When will we see baseball again here in our city?
This past Sunday afternoon… The final out at Sahlen Field. The Toronto Blue Jays dropped a 7-5 decision to the visiting Baltimore Orioles to finish this truncated regular season. There were no fireworks, or dancing mascots tossing prizes into the stands. No booming public address announcer shouting platitudes to the loyal fans and thanking them for a summer of support.
A few Toronto players took to the mound and the baselines to toss balls around and take one long last look at the venue they called home for these past two months. Members of the grounds crew scurried about performing their perfunctory tasks. High above the field, photojournalists and writers sat at their socially distanced work stations, awaiting the postgame news conference on Zoom. A strange silence descended on the downtown ballpark.
Up in the specially crafted and spacious press area high above home plate in the Sahlen Field mezzanine level, Buffalo Bisons and Rich Baseball President Mike Buczkowski mused, “Will we be seeing this all back here again come next April?”
It took a minute or so to allow to sink in what Buczkowski meant. He was not speculating a world that would be back to somewhat normal, and the Buffalo Bisons returning to play their 2021 minor league schedule. He was wondering aloud about a continuation of this Covid-19 era, with empty entertainment venues, lockdowns, protocols, a still closed USA-Canada border, and the return of the Toronto Blue Jays to play their new season here in Buffalo, at a walled-off secure venue devoid of fans.
The Buffalo Bisons organization, already beset with such huge disappointments due to the pandemic, a lost season, significant financial challenges, job cutbacks, and just trying to keep the lights on and keeping the organization running, head into an offseason full of uncertainties.
To begin with, there is the overall state of Minor League Baseball as a whole. Even before the pandemic, Major League Baseball had rolled out a plan to cut down the number of affiliated minor league teams to 120, a reduction of over 40 teams. Many of these cuts would affect the lower tiers of teams, but for communities where their baseball team is a source of civic pride, and equally as important, where the investment of tens of millions of dollars have been made in new and improved stadiums, such a loss would be devastating.
For the Buffalo Bisons and the AAA tier of baseball, things are in a state of flux. The 30 franchise tier of teams at this level might even be reconfigured from two to three different leagues. Still uncertain is the financial health of some of the Bisons’ peer franchises, some of whom secured federal payroll protection loans to help keep them afloat.
There will be at least one change in the International League; the franchise known as the Pawtucket Red Sox has played their final game in their venue in Rhode Island. The “PawSox” move on to their gleaming new ballpark in Worcester, Massachusetts, come 2021. Incredibly, that will give Buffalo’s Sahlen Field the distinction of being the oldest ballpark in the currently configured International League, (‘nee 1988).
And there’s more… this past week the Bisons learned that their newly appointed field manager, Ken Huckaby, had abruptly been terminated by the Blue Jays before taking to the field for even one game in a Buffalo uniform. Huckaby had spent the summer directing operations at the Blue Jays reserve team based in Rochester’s Frontier Field, and was just told that he does not figure into the Blue Jays plans moving forward.
For the Bisons, this is a big blow. While the Toronto and Buffalo franchises have enjoyed unparalleled success with cross branding and marketing synergies, such has not been the case with success on the field.
The Toronto Blue Jays have not exactly been known for triumphs and championships at the minor league level. The Eastern League championship in New Hampshire in 2018, Toronto’s AA affiliate, was an outlier.
Over the course of seven seasons as Toronto’s AAA affiliate, the team has failed to reach the postseason even once. The Bisons endured the bluster and erratic leadership of the oafish Gary Allenson as manager. Manager Bobby Meacham brought a sense of calm and order to the Bisons clubhouse but failed to take the team to that next step, although he was instrumental in helping develop the needed players for Toronto’s two playoff appearances these past years.
Huckaby’s arrival was hoped to be that manager who could lead the team to the top of the minors. Now it’s anybody’s guess as to who will be the Bisons manager when the team resumes play. Judging from past actions by the Blue Jays, it will be that random guy within the team’s coaching staff who is deemed to be the good fit.
Most importantly is the overall uncertainty of… well… just about everything.
At this stage, schedules would have been announced for the 2021 season. The team would be sending out renewals to season ticket holders, start reaching out to their database of groups and suite rentals to secure renewals, reach out to sponsors and broadcast partners, organizing promotional nights and themes, ordering bobbleheads and giveaways, reviewing their food offerings and team store merchandise offerings.
Instead, team management is staring into the abyss. Waiting to see if promised vaccines are rolled out in early 2021, or not until later next year as some timelines have suggested. Waiting to see if that dreaded “second wave” hits the population, or if the pandemic slows down. Waiting to see if New York State, which has done a better job than most states in keeping the numbers at bay and keeping us alive and healthy, relaxes their restrictions to allow stadiums, arenas and concert halls to open up again. Waiting to see if all other states where International League franchises are based allow their sports venues to open and host fans in person. Waiting to see if a national election brings out the best in America and our ideals, and a new sense of hope and purpose, or more of the same divisiveness that has been tearing our country apart.
Buczkowski’s mood and tone was a somber one as baseball’s regular season concluded this past Sunday, perhaps the last time we will see Major League Baseball in Buffalo in our lifetimes.
In reality, what Buffalo, as host for the Toronto Blue Jays managed to pull off, was nothing short of a miracle.
In the course of less than three weeks, Toronto transformed an aging minor league ballpark into a working MLB facility. For two months, scenes of Buffalo, its gleaming skyline and waterfront scenes, its heaping plates of chicken wings and mouthwatering beef on weck, it’s wonkish and quirky ballpark seating bowl configuration festooned with ads and billboards of recognizable Canadian retailers, have been beamed into homes across the United States and Canada.
For Blue Jays players, Buffalo became a comfortable home and a comfortable playing field, garnering a 17-9 home record and helping to gain them a berth in MLB’s expanded 2020 playoffs, where they will open the best of three wild card series against the Tampa Bay Rays (All games will be staged at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg).
Yes, there were some bad reviews. None more comical than by those of the New York Yankees, who kvetched to anyone who would listen about the poor field lighting every time their team got blown out on the Buffalo field. Funny how the lights seemed to work just fine on the few occasions they got the win. But we are talking about the New York Yankees, arguably the most self-entitled franchise in all of sports.
This week a great deal of the temporary amenities built into around Buffalo’s Sahlen Field will be dismantled and carted away. First of all, the large visiting clubhouse structure in the centerfield parking lot. The foreboding fence barriers will be removed, bringing the streetscape to a sense of normalcy.
We’re hoping that the Bisons maintain a few of the design elements into the repurposed into a 2021 ballpark and game day experience. The Blue Jays canopies, colors and branding look slick and cool and some may be maintained. Outfield dimensions listed in feet and meters? Why not. Announcement of game day weather conditions in both Fahrenheit and Celsius. A no brainer.
Not really a Blue Jays thing, but presenting the rendition of “Oh Canada”, the national anthem of Canada, in hybrid English and French, from time to time. Can we audition?
When this era in our lifetimes passes, perhaps Buczkowski, his management team can finally look back on these games, exhale, and appreciate the magnitude of their accomplishments. Buffalo became a major league baseball town for two magical months. No other minor league city in the realm of organized baseball can make that claim.
See you in April of 2021… Play Ball!