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Inside Baseball: Twenty years later, a look at the Bisons' first modern-era champions

The Bisons are celebrating their 30th anniversary at Coca-Cola Field this season and will have a blowout party on Aug. 30. This corner has been a press box denizen since the first season back in 1988, and is often asked about the best Buffalo teams we've seen.

There have been 11 playoff clubs and three league champions in that span but the group from 20 years ago consistently stands out above the rest as the most memorable in franchise history: In 1997, the Bisons finally overcame a decade of heartache to win the first league championship of their modern era under the ownership of Bob and Mindy Rich. The title came in the final year of existence of the American Association and was Buffalo's first professional baseball crown since 1961.

But more than just the first title, the summer of '97 was a season full of firsts for the franchise:

---Bartolo Colon, then a 22-year-old prospect, pitched a no-hitter on June 20 against New Orleans. It was Buffalo's first no-no since 1952 and remains the only one in then-North AmeriCare Park's history. Colon retired the final 25 batters he faced and came within one walk of a perfect game on a night the franchise's 10 millionth ticket was sold.

---Journeyman Jeff Manto was acquired in a nondescript June trade with Syracuse and started his road to Bisons legend with the park's first three-homer game in a July 14 victory over Iowa. As memorable as the home runs were, the feat is even more remembered by the curtain call Manto got after the third blast by a crowd of more than 19,000.

---In a July 25 loss to Nashville, the club pulled off its first triple play and the around-the-horn special was accomplished by three future Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famers: Manto at third to second baseman Torey Lovullo to first baseman Richie Sexson.

While there were several notable veterans on the roster, the '97 club marked the first time the parent Cleveland Indians sprinkled the roster with many young prospects. The list included Sexson and Colon, pitcher Travis Driskill, catcher Einar Diaz, infielder Enrique Wilson, outfielders Alex Ramirez and Bruce Aven and key August Double-A callup Sean Casey.

While player moves to the Cleveland certainly took place, a set big-league lineup on a World Series team allowed the Bisons to have some remarkable consistency for Triple-A. Seven players appeared in at least 103 games. Six pitchers appeared at least 25 times and eight started at least 10. Nine players hit at least 10 home runs, led by Sexson's 31. But in an incredible oddity for a team that went 87-57, no pitcher won more than nine games.

The championship was won in a three-game sweep of the Iowa Cubs. The Bisons won the first two games at home and then pulled out the clincher with a 5-4, 10-inning victory on a home run by the 23-year-old Casey, who went on to play more than 1,400 big-league games and collect 1,531 hits. Casey is now an analyst for MLB Network and visited Lovullo for an interview during spring training in Arizona. His first topic before talking about the 2017 season? The '97 Bisons.

"Hitting that home run and winning that championship was one of the greatest moments of my baseball life, absolutely," Casey said by phone Friday from New York. "When I saw Torey, I didn't feel like I was with MLB Network and he was in Arizona. It was like, 'God, we're Buffalo teammates. We shared a championship together.' "

"We're always so proud of that group," Lovullo, now the first-year manager of the Diamondbacks, told me during a spring chat in Scottsdale, Ariz. "For some reason, it's a group where a lot of us stayed in the game and you're always talking to somebody and talking about those great times. They mean a lot to all of us. We were winners. We won championships there and it meant a lot to a lot of people."

Lovullo gets long-awaited chance to manage with Diamondbacks

The numbers

Standings: The Bisons finished 87-57 and won the American Association East by two games over Indianapolis. It was their second straight division title and fourth in seven years. The season was bulit on a 22-10 June record and a 21-11 mark in July. The Herd then went 6-2 in the playoffs, beating Indianapolis in a thrilling five-game semifinal and sweeping Iowa in three straight to win the league championship.

Click here for the 1997 Bisons' complete player statistics.

Stars at the plate: Sexson led the team with a league-high 31 home runs and 88 RBIs. Among players who qualified for the batting title, outfielder Trenidad Hubbard had the best batting average at .312 and also had a team-high 26 stolen bases. Other top seasons were by Wilson (.306-11-39) Aven (.287-17-77), veteran outfielder Les Norman (.259-17-56 with an 18-game hitting streak) and Ramirez (.286-11-44). Manto (.321-20-54) put up remarkable numbers in just 54 games. After returning to Buffalo as a free agent in May, Lovullo struggled much of the year (.227-12-40) but exploded in the playoffs to bat .423.

Bartolo Colon salutes the crowd after his no-hitter on June 20, 1997 against New Orleans (Buffalo News file photo).

Stars on the mound: Roland De La Maza (9-4, 2.90) led the team in wins while skipping between the rotation and bullpen. Driskill (8-7, 4.65) led the team in starts (24), innings pitched (147) and strikeouts (102). Two young prospects had the glossiest stats: At 22, Colon went 7-1, 2.21 in 10 starts with 54 strikeouts and 23 walks in 56 2/3 innings while Jaret Wright, 21, was 4-1, 1.80 with 47 strikeouts in 45 innings over his seven starts before eventually starting Game Seven of the World Series at Florida. Lefty Brian Anderson went 7-1, 3.03 in 15 starts and posted a three-inning save in Game Four against the Marlins. Two late-season acquisitions helped the rotation: Marcus Moore (5-3, 2.54) had a 14-strikeout game and David Weathers (4-3, 3.13) came from the '96 Yankees World Series team to become a playoff hero in Buffalo. Darryl Scott was the leader in saves with 12.

Hall of Famers: Seven members of the '97 team are in the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame. In addition to Manto, Lovullo, Sexson and Ramirez, pitcher Jason Jacome was inducted this year (mostly on the strength of his 17 wins in 1998). Manager Brian Graham and broadcaster Jim Rosenhaus are also members of the hall.

Jason Jacome adds another Hall call to legacy of '98 Bisons

Rosenhaus reveling in Tribe's World Series run

The Legend

Manto is the only modern-era Bison to have his number retired and the only one inducted in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. It all started for him in '97, after he was batting just .205 in Syracuse. In fact, had he not been thinking about an expansion-team opportunity in 1998, he might have simply gone home and retired. Instead he came to Buffalo and, as he said during his 2001 jersey retirement ceremony, "I found home."

"It was about leadership with a guy like him," Graham recalled by phone last week. "I knew who he was. I wanted him to come in and be an example for the younger guys. It was visual. They saw how he went about his business, his BP routines and how he played."

Manto, however, wasn't a big workout fiend. He passed out "Body by Manto" T-shirts to his teammates with a caricature making fun of those lifting weights.

Said Hubbard: "He's built like a God -- Buddha."

But Buddha could hit. The three-home run game made him an instant star. Manto said the curtain call told him things were a lot more serious in Buffalo than at any of his many other minor-league stops.

"To say these fans are knowledgeable and into it is an understatement," Manto said that night. "It was emotional to come out in a minor-league game and get a curtain call."

Added Graham after that game: "I've never seen a person play as well as Jeff has in such a short period of time. He's hotter than any hitter I've ever seen at this level."

Jeff Manto on Buffalo: "This is the place where you come to win."

Manto became the first player ever to win Association batter of the week three straight times and four weeks for a season. When he left for Cleveland for good on Aug. 2, he was batting .321 with 20 homers and 54 RBIs in 54 games. The team was 40-17 with him on the roster.

Manto, who has been a hitting coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago White Sox, has been a regular visitor over the years for offseason camps and in his current role as a hitting instructor for the Baltimore Orioles.

"This is the place where you come to win," Manto said while in town in April. "I think that's very important when you come here to play. I think a lot of people, if they don't understand it the first couple weeks that they're here, they sure understand it the third week. This is a place where you come to win. Yeah, you can come to develop, and that's fine. But mostly you come here to win. That's a really great thing to have, especially in Triple-A."

The rivalry

The Bisons edged Indianapolis for the division title after a heated pennant race. The Indians -- Buffalo's fiercest rival in the Association era -- won a franchise record-tying 14 games in a row at one stretch and hit town on a  21-4 roll when the teams played a doubleheader on Aug.14 with the Bisons clinging to a one-game lead.

Casey was called up from Double-A Akron -- and proceeded to hit three home runs in the two games as the Bisons swept the twinbill by identical 8-0 scores. He was 4 for 7 on the day with two of the homers and five RBIs in the nightcap.

"We had a day off the day before and sometimes that shuts off your momentum," Indianapolis radio announcer Howard Kellman recalled while visiting town this week. "Sean Casey had a great night and great series that turned it around there."

"He wasn't even in the lineup the first game," Graham recalled. "He came in my office and was so excited. I asked him to get the lineup card and bring it to me and I changed it and put him in. It was an awesome day."

Casey was initially nervous as he was chided by veteran Casey Candaele for nearly being late to the pregame stretch.

"I remember hitting three home runs and back then you're fired up the next morning to see the paper," Casey said. "I'm on the front page of the Buffalo paper and I was like, 'I'm gonna love being in Buffalo.' "

The Bisons won four out of five in that series, then split four games the following week in Indy as things devolved into "Stereo Wars" -- a near-brawl between the teams in the stadium tunnel over the volume of clubhouse stereos. Players started to spill into the hallway before being kept apart by stadium security.

"They had their music blasting and surprisingly Torey Lovullo was the aggressor in that whole situation," Graham revealed through his laughter. "He was screaming at them through the wall."

"I remember being in the tunnel and both our teams were like face to face and we were getting ready to fight," Casey said. "That was unbelievable. In the minor leagues, you don't build rivalries like that. Torey was our leader and what he said carried a lot of weight."

The teams met in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year and split the first two games in Indianapolis. The heat turned up when the series got to Buffalo. The Bisons had been upset in Indy at the lack of music being played for them during batting practice and by the fact the Indians put "Bison" on the scoreboard rather than "Bisons". So during batting practice prior to Game Three, the Indians were greeted with Japanese pan flute music -- prompting several of them to fire baseballs at the music booth high atop the ballpark's club level.

Richie Sexson tips his cap to the fans after winning the Bisons' MVP award on Aug. 24, 1997 (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News file photo).

"We played them 24 times that season," said Kellman, a veteran of 43 years behind the microphone in Indianapolis. "It was a big-league atmosphere. The players were so intense about it and wanted to win so badly. We had lost players to the big leagues the year before but that wasn't the case really in '97. There was a great vibe and a lets-go attitude."

It was the Bisons who ended the night upset, however, as the pitching staff imploded to give up 10 runs over the final three innings in an 11-7 loss that put them on the brink of elimination. Prior to Game Four, Indy star Eric Owens was talking around the batting cage to Kellman and tweaked the baseball gods.

"I remember him saying something like, 'Buffalo? They can't win the big one here,' " Kellman recalled. " 'Look at the Bills. Look at the Bisons and the series they've lost.' He said that and I'm thinking 'No. Baseball is a very strange game and the minute you think you've got it figured, quite the opposite happens.' "

That's what happened. Buffalo evened the series with a 9-2 win in Game Four as Casey went 3 for 5 and Driskill pitched eight innings and struck out 10. It came down to Game Five and even players in the Indians clubhouse in Jacobs Field were watching the teams fist-pumping and high-fiving their way through the in-your-face affair.

Said veteran outfielder David Justice: "This is the minor-league playoffs? These guys hate each other."

Game Five was over early. Hubbard's three-run triple capped a five-run fourth and Weathers went the route on a four-hitter in a 6-2 victory that sent the Bisons on to the Association finals for the fourth time in the 90s.

"It was disappointing because we had a really good team but Buffalo had a very good team too," Kellman said. "I remember being outside the hotel on Monday morning getting ready to fly home and you had that stunned feeling. This is over. Buffalo had won and we had such a good season. That '97 season was the last year of the great rivalry. Now we've been in different divisions. But what a rivalry that was for those years."

The clincher

The Bisons won the first two games of the finals against Iowa, 2-1 and 6-3. The series headed to Iowa for Game Three on Sept. 10 and the Herd looked golden when Sexson launched a three-run bomb off Cubs prospect Kerry Wood -- nine months before Wood's 20-strikeout game in Wrigley Field -- to put the Herd in a 4-1 lead in the fifth.

It was 4-2 heading for the ninth when Weathers was called to save the game but he gave up a game-tying double that plunged things into extra innings.

"We just said, 'OK, you want to fight? We'll fight. Let's fight," Hubbard said after the game. "I just knew Casey was going to do something."

Indeed, The Mighty Casey did just that by launching a 410-foot blast to dead center field with one out in the 10th.

"I'm looking for a heater over the plate and put a big swing on one," Casey said Friday. "It was a high wall in dead center. I remember trying to get on base, get something going and got a pitch right out over the plate. When I hit it, I was like 'That could be gone.' When it went out I was so excited because now we're ahead again."

Casey hit .361 with five homers and 18 RBIs in the regular season over 20 games and hit .333 in the playoffs. As it turned out, the home run was his last Buffalo swing as he was traded the next spring to Cincinnati.

In the bottom of the 10th, the Cubs threatened again but Lovullo started a 4-6-3 double play to end the game and give Buffalo the title.

"The first thing I think of is the double play, the last outs of that game," General Manager Mike Buczkowski said this week. "You watch the video and it's a close play. Sexson catches the ball and you see Torey Lovullo asking for the ball and Sexson flips it to him so later he can present it to Bob and Mindy Rich. I'm thinking, 'He's thinking that far ahead? 'Give me that ball, give me that ball.' That was great."

The clubhouse celebration was wet and wild. Lovullo called for order and held aloft the ball from the final out before giving it to Bob Rich as the room erupted.

"I made it clear to everybody in the eighth inning that I wanted that ball in my hands if we won," Lovullo said. "I know how bad the fans in Buffalo wanted it, how bad the front office wanted it and how bad Bob and Mindy wanted it."

Rich still has the baseball and it's one of his treasured momentos. With the league disbanding after the series, the Bisons still have the Association trophy in their offices at Coca-Cola Field.

Sean Casey at Indians spring training in 1998, a month before he was traded to Cincinnati (Getty Images).

Casey, however, was nowhere to be found in the revelry for nearly an hour. In the pre-cellphone and pre-Internet streaming days, he snuck into a phone booth in the stadium concourse to call home to Pittsburgh to tell his father about the home run -- and his first big-league callup.

"I said, 'Dad you're not going to believe it. I just homered to win the championship for Buffalo which is unbelievable  and I just got called up to the big leagues,' " Casey said. "I started crying, My dad started crying, my mom's excited in the background

"I turn around the lights are still on. I'm soaked in champagne. The place is empty and I'm looking at the field on the phone with my parents. It's literally like Field of Dreams. Am I dreaming? I just homered, I'm going to the big leagues talking to my dad and I'm in Iowa. You almost can't explain the feeling. It made me think about all the swings I had taken. To have that moment while I was playing for Buffalo, I'll never forget it."

The team returned home for a soggy ballpark rally the next day. Casey brought down the house when he emerged from the dugout with the trophy and held it over his head as he climbed the podium.

Said Lovullo to the fans: "Here we are in the pouring rain with 3,000 people here. You should remember this feeling right now because it's very very rare."

CHAMPIONS AT LAST! CASEY'S MIGHTY BLOW GIVES BISONS FIRST ASSOCIATION CROWN

The manager

Graham won 253 games in three seasons of managing the Bisons from 1995-1997, ending his time as the franchise's victory leader until Marty Brown passed him in 2013. But he often said he would have felt very unsatisfied if he had not been able to bring the Herd its first championship of the modern era.

Graham's teams were eliminated in Game Five at home in both 1995 (finals vs. Louisville) and 1996 (semifinals) vs. Indianapolis. Another loss to Indy in '97 would have been particularly difficult for him to take.

"When we finally won, I was way happier for Bob and Mindy Rich than for myself and my coaches," Graham said this week. "It was the first championship and getting that for them meant a lot to our players and to me."

Torey Lovullo hoists the American Association trophy during the Bisons' championship rally on Sept. 11, 1997 (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News file photo).

Graham managed nine consecutive winning teams, including eight straight playoff clubs, during his nine years as a manager with the Tribe, which ended with the title in Buffalo. As Graham accepted the trophy that night in Des Moines from Association president Branch Rickey III, he turned to his players and urged them to take it with the words, "This is heart, this is pride."

"That was unique to have a Triple-A team that wanted to win so badly," Graham said. "That takes a lot of heart and pride and was so happy for them. Triple-A baseball is usually not like that. Guys are all about going to the big leagues but these guys wanted to win."

Graham left the Bisons to become the first-base coach for the Tribe, including their 1998 and 1999 AL Central champions. Since then, he's worked for Pittsburgh as an interim general manager and farm director and spent 10 years with the Orioles, the last five as director of player development. He was the 2013 winner of baseball's prestigious Chief Bender Award for distinguished service in player development.

"Those years in Cleveland were my foundation for the game, the foundation of my career," said Graham. "The way we did things was so correct and I carried that on to Pittsburgh and Baltimore. So much attention to detail. We did things right in Cleveland. Sean Casey was throwing out the first pitch the other day in Akron and I was there with our Bowie team. He came over to the dugout and gave me a big hug. It was so good to see him and to see the guys still sharing in this game."

"I just thanked 'BG' again," Casey said. "Some of the best memories of my life was the end of that summer in Buffalo. I used to say that to David Weathers when we played in Cincinnati: 'What a great team we had in Buffalo.' "

Graham has remained close to Bisons president Jon Dandes, Buczkowski and longtime security director Joe Petronella. When the Norfolk Tides, Baltimore's Triple-A team, make their annual visit to Buffalo, Graham and Manto are sure to make the trip.

"It's such a special group to this day," Graham said. "I went in to Buffalo this year and Mike Buczkowski, Jon Dandes, 'JoePet' and Jeff Manto and I had lunch. We do it every year and it's like time stands still. We laugh at the same jokes, tell the same stories because it was such a great time in all of our lives. It's still there 20 years later and that's awesome."

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