Triple-A Buffalo Stumbles In First Year With Parent Mets

BUFFALO—"Meet the Mets. Step right up and greet the Mets."

The Buffalo Bisons spent the entire fall and winter doing exactly what the Mets' campy, nostalgia-twinged fight song suggests.

It was a seven-month lovefest. The governor, county executive and mayor all were on hand to greet Mets owner Jeff Wilpon, general manager Omar Minaya and Mr. Met on the sunny day last September when the new Triple-A working agreement was announced between Buffalo and the folks from Flushing.

On a frozen January day, fans filled a downtown hotel ballroom to hear farm director Adam Wogan talk about the Mets' future. Ed Kranepool, the Mets' all-time leader in games, hits and doubles, was on hand to reminisce about the franchise's history in Western New York, on the shores of Lake Erie.

The Bisons unveiled a new logo, new uniforms, a new name for the ballpark and an expanded statewide television schedule that includes 37 games—highlighted by five that will receive national exposure on SportsNet New York, the Mets' flagship station. The Buffalo franchise once sold a million tickets in six straight seasons, yet an excitement that had not existed in many years followed the franchise all offseason.

But then the season began.

A city that had grown accustomed to winning baseball has endured an utter disaster in the Mets' first year as the parent club. The Bisons lost 11 of their first 12 games, started 2-17 and were fighting to avoid having the worst record in the minor leagues.

They're also trying to avoid losing 100 games—a rare feat in a 144-game schedule—for the first time since 1931.

"Nobody is happy with the record, but the Mets have been very responsive to us," Bisons vice president and general manager Mike Buczkowski said. "They've continually tried to change things up. Never once have they not taken our calls.

"They're always keeping us informed with information like, 'We're moving up this guy, we're talking about signing this guy.' The business side of the relationship, things like sales and marketing and media relations, has just been outstanding so far. We just wish we would have won more games."

The top affiliate of the Indians since 1995, Buffalo fans had grown accustomed to winning. Cleveland stocked nine playoff teams in its 14 years as parent organization, and the Bisons won the final American Association championship in 1997, as well as International League titles in 1998 and 2004.

In fact, the only losing season Cleveland had in Buffalo was its 66-77 mark in 2008. Even then, the Indians had one foot out the door as they looked forward to their new partnership with Columbus.

The Mets have not been habitual winners in Triple-A, but they've hardly been losers either. They put together a playoff team in New Orleans in 2007, and they won a division title in Norfolk in 2005 under current Buffalo manager Ken Oberkfell.

"This team's record is something that's very unexpected," Mets vice president for player development Tony Bernazard said. "We're very disappointed as an organization. The whole Mets organization is disappointed that this has to happen like this. We are doing everything possible to change it around.

"This team is not as bad as this."

The Grisly Details

When the season started, the Bisons appeared to be stocked with strong pitching and a good mixture of prospects and veterans.

The Mets signed 10 minor league free agents for Buffalo, including three—outfielders Bobby Kielty and Cory Sullivan and righthander Kyle Snyder—who appeared on 2007 World Series rosters for either the Red Sox or Rockies.  

The pitching and defense lived up to expectations, but early on, the offense struggled to historic proportions.

The Bisons hit just .197 as a team in April, posting a 2-16 record that was their worst in franchise history. They lost nine games in a row at home during one stretch, establishing a record at 22-year-old Coca-Cola Field. Their only win in that time was a 15-inning victory against Pawtucket, when Nick Evans belted a walk-off home run off catcher Carlos Maldonado.

The Bisons were shut out eight times in their first 54 games. They were held to three runs or less in 32 of those 54 games—and went 1-31 in those contests. Their average with runners in scoring position hovered below .200 all season.

"It's depressing. It's sad," Oberkfell said in a particularly down moment after another lackluster offensive performance. "Our pitchers are pitching their (butts) off and our offense stinks."

"He has every right to be frustrated," Sullivan said. "When we're not performing and getting guys in with situational hitting, it's unacceptable to me. To every player here, it should be."

Sullivan, who played for the '07 Rockies, said that team always felt anything could go right, and often did. This team feels nothing will.

"The key to that team was, regardless of how you performed, the next guy would pick you up," he said. "We're lacking that feeling right now. We can't get that positive movement."

To their credit, the Mets have not stood pat. They brought in major league veterans Wily Mo Pena, Javier Valentin and Mike Lamb to fortify the lineup.

Growing Pains

Buffalo ranked dead last in the International League in runs scored, mostly due to veterans starting slowly. And in this case, the Mets' young prospects did little to pick up the slack.

After a nightmarish 7-for-75 (.093) start with the Bisons, first baseman Evans, 23, was demoted back to Double-A Binghamton.

"Can't figure that one out," Oberfkfell said. "I've seen that guy hit in the big leagues last year."

Evans had been told the weekend before the season opener that he had made the Mets. When the organization signed Gary Sheffield, though, Evans was shuffled to Buffalo.

Lefthander Jonathon Niese, 22, who like Evans shot from Double-A to the Mets in '08, went winless in his first nine starts for Buffalo—and he deserved every one of his six losses. His ERA stood at 7.36.

Only left fielder Fernando Martinez lived up to his billing. He finished April in a 1-for-18 skid, but he turned it on in May, batting .337/.378/.663 with seven home runs and 20 RBIs in 24 games. Martinez was leading the IL in extra-base hits when the Mets called him up to play every day in their depleted outfield.

"I thought he was great. He was our best player," Buczkowski said. "Teams stopped pitching to him, and that's a pretty great compliment to a 20-year-old guy. Once we got some reinforcements in, he took off again.

"Wily Mo and Lamb were important guys to him. They were the first ones to tell him not to worry and not to get away from his game."

Off the field, Mets gear and new Bisons merchandise—look for it in New York's Citi Field in late June—have been hot sellers. Buczkowski said that internet sales for the first three months of 2009 already had surpassed the total sales figures for all of '08, largely because of the new logo and orders from the New York City area.

Fans routinely wear Mets gear to the ballpark, in contrast to the Indians days. And though attendance was down 1,400 tickets per game compared with last year, it's expected to pick up again with several promotional dates already slated for the summer.

"We're in a new city, a new team for the franchise, and we're with a franchise that has a lot of success at that level," Bernazard said. "We've promised the ownership in Buffalo that we're not going to sit back. We're going to keep trying to get better."

Mike Harrington covers the Bisons for 
The Buffalo News