Sullivan: Casey Candaele and the Bisons are back with some unfinished business

There’s a myth that winning doesn’t really matter in minor-league baseball. It’s all about the big club developing prospects who are mainly interested in getting to the next level, to the bright lights and the big money. 

But don’t tell that to Bisons manager Casey Candaele, or to the guys in his clubhouse. Candaele cares deeply about winning in Triple-A. The evidence is hanging on a wall outside his office in the bowels of Sahlen Field. 

It’s an old T-shirt from the 1997 Bisons, who captured the American Association championship that year. The shirt has “The Herd” on the front and 10 of the team’s pet sayings on the back, not all of them suitable for print.

The ’97 championship was Buffalo’s first baseball title in 36 years. Candaele, who played 270 games for the Bisons from 1995-97, was a star on that Herd team. He blew out his knee in the playoff semifinals, but the Riches made sure to fly him to Des Moines to be there for the title series.

The memory of that title run is still vivid, a quarter of a century later. He admits the celebration from later that night is a bit fuzzy, but the relationships he forged with his teammates have lasted over the years.

“Oh, yeah, that was quite a group,” Candaele said Monday afternoon as he met with the media a day before the Bisons’ opener. “It was special. We had a lot of great players and guys who are still in the game, doing different things.”

Bisons manager Casey Candaele displays a 1997 “The Herd” T-shirt in his office. (News 4)

There’s long been a feeling that winning mattered more in Buffalo, that it’s an essential part of a prospect’s development. That feeling resonates through the parent club, with the Blue Jays coming off a 91-win season and being picked by many prognosticators to reach the World Series.

Expectations were raised even higher last month when the Jays sent four prospects to the Oakland A’s for Matt Chapman, one of the best defensive third basemen in the game.

“Oh, it’s about winning for us,” Candaele said. “We want to win. But it’s mostly being successful in how you go about your business and how you handle the game, and what kind of attitude you take to the game. 

“That’s the most important part to me. You’re playing professionally. This is the career you’ve chosen. You’re one step away from the highest level that you can play at. If you have a poor attitude and don’t go out and compete to win and be successful every day, it tells me a lot about someone’s character.”

The Bisons have unfinished business. In 2021, they won their division for the first time since 2005 in a season split between Trenton and Buffalo because COVID-19 kept the Jays out of Canada. But there was no formal minor-league playoff, just a 10-game “final stretch” that they treated like a postseason.

They went 79-47 and outscored the opposition by a staggering 169 runs, a remarkable campaign when you consider that they spent most of it in Trenton, as a team without a home. By the time the Bisons returned to Buffalo in early August, they had gone 711 days — nearly two full years — between home games.

It will be nice to have a “normal” baseball season with the prospect of conventional playoffs at the end. The Bisons will be back in the International League after a year in the temporary “Triple-A East” last season. 

“In my pro career, in 2019 we got hurricaned out in Florida in High-A. We didn’t get to go to a championship there. In 2020, we didn’t play, and last year it was a little bit different kind of playoff,” said lefty Nick Allgeyer, slated to start on the mound for the Bisons in Tuesday’s season opener at Sahlen Field.

“So, I’ve yet to experience what it could be like,” he said. “Obviously, I’m looking forward to get to the playoffs and win it all.”

Third baseman Cullen Large, who led the team in games and at-bats in 2021, said there will be typical Opening Day jitters, playing a meaningful game after weeks of spring training. The Bisons will have a little extra jolt on Tuesday. Their 1:05 p.m. game against Iowa, the start of a six-game series, will be the first professional baseball game played at any level in 2022.

The MLB season was delayed due to the lockout — it gets under way Thursday — and Tuesday’s other minor-league openers will be played later in the day or at night. Allgeyer, a St. Louis native who pitched in two games for Toronto last year, will throw the first pitch of the 2022 baseball season. 

Allgeyer said the players are looking forward to a normal season with enthusiastic fans in one of the best minor-league cities in the game. 

“The more fans we have this year, it’ll be even better,” he said. “You watch the Bills play and their fans are crazy. If they come to some of our games, it’s going to be fun.”

Allgeyer said being displaced for much of last season helped the Bisons bond as a team. Large agreed that the Trenton experience helped the team develop a competitive personality, more of an edge.

“I think it definitely carries over,” Large said. “Having Casey back and all the staff really helps, too. It’s going to be effortless. We spent a lot of time in spring training together. There’s not that many new faces. We all know each other and get along pretty well, just like that year. We have fun playing together.”

Large said a lot of that comes from Candaele, renowned for years as a voluble, fun-loving character who keeps people loose and has fostered a winning culture in Buffalo.

“He’s a player’s coach,” Large said. He’s the full definition of it. He keeps things light. It’s not stressful. If he needs to have a conversation with you, he will, no doubt about it. But he loves to keep things fun.

“Swinging back to the culture, a lot of that has to do with the manager and the tone he sets. He does a great job of that, in bringing us all together. It’s almost like he’s part of the team. Everybody gets along with him. We can have conversations outside of baseball, which is a big thing with trust and relationships. He’s awesome with that.”

Candaele said it’s good to get back to normal after the chaos of last season. Or nearly normal, since some of his players were still with the Jays in camp and the Bisons hadn’t had a practice with their full team. 

“With the lockout and everything, there’s some scrambling going on,” Candaele said. “But it’s great to be here and it’s good to get ready to get going. I do remember the weather here, so it’s great. It’s definitely an advantage.”

He’s never played in the very first game of the pro baseball season before. So hopefully, the weather will cooperate. 

“This is great,” Candaele said. “History! And it’s Triple-A.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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