By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell
As far as Opening Days are concerned, this one had to be one of the most bizarre, yet one of the most joyous, since that momentous day in April of 1988 when downtown’s new ballpark, then named Pilot Field opened its doors for the very first time.
This past Tuesday the Buffalo Bisons returned to their home in Buffalo. Consider all that has happened since the team last took to the field in August of 2019.
It was 20 months ago when the Bisons organization unveiled their new senior management duo. Longtime management team members Anthony Sprague (sales) and Brad Bisbing (public relations) were named General Manager and Assistant General Manager, respectively. It was another year of offseason planning to welcome fans into what would now be the oldest ballpark in the International League.
Check that. No more International League. Minor League Baseball has undergone a massive reorganization, reducing the number of affiliated minor league teams to 120 (4 for each MLB club), and resulting in some winners and many losers amongst the cities and towns with long-time minor league franchises.
The Buffalo Bisons are now part of a new 20 team circuit called “AAA East”, consisting of all 14 former International League clubs (the Pawtucket Red Sox have relocated to Worcester, Massachusetts). Add former Pacific Coast League teams from Nashville, Memphis, Iowa and Omaha. Jacksonville has been promoted from AA. And finally St. Paul, formerly an independent league team. And there is your new league.
Even while the Bisons were navigating and digesting this new normal in terms of teams, competition, travel and playoff formats, the pandemic hit.
Both Sprague and Bisbing were hopeful this would be short-lived, and that baseball and the 2020 season could pick up in some way or shape by early summer. But it was not meant to be. Minor League Baseball canceled their season in early July that year. There would be no baseball in 2020, the first time that a Bisons season had been canceled in its entirety in the franchise’s history, going back to the 1870s.
For Sprague, his debut as the team’s General Manager was a long time coming, and as he addressed the fans on Opening Night, you could almost sense his emotions pouring out and his voice cracking just a bit. “711 days. That’s what it has been,” said Sprague.
“Brad and I almost joke that, whatever this job was going to be, it’s almost gone at this point it’s so different at this point this year. There are times where I’ve thought about it a lot. Gee it would be nice to just be at normal and do the job I was hired to do. And I think what’s that first game going to be like. It was always going to be a memorable opening day. But this one is going to be an opening day on steroids.” Sprague shared those sentiments as the team unveiled their new and remodeled service level and clubhouse to the media two weeks ago.
Then came the Blue Jays.
With Covid raging and life-saving vaccines still in early trial stages, Canada shut its borders to all but essential travel. That meant that the Toronto Blue Jays would be unable to host visiting teams at their home in Rogers Centre, and with Major League Baseball resuming its schedule. They pursued several options, finally settling on Sahlen Field in Buffalo as their home away from home.
“We weren’t just observers as their organization took hold of our facility. We were partners in the planning and the execution of the games here,” said Sprague.
Indeed. Sahlen Field was reconfigured into a Covid safe facility, with no fans, the entire building walled off from the streetscape outside, a visiting clubhouse erected in the outfield parking lot, and batting cages and workout centers straddling the 100 level concourse. Player seating stretched outside the dugout and into the first few rows of the seating area. Even the press area was moved outdoors, to socially distanced work stations straddling underneath the balcony behind home plate.
It was almost surreal as the Toronto Blue Jays hosted the first major league professional game since 1915 on Buffalo soil, in a building walled off from the public and no fans anywhere nearby. The only live witnesses to those historic games were a smattering of stadium staff, security and operations people, and media members who were lucky enough to gain admittance.
Enter 2021 and the pandemic is still amongst us. Canadian border restrictions still in place so that meant the Toronto Blue Jays once again needed a place to play. So they started off the season at their spring training home in Dunedin, Florida.
By June 1 the team moved back to Buffalo. But this time, fans were allowed into the stadium, at first at 35% capacity, with separate seating areas for vaccinated and unvaccinated patrons. By early July, those restrictions were removed, allowing the stadium to be sold to almost full capacity.
Incredible memories were made in the two months the Blue Jays called Buffalo home. Fans here were treated to an experience, which in all likelihood will be a once in a lifetime thing.
And what did the Blue Jays leave behind? Millions of dollars of ballpark improvements and enhancements. Fans coming to the ballpark can see for themselves the new LED lighting, the brand new infield and outfield which were totally replaced across the two seasons, (finally) Major League bullpens beyond the right centerfield wall, new sound, and fresh signage and murals throughout the concourses and seating bowl. “We wanted to keep some of the Toronto stuff to remind ourselves that something special happened here and these days are to be remembered”, said Sprague.
What fans do not get to see is the totally revamped and remodeled service level, unrecognizable to ballpark veterans who have experienced these areas in recent years.
The Buffalo Bisons came home this past Sunday and saw for themselves a luxurious and expansive home clubhouse, and an entirely revamped service concourse with murals and artwork mimicking those of Toronto’s Rogers Centre. New training rooms, weight rooms, a new batting cage facility outside the service tunnel and state of the art medical facilities, along with new offices for the team’s managers. It is the type of clubhouse configuration that most minor league teams can only dream of. The team is hoping that these sorts of enhancements will help get the word around and help the team in acquiring minor league free agents down the road.
“We can’t say enough about how much the Blue Jays presence here has meant for this organization, not only for the importance of the games that were played here, but for what they left behind,” said Sprague.
As for the Bisons, they blew by the visiting Rochester Red Wings on Opening Night by an 11-0 score. Don’t look now, but the Bisons, who have spent their entire home schedule based in Trenton, New Jersey, are 51-32 and in first place in the Northeast Division of AA East. Casey Caendale’s 2001 squad might be good. Even “scary good”. And the best news? Minor League Baseball has extended the season to October 3. Get ready for September baseball in Buffalo.
Yeah. It’s a weird year.
AROUND THE BASES…(random observances on Opening Night)
- In two weeks, the Bisons deconstructed most of the reconstituting of the Blue Jays footprint. What has remained in place are exterior banners on the Washington Street façade, Blue Jays flags on the plaza (alongside those of the Bisons), some logo murals in the concourse, and some concourse signage in their distinctive font. The team struck a good balance in remaking this into Buffalo’s home yet maintaining a presence of their major league affiliate and the importance of what happened here in 2020 and 2021.
- The WCC mascot race is back! Contestants Wing, Bleu Cheese and Carrot raced on Opening Night with Carrot taking the checkered flag. Missing were Atomic Wing and Beef On Weck. Awaiting word on their return to the fray. Everyone’s favorite, beloved (and still retired) Celery, was on hand at the finish line to congratulate the winner.
- Missing. The Bisons championship banners and retired numbers. The team has been under enormous pressure to get the ballpark ready in two short weeks. Perhaps this is on the to do list.
- The Blue Jays anthem “OK Blue Jays” still getting an airing as part of game night entertainment, although not part of the 7th inning stretch. Props to the entertainment crew. But the music bumps on Opening Night needed some work.
- We were just at Polar Park, the new home of the Worcester Red Sox, a couple weeks ago. Ticket prices there top out at $41. Just drives home further what a screaming bargain a $10 ticket is here in Buffalo. The Bisons have priced all their seats at $10 for the rest of this season.
- Mayor Byron Brown was on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. As the game began, Brown was spotted walking the stands wearing his personalized Bisons “#1” jersey, waving to fans and shaking hands with plenty of small talk.
In previous years, Brown would be heavily surrounded by a cadre of beefy security people, his PR handler Mike DeGeorge following behind like a master’s puppy, and all keeping Hizzoner away from having to deal with the Great Unwashed as he gets whisked away to a waiting limousine outside the ballpark.
But 2021 is a different year in mayoral politics. Nice seeing humility replace hubris. And at least give Brown some credit; he and the city have been a great partner and supporter of Bisons baseball.