During the Bisons-RailRiders game last Saturday, which only took an hour and 49 minutes to play, I sat down with Bisons general manager Mike Buckowski to discuss his thoughts on the Blue Jays' triple-A affiliate.
On future upgrades to Coca-Cola Field
Last offseason, Coca-Cola Field underwent a large round of stadium upgrades, which notably included the installation of 3,000 new, wider green seats in the sections around home plate to replace the well-weathered original red plastic seats.
"The plan [this offseason] is to go a couple more sections in left field and three more down in right field. Eventually we want to replace them all. They are 28-years-old now, and have gone through a good 27 Buffalo winters," Buczkowski explains, "we are hoping that the funds get released to us in time to order the seats and get [the old ones] taken out."
The long term outlook is to reduce the capacity of the ballpark from 18,000-plus, which is the highest in the minor leagues, to something that is easier to fill. Specific strategies include enlarging the park's suites, and introducing more party and gathering areas.
On the effect of the lower Canadian Dollar
When the Bisons switched affiliations from the Mets to the Blue Jays back in September 2012, the Canadian dollar was worth around 101 American cents, and now it is trading for about 76 cents. As cross-border travel is central to the financial success of the Buffalo-Toronto affiliation, the Bisons readily accepted Canadian money at par at the park for the 2013 and 2014 seasons even though they were taking quite a hit by the end of the 2014 season.
This year, they still accepted the loonie at par in April and May, traditionally the months with the poorest attendance, but then it just didn't make financial sense for them to continue doing that for concessions.
However, they continued to accept Canadian cash transactions in their box office for walk-up sales of individual game tickets. The result was that the Bisons had around the same number of Canadian fans visiting, but fewer people used their credit card to pre-purchase tickets and packages from Bisons.com, but they took in more Canadian cash at the box office.
With the Blue Jays' recent success, Buczkowski foresees more people becoming interested in the Bisons, recalling the number of Buffalonians who drove down to Rochester to see the Americans back when the Sabres were a top team.
Overall, Buczkowski was happy with his club's attendance. The Bisons played their final home game last night and with 15,331 in the stands they reached a total of 551,303 for the season, their highest since 2012. But because of rainouts and doubleheaders, a better comparison would be to look at average attendance per game day. Over 67 dates, the Bisons drew an average 8,228, which is better than the 8,110 in 2014 but just fell short of the 8,273 mark of 2013.
On future promotional games
Earlier this summer, I went down to see the Bisons play in their annual Star Wars Night game for the first time and actually surprised at the production value of the post-game live performance. It is a bit kitschy but very entertaining, and the fireworks helped, of course.
Buczkowski mentioned that it will definitely return in 2016, along with the July 3rd Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Night and Superhero Night, noting that quality promotional and giveaway games are important for minor league clubs, and is one of the first things the team does after the regular season concludes.
On the effect of simulcasts in Toronto
Since the first year of affiliation, a few Bisons games have been simulcasted on Sportsnet 590 the Fan on Blue Jays offdays or when the Jays play at a different timeslot than the Bisons. The number of games has grown from eight in 2013 to 15 this season, and the reports back from the Fan have been very positive. (Sidenote: I was lucky enough to get a chance to do an inning with Ben Wagner and Duke McGuire last Sunday.)
"When we signed this agreement with the Jays, both organizations committed to help market each other’s ballparks and products. Being on the Fan, it helps a tonne to have the GTA listen for an hour or two or just for a few innings," Buczkowski said, adding that hearing a few familiar names like Chad Jenkins or Munenori Kawasaki gets Torontonians' attention and gets them to consider driving down to Buffalo for a game or two.
On 2016's schedule
The Bisons' schedule for the 2016 season has already been released, and as luck would have it, 49 of their 72 home games will are scheduled during June and September with just seven games in cold, wet April. That will not only be beneficial for the Bisons' ticket sales, but for the players too by reducing the potential of rainouts and doubleheaders.
"That'll mean for sure it'll be a nice April [in Buffalo]," Buczkowski jokes, "The team will be away and it'll be 75 degrees [Fahrenheit]."
Asking him whether the International League has a conscious effort to put more April and May games in the southern cities, Buczkowski responded that he has had discussions with teams in the south to give them the season opener at home every year, but they refused the offer.
"[In April], kids are still in school. For Minor League Baseball, the more games you play after school is out the more successful you’re going to be."
On the Bisons's 2015 season
"It's been more of a roller coaster this year," Buczkowski said of 2016, comparing it to the two other seasons since the Blue Jays affiliation. Despite not having more transactions or different players than last year (according to the Bisons media notes, they have had 221 player moves and 66 different players this year to date compared to 238 and 73, respectively, in 2014) the Bisons' GM feels that the team has been affected more by the various moves involving players being claimed and lost on waivers. Even the ones who clear waivers are affected.
"Players who go on waivers aren’t available for three days, even the guys who clear waivers would lose three or four days. Pitchers would lose a turn and would need time to get his pitch count back up again."
In addition, Buffalo's postseason push was halted by the Blue Jays' push when the big league team traded away many of the Bisons' core pitchers.
"Our success all year was pitching. The disappointing part was how many times we got shut out this year. It’s incredible that we’ve lost seven 1-0 games. If you turn three of those games around and win some one-run games [the Bisons are 19-32 in those games]—if you go three or four games the other way, suddenly we’re right there where we’d want to be," adding that he completely understood why the Jays needed to make those "great" trades.
The Bisons offense was shut out 19 times in their first 139 games.
"There were too many times when the offense just wasn’t helping out, so thankfully we've had all that good pitching all year, because it really could’ve been a disaster," Buczkowski remarked.
On the Bisons' most popular player
Two years ago, during the same season-end interview with Mike Buczkowski, I asked him who the Bisons fans' favourite player was and was surprised that the answer was Munenori Kawasaki. Naturally, I asked him the same question again.
"Same answer! Even though we’ve got the league MVP in Matt Hague, Kawasaki still gets the chants and the cheers," Buczkowski responded, "In all my time in baseball—29 years now—I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player who’s more fun to watch. I don’t mean when the ball is hit to him, or when he’s up to bat, but if you watch this guy play between pitches or at the end of an inning, as he’s getting ready to hit, as he’s running off the field, his teammates makes a good play, he’s just fun to watch. People have picked up on how animated he is and his enthusiasm and his obvious love for baseball and so that’s why he’s a favourite."
"He’s the only guy I’ve ever seen make an error and the crowd would just be like, ‘well that’s a shame, that’s OK,’ while the other guys who make an error get booed," Buczkowski said, smiling.
Kawasaki is also a model for triple-A players too. "From where I sit, he comes to the ballpark every day excited about playing today’s game and doing well today and having fun playing the game. I think the danger with AAA guys is when they start to project ahead and think why they aren’t being called up."
I would like to thank Bucz for his time as well as the Bisons' PR great Brad Bisbing for setting up the interview, providing the attendance figures, as well as being just a cool guy to chat with throughout the season.