of being rigid with his young players, admits one of his biggest challenges in moving to Triple-A will be dealing with veterans who have already earned time in the majors and will be more self-motivated.

"I think it will be better because it will be a mature group," he said. "You don't have the problems you have with kids, like telling guys to go out and work early. . . . These guys here know how close they are (to Cleveland). I don't think I'll have to put on the schedule to come out early."

Datz's major-league career consisted of seven games with Detroit in 1989. He spent parts of three seasons at Triple-A Columbus in the Yankees chain and also played Triple-A in Tucson (Houston) and Toledo (Detroit). He was a visiting player at the NAP with both Toledo in 1988 and Columbus in 1990.

"He's highly recommended and highly regarded by everybody from Cleveland," said Herd general manager Mike Buczkowski. "We know and Cleveland knows next year is an important season for us with the return to the International League and what better way than to have a former (IL) player leading our club."

"I was talking to one of my friends and he told me there are 30 major-league organizations and if you can't be in the big leagues, Buffalo is the 31st place to be," Datz said. "I agree with that. This has been a first-class, top-shelf franchise for a long, long time. I'm looking forward to being here."

Datz had four veterans added to his roster Friday, as Cleveland announced the signings of pitchers Marcus Moore, Ben Blomdahl and Rheal Cormier and infielder Torey Lovullo. All except Cormier played with the Herd last year.

Moore was 5-3, 2.54 with Buffalo and set a franchise record with 14 strikeouts against Louisville, Blomdahl was 7-8, 4.76, but had a win and a save in the playoffs, and Lovullo hit .440 in the playoffs and was the most valuable player of the championship series.

Cormier, 31, pitched one game for Montreal last year before undergoing tendon transplant surgery. He is 38-39, 4.14 in seven seasons with St. Louis, Boston and Montreal.

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