Borders connected: Toronto meets Buffalo

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 It’s a move that may make some Buffalonians cringe, but the Buffalo Bisons becoming the minor league affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays would be nothing short of a shrewd business move for both parties. Yes, the thought of Toronto being the big brother to Buffalo in a sports-related manner is hardly comforting, but it is satisfying in thinking about the cumbersome prospects a move of this nature presents to both cities and their respective ball clubs.

For the most part, ticket sales for Bisons’ games have been declining for the past decade. A significant percentage of that drop has been since 2009, the year the Mets took over as the parent club to AAA Buffalo. That is the majority problem. Do fans really want to watch Mets’ prospects? The attendance figures trend that question downward.

There were no substantial questions among media or fans regarding Coca-Cola Field (as it is called now) attendance (at least to my knowledge) while the team was associated with the Cleveland Indians from 1995-2008. That partnership was seamless, with people going to the ball park for a cheap night out — and watching a winning team. The Bisons made it to five International League Championship Series’ as part of the Indians organization, winning three of them. Fans were getting great value for their tickets. The Mets have not even fielded a marginal comparison to those teams during the four-year allegiance.

Even when the Bisons did not qualify for the postseason the last three years in association with Cleveland, fans still supported their team by heading downtown for a night out. From 2005-2008, the Bisons were in the top three in average league attendance. As per the same source, average attendance in Buffalo has not cracked higher than fifth the last four years with the Mets. They are in the middle-of-the-pack in attendance now. If this were fantasy baseball, like the interest in Mets’ prospects, attendance at Bisons games would be trending downward. The two go hand-in-hand. Little interest in the Mets and National League baseball equates to fewer viewers.

It is no coincidence folks in Buffalo watched more AAA baseball when the team was farming Indians and not Metropolitans. People seemed to truly care about the Cleveland farm system (an American League team), as it surely contributed to the fandom of many Cleveland baseball fans that reside Buffalo. The closeness of the two cities also was a factor, as Bisons fans could routinely make day trips to the see the big league club.

I don’t know too many Mets fans (an N.L. team), and none that became fans once the affiliation between New York and Buffalo began. Strictly talking baseball, Western New York is an area dominated by American League Fans, more specifically, the American League East. There are the arrogant, but proud Yankees fans (okay, a slightly subjective statement I admit, but only because I fall into the next category), the recently distraught and lost Red Sox fans, the on-the-rise Rays fans, and then the ones that root for the neighboring Blue Jays. Aside from the aforementioned ones that hopped on the Indians train a while back, it seems most fans in Western New York root for a team from the dominant A.L. East.

I consider myself quite an ardent baseball fan. I watch games with much interest when I get the chance and understand the beauty of the game a lot of people don’t. However, I have been to one Bison game since the switch to the Mets. Not because I don’t enjoy minor league baseball, but because being the farm team to a National League team — the lowly Mets at that — does not gauge my interest much.

I remember going to tons of games (mostly Friday games) in the late ‘90’s with my parents, sister, aunt and uncle. Those Friday night bashes in the bleacher seats of the former North AmeriCare Park and Dunn Tire Park were filled with the excitement of minor league legend Jeff Manto’s electric bat (who seemed to hit two homers every game I was at), mosquitoes swarming the right field bleachers we sat in, fireworks, ballpark franks and good family fun. The entertainment those games provided augmented my interest in major league baseball. It was as if the minor leagues were a stepping stone for me as a fan, as I developed my fandom skills before working my way up to watching “The Show.”

In those early days I actually paid attention to the International League standings and cared if the Bisons won or lost. I would also eye the Indians record, as I was aware how the farm system worked. From then on, I would exclusively watch American League baseball, as I was infatuated with the idea that there would be a guy on each team that bats, but does not field. I liked that idea so much because during my brutally bad little league career I loved to hit, but loathed fielding a position.

As much as it pains me to say, when I wasn’t watching games downtown, I would watch the only access to baseball I had — the damn Yankees. My whole family loved them, so I figured I’d give them a try, and I did become a fan, if only for a short period of time. Perhaps my favorite memory was when I was eight or nine years old and Chuck Knoblauch in that peculiar batting stance of his, popped a ball sky high in the infield. Clearly unhappy, he gave his bat a hard spike into the ground that Rob Gronkowski would be envious of. He then proceeded to scream, “FUCCCCKK,” which was picked up loud and clear by the telecast. I laughed my little ass off. Expectedly, my favorite games were the Yankees vs. the Indians.

Luckily I eventually smartened up and became a part of Red Sox Nation, but the plant for watching American League baseball was seeded. I continued to go to Bisons games the next few years,becoming fixated with the players I saw a bright future in. You knew them when you saw them. Jhonny Peralta, who my friends and I would enjoy a good laugh with by the spelling of his first name (“Ja-honny”), Grady Sizemore, Asdrubal Cabrera, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Coco Crisp (another one we had fun with), the list goes on.

When the Mets signed on with Buffalo I was less than ecstatic. Who did I miss seeing not going the games the last four years? R.A. Dickey for a few starts would have been a pleasure to watch, as well as seeing Matt Harvey this year. Other than two pitchers, the baseball in Buffalo has been dull lately. Their prospects and overall running of the organization has not stacked up to Cleveland, and many other American League clubs.

It is now time to jump off the sinking ship formerly captained by the corrupt Bernie Madoff.

Toronto is the future of Buffalo baseball. The contract between the Mets and Bisons expires after this season and it looks imminent that fans may see an abundance of Ricky Romero playing on Washington St. next year.

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Toronto is an approximate two-hour drive from Buffalo. With the proximity of the two, there is no question interest in the major and minor league club alike, will spike. The large and mounting number of A.L. East fans in the area would be able to watch the future of the division in person.

If the deal does indeed go through, I expect Coca-Cola Field attendance to expand from the previous few years, and return to the upper-echelon of International League attendance figures. More Blue Jays fans in Buffalo will want to go to games — so will Yankees and Red Sox fans, along with all the other American League fans.

Such a varying move would not only see locals going to games, but also our neighbors from north of the border. Any baseball fan living in between Niagara Falls, Ca. and Toronto is more than likely a Jays fan. It is widely known that Maple Leaf fans make the trip from Canada to heavily populate First Niagara Center three times a year, so who’s to say baseball fans won’t make the short trip to see their team’s future players. Granted it isn’t hockey, but Toronto isn’t a completely failing baseball market. One of these years they are bound to pack the seats when they finally live up to the now annual CN Tower-high preseason expectations.

Toronto would benefit just as much as Buffalo would with an allegiance between the two. They both need to put more fans in the seats and this is the best way to assure that. When I was young, my grandfather used to take me to the Sky Dome to watch Jays-Yankees games. Those were a blast. Plenty of Yankees fans make identical trips today. I am willing to bet people in the area besides Yankee fans would then be keen to make the short trip to watch the new parent club in action. No doubt, Toronto could sell considerably more tickets to Buffalo baseball fans, as incentive to do so would be higher than when the Bisons were aligned with other organizations.

It is uncharacteristic to say, but Buffalo and Toronto can work together for each other’s benefit. Maybe Coca-Cola Field can be a happening place again by regaining the excitement it once possessed. Getting an American League affiliate would likely improve attendance, but aligning with Toronto could do countless wonders for filling the seats, especially when considering the Blue Jays highly-touted farm system. Baseball Prospectus ranks them as the second-best organization in terms of prospects. That could help lead the rejuvenation of Bison baseball and getting back to the glory days when Indians’ prospects took the field downtown.

So, set the worries aside. It is just fine being Toronto’s little brother — as long as it is not in hockey.

Joe

About Joe

The Lord of Buffalo Wins

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