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Torey Lovullo's Bond with the Queen City

By: Brian Frank

Many players develop a bond with a city they play in during their career, but Arizona Diomondbacks manager Torey Lovullo, who starred for the Bisons' championship teams of the ‘90s and later managed the Herd, had deep-rooted ties to the Queen City long before he ever ever set foot here. “My grandfather migrated to basically downtown Buffalo, just north of downtown,” Lovullo said in a phone interview from his home in Arizona. “So my dad and two uncles were born and raised right there in basically downtown Buffalo.” His father moved to Los Angeles when he was 16 and Torey was born and raised in Southern California. The California Lovullos remained close with their extended family back in Western New York. “I knew the relatives well,” Lovullo said. “A lot of relatives that were there, and still remain there, would come and vacation and obviously stay with us. So I felt like I knew them well.”

Despite his family ties to Buffalo, Lovullo never actually came to Western New York until he was a 29-year-old veteran who’d already played major league baseball with the Tigers, Yankees, Angels, and Mariners. Almost instantly, he felt a connection with the city. “When I stepped on the field there in 1995, that was the first time I’d ever been there,” he said. “I quickly felt an attachment to that town. There’s a uniqueness to it, because of the humbleness of the community, the close-knit feeling that I was feeling from that community outside of my family. There was just a strong connection with me and the fans. Maybe it was that they appreciated the way I played, the way the team was playing. But it was even more than that.”

Along with Lovullo, the 1995 Bisons team featured players like Jeromy Burnitz, Brian Giles, Casey Candaele, Billy Ripken, Joe Roa, and John Farrell, and was managed by Brian Graham, who Lovullo loved playing for. “He was a motivator. He allowed players to go out and play without many restrictions,” Lovullo said. “He had a way of getting the most out of the players by believing in them. He allowed us to go out there and tee it up as high as we could and take a rip at it every single day.” Lovullo played all over the Bisons infield and hit .255 with 16 home runs and 61 RBIs. Buffalo finished 82-62, before beating Omaha three games to one in the first round of the American Association playoffs, and coming within one win of the championship, falling to Louisville in the finals in five games. “I remember a tremendous baseball team that loved to go out and play and compete,” he said. “Fight to win every single night and also fighting our way to the big leagues and a very competitive atmosphere in Cleveland.”

Lovullo played all over the Bisons infield. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

After spending the 1996 season with the Oakland A’s and their Triple-A affiliate, the Edmonton Trappers, Lovullo returned to Buffalo in 1997 and joined a team loaded with memorable names from the Bisons modern era, like Alex Ramirez, Richie Sexson, Enrique Wilson, Einar Diaz, and eventually Jeff Manto. Speaking from his home in Pennsylvania, Manto remembered what Lovullo meant to those late ‘90s Bisons teams: “What Torey brought to our team was a whole lot of experience and talent. He added a lot of leadership skills. There was a comfort knowing when you looked across the field and you saw Torey Lovullo, you knew you had a chance to win.” Manto added, “He came to play every day and he was a leader. He led by example and there were times he led vocally. But he was always a leader.”

Mike Buczkowski, currently the president of Rich Baseball Operations and the general manager of the Bisons when Lovullo played and managed here, immediately emphasized Lovullo's leadership skills when asked about the former Bisons star, saying, “I think Torey and Jeff (Manto), those guys were in a class of their own when it came to how to be a teammate, how to be a leader, the importance of culture, the importance of all of the things that as a fan you might not see. The off the field stuff.”

Lovullo played third base in one of the most-remembered regular season games of the Bisons’ modern era, Bartolo Colon’s no-hitter against the New Orleans Zephyrs on June 20, 1997. “I remember Bartolo was a young, fastball heavy pitcher that could throw a couple particular types of fastballs at any location that he wanted,” Lovullo said. “He was having some early success on this particular day. We all looked up at about the fifth or sixth inning and realized that he had a no-hitter. Early in the game I know everybody was making their plays and doing what they could to just act normally and back the pitcher. But there was a certain intensity that I remember feeling around the seventh inning that I was not going to allow any ball to get by me down at third base. I was going to lock it in just a little bit more, because something special was happening that night and we all felt it in the dugout.” When second baseman Enrique Wilson squeezed a little looper for the final out of the ninth inning, Colon completed the first no-hitter of the Bisons modern era, and the only one until T.J. Zeuch hurled one last season in Rochester.

The Bisons marched into the 1997 playoffs on a collision course with their archrival from their days in the American Association, the Indianapolis Indians. The two foes met in the first round of the playoffs. “The 1997 Indianapolis team was loaded with young prospects and a lot of them went on to help the Cincinnati Reds win a lot of baseball games,” Lovullo remembered. “There were some unbelievable battles that were fought against that team. And it was emotional. Whether it was between the lines, or pregame, or postgame, I don’t think either team liked one another particularly well. It was a very hard fought series. But that dislike was from one thing and it was the spirit of competition. We wanted to compete and beat them, which we did. It was a great hard fought series and I felt like once we won, we were going to win that championship, because to us, that was a huge series. A huge five games that we got by.”

After the exhausting series against Indianapolis, the Herd took on Iowa in the finals. After winning the first two games at home, the Bisons traveled to Des Moines looking to close out the series. In Game Three of the best-of-five series, Buffalo took on 20-year-old flame-thrower Kerry Wood. The Bisons scored four runs off Wood in six innings, including a Richie Sexson three-run home run. The game ended up going into extra innings, when current MLB TV analyst Sean Casey launched a solo home run in the 10th to help the Bisons end the longest championship drought in team history, dating back to 1961. “I remember Richie Sexson coming up with some big hits in the final game against Iowa and Sean Casey hit the big home run, and it was just a great celebration.” Lovullo laughed, “I have great memories of that and will never forget them, because Sean Casey doesn’t let any of us on that team forget.”

Although his numbers during the season weren't up to his usual standards, Lovullo exploded in the postseason, going 11-for-25 (.440) with three doubles and 6 RBIs, including going 4-for-10 with a double against Iowa and winning the Championship Series Most Valuable Player Award. Buczkowski remembered Lovullo’s clutch play: “He seized the moment, and I think when competitive people like Torey, not that you don’t want to be competitive every single day, but when it got to the postseason, and he could smell a chance to do something special, win a championship, he stepped up. He was the key player for us offensively that got us to the championship.”

After Lovullo started a 4-6-3 game-ending double play in the clinching game, he made sure to secure the historic ball with the intent to present it as a special gift. “The personality of that clubhouse, the personality of that baseball community, told all the players that this was a big championship win for the Rich family,” Lovullo said. “I know Mr. Rich, Bob Rich Sr., had spoken openly about how badly he wanted a championship for that town. Bob and Mindy Rich openly talked about that. So that ball was immediately secured. He (Richie Sexson) threw it to me within seconds of the final out being made and I told myself that if I saw Bob Rich Jr. that I was going to present him with that ball.” He continued, “It just so happened that he was down in the celebration amongst the champagne and all the excitement in the clubhouse and I was able to present it to him in front of the entire team, which was a really special moment for all of us. It was a really special time.”

The next day, about 3,000 fans greeted the team at the ballpark in downtown Buffalo ready to see their heroes hoist the American Association championship trophy. “I know that we were super excited to get back home and share the trophy with the fans," Lovullo recalled. "It was a rainy day, but thousands of fans piled into the first-base side of the stadium and supported us and congratulated us, and we were able to share that with them as well, which was really special.”

Lovullo with the American Association Championship Trophy. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

Lovullo returned to Buffalo in 1998 for another memorable season. This time the Bisons were in a new league with a new manager. After Triple-A realignment, Buffalo rejoined the International League and Jeff Datz replaced Brian Graham at the Bisons’ helm after Graham moved up to Cleveland to be a coach. “I loved my time with Jeff Datz, because he was such a student of the game and I learned some things from him that I use to this day,” Lovullo said. “He was open about sharing what was in his head and the decisions that he made. He was all about allowing us to play the game and believing in us, but he was also a great teacher. He didn’t just teach us the fundamentals of the game. He taught us how to play the game and understand the game on a complete level. And for that reason, I have the upmost respect for Datzy and he’s affected my life to this day, and part of him is in the dugout each time I’m down there, because of some of the things that I learned from him. So that’s what stands out about him. He believed in us and would challenge us at the right time and had a good feel for when to let us have it and when to allow us to go out and play. But the bottom line is he really had our backs and believed in us.”

However, in early August the season wasn’t going according to plan. After getting routed by Pawtucket 17-3 in Buffalo, the second-place Bisons traveled to Syracuse to face the first-place SkyChiefs, who had an eight game lead in the I.L. North standings with just 28 games left on the schedule. “In any minor league season, you get to August and there are a lot of players who start to feel sorry for themselves,” Buczkowski said. “They’re not in the big leagues. It’s August, so I don’t know if I’m going to get there. I might not be having a great year. You know, they’ve got a superstar playing in the big leagues at my position and I haven’t been traded. The trading deadline has come and gone and here we are. And it can snowball and it can mean for a miserable finish. Just a not fun, miserable, losing finish.” With the blowout loss the night before, and their tenuous position in the standings, the fact that the first three Syracuse batters reached base in the first game of the series only compounded the Bisons woes.

With the season seemingly slipping away, Lovullo called timeout, walked to the mound from second base, summoned the other infielders, and delivered an emotional address. “I remember it really well,” Lovullo said. “There are some defining moments and certain things you do in your career that at the time were just very reactive and from the heart and from the gut. I just saw us ho-humming our way through the season and trying to just get the year over with and have our September call-ups, and there were some good players on the team that I felt like were underperforming at a time when their absolute best was needed. So calling that group to the mound, I do remember pounding my glove and yelling at the starting pitcher and challenging the infielders and the catcher to lock it in and be who they’re supposed to be and who we all count on them being day-by-day. And I think it was predicated on those early baserunners, but I also was sensing it prior to that. It wasn’t anything that I just felt like at the moment. It was something building up for a couple days. But I saw everybody have their heads down. I looked in the outfield and saw everybody with their head down. I looked at the infielders and everybody had their head down. The catcher had his head down. And the final straw before I made the move to call timeout was I saw the pitcher staggering around the mound with his head down. So I felt like it was the right thing to do, and my gut told me it was time to ring the bell a little bit and let them know that we’re a good team and it’s time to go.”

Buczkowski recalled the moment: “I remember it like it was yesterday. And not only because of what the result ended up being, which was winning and coming back and eventually winning the championship that year. I learned a lot from that moment. I learned that if you’re going to be a leader, you need to speak out at the right times. He didn’t embarrass anybody on the field. He didn’t throw the rosin bag or anything like that. But he was getting his point across that this is unacceptable with the way we’re going about this. And if we’re going to lose, we’re going to go down fighting. We’re not going to just give this thing to them. And it was done with sincerity and passion. I still use it as a teaching moment that, especially as an athlete, it’s not just about how you play, it’s about all the other things. He understood that was the exact moment he had to do that. Not for his benefit, but for the team’s benefit.”

But being a leader is about more than just words, it’s also about actions. Things weren’t looking good for the Bisons, as they fell behind 4-0 in the game and Syracuse had future Hall of Famer Roy Halladay on the mound. Lovullo’s sacrifice fly in the third inning cut the lead to 4-2. He then launched a solo home run off Halladay to tie the game in the eighth inning. Buffalo scored two runs in the ninth to win the game 6-4. The Herd swept the four-game series and went 18-9 the rest of the way, passing Syracuse on the penultimate day of the season. When torrential rain prevented both teams from playing on the final day, the Bisons had completed a remarkable comeback to win the division. Lovullo had his best season statistically with the Herd, hitting .326 with 17 home runs and 65 RBIs.

Lovullo hit .326 with the 1998 Bisons. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

Buffalo played Syracuse in the first round of the playoffs and easily swept the SkyChiefs in three games, all of which were played in Buffalo due to flooding in Syracuse. “I want to make sure I mention there were some terrible storms and flooding in Syracuse at that time and I think we played that first series with a heavy heart,” Lovullo said. “I think Syracuse was a good baseball team, but probably a little bit distracted by what was going on in their hometown. So, we were fortunate enough to get by them.”

Next up in the Bisons championship run were the Durham Bulls. Buffalo won the first two games at home, and then traveled to Durham having to win only one out of three games to bring home the Governors’ Cup. “They had a very good baseball team and a heck of a pitching staff, and they didn’t lay down,” Lovullo remembered. The Bulls won the first two games in Durham to force a decisive Game Five. Before the final game, Manto gave a rousing pep talk in the Bisons clubhouse. “I remember Jeff Manto saying we came here to win a championship and we’re not leaving this building unless we do,” Lovullo recalled of a speech that has gained legendary status with Bisons fans. “He basically challenged the group to come out and be ready to play.” Buffalo won Game Five by a score of 3-1, to win their first Governors’ Cup since 1961. Lovullo went 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI in the series-clinching win, and hit .391 with three doubles in the series.

The Bisons had earned the right to represent the International League in the inaugural Triple-A World Series against the Pacific Coast League champion New Orleans Zephyrs in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, Buffalo’s roster was shuffled prior to the series, with some key players being called up to Cleveland, and young, inexperienced players from Double-A taking their place. Buffalo lost the series to New Orleans three games to one, in a disappointing ending to one of the most memorable seasons in Bisons history.

Lovullo’s career postseason statistics help illustrate what a clutch player he was for the Herd. After playing in the playoffs with the Bisons in 1995, 1997, and 1998, he’s still the Bisons’ modern-era playoff leader in games played (29), hits (35), doubles (11), runs scored (17), and he ranks second in RBIs (15).

As much as postseason stats say about Lovullo’s time playing in Buffalo, his off the field activities may say more about him. One of the many reasons he became a fan favorite was because of his interaction with Buffalo baseball fans through the community service he performed. In fact, Lovullo won the team’s Frank J. “Fremo” Vallone Community Service Award all three seasons he played in Buffalo. The award is presented annually to the Bisons player who best represents the club in community-related, charitable, and youth-related events. The team began presenting the award in 1993, and the only player besides Lovullo to receive it more than once was Jason Cooper, who was also a three-time winner.

In 2003, Lovullo was inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame. “Once again, it was the Buffalo baseball community giving back to me,” Lovullo said. “It was the front office, with Jon Dandes and Mike Buczkowski, giving back to me, and the Rich family giving back to me and saying thank you for all that you did. I felt like I left a lot of blood, sweat, and some tears on that field there, and I was recognized for that, and I’ll never forget that.” Asked if it was special being inducted the same night as his former teammate Jeff Manto, Lovullo replied: “It did make it a little bit more special. I felt like Jeff and I were bookends on a couple championship teams there. We felt a strong connection to the community. We lockered on opposite sides of the clubhouse, and I felt like we did things the right way inside of that clubhouse and taught young players how to play the game the right way. And we won baseball games. That’s ultimately what you’re recognized for is how well you play on the field and how many baseball games you win. And while we were there we won a lot of baseball games and we won a couple championships. We were very proud of that. To come there on that day and be recognized with him was very special for that reason.”

Lovullo also developed a close relationship with Bisons ownership. “The Rich family has been so good to me,” he said. “Just because of their belief in me, their support of me, and their love for me. I had an immediate connection with Bob and Mindy Rich because they were passionate about the same things that I was when it came to baseball. I’m very thankful for the friendships that I formed there, and it starts with Bob and Mindy Rich.”

The next phase of his baseball career began in 2002, when Lovullo took over as manager of the Columbus Red Stixx of the South Atlantic League and began working his way up through the Cleveland system. Even when he was still playing, it was obvious to teammates and members of the Bisons’ front office that Lovullo had what it took to be a successful manager someday. “You could tell how he talked about the game all the time and how he thought about the game, and how he played," Manto said. "He was always a step ahead of most of the players. He was an intelligent guy. He played with instinct and he played with talent. He was always a quality person to everybody. He treated everybody that he came across, whether it was a rookie, veteran, or a front office person, he treated everybody with a lot of respect. I think because of his leadership, understanding of the game, and his reputation, that nobody’s surprised he became a manager.” Buczkowski also saw managing in Lovulo's future: “There was no doubt in my mind after meeting Torey and spending a little bit of time with him that first year that this guy was going to be a major league manager, if he wanted to be. Because he had a much broader view of the game than just on the field and the fundamentals. He was an incredibly unselfish person in a sport where there’s a lot of selfish people that are looking out only for the advancement of their career.”

Managing the Herd. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

Lovullo managed two seasons at High A Kinston, where he led the Indians to the championship in 2004 and won the Carolina League Manager of the Year Award. He then spent a season at Double-A Akron, where he led the Aeros to the championship and won both the 2005 Eastern League Manager of the Year Award and the Baseball America Double-A Manager of the Year Award. He returned to Buffalo to manage the Herd in 2006, becoming one of only three former players in the Bisons’ modern era to go on to manage the team, along with Joel Skinner and more recently Bobby Meacham. “I was really looking forward to that opportunity,” Lovullo said. “It was an incredible time in my life to go back there and feel that passion from a little bit different angle. The fans would support me as a player, but as a manager I was a little bit more connected to the community with certain events, and sharing some insights with them. I have the most unbelievable memories of being a manager there. I didn’t really have a lot of success there as a manager. We were in, I think, one playoff chase. But for the three years I was there, it was a very spectacular time for me, because I feel like I was in unique company, saying that I was able to play for the Bisons and then manage the Bisons, and see it from every angle possible.” Lovullo won 216 games as Bisons manager, before Cleveland moved their Triple-A affiliation to Columbus following the 2008 season.

It was also during his time managing the Herd that Lovullo formed another life-long Buffalo connection. He met his wife, the former Kristen Burwell, who worked in the Bisons front office, during his first season managing in Buffalo. “She was working upstairs in the front office and when I expected it least, somebody walked into my life and captured my heart,” Lovullo said. The two have been happily married since 2009.

Lovullo won 216 games managing the Herd. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

A relationship with one of his 1995 Bisons teammates would play a major role in Lovullo’s post-playing career. Lovullo first met John Farrell when they were both on the 1993 California Angels. Two seasons later, they were teammates again with the 1995 Bisons. “It was a connection with somebody where some of the ideas and some of the beliefs were aligned,” Lovullo said. “And he loved baseball. We played the game hard and we connected.” When Lovullo started managing in Cleveland’s farm system with Columbus in 2002, he reconnected with Farrell. “My first year as a manager in the system was his first year as the farm director,” Lovullo explained. “He was my boss for five years, until he shifted over to be the Boston Red Sox pitching coach. We developed a bond and a friendship and he taught me and believed in me and promoted me through the system as a manager, which I’ll never forget.” A few years later, Lovullo followed Farrell to the Boston system, as manager of Triple-A Pawtucket in 2010. When Farrell became the Blue Jays manager in 2011, he hired Lovullo as his first-base coach. In 2013, Farrell moved back to Boston to manage the Red Sox and Lovullo became his bench coach. When Farrell was forced to temporarily step down to receive cancer treatment during the 2015 season, Lovullo became the Red Sox interim manager and led Boston to a 28-20 record during his first big-league managing experience.

After another season as Boston’s bench coach, Lovullo was named the Arizona Diamondback’s manager in 2017. He found immediate success, leading the team to a 93-69 record, winning the National League Wild Card Game, and winning the National League Manager of the Year, all in his rookie season. The Diamondbacks won 82 games in 2018 and 85 games in 2019. Last offseason, they added numerous big-name players to their roster, including pitcher Madison Bumgarner and outfielders Kole Calhoun and Starling Marte. “The front office does an unbelievable job of going out and getting the best players to help our situation and to potentially help us win a world championship,” Lovullo said. “Bringing in those three guys was an unbelievable grab for us. I was just getting to know them through the course of spring training, and we obviously know what happened. But they’re with us and we know they’re going to be with us when we crank this thing back up and I’m excited to watch them go out and perform.”

Lovullo was named the 2017 N.L. Manager of the Year. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has brought uncertainty for everyone in baseball. Lovullo has spent the past few months at home in Arizona, while making sure the Diamondbacks are ready for whenever the baseball season may begin. “We spend a lot of time together as a family,” he said. “We’re following the state orders. At this time in Arizona things have loosened up. But at the time when we were supposed to be staying home, we were staying home. Just staying around the house and connecting as a family has been my top priority. Professionally, I’ve been taking care of conversations with players. Trying to get out to watch some guys hit individually from afar, from a distance. But a lot of Zoom chats where we’re talking about some of our concepts and making sure we’re ahead of the game the best way that we can, so that when and if we do step back into the baseball environment, we’re not starting from ground zero.” But even workouts have changed drastically. Speaking in late May, Lovullo said: “We just started working out at Chase and at Salt River. So we have it broken up into two places. But at no time is there more than four people on the field. There’s two coaches and two players, and it’s done with a lot of restrictions. But it’s needed. We’re able to get our eyes on some of the guys and I’m really happy about that.”

Even though they now live in Arizona, Buffalo still has a big place in the Lovullo family’s heart. They even named their dog, a Maltese Shih Tzu, after the city. “I took my wife up from that incredible town and brought her to Southern California to live and we were trying to keep as many Buffalo habits as we possibly could, whether it be recipes or traditions, we brought those to California," Lovullo said. "When we got the dog, we were bouncing around a bunch of names. I don’t know who threw it out there, but somebody threw out B-lo and it stuck and it fits his personality perfectly.” They also make a point of visiting Western New York often. “We try to get back there as much as possible. My wife is very close with her family. I try to get out there at least a couple times a year. Definitely over the holidays. Christmas holiday we spend several days there.”

Since stepping onto the field here 25 years ago, Lovullo has left his mark in Bisons history, not only as a great player who helped lead the Herd win two championships and as a manager who went on to a successful major league career, but also as one of the most beloved figures in the team’s long history. After all these years, his connection with Buffalo and Western New York only continues to grow.

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