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The 1980s

Untitled Document
Bisons History: The 1980s

1980 (East.)

Record: 67-70 - .489 (5 - overall)
Mgr. - Steve Demeter

(1 in North. Div. - first half)
(3 in North. Div. - second half)

SPLIT SEASON

The 1980 Bisons of Steve Demeter were like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. In the first half of the split season they were very, very good; in the second half they were horrid. Their 39-29 record was good for first place in the Northern Division in the first half. In the second half the Bisons deteriorated to 28-41 and were 14 games off the pace. In the play-offs, they succumbed meekly to Holyoke, 2-0.

Rick Lancellotti played only 30 games for Buffalo (he spent most of the year with Portland of the Pacific Coast League), and in this short span hit 10 home runs. Tony Pena's replacement, Junior Ortiz, batted .346, led the league in hitting and was chosen on the all-star squad. Other Buffalo all-stars were Alfredo Torres (.284 and 23 home runs) and Bert Vargas (.271 and 24 home runs). Steve Farr (11-6) and Dave Dravecky (13-7) led the pitchers. Both were ticketed for future major league play.

Attendance fell slightly to 130,674, but this was good enough to lead the league once more. No other team reached 100,000.

1981 (East.)

Record: 56-81 - .409 (7 - overall)
Mgr. - John Upon

(4 in North. Div. - first half)
(2 in North. Div. - second half)

DISENCHANTMENT

John Lipon, the ex-Tiger infielder who had once managed Cleveland and had a reputation for working well with young players, was the new Bison manager. Lipon saw his reputation tarnished in the first half of the split season. The Bisons finished dead last - 18½ games out of first. There was some improvement in the second half, but not enough to cause any excitement.

Attendance dropped alarmingly as dissatisfaction grew over the poor showing of the team and over the quality of the players being supplied by the Pirates. Bright performers were few. Outfielder Doug Frobel, now in the majors, hit 28 home runs, but batted only .251. All-star Bert Vargas was back and contributed 25 home runs to go with his 84 RBIs and .274 average. Except for future Pirate, Jose DeLeon, who was 12-6, and Steve Farr (8-3), no Buffalo pitcher was over .500.

For the first time since coming into the league, the Bisons did not lead in attendance. Their draw of 83,464 was 47,000 below 1980.

1982 (East.)

Record: 55-84 - .396 (8 - overall)
Mgr. - Tommy Sandt

(4 in North. Div - both halves)

NETHER REGIONS

In three seasons as a Pirate farm club, the Bisons had dropped from fourth to fifth to seventh. The regression continued in '82 when the team, under Tommy Sandt, finished last in both halves of the season. It was the worst possible scenario for the future of Eastern League baseball in Buffalo.

General Manager Colpoys and his staff tried desperately to promote, but the gaseous performance of the team was too much to overcome. About the only player the Buffalo fans (what few there were) could applaud was designated hitter Alfredo Torres, who hit 26 home runs, had 97 RBIs and made the all-star team. On Aug. 27 against West Haven, the Bisons had a team-effort no-hit, no-run game. It was only a seven-inning job, but still three pitchers (Tim Wheeler, Ben Wiltbank and Craig Pippin) were used.

The downward cycle of the team on the field was matched perfectly at the box office. Attendance was only 77,077 and it was apparent that the franchise could not last much longer, following its present course.

1983 (East.)

Record: 74-65 - .532 (3)
Mgr. - Al Gallagher

RICH AND FROSTY

After the disastrous '82 season, the Bisons were $70,000 in debt and practically belly-up. They had made a little money the first two years, but had lost heavily the next two. It was obvious a white knight was needed.

Rescue came in the form of the Rich Products Corp., a highly-successful frozen-food company, founded by Robert E. Rich, Sr. The Rich interests offered to invest enough to payoff the debts, buy up the stock at 10 cents on the dollar and set up an operating fund. The deal was struck. (It is believed $100 to $115 thousand was the consideration). Robert E. Rich, Jr. became president, while Don Colpoys stayed on as general manager, assisted by Jack Tracz. Michael J. Billoni, ex-Courier-Express reporter, was hired as director of publicity and promotions. The Bisons then entered into a working agreement with the Cleveland Indians, who sent as manager, Alan Mitchell Edward George Patrick Henry Gallagher. He preferred to be called "Dirty Al."

Revival on the field and at the box office was almost instantaneous. In contrast to Pittsburgh, Cleveland was able to supply several players of good Double-A quality. Outfielder Dave Gallagher (.338) led the league in hitting. Centerfielder Dwight Taylor batted .302, but more significantly, stole 95 bases to set a Buffalo record. (The old record of 82 had been set by Ted Scheffler in 1891). First baseman-outfielder George Cecchetti batted .323 and added eight home runs. Jim Wilson, a first baseman of Billy Kelly proportions, hit 26 home runs, batted .290 and had 105 RBIs.

When catcher John Malkin had a falling-out with Manager Gallagher, he asked to be traded. Off he went to Lynn and in his place came pitcher Steve Farr, who had been with Buffalo as a Pittsburgh farmhand the previous three seasons. Farr was almost invincible, winning 13 of 14 decisions and allowing only 1.61 earned runs per nine innings. Other good pitching performers were Robin Fuson (13-11) and Ramon Romero (10-4).

The team appeared to run out of gas late in the year, and its third place finish was viewed as a disappointment. The malaise of late August continued into the play-offs in which the Bisons were eliminated by Lynn, 2-0.

The Rich people applied their marketing expertise to baseball, and found that it worked. Attendance almost tripled to 200,531, best in the league, but by just a narrow margin over Albany.

An added fillip to the highly successful season was the transformation of War Memorial Stadium into a ball park of 1939 vintage for the filming of the Bernard Malamud novel, The Natural, starring Robert Redford.

1984 (East.)

Record: 72-67 - .518 (5)
Mgr. - Jack Aker

GRADUATION YEAR

It turned out that Al Gallagher, the man with seven names, also had that many managerial problems. He was released by Cleveland at the end of the '83 season and replaced by Jack Aker, the 1983 pitching coach who had once managed in the minors for the Mets.

The '84 talent was a shade below that of '83, but the team played hard and was eliminated from the play-offs only in the final few days. If the team had a glaring weakness, it was its lack of a stopper out of the bullpen. Catcher Tim Glass hit 19 home runs and batted .306. Jeff Moronko, who played short and third, was consistent all year, hitting .314, with 13 home runs and 95 RBIs. Most popular of the Bisons was right fielder Nehamas (Pookie) Bernstine (.286 with 8 home runs). Pencil-thin centerfielder Don Carter stole 72 bases, to give Buffalo a second straight league leader. The outstanding pitcher was right-hander Jose Roman (14-6), who earned a late-season promotion to the parent Indians.

Fueled by intensified promotional effort, attendance improved to a league-leading 223,443. President Bob Rich, Jr. said he was pleased with the progress that had been made in two years. The apathy of many Buffalo fans toward Double-A ball had been largely overcome; people at last felt comfortable about coming to War Memorial, and a more solid base for Triple-A or possibly major league ball, had been established.

On Sept. 1, Rich revealed that the Wichita franchise of the American Association had been purchased, and that Triple-A ball would return to Buffalo for the first time since 1970. The Buffalo News reported the purchase price as $1 million, to be paid over a period of years. Shortly thereafter, President Rich announced he had entered into a one-year working agreement with the Chicago White Sox. On Nov. 8, the White Sox announced they had promoted John Boles from Double-A Glens Falls to be the first manager of Buffalo's modern Triple-A era

1985 (Amer. Assoc.)

Record: - 66-76 Mgr. - John Boles

ONE HUNDRED CANDLES ON THE CAKE

The Bisons' return to Triple-A baseball was a rousing success off the field even though it was a bumpy ride on the diamond. Buffalo finished third in the American Association East with a 66-76 record, eight games behind eventual league champion Louisville, but posted the fourth-highest attendance in its history as it sold 362,762 tickets -- the most since 1957. The Bisons were 13-6 in April and were 22-12 midway through May but went just 44-64 the rest of the way as a league-worst 4.30 earned-run average and a winless record in nine doubleheaders (four losses, five splits) conspired against their title hopes.

Catcher Joel Skinner (.241-12-59) and utility man Steve Christmas (.298-16-56) were named to the Association all-star team. First baseman Joe De Sa and outfielder Mark Ryal shared the team RBI lead with 66 and De Sa belted a team-high 17 home runs. Bill Long led the pitching staff with a 13-6 record while Steve Fireovid's 3.01 ERA was third in the Association.

Nick Capra was the first Buffalo batter and Bob Fallon the pitcher of record in Buffalo's first modern-era Triple-A game, a 3-1 loss April 11 at Nashville. Long got the first win in an 8-0 silencing of the Sounds in game three on April 14. The home opener on April 20 against Louisville was one of the season's most memorable games as 21,128 saw Fireovid post a 7-2 win over the Redbirds. The White Sox came to town for a May 2 exhibition game that saw future Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Carlton Fisk in uniform. A Beach Boys concert drew the season's largest crowd as 26,696 saw the July 6 game against Nashville. De Sa and Jose Castro both belted grand slams during a 10-4 win over Omaha on July 23, still the only time the Herd has done that in a game.

In conjunction with the team's return to Triple-A and its 100th anniversary, the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame was founded to honor players and contributors from the city's baseball heritage.

1986

Record 71-71 Mgr- Jim Marshall

THE FUN RETURNS TO BEST AND JEFFERSON

The Bisons set a new franchise attendance mark and finished third in the minors by selling 425,113 tickets in their second season as a White Sox affiliate, twice breaking their single-game mark. The home opener April 19 against Louisville was a disaster on the scoreboard (a 14-0 loss) but a rousing success at the turnstiles (27,977). The Beach Boys drew a record 35,778 for their show following the June 28 loss to Nashville.  War Memorial Stadium, a place where fans stayed away from in the 60s and from where the franchise was taken 16 years earlier, had become the place to be.

While the Rockpile's turnstiles were clicking, the city was looking to the future. In July, ground was broken for the new downtown stadium to be open in 1988 on the block including Washington, Swan, Oak and Seneca Streets.

With former major-league manager Jim Marshall as their skipper, the Bisons had the playoffs in their sights as they were as many as nine games over .500 in late July. But Buffalo went just 15-24 over the final 39 games to finish 71-71. Constant callups to Chicago by White Sox GM Ken ""Hawk'' Harrelson derailed the season and left the Herd in the second place, eight games behind Indianapolis.

De Sa had another big year (.284-17-83) and so did fleet outfielders Daryl Boston (.303, 38 stolen bases) and Rodney Craig (.279, 29 steals). De Sa and Boston were Association all-stars. The big story was on the mound, where lefty Pete Filson went 14-3, 2.27 to earn Association pitcher of the year. One of the longest games in the franchise's 101 seasons was played Aug. 17 in Indianapolis, a 6-5 victory in 20 innings. It took 5 hours, 39 minutes and was won when De Sa scooted home on a passed ball. Filson pitched seven scoreless innings of three-hit relief but got no decision as Jack Hardy earned the win. Buffalo had won one other 20-inning affair, in 1921 against Toronto in Offermann Stadium.

Following the season, the Bisons and White Sox parted ways and Buffalo announced it would partner with the Cleveland Indians in 1987. On Dec. 20, 1986, tragedy struck the franchise as De Sa was killed in a car accident following a winter league game in Puerto Rico. He was just 27. To this day, the team's Most Inspirational Player award is named in De Sa's honor.

1987

Record - 66-74  Mgrs - Orlando Gomez (13-28), Steve Swisher (53-46)

FAREWELL TO THE ROCKPILE

Despite a 66-74 record and a third straight year of missing the playoffs, the 50th anniversary and farewell season for War Memorial Stadium was a huge success. A mammoth stadium birthday party was held in August, honoring athletic greats from all the sports that had used the Rockpile. The final home game, a 7-5 loss to Nashville on Aug. 30 was a festive and memorable occasion, attracting a crowd of 25,412. Overall attendance came to a record-shattering 497,760 with the Beach Boys again setting the single-game record with 38,211 in the house for the July 26 game with Denver.

The season started in disastrous fashion as Buffalo lost its first six games, and only got worse as the Herd gave up 37 runs in back-to-back April losses to Oklahoma City (22-6 and 15-3) in the Rockpile. On May 27 with the team 13-28 and 11 1/2 games out of first place, the parent Indians fired manager Orlando Gomez and replaced him with former big-league catcher Steve Swisher. The Bisons won their first four games under Swisher and 13 of their first 18, eventually pulling within two games of .500 before falling out of the playoff race. The Rockpile finale was typical of the season as Buffalo built a 4-0 lead that the pitching staff couldn't hold and turned into a 7-5 loss. Strangely enough, Tonawanda native Billy Scherrer earned the win for Nashville, a Cincinnati affiliate.

Outfielder Dave Clark led the Buffalo attack with a .340 batting average, the best by a Bison since Frank Carswell's .344 in 1952. Clark also had 30 homers and 80 RBIs, one of several big years from a Buffalo hitter. Third baseman Eddie Williams (.291-22-85), outfielder Rod Allen (.302-17-92), first baseman Don Lovell (.292-19-69) and shortstop Jay Bell (.260-17-60) all thrived at the plate. The pitching staff, however, was brutal with a 5.58 team ERA. Bryan Oelkers had a staff-high 11 wins, a figure not nearly as impressive when you consider his 6.28 ERA.

It was a one-year trip to Buffalo for the Indians. The Bisons announced a working agreement with the Pittsburgh Pirates that would commence in 1988 with the opening of Pilot Field.

 1988

Record - 72-70 Mgr - Rocky Bridges

A NEW HOME, A MILLION MEMORIES

Pilot Field, a $42 million facility, became the Bisons' 14th home in their 103 seasons and was easily the team's biggest star in its inaugural campaign. The '88 Bisons did not win a pennant or even come close as they finished 72-70 and third in the American Association East, 17 games behind Indianapolis. But it was a championship season in almost every other way -- in area-wide excitement over the new facility, record-breaking attendance and in national, even international, recognition for the city.

It all started with the sale of 9,000 season tickets (the sale was cut off at that point) and the sellout of Opening Day tickets in 84 minutes on a cold, snowy March morning. And there was no less  momentum right up to the final home game on Sept. 1 -- the last of 22 sellouts of 19,500 that included the National OldTimers Baseball Classic and the inaugural Triple-A All-Star Game. Both of those events were nationally televised.

The total paid attendance of 1,186,651 shattered all minor-league records and allowed Buffalo to join Louisville as the only members of the million club. The Bisons averaged 16,481 per opening and the franchise's success and the impressive new stadium were featured in print, television and radio across the United States and Canada as Buffalo outdrew three major-league clubs.

Managed by Rocky Bridges, the Bisons were 65-50 and in the playoff hunt in early August. But they collapsed out of the race by losing 20 of their next 24 games. Buffalo won the final three games over Nashville, all at home, to salvage the first winning season of its modern era. The finale was a dramatic 2-1 victory that saw the Bisons score both runs in the bottom of the ninth, the second on a game-ending wild pitch, and allow pitcher Dave Johnson to win his 15th game, one more than Pete Filson's mark of 1986.

But no game was as memorable as the Pilot Field opener, April 14 against Denver. After an Opening Day parade through downtown in the morning, the Bisons braved cold and drizzle to post a thrilling 1-0 victory. Bob Patterson threw no-hit ball into the seventh and catcher Tom Prince's third-inning home run to left was the first in ballpark history and stood up as the game's only run. The schedule included the first of four seasons of interleague play between the Association and International League, allowing the Bisons to meet longtime rivals such as Rochester and Syracuse for the first time since 1970.

Prince, outfielder Benny Distefano (.263-19-63) and trainer Carlos Ledezma represented Buffalo and got standing ovations at the Triple-A All-Star Game. The new ballpark's spacious dimensions favored pitching, as evidenced by a team ERA of 3.08 that was 2 1/2 runs better than the previous season and still stands as the best in franchise history. Association victory leader Johnson (15-12, 3.51) posted the most wins by a Bison in 30 years while Association ERA leader Dorn Taylor (10-8, 2.14), Randy Kramer (10-8, 3.13) and closer Scott Medvin (2.41 ERA, 12 saves) also had big years.

1989

Record - 80-62  Mgr - Terry Collins

BIG WINNERS ON THE FIELD AND OFF

The 1989 season saw baseball interest continue at a fever pitch in Buffalo as the city continued its push for a major-league expansion franchise. Attendance totaled 1,132,183 with 9,000 season tickets sold. Buffalo thus became the first minor league city to draw over a million fans for a second time. In two seasons the Bisons drew 2,318,834 with 36 sellouts and an average per opening of 16,330.

On the field, the team went 80-62 to post its first 80-win campaign since 1964 and its highest winning percentage (.563) since 1959 but lost the Association East by five games to Indianapolis. The new manager was energetic Terry Collins, who came to the Pittsburgh chain after a successful stint as a Dodger farmhand in Albuquerque. Collins  represented the Dukes as a National League coach in the 1988 Triple-A All-Star Game in Pilot Field and brought a fiery passion and aggressive style of managing to the team.

Pitching again led the way as starters Bob Patterson (12-6), Morris Madden (12-8), Dorn Taylor (10-8, 2.58) and Rick Reed (9-8) and relievers Logan Easley (13 saves) and Scott Medvin (7-6, 2.30 ERA, 10 saves) kept the Herd in the hunt. The Bisons forced the issue on offense with 157 stolen bases (including 31 by OF Albert Hall) because they had little power. Shortstop Jay Bell, in his second stint with the team, led the club in home runs (10) and RBIs (54) while batting .285. Hall led the regulars by batting .304 and the club got a late-season boost from two callups from Double-A Harrisburg in second baseman Kevin Burdick (.293) and first baseman Orlando Merced (.341 in 35 games).

A crowd of 18,614 endured cold, wet weather as Buffalo won the season opener April 5 over Louisville, 8-3. The Bisons won their first five games but went 13-18 in their next 31 to fall eight games out of the division lead on May 16. The team then got hot again, going 27-14 to wipe out the deficit and re-take the top spot on June 25. But the lead only lasted a week and Indy got the advantage back for keeps. The Indians came to town for a four-game series on Aug. 16 with a 6 1/2-game lead and the Bisons gave their fans hope by winning the opener, 5-4, with a four-run rally in the eighth. But Indy won the next night, 13-0, spoiling the celebration of the season's one millionth fan and setting the stage for a split of the series that ended the Bisons' hopes.