November 12, 2017 by Darren Clarke
“You suck Saunders!”
Leather lunged fan seated behind me in Coca-Cola Stadium
Yes. Michael Saunders, former All-Star, a man with over five-hundred major league hits, welcome to AAA, welcome to Buffalo, welcome to your home stadium.
Somehow, perhaps in the endless rainy days of the spring 2017, I forgot about going to Buffalo Bisons games. After the soaking wet opening salvo summer blurred by so quickly that with mere days remaining in both August and the minor league baseball season I was on the verge of not having attended a single game.
And that would have been a shame.
So on the final day of the season, August 31st, my friend Jesse and I headed over the border to Buffalo, New York, to grab a beer, a hot dog and a ball game, at Coca-Cola Field.
I am reluctant to refer to anything with a corporate name as a gem but Coca-Cola Field is just that. Particularly when compared to the unfeeling confines of its’ parent club, the Toronto Blue Jays Skydome/Rogers Center/Worst Stadium in Baseball not named Tropicana Field. Where Toronto’s tinsel carpeted Dome is more Monster Truck Show Palace than baseball field Coca-Cola Field is real grass and real blue sky, it is warm and cozy, there is no gimmicky roof to be closed if the temperature should dare not be perfect and the joint is never too crowded. The available seating allows you the luxury of wandering around and checking out the game from various vantage points, from right behind home plate, to overlooking the bullpen, to overtop a dugout, to down the outfield lines.
Not to mention, Buffalo is a great place to be at dusk. Gorgeous. Where Toronto’s skyline projects a crowded, skyless, plastic and more plastic future, Buffalo’s suggests a more humble attachment to the present and the past. Buffalos’ sparse, retro, skyline swoons as the sun sinks, the classic cement and brick architecture blushing with fuchsia and tangerine light suggesting any-time USA, making you suspect that you’ve stepped out of time to a place where anything might happen- Jimmy Stewart might run excitedly around a corner to tell you he’s finally going to travel the world and needs a suitcase, “You see Joe I don’t need one for one night, I want one for a thousand-and-one nights, with plenty of room for labels from Italy, Baghdad, Samarkand… a great big one!” Johnny Cash might appear and warble out a song about his love and tragedy in a voice that is part train tracks, part Marlboro man, part moist, raw, earth, or perhaps, more on point, the movie-version Roy Hobbs might find his way back to Buffalo (Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium being the home park used in the movie The Natural) and hit a home run into a bank of right field lights causing them to explode into a slow motion fire works display.
Don’t underestimate the Buffalo.
For our visit, August 31, 2017, the last day of the International League season, Coca-Cola field was particularly vivid.
All the wonderfully corny trappings of minor league baseball were on display: the Kiss Cam, the Dancing Cam, 50/50 draws, random people throwing out the first pitch, shirt tosses, dudes on pogo sticks, the legendary vendor guy who weaves up and down the aisles wearing a Conehead (and a Bisons jersey with “Conehead” stitched on the back) and of course the Wing, Cheese, Celery, Race, wherein during a break in the action grown men and women dressed as giant chicken wings, celery or blue cheese race around the outskirts of the stadium to decide the winner (it behooves me to mention that the night previous had brought a massive dramatic twist in that for the first time all season Celery won the race then immediately retired). There was also another feature of a professional baseball game that transcends league level, city or team: Really bad walkup music.
Perhaps it is some great evening out of life in general that compels uber talented athletes to walk up to home plate to the tragic sonic posturing of pop musics most notoriously lousy figureheads, I don’t know. Maybe that is the price to be paid for their success, maybe it’s just something to provide us less athletically gifted folks with some consolation, i.e. “Yeah I never played professional sports but I have never intentionally listened to Drake.”
Whatever is at the root of all the Drake, Kanye, Lil’ Wayne and Metallica it is but a minor smudge on the proceedings.
The cost of a ticket for Bisons games this year was up to a whopping $13.50 for the best ticket, a tall can of beer was just over $6 and a hot dog came in under $4. That is awesome. In contrast, the only thing available under $20 at a Jays home game is taking a selfie in your uncomfortable blue plastic seat with some grey cement in the background.
And while some might bristle at the difference in quality between MLB baseball and AAA minor league baseball it should never be forgotten that moments of greatness consistently take place in AAA. Here’s a few examples I witnessed from past years: Jackie Bradley Jr. gracefully transforming what had seemed like an easy double into an easy out, Aaron Hicks (while with the Twins organization) making easily the greatest diving catch I have ever seen in the outfield, a true jump out of your seat moment, Luis Severino, before he was called up the Yankees for the first time, making the catchers mitt pop with every fastball. Severino’s fastball reverberated throughout the park like a gun being shot. Remarkable.
And there’s more.
Jayson Werth playing left field last season while on rehab looking like (not to mention fielding like) a red-headed cave man while the remarkable Trea Turner played short (worst scouting report ever from me, “He doesn’t look like much of a player, don’t think he’ll hit.”). Watching Jays would-be prospect Anthony Gose assert with every weak ground ball out to second base and every bad jump on a fly ball that he wasn’t really a major league baseball player. Watching Aaron Sanchez warm up his electric stuff in the bullpen from just a few feet away. Sanchez’s stuff had so much movement that when he did enter the game a short time later “catcher” Sean Ochinko was handcuffed on pitches in the strike zone, racking up a slew of passed balls on pitches inside the strike zone. There was the inimitable Munenori Kawasaki on opening day many seasons ago, one cold, cold, lake-effect-in-full-effect, Buffalo day, on the big screen taking his turn at singing the American national anthem in his almost non-existent english leading a local to lament in their melancholy, Buffalo accent, “Kawasaki you are ruining our anthem!” (Trying to think of how to describe that fantastic Buffalo accent- Part blue collar low down on the low down, Part breakfast special order, part Tawn-a-won-da, part resignation, part best euchre player you ever met)
Another great memory from 2015 took place on the last game of the season as well. Ryan Goins hadn’t hit a home run all year for the Bisons. In his last at bat I turned to my friends and said, “Ryan Goins is going to hit a home run right here, right now.” And I wasn’t just saying that, I felt that. I felt like I had locked into the game, into the spirit of time, fate and circumstance, into the destiny of Ryan Goins and could feel a home run coming. Moments later Goins hit an epic shot to left field that hit off the top of the outfield wall, about a foot away from being a home run, about a foot away from giving me bragging rights forever.
There’s just so many great little moments in a AAA game and they, very much in an uniquely baseball kind of way, happen when you least expect it. You get to see what could be, what might be, what is and what isn’t. Players trying to define themselves as something greater than AAA, players trying to hang on to playing professional baseball of any kind and all manner of in between.
I figured out why I deeply loved baseball one night at Chapters book store. My eureka moment taking place with me located in the discount book section at the back of the store. I’d been looking for books for over an hour, wandering around picking up random books, reading a few pages, looking for a certain something, a certain je ne sais quoi. Mainly I didn’t want anything limited by its’ conception or execution- nothing topical, nothing timely, nothing witty and political, nothing insightful for insightful sake, in essence nothing overly compromised, overly limited, by an agenda.
Then it occurred to me, I wanted baseball.
I wanted something that was made mostly for its’ own sake that could be observed with varying degrees of intensity. When I go to a baseball game I never know what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll walk around the corridors eating an ice cream, people watching for an inning or two. Maybe I’ll devoutly pay attention to the whole game. Maybe I’ll talk about pro athletes horrible taste in music. Maybe I’ll be amazed by some guys on pogo sticks. Maybe I’ll watch the sun set and consider my own mortality. I don’t know, I really don’t care and importantly, neither does the baseball game. Baseball has the grace to accommodate all levels of fidelity.
Baseball isn’t needy, it’s going to play itself out in an entirely original, entirely unique, way regardless of how much attention I do or don’t pay to it. And that originality is important. Baseball provides more raw information than any sport but at any given moment provides the freedom for the next narrative turn to defy the odds and abandon preconceptions. Baseball allows for the fate of each game to be equally, or perhaps varyingly would be the better word- varyingly defined not just by the dominance of the individuals within the game itself but also the forces of fate and circumstance without. The resulting storylines are more beautiful for the seeming lack of guile used in composing them.
And that, that is the book I want to read. The one that doesn’t care if I read it. The one that I can know everything about the characters coming in and still be surprised. With AAA baseball I am offered an additional nuance- Victory has limited currency. While a minor league teams’ record can be indicative of the organizations depth of talent the primary focus in the minors is on developing skillsets and, particularly in the case of the highest level of the minors, supporting the major league team through injuries and slumps.
With the diminished value of victory the characters, the stories, the small events gain greater significance.
Thus, in the grand scheme of things, talking about the guy with a man bun five rows in front of you might just be as important as talking about the Bisons defensive positioning.
August 31st found the Buffalo Bisons wildly outside the playoff hunt with a 64-76 record. But as mentioned, baseball can be a lot like how Drew Carey described Whose Line is it Anyway, “the show where everything is made up and the points don’t matter.” It began as a pitcher’s duel, or, perhaps it would have been more accurately characterized as a lack of hitting duel. The day before September call ups, both Pawtucket and Buffalo, fielded less than stellar lineups. Slugging percentages over .350 and on base percentages over .300 were a rarity. The big names in the game were Michael Saunders for the Bisons and wayward Red Sox prospects Blake Swihart and Bryce Brentz.
The Bisons starter last night was the Toronto Blue Jays 23-year old lefty Ryan Borucki, the Jays 14th ranked prospect, while Pawtucket started 26-year old, Justin Haley. Borucki appeared to have the advantage of better, harder, stuff, Haley the advantage of less talented, weaker, opposition.
The game breezed by, scoreless into the sixth, when a Bisons home run, a solo shot from Christian Lopes, put the Bisons up 1-0.
The lead was short lived however.
Relieving Borucki in the seventh journeyman Chris Smith’s high effort 94-95 miles-an-hour fastball heavy arsenal surrendered runs in both the 7th and the 8th innings. Meanwhile, a Bisons uprising in the 7th ended with Dwight Smith Jr. being called out on a bang-bang play at the plate leaving the Bisons down 2-1 entering the bottom of the eighth
The bottom of the eighth was to be a fun one for the Bisons though. Light hitting shortstop Brad Opitz lead things off with an inside-out, opposite field, blooper which illustrated exactly why someone had once poetically referred to these kind of hits as, “Dying Quails.” Speedster Roemon Fields followed up with another single giving the Bisons runners on first and second with none out.
The growing buzz in the crowd was dampened quickly by Christian Lopes grounding weakly into a double play. But Opitz now stood on third, 90-feet away from tying the contest.
This brought former big leaguer Michael Saunders to the plate. Saunders had suffered the most from a few leather lungs in the crowd throughout the game. The few hecklers in the crowd, those not adverse to kicking a man when he was down, focused on his fall from major league grace to begin the game and were supplied additional material when he misplayed a line drive in the late innings turning an out into a double.
But Saunders quieted the critics for a moment with a single to tie the game. Saunders then gained a bit of love from the Bisons’ denizens running the bases in the wake of Teoscar Hernandez’s single. Saunders was slowing down as he arrived at second when the ball caromed off centerfielder Tzu-Wei Lins’ arm and into the vacant outfield grass behind him. To his credit, Saunders appeared to be thinking of scoring as soon as the Lin failed to handle the ball cleanly and ran hard, bent on getting himself to home plate. This time the throw home would be off line, the play at the plate not close. The Bisons had their lead back.
Disappointing and largely lethargic prospect Rowdy Tellez followed by plating Hernandez via poking a single through the massive hole at short created by the Pawtucket shift.
At the end of eight the Bisons were up 4-2.
And that’s how it ended. Leonel Campos closed things out with clean inning punctuated by a K to close out the game. Some more free shirts were tossed into the crowd, a very good Fan Appreciation Night Fire Works display lit the night sky just in front of the I-90 in left field and we all left perfectly happy. A decent ball game, some interesting baseball characters and baseball moments, some pretty fantastic pogo stick tricks from the XPOGO team, some really bad walk up music save for Chad Opitz’s choice of O.P.P by Naughty By Nature.
The Buffalo Bisons season was over for the summer.
Michael Saunders left and headed back to be a part of the end to the disappointing Blue Jays season. His final major league numbers for the year would be 234 At Bats with a batting average of .202, an on base percentage of .256 and a slugging percentage of .344. But it’s worth of remembering that, if only for a moment, beneath the stadium lights in downtown Buffalo, Michael Saunders didn’t suck.
If that matters.