MLB, Bisons support Buffalo youth program post-tragedy

June 26th, 2022
Steve Smiegocki, LeRoi Johnson, Mike Buczkowski, Charles Wilson and David JamesJames P. McCoy

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Six weeks after a mass shooting that claimed 10 lives at a local supermarket, the Buffalo Bisons and Major League Baseball recognized a youth athletic program located in the neighborhood that is still reeling from the tragedy.

In Sunday’s finale of their six-game homestand against the St. Paul Saints, the Bisons -- the Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate -- hosted leaders and participants of the Willie “Hutch” Jones Education and Sports Program. Over 200 of the program’s participants cheered on the Bisons and were surprised by a third-inning announcement that MLB was contributing $10,000 to the program.

The funding will provide a boost to Jones’ program, which uses the Johnnie B. Wiley Sports Complex as one of its primary locations. The complex is on the site of the former War Memorial Stadium, which was the Bisons’ home from 1960-69 and again from 1979-87. It is located mere blocks away from the site of the May 14 shooting.

“It’s important to show the interest in the city. This is our neighborhood,” said LeRoi Johnson, the chairman of the organization’s board of directors, who was among those on the field when the announcement was made. “Our purpose is to fill the gaps that were left out by a lack of funding for community centers throughout the city.

“All we’re doing is replicating what we had in the 1950s and ‘60s, which somehow got dropped. We’re one of the few facilities that actually gives kids something to do during the summer and through the year. We’re lucky that people like Major League Baseball support us.”

David James, MLB’s vice president of baseball and softball development, had Johnson and board member Charles Wilson turn around during the announcement to view an image on the scoreboard of a giant check representing the donation.

“I thought he hit me in the head,” Wilson laughed. “I thought I was seeing stars.”

“With the tragedy, we were thinking about what we can do,” James said. “We’ve been working with them for a few years. They’ve been committed to offering more baseball and softball opportunities. We decided to make a donation. They need equipment as they’re starting to grow.”

“[Learning about the donation] was another blessing,” Johnson added. “The partnership we have now with baseball helps. We’re getting recognized through what happened, unfortunately. People looking at us as a food desert, with poor economic development. We’ve been providing services for over 38 years. That role should be continued and expanded. We can do a lot for the community.”

The recognition of Jones’ program coincided with the Bisons’ commemoration of “The Nine,” Minor League Baseball’s new initiative to honor and celebrate Black baseball pioneers and their historic impact on the sport and provide opportunities for youth baseball and softball participation. “The Nine” is named for the number worn by Jackie Robinson with the Montreal Royals during his only Minor League season in 1946.

“Baseball was one of the factors that held the city together for such a long period of time,” Wilson said. “When you get ethnic communities linked together, you need a common thread, and here it’s been baseball.”

On Sunday, the Bisons showed various videos on their scoreboard highlighting the key contributions of Black players throughout the team’s history, including the tenure of Hector Lopez as pro baseball’s first Black manager above the Single-A level in 1969. Also prominently featured was Robinson’s tenure with the Royals, noting that the icon batted .379 against Buffalo in nine games of the 1946 season.

Johnson wore a replica of Robinson’s Montreal jersey for the occasion, and Wilson sported a version of Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers road uniform.

“Seeing them wearing those jerseys right away, and they had no idea about this donation, it was great that the timing worked out so perfectly,” James said.

Jones, a 62-year-old Buffalo native who could not attend but watched the ceremony via a video feed, was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982 and went on to play 13 games in the NBA with the then-San Diego Clippers, before spending seven years playing professionally in Italy and Spain.

“He’s very intentional in regards to education [first] and then sports,” James said of Jones, who established his youth program while still playing in Europe. “I love the fact that they’re pitching to these kids that if you’re an athlete and you’re good enough [regardless of the sport], get your education first. Make sure that you’re articulating to these kids and their families that there are plenty of opportunities in sport that don’t involve being on the field.”

Last year, while the Blue Jays were in the midst of their residency in Buffalo, Jones’ program was named a member of their MLB Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. Sunday’s activities proved to be a further validation of the parties’ collaborative efforts.