It's been nearly a full season into the Bisons' affiliation with the Toronto Blue Jays and both parties are quite pleased.
So satisfied, in fact, that after signing an initial two-year player development contract last September, the teams decided the mutual feeling warranted a longer partnership.
Both teams' general managers, Buffalo's Mike Buczkowski and Toronto's Alex Anthopoulos, gathered at a table in front of the Bisons' dugout at Coca-Cola Field at the conclusion of the third inning of the Herd's 3-2 win over the Rochester Red Wings Thursday night. And by the time Herd starter Sean Nolin was done with his warm-up tosses, Buczkowksi and Anthopoulos inked a two-year contract that extended the current deal through the 2016 season. The 16, 998 fans on-hand for the Bisons' home finale and Fan Appreciation Night responded to the news with a loud ovation, expressing their delight.
"I think anybody in Toronto could make this call," Anthopoulos said when he met with the media in the fifth inning. "Certainly we do collectively (talk about it). I don't even think it's something we have to talk about. We're so happy here. Player-development had input, our CEO and ownership had input but it wasn't something we needed to talk about. It was a no-brainer for us."
A near-sellout was a suitable end to a successful season, in terms of attendance, which can be largely attributed to the affiliation with the Blue Jays.
An average of 8,273 fans per game attended Bisons' home games, an increase of 903 tickets sold per game from last season. It was the largest growth of ticket sales from year-to-year in the ballpark's history.
"We knew that it was going to be good," Buczkowski said. "We expected we were going to get more fans and attendance was going to increase, especially our weekend dates. When you look at how many people you know that are wearing Blue Jays jerseys, I think it's exceeded our expectations."
Seemingly every fan was standing up, cheering noisily by the end of the game Thursday, illustrating the excitement the Toronto-Buffalo attachment has brought. The game reserved the best for last, too.
It was a pitchers' duel through the early and middle innings, as Nolin carried a no-hitter through 5 2/3 innings. But on his 100th and final pitch, Eduardo Escobar lifted a 3-2 pitch over the center-field fence to give the Red Wings a 1-0 lead on their first hit of the night. Nolin struck out a handful and walked three.
Rochester tacked on an insurance run in the eighth, but it was not enough. Jim Negrych's one-out walk in the eighth brought up Luis Jimenez, who pinch hit for Mike Nickeas. Jimenez responded with the Herd's first pinch-hit homer since July 17, 2012, smoking one well over the fence in right-center to tie nod the game.
That wasn't all from the Bisons, as Blake Gailen then initiated a two-out rally by doubling to left. Then it was Gomez, who was honored in a pre-game ceremony as the team's most valuable player, getting the clutch hit, a trend this year for the team-leader in home runs (29) and RBIs (70). He hit a ground-rule double to the corner in right field to score the go-ahead run in Gailen, sending the large crowd into collective energetic cheers.
"He's gotten big hits all year and obviously hits the ball with a lot of power with 29 home runs," Brown said. "But he made an adjustment from the previous at-bat where he punched out on a breaking ball trying to do too much. I think he made an adjustment in that at-bat to stay the other way and give us a chance."
Jeremy Jeffress built off of the offense into the ninth, striking out the side in 11 pitches to earn his fifth save.
The atmosphere in the late innings reminded Brown, who managed the Herd from 2003-05, of the old days at the ballpark, when the crowd was also packing the stands. In the offseason, Brown told Toronto's front office how much baseball means to the city and that was confirmed Thursday night, and this season.
"That was like '04 and '05 right there," Brown said. "The crowd was into it throughout the game and it was a lot of fun. That's what the fans deserve here. … I think these guys (Toronto's brass) understand the importance of what winning means in Buffalo for these fans and just the affiliation. The Rich family does a great job. They've gotten to know what I've known."
Using the near-completed first season - Buffalo has four road games remaining - as a sample-size, Anthopoulos called the affiliation a perfect fit.
"Logistically, it's been night and day, and that's to be expected," Anthopoulos said. "To me, it's the equivalent to flying first class with the convenience, and to ever have to go back to something (else) would be very hard."
The Bisons finish the season 35-37 at home and with the Norfolk Tides losing Thursday, Buffalo pulled within 3 ½ games of them for the lone wild-card spot in the International League.
Buffalo will head to Rochester on Friday to begin a quick two-game series with the Red Wings before concluding the season with two games in Syracuse, Sunday and Monday. Whether the playoffs are in the picture for the first time since 2005 for the Bisons, there is still the guarantee for at least three more tries as the top affiliate of the Blue Jays.
"Hopefully it'll just become something that we just keep renewing," Buczkowski said. "(Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, at the original press conference, said 'this is a two-year agreement, I hope it's a 32-year agreement.' I kidded with him the other day that now it's a four-year agreement, maybe it'll be a 34-year agreement."
BISONS NOTES: Catcher A.J. Jimenez was placed on the temporary inactive list prior to the game and as a result, catcher Jack Murphy was promoted from Double-A New Hampshire…Chien-Ming Wang was also activated by the Herd after a brief stint with Toronto.