By: Brian Frank
Pete Filson’s path to the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame began in an unusual manor. The veteran left-handed hurler was actually property of the Minnesota Twins when he began pitching for the Bisons back in 1986. Buffalo was affiliated with the Chicago White Sox at the time. In a type of transaction that would never happen today, the Twins loaned Filson to Chicago to try out, before a deal was eventually reached to make him a member of the White Sox organization.
Filson had been a successful part of the Twins pitching staff since 1982. In 1985, he had a 3.67 ERA in 95 2/3 innings pitched. But when he reported for spring training in Orlando, Florida, he sensed something wasn’t right.
“That was a strange year,” Filson said in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “I went to spring training and I really didn’t play.”
Filson at The Rockpile in the summer of '86. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
After not pitching much in the spring, Filson suspected he was going to be released. He recalls being on the field on the day the Twins were making roster cuts.
“The guys call me over at about 11:59 and I think they had to cut you by 12:00 or they had to pay you,” he remembered. “I ignored the guy. We were running sprints and I told my buddy, ‘What time does that clock say?’ He said, ‘12:02.’ I said, ‘Okay, you’re my witness now. We’ve got to walk slow because that guy wants to talk to me.’”
“Everybody thought I was going to get cut. But I remember the manager telling me, 'Look, I can’t play you, but you made the team.' I thought – well, that’s great, because I was thinking about health insurance and that kind of stuff. I thought that was pretty cool that he at least came over and told me. But I thought with the team they broke with, they’re going to have to play me.”
“That whole year was pretty messed up. I mean I went to spring training just to find out that the manager wanted me on the team but the front office didn’t want me on the team.”
He began the season in the Twins bullpen, but didn’t pitch as much as he was accustomed to, making just four relief appearances in April. When the team traveled to New York to take on the Yankees in a three game series at the end of April, he received the news he’d be heading to Buffalo.
“I was at Yankee Stadium and then find out I’m going to The Rockpile,” he remembered. “I didn’t even know who was at The Rockpile. I didn’t even go back to Minnesota. I told them, ‘Listen have them call me. I want to pitch. I’ll go right there.’ I was at the point where I was mad at the world. You know, you have a lot of different emotions.”
“When I got to Buffalo, they wouldn’t let me throw either. I was in limbo. I wasn’t sure what was up. They wouldn’t even let me throw on the side.”
He’s not sure why, but for some reason, the White Sox believed he was injured. To prove he wasn’t injured, he had to fly from Buffalo to Chicago and throw for their front office and coaches.
“It was kind of strange because if you’re trying out, or whatever you’re doing, you’re probably going to throw for about 15 minutes, maybe 20.,” he said. “I must have thrown for an hour. I finally was just like, ‘Hey, I don’t have anything else.’ I’d thrown for about an hour. The only thing they said to me was ‘Hey, you’re not hurt.’ I’m like, ‘No kidding!’
“They were pretty cool though, because they asked me, ‘starter or reliever?’ I said, ‘Starter. I can give you innings. I can get in playing shape and give you innings.’ Then I end up in Buffalo.”
Filson pitched 139 innings for the Herd. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
He did more than just give the Herd innings. He went on to have one of the most remarkable seasons of the Bisons’ modern era, going 14-3 with an American Association leading 2.27 ERA. He led the team in both wins and saves. His ERA is the third lowest single-season ERA in the team’s modern era.
As he started talking about his time with the Herd, the memories came pouring back for the Pennsylvania native.
“It was a unique place,” he said. “I remember you had to walk through the stands to get to the locker room. The fans were just great.”
“The people in Buffalo were really good. I mean the people they had working at the ballpark, they were good to me. The two pitching coaches I had, the ownership, the clubhouse guy. They had people that worked on the outskirts of the stadium that were really good.”
“Our GM was feisty – Mike Billoni. He’d mix it up. I remember he was mixing it up with somebody on the other team one night. That was a first for me. But you’ve got to love it. I’m an east coast guy so I got a kick out of it.”
He remembers the team struggling at the start of his time in Buffalo, but eventually becoming a good ball club. He first joined the club during a team meeting during a rough patch.
“When I got there, the team had already started and things weren’t going well," he recalled. "I walked into the middle of a team meeting. My first thought was to look around and see if I knew anybody on the team. There were some real characters there. I’d been teammates with Dave Wehrmeister before that. He just smiled the whole meeting – probably thinking what a great first impression I got of the quality crew we’ve got here. Afterwards he had some funny things to say. But we were actually a pretty good team there for a while.”
Despite the unique dimensions at War Memorial Stadium, the left-handed Filson actually enjoyed pitching at the ballpark.
“A lot of people didn’t care to pitch there but I kind of liked it,” he said. “The other team’s got to pitch with the same situation – and you know there’s going to be some runs scored there.”
“Right field was so short you could flip the ball into the stands like you were a slugger. You had to crowd the right-handers because it was big out there, the other way, to left center. As a matter of fact we had one guy who really had no power but he used to bat fourth at home. He hit all his home runs to right field in Buffalo. He hit ninth on the road. That’s pretty nuts. They (all his home runs) were all fly outs on a regular field. The right fielder would have had to run in, but there they were home runs.”
Filson led the American Association with a 2.27 ERA.
Filson quickly learned that local fans didn’t refer to the ballpark by its given name. Soon after arriving in Buffalo, he called a taxi to pick him up at War Memorial Stadium – and it never arrived. After waiting about an hour, he called back to see why his ride never came. After some confusion over the name of the stadium, he recalls being told, “I don’t know what you’re talking about – that’s The Rockpile!’”
As a starting pitcher for the Herd, Filson went 8-1 with a 2.84 ERA in 85 2/3 innings pitched. He had a four game stretch in June where he pitched four consecutive complete games, earning the win in each. Despite his success in the Bisons rotation, in early July he made the transition to become the teams closer.
Unlike a modern day closer, Filson consistently worked multiple innings. He worked two or more innings in 15 of his 24 relief appearances, three innings or more seven times, four innings or more four times – and even pitched seven shutout innings once. In 53 1/3 innings pitched as a reliever, Filson went 6-2 with 6 saves and a 1.86 ERA.
He credits Bisons manager Jim Marshall with giving him opportunities to succeed.
“What a nice guy,” he said of Marshall. “He got me into so many games. I’m sure he didn’t make the decisions on who’s starting and who’s in relief. It really didn’t hurt me to go from starting to being the closer. Now the other guy who goes from being a closer to being a starter, he’s not going to do so well because your arms not built up for that. But that was coming down from the front office I’m sure. But he (Marshall) got me into so many games and helped me put some numbers up.”
Dick Bosman was Filson’s pitching coach at the beginning of his time in Buffalo. However, a little over a month after Filson joined the Herd, White Sox manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan were fired by team vice president Ken “Hawk” Harrelson. Jim Fregosi replaced La Russa in the White Sox dugout and Bosman was moved up to Chicago to be their pitching coach. Bosman was replaced in Buffalo by Lancaster High School graduate and former 20-game winner with the Baltimore Orioles, Pat Dobson.
“He was my pitching coach when I was younger in Double-A,” Filson said of Dobson. “So that was a big help.”
Filson also remembers current Buffalo manager Casey Candaele – but not as a Bison. Candaele at the time was a feisty young prospect playing for Indianapolis, the Triple-A affiliate of the Montreal Expos.
“We had a few guys on our team that could instigate fights,” Filson remembered. “One time we had a pretty good one with Casey’s team. I’m grabbing people off the pile, and who’s right in the middle of it all but the smallest guy on either team – Casey Candaele.”
Filson (right) with fellow inductees Jonathan Dandes and Matt Hague. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Filson has been back to Buffalo since pitching here. He was the pitching coach for the Durham Bulls in 1998. Durham and Buffalo ended up facing off in the Governors’ Cup Finals that season, with the Bisons winning the decisive fifth game in Durham.
Now, Filson once again returns to the city where he dominated on the mound almost four decades ago to be inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame.
“It’s really a great honor,” he said. “I was only there about four months – you never think you’re going to deserve something like that. You’ve got so many great people who have played there through the years.” He added with a chuckle, “That was some years ago. You’ve got to have some old people there to put me in.”