Fresh grass, the comfort of an old glove, good friends at your side, food and drink. Opening Day has that feeling every year and the Buffalo Bisons are no different.
But a pretty important guy got that feeling of days gone by Thursday at our downtown playpen. New Toronto Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro couldn’t have been happier to be back in Coca-Cola Field.
“The overwhelming feeling of walking in here is that it just feels like home,” Shapiro said during a pregame chat with reporters outside the Herd clubhouse. “There’s a comfort level with the people here, a sense of confidence of what a great developmental environment this is.”
Shapiro first came here on that September day in 1994 when the Bisons were replacing the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Bisons started Talkin Tribe in a partnership with the Cleveland Indians that was the golden era of Buffalo baseball. Nine playoff clubs in 11 years, three league championships and countless contributors in Cleveland. Shapiro was one of the key figures, first as farm director and then as assistant GM and finally GM.
When the Indians didn’t extend their working agreement in Buffalo on Opening Day in 2008, the handwriting was pretty much done in ink. In order to look ahead, you first have to look back and remember why the Indians left following the ’08 season and headed for the new Huntington Park in Columbus.
Even with the chance to move into a new facility as opposed to staying in what was then a 20-year-old park in Buffalo, the Tribe’s baseball people were vehemently opposed to the move.
“It was an incredible place,” Shapiro said of his first tour of duty in Buffalo. “It was not an easy decision with Cleveland, even with the geographical alignment, to leave here. So it’s great on a personal level to be back.”
The baseball people lost out to the bean counters, with ownership issuing a directive to move as a way to make inroads into the Columbus market, chip at the edge the Cincinnati Reds had in the state capital and make the Tribe and its farmhands more attractive to SportsTime Ohio and the Ohio state government for when it came time for money to help renovate Progressive Field.
The Indians had some bad drafts and the Bisons suffered some from 2006-2008 but it was expected they would get it figured out. And while Buffalo has struggled with first the Mets and now the Jays, how did Columbus do from 2009-2015? The Clippers won International League titles in 2010, 2011 and 2015, and won back-to-back Triple-A National Championship games in ’10 and ’11.
Think there’s been some regret on the corner of Washington and Swan about seeing those results?
Shapiro and Co. have a lot on their plate right now in Toronto, both on the field and off. He has to figure out what to do with Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. Major renovation plans for both Rogers Centre and the spring complex in Dunedin, Fla., have to be executed. And the minor leagues are pretty thin, especially at the top levels, in the wake of all the deals Alex Anthopoulos pulled off last year to try to get into a World Series.
Most of the Bisons’ roster is composed of minor-league free agents but that is certainly going to change in the next two years when some of the kids graduate from Class A stops like Dunedin. The Blue Jays generally don’t win much in Triple-A, but Shapiro’s agenda includes that. Naturally so does Buffalo’s.
Shapiro said it took about 30 seconds into their first get-acquainted conversation a few months ago for Herd GM Mike Buczkowski to remind the new Toronto boss the Bisons have the longest playoff drought in the IL.
“I’m a big believer that you want to develop winning minor-league teams and you want to develop players who have the expectation to win,” Shapiro said. “The only way to do that is to have them win throughout their entire minor-league tenure at each level they go through.”
It was a nice day for Shapiro to see. Plenty of Blue Jays jerseys and caps in the crowd, Robbie Alomar throwing a first pitch as the “OK Blue Jays” ditty played and yet another strong pitching performance. Buffalo is somehow 4-4 despite a .207 team batting average and just two home runs. But the pitching has been terrific with a 2.23 ERA.
The fans were terrific Thursday, too. More than 13,000 paid, easily more than 10,000 were on hand and the place was roaring for the final out and final strike in the ninth. Any Toronto official had to love the scene. Shapiro has seen it before.
“It’s such a natural relationship, a natural alignment,” he said. “It’s hard to see there being a better place for us. … This is the place we want to be, for a lot of reasons and not just logistics. But for relationships and people and the way they run their organization.”