It was April. The beginning of another baseball season when everyone is optimistic. But as Bobby Meacham returned to Buffalo to manage the Bisons for a second year, he was more than just hopeful. On paper, the Bisons were playoff contenders. The young talent in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system was maturing, moving up the ladder, and it looked as if the Bisons would finally end a 12-year playoff drought.
But it didn't play out that way.
The Bisons closed out their final homestand Monday night with a 4-2 loss to the Pawtucket Red Sox. That put them 16 1/2 games out of the International League North Division lead and 7 1/2 games back in the wild card race.
"I thought we had a great team," Meacham said. "I thought we were going to the playoffs and were going to win this thing. I really did believe that. That's a disappointment that none of that happened."
There were some bright spots, such as the major league debuts of catcher Danny Jansen and pitcher Sean Reid-Foley.
"The silver lining is those guys did get called up," Meacham said. "Sometimes circumstances get in the way of what we're trying to do or sometimes they enhance what we're trying to do."
In his final day meeting with the media at Coca-Cola Field on Monday, Meacham spoke about the season, his impressions of hot prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and his own growth as a manager.
Here's what he said:
Q: With expectations of making the playoffs this year, what went wrong for the Bisons?
Meacham: Several things. Typically when you have a Triple-A team and something happens in the big leagues, guys have to go. Especially guys who are talented. Once they leave, there's a hole to be filled. And sometimes when guys aren't ready to fill those holes — Double-A players who are really good but maybe not quite ready for this level. We had guys who played well at Double-A last year then had to make an adjustment to this level and see guys go (to Toronto) and them stay here. I think that affects people, too. Basically I think there were just a few guys who didn't play to the level they thought they were going to and we had a few guys that played over that level and are up with the big-league club right now. That took away a little bit from our team. And you know what, the other team is getting paid, too. We've got a lot of competition.
Q: What has impressed you about Vladimir Guerrero Jr.?
Meacham: To me, the biggest thing is how he handles himself. Not even on the field. I'm talking about off the field where, I'm not even thinking about fans, I'm thinking about how our organization tries to help him along to grow. And sometimes it gets in the way. We want this special program for you. We want this special way of nutrition. We want this special way to lift weights. We want this special way to take ground balls. We want to make sure of everything, right?
And it's grinding on a player, any person really, to have every single day that way for six months for however many years he's been with us. That's tough to handle, to take it all and sort through what you need to be able to go out and perform at 7 o'clock after all that. He's done a great job of sorting through things. He's done a great job of I think filtering out the stuff that's not going to help him for 7 o'clock, but you can tell he understands what everyone's doing. He understands everyone is trying to help me, but I'm not going to let it get in the way of being good.
He knows when he runs a ball out what that means to his teammates. When he goes first to third it's not just for him and the Blue Jays. He knows how it's going to make everyone around him feel. He senses that. That's what leaders do.
Q: Has anyone surprised you this year?
Meacham: Not really. There's a couple guys that I heard things about that I'm like, OK. Reid-Foley is one of them. I heard all these things about him but I kind of thought "whatever." I heard he's real emotional so he gets out of whack. I saw a guy who came here and just was really comfortable with his routine. Got beat up a couple of times early. Went to take him out and it didn't flinch him. I asked. I talked to him about it and he said, "I'm just going to stick to my routine." When I watched the sideline in between starts, he was just locked in. He was routine-oriented. No emotion. Not high or low. That was surprising.
Q: So do you have to balance the reports you hear about players with keeping an open mind for your own observations?
Meacham: I think about when I was playing, I knew what people were saying when I was in high school, college or even the pros. I knew what they were saying and most of it wasn't true. Whether it was good or bad. "He's a great guy." Well, not really. I've got moments. I've got problems, too. … So I remember that people thought about me in certain ways that weren't true. So I'm going to see for myself. I'm not just going to take someone else's word for it. I've been in this game a long time and a lot of things I've said about people didn't turn out right. I take that also into consideration when I'm trying to push the right buttons for these guys.
Q: What has impressed you the most about this group?
Meacham: It's been good to see these guys still focused. I feel some satisfaction in the fact that they're playing hard, grinding it out while we're winding down. It seems like we're not playing for anything. There's a lot of reasons for them to not go out and work hard. But they've actually stepped it up. It shows you what their character is like.
I was talking to my wife today and it's what I really like about my job — to see men get better at what they do, not only on the field but also their character. They have to dig deep and think about some things in the middle of their season, in the middle of their lives, whether things are going good or bad. It's gratifying to see how hard they work under a lot of pressure with a lot at stake, a lot of guys passing them up and going to the big leagues. But they keep digging and working hard.
Q: How have you seen yourself grow as a manager?
Meacham: I talk with (pitching coach Bob Stanley) and say, "Remember four years ago, would I have done that?" Naw. I'm a lot calmer now. I'm a lot more, I think, more respectful of what guys have to do, whether it's players, coaches, umpires. I feel like I'm trying to be more respectful of how hard their job is. I try to make sure I keep the players in mind. That's the root of why I do everything. What's the root of why I go out and argue a call? What's the root of why I don't? What's the root of why I want these guys to take batting practice today and what's the root of why I don't? As long as it feels like it's because I'm trying to do not what's best for me or best for them, but what's the right thing to do, which is a big difference, I feel like I'm doing the right thing. There are a lot of decisions every day and some of them are wrong, but I feel like I'm getting better at it.