MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL NOTEBOOK BY JOE RIZZO STAFF WRITER

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Apr 3, 1998, 3:00:00 AM4/3/98
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(C) 1998 SPORTSTICKER ENTERPRISES, L.P. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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The least selfish play is baseball is the sacrifice, but do not
mourn for the dissolved American Association, rather rejoice in
the progress of Triple-A baseball.

The sacrifice is normally associated with a player bunting
someone into scoring position, thereby sacrificing his turn at
bat. But as Triple-A baseball goes, the AA made the ultimate
sacrifice. The league exists no longer, since there are only a
pair of Triple-A leagues.

It was decided last season that there would only be two leagues
this year, though the details were not worked out until the
off-season, and now two leagues -- not three -- is the reality
that is upon us. One of the big three had to go, and
International League commissioner Randy Mobley said it was the
AA for the right reasons, not because it happened to be the path
of least resistance.

"The American Association stepped to the plate and was willing
to disband," Mobley said. "A lot of things had to fall in
place. The stars aligned."

Mobley also said that because it happened to be an expansion
year, with the Durham and Memphis franchises getting added, it
made the transition a natural one.

"If you have a few individuals unwilling, it wouldn't have
happened," Mobley said. "The expansion was the key factor, the
realignment then came about because of the American
Association's willingness to dissolve. Another factor involved
was that the president of the Pacific Coast League (Bill Cutler)
was retiring after 50 years in the game. One league was willing
to dissolve and one of three league administrations was, at the
least, going to change."

The PCL job went to the former AA commissioner, Branch Rickey
III. Rickey would not take credit for orchestrating the AA's
decision, but rather explained that it was a proud moment when
the teams decided to do what was best for the game.

Durham and Memphis were to become members of the AA, but the
other AA owners were "willing to sacrifice their own
self-interest, give up Durham and, in order to balance, yield
Buffalo to the International League. That was an extraordinary
gesture of interleague cooperation. I think that opened some
eyes, as people began to see the American Association could make
decisions in the best interest of baseball."

Rickey said that the National Association of Professional
Baseball Leagues pushed to have a realignment conference, which
any one of the three leagues could have killed.

"When all three (leagues) said they would participate, the
boulders starting rolling and probably the biggest surprise was
when research was done on travel costs," said Rickey, adding
that those costs might actually decrease, quelling the major
qualms of most of the owners.

When it came down to the AA vote, it was unanimous that the
eight-team league would disband. Absorbed into the IL were
Buffalo, Indianapolis and Louisville. Iowa, Nashville, New
Orleans, Oklahoma City and Omaha went to the PCL. Expansion
Memphis went west and Durham east.

"We all felt some sense of loss," said Rickey, speaking for his
collegues. "We didn't take that lightly. The American
Association was not making a decision from a point of weakness,
it had never been stronger. The American Association was
certainly as healthy as you could imagine. We thought the new
opportunities being presented were even better than what we
had."

The reward is an easy format for an All-Star Game and one of the
biggest payoffs will be the Triple-A World Series, which will
take place entirely in Las Vegas, at least for the first three
years.

When Las Vegas time comes, there is certain to be more
attention, maybe even a nightly spot on SportsCenter. Now
that's progress. ...

Now that there are only two levels of Triple-A baseball, the
three teams from Western New York -- the Buffalo Bisons,
Rochester Red Wings and Syracuse SkyChiefs -- can play one
another.

Rochester and Syracuse had been playing together in the
International League, but now they are joined by Buffalo, which
moves over from the dissolved American Association. The team
with the best winning percentage in games among the group will
be awarded the Thruway Cup, hence the Thruway Series.

These teams enjoy excellent local support in a good baseball
region that has never been able to land a major-league
franchise. So this endeavor adds even more fuel to a burning
fire.

The official sponsors are Citgo, Nabisco and CellularOne. Each
team will give away two bus trips to each competing city when
their team plays, and the lucky fans will receive hats and
pennants. In addition, fans have a chance to win a bus trip to
games in Cleveland, Toronto and Baltimore, the respective
big-league clubs for Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester.

The initial Thruway Cup hardware will reside permanently in the
hands of the first franchise to capture it three times. After
that, a new trophy will be made and the process will start
again.

"We already have chosen a space to display the Thruway Cup at
our ballpark in anticipation of retiring the cup in three
years," said Buffalo general manager Mike Buczkowski. "We'll
make arrangements for Rochester and Syracuse fans to visit the
cup at our ballpark."

Last season, Rochester won the Governor's Cup, given to the
International League champion.

"We really enjoy how the Governor's Cup brightens our office,"
said Red Wings GM Dan Mason. "We can't wait to add more
hardware."

The propaganda from Syracuse GM John Simone dealt mostly with
Buffalo's introduction to the IL.

"We are looking forward to playing Buffalo this season as they
make the jump to real Triple-A baseball," Simone jibed.

The Bisons won the final American Association crown with a
three-game sweep of the Iowa Cubs.

The series kicks off in Buffalo on Thursday, when the Bisons
host Rochester. Each of the teams plays one another 16 times.
Buffalo finishes the series with two-game home tilts against
Syracuse on September 2nd and 3rd and Rochester the following
two days.

Speaking of the two champions, they joined forces with former
Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly to raise money for Hunter's
Hope, a non-profit organization named after Kelly's son, who has
a rare affliction called Krabbe's Disease. Hunter's Hope is
within the Kelly for Kids foundation, started after Kelly's son
was diagnosed with the rare disease, which is a degenerative
enzyme disorder of the central and peripheral nervous system.

Fans must raise $12,000 for the charity before Thursday's opener
at North Americare Park in Buffalo. Erick "E-Man" Anderson, a
personality on Rochester's WNVE-FM Radio stole Buffalo's AA
championship trophy and is residing on the Frontier Field
message sign on Route 490 in Rochester. The game will not start
and Anderson will not get down until the money is raised.

It is always nice to see teams going out of their way to raise
money for good causes, using some of that great grass-roots
creativity for the right reasons. The minds of the minors are
always thinking up new ways to get people to the ballpark, and
fans no doubt can root for any team that has success and a
public conscience at the same time. ...

Four leagues get the worm for being the early birds, starting
their seasons on April 2nd. The Texas League and the Southern
League in Double-A ball and the California League and the South
Atlantic League in Class-A kicked off their seasons nearly in
kind with their major-league brethren.

Bakersfield and Visalia of the California League actually played
a doubleheader, and the result was a split, with both games
going eight innings.


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