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Herd hoping magic returns with Jays

The Buffalo Bisons look back wistfully upon their 14-year run with the Cleveland Indians that was highlighted by nine playoff berths and three league championships.

They're hoping the Toronto Blue Jays can become an even longer-term partner and create the kind of success the Tribe did during a golden era of Buffalo baseball.

"The synergies between our organizations are incredibly strong," Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos said Friday at Coca-Cola Field after the Jays and Bisons signed their two-year player development contract. "The goal is that ultimately over a long period of time, just like you've seen some of those great Cleveland Indians players that have come through here, you're going to be talking about the great Blue Jays players that have come through."

The Bisons, remember, never wanted to leave the Cleveland chain. The Indians dumped them for Columbus in 2008, leaving Buffalo to sign with the New York Mets for a four-year stint that left the Herd with the third-worst record in Triple-A baseball over that stretch.

The Bisons haven't made the playoffs since 2005 and haven't even come close since 2007. If the Blue Jays simply get them in the hunt, they will be here a long time.

"To tell you the truth, I don't like changing franchises anymore," Bisons owner Bob Rich Jr said. "I'd like to be with these guys and this will be the last team we're with. I'm so excited."

The feeling was mutual.

"We want to be here for years," said Blue Jays CEO Paul Beeston. "This is the start of not a two-year deal. Hopefully it's the start of a 42-year deal."

The Blue Jays were in Las Vegas, not by choice, over the last four years. They were exiled from Syracuse following the 2008 season after 30 seasons. Since then, they've increased their budget for player development and boosted their farm system to the point where it's almost universally considered a top-five chain in the majors.

"We were in Syracuse for 30 years and Syracuse was good," Beeston said. "This is geographically closer than that. It's very important for us. This is something we wanted, something we've hoped for. It's almost like signing a free agent."

"It's huge," said Anthopoulos, who no longer has to fret about shuttling players in and out of the Pacific Coast League. "I don't even know if huge is a strong enough word. This is unbelievable for us."

The Blue Jays brought some heavy hitters to celebrate the new affiliation, including Rogers Communications vice chairman Phil Lind and three club ambassadors who were members of the 1992 and 1993 World Series champions - Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar, Cy Young Award pitcher Pat Hentgen and manager Cito Gaston.

"I've heard so many great things about the Riches," Alomar said. "I told Bob and I told his wife now that I'm back with the Jays organization again, it's great to be associated with them. My brother even played here and he always said great things about the Buffalo Bisons. "

"There's no secret the relationship we had with the Indians is still the model relationship to this day and that's what we talked to the Blue Jays about," said Bisons General Manager Mike Buczkowski. "That's how it should work. Now we have a chance to have that kind of relationship and have a geographical partner that's 100 miles away."

The parties began talking on Sunday and announced their deal on Tuesday. They got into some heavy details over lunch Friday at Chef's restaurant downtown.

"The one thing that amazed me is the people that have come through here, staff, players and so on, they never forget this place," Anthopoulos said. "These guys don't even need to sell themselves. Their reputation is sterling across the game. ... For us to partner up with them is just a thrill."

Both sides said they're hard at work on cross-marketing opportunities between the two franchises. The theme is that it's not just an affiliation from April to September, but one that can be a year-round promotional vehicle for baseball and commerce in the area.

"Our hope is that more Blue Jays fans from Southern Ontario will come to Buffalo Bisons games," Buczkowski said. "And we hope that more Bisons fans will go to Rogers Centre to watch the Jays."

There are plenty of Bisons ties in Toronto these days. Manager John Farrell is a former Buffalo pitcher and Cleveland farm director. First-base coach Torey Lovullo is a beloved member of the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame who played three years for Buffalo and managed for three more. Las Vegas manager Marty Brown, who might return to Buffalo next year, led the Bisons to their 2004 title.

"This is rejuvenating because we have so many ties with the Blue Jays," Rich said. "It's like old home week. And to me, this transcends baseball. The future of Buffalo is inexorably tied with the future of the Niagara Peninsula and we can do things that transcend just the game, culturally and economically for the area. That's got me excited."

Said Beeston: "We're here to provide entertainment in a winning environment. We're here to give back to the community and we're here so you'll be proud of this association."