The scene was quaint Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Fla. It was a spring morning in 2013, the first year of the Toronto Blue Jays’ new affiliation with the Buffalo Bisons. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey had morphed from Triple-A retread with the Herd to Cy Young Award winner with the Mets to key trade acquisition. Expectations were high for the Blue Jays.
But Dickey was talking about much more than star power. His focus was on organizational depth and what it would take to be a champion.
“I can guarantee you,” Dickey said. “that we’re not going to win a World Series in Toronto without being able to call Buffalo and have people from Triple-A able to help.”
Prophetic words. The Blue Jays didn’t get close to the series in 2013 or 2014 and seemed to be going nowhere again until their remarkable transformation at the trade deadline. They fell two wins shy of a World Series, and had plenty of help getting there from guys who came through Buffalo.
It’s what this affiliation was all about when it started three seasons ago. Develop players that people in places like St. Catharines and Fort Erie will come see on the road to Toronto, and develop a new core of Blue Jays fans in Buffalo. It’s what happened every year with the Cleveland Indians and what never happened with the New York Mets.
Ponder those halcyon days with Cleveland and all the contributions the Tribe got from Triple-A.
You think back to Herb Perry’s spectacular defensive play at first base to save Game Three of the 1995 World Series against Atlanta. To Brian Giles hauling in the final out of the ’97 Division Series against the Yankees. To Brian Anderson’s three-inning save in Game Four of the ’97 World Series against Florida and Chad Ogea’s two wins in that same series. To Enrique Wilson making a face-first dive home to win Game Two of the 1998 ALCS in New York. To all the Buffalo alumni, both players and staff, that got the 2007 Indians one win away from a World Series.
You’re starting to see the same thing happening with Toronto.
Kevin Pillar became a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder in 2015 after being the Bisons’ MVP in 2014. Ryan Goins and Chris Colabello were the Opening Day right side of the infield for the Bisons last April, with Goins finishing up a tour of duty in Triple-A of more than 200 games over three seasons. In the postseason, they were the right side of the infield in Toronto, with Goins a defensive demon and the first player to cross the plate on Jose Bautista’s iconic Division Series home run. Meanwhile, Colabello took the IL Player of the Month honor for April and graduated to a .321 season in the big leagues.
Marcus Stroman was an Opening Day starter for the Bisons in 2014, a conquering hero for the Jays last October and will be their Opening Day starter. Aaron Sanchez has battled through stints in Buffalo to became a key bullpen member last season and a starter this time.
“Going through the ranks it’s more motivating for sure knowing Buffalo was only an hour and an half drive away, the big leagues being the ultimate goal and knowing you’re a hop, skip and jump from the Rogers Centre,” Sanchez said in January. “I don’t think a lot of teams have that luxury of being right there. Having this is ideal.”
“I loved the ballpark, the organization, nothing but unbelievable personalities and good people,” Stroman said of Buffalo. “The minors are extremely important. You see that all the time. You never know what’s going to happen with injuries. You need to have guys who can step in right away and produce. Goins and Colabello were huge for us in our playoff push and throughout the entire year.”
The Blue Jays are in complete win-now mode, especially with the contract status of Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion a daily source of consternation to their fans. But they’re also undergoing a transformation of sorts in the wake of General Manager Alex Anthopoulos’ messy departure after last season.
Their fans remain upset and uncertain about what’s going on. There are plenty of folks in Buffalo slowly nodding their head telling them everything is going to be all right under new president Mark Shapiro, the former Cleveland farm director and general manager who was such a key front office member for those great Cleveland teams – and for the Bisons’ nine playoff clubs in 11 years from 1995-2005.
Shapiro came into a no-win situation and it only worsened when Anthopoulos took the exit to Los Angeles and Shapiro inserted Cleveland disciple Ross Atkins into the GM slot. Fans howled. They will certainly blame Shapiro if the two stars walk out the door, never mind that the blame should go more to the Blue Jays’ odd corporate structure run by Rogers Communications that funnels their revenue through all streams of the company.
“I’ve got a pretty good track record of who I am as a person and who I am as a leader,” Shapiro told The Toronto Star in January. “So it’s a little strange to all of a sudden go from a guy who was considered to be a nice guy to a guy who’s Darth Vader.”
The Blue Jays made a lot of moves last year that depleted their farm system, especially their upper-level pitching. I can tell you from experience Shapiro works in the moment and never stops thinking about a long-term plan. And that’s going to focus on rebuilding this system.
“In all the of years I’ve been in baseball, Mark is one of the most focused, driven people that I’ve ever met,” said Bisons General Manager Mike Buczkowski, who met with Shapiro in March in Dunedin about an extension of the affiliation – and to remind the Jays the Bisons are on a 10-year playoff drought. “He wakes up at 5 in the morning and gets to work. His life is family and baseball, those are the two things he’s focused on. I just know from working with him at various levels of his career that a lot of people talk about their philosophy but with Mark and Ross Atkins it’s more than a philosophy.
“What these guys believe in in player development is not just headlines on a paper, not just a handbook that gets passed out. They follow through on what they believe in. That is recruiting people with a passion for baseball every day. … they believe in the players coming first. A lot of organizations talk about that but don’t follow through as much as Mark and his team did in Cleveland. We have that same expectation that will happen in Toronto and trickle down to us.”
On the QEW shuttle
Who might help the Blue Jays this year? Look no further than 23-year-old outfielder Dalton Pompey, a suburban Toronto kid who hit .285 in two stints with the Bisons last year − and ended his season 90 feet away from scoring the tying run for the Jays in Game Six of the ALCS in Kansas City. Pompey came on as a pinch-runner, stole second and third but nobody could drive him home.
“I remember my heart was beating through my chest,” Pompey said during a January conversation in Toronto. “It was something that I’ll never forget. I just have this image in my mind. I’m out there and I knew so many people were watching that game and not just my friends and my family. I knew a whole country was watching. To be put on that stage and make the most of that opportunity, I felt like I gave our team the best possible chance to score and that can drive me.”
Pompey flamed out as Toronto’s Opening Day center fielder last year and ended up all the way back at Double-A for a spell after first struggling in Buffalo. When he returned to the Bisons, he batted .327 and was then able to contribute in Toronto.
Utility man Andy Burns and outfielder Darrell Ceciliani could have impact in Toronto this year. And it’s clear there will always be needs for pitching. The Bisons will have some veteran candidates there, as well as guys like former Blue Jays Opening Day starter Drew Hutchison and switch-pitcher Pat Venditte who could come into play.
“We have a lot of stars in this organization, but we have role players in the big leagues and in the minors who can come in and make a difference,” Pompey said. “I was fortunate to come back to Buffalo last year after I was in Double-A and I felt like I was an entirely different player. When you’re in Buffalo, you’re so close that you want to be there. We watch the games on TV and sometimes it’s hard to watch. But it drives you. It really does.”
Around the horn
• Shapiro’s first spring in Dunedin was a huge fact-finding mission on how the Blue Jays can create a better spring complex out of one that’s fallen far behind most teams. The main stadium that houses the big league team is a couple miles from the minor-league and training complex, a big no-no for teams in this day and age. Shapiro told Sportsnet last week one solution might be to expand the complex to house everyone and promote more interaction, and to simply bus players to the stadium for the big-league games.
Dunedin, the Jays’ spring home since their inception in 1977, is desperate to keep the Jays and needs to help find answers. It’s not what Shapiro dealt with in Winter Haven, which wanted its land back and was happy to see the Indians leave in 2009.
• Fans who sit close to the field may complain but it’s a long-overdue move in both the majors and minors for teams to extend their netting to protect the paying customers. The Bisons are among several minor-league clubs having a few issues with the architectural aspects of the new setup, including anchoring new posts for the nets, but they still are hopeful it will be ready for Opening Day.