Cormack on Bisons: Jays have to make it work

BUFFALO, NY–The Toronto Blue Jays and Buffalo Bisons couldn’t have sounded any happier to have found each other during Friday’s press conference to formally announce their new triple-A affiliation.

And while both teams spoke glowingly about their hopes for a partnership that extends long beyond their current two-year pact, it’s clear that if their baseball marriage is to last beyond that, it’ll mostly be up to the Blue Jays to keep the sparks alive.

The reasons for the Blue Jays excitement are obvious: Players at triple-A are now less than a two-hour drive away as opposed to a three hour flight from Las Vegas and Buffalo baseball fans are now more likely to attend games in Toronto as they follow prospects that have developed in their uniform.

“It’s huge,” beamed Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos. “I don’t even know if huge is strong enough of a word. It’s unbelievable for us. I told Paul (Beeston) this is worth a player, taking money off our payroll.”

The Bisons, of course, will benefit from the relationship too. During the past four years while they were affiliated with the prospect-poor New York Mets, they posted just one winning season as attendance stagnated.

In 2012 the Bisons drew an average of 7,370 fans to Coca-Cola Field (capacity 18,025). With legions of southern Ontario baseball fans within a two-hour drive of the Blue Jays new triple-A affiliate, and Toronto’s farm system being consistently ranked amongst the best in MLB, the Bisons can expect to see a better product on the field in 2013 and a significant bump at the turnstiles.

Yet the Bisons’ decision to agree to a two-year deal with the Blue Jays as opposed to the other option provided by MLB — a four-year pact – suggests they’re still taking a wait-and-see approach, perhaps in part due to how poorly things ended with the Mets.

“(Two-year deals) have been our modus operandi,” said Bisons owner Bob Rich. “We had an option of either two or four years, but it’s been what we’ve been doing. It’s a way to get to know each other and make sure we’re all happy with each other.”

Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, who is a personal friend of Rich’s going back to the mid-1980s, said while he would have preferred to sign a longer-term deal with the Bisons, it doesn’t change how he’ll approach the relationship.

“I really don’t care whether it’s 20, two-year contracts,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to make sure that it works. It looks good and feels good, and if you could bet, I’d bet on it, but two years doesn’t bother me. It starts right today. It keeps you on your toes, but it doesn’t make any difference whether it’s two years or six years. We’ve got to work and make this a success.”

From the Bisons’ perspective, a successful relationship starts with putting a winning product on the field. The Las Vegas 51s, Toronto’s triple-A affiliate in 2012, posted a 79-64 record in the Pacific Coast League’s southern division despite losing several key players to the Blue Jays from mid-season on.

The 51s manager, Marty Brown, is well known to Bisons fans having managed the team from 2003 to 2005 and leading them to the International League title in 2004. Brown, like most Blue Jays minor league coaches, works on a year-to-year contract.

On Friday Anthopoulos said Brown is in the running to return to the Bisons dugout in 2013.

“We haven’t made a decision yet, but he’s a very strong candidate,” he said. “He had a great year in Las Vegas. We haven’t finalized anything yet, but he’s certainly a very strong candidate.”

Another name that has been bandied about as a candidate to manage the Bisons in 2013 is current New Hampshire Fisher Cats manager Sal Fasano. The former Blue Jays catcher has drawn rave reviews for his work as the skipper of Toronto’s double-A club over the past two years, but on Friday, Anthopoulos ruled him out for the triple-A job.

“It doesn’t mean he couldn’t do it and he doesn’t have a bright, long career ahead of him,” said Anthopoulos. “At this stage, not a candidate.”

As for Major League talent, Bisons fans can expect to see some of that too over the next two years. Beeston said talks have been held around the possibility of the Blue Jays playing an exhibition game in Buffalo in 2013. The Buffalo News reported on Friday that that game would likely take place at the end of spring training on March 31.

MLB’s current collective bargaining agreement prohibits in-season exhibition games.

Beeston added he expects to attend anywhere from 10-15 Bisons games in 2012 and if Friday was any indication he likely won’t be travelling alone. Also in attendance for Friday’s press conference were former Blue Jays Roberto Alomar and Pat Hentgen and former manager Cito Gaston.

“At the end of the day, I think what we’ll find is a lot of Toronto people coming to Buffalo,” said Beeston. “In the old days we would say 15 per cent (of fans at Blue Jays games) would come from upper New York State. In the long run this will go a long way to getting people to come to Toronto too. It’s a two-way street. That Queen Elizabeth Way goes both ways.”

And should it work out that way, Rich sees no reason why the two teams won’t be together for many years to come.

“I’d be very disappointed if this doesn’t last and endures a long, long time,” he said. “I don’t like changing affiliations. I think it’s troublesome. It’s a lot of work to change franchises. I’d be happy to be with the Blue Jays for a long, long, time.”

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