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Bisons Swagger

Awesome moments at the ballpark, and it's only May

Those who managed to get down to the ballpark for any of the most recent homestand saw just about a bit of everything: pitching gems by Buffalo’s starters, pitching meltdowns by both opponents leading to a boatload of offense and four-hour baseball games, a stunning come-from-behind victory in extra innings, yet another walkoff victory to put an exclamation point on the week, the professional debut of a visiting Cuban phenom who throws gas. In the midst of it all is a Buffalo team that has flirted with first place in a crowded run to the top of the International League’s northern division.

Bisons slugger Mike Hessman.

What’s not to like about the 2010 Buffalo Bisons?

Here it is May, yet this year’s squad has already strung together some memorable ballpark moments, which have been sorely lacking around these parts in recent seasons. And especially last year, when the Bisons went 2-16 in April, en route to one of their most miserable seasons in the modern era.

What is most noticeable around the clubhouse and in the corridors and on the field at Coca-Cola Field this season is a quiet confidence, almost a swagger, emanating from this team. On nights when the pitching is suspect, the team explodes with tenacious offense. When the starting pitching is spot on, the defense looks solid. On nights when they lose, the manager and the players pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and promise to get back at it tomorrow.

Last week the Durham Bulls came to town, one of the league’s perennial powerhouses, and the Bisons took three of four games, none more spectacular then a 4-0 win on April 29, when the Bisons’ starting pitcher, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, surrendered a base hit to the first batter, then proceeded to retire the next 27 batters he faced.

Asked what it felt like to have such success against one of their elite opponents, Manager Ken Oberkfell shoots back, “Well, we like to think of ourselves as an elite team. Why not?”

Oberkfell gives a lot of reasons for the team’s resurgence after last year’s disappointing season: the insertion of a number of experienced six-year free agent veterans into the lineup, the fact that this year the organization has been healthy, and the addition of Terry Collins to the Mets organization to oversee their minor league operations. Many remember Collins from his time here in Buffalo, when he managed the Bisons to their first American Association division title, in those heady days when we dared to dream of becoming a major league city.

“He’s done about everything there is to do in this game,” Oberkfell says about Collins. “He knows the game of baseball. He lets us do our jobs and holds us accountable. He’s been a pleasant addition to our organization. We talk about old times from our own minor league days.”

Regarding the team, Oberkfell says, “I know the organization wanted to make sure and place a contending team here this year, so they went and got us those players who make a difference. Hessman, Cervanak, Pridie. Health was a big issue. Last year there were a lot of injuries, and it put players into situations where they weren’t ready to play at their level, but out of necessity they had no choice.”

Mike Hessman has had success at AAA wherever he has played. He was league MVP with Toledo in 2007 and was an integral part of championship seasons there. He was in the lineup for Richmond during the 2004 Governors Cup series against the Bisons, and hit a grand slam home run right here in Buffalo during that series. And already this season he is putting up some serious numbers as a Bison, so much so that fans are already making comparisons to former Bisons sluggers Jeff Manto and Russell Branyan.

So how does this team compare with some of the winning squads Hessman has played on? “We have a great mix of veterans who have a while with some great young prospects,” Hessman says. “I think it’s great having guys around who have been around the block a little bit and can keep the clubhouse light and fun and upbeat. We’re having fun on the road trips and it carries out into the games.” Hessman says this team compares closely to the teams he played on in Toledo. “We have a good veteran presence here. This team compares to the one we had there and it’s a fun group as well.

“There are days that we’ve hit very well and others where we haven’t, and same with pitching. As long as our pitchers keep us in the game we have a chance to win some games with the offense we have here. Even if we’re down four, five runs we can get right back in it. We’re still getting a feel for what we are and what we can do.”

While there are many new players on the 2010 Bisons roster, two members of the pitching staff were in Buffalo uniforms during much of the 2009 season. Elmer Dessens and Adam Pettyjohn can both see that this is a different year.

“Last year we had a lot of young players and it was hard for them to play over their heads,” Dessens says. “This year there are more experienced players here and they all want to win and it is having a good effect on this team.” Playing primarily in a closers role, Dessens has logged three saves and has built a 4-0 record coming from the bullpen, as of Saturday, May 8.

Adam Pettyjohn bristles at the notion that the 2009 Bisons were a “bad team.” “Last year the April team was a younger, much more inexperienced team, and this year you look up and down that lineup and there is so much more experience,” he says. “Plus last year we just stumbled out of the gate. When you can get some wins early on, it just loosens things up. Combine all that and it makes for such a different clubhouse atmosphere. Even last year, as bad as it was, we still had a good group of guys that at least made the best of it.”

Pettyjohn loved seeing the celebration and pileon at the plate when Buffalo got its 10th inning 6-4 victory a week ago Sunday. “I think they kind of know how to mesh and work together and they are all good people, their attitudes are right. They aren’t sitting here saying they wish they were up in New York or they got a raw deal. They realize that we’re here, let’s make the most of it, and let’s have a good time. That shows the team’s maturity.”

With a number of players batting over .300 and the entire gamut of pitching performances, from R.A. Dickey’s near perfect game to epic bullpen blowups, what sort of identity will this team establish moving forward? “That’s kind of hard to say,” says Oberkfell. “There are nights our pitchers are going to struggle…they’re only human. The good thing is we have players in our lineup who can turn the game around with one at bat. As long as we stay healthy, we’ll be fine.”

The Bisons return home on Friday, May 14, for another eight-game homestand, this time facing Norfolk and Charlotte, and it all starts with the fan favorite Friday Night Bash. Can we expect more epic and dramatic moments as we enjoyed last time around? “All I can say is that this team will continue to battle,” says Oberkfell. “We hope the fans will have fun, because I know we are.”

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