Sullivan: Bisons GM Anthony Sprague is a ‘natural’ for the job

Buffalo Bisons & Blue Jays

Bisons GM Anthony Sprague, seen here with Jordan Patterson and Patrick Cantwell, oversees a team that hasn’t played a home game since he took the job. That detail does not bother him. His life could have gone in any number of directions, but “Whatever would have happened wouldn’t have been better than this.”
(Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons)

Anthony Sprague is quite the movie buff. He has a poster on the wall of his office from “The Natural,” his favorite film. There’s also one from “Star Wars”. It was Sprague who started the hugely popular Star Wars Night as a young Bisons ticket salesman in 2008.

But who remembers “Mr. Destiny,” in which Jim Belushi plays a man who travels back in time to find out what would have happened if he hadn’t struck out in a big high school baseball game when he was 15?

Sprague used to wonder how different things might have been if he had been a better pitcher, or thrown a baseball more than 90 miles an hour, or not been injured late in a stellar career at Cortland State. 

“I look back and think, ‘What if I did this or that differently?” Sprague said Monday in his office at Sahlen Field. “But I don’t want to know. Whatever would have happened wouldn’t have been better than this.”

Sprague realized his destiny. He worked his way up to become the general manager of the Bisons, which has been his dream job since shortly after joining the team as an intern in 2002, fresh out of college.

He really did build a wonderful life in Buffalo. Sprague, a native of Hoosick Falls, a village of around 3,500 souls outside Albany, found a home in Western New York and in the nurturing family of Bisons baseball. He met his wife, Patty, when she was selling tickets for the team. They now have three children, ages 7, 4 and 1. 

“For 15 years, my ultimate goal in my professional career was to attain this position for this team,” he said, “to work for the Riches.”

Sprague, 41, will never forget the day Mike Buczkowski, the team president and long-time GM, told him he would become just the third GM in the team’s modern history — after Mike Billoni and ‘Booch.’

Anthony Sprague shakes hands with Bisons 2019 MVP Socrates Brito.

“I’m sitting here,” Sprague said, pointing to a chair, “and he was there. It was a dream come true. I went home and told my wife and celebrated. ‘Hey, we’re leaving for spring training on Sunday’ or whatever it was.”

Three days later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit with a vengeance, putting an abrupt halt to sports in America. Sprague remembers the night that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive. Soon, the country was shutting down. He was in Dunedin, Fla., the Jays’ spring training home, at the time. 

“I was supposed to go to the compound the next day for the Jays,” he said. “It was ‘Nope, you guys got to turn around, get out of here, head back to New York’.”

Three days in. That was some way to settle into a new job. Some 14 months later, Sprague’s world is still in disarray. He is the GM of a minor-league team that hasn’t played a home game since he took over. The Bisons are off to their best start in 14 years — playing in Trenton.

Outside Sprague’s office window, you could hear the steady whine and groan of work being down in and around the park, in preparation for the Blue Jays’ return to Buffalo in two weeks. A window washer sprayed the window facing the playing field as he spoke. 

There’s no telling when the Bisons will come back to their true home this season, if at all. There’s a very real chance that Sprague’s team, which last played a home game in late summer of 2019, won’t play another until the spring of 2022.

To borrow a phrase from another movie, Sprague has been like a man without a country since getting his dream job on March 9, 2020.

“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “It’s very, very stressful, this whole Bisons-Blue Jays thing and getting this ballpark ready. Not only that, there’s the unknown of how long the Blue Jays will be here, when will we get the Bisons back. It’s unknown. 

“The Jays don’t know. We don’t know. No one knows how long they’re going to be here. All we can do is plan like they’re going to be here for the whole season, and if they’re not, we need to pivot and make adjustments to get the Bisons back.”

Sprague said he picks a different stress every day. He got a call from the Blue Jays on Monday and realized, ‘My God, they’ll be here in two weeks.’ He has to deal with season-ticket holders who have priority for the Jays. Then there’s the Bisons down in Trenton. 

Oh, this was also the year in which MLB created the Professional Development League, which required all off its minor-league clubs to upgrade their standards. That included improved facilities and working conditions, less in-season travel and higher player salaries. 

“Just what’s happened in the minor leagues would be overwhelming in itself,” Sprague said, “with so many of the different changes that have been made, to just the overall business operation of minor league baseball.

“Then you fold in all the additional Covid restrictions that minor-league teams never dealt with last year. It’s a whole new setup on so many different levels. It’s a challenging season to plan while you’re there (with the Bisons), let alone when you’re a couple of states way. It’s very hectic.”

But you know what they say. If you want something done, ask someone who’s busy. Sprague gets things done, and for someone who talks about stress, he seems pretty calm.

“There’s very few moments when he’s stressed,” said wife Patty, a reading teacher in the Lancaster schools. “He can look at the big picture and he’s realistic about things. So stress doesn’t come easily, but there have been moments!

“It goes back to their team at the ballpark,” she said. “They all work together, and they know their strengths and weaknesses and they know what they’re experts at. They’re always trying to do the most they can to get as many fans in the ballpark and get as much baseball as they can in Buffalo.

“So every day is a new adventure, depending on what the news brings.”

Patty jokingly asks Anthony how the people at the Bisons found one another. They’re well-suited, like the Seinfeld characters. Sprague says Buczkowski has been a wise mentor from the start. ‘Booch’ says he knew early that Sprague had the makings of a leader.

“During a normal Bisons season, we probably have 25-30 interns,” Buczkowski said. “After about a week, there’s usually someone who stands out. I remember saying, ‘Man, this kid’s got it together. He loves being here. He loves baseball. He’ll do whatever you want.’

“When he got the job as director of sales, we interviewed three or four people. We met him at Rich Products in a conference room. He came in with a full-blown presentation,” Buczkowski said, laughing at the memory. “He had a handout for everybody about his goals, the things he liked, the things he would do differently. I was blown away by it.”

Sprague’s father was a long-time scout for the White Sox. He would accompany his dad on scouting missions. He played baseball at a high level. He played at Sahlen Field — then Pilot Field — as a teenager for the Adirondack squad in the World University Games in 1993.

He always knew he wanted a career in the game. Like any kid, he dreamed of playing in the big leagues. But once his career ended, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in baseball. 

“I didn’t think I was going to be in sales,” he said. “But selling baseball is so different from selling copiers or whatever. Once I got into it, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ 

“I like to look at different departments and understand why they do a certain thing. I was fascinated by how each department would run and why they would do things. I would suggest, ‘Hey, why don’t we do it this way?’ Minor-league baseball is one of the few jobs where you can get your hands in everything and affect every aspect of the business.

“I saw Booch and what he was doing and I thought, ‘Boy, I think that’s what I want to do.’ I never cared as much about being in the clubhouse and scouting players and that stuff. It never was a big draw to me. It’s part of this job, but it was never the main goal.”

The minor-league GM is involved in the personnel side, of course. But it’s selling the game that matters most in Buffalo baseball. Always has, going back to a time when Billoni was called the “P.T. Barnum” of the minor leagues and the Bisons were becoming a model franchise. Mindy Rich said she wanted every Bisons game to be “an event.” 

“More often than not, I’ll talk to somebody and they’ll say they had a good time at this or that event,” Sprague said. “Never does anybody say, ‘I had a great time — the Bisons won.’

Buczkowski recognized early on that Sprague had that promoter’s acumen for the game, as well as the work ethic. 

“He really got it,” Booch said. “He played college baseball. I’m always partial to people that played sports, as part of a team. He’s very much like that. When you’re with him and watch him interact with a group of people, you can see he’s got that team sport mentality. He’s a leader. 

“He just loves being here. There were times in the past where he had an opportunity (to leave). He’s looked at them, but he said, ‘This is where I want to be. I want to be the general manager some day.’”

Bisons GM Anthony Sprague poses next to a Star Wars poster in his office. (Jerry Sullivan/WIVB)

Sprague keeps an “ideas folder” in his desk. Nothing prepares you for a pandemic. But the man who brought “Star Wars Night” to Buffalo might take comfort in the wisdom of Yoda: “In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way.” 

So he decides which issue will be his stress of the day and sets to work. Getting the park ready. Dealing with the Covid restrictions, worrying about the Professional Development League imperatives. That morning, tickets went on sale for the Jays’ opening homestead in Buffalo. 

That night, the Bisons would be in Worcester, playing in their Buffalo uniforms for the first time since 2019. But Sprague had to focus on the ticket issue, rather than his team’s great start to the season.

“But I miss them significantly,” he said. “I watch them at night and they’re so good and playing so well. They’re just a good team to watch. They’re pitching, hitting and playing good defense.

“Wouldn’t it be the most ironic if we have the best team in 17 years and they don’t even play in Buffalo? Not only that, there’s no playoffs at the end of the season, no championship. So that asterisk is on everything. It would add a cherry to the top of the most ironic two years ever.”

At least Buffalo fans will get to see regular-season Major League baseball for the first time since the 1880s — in person. Sprague hated seeing local fans shut out of the Jays games a year ago. After all, the Bisons experience is all about the fans. That was his baseball destiny — selling the fun of the game.

“We had this once-in-a-lifetime thing last year and Buffalo fans didn’t get to be a part of it,” he said. “How weird was it? I missed sitting out and being around people and hearing the sounds of the game, the cheering and clapping and booing.

“It was amazing how much it was missed. I didn’t think it would be that big of a difference, but I never want to experience it again.”

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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