The 1998 Buffalo Bisons were one of the most memorable teams in franchise history, overcoming a eight-game August deficit to win the International League North and then taking the Governors' Cup in their return to the IL after a 28-year absence.
The dramatic Game Five victory in Durham that clinched the IL title gave Buffalo its only back-to-back championships in the annals of a franchise that dates to 1877. The ace of the pitching staff gets his due Friday night, as Jason Jacome becomes the sixth regular off that club to earn induction into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jacome, 46, will be inducted along with 1990 American Association batting champion Mark Ryal in ceremonies prior to the Bisons' game against Syracuse. He joins Jeff Manto, Torey Lovullo, Richie Sexson, Bill Selby and Alex Ramirez in the remarkable group of Hall members from the '98 team. Jacome also joins Dorn Taylor and Rick Reed as the only modern-era pitchers elected.
Jacome had the most dominant season by a Buffalo starter in '98. The IL All-Star lefty went 14-2 with a 3.25 ERA, then was 3-0 in the playoffs. He blanked the Bulls over seven innings of Game Five of the final, gave up a run in the eighth and then watched the bullpen wrap up a 3-1 victory.
"I'm really grateful. The year in Buffalo was the best year I had in professional baseball," Jacome said this week by phone from his home in Madison, Wisc., "It's the most I ever put it together in my life. We just had all the right pieces, a phenomenal team to be on."
An Arizona native, Jacome was a 12th-round draft pick of the New York Mets in 1991 and cracked the big leagues as a starter in 1994. He spent most of the time from 1994-1997 in the big leagues but was used mostly in relief by Kansas City and then Cleveland. The Indians had him make seven starts in Buffalo in 1997 (3-1, 3.16), then shipped him here full-time as insurance in '98, where the breaking ball artist baffled IL hitters. In 154 2/3 innings that season, Jacome struck out 109 and walked just 38.
"I had the mindset of a starter," he said. "I wanted to show them what I could do. I didn't feel personally unbeatable that year but I felt a lot of the time that our team was unbeatable."
The '98 Bisons were full of Hall of Famers but also key veterans in the lineup like Phil Hiatt, Brandon Wilson and in the bullpen like Tom Martin, Ron Villone, Chris Nichting, Rich Batchelor. First-year manager Jeff Datz survived a wobbly 30-33 start and pitching coach Bud Black, on his way up to the same slot with the 2002 World Series champion Anaheim Angels, battled through callups, injury and inconsistency to get the staff settled down the stretch.
"He was my favorite pitching coach that I had in my career," Jacome said of Black, now the first-year manager of the Colorado Rockies. "He was down to earth, someone you could talk to who was calm all the time. Just a great pitching coach. He knew his stuff."
Game Five in Durham is one of the enduring memories of that season. The Bisons opened the series with two wins at home, then lost two straight in Durham. Game Four was a crusher, a 7-6 loss that saw the Bulls avoid elimination with two runs in the bottom of the ninth. An on-field airing-out by Lovullo during an August game in Syracuse had keyed the run to the division title. Before Game Five, Manto spoke in the clubhouse and told them the players it was OK to be nervous because it would feel like every day in the big leagues.
"Torey and Manto had been around," Jacome said. "When they say something, people listen. It takes guys like that on every team to speak up and get you going. They did for us."
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Jacome gave up four first-inning runs to Durham in the opener before blanking the Bulls the rest of the way into the seventh and watching the Bisons rally for a 9-6 win. Prior to the finale, he was told a secret by Datz and Black: He was not going to the inaugural Triple-A World Series in Las Vegas if the Bisons advanced. Instead, he was starting for the Indians the next week in Yankee Stadium.
"There was pressure. If I don't perform, you worry guys are going to say 'He already knew he was going to the big leagues,' '' Jacome said. "I didn't want it to be like that. I wanted to give it all I got so the rest of the guys got to go. And it kind of felt like another game from the whole season. I went out and felt like I'm not going to give anything up."
The Bisons went on to Vegas, where they lost in four games to New Orleans. Jacome gave up eight runs in five innings in the Bronx and never pitched in the big leagues again. He spent two fruitful years in Japan, going 20-12 for the Yakult Swallows, then bounced around Triple-A and the Mexican League through 2005. He retired after 13 appearances for the Tucson Toros of the now-defunct Golden League in 2009, where he was first being groomed to be a manager and was then asked to pitch.
Jacome and his wife, Lisa, then moved to her hometown of Madison. He's bringing her and his four children, three boys and a girl aged 9-15, to the ceremony. Jacome coaches youth and high school baseball in Madison and co-owns an on-line children's clothing boutique with his wife.
"I have not been to Buffalo since 1998 and it was a great time," he said. "The kids can't wait to go. It's going to be fun. My 10-year-old son has had a bag packed for the last two weeks. We're really looking forward to it."