Minor-league baseball is all about graduating players to the big leagues, and that's certainly been a big part of the experience in Buffalo since the city's modern era of Triple-A began in 1985. But the Bisons have also had a remarkable run in the dugout that's blossomed this season.
Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Terry Collins, who directed the Herd during its Pilot Field glory days of 1989-1991, is back as a manager with the New York Mets 12 years after he was fired in Anaheim. Eric Wedge (2001-02) took one year off after getting fired by the Cleveland Indians and has resurfaced as the manager in Seattle.
Another member of the Buffalo Hall, former Herd player and manager Torey Lovullo (2006-08), is in the big leagues as a coach for the first time as the first base coach for the Toronto Blue Jays. Ken Oberkfell, who managed the Bisons the last two years, has also made it to the majors as the Mets' bench coach under Collins.
Jeff Datz (1998-99) and Joel Skinner (2000) were both fired along with Wedge after the '09 season but have also bounced back. Datz spent last year as bench coach in Baltimore before rejoining Wedge in the same role this year in Seattle. Skinner spent last year managing the Indians' Double-A team in Akron, Ohio, and is back in the majors this year as bench coach for the Oakland Athletics.
Of the 15 men who have managed the Bisons since the modern era began, only three are out of baseball.
Marc Bombard (1992) is out of the game this season for the first time in 39 years. Bombard, who is 21st all time with 1,796 minor-league victories, was fired by the Houston Astros after managing Triple-A Round Rock the last two years and is spending the summer at his home in Tampa planning to look for work for 2012.
Rocky Bridges (1988), the first manager of the Pilot Field era, is now 83 and retired in Idaho. Also out of baseball is Steve Swisher, who coached the final portion of the 1987 War Memorial Stadium farewell after Orlando Gomez was fired. Swisher's son, Nick, a 6-year-old who toddled around the Rockpile clubhouse in the summer of '87, now plays for the New York Yankees.
> Big Apple spotlight
Before and after every game, more than a dozen New York City reporters meet with Terry Collins. They pile into his office on the road and have a nice interview room setup with a podium at home at Citi Field. The messages are much the same as the ones Collins, now 61, gave in Buffalo more than 20 years ago. (Perhaps minus some of the profanity, as Collins knows his postgame remarks are always shown live on SNY).
Through a 5-13 start, injuries, bullpen failures and the chaos surrounding uncertain ownership, Collins has been resolute with the faith in his team and has kept the Mets around .500 and on the periphery of the wild-card race.
"Our resilience has made us," Collins said during a recent stop in Pittsburgh. "To play in this market, you better be resilient and have things roll off your back. Nobody feels sorry for you at the major league level, especially in New York. We've had guys pick up their play but the biggest key that we've addressed is that 'You're major league players. Don't go around saying: Maybe I don't belong here because David Wright is hurt and that's why I'm here.'
"Everybody that's up here has a role. We've played great defense. Our starting pitching has been like holy man and we've hung in there."
Collins is a pepper pot of energy from the time he gets to the ballpark. Hands on hips, he usually walks through the players' pregame stretching drills talking to some of them and gauging the pulse of his club.
"He keeps you on your toes," said catcher Josh Thole. "We were working from day one of spring training, never stopping. That's how he goes. He has never stopped believing in us."
"We've taken the characteristics of our manager," infielder Daniel Murphy told the New York Daily News last month. "And that's the energy he brings every day. It would be very easy to show up when you're 5-13 and kind of mail it in only 18 games into the season, but he didn't."
After leaving Buffalo, Collins managed in both Houston and Anaheim and again in Japan. He worked as a farm director for the Dodgers and spent 2010 as the Mets' minor-league field coordinator, impressing the organization with the way he spruced up a tattered system.
"I really trust our minor-league people," Collins said. "Had I not been here last year when I got to know those guys, I certainly would have had to trust the Triple-A manager, field coordinator, farm director, who ever is going to get the description of these players, even more.
"What has helped is not only my knowledge having seen them play last year at Triple-A, Double-A, wherever, but my relationship I got to have with them. We've had so many conversations last year that they aren't intimidated to come in here and talk. We did it last year. They know I'm approachable so it's a help to them."
Oberkfell dealt with Collins on a regular basis last year when Collins would visit the Bisons and said he's been impressed with Collins' transition.
"He's awesome and he's intense. We're almost completely different personalities and that's why it works well," Oberkfell said. "He's great to work for. He lets you do your job. He believes in his staff, communicates with us and asks our opinion on a lot of things. It's been great."
> Making the climb again
Oberkfell played 1,602 games in the big leagues, winning a World Series with the Cardinals in 1982 and playing in another with the Giants in 1989. Lovullo played 303 big-league games with seven teams and also helped the Bisons win championships in 1997 and 1998. Then the cheering stopped and they started all over again in Class A ball.
Oberkfell started his coaching career as the manager of the 1997 Piedmont Boll Weevils of the South Atlantic League, where one of his players was an 18-year-old shortstop named Jimmy Rollins. After four years with the Phillies, he joined the Mets in 2001. Buffalo was his sixth stop.
"It's really neat for me," Oberkfell said during the Mets stop in Pittsburgh. "I spent 12 years in the minor leagues, Terry gets the job and gives me the opportunity to get on his staff. I was very fortunate to do it as a player and as a staff member."
Lovullo started at Class A Columbus (Ga.) with the Indians in 2002, came through Buffalo and moved on with the Indians to Columbus (Ohio) in 2009. He managed last year at Pawtucket in the Red Sox chain.
"It's a pretty special feeling to know you reached the highest level as a player, then you start all over again like it's back to school," Lovullo said prior to a recent game in Toronto. "There were some frustrating moments along the way but there was a great learning curve for me to learn from some really impressive baseball people. The time was right for this chance.
"I chose to go to A ball in the Indians' system because I wanted to experience everything about player development."
Lovullo was hired by first-year Blue Jays manager John Farrell, who was a former farm director in the Cleveland chain when Lovullo was managing in places like Columbus, Kinston (N.C.), Akron and Buffalo.
"Everybody knows how special John Farrell is to me," Lovullo said. "It was a great moment. He called and said he had a couple ideas and thoughts. It was John Farrell and I was on board and pretty excited with that option. The Red Sox are great people and were very good to me. But once I had this chance it was like, 'Let's see how fast we can get this done and go win a World Series.' "
Lovullo works closely on the Blue Jays' baserunning and as the team's outfield coach. For all the home runs Jose Bautista hits, he sees the Blue Jays' star in a different way.
"People don't know he gets out early and works on his outfield play," Lovullo said. "He should win a gold glove. I've already warned him I'll be the idiot to say that out loud, based on the work habits he has, bases he backs up, the great throws. He does everything defensively."
"Torey has done an excellent job," Farrell said. "He wasn't an outfielder so this work is different from his career path but he's such a good communicator and he always has been a student of the game. He's made himself a better coach."
Lovullo's wife, Kristen, is a Buffalo native who had forged plenty of friends in the Boston area but was happy to return less than two hours from home. The Lovullos have a high-rise condominium just down the street from Rogers Centre.
"I can get from my living room watching TV to my cubicle [in the clubhouse] in about 12 minutes. That's pretty awesome," Torey Lovullo said. "It couldn't be a better situation for me, being with the closest major-league team to Buffalo, New York."
> Returning Stateside
Another one of Farrell's winter calls was to Marty Brown, who managed the Bisons to the 2004 Governors' Cup but had been fired after five years in Japan. Brown, who did not have a winning record in any of those seasons, spent the first four with the Hiroshima Carp and was let go by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles after one year. Now he's in his first year managing the Las Vegas 51s of the Pacific Coast League.
"John said, 'I need you to go to Triple-A for me this year' and the timing was pretty good," Brown said by phone prior to a recent game in Las Vegas. "I was sitting around and John happened to call."
Brown spent much of his time in Japan as the only American managing in the Japanese major leagues and was treated with reverence in terms of special hotel rooms and not having to throw batting practice.
"I can look at the game with some different perspectives now but I'm still the same manager I was in Buffalo," Brown said. "I don't have one style. I want to try to adapt to the team I've been dealt and get the most out of them."
Brown played for the Carp from 1992 to '94 and said that helped his transition to the Japanese game because he had some ex-teammates on the coaching staff. He met his second wife in Japan and his second team plays in the city of Sendai, which was devastated by the March earthquake.
"We have a lot of friends there and it was scary for a while," he said. "But we were very happy to find out all of our friends and her family there are good."
With Las Vegas, Brown is the caretaker for mega Blue Jays third base prospect Brett Lawrie and pitcher Kyle Drabek, just sent down from the big leagues. The 51s started the week at 40-31, the fourth-best record in the PCL. Lawrie was hitting .354 with 15 homers and 49 RBIs before being sidelined two weeks ago by a broken hand.
"He's done everything we've asked as far as changing positions [to third base], driving the ball to all fields, stealing bases, all of it," Brown said. "It [the injury] was just a couple days before he was going to get called up so that was just unfortunate timing. But it won't take him long to get back to where he was. He's so highly competitive."