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Watching the big boys in Buffalo – J.A. Happ

ja_happ.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxGetting the opportunity to get a glimpse of the major league players play for the minor league team as part of an injury rehabilitation can be an extra special treat when going to Buffalo Bisons games. Unfortunately, only about 200 hardy fans were in the stands on a blustery and windy night in downtown Buffalo tonight to see Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ in a Bisons uniform.

Happ has gone through two injury stints over the past 12 months. This one is trying to comeback from back spasms which has forced him down to Buffalo to get back in the groove. Playing against the Pawtucket Red Sox, he threw 90 pitches, allowing one run and getting six strikeouts. He got the no decision in what eventually turned out to be a 7-4 loss by the Bisons.

“He’s in his second year of pro ball,” said Manager Gary Allenson tonight. “He’s got really good stuff. I’d be the kind of guy to keep on him, just to keep him focused.”

Happ met with the media after his stint was done, and while the game itself was still unfolding on the field. He had one previous start, at the single A level, and it is uncertain when he might pitch again. “I feel I’ve ready to take it to the next step and try to get the big league hitters out,” Happ said. Happ refused to comment when asked if he would be comfortable taking an assignment in the bullpen once he returns to Toronto, insisting that he has been focused on being in the starting rotation.

The Bisons continue their homestand against Pawtucket throughout the weekend, with the first Fridaynightbash set for a 6:05 PM start on Friday, then 1:05pm starts both on Saturday and Sunday.


Bisons baseball – we are underway

Filed under: Sports

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New Buffalo Bisons manager Gary Allenson walked into the media room, which is always crowded on Opening Day with a large press contingent, excused his way through the cameramen and the writers, took center stage, and quipped, “What is this, New York?”

Allenson seems to be one of those down to earth, no nonsense type of coaches that Buffalo fans absolutely love. Fast release with the stories and takes, a bit of self deprecating humor, and a fire in the belly attitude when it comes to winning.

He had plenty to be happy about today, as Buffalo Bisons won their season opener, 6-3, over Thurway rivals Rochester Red Wings. 11,042 fans braved the chilly temperatures to take part in the 27th opener at the downtown ballpark. Today’s win marked the 17th time in those 27 opener that the Bisons have emerged as winners.
Anthony Gose, who has had major playing time with the parent Toronto Bloue Jays, went 2 for 4 at the plate in the leadoff spot. Two Bisons who were with the team during the Mets era, Mike Nickeas and Matt Tuiasosopo, contributed nightly towards the win. The Bisons did most of their damage early, plating four runs in the bottom of the first inning, doing all the scoring with two outs.

“It’s nice to get the win, I don’t care how you get it,” said Allenson. “You know my wife bought me a new pair of cabela under armours and they were sweet today. I wasn’t cold.” (No endorsement deal with that apparel manufacturer)
Neil Wagner, who played effectively in the closing role for the Herd last season, was lights out in the 9th, retiring all three batters to notch his first save.
Buffalo and Rochester go at it again Friday at 2PM, weather permitting, before hitting the road this weekend.


Why HarborCenter’s Tim Hortons store matters

hortonGo back to February 21, 1974… The Buffalo Sabres are hosting the Atlanta Flames at Memorial Auditorium, coming home after a loss up in Toronto a night earlier. But this was no ordinary night. Hearts were heavy. Fans, players, everyone associated with the Sabres were shaken and devastated. In the wee hours of that very morning, Buffalo defenseman Tim Horton had perished in a car crash on the QEW just outside of St Catharines, Ontario while driving back from the game at Maple Leaf Gardens by himself. The grief hung throughout the Aud as people came to grips with what had happened. The players of both teams wore black armbands. Second year defenseman and Horton’s line mate Jim Schoenfeld wept openly as the building descended into a moment of silence. It remains the saddest story in Sabres’ history.

Horton played but 124 games in a Buffalo Sabres uniform. He tallied one goal during that time. But the mark he made on the franchise was so substantial, so indelible, his leadership willed the up and coming expansion team into the Stanley Cup playoffs in 1972-73, and cemented the love affair between a city and its hockey team which endures to this day. His retired number hangs from the rafters at First Niagara Center, as well as in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, in a city where he helped lead the Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s.

Yet while Horton was putting a period on a stellar hockey career cut too short, he was also building a business, that nobody could ever believe would become a world wide brand. He and partner Ron Joyce opened their first coffee and donut shop in the 1960s in Hamilton, Ontario. Tim Horton’s Donuts, took off. He opened his first American based store right here in the Buffalo area on Niagara Falls Boulevard while he was with the team. At the time of his death there were 30 locations. Fast forward to today, and the Tim Horton’s Cafe and Bake Shop chain boasts a footprint all across North America and as far away as Kandahar, Afghanistan. It is a true corporate success story, and one that has many of its roots right here in Buffalo.
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And that’s what makes yesterday’s announcement significant, that a “destination” TIm Horton’s Cafe and Bake Shop will be opening at HarborCenter as part of the center’s retail storefront mix.
The honoring of Horton, both as a player and businessman, is a story that should be told, and enshrined. Following the pattern that HarborCenter has put forth as they have unveiled every piece of this dynamic and exciting project, this Tim Horton’s will not be your ordinary template coffee shop which one can find on any street corner in Ontario, across Canada and at locations throughout Western New York. This store will bear exhibits and displays from Horton’s playing days, artifacts and memorabilia from the Aud, and other exhibits showcasing the Horton chain’s corporate success story.

Local urbanists and armchair planners have watched the emergence of the HarborCenter with a bit of a wary eye and some trepidation. Issues such as the architecture and fenestration, some opinions that the building will be nothing more than a “glorified parking ramp”, and the bridging of the structure over Perry Street have drawn criticism in some circles.
So that is why the announcement of this Tim Horton’s certainly has to be viewed as a win by those very same circles. And why not? The interior design will mimic the look and feel of the historic Erie Canal period; chairs and furniture will replicate the old Aud’s blue seats. Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium was for sure a beloved and cherished building among local preservationists, an arena which was demolished in 2009. More good news – some of the limestone saved from the Aud will actually be used in the construction of the restaurant. Also, there will be no suburban style drive-thru, which would definitely not be appropriate for this site or this structure.

Some might decry the presence at Canalside of “corporate chains”. And what exactly is a “destination” Tim Horton’s anyway?
The best answer would be to cite a peer example. How about a “destination” Kentucky Fried Chicken?
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In Corbin, Kentucky, there is a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food restaurant, one that looks virtually identical to any one of the thousands one would find anywhere across America, and a menu which is also identical. But in Corbin, this KFC is anything but ubiquitous.
Attached to this fast food outlet is the original “Sanders Cafe”, where Colonel Harlan Sanders perfected his secret recipe that became a worldwide phenomenon. There are exhibits, artifacts, displays, even the old tables and booths, and a statue of the Colonel which makes for a perfect photo opp for visitors and tourists.
And guess what? People come. They come from all over. And while at most locations patrons would just buy their chicken and fries and skeedaddle, over there in Corbin tourists stay a while to check the place out, to take photos, to savor the experience.

There is absolutely no reason that visitors to Canalside might not want to take in the very same experience when it comes to the story of Tim Horton and Tim Horton’s. It is not at all crazy to say that this restaurant will be another component that is making the emerging and growing neighborhood at the foot of Main Street a very cool place to be.
Welcome to HarborCenter, Tim Horton’s. And if you are old enough and lucky enough to have had the chance to actually see Horton play, make sure you raise a cup of coffee and toast the old guy on your first visit to the location at the corner of Main and Scott. Tim Horton, the player, and Tim Horton, the entrepreneur, deserves that tribute for sure.
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NCAA Buffalo… Oh what a party

ncaa1Did everybody have fun?

What a week it was in Buffalo, New York. The Big Dance came. We ate. We drank. We partied. We reveled in the basketball. When all was said and done, it was Connecticut and Dayton who would be leaving Buffalo enroute to the Sweet 16. Did you have that mapped out in your bracket? Didn’t think so.

This is the fifth time that the NCAA mens basketball 2nd/3rd round “subregional” has come to Buffalo. Judging from the media reports, the buzz, the fan reactions, the games themselves, this may have been the best one yet.

On the court

The story of these games will certainly be the heroics of the Dayton Flyers. Their red cladded fans were trying to out yell the Ohio State faithful on Thursday, and then were absolutely swamped by a sea of Syracuse Orange on Saturday. Coming in as an 11 seed, the confidence in their game just grew and grew versus the formidable Ohio State Buckeyes, and they held the lead with their cross state rivals for much of the contest. With 26 seconds left, Dayton’s Dyshawn Pierre was fouled while attempting a three point basket. He drained all three free throws and the team took the lead 58-57. The two teams traded buckets, and with Ohio State holding the ball for the last shot, Aaron Craft’s buzzer beater missed, and just like that it was jubilation for the Flyers. And it was more of the same Saturday. Syracuse did not land a single three pointer the entire game. Let that sink in for a moment. The entire game. Tyler Ennis’ three point attempt at the end also missed, and once again, the improbable Dayton Flyers had themselves a dramatic win. For the legions of ‘Cuse fans… devastation. It was kind of like Toronto Maple Leaves fans after yet another loss to the Sabres here in Buffalo, except Syracuse fans are far nicer.

The Buffalo party
Even if you’re one of those types who has never filled a bracket, take no interest in sports, and would rather watch paint dry than succumb to a full day of viewing games on TV on four separate networks, if you were in the city, you couldn’t help but notice that something special was going on. People were everywhere. The streets were teeming with cars, every eating and drinking establishment was packed to the gills, the Metrorail trains to and fro were constantly standing room only, and the hotels throughout downtown had no vacancies. Welcome banners were on full display everywhere. Visitors could easily be spotted, dressed in the gear of their favorite team playing here in Buffalo, but don’t discount the fans of the sport itself, who weren’t supporting any particular school, but were here just for the games and the party. The most common refrain I got from the visitors I spoke with was how Buffalo was a city on the move and on the comeback. The array of construction and work going on downtown left many impressed. And think about this for a moment, for the construction and renovation flash points going on around downtown right now could not be more perfectly placed – On Chippewa, the Delaware Court building is being carted away, to be replaced by a shiny new tower with retail and parking. Over on Main Street work is almost complete on the new roads on the 600 block, and fencing and preliminary work is beginning on the 500 block, right at the Fountain Plaza station. One station down, the Tishman is in full reconstruction mode for a new Hilton Garden Inn. And of course, at Canalside the massive amount of work is a wonder to behold. Each location was destination or embarkation point for our visitors, and they got an eyeful of the awesomeness that is unfolding in downtown’s rebirth.

Parkinggate… Yawn

In 2007, we did a trip to Los Angeles to watch the USC Trojans play at the Coliseum. We stumbled across 60$, 70$, 80$ lots. Then this. And it was just some crummy lot behind a gas station, a ten minute walk to the stadium!

In 2007, we did a trip to Los Angeles to watch the USC Trojans play at the Coliseum. We stumbled across 60$, 70$, 80$ lots. Then this. And it was just some crummy lot behind a gas station, ten minute walk to the stadium!

Down Perry Street and just a block east of the arena, a couple of parking lots were charging 60$ to park for the sessions on Thursday. Those same lots were charging 30$ for the Saturday session. And it became a media sensation, with local outlets WGRZ-TV Ch 2 and WBEN Newsradio 930 trumping up this as if it were some major outrage and demanding investigations.

Guess what. This was much ado about nothing.

If there is one thing we have in downtown Buffalo, it is an abundance of parking. In fact, a ridiculous overabundance. Fans attending Thursday’s sessions had a myriad of options and choices… ramps throughout the downtown core charge $6.50 to park all day. The ramps at One Seneca and at the ballpark, two blocks away, charged $8-$10. Most surface lots under the elevated Thruway and in close proximity, the same. Fans could park anywhere throughout downtown and ride the Metrorail for free. As for street parking? No can do on a weekday as meters are enforced, but they were free on Saturday. And here’s another little secret.. parking in the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino ramp was also FREE, and that’s just a block and a half further away from those infamous $60 lots.
Moral of the story? Customers have choices. If your local pizzeria is charging $50 for a large cheese and pepperoni, your reaction could be “damn that’s one great pie” and fork over the dough, or go to the next corner where the same product can be bought for $10. The marketplace works. Shame on Ch 2 and WBEN for sensationalizing what was essentially a non story. Buffalo did not get a black eye or any other colored eye from this. Ridiculous parking fees are pretty much standard in any big city. Suck it up and pay it, or find cheaper options. They are available in abundance here in the B-lo.

The camaraderie

Sports travel and sports road trips are big business, and the industry has grown exponentially in the past decade. (If you have questions on this topic you’ve come to the right place). With the internet – ticket reselling sites, team websites that provide information and access to tickets, and social media which links up ballpark chasers, the romance of hitting the road and seeing games in faraway cities is big. And getting bigger.

Traveling to March Madness venues – from the opening rounds right to the Final Four, is a particularly popular type of road trip. And for good reason. Host venues normally put on a great party. There’s lots of things going on surrounding the games, the host communities steer you to other entertainment diversions, and there are endless opportunities to meet and hang out with other like minded fans. It’s a communal and shared experience and a special one to take part in.

Since the first subregional in 2000, Peter Farrell and I have organized a group of family and friends to take part in this NCAA experience, and it’s been a great gathering each time. On the morning of the first session, we meet up for breakfast (I hosted here at Avant). We all make our picks in a whole mess of fun pools – there are squares, and over/unders and point spread pools. Then we add other silly stuff like “Name the time of the game when the Ohio State marching band breaks into Hang on Sloopy” and “Name the time of the game when Syracuse’ Jim Boeheim removes his jacket”. (For those of you playing at home, the answers were 6:52/2nd half, and Boeheim kept his jacket on the whole game). We hopped the train and did Dinosaur BBQ between sessions. That place is a zoo even on slow nights, yet when we arrived our reservation for 9 was accommodated and we got in and out and missed little of the games. It is all about the games, the fellowship, the food and drink, and we have had a ball hosting this party, now for the fifth time. And just like the larger event, our little group has gotten better with each event.

So a shout out our participants this year who came from far flung places – besides Peter Farrell and myself there were John Farrell Sr from Elmira, John Farrell Jr and, for the first time, 10 year old John Stephen Farrell from Rochester, Ephraim Fiksel and Mike Simons from Toronto, Alan Bossin from Hamilton, Bermuda, and local guys Bill Zilliox from West Seneca and Tim Duffy from Tonawanda. Joining us as well, and sitting right behind us, was Stadium Journey writer Dave Cottenie from Kitchener, Ontario and his dad Jack Cottenie. Our bud Kevin Dale from Elma didn’t go to the games, but brought the hot foods and the bloody marys for the breakfast.

As for the City of Buffalo? You nailed it. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, our two schools Canisius and Niagara, the local organizers, the business community, our civic leaders who robustly supported the tournament, the Buffalo Sabres, the visiting fans, but most of all the people of this area who welcomed everyone with open arms, served as great local ambassadors. You made this event what it was, and yesterday and today thousands of people are heading home with stories of what a terrific time they had in Buffalo.

Later this year the NCAA will announce their sites for the 2016, 2017 and maybe even the 2018 NCAA mens basketball tournaments. We do know that Buffalo has put in its bid to have the event return for a 6th time. Let’s hope that come this time in 2017, we can welcome the world to Buffalo for yet another Big Dance, and show everyone how it is done.

Follow the Ultimate Sports Road Trip on Twitter @akulykUSRT and @pfarrellUSRT


Welcome to the NHL, Ryan Vinz

photo-2 In the midst of all the emotion, the excitement, the fast developing-by-the-minute story all unfolding at First Niagara Center, in a game that the Buffalo Sabres defeated the San Jose Sharks 4-2, was the story of Ryan Vinz.

Vinz made his NHL debut tonight as the Sabres’ backup net minder to starter Jhonas Enroth, pressed into service about 6pm when the blockbuster trade sending Ryan Miller to the St. Louis Blues was made official.

The diminutive Vinz, who is listed at 5′ 8″, played as a goaltender for Clarkson University and now works for the Buffalo Sabres as a scout, and also serves on the HarborCenter staff as Director of Hockey Technology. He was leaving the office after a day’s work, and was planning to join his brother before the game and then catch the action in the stands, a routine he had followed on many a game night. Little did he know that his life was about to change in a big way.

Vinz gave a glimpse of how this all came together just an hour before puck drop. “Luckily I was still in the office and I had my equipment with me, so it worked out pretty well.” Indeed, with the game about to start, the Rochester farmhands hundreds of miles away playing in Chicago, and the Sabres desperate for a back up emergency goaltender, Vinz was handed the opportunity that many can only dream of. A chance to suit up and play a real game in the NHL.

He was asked tonight that had the Sabres been nursing a 6-1 lead and it was late in the game, would he have gone in? Vinz laughed and replied, “Naw. This was about as good as it gets as far as an experience for me.”

He admitted that he didn’t play too much hockey during his days at Clarkson. “Pretty much held the door for the others. And had an awesome view,” Vinz replied. “But getting to do this at the NHL level? Yeah. Psyched.” Vinz admitted that this was one of his proudest hockey moments ever. “I was very surprised about everything. And really nervous. But it was very exciting.”

Vinz’ brother ended up getting to watch the game in the stands, and it had to be almost surreal watching brother Ryan on the bench in a Buffalo Sabres uniform, when the plan just hours earlier was for the two brothers to share a couple beers and watch their team play. “I don’t know if he got anybody to use my ticket,” said Vinz. “He probably sold it online,” said Vinz with a laugh.

With Jaroslav Halak, the goaltender acquired in the trade with St. Louis, planning to join the Sabres in time for their next game at Dallas, Vinz will go back to his regular job in the Sabres organization. But for just one night, Ryan Vinz was an NHL goaltender. It will be a memory he will cherish for the rest of his life.

Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame in life. Tonight was that night for Ryan Vinz.

Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame in life. Tonight was that night for Ryan Vinz.


Coming to the ballpark: new sound, LED boards

More exciting changes are coming to Coca Cola Field, the home of the AAA baseball Buffalo Bisons, as the team announced today two significant capital improvements to the 27 year old ballpark to enhance the fan and visitor experience.

Two new LED boards will be added to the club level balconies, to be placed at the 1st base and 3rd base sides. The 50′ x 2.5′ ribbon boards are manufactured by Daktronics using state of the art pixel technology. The boards will feature a time of day clock, a constant line score and also feature additional promotional messages as well as out of town baseball scores.

Additionally, the team is installing a 120 speaker sound system throughput the ballpark. In the past all sound was emitted from central speakers placed in the center field scoreboard, which caused a decrease in sound quality at times, especially during windy conditions. The new system was manufactured by Cannon Design.

The current dot matrix panels along the balcony as well as the current sound system have both been in place since the ballpark opened in 1988.

The Buffalo Bisons and their owners Bob and Mindy Rich are privately funding these new venue enhancements, which carry a price tag of over $225,000. Since the downtown ballpark opened, the Bisons have invested over $23,000,000 in capital improvements to the publicly owned venue.

The Bisons will hold a public open house on Saturday, March 8, from noon to 3pm, which will include all sorts of games for the youngsters, tours of behind the scenes facilities such as the clubhouse and press box, and a chance to take a hack or two in the Bisons indoor batting cages. Visitors are invited to sample a ballpark hot dog and soda, and the event is free and open to the public.

Graphic rendition courtesy bisons.com

Graphic rendition courtesy bisons.com


(716) Food and Sport: HarborCenter’s new urban bistro

(716) exteriorMove over, RealSports in Toronto. There’s a new kid on the block, and it pretty much blows you away.

This afternoon at First Niagara Center, details on the latest component of the fast developing HarborCenter were unveiled to the public and the press, and from the looks of things this will be a dynamic piece of the emerging Canalside neighborhood.

“(716) Food and Sport” is the name of the new sports restaurant and bistro that will be an important part of HarborCenter. The two level themed restaurant will be located on the corner of Scott St and Washington St. It will be approximately 13,000 square feet in size, have three bars and seating for 350 patrons. Each of the bar tops will be illuminated and be designed to replicate that of a hockey rink. This will be just one of many unique architectural and design enhancements which will include custom graphics and art which will embrace the “716” theme.

With 55 high-definition sets throughout the facility, the signature viewing experience will be a 38 foot video screen which will hang over the main bar and will be visible from both levels. It will be the largest such screen in the continental United States.

Dominic Verni is the restaurant’s General Manager, and offered more insight as to what the customer experience will be like for patrons coming to the new establishment, when it opens its doors this fall. “Our celebration of food will be highlighted by Western New York culinary favorites featuring locally produced ingredients. Our menu will be complimented by craft beers and signature cocktails, will feature 40 beer selections with over 20 varieties on tap. Our celebration of sport will include being Buffalo’s premiere destination before and after all sporting events in downtown Buffalo. It will be the best destination to watch all major televised events, providing a unique and exciting viewing experience.”

HarborCenter President John Koelmel gave a construction update on the facility, while offering high praises to the construction crew who continue to keep the project on schedule despite the harsh weather conditions and the challenging winter. “We are still looking to open the entire facility in the fall of this year, except the hotel which will open the following spring.” Koelmel did say that there is no firm date set for the opening of (716) Food and Sport, except that they hope to tie in the date with the opening of the facility, and offered a range of time from September to November depending on the overall construction progress.

Koelmel indicated that there is one more piece of the HarborCenter project which is still under review, and that is the retail tenant mix that will occupy the space abutting Main Street. “That is still taking shape. While it will only represent only 1% of the total square footage, we think it will benefit the district positively, and disproportionately so,” said Koelmel. Both Koelmel and Verni also stated that there are no immediate plans to provide seasonal outdoor dining at the restaurant, despite the presence of an ample sized plaza and pedestrian space outside their door bordering Scott Street,, one of the only such spots within the entire HarborCenter footprint. “We are working the with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, where there are some exciting plans to present outdoor dining options along the new canals and in other sites in the district,” said Koelmel. “At some point we might introduce this here at 716 but right now we can tell you that there will be plenty of such experiences nearby, and we want our restaurant to compliment that array of dining choices for people who come down here.”

Once open, (716) Food and Sports will create 150 new jobs. “We’re putting a 10 pound project into a 5 pound site. It is an experience that will knock your socks off,” Koelmel promised.

(716) 1 theater

(716) 1st floor bar

(716) plans


The Bisons have a new manager

BisonsThere were more than a few raised eyebrows late last year, when the highly respected and popular manager of the Buffalo Bisons, Marty Brown, abruptly announced that he was leaving the Toronto Blue Jays organization and not returning to Buffalo to manage the Bisons in 2014.

Brown had quite a following here in Buffalo and was very well liked within the Bisons’ organization. He led Buffalo to its last league championship back in 2004, when the Bisons won the International League Governors Cup. Last year, on his return to Buffalo, his team fell just short of qualifying for the postseason playoffs, yet hopes are still high that the team would take that next step and return to the postseason for the first time since 2005.

Enter Gary Allenson.

Allenson will be starting his 20th season as a manager at the minor league level, eight of those years spent in the International League. Last season, he managed the Blue Jays’ AA affiliate in Manchester, New Hampshire. He was introduced to the media, and then to the public, at the Bisons’ annual Hot Stove Luncheon at the Adams Mark Hotel downtown on Thursday.

“It’s a great league. It’s a competitive league, and it’s a tougher league than that other league (the PCL),” said Allenson. “It’s a man’s league and I’m happy to be here.”

For the Bisons, Allenson will have a strong familiarity with many of his roster players, some of whom played for him at AA last season. Toronto Blue Jays VP and General Manager Alex Anthopoulos was also on hand, and promised that the Buffalo team should be well stocked going into 2014. “I think we have a stronger roster here than last year,” said Anthopoulos, who is still dealing with the crushing disappointment of last years’ results at the big league level when expectations for Toronto were red hot.

Allenson readily admitted that he knows he has some big shoes to fill in replacing Marty Brown, also stating that he had little interaction with his fellow manager, other than on the phone discussions regarding things such as player call ups and individual player issues. “He was in big league camp, and I talked with him on the phone I would deal with player performance, that sort of thing. He’s a class guy. He’s a baseball man and has been in baseball for a while. I don’t know the reason why things didn’t work out and why he left but he’s a good man as far as I know.”

Buffalo will open their 27th year of professional baseball downtown at Coca Cola Field on Thursday, April 4 vs the Rochester Red Wings. Opening Day is just 76 days away.




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