Toronto Blue Jays transform downtown ballpark into MLB showcase
The temporary perimeter fences around Sahlen Field in downtown Buffalo look menacing and a bit foreboding. Walk the circumference of the ballpark and the adjacent parking ramp down Exchange Street, and you will come upon polite but stern security folks, whose stance and body language suggest you keep moving. Pass the right field gate on Washington Street and you might hear the thwack of the ball and the crack of the bat. That’s where indoor batting cages are sited but you will see none of it. And unless you’re craning your neck while driving along the I-190 or know somebody lucky enough to be living in one of those newfangled apartments across the street from the stadium and can scam an invitation, you will not get a live glimpse of what is happening right now, right in the middle of downtown Buffalo.
And that is a damn shame because this is a special time in Buffalo time. A historic era. For the first time in 115 years, Major League Baseball is being played right here in Buffalo. Our parent club the Toronto Blue Jays will have played as many as 25 regular-season games by the time this season ends. Games that have meaning. Games that count in the standings. Games that will go in the record books forever with the venue name and location “Sahlen Field, Buffalo, New York” for posterity.
The opponents will include storied teams such as the Boston Red Sox as well as the New York Yankees, who will be playing here for two series come September.
In the course of two weeks, the Toronto Blue Jays and Major League Baseball have transformed the stadium into a mini replica of Toronto’s Rogers Centre. They have poured millions of dollars into lighting, field improvements, and concourse and service level upgrades. They have added temporary amenities, most notably an entire outfield structure to house visiting clubs. And no circumstance was overlooked to keep players, personnel and visitors socially distant and as safe as possible in this Covid era.
It all unfolded this past Tuesday when the Toronto Blue Jays threw the first pitch against the visiting Miami Marlins, ushering a new chapter of sports history in Western New York. “The enormity of the moment dawned on me just as the game started,” said Buffalo Bisons Assistant General Manager Brad Bisbing. “Here we are, Major League Baseball in our city, and I am one of only about fifty Western New Yorkers witnessing this moment live.”
For the Bisons front office, it has been a whirlwind couple of weeks working alongside the Blue Jays and the Major League Baseball consulting firm implementing all the ballpark enhancements. Gameday staff work alongside their Blue Jays partners in performing the necessary tasks, everything from security to grounds crew to the video and scoreboard operators.
Nonetheless, these are different times, and those lucky enough to be admitted to the stadium have to go through a battery of checkpoints to gain admittance.
Consider the media. In normal times, a media outlet wishing to cover a sporting event would glean the name of the team’s media relations director. An email is sent out by the editor identifying the outlet, stating the nature of the assignment and requesting credentials. The usual outcome is “request approved” and indicating which entrance to pick up passes on game day.
No more. The MLB application process now directs you to the team for an initial evaluation, then access to an online credentials portal to apply for access. There are only 35 slots available for any game, and the applicant not only has to state the game request, but also fill out a health survey.
Once approved, the media representative has to fill a second health survey three hours before showing up to the venue. Upon arrival, yet more check marks to fill out, and a temperature check. Masks are required, and hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are placed just about everywhere.
The temporary “press box” at Sahlen Field, if you will, is set up directly below that little-used mezzanine at the top of section 100 behind home plate. Socially distanced work stations are scattered among three sections, with a canopied photojournalist work area in the aisle above home plate right atop the special reserved section. Photographers and journalists are strictly forbidden from entering the playing field, or for that matter, anywhere outside of a strictly secured and roped off area that takes you from the Swan Street entrance through one tunnel and into the designated press area.
Postgame press conferences? The old days of media scrums, with reporters shoulder to shoulder holding cameras and recording devices while surrounding a player or manager seems as a quaint throwback. Blue Jays media relations director Rodney Hiemstra conducts the postgame interviews via Zoom. In house reporters are joined with Toronto beat writers calling in from their homes in Canada to interview Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo and requested players via video chat. (Toronto media are not allowed to cross the border to cover games here in person, what with the border being closed to nonessential traffic. Judging from the looks on their faces, they miss us and our chicken wings as much as we miss them and our pilgrimages for Poutine, Chinese food, and Swiss Chalet).
Does this all sound surreal? Well yes, it is. “Just about every circumstance was anticipated and planned for in advance in order to make these games a reality,” said Bisons General Manager Anthony Sprague, who is in his first season in that new role, and has had to endure the disappointments that come with the cancelled minor league season.
Sprague cited the violent storm which came through downtown Buffalo this past Saturday, resulting in the game being suspended in the fourth inning and eventually resumed the following day. “With all the lightning, the visiting Tampa Bay Rays were actually escorted to the club level suites along the right field line. Even this eventuality was planned for and sheltering in their temporary structure would not have been practical given the lightning,” said Sprague.
And ohhhhh, the game-day experience.
Television viewers watching these games from Buffalo are getting a bit of a feel of what our transformed ballpark looks like. The blue outfield walls, the tarps and logos on the seats, the canopies festooned with Blue Jays logos. Cardboard cutouts of images of fans in their seat are a centerpiece of the home-plate seating area, which have been done in many MLB stadiums this season.
Whether watching on the MLB Network, FS1 or Rogers Sportsnet, Buffalo is basking in the glow of adulation from the commentators, about the city, the stadium and what a tremendous job Buffalo has accomplished in serving as a host city and host venue. There are video bumps of our skyline, our waterfront, signature attractions. Just like our city performed well when we hosted the IIHF World Juniors, twice, across Canada people are noticing, and Buffalo is feeling the love.
What those watching on television are not seeing is how the Blue Jays have replicated the game day experience, much to mimic that of a live event at Rogers Centre. The music bumps, the chants, are identical. Between innings, videos are similar to the smartly produced videos seen in Toronto. Advertising billboards in the stadium represent sponsors such as Toronto Dominion Bank, Sobey’s, which is a Canadian supermarket, and Pizza Nova, a Toronto based restaurant chain. The seventh-inning stretch is headlined with the team’s forever anthem “OK Blue Jays, Lets Play Ball!”. (Think the Buffalo Bills “Shout” song done to calisthenics). The weather announcement is done in celsius and metric. About the only thing missing is playing the rendition of the “Oh, Canada” national anthem in hybrid English and French, but that’s really not much of a Blue Jays thing anyways.
Is there any way that some fans can see and experience all this for themselves?
Not happening. “Bob and Mindy Rich (Bisons team owners) can’t get in here,” said Sprague. “My family members can’t get in here, I’ve gotten more than a few requests from friends and fans and I wish I could accommodate those requests but I just can’t. In fact, right now we are more or less just a landlord and the Blue Jays are our tenant and they pretty much control what goes on in this facility.”
Indeed, the strict protocols in place to fight the pandemic and keep everyone involved healthy and safe severely limit access to areas of the stadium, and Bisons personnel, including team president Mike Buczkowski, are assigned a “Level 3” credential, which is the same level of access given to media members. “And what that means,” Sprague said, “Is we can sit with you guys (the media) and I can go to my office, but that’s it. I can not visit the concourses or the service level of the ballpark those areas are strictly off-limits. We count the days to the moment that we can welcome our great fans to this ballpark, but for now this is the way it has to be.”
The Blue Jays went 2-3 during their opening homestand at Sahlen Field. They found offensive power and the long ball, their bullpen was dreadful, and judging from the week’s performance, the dream of actually hosting a 2020 World Series on Buffalo soil featuring the Toronto Blue Jays is most likely an elusive one.
No matter. What happened here in Buffalo last week was important. It was a big deal.
There are 30 franchises in Major League Baseball and 29 of those teams are playing in their home venues. Games are on television, our country is taking baby steps to fight this pandemic and try to get to a sense of normal. And yet one, just one, minor league baseball venue within the entire realm of over 160 affiliated minor league teams got to attain the privilege of hosting Major League Baseball. And that is Buffalo.
The Buffalo Bisons were in the National League from1879-1885. In 1890, a professional players league which included Buffalo lasted one season before being disbanded. Buffalo was then dealt a blow to joining the American League in 1901 as our promised expansion team wound up becoming the Boston Red Sox. Buffalo was in the short-lived Federal League in 1914 and 1915. In 1959 the new Continental League, with a team slotted for Buffalo, never got off the ground and instead, Offerman Stadium is demolished shortly thereafter. In 1969 yet another promised expansion team for Buffalo ended up as the San Diego Padres. And in 1991, expansion hopes were dashed again when after it appeared that Buffalo was a lock to get a new team, then the two expansion cities instead became Denver and Miami.
2020… Another storied chapter to add to Buffalo’s dance with Major League Baseball. Hopefully, it’s not the last.