Opining on Wings record losing streak, Bills popularity, $10-million baseball card


Twenty years ago this week, the Rochester Red Wings found themselves mired in a losing streak similar to this most recent one. In hopes of changing the team’s fortunes back then, Wings general manager Dan Mason pitched a tent in the home bullpen at Frontier Field and slept there until the skid ended. I say “slept” there, but, in reality, he didn’t get much shuteye because trains rumbled by at all hours of the night on the tracks just beyond the ballpark.

Mason wound up being sleepless in Rochester for about a week. On August 6, 2002, the Wings beat Syracuse to snap the streak at 12.

“I’ll never take a mattress for granted again,” Mason quipped after that victory prevented the ’02 club from breaking the mark for baseball futility it shared with the 1920 Rochester Colts.

As I write this, the current Wings have lost a franchise record 17 consecutive games.

And although Mason has been camping out in his cozy bed rather than a lumpy bullpen, I’m sure victory deprivation has led to sleep deprivation.

This, of course, is none of his doing. In his job as a minor-league GM, Mason has no say over the roster. He’s at the mercy of Mike Rizzo, the president and director of baseball operations for the Wings’ parent club, the Washington Nationals. And the Nationals, who are on the selling block, have been too preoccupied with ridding themselves of high-salaried assets like superstar Juan Soto to give a rat’s patootie about their Triple-A farm club.

When assessing why people attend minor-league games, winning ranks low in the batting order. People go to enjoy the summer weather, ballpark cuisine and clever promotions, and to commune with others in a comfortable, affordable atmosphere. That’s not to say quality of play doesn’t impact attendance. A team that’s winning and in playoff contention is more interesting, a better draw. A team that has lost as much as these Wings have in the past month-and-a-half can take a hit at the turnstiles.

I guess the silver lining in the Nationals’ fire sale is that some of those highly regarded prospects they received in exchange for the likes of Soto may wind up making contributions in Rochester, and fill the void left by the callups of players who helped the Wings start 36-19 before suffering the free fall that saw them drop 39 of their next 50 games.

In the old days, if you were treated poorly by the parent club, you could seek a new partner, like CEO Naomi Silver did back in 2002 when she dumped the increasingly unresponsive Baltimore Orioles in favor of the Minnesota Twins. But when Major League Baseball took control of the minors two years ago, the dynamic changed. The relationship between the Wings and Nats is an arranged marriage. Rochester no longer has a say with whom it is affiliated.

We’ve had professional baseball teams in Rochester pretty much every season since 1885. The Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals are the only franchises with longer continuous operations.

Our only hope is that the new Nationals ownership realizes what a good thing it has here and makes a greater commitment to a city that cares as much about the game as Rochesterians do.

Until that happens, there are sure to be more sleepless nights in Rochester.

***

Yes, they draw twice as many fans for scrimmages in college football hotbeds like Alabama, Georgia and LSU, but the crowd of 36,000 that showed up for a Buffalo Bills practice Friday night at Highmark Stadium was pretty darn impressive. Count first-year Bill and reigning Super Bowl champion pass-rusher Von Miller among those wowed by the turnout.

“I’ve been in some special places,” said Miller, alluding, in particular, to football-crazed Denver during the Broncos Super Bowl years. “But Buffalo is different. All the kids out there, everybody supporting.”

He couldn’t help but notice all the people who had purchased No. 40 Bills jerseys with his name on the back.

“It’s incredible, man,” he continued. “We’re gonna have a fun year. This is a fun and incredible fan base, and I’m excited to get it going for real. . . It’s easy to fall in love with this place.”

If he thought that scene was incredible, wait until he sees what the atmosphere is like when nearly 70,000 maniacs show up for the Bills first home game on Monday night, September 19 against the Tennessee Titans.

The Bills shelled out the big bucks to lure Miller away from the Los Angeles Rams. They hope he’ll be the final piece needed to stop quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and lead Buffalo to its first Super Bowl championship. Miller has looked good in training camp so far, and the 33-year-old’s mentoring of young pass-rushers like Ed Oliver, Greg Rousseau and AJ Epenesa could pay additional dividends.

***

Rare baseball cards continue to command Picasso prices. Last week, a 1909 Honus Wagner set a record when it sold for $7.25 million. And that record figures to be broken by month’s end when a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle sells for a projected $10 million.

Interestingly, Mantle made $1.1 million during his 18-year, Hall-of-Fame career with the New York Yankees. That’s roughly $9 million adjusted for inflation, meaning the cardboard Mantle is about to earn more than the flesh-and-blood Mantle. Insane.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *