Monday, September 24, 2012

New team, old team

A friend of mine used to attend Buffalo Bisons' games frequently when he lived in town. He once in a while burst into song, the tune being "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." His version of a couple of verses went like this:

"So it's root, root, root, for the Bisons. If they don't win it's the same."

His point at the time was that he loved baseball, loved seeing good players and the odd future star, and loved sitting outside on a warm day and sipping a beer. If the team won, well, that was a bonus.

More than 20 years later, it's easy to wonder just how important winning is at the minor league level.

The Bisons had established a good relationship for several years with the Cleveland Indians. Not only were they close by, which has its advantages, but the Indians sent Buffalo good players. The Bisons usually were at the worst playoff contenders, which ensured several happy endings to home games.

But, the Indians had a chance to jump to Columbus in 2009. That was an even better arrangement for the Tribe, which liked the idea of some television synergy between Cleveland and Columbus. So the Bisons went searching for a new affiliation.

They picked the New York Mets, which on the surface made plenty of sense. The Mets were quite popular locally -- maybe not at the level of the New York Yankees, but somewhere around a tie for second. New York should have plenty of money to spend on player development, although the team hasn't been as efficient as other franchises. The Mets' games were on SportsNet New York, which is partially owned by Time Warner ... and thus the parent club's games were frequently on Western New York cable.

Alas, it didn't work out. During the last four years, the Bisons haven't come close to the playoffs, They have compiled one of the worst Triple-A records in baseball in that span. Admittedly, it's difficult to know how good a minor-league team might be in a given year. Injuries and recalls have a way of foiling the best laid plans. And, the Mets' woes in the Madoff financial scandal didn't help them either, although the team still has a relatively big budget compared to some of the other teams in the league.

Now the Blue Jays are coming to town. They have a very good farm system at the moment, and they are excited about the advantages of having a Triple-A team just down the road. Everyone is hoping that Southern Ontario fans will make more trips down the QEW to see the future Jays in action. The question of the day is, will the new affiliation help the Bisons?

Minor league baseball has changed in 20 years, especially locally. A honeymoon was to be expected when the Bisons moved into a new stadium and were trying to become a candidate for a major-league expansion franchise. It came in the form of million-plus attendances. Those days are clearly gone forever, and not just because the newness of the park wore off. I've said that the Bisons almost seem to be out of the baseball business at times and in the fireworks business, because such a large percentage of paying customers turns out for the lights in the sky on Fridays and special events.

What's happened? It's gotten a little too easy to keep up with a favorite major-league team through television, in high definition no less. It doesn't even matter what team a fan follows any more. It's like the local fans who say they love college basketball and watch all sorts of games on television, but who rarely pull their wallets out to go see Canisius, Niagara or UB.

Game presentation also matters. The Bisons have tried to make it interesting in recent years, and they have listened to fans at times. The mascot races have been a big hit, particularly as we wait anxiously for Celery to actually win for once. But it's funny how little things matter. Ever try to keep score there? The lineups are reviewed so quickly before the start of the game that no one can write them down in a scorebook. Some of the in-game promotional activities come off as a little lame and not worthy of Triple-A. And don't sit under an overhang if you are afraid of the dark.

Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News wrote a piece earlier this month that has a long list of other items. I like to say that Mike is one of the few people that truly cares if the team wins or not. He's concerned with individual performances, pennant races, etc. The players want to do well so they can advance to the majors (winning is just a happy byproduct of that), and the coaches want to see those players go up and contribute to the majors (because their job is to prepare the players to do exactly that). The fans like to see the home team win, but I would guess few could evenly vaguely quote the International League standings at a given moment.

Bisons' management likes to see the turnstiles spin and the beer sold, of course. Will a better team (and in terms of win-loss record, it almost has to be better) help that, or do the attendance problems go even deeper? Is it really "the same" if the team doesn't win?

Stay tuned.

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