Back in February, I had a chance to speak with Mike Buczkowski, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays' AAA affiliate Buffalo Bisons. He doesn't tweet too much, but you can follow him @BuffaloBisonsGM. Be sure to also follow the team @BuffaloBisons and the Voice of the Bisons Ben Wagner (@benwag247). Because it was a lengthy chat, I separated it into three parts: part 1 and part 2 can be found elsewhere on Bluebird Banter.
The Bisons are off to a great start to the 2013 International League season, winning their first three games against the Rochester Red Wings by a combined score of 24-11. They will be back at it again today at 1:05 pm. Remember that you can listen to their radio broadcasts for free on Bisons.com (bookmark it!).
ML: Marty Brown is coming back to Buffalo to manage. Was his hiring something that the Bisons had any influence on?
MB: Actually not, other than to say how much respect we have for Marty as a manager. He had been the Jays’ AAA manager the last couple of years in Las Vegas, and his connection to us was that he was with us for three years when he was with the Cleveland Indians. His team won a championship in 2004. Every year he was here, our team was competitive. Marty is the kind of guy that gets a lot out of every player, and is one of the hardest working guy you would see. He will be the first guy at the ballpark—if you’re a player and you want to come early to hit or work on something, Marty Brown’s your guy. He’s here early, he’ll stay late, he’ll do whatever it takes. He’s unique in that for him, managing in AAA is not about Marty Brown—he won’t look at it selfishly and say "I gotta win because it’s my record," Marty is here to develop players and make them better, to get them to the big leagues, to help the parent club. That was always his attitude when he was here, just a selfless, tireless worker. We’ve remained friends over the years, and in this case it just happened to be that we are affiliated with the Blue Jays, whose AAA manager happened to be Marty Brown. Our input was, "what a great guy!" but it wasn’t like we were telling the Blue Jays anything they didn’t know. They are very happy with the job he’s done.
ML: How do the major and minor league teams get together to select a manager?
MB: What you ultimately hope for is that the major league team and the AAA team are on the same page with their philosophy. You’d want a guy who obviously can run a game, he’s has to be a good teacher and a baseball expert. In our case, the manager is a very, very high-profile guy here. He’s probably the guy who’s going to be here all year. Unless something happens, he and your coaching staff will be the one constant you have. They help us to reach our community goals—like asking players to visit charities or hospitals or do clinics for kids—because having the support of the manager at those types of events is very important. Marty had always been a tremendous guy to work with, he understands that part of it, he wants to be part of it, he wants his players to be part of it.
ML: When the season starts and all the players are gathered in Buffalo for the first time, do you go down and talk to them about the city, and the culture? How do you prep them for playing in Buffalo?
MB: It starts at spring training. Our organization likes to have a presence at the minor league spring training complex. I’ll go down for a while, our baseball operations and travel coordinator goes down for a while. Towards the end of camp we have some PR people that are there, whether it is taping shows that will air back in Buffalo, or just to get to know the guys who are going to be here.
We do definitely meet with all of them when they get to Buffalo. The gist of the message is to give them a little background about Buffalo, a little about our history, and what we hope to accomplish off the field. Ultimately what I say to the players is that it is our job, as the front office, to make you feel as comfortable as possible while you are here. We want to make this one of the best baseball experiences that you’ve had while you’re here. If that means one day, if it means a week, if it means a month, or for the whole year, you need to know you’re part of our family, part of our team. If we can help with the off-field stuff, like getting your family situated and finding housing and taking care of the things that come up during the season, and be a resource for them so they can concentrate on playing baseball and doing well for their careers, then that’s, to me, the perfect match. They’ll be better players, they’ll get opportunities because of that, and when they look back at their time in Buffalo, they’ll say, "you know what, that was a good place to play, those people treated us well and really were behind us." We never ever get mad when a player gets called up to the big leagues. We celebrate with that player. Right after that player’s told, it’s one of my favourite things to go up to a guy and saying, "congratulations, way to go, what do you need, how do we get you there, how about your apartment, how about your family, what can we do to make this transition good for you?" It’s a great feeling.
ML: How do you think the geographic proximity will benefit the Blue Jays?
MB: We’ve been to Toronto a number of times for coordination meetings with the Jays and they’ve been here at our ballpark. I think one of the huge benefits for the Blue Jays is for their scouting staff and office staff to come here more often to watch a few games. I know that Alex will be here a lot, and Paul said he’ll be a lot. I’m sure Andrew Tinnish and Charlie Wilson will also be able to be here.
ML: One of the changes this year after the re-affiliation is the introduction of new uniforms. How have merchandise sales gone?
MB: It’s been great. We’ve changed the logo in the fall and we introduced the uniforms at the January Hot Stove Luncheon. We went "back to the future" sort of. The colours of the Bisons for a long time have been red, white, and blue, and we made a change back to the International League back in 1998 and made another change when we became a Mets affiliate. We’ve always used to sell retro merchandise and they’d sell so well we realize that the fans were telling us they liked the old-school look. We are using a slightly different red than we used to have, a little different blue, and the response has been phenomenal. And with our alternate jersey what we purposely tried to do with that is to provide that link to the Blue Jays with the use of the number font and to Canada with the red and white colour of the jersey, and the Canadian and American flag patch on the sleeve all gives us a connection to the Blue Jays. The hat that we’re going to wear is the old school red cap with the white front, much like the original Blue Jays hats with the white fronts. Sales online from southern Ontario have been strong, especially that jersey. I think it will continue when we open the gates here on April 4.
ML: With merchandise sales, what percentage does the minor league team get?
MB: There is some sharing of royalties amongst all the minor league teams, but predominantly what each team sells stays with them.
ML: What are the other sources of revenue for a minor league team? Ticket sales?
MB: The biggest source of revenue are ticket sales—getting people in the seats. The next after that would be sponsorship and advertising revenue, then you look at food and beverage revenues and merchandise revenues.
One of the unique things we do here is that we operate our own concession stands. We don’t source it out to another company, so we’re in control of all the food and beverage items when you come to the ballpark whether you go to the concessions stands or the suites. We have a restaurant that’s open here before the games and during the game. We’re able to be flexible, to create packages for people. And we are owned by Rich Products, one of the largest family-owned frozen food manufacturers in the United States, and their expertise is food service. When we have that kind of asset, why not do it ourselves? We believe that food is a huge part of that experience. Coming to the ballpark 30 years ago used to be about getting a Coke and a hotdog. Now it’s so much more. People still love to get the Coke and hotdog, but we now offer a whole variety of food. We have some Buffalo favourites like chicken wings and chicken fingers and Buffalo style sandwiches. This year we’re going to add poutine to the menu as well.
Again, much thanks go to Mike for speaking with me. I am looking forward to driving down to Buffalo very soon and I hope to see many Bluebird Banter readers and Blue Jays fans down there!