Mark Ryal’s biggest dilemma in Buffalo involved smoke, obstructed views and some difficulty locating balls headed his way. The former Bisons right-fielder occasionally fell victim to the billows trickling his direction from the concourse lining the outfield.
“They’d get the sausages and things cooking there in right field and the smoke’s going across,” Ryal said via phone on Wednesday. “You’re sitting there trying to pick up the ball through that and it was a really great experience.”
Ryal only spent two of his 16 professional seasons with the Bisons, in 1985 and 1990, but the 57-year-old recounts them fondly as one of his two favorite stops (along with playing in Edmonton) in his entire career. In 215 total games with the Herd, Ryal hit .299 with 22 home runs, 115 RBIs and 55 doubles. In 1990, he batted .334, good for the Bisons’ only American Association batting title and still the third-best single-season mark in the team’s modern era.
Ryal hasn’t returned to Buffalo since his last season with the Herd 27 years ago, bouncing between coaching gigs, including an appearance in the 1995 College World Series as Oklahoma’s hitting coach. He’s currently the interim head coach for the Midwestern State softball team in Wichita Falls, Texas. Before Buffalo hosts Syracuse on Friday, Ryal and former Buffalo pitcher Jason Jacome will be the 97th and 98th members inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame.
“For me, being a southern small-town boy and just thinking about going to Buffalo, New York, you’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I getting into?’ Ryal said. “You just don’t know what to expect … it was a blast for me to play there and be a big part of it.”
The Kansas City Royals drafted a 17-year-old Ryal in 1978, and he made his big-league debut four years later. The Royals were the first of five major league teams Ryal appeared for over the following eight years, stints with the Chicago White Sox (1985), California Angels (1986 and 1987), Philadelphia Phillies (1989) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1990) totaling 127 games in the majors.
The White Sox, then affiliated with the Bisons, signed Ryal as a free agent in 1985. He played 106 games with Buffalo, batting .265 and leading the team in doubles (21) and RBIs (66) in its first season back at the Triple-A level. Ryal adopted an affinity with Buffalo, the stadium, the fans and the ownership, that eventually drew him back.
“You’re coming in as a free agent there and never playing there and then getting there … of course I’m kind of a baseball historian anyhow and just playing in that ballpark was awesome,” Ryal said. “It’s just something there playing in that old War Memorial Stadium and the atmosphere there with the fans close by, just the landscaping of the ballpark and the tradition, back when the Bills played there, just knowing what had happened and being out there on the field.”
With mostly the same ownership in town, and for that reason, Ryal returned to the Bisons five years later when they were affiliated with the Pirates. Ryal recalls the grueling spring training bus rides – “driving across the swamps and the Everglades with no air conditioning at 1 o’clock in the morning, the bus is breaking down and all that stuff. That stuff, you write a book about it.” – and one 18-inning playoff game that went past midnight.
Ryal still stays in touch with teammates from Buffalo and will fly out of Texas Thursday morning with his youngest daughter, a senior in high school who’s never been anywhere near New York.
He’ll run through an itinerary of Friday’s events when he arrives to gear up for a day that may not be the peak of baseball ceremonies, but one he’ll still hold in high regard.
“It’s an experience that I’ll never forget,” Ryal said of playing in Buffalo. “It’s a great honor … it’s something I’m looking forward to.”