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Mike Harrington: Lots of change coming when fans return to ballpark next season

Farewell to another Buffalo baseball season and start the countdown to April 4, revealed Monday as Opening Day 2019.

Farewell to Coca-Cola Field for another fall and winter – and actually forever more.

When we reconvene downtown in 220 days, the downtown ballpark will open Year 32 of its existence with its fifth name. Yes, I realize most of you still call it "Pilot Field" but the building has morphed from its original name through North AmeriCare Park, Dunn Tire Park and its current salute to Coke.

Now, no one really cares what the new name is unless it's something ridiculous (think Chicago's Guaranteed Rate Field). And while the park should be named after Luke Easter or former Mayor Jimmy Griffin, that's not the reality of sports these days. So we're just going to accept there's a new name coming and deal with it.

Time for a change. Under Coca-Cola Field, the Bisons didn't make the playoffs in any of their 10 seasons. They wrapped up the home schedule with Monday's 4-2 loss to Pawtucket and this will be the 13th straight year with no postseason baseball in Buffalo.

It's the longest drought – sorry to use that word – in the International League. And it's particularly troublesome when you consider the club went to the playoffs nine times in its first 11 years with the Cleveland Indians. But since 2006, there's been nothing.

This season has been another wash since July 4 week. It's going to be the fourth straight sub-.500 record in the Toronto Blue Jays affiliation, which has been a rousing success at the turnstiles and merchandise stands but mostly a flop on the field.

At least this year, we got a fix of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

In the first inning Monday, Guerrero belted a William Cuevas pitch over the wall in deep left-center and the Fan Appreciation Night crowd erupted. It was Guerrero's fifth home run of the season in Triple-A and 10th extra-base hit for the Bisons – all of them coming at home.

Fat 2-0 curveballs deserve to be deposited deep over the wall, and this one was.

"It's a pitch that's hanging," Guerrero said through teammate/interpreter Michael De La Cruz. "I put a good swing on it and made good contact."

"That's the key," said manager Bobby Meacham. "You can't foul them off or take them for strikes. You saw him take a good swing on a pitch that wasn't supposed to be there."

Guerrero has done all of his damage in Triple-A at home, batting .397 in his 16 games downtown with five doubles, five homers and 12 of his 13 RBIs. His on-base percentage at home was .456, his slugging mark was .741, and his OPS was an obscene 1.197. His defense has been better than expected, and his disposition has been happy-go-lucky every day.

The Vladdy Bump has been real at the gate, too. The Bisons nearly filled the house Monday with a crowd of 16,314, and that's not unusual for the home finale. What has been unique to Vlad is that nine of the final 10 dates this season have seen more than 10,000 tickets sold for a team with no connection to the playoff race other than reading about it.

Thanks mostly to Guerrero, the Bisons finished with their second-highest per-game average in the last 10 years. The figure of 8,250 was just behind the 8,273 in 2013, the first year the Blue Jays were in town.

"The players like it, and I'm glad we have that many fans cheering for us," Meacham said. "It's good to see the kid rose to the occasion. It didn't bother him and he loves it. It's just what he has in front of him too, right?"

Sure does. Guerrero may be back at the start of next season, as the Blue Jays finagle his service time clock. But Meacham, yet another in a string of good guys to man the Buffalo dugout, probably won't be.

The injuries in Toronto and the Blue Jays' incessant tinkering has led to 72 players appearing for the Herd this season and 235 roster transactions. With a week left in the season, the Bisons will almost certainly break the modern-era marks of 73 and 239, respectively. Not a recipe for any sort of continuity that can create a winning team.

Nor does it help the manager keep the peace when guys are looking more at the transaction wire than doing their jobs. Meacham had to deal with Dalton Pompey's insubordination that landed the Toronto-born outfielder on the suspended list, and there were rumors of a couple other dugout and clubhouse dust-ups between players as the season went along.

But say this for Meacham's crew: There was no quit in them. After going 22-37 in June and July, the Bisons are 14-12 in August.

It would be no surprise to see the Blue Jays bring Double-A skipper John Schneider to Buffalo next season with all of the kids he's directed to a division championship at Double-A New Hampshire.

New faces in the dugout, new name on the dugout roof, the scoreboard and stadium facade. Probably needed all around.

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