My initial assignment as the first-string baseball beat writer for this newspaper was a 1993 jaunt to Bradenton, Fla., for Bisons spring training. I quickly learned the necessity and convenience of the free juice samples next door to Pirate City at legendary Mixon Fruit Farms. Google it.
Radio voices Pete Weber and Greg Brown had me tag along one day that spring in the back of their rental car to a game in Sarasota, with Weber providing unforgettable “play-by-play” afterward – through the Mexican chain drive-through with a booming call of “Order Number One” and “twoooo pintos and cheese.”
I once took a 1989 ballpark vacation that included a stop for a Bisons game in Iowa (really) and Weber made me part of a side show. Now it can be told: Apologies to the good folks of Des Moines, but Weber, myself and a college friend on the trip with me climbed on top of the roof of old Sec Taylor Stadium that night and unplugged the siren that blared loudly – hopelessly interrupting the visiting radio broadcast – every time the Iowa Cubs belted a home run.
When one cleared the wall that night, there was no siren and we just about doubled over in our seats laughing as fans wondered why the infernal thing was silent. Only we knew.
Who would have ever thought that eight years later I would be in the new Sec Taylor for The News, covering the Bisons’ celebration after their first championship in 36 years? It’s a champagne-drenched moment that I will never forget.
I’ve ended up in 23 states, plus Ontario, covering the Bisons and Major League Baseball the last 20 years. From Syracuse to Seattle, Durham to Denver, Omaha to Oakland and Pawtucket to Pittsburgh, it’s been one pretty amazing ride. In pregame ceremonies tonight in Coca-Cola Field, I’m joining former Bisons Dave Roberts and Ernie Young as the Class of 2013 inductees for the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame. That’s crazy-cool heady stuff.
Sometimes, it’s taken a remake of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” to get there for the story, but the results have always been worth it. Since the Hall class was announced, I’ve gotten many inquiries about some of my favorite moments, so I’ve put together my starting lineup of them. I’m a big DH guy, remember, so I’m going with 10 rather than nine.
1. 2001 World Series: After two relatively routine games in Phoenix, we knew emotion would be everywhere when we returned to New York and there was no disappointment. I visited Ground Zero just over a month after 9/11, then sat in the upper deck press area in the Bronx to watch President Bush’s famous pitch and see fans all around me hold aloft pictures of deceased friends and family. I also felt the stadium’s vibrations caused by the dramatic home runs from Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter and Scott Brosius.
It all ended, of course, in the ninth inning of Game Seven in Phoenix. I watched Mariano Rivera’s most famous blown save while standing on top of a cooler abandoned by a beer vendor at the top of Bank One Ballpark’s lower level. I had left the press box planning a quicker exit to the Yankees’ clubhouse. Instead, Luis Gonzalez’s game-winning hit produced a media sprint for the field, with interviews done over the roar of more than 50,000 fans.
2. 2004 ALCS/World Series: Sure, I remember the drama of the games and the mob scenes in the clubhouses after the Boston Red Sox came back from three games down against the Yankees and then swept the Cardinals. But I also remember a Boston cabbie greeting me with “good morning” at 3:15 a.m. outside Fenway following Game Four of the ALCS because he just got out of bed for work and didn’t know what had happened.
And I remember leaving the press box and moving into the lower deck of old Busch Stadium in St. Louis to see the final outs of the World Series and being stunned by all the Red Sox fans moving down around me, too. A few days later, the word trickled out that there were a few thousand Sox fans outside the gates that St. Louis officials let in for the ninth. Bless their hearts.
3. 1997 American Association finals, Game Three: The Bisons won their first title since 1961 by sweeping the I-Cubs, taking a 10-inning win on a home run by Sean Casey. Two indelible memories: Torey Lovullo calling for quiet in the raucous clubhouse to present the ball from the final out to owner Bob Rich, and my fruitless 45-minute search both in and around the clubhouse for Casey. If I went all the way to Iowa and got no comment from him, I thought I was unemployed. Where was Casey? In the pre-cell phone era, he was in a concourse pay phone booth calling his parents in Pittsburgh to tell them about his home run and his first big-league call-up.
4. 2004 International League finals, Game Four: Through Thursday, the Bisons had played 1,873 games in Coca-Cola Field. They’ve won a championship there exactly one time, posting a 6-1 win over the Richmond Braves in a series played entirely in Buffalo due to the remnants of a hurricane that rendered the R-Braves’ field unplayable. Ryan Garko staged a memorable final out with a diving stab of a grounder to first, leading to a feet-first dive into the bag, and manager Marty Brown carried the Governors’ Cup around the ballpark for fans to touch. The clubhouse was, um, wet.
5. 2007 Cleveland Indians: History remembers them coldly, as the team that blew a 3-1 lead to the Red Sox in the ALCS. I remember them fondly, as the closest any team full of Buffalo connections has ever come to the World Series. Fifteen players (led by Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta and Fausto Carmona) were key former Bisons. The manager was former Buffalo skipper Eric Wedge, with former Herd bosses Joel Skinner and Jeff Datz also on the staff. So was ex-Buffalo pitching coach Carl Willis. Even a trainer (Rick Jameyson) and broadcaster (Jim Rosenhaus) had come through Buffalo.
Incredible to see them all celebrating the ALDS clincher at Yankee Stadium with GM Mark Shapiro, the farm director who put together Buffalo’s title team 10 years earlier. Maybe the Blue Jays can put a team like that together some day.
6. The ’98 Bisons title run: They were eight games out with 28 to play before a four-game sweep at Syracuse, highlighted by Torey Lovullo’s game-tying home run off a Syracuse kid named Roy Halladay in the opener, got them back in the hunt. The Bisons took the division lead on Jeff Manto’s three-run homer in the ninth inning of Game 143 in Scranton and won the IL North the next day when everyone’s season finale got rained out. A three-game sweep of Syracuse and a tense Game Five win at Durham produced the first back-to-back titles in the franchise’s 114 seasons and a trip to the inaugural Triple-A World Series in Las Vegas. No biggie they lost that to New Orleans. It was the best stretch drive the Herd has ever produced.
7. 2000 Subway Series: A 12-inning opener, a first-pitch home run by Jeter in Game Four and the Yankees’ third straight Series win were big moments. But, of course, this series is remembered for the most famous thrown bat in history. What was Roger Clemens doing? What was Mike Piazza feeling? In a bizarre press conference in the basement of Shea the day before Game Three, Piazza recounted the night before. Reporters pressed forward to hear him when the microphones shorted out. MLB officials insisted we should “ask baseball questions.” I remember New York Times legend Murray Chass railing, “This IS baseball and THIS is what we want to talk about.” We continued. With no sound, little made ESPN. Great theater most fans never saw.
8. 2008 All-Star Game: In the last classic at old Yankee Stadium, Josh Hamilton pounded some of his 28 bombs during the Home Run Derby to my left as I sat in a right-field press box. The game the next night was incredible, too, as it went 15 innings until 1:37 a.m., when the American League finally won on Michael Young’s sacrifice fly. After 2 a.m., Rivera was holding court with reporters at the famous large corner locker once held by Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles and Don Mattingly. “Yankee Stadium is tough, I’m telling you,” Rivera said. “She didn’t want the game to end. But she finally gave it up for us.” I took a last look around at 3 a.m., got on a bus back to Manhattan at nearly 3:30 and was never back to the old yard.
9. 2011 World Series Game Six: The Rangers and Cardinals had me hitting the delete key more in an hour than anyone should have to. The Rangers’ first World Series win story was done until Nelson Cruz didn’t get to the right field wall in front of my Busch Stadium seat and a two-run David Freese triple tied the game with two out in the ninth. Josh Hamilton hit a two-run homer in the 10th and I reinstated much of my story. The Cardinals scored two in the bottom of the 10th and I broke a pencil in half because it was all out of my hands. Delete-delete-delete. Freese finally won it with an 11th-inning homer. The Rangers’ clubhouse was a tomb. You knew they were toast the next night.
10. 1995 ALDS Game One, Boston at Cleveland: I entered Jacobs Field at about 3 p.m for first my first MLB postseason game and didn’t exit until about 4 a.m. because of two rain delays and extra innings. A 13th-inning walkoff home run by ex-Bisons catcher Tony Pena at 2:08 a.m. gave the Indians a 6-5 win over the Red Sox in Cleveland’s first postseason game since 1954. The Tribe has played 34 postseason games in its downtown park from ’95-2007, and I’ve been fortunate to cover every one.