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Ken Huckaby thrilled with the chance to return to the dugout with Bisons

A roving schedule was fine. In and out of a town for a week or so. File your reports. But Ken Huckaby felt something was missing.

The former big-league catcher had been to Buffalo many times the last three years working with Bisons' receivers and often in the past as an opponent. So when Buffalo manager Bobby Meacham and the parent Toronto Blue Jays parted ways in September, Huckaby decided to put his name in front of Toronto brass for the Bisons' top job.

"I missed the field. I missed the individual relationships with the players," Huckaby said Friday in Sahlen Field as he was introduced to the Western New York media for the first time since being named Herd manager in November. "When this job became available, I just thought this was my opportunity."

Huckaby, 48, is Buffalo's 21st manager in the modern era of Triple-A baseball dating to 1985. He has been Toronto's minor league catching coordinator since 2017. Since joining the Blue Jays in 2013, he has twice served as a Class A manager, posting a 149-125 record and making the playoffs in 2015 at Lansing and 2016 at Dunedin.

Huckaby played 161 games in the big leagues with five teams from 2001-2006, with 128 of those coming for Toronto. He played 88 games for the Jays in 2002, batting .245 with three homers and 22 RBIs and becoming the personal catcher for much of a 19-win season from late Hall of Famer Roy Halladay that summer.

[Related content: Ken Huckaby's career statistics]

"This is a great baseball man and a great person," said Charlie Wilson, the Blue Jays' director of minor-league operations. "It's somebody that cares deeply about his players and cares deeply about his fellow coaches. He's a great Blue Jay.

"As a player, he was a great teammate, somebody everybody liked being around," Wilson said. "We loved having him in the clubhouse. That part resonated last summer at the Hall of Fame. (Halladay) loved 'Huck' and wanted Huck to catch every one of his games."

Huckaby will totally understand what his players are going through in Buffalo. He played 1,241 minor-league games over 18 seasons and spent seven full seasons with five teams in Triple-A from 1995-2001 before finally getting his first big-league callup to Arizona. Before retiring in 2008 with Omaha, Huckaby played 886 games in Triple-A with 10 teams.

"My experience at this level as a player allows me to connect with them on a level that I've been through everything they've been through," Huckaby said. "The question is not that you got sent down or didn't make the major league team. The best managers I played for wanted to know how they could help me get back to the major leagues and stay."

Huckaby is given huge credit for the development of Buffalo catchers Reese McGuire and Danny Jansen into major-leaguers. Now his challenge is to mold an entire team.

"We live by a motto, 'They don't care what you know until they know that you care,'" he said. "I lived by that when it came to the catchers. I'm fortunate that I got to rove and I know potentially who could be here. I know a lot of these guys on a personal level but I don't know them. That will be my challenge to dive right in."

The Blue Jays have not made the playoffs in Buffalo since arriving in 2013. The Bisons hold the longest playoff drought in the International League, dating to 2005. Their last Governors Cup title was in 2004.

"Our team motto this year is going to be 'Are you ready?' Are you ready to win the Governors Cup is the first question I ask the team," Huckaby said. "And if they're not ready to win the Governors Cup, then we're in the wrong place."

The Bisons may not have the flashy bats in their lineup like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette or Cavan Biggio but the Blue Jays have already retained veteran Andy Burns and 25-home run man Patrick Kivlehan from last year's club. And the headline attraction should be 6-foot-6 right-hander Nate Pearson, ticketed for stardom in the Toronto rotation.

Pearson struck out 119 batters in 101 2/3 innings over three levels last year and made his Triple-A debut with three starts for the Bisons in August.

"Our goal is to get these guys to the big leagues and I hope Nate Pearson makes the starting rotation in Toronto coming out of spring training," Huckaby said. "But if he doesn't? Holy cow, yes, I'm fired up to have Nate Pearson on my staff if he doesn't make that team. He's a special treat to watch, he's a specimen, he's humble, he's going to be a leader in that clubhouse and he'll be fun for people in Buffalo to watch."

Like anyone around baseball these days, Huckaby was asked his thoughts on the ongoing sign-stealing scandal surrounding the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox. Major League Baseball has warned teams not to say much on the situation and Huckaby said he's only read cursory news reports on it.

"I'm glad that it's been found out and that discipline was taken for it," he said. "I am happy for that, but anything further I can't speak intelligently to."

Huckaby is the Bisons' fourth manager during the Toronto affiliation. Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Marty Brown (2013), Gary Allenson (2014-2016) and Meacham (2017-2019) previously led the Herd under the Toronto umbrella.

Meacham, who mutually agreed to part ways with Toronto after last year's 71-69 finish, has joined Joe Girardi's big-league staff in Philadelphia as a coaching assistant. Meacham had previously worked with Girardi in both Florida and New York.

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