Thank heavens for August.
The final full month of the season gave Buffalo Bisons fans reason to hope their team could become the first Triple-A club to win three straight championships in the '90s. The Herd went 19-10, nearly erasing the four previous months of frustration.
Injuries and the weight of trying to pass three teams in the International League North eventually were too much and Buffalo finished 72-72, missing the playoffs for the first time since 1994.
The Bisons went 22-12 over their final 34 games, and were tied or led in seven of those losses. They were hopeful of being within four games when they hit eventual North champion Scranton last Friday for back-to-back doubleheaders, but simply ran out of time.
Still, the late rush gave fans plenty of reasons to think the Herd could be back in the playoff hunt next year. Here's a look back at the Bisons' season:
Jeff Manto and Chan Perry manned first base. Marcos Scutaro was a rock at second. John McDonald was an acrobat at short. Perry, Scutaro and McDonald will likely form the core of the Buffalo infield next year.
Two-year Bison Bill Selby began the year as a utility man and ended it as the club's MVP. He hit 20 home runs for the first time since he was in Class A and led the team with 85 RBIs. He played six positions (mostly designated hitter, and second and third base) and hit in six different slots in the batting order. He even became just the third player in Dunn Tire Park history to clear the right-field bleachers.
Third baseman Russell Branyan. Cleveland's No. 1 prospect, was perhaps the biggest bust in modern Bisons history. Branyan was an enigma as great as Wes Chamberlain and Midre Cummings, two alleged prospects the Pittsburgh Pirates foisted on Buffalo fans in the early '90s.
Branyan batted just .206, struck out 187 times in 399 at-bats and hit just one of his 30 home runs after July 22. He didn't take well to instruction. He even came up with a bad wrist in a late-season game at Syracuse and declared himself too sore to play for the season's final 10 games.
The injury was considered dubious by most in the Buffalo clubhouse, an accusation borne out when Cleveland doctors told Branyan he just had mild tendinitis and cleared him to play the last four games. By then, he had lost his credibility and frittered away a September callup to Cleveland.
Cleveland continues to say Branyan will be a star even when the facts say otherwise. More likely, Tribe deep thinkers don't want to give up on him and have him blossom in another organization, a la Sean Casey, Brian Giles or Jeromy Burnitz. That fear will likely leave him to flail away in Buffalo again next year. Grade: B.
Despite constant shuffling, there was plenty of production.
The season started with Alex Ramirez, David Roberts and Jacob Cruz getting the bulk of the work. All were gone by August, although Roberts still led the IL in triples (10) and finished second in stolen bases (39).
The Bisons were far from hurting even after their departures. Perry and Selby were contributors in left field. Jolbert Cabrera, an all-star at shortstop last season, was not out of place in center. Former big-leaguer Mark Whiten wowed fans with his cannon arm from right.
Two additions from Akron were keys to the August pennant drive and would appear to be 2000 mainstays in the outfield. Scott Morgan struggled at home, but still hit eight homers and collected 30 RBIs in just 48 games. Of greater importance were his combined season numbers at Buffalo and Akron (.274-34-100). Mark Budzinski batted .286 and showed ability in both center and right field. Defensively, however, Morgan's weak arm was a liability.
The lone disappointment was David Miller, who hit just .240 and had only two home runs in his second season here. The former No. 1 draft pick is about out of chances with the Tribe. Grade: B .
Pat Borders, Chris Turner and Steven Soliz made sure there were no major defensive foul-ups to cost the team games in the late innings. Thirty-three percent of opposing runners were thrown out trying to steal, a good figure.
The offense picked up when Cleveland's Sandy Alomar Jr. came down on rehab to collect five extra-base hits and drive in 10 runs in 10 games. That seemed to energize Turner, who went berserk during an August series against Columbus by driving in 12 runs over three games and becoming the first player in stadium history to belt grand slams on consecutive days. Turner hit .318 in August after an 11-for-65 July. Grade: B-.
At the halfway mark, the rotation was a mess. Things were dramatically better in the second half as the Bisons finished second in the IL with a 4.34 team ERA. You could suddenly count on the starters to get into the sixth or seventh inning most nights.
Paul Rigdon was the second-half ace, although red flags are up in Cleveland after an elbow injury suffered in the season's final week. He went 14-4 this year between Buffalo and Akron and could be ready for the bigs next season. Veterans Paul Wagner and Chris Haney both posted ERAs under 4.00, while Jason Rakers started poorly then went 7-4 in his last 11 decisions. Dave Telgheder and Travis Driskill combined for 16 wins while starting and relieving.
Jim Brower went 11-11 while throwing a staff-high 160 innings and earned his first trip to Cleveland. You never quite knew what Brower would provide from game to game, but it was often better than the middle relief anyway. Hot prospect Willie Martinez had one great start, one atrocious one and two middling ones. We'll learn about him next year. Grade: B.
First there was David Stevens, who went to Cleveland with 12 saves and a 1.52 ERA in 20 games. Rich DeLucia sandwiched 19 saves over two stints around the impressive work of David Riske (0.65 ERA, 6 saves in 23 games). Too bad it was so tough to get to them.
The Indians brought in a parade of middle relievers and few of them did the job. The best one was probably Jeff Tam, but he was lost on waivers to the Mets, from whom he had been claimed two months earlier.
The biggest problem was lefty Jimmy Hamilton, who was clearly forced upon the Bisons on orders from Cleveland. Hamilton walked nearly 1 1/2 batters per inning and often acted as if home plate was on Delaware Avenue rather than the corner of Washington and Swan. He ended up traded to Baltimore the last week of the season and, pitching for Rochester, walked two Bisons in the final inning of Monday night's season finale. It was an appropriate ending. Grade: C-.
Most American League affiliates that use the DH every day don't worry much about deep benches and the Bisons were no different. Once Selby and Perry graduated to the everyday lineup, there were few contributions other than Soliz's spot duty. The Bisons did not have a single pinch hit the entire season (0 for 16 with one walk and no RBIs). Grade: D.
In his two seasons in Buffalo, manager Jeff Datz's teams made huge runs in August (going a combined 40-21) after digging themselves big holes. The Bisons climbed out of their hole last year, but couldn't do it again. It says a lot about Datz and his staff that this team didn't quit when it was 10 games under .500 on Aug. 4 and seemingly out of the race.
It would have been nice, however, if the Herd had opened strong instead of limping from the starting gate. All the turmoil coming out of Cleveland sent the Bisons into an early funk that Datz couldn't shake. With all the talent, losing streaks of nine and six games were inexcusable.
The team ERA was a function of the quiet, unassuming job done by pitching coach Ken Rowe, who turned what began as a train wreck of a staff into one of the IL's best. Batting coach Bill Madlock was also a respected clubhouse figure and several players not named Branyan improved under his tutelage.
The staff's status for 2000 remains uncertain. Datz would appear to be in line for a promotion as a minor-league coordinator. Last year's title, the first by a rookie Bison manager since 1915, is the best entry on his resume. Grade: B.
The lowest attendance in ballpark history should put Bison officials in line for a whipping, right?
Perspective, perspective, perspective. Buffalo has sold more tickets than any franchise in the minors for 12 years running. Its Opening Day crowd was the biggest in the minors and its Fan Appreciation Night outdrew six major league clubs playing on a Sunday afternoon. That's heady stuff.
A ballpark that opened in 1988 is no longer a novelty. There was no Chippewa Street entertainment district back then, and the Thursday at the Square concert series was in its infancy. Those have become destinations tough to counter. Destroyers Arena Football Leaguegames proved to make little dent in the Herd's audience.
In-house attendance suffered badly in the first half during the Sabres' playoff run, but was back to normal when the August drive was in gear. There isn't another minor-league team in the country that can sell 50,000 tickets for a four-game series, as the Herd did for Columbus' visit.
The per-game average dipped just 470 per opening from last year and would have actually been up a shade had an 18,000-plus crowd on hand to see The Famous Chicken not been erased by a rain out. Not bad for a team that was really in the race for about only three weeks and was below .500 at home for the season.
The team's new video board is the envy of the minor leagues, with players in both clubhouses raving. The season-in-review video and tribute to Jeff Manto played over the last two days were memorable moments. Grade: B .
There were plenty of debatable decisions coming from Jacobs Field this season. The knee-jerk assumption would be to blame them on a new farm director, Neil Huntington. While Huntington was certainly involved in many of the edicts passed on to Datz, no Triple-A club can be left alone with the barrage of injuries the Indians dealt with.
Nineteen trips to the disabled list featuring 13 players caused the Buffalo roster to be a daily-changing list with callups and nine rehab assignments. The Tribe hasn't played an exhibition game here since 1996, but fans certainly can't complain. Cracked one press box observer: "Hey, they want the fans of Buffalo to see their players. They're just sending them here one-by-one."
Players like McDonald, Riske and reliever Sean DePaula were rushed from Double-A right through Buffalo to the big leagues out of necessity. The Indians did what they could to stock Buffalo, even sacrificing a potential playoff season at Akron to keep the Herd at full strength.
Still, Branyan was kept here to the point of absurdity (two slumps totaling 3 for 98 with 57 strikeouts had to earn him a ticket back to Akron). And anybody could have told the Tribe Hamilton was worthless. Why did it take 32 appearances to figure that out? Grade: C.