BY ANDREW KULYK & PETER FARRELL
June 30 was a happy day at Coca Cola Field as the Buffalo Bisons were unpacking their things after returning from a perfect road trip out west. They were riding a nine game winning streak, they had climbed to within two games of first place in the ultra competitive International League north division, the starting pitching rotation was lights out, hitters were hitting, and visions of a division title and first trip to the postseason since 2005 was on everybody’s mind.
In town were the division leading Scranton Wilkes Barre Rail Riders, bringing on their own superb pitching rotation and success, in what was being hyped as a key series. To top it all off, it was Independence Day weekend, the biggest of the year for the team in terms of fan attendance. With full houses expected and so much at stake, it was a perfect storm of anticipation for a minor league baseball set which doesn’t happen all that often.
The Bisons got swept. Four games. Four losses.
And it got uglier from there.
Facing division competition the team endured staggering losses, more to the Rail Riders, and to the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. Then facing two teams at home from the bottom feeding and weak South Division, the team went 1-6. Only a three game winning streak this past weekend against lowly Syracuse prevented the Bisons from recording their worst monthly record ever in the modern era. With 19 losses, the team equaled the shameful loss total for a month set just last August, that coming after the team was gutted, with the Blue Jays trading away several key prospects in the blockbuster deal which landed them ace pitcher David Price. And the most fascinating statistic of all – the team went through a nine game winning streak AND a nine game losing streak, all within a span of five weeks.
End result… The Bisons found themselves in 5th place in the 6 team IL North division as the month closed. It is August and there will be no pennant chase in Buffalo. The team will win a few games, lose a few games, there will be player call ups, of course, as the parent Toronto team is in the middle of things for another American League East crown. There will be promotion nights, fireworks nights, and then the curtain will come down on the Bisons 2016 season, and a playoff drought that will now stretch for 11 years under three different parent teams.
In this, the 4th season for the Bisons’ affiliation during the Blue Jays era, one could point to several factors contributing to the lack of on field success for the team. Injuries consumed the team during the late run in 2013. Last season the trades impacted the Blue Jays’ minor league roster at every level, not just here in Buffalo.
But, like in any sport, if a team is faltering, the buck usually stops with the head coach, or in the case if baseball, the field manager. That job has been held these past three seasons by Gary Allenson. It is time for him to go.
Allenson was a surprise appointee to the managers’ position prior to the 2014 season, after the wildly popular Marty Brown abruptly announced that he would not be coming back to manage the team. Rather than looking for the best available candidate, Toronto simply promoted Allenson from AA New Hampshire, where he had served as manager for one losing Fisher Cats season.
Following a six year MLB career spend mostly as a utility catcher, Allenson has been managing in the minor leagues, with several call up stints as MLB bench coach, for almost 21 seasons. During that stretch he has worked for 13, yes 13 different teams, at all levels from Rookie League to AAA, compiling an unimpressive 1245-1362 (.478) record during that time. His one shining moment was in his second year as a manager, winning the New York Penn League championship with the Oneonta Tigers.
The die hard Buffalo fans, and members of the media who cover the team, can clearly see that something is wrong within the clubhouse. In all three seasons of the Allenson era, the team has had excruciatingly slow starts at the plate, compiling dismal hit stats, little home run power, and this year’s embarrassing stat is the appalling number of double plays that the team has rung up.
Allenson bristles at any media criticism, usually talking down to any reporter who has the temerity to ask him a biting question. Quotes such as “it is what it is”, or rebuking people by saying “we covered this two days ago” is the norm for a manager who has few answers.
For the Bisons ownership and management, they have to be pulling their hair out in frustration. This is a front office team which develops and executes a top notch game day experience and often exceeds the bar in terms of professionalism. They make lemonade out of a lemon, using an aging ballpark which has fallen way behind its peer venues in terms of 21st century amenities. They have developed a marketing synergy and partnerships with the Blue Jays which are truly extraordinary, and it is showing in terms of gate attendance and the buzz about the organization both here and across the region right up to Toronto. The Bisons deserve better than this heaping pile of mediocrity bestowed upon them year in and year out.
Mark Shapiro, formerly the general manager of the Cleveland Indians and now Toronto president, is well known in Bisons circles. When he was introduced here in Buffalo back in April, Bisons general manager Mike Buczkowski loudly and explicitly let Shapiro know that the playoff drought was 10 years and running, and Shapiro said he heard the message loud and clear. Will Shapiro deliver, running an organization not generally known for building winners within its minor league network?
Meanwhile, back in Buffalo this past Sunday, Allenson beamed before the media and the in house production staff which films postgame interviews for the team’s web site, glowing about his squad’s third straight win and speaking wistfully about how his guys managed to overcome an early 4-0 deficit. Nursing a slim 6-5 lead, and Bisons closer Ryan Tepera loading the bases in the 9th but hanging on to get the save, Allenson made it sound like that was the scripted plan. “Tepera made it interesting,” he said, almost bragging.
Then, as he has done many times, Allenson segued into one of his old and meaningless tomes from his playing days. “The Orioles had a closer, there, back when I came up in ’79, named Don Stanhouse, that (Orioles manager) Earl Weaver couldn’t watch. He had two cigarettes going in the runway. It was eventually a two out, two count pitch with the bases loaded, so… as long as we win, we bend but don’t break.”
Bending but not breaking. Problem is, the Bisons have bent and broken way too many times during these past three seasons. If the Blue Jays are indeed serious about the importance of their AAA partner right down the QEW, they will make the necessary moves and bring in top notch talent to run the team come 2017, just as some of the more promising prospects in the system are making their way up the ladder from the low minors.