By Mike Harrington
News Sports Reporter
For many years, Kevin Lester has reminded me he’s a weekly reader of this space. The Bisons longtime official scorer will give me his comments on my views, provide his own takes and make his point that I’m not talking enough about his beloved Yankees – or that I’m not talking nicely enough about them.
Lester will also gripe if I don’t get to a column in a particular week because hockey duties get in the way. Well, it was sure a busy hockey week around here but I had to make time for this column that Lester might find surprising. Because it’s about him.
Friday night in Coca-Cola Field, Lester will be inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame in the Stewards category for off-the-field contributions. He’ll be joining former Bisons players Chris Coste and Greg LaRocca, standouts of the team from 2000-2003.
Lester, 65, has been a fixture around Western New York sports since the 1960s. He played baseball, football and basketball at Bishop Turner and baseball and club football at St. Bonaventure, and then put together a career in the local amateur baseball ranks. He graduated from Bona in 1971 and routinely drops “Go Bonnies” references in the Bisons press box to this day.
Lester is perhaps best known in these parts as the athletics director at Williamsville South since 1985. He served the Bisons as a batboy way back in 1966, spent time in the ’80s as a bullpen catcher, directed too many youth clinics to count with best friend and fellow Hall of Famer Duke McGuire, and has scored games since the War Memorial Stadium days.
He even had a key role as one of the New York Knights in “The Natural.”
“The Bisons to me have never been a job. It’s been a gift,” Lester said. “No matter what I’ve done, in the bullpen, working with kids, being at the games. I enjoy the hell out of it and still do.
“In those early years, anything Mike Billoni or Bob Rich wanted, I did. I remember going to the Adam’s Mark and having talks in the morning, listening to them talk about family atmosphere. They were trying to get Major League Baseball back then but it still applies today.”
The Rich Products era, remember, basically got kick-started by the filming of the Robert Redford classic here in the summer of 1983. Lester and McGuire helped round up local players to play roles on Redford’s team and they were practicing at South, where Lester had been coaching since 1972, to prepare for the film. Director Barry Levinson was grateful to Lester for the help.
“I remember Barry saying to me, ‘I’m going to give you an important role in the movie’ and wondering what it was,” Lester said.
Watch the movie again. It’s in the late going when Glenn Close, Redford’s old girlfriend, passes a note to an usher to bring to the dugout. It makes its way to Lester, who hands it off to Redford. It’s Close telling Redford he has a son he never knew.
“It was a turning point because Redford is thinking of throwing the game,” Lester said. “Now he wasn’t going to do that. I had read the book and I know when Barry told me what this meant. But seeing it on screen was pretty cool.”
The movie is on cable channels so often that Lester said former Bisons announcer Pete Weber regularly calls and texts him from Nashville, where he’s now a voice of the NHL’s Nashville Predators, telling him the note is about to be passed.
Lester takes plenty of notes as an official scorer. You should see him during a game asking for replays of close calls. And before and after games, he’ll routinely ask managers and players their opinions. He’s as thorough as you can imagine.
“Baseball is about statistics and numbers more than any other game,” he said. “Guys can succeed or not succeed on a hit call, an error, an earned run. I always try to be as fair as I can with it. Over the years, you’ll get guys who say to you, ‘The home team should get that call because we don’t on the road’ but I don’t look at it that way. I’ve made sure I’m not a homer.”
And something most fans aren’t aware of: Lester isn’t a Bisons employee, either. All scorers are paid for their work by the International League.
It’s Lester’s voice that reporters and visiting radio crews have heard over the press box public-address system for many years announcing his decisions. An aside here: The malaprops and flat-out butcherings of names he can sometimes create are hilarious. The influx of Japanese and Korean players has seemed to stump Lester as much as Hispanic names, but he remains proud of his mastery when announcing former Bisons pitcher Hyang-Nam Choi in 2006. A guy with an impossible name is often simply referred to now as “Choi.”
What a baseball life my friend has had. He was a catcher during the 1984 Old Timers game in War Memorial Stadium, flying out to Willie Mays, robbing Orlando Cepeda by catching a foul pop and even getting asked for an autograph by Tony Oliva because of his movie role. When a USA Today reporter asked Lester what it was like to be in the game, he cracked, “I feel like I’m the pope sitting with the 12 Apostles.”
Lester is the pope of the press box, with a constant stream of visitors to his seat. He has three sons (Kevin, 42, Michael, 37, and Patrick, 32) and his coaching career at Williamsville South included a memorable stint at girls basketball.
“I didn’t have any actual daughters but one night we’re in a tight game and I’m calling an out of bounds play during a timeout,” he recalled. “I’m telling them to foul right away and I ask if there’s any questions. Girl raises her hand and I say, ‘Marti, what’s up?’ She says, ‘Mr. Lester, that’s a very nice tie.’ Right then you remember it’s not that big of a deal, let’s go play.
“To me, the Bisons have been a family and Williamsville South has been a family. It seems like I’ve always been with them. I don’t change things too much. Longevity says something about me but it says something about them too. Teaching and the Bisons have been a gift.”
Lester’s sons and some grandchildren will be on hand Friday. It’s sad that his late wife, Janet, will not. She passed away in 2010 after a long battle with cancer. They were married 39 years, a Yankees fan somehow co-existing with a Red Sox fan. Janet Lester liked this space too. Especially in, oh, 2004 and 2007.
“I know she won’t be there but you don’t do all this on your own,” he said. “She supported me by knowing I loved doing what I did for the Bisons. She’d be very proud to be a part of it but would be happy our sons and grandkids got to see it.”
Amen to that. Come Friday night, Kevin Lester officially becomes a Hall of Famer. But to those of us in Buffalo baseball and in the Western New York high school community, he doesn’t need that designation to make it official. He’s always been a Hall of Fame guy.