The 2004 Buffalo Bisons were a prospect-laden group with names that quickly bounce back into fans’ memories like Peralta, Phillips, Sizemore, Carmona and Garko.
But who was the clubhouse conscience and the top run producer on the Herd’s last championship team? A 34-year-old designated hitter named Ernie Young.
Young batted .299 and led the team with 27 home runs and 100 RBIs in the front half of a strong two-year run in Buffalo. In honor of that, Young will be inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame tonight in Coca-Cola Field.
“We had great times in Buffalo, great times,” Young said this week by phone from Springfield, Ill., where he was preparing for a game as the hitting coach for the Double-A Arkansas Travelers. “I just wish we could have repeated as champions in ’05, but it was all a wonderful experience there.”
Young was an Triple-A All-Star Game participant in both years in Buffalo, serving mostly as the Herd’s DH with some games at first base and in the outfield. He followed his big ’04 season by hitting .277 with 20 homers and 78 RBIs in 2005.
Young is eighth in the Bisons’ modern era in both home runs (47) and RBIs (178) – but is the leader in RBIs and is second in homers (to Richie Sexson’s 52) among players to only spend two years in Buffalo.
Young said he’ll always remember the edict he received in the winter of 2003 from then-Cleveland farm director John Farrell, now manager of the Boston Red Sox.
“John Farrell laid it out for me,” Young said. “I remember him telling me, ‘Listen, we’re bringing you here not only because you can play but because you can add that leadership and show Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore and the younger guys at Triple-A the right way to be a professional.’
“From the first day there, he told me to run all the balls out hard, even if it’s a base hit. He said, ‘If you don’t run, then Jhonny Peralta and Grady and Brandon aren’t going to run.’ I didn’t want that to happen.”
After winning the title in ’04, the Bisons blew a 2-0 lead in the IL semifinals to Indianapolis in ’05 as Young was saddled by a bad back and rendered ineffective. Young went just 3 for 17 in the ’05 series and hit none of his 20 homers that season after July 17. Buffalo hasn’t been back to the playoffs since.
“That goes to show you how special those two teams were. We really played together and jelled as a team,” Young said. “It was a great atmosphere and Marty Brown was a great leader of our club. I’ve always believed if we had a healthy Ernie Young, it would have been a totally different series in ’05.”
Young played 288 games in the big leagues with five teams and 141 of them came for the 1996 Oakland Athletics, when he batted .242 with 19 homers and 64 RBIs. When he retired following the 2007 season, he was the active minor-league leader in home runs (319), RBIs (1,136) and runs (1,052).
Now 44 and living in Phoenix, Young also has a huge presence with USA Baseball. It began when he played on the 2000 team that won the gold medal in the Sydney Olympics under Tommy Lasorda, and he’s managed some Pan Am Games teams.
“That was a part of my life that I’ll never forget,” said Young, who joined fellow ’04 Bison Brent Abernathy on that team. “Being part of an organization like USA Baseball that strives for not only excellence but team morale and everything that goes with that is unbelievable.”
After his retirement, Young spent four years as a Class A manager, posting a 289-268 record in the White Sox and Tigers chains. Detroit let him go after last season despite a 72-68 record for West Michigan, and he opted to take the hitting coach job in the Angels chain.
“Managing is my passion. I really love it,” Young said. “I took this job as a hitting coach and I’m really enjoying it. Being an older player toward the tail end of my career, I was a quintessential player/coach almost. I was offering any type of advice. I really enjoyed that and I still do.”