Once again, Buffalo sports fans will be left watching from afar and rooting for teams that are not their own. The difference this time in our warm but distant relationship with big-league baseball is that Buffalo is geographically and emotionally between Cleveland and Toronto.
Buffalo for years predominantly has been a Yankees town, and that has not changed. But with the Yankees stumbling again and the Indians and Blue Jays meeting in the American League Championship Series starting Friday, the pull is coming from opposite directions for entirely different reasons.
The Bisons have been the Triple-A affiliate for both teams, first the Indians and now the Blue Jays, which I suppose plays a minor role in the alliance of Buffalo fans. To me, though, it runs much deeper than a few dozen players who passed through town while most people were barely paying attention.
I’m always root for the best story, which in this case calls for the Indians playing the Cubs in the World Series. I’d rather see a best-of-seven series unfold between Cleveland and Chicago, two teams rich in history with long-suffering fan bases. I have nothing against Toronto, but I have a hard time rooting against Cleveland.
Who do you want to win? The decision largely depends on how you value baseball, how much you value history and how you value the two cities involved. Longtime baseball fans are more likely to identify with Cleveland and the years of misery that the plucky Indians endured while playing for lower wages in a small-market, rust-belt town. The Tribe won this year the old-fashioned way, with good pitching, solid defense and intelligence.
Younger, hipper fans seem more drawn to the powerful Jays with their heavy bats and big-money superstars playing in a trendy metropolitan region. Toronto is upbeat and vibrant, much like its team. There’s far more money and many more ways to have fun in Toronto than Cleveland, but Toronto lacks Cleveland’s soul.
The Blue Jays have an exciting team with Jose Bautista’s flair for the dramatic and Edwin Encarnacion’s gift for coming through.
Toronto has the 11th-highest payroll in baseball and spent nearly $100 million more on players than Cleveland. The Jays had six players who hit 20 homers or more while the Indians had only three.
Toronto is flashier and more New York, Cleveland workmanlike and more Buffalo. The Jays mash while the Indians grind.
Our allegiance to Cleveland, better understood than explained, traces back to both cities thriving in shipping and industry along Lake Erie. Buffalo and Cleveland shared in the struggle of difficult economic times after the work dried up. Both spent decades recovering while listening to old, tiresome punchlines on late night TV.
Baby boomers raised in Buffalo listened to the Indians on the radio and took road trips along Interstate 90 for decades before the Blue Jays existed. Thousands of fans now in their late 40s and early 50s attended their first big-league games in old Municipal Stadium, Cleveland’s answer to Buffalo’s Rockpile.
For decades, their sports teams reflected their civic failure. Before 2016, Cleveland hadn’t won a title since pre-Super Bowl 1964. The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. They were four strikes from winning the 1997 Series and lost to the Marlins in the 11th inning of Game Seven.
Two words: Wide Right.
Both cities had sports the other lacked. Cleveland had baseball and basketball. Buffalo had hockey. For three years in the late 1990s, Cleveland was without their beloved Browns, and their brothers in Buffalo mourned with them. When Buffalo moaned for years about not winning it all, it had a partner in Cleveland.
In 2010, when LeBron James turned his back on his home base and headed for Miami, Buffalo felt the communal kick to Cleveland’s stomach. But when LeBron returned for the sole purpose of winning a title in Cleveland, and angry fans welcomed him back with open arms, Buffalo understood why. And when LeBron led the Cavs over the mighty Warriors for the NBA last year, Buffalo cheered.
It’s never been quite the same with Toronto.
Look up the QEW, and you know Toronto was adding a big-league baseball team while Buffalo was subtracting an NBA team. Toronto has suffered while watching the Maple Leafs, who haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, but the Jays won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992-93.
And don’t forget that Toronto wanted your football team, or any football team, a desire that loomed over Buffalo while the future of the Bills was uncertain. Buffalo gave Toronto a taste of the NFL with one game per season − a Ralph Wilson money grab − and Toronto started angling for the whole thing behind Jon Bon Jovi.
If this is about baseball, the Blue Jays will have enough people from Buffalo behind them in the days ahead. But if it’s about pulling for a city like Buffalo and it’s people, well, that’s an entirely different story.
Buffalo and Cleveland aren’t just joined by the lake, you see. In many ways, they’re joined at the hip.