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Game On: Buffalo's team?

Photo courtesy of the New York Yankees

When the mighty roar of George Steinbrenner was silenced last July following a heart attack, baseball lost its most beloved/despised owner, the Yankees lost the man who changed the face of the franchise, and Buffalo lost a major fan. Many of us, myself included, were surprised to learn of Steinbrenner’s links to WNY, which included ownership of a Delaware Avenue restaurant, the Roundtable. George loved the Buff, and the Buff loves the Yanks—well, a sizable chunk of us do.

Unsurprisingly, the Yankees are big business in Buffalo, with the YES Network broadcasting almost every game in hi-def. But are the Yankees truly “Buffalo’s team”? Is there such a franchise?

Admittedly, I’m a Yankees fan today, following a youth of Oakland A’s love. My decision to start wearing Jeter apparel was a calculated one. After all, they win. Often. And as a Buffalonian-by-birth, that thought is pretty intoxicating—FourLoko-level. Does that make me a sports whore (a sphore?) or a bandwagon-jumper? Perhaps. I say all’s fair in love and baseball.

Let’s break it down:

• The Boston Red Sox: Ahhh, the Red Sox. The Susan Lucci, always-the-bridesmaid years are over, and today, the team has a payroll not too far from the Yanks. Like the Patriots and the Celtics, they are now expected to be in the championship mix every year. In other words, it’s a damn good time to have grown up worshipping at the altar of Fenway Park—no matter where you were born. One of my favorite Queen City Sox fans is Ed Cardoni, executive director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center and a Boston native. Cardoni knows of several transplanted Bostonians and New Englanders who share his passion, including some noted local professors and poets. He sees this as more than a coincidence: “The Red Sox appeal to the literary,” he believes. “Sox gear got a lot more plentiful in 2004, the year they ended up winning the World Series … Unfortunately, the team whose cable network gets carried on cable here is the Yankees, but at least Red Sox fans here can see the games they play against the Yankees on YES—if we can bear the announcers—and listen to their games against Toronto on the radio [590-AM]. The Blue Jays radio announcers are tolerable. And I go to see Red Sox games in Toronto, where tickets are easy to get. But a lot of Bostonians travel to the Rogers Centre—tickets for home games at Fenway are hard to come by.” As a Yankees backer, I can’t bring myself to like the Sox, but I certainly respect them. It’s a lot easier now that Curt Schilling has retired.

• The New York Mets: The blue-and-orange are the Bisons’ Major League affiliate, and that certainly counts for something, though these initial campaigns have been marked by poor results. The biggest problem, of course, is that the Mets have been about as successful as the new Peace Bridge plan. (And sorry, Mets, but you can’t blame it all on Bernie Madoff.) Yet, the situation is not a goner. The team tapped popular former Bisons skipper Terry Collins as manager in the offseason, and with any luck, the franchise will finally be able to leave some solid prospects at Dunn Tire Park for the majority of the season.

• The Cleveland Indians: It’s easy to forget how brief a drive Cleveland actually is from B-lo, and Progressive Field is said to be one of the league’s prettiest. But I have to think that once the Bisons became untethered from the Indians, so too went WNY’s interest. A shame, really, since the Cleveland years saw the Herd win the Triple-A title thrice, and gave WNYers the chance to see future stars like Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Grady Sizemore ... the astonishingly talented list goes on and on. But what has the Tribe done for us lately?

• The Toronto Blue Jays: The Blue Jays exist as a way for WNYers with current passports to see A-Rod or Big Papi. Period. Last but not least …

• The New York Yankees: Yankees caps are as ubiquitous in Buffalo as reusable Wegmans shopping bags, if less stylish. The aforementioned YES Network broadcasts the majority of the 162 (!) game season, WECK has radio play-by-play, and even Babies “R” Us has L’il A-Rod tees. According to the folks at New Era, between all of the headwear and apparel sales in the flagship Buffalo store in 2010, Yankees products sold almost five times more than the next most popular team … the Red Sox.

I asked Mike Harrington, the always insightful Buffalo News baseball columnist (and Inside Pitch blogger on the News website), for his thoughts, and his answer is telling: “People ask me all the time which team is tops around here and my answer is the same: 1. Yankees. 2. Yankees. 3. Yankees.”

Harrington has followed the local MLB trends closely for years, and seen a marked shift in the race for second place: “The Blue Jays were big in the early nineties, and the Bisons connection made the Indians big in the late nineties and again in 2007, when basically an entire made-in-Buffalo lineup, manager, and coaching staff came within a win of the World Series. I think the Mets-Bisons connection, along with all their games being on SNY, have really pushed them to No. 2 now. (Memo to the Indians: Having your games blacked out in Buffalo all these years was incredibly shortsighted.)

“But nothing drives readership, web hits, and blog posts like the Yankees. We might get 300 to 500 page views a day on Inside Pitch in March. I did a post the other day with ‘Yankees’ in the headline talking about Ivan Nova locking up the No. 4 slot in the rotation, and it got nearly 2,000 views in less than twenty-four hours—quadruple the number. And our readership numbers, blog numbers, etc., were way up during the 2009 World Series as well. The Yankees’ loss to Texas last year in the ALCS hurt us from that standpoint.

“Right now, my Buffalo fandom list would look like this: 1. Yankees, 2. Mets, 3. Red Sox, 4. Indians, 5. Blue Jays, 6. Pirates, and 7. Reds.”

So the people have spoken, or at least two of them. Clearly, there will never be consensus, at least not until Buffalo is awarded a Major League Baseball franchise. (Roughly around the time the county executive stars as Roy Cohn in a local production of Angels in America.) But … I’m a Yankees fan. And I’m biased. So Yanks it is. Sorry, Ed.

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