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For Many Bisons Players, A Strange New World

Acclimating to Buffalo life

If you are a baseball fan who showed up for Opening Day at Coca Cola Field, and you didn’t recognize a lot of the players on the Bisons roster, you were not alone.

Only four players who were with the team in the past were back. During the offseason the Mets pretty much retooled the AAA roster, and even brought in a new field manager, Wally Backman, to run the team.

And that means that many of the guys wearing Buffalo on their jerseys are new to our city, many of them setting foot in Buffalo for the very first time—and that means a lot of exploring and finding places to go and things to do as they check out their digs for the very first time.

We caught up with two of the new Bisons, catcher Rob Johnson and outfielder Adam Loewen. Both players have racked up ample time on major league rosters. Both have extensive personal experience shuttling up and down between the majors and the minors. And both had never even been to Buffalo prior to the opening of the season earlier this month.

“The only thing I knew about Buffalo was the Buffalo Bills, when Jim Kelly was here,” said Johnson. “It’s been a bit cold the first week, but folks tell me that the fans are great here. The stadium is beautiful, and it seems like it’s pretty alive downtown. I’m looking forward to getting around, walking the streets a bit, check out Niagara Falls as well. “

Like many of the players, it’s difficult for Johnson to establish firm roots in a minor league city. Often players are a phone call away from a trip to the Bigs and have to be ready at leave at a moment’s notice. “Some guys get apartments, some guys stay with friends they may know,” Johnson said. “As for me I’m just at the Extended Stay [Hotel] right now, moving in and out. On top of things my wife is pregnant and down in Texas, so I’ll be heading back when the baby arrives for a couple days. Otherwise my family would normally be here with me.”

Loewen’s career in sports has taken strange twists. As a youngster in his native Vancouver, he originally played hockey before turning to baseball. Then he started that career as a pitcher, before an injury and problems with his mechanics forced him to switch to a position player. “I literally had to re learn the game as a hitter,” he said. “There were a lot of setbacks at first.”

Loewen is a rabid supporter of the Vancouver Canucks and has been following his team’s fortunes throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs. Loewen and several of his teammates were feted at the final regular season game at First Niagara Center between the Sabres and the Leafs. “I caught my first Sabres game and thought it was one of the better hockey arenas I have ever been to. The fans were just going nuts. I’ve not often seen such great fans. And I come from Vancouver, one of the best places to play hockey. So I’ve been rather surprised at how awesome it’s been here.”

As for any preconceived notions about Buffalo? “Anytime you find out you’re going to a new city, you want to learn as much as possible about that place,” Loewen said. “I really didn’t know too much as to what to expect, but so far it’s been all positive. Nice ballpark, looks like a good place to walk around. Just need some time to explore and check things out. It’s been all day games so far.”

Johnson is very much aware that there was another famous Rob Johnson who wore a uniform here in Buffalo: the former Bills quarterback. “I’ve been approached by fans here, and they ask ‘You play football?’” Johnson said. “No, I didn’t play football. I went to Saddleback Junior College in California and they are affiliated with USC, where Johnson played. So some people thought that was me making the transition from football into baseball.

“It’ll be interesting to find out if I catch any flack from the fans.”

This Rob Johnson dons the number 46, with teammate Mike Fisher wearing the number 11.

Some Bisons players will be here for the full season and maybe more, while others might be gone in a blink of an eye. Many of the newbies sound a similar refrain: Check out Niagara Falls and the attractions, and get recommendations for the best Buffalo chicken wings. “I’m a foodie, always like to try new stuff,” Johnson said. “I hear they even have a wing festival right at this stadium?”

Wingfest, Rob, and it’s the bomb.

Around the bases...

• The Bisons mascot race, featuring Wing, Bleu Cheese, and Celery, is in year two, and after nine races, Celery finds himself winless. The Herd comes home Friday night with the first Fridaynightbash. And the mascots will be racing.

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