Team still getting settled in a post-pandemic era
For the Buffalo Bisons, the year 2019 seems light-years away.
That was the season before Covid. Early 2020 came with an announcement of a new management team, following the reassignment of longtime General Manager Mike Buczkowski to a senior position in the Rich Baseball Group. And then the pandemic hit.
Not only was the entire minor league baseball world shut down in 2020, but then the Toronto Blue Jays came to town to set up their temporary residence in Buffalo once Major League Baseball resumed play, with Canada on strict lockdown and not allowing any nonessential travel across the border.
Sahlen Field was the beneficiary of millions of dollars in upgrades courtesy of the Blue Jays. An entirely new playing surface. New LED lighting for the field. Redesigned bullpens. A batting cage facility beyond right field. And an entirely reconfigured service level, clubhouse, and training facility which would be the envy of several Major League clubs, let alone all of minor league baseball.
The Blue Jays played their entire 2020 home campaign in a walled-off ballpark in downtown Buffalo. No fans were admitted. Any entrants to the stadium, meaning essential personnel to run the event, limited media, and team officials from Toronto and Buffalo, were subject to strict and onerous health screenings, masking, and extreme social distancing protocols. A brief glimpse of the action could only be enjoyed while passing the ballpark from the Thruway or the off-ramps.
No matter. Manor League Baseball was being played on Buffalo soil. MLB viewers across the United States in Canada were seeing stadium glimpses and skyline shots and plates of weck and wings from right here in Buffalo, New York.
Come 2021 the world was getting vaccinated and society began its march to a new normal world. Yet Canada and their border remained closed. And that meant that the Toronto Blue Jays would be calling Buffalo home once again until the Canadian government and the team could find a way to accommodate games safely at Rogers Centre.
This time, fans were allowed into Sahlen Field. For two magical months, local sports fans were given the unique and most likely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see real and live Major League Baseball in this city, the first such occurrence in over a century.
Yankees fans packed the ballpark in July in a memorable homestand. When Toronto finally returned home to Canada last August, fans had a treasure trove of memories and moments to embrace forever.
As for the Bisons?
“We became a traveling road team and set up shop in Trenton, New Jersey for much of 2021,” said Anthony Sprague, who became the team’s new General Manager in 2020 and only now is overseeing his first full season as the face of the team’s front office.
Many Buffalo fans have probably not noticed that, coming out of the pandemic season and the lost season, their Bison, still the top affiliate of the Blue Jays, have become good. Really good.
The team clinched their division title last year, the first since 2005 when they were still affiliated with the Cleveland Indians. Minor League Baseball did not stage a playoff derby last season, and this year’s playoff structure will be vastly different than in the past. More on that later.
This year’s Buffalo Bisons squad, led by manager Casey Candaele, is sitting atop the International League East Division standings as the All Star break looms. The Bisons have faced challenges cobbling together a starting rotation, yet have found ways to win, compiling a 21-15 road record. This past week the team posted dramatic walk-off wins at home against the St. Paul Saints and that has just added fuel to their winning culture.
We sat down with Sprague to talk about the state of the team, how they weathered through the pandemic, and where the franchise is going.
“Opening Day was a special feeling because it was our first true opening day after these last two years,” said Sprague referring to the team’s return in April.
When the Blue Jays departed last August, the Bisons had less than two weeks to prep the ballpark for the team’s return from New Jersey. The myriad of tasks were many… .secure housing for field personnel and players, reconfigure signage and branding throughout the ballpark, get broadcast crews up and running,, set up concession personnel, price and market tickets, and get ready for a season that for the first time in the modern era would extend to the end of September.
Mind you, Buffalo’s situation was unique amongst the 120 franchises in organized minor league baseball. Once baseball resumed in 2021, teams were able to execute their schedule and welcome fans back in accordance with local health regulations in each community. But for the Bisons, they were off to the wind, out of sight and out of mind for most Buffalo fans.
“We’re not back to normal. We tried to staff as best we could. We did not know back in October and November where we would be in June.. We tried to plan the promotions and the game day experience for fans as best we could. With an entire season under our belts it will be much easier for us to hit the off-season ground running and plan for a better overall organizational experience come 2023,” said Sprague.
The ongoing border situation has posed challenges for the Bisons, and they are still feeling the effects of that. The team has put a great deal of time and treasure to establish and reinforce a fan base in southern Ontario all the way up to Toronto. Blue Jays fans in past seasons have been actively solicited to come to Buffalo and watch their prospects. Bisons games are broadcast up in Canada. Stop by the Duty Free store at the Peace Bridge, and you can’t miss the signs behind the check out offering Bisons tickets and packages, as easy to buy as a bottle of spirits.
Yet the convoluted border situation remains a challenge and a bundle of confusion to many.
Nonessential border travel was not permitted for about a year and a half. When Canada finally allowed casual travel into their country last fall, it was only with proof a negative PCR Covid test 72 hours or less before traveling, requiring jumping through hoops at free testing sites or paying ridiculous moneys to obtain a timely test.
That requirement was lowered to a rapid test back in February, before being eliminated two months later. Canada finally eliminated the need for a filed quarantine plan in April for travelers, although still doing random testing at the border.
What remains is Canada’s “ArriveCan” app, which requires cross border travelers, American or Canadian, to fill out a voluminous questionnaire, fill in vaccination information, and upload photos of vaccination cards and travel documents. It has been a drag on tourism going both ways.
“Significant impact,” said Sprague. “I haven’t made the trip up since pre pandemic and I am sure it’s the same for Canadians coming down. There’s the extra hindrance of the ArriveCan app and they are a big part of our business. Canadian fans are 25% of our business and we are certainly nowhere near that 25% level.” Sprague gave credit to the efforts of local Congressman Brian Higgins, who has been a fierce advocate of full and unfettered reopening of the shared border throughout the post pandemic era. “Brian has been a great friend to the Bisons and we’re on board for anything he can do to help. We’re just hoping that at some point during the summer this will be lifted and people can come and go as they have in the past.”
The Bisons are in their 10th year as the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, a partnership which is now in place through the 2030 season. Sprague is resolute that this partnership is well suited for both the Blue Jays and the Bisons. “The Canadian fan base coming over, we wouldn’t want to have it any other way. I think they feel the same way about their Buffalo partners.”
In recent seasons the Bisons have wrapped their season amongst signature events. This year’s Star Wars night, known widely amongst the sporting world as one of the signature events of this nature, drew a huge crowd and another chapter in the saga was written. Mark the calendar because this year’s Independence Day promotion featuring the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is actually taking place right on July 4th. The event has been held on July 3rd in past years.
As for the Kids Day school promotion. That was a huge rainout as a freak weather event happened at the most inopportune time to send disappointed children, most on field trips in school busses, home. “Yeah that one hurt,” said Sprague. “That’s one we can’t reschedule. We can never get that one back. We plan with the schools months in advance and all we can do is offer two for one tickets and hopefully the kids will bring mom or dad this summer.”
Sprague lamented the weather misfortunes plaguing the team this season. “We’ve had a rainout every homestand. We haven’t been unscathed even when games did go on.
This year’s schedule runs through September 28, with the Bisons hosting two homestands during the months of September. Pre pandemic, the teams in the minors always wrapped up things by Labor Day.
As for the playoffs, AAA will host a four-team single-elimination tournament in Las Vegas a the end of September, with the two division winners from the International League facing each other. That winner will then face the Pacific Coast League champion for the AAA crown.
The Buffalo Bisons have not hosted a playoff game here at Sahlen Field since 2005. Is the lack of any playoff baseball in our city a setback for the team? Sprague replied, “You always love the idea of your team competing and maybe winning a championship before the home fans. But if our league wants to try something different, I get it. Sort of creating a ‘Final Four’ in AAA baseball and hoping it catches on and turns into something. But if Buffalo is lucky enough to make it to that tournament, for sure I’d be disappointed that our fans and season ticket holders couldn’t witness live that moment unless they traveled to Vegas. But I understand the concept. And what they are trying to do.”
“Fall baseball in September is something we’re looking forward to. September is the best month. But it will take a few years for people to get the idea of September baseball. It sure is better than some of those cold April games.”
Sprague was literally going from place to place inside the ballpark when he pivoted for this interview, checking on concessions, walking through issues, and a myriad of to-do items that needs staff attention. “We just need more time. From staffing to planning, to get everyone in the swing of things. There’s such a long list of things that need attention. I am happy with the way things have gone and can’t say enough about my staff. We need a true full offseason of normalcy to learn the job and execute the elements. We will get there.”
Sprague eluded a lot of confidence in the future, and exhorted fans to come back if they haven’t already to experience Bisons baseball and catch the excitement of a winning team on the field.
Managing what is now the oldest ballpark in the International League, Sprague gave every bit of credit to the owners Bob and Mindy Rich, the city of Buffalo, and the Blue Jays for keeping this facility relevant, in an era where Major League Baseball applies a point system to evaluate every metric of the player experience and facility suitability. “The Richs have poured tens of millions into this ballpark to keep this place up, said Sprague. “The Blue Jays left us with remarkable player facilities. This team and this franchise is a community treasure. Now it’s my job and the job of our staff to keep this going. Are we up for it? We are and we will be.”