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HERD'S RUN CASTS DATZ IN NEW LIGHT

Bisons manager Jeff Datz said it's going to take a while for everything to sink in.

The comeback from eight games out of first place to a North Division title in the last 27 games. The sweep of Syracuse and Game Five win at Durham that produced a Governors' Cup championship. The four-game loss to New Orleans in the inaugural Triple-A World Series at Las Vegas.

For a guy whose promotion to Buffalo was ridiculed last winter after a 51-90 season at Double-A Akron, Datz's debut in Triple-A ended in dramatic fashion.

"Those guys in that clubhouse made my season," Datz said Sunday after the team held a rally at North AmeriCare Park to celebrate its International League title. "We as a staff can talk and preach and hammer and coach but they went out and executed."

The Bisons found consistency in the second half and went on to a championship that made Datz, 38, the first Bison manager to win a title in his first year since Pat Donovan did it in 1915.

With ex-Bison Joel Skinner on the rise in the Cleveland chain (he managed Akron to the Eastern League playoffs this year), the prevailing school of thought was that Datz's stay in Buffalo might last just one season.

The championship has, however, altered that thinking and it's close to a shoo-in that Datz will head the Herd again in 1999.

"It looks like I'll be back here barring some drastic changes in the organization," Datz said. "I'm very happy about that. We had a great run this year."

Datz is heading to New York this week to serve as an Indians' advance scout at the Yankees-Rangers playoff series. He has turned down an offer to manage winter ball in Venezuela so he and his wife, Stacey, can spend time at home in New Jersey. He said much of the winter will be spent at a beach house in Ocean City.

"It's only from here to the pitcher's mound to the ocean," Datz said, pointing to his office desk. "That's going to be nice. Very quiet. That's when everything that's happened here will hit us."

Bisons fans were tough on Datz this year, especially as the team struggled to a 30-33 start. Even when the team was red-hot down the stretch, a Datz visit to the mound often prompted hoots and catcalls not in evidence the last three years when Brian Graham was in charge.

"I hope Jeff gets the respect he deserves because there were nights he took a beating from the fans," said Buffalo infielder Torey Lovullo, who'll become a free agent after the World Series. "When you're at point-blank range, you hear loud and clear what's said.

"Frankly, Jeff did a great job. Every manager can get second-guessed. The bottom line is we were a champion in his first year."

"I know there were a lot of questions coming and people talked about a lot of things that happened last year (at Akron)," Datz said. "I told (Indians farm director) Mark Shapiro and the people in Cleveland, 'Hey, I've got broad shoulders. I can handle that.' Fortunately, things worked out."

Lovullo, meanwhile, said he's interested in searching for a major league utility job and doesn't expect to find that with Cleveland, even though the Tribe wants to re-sign him.

"Things are to the point where they consider me a Triple-A guy," Lovullo said of the Indians. "I was very grateful for the week I spent there this year, but I couldn't have had a better year (batting .328) and that was the only time I got."

About a dozen players were on hand for the rally, attended by a few hundred fans. Big ovations went to shortstop Jolbert Cabrera (who set a franchise record during the regular season with 157 hits), reliever Jeff Sexton (who earned the save in the IL-clinching win at Durham) and Lovullo, a three-year Bison who is one of the most popular players in franchise history.

Some players headed directly home from Las Vegas, while Jeff Manto, Jacob Cruz and Russell Branyan were absent because they joined the Indians Saturday in Minnesota.

County Executive Gorski and Mayor Masiello briefly addressed the crowd, with Gorski presenting a framed proclamation to general manager Mike Buczkowski dubbing Sunday as "Buffalo Bisons Appreciation Day" in Erie County.

Each player was introduced and reliever Chris Nichting hoisted the Governors' Cup over his head as he mounted a podium erected in front of the Buffalo dugout.

The rally was held on a gloomy afternoon shortly after a rain hit the ballpark. It was a scene reminiscent of last year's American Association championship rally, held through a downpour.

"Here we are a year later in the same conditions except for the rain," Lovullo said in thanking the fans. "You guys are a bunch of animals."

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