Opening Day for Minor League Baseball is this week with the Buffalo Bisons scheduled to open the 2018 season at 6:05 p.m. Friday at Rochester's Frontier Field against the Red Wings. The Herd's home opener at Coca-Cola Field is slated for 2:05 p.m. April 12. That's all, of course, dependent on the weather conditions.
Here's what you need to know as the season gets started:
1. Another season, another chance to toy with the pace of play. The minor leagues aren't just for developing players. It's also a real-life laboratory for baseball to toy with rule changes. And this season is no different. Pace of play continues to be a concern for the game and there are three changes fans will see at the ballpark.
The most dramatic will come in extra innings. If a game goes into extras, the inning will begin with a runner on second base. That runner will be the player in the batting order previous to that inning's lead-off hitter.
The pitch clock gets a tweak this season with pitchers allowed just 15 seconds to begin their wind-up or the motion to come to the set position when there are no runners on base. The clock is 20 seconds when there are runners on base.
In addition, teams are limited to six mound visits per game, not counting visits to change pitchers. Teams get one additional mound visit if the game goes into extra innings.
2. Who will replace Celery? Frankly, it was the biggest story at Coca-Cola Field last season, the retirement of beloved mascot Celery from the WCC Race. Celery will still be at the ballpark, part of the new Won Celery Place by Section 104. But the character who will join Chicken Wing, Atomic Wing and Blue Cheese for the mascot race will be unveiled on Opening Day in Buffalo.
There were 10 finalists – BBQ, Beef on Weck, Carrot, Chicken Finger, Fish Fry, Pierogi, Pizza, Ranch, Sponge Candy, and Wet Nap. Carrot has made some special guest appearances already at the ballpark, and Carrot seems the natural replacement for Celery. But Chicken Finger and Pizza also make strong cases.
3. The prospects return. Back to the actual baseball action, after years of stocking the Bisons with minor league veterans for a variety of reasons, the young guns are scheduled to return to the Herd with six of the Blue Jays top 20 prospects expected to start the season in Buffalo.
The prospects, as ranked by MLB.com, include catcher Danny Jansen (No. 6), left-handed pitcher Ryan Borucki (No. 8), infielder Richard Urena (No. 11), catcher Reese McGuire (No. 14), first baseman Rowdy Tellez (No. 15), and right-handed pitcher Carlos Ramirez (No. 17).
Not on the top prospect list, but also expected to be on the Opening Day roster are 2017 team MVP Roemon Fields, who led the International League last season with 43 steals – 12 more than anyone else on the circuit, and Jason Leblebijian, who was a Triple A All-Star.
4. Looking to re-up with Toronto. This is the last year of the Player Development Contract between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Buffalo Bisons. The organizations had signed a two-year extension to their original deal in 2016. This is the sixth season that the Bisons will serve as the Triple-A affiliate of the Blue Jays. The Herd is 350-366 as a Blue Jays' affiliate.
5. Welcome to the last season of Coca-Cola Field. Not the physical ballpark, mind you, just the name. The team announced that the Coca-Cola Bottling Company is not renewing its naming rights deal and the city will be putting the name up for bid.
Coca-Cola took over the rights on Dec. 17, 2008, in a 10-year deal. Coca-Field was the fourth name the downtown stadium has had. Born as Pilot Field, it has also been called North AmeriCare Park and Dunn Tire Park.
6. Sundays are for the Jays. Well kind of. On Sundays, the Bisons uniforms will give a nod to their parent club. Along with wearing the popular affiliation throwback jerseys that were introduced last year, the team will break out the Sunday affiliation cap. The cap, in shades of Blue Jays' blue, will feature a scripted "B" from the Bisons' first-year uniforms at Coca-Cola Field.
7. Welcome new voice of the Bisons. You've heard him before, but now South Buffalo's own Pat Malacaro takes over as the Voice of the Bisons, calling the action with Duke McGuire on the team's flagship station, ESPN 1520AM on online at Bisons.com. He takes over for Ben Wagner who was appointed by Sportsnet's 590 The Fan to the Blue Jays radio broadcast team.
Malacaro, 34, has a long history with the Bisons, first working for the team as a club's bat boy from 1999-2002. He was an intern with the broadcast team in 2004 and 2005 and after his graduation from Syracuse in 2010 has filled in on a number of broadcasts both on radio and television.
8. Living in the Hall of Fame. Four former Bisons will be inducted into three Halls of Fame in 2018, led by Jim Thome's election to Cooperstown. Thome is the 21st former Bison to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. While never appearing in a regular season game with the Bisons, he made two MLB injury rehabilitation starts with the Herd during the 1998 International League Governors' Cup Finals.
Meanwhile Mike Hessman will be inducted into the International League Hall of Fame while former manager Marty Brown and pitcher Joe Roa will be inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame.
9. The event games to circle on your calendar. There are plenty of promotions at the ballpark this year, but the biggest ones need some advance planning. Star Wars Night is June 2, the Independence Eve Celebration with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's postgame performance is, as always, July 3, while Superhero Night is Aug. 11. Other key dates include Blue Jays Weekend, scheduled for May 5-6 and a Ferguson Jenkins Bobblehead giveaway on Aug. 9.
10. No need to be hangry at the ballpark. Along with your ballpark staples, the Bisons unveiled some new food items for the season. To go with your Original Pizza Log will be an apple-filled dessert log with a warm dipping sauce. Other new concession items include hand-held mac & cheese cones, bacon-wrapped pork skewers and a black bean burger.
And lest you get tired of that same-old hot dog, this year will feature a homestand hot dog with variations including the Buffalo Dog, BBQ Bacon Dog and the Can-Am Dog, which is served with poutine on top of your hot dog.
For those heading inside to the Consumer's Pub at the Park, new items include the Giant Buffalo Pierogi, a half-pound stuffed pierogi filled with sliced Sahlen's hot dogs and sauerkraut topped with sautéed onions and Weber's mustard. Other items include waffle-battered chicken sliders topped with maple butter, shrimp po' boys and turkey post roast sandwiches.