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Blue Jays cozy up to new affiliate in Buffalo

The Bisons Luis Jimenez hits a home run in the fifth inning. The Buffalo Bisons, the Toronto Blue Jays minor league team this year, played their home opener against the Rochester Red Wings on a sunny, but cool afternoon at Coca-Cola field in Buffalo on April 4, 2013.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The city that gave us chicken wings, O.J. Simpson and cross-border shopping has given the Toronto Blue Jays a business arrangement that the major-league club hopes will help build its profile and fan base in Canada.

The Buffalo Bisons, the Blue Jays' new Triple-A affiliate, played their International League home opener on Thursday afternoon. Their gem of a stadium, quaint Coca-Cola Field, is an 18,025-seat retro-style park used only for baseball and set in the gritty downtown core.

Apart from the I-190, which bustles beyond the outfield fence, it is an idyllic setting, designed for baseball to be enjoyed – outdoors with real grass and fine sight lines for all ticket holders. And just 160 kilometres south of Toronto.

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Although the game-time temperature registered a chilly 6 degrees, the sun shone on 15,852 fans, the Blue Jays' top prospects and their opponents, the Rochester Red Wings.

Former Blue Jays star Roberto Alomar threw out the first pitch, and Blue Jays president Paul Beeston and general manager Alex Anthopoulos were also on hand, adding a Canadian flavour that was prevalent throughout the stadium.

The Canadian flag was presented on the field, and both the Canadian and American national anthems were sung, after which a video showing highlights from Toronto's 1992 and '93 World Series triumphs was displayed on the giant scoreboard.

The Bisons, with top prospect Anthony Gose in centre field, recorded a rollicking 12-7 victory. The teams clubbed a combined 30 hits, 17 for the winning side.

Anthopoulos, who said Buffalo has always been his kind of town, said the relationship should prove beneficial to both teams.

"We've obviously spent a lot of time across Canada [promoting the Blue Jays]," Anthopoulos said. "I know a lot of our fans have come up to me and they're excited about the fact they can make a quick drive to come up here and see some of the players. And the fans of the team here can come up to Toronto to see the games.

"It works for both sides."

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After four years struggling to maintain their top minor-league affiliate in Las Vegas, the Blue Jays jumped at the opportunity to align with the Bisons after their relationship with the New York Mets soured. The Blue Jays and Bisons announced in September they had agreed on a two-year player-development contract, a partnership both teams say will lead to greater marketing opportunities throughout Western New York and Southern Ontario.

The Bisons are one of seven minor-league teams the Blue Jays run, an operation that includes the Single-A Vancouver Canadians, the club's lone Canadian minor-league affiliate.

Buffalo averaged just more than 7,300 fans at its home games last season, and Brad Bisbing, the director of media relations for the Bisons, said about 10 per cent were Canadians.

"From the early feedback that we've been getting this year, we expect that the number of Canadians who will be travelling to Buffalo for Bisons games should be substantially higher," Bisbing said.

The cost is appealing. A family of four can get in for as little as $60, which includes a voucher for $30 to be spent at the concession stand. Season tickets for 72 home games can be had for as little as $490. To help promote the new relationship, the Bisons have bought newspaper, television and radio advertisements throughout Southern Ontario and the Niagara region.

There will also be a Bisons presence this season at Rogers Centre during Blue Jays home games, with video promotions for the Triple-A team. Bisons merchandise will be available to purchase.

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Almost until game time on Thursday, the last vestiges of the Bisons' relationship with the Mets were being removed from the stadium. Workers in a cherry picker were high up the right-field foul pole, painting the structure yellow over Mets orange. Above the left-field fence, a large banner featured the Blue Jays' logo, which implored fans to "Catch Tomorrow's Blue Jays Today." A large, circular Blue Jays logo is affixed to the back wall of the press box.

Downstairs in the Bisons' clubhouse, one of the walls is covered with photos of famous alumni, including former Blue Jay John McDonald, and current ace R.A. Dickey, who started the 2010 season in Buffalo.

From a practical standpoint, the immediate benefit of the affiliation for the Blue Jays will be the ability to quickly summon players to the major-league team when the need arises. That was not always the case with Las Vegas, a five-hour flight away.

"It's going to be a lot more convenient, travel-wise," said Mike McCoy, a Bisons player who has made the red-eye trek from Las Vegas to Toronto to play for the Jays on numerous occasions.

"I remember one game after getting called up, it was a 1 o'clock start in Toronto and I was in the starting lineup," McCoy said. "I didn't get into town until around 6 in the morning with hardly any sleep. It was a tough situation."

With this new Toronto-Buffalo partnership, cross-border shopping has never been easier for the Blue Jays.

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