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The first Major League Baseball regular season game in Buffalo since 1915

As a life-long Buffalo sports fan who remembers “Wide Right” and “No Goal,” I remain cautiously optimistic “Play Ball” will be heard at 6:37 p.m. Tuesday inside downtown’s Sahlen Field.  That will signify the first Major League Baseball regular season game in Buffalo since 1915, some 105 years ago.

During Major League Baseball’s irregular 2020 season that saw the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic wipe out the Bisons’ entire Triple A season, it seems most appropriate the baseball gods would deliver Major League Baseball to Buffalo for the next six weeks, and hopefully the playoffs and World Series!

The Jays home away from home this summer
Former Mayor Jimmy Griffin wearing a chicken wing mask

Bob Rich Jr., chairman of Rich Products Corp., saved professional baseball here in 1983 when he purchased the struggling Bisons’ franchise which former Mayor Jimmy Griffin had obtained in 1979, ending the city’s nine-year drought without baseball. I was Bob’s first associate hired to assist the existing front office staff and on a cold February morning the Bisons new owner convened a meeting at War Memorial Stadium office and quickly established his three goals:

  • Move up from Double-A to Triple-A.
  • Support Mayor Griffin to see a stadium built downtown.
  • Bring Major League Baseball to Buffalo.

In late October, Billoni Associates Publishing will release The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball 1857-2020 book, an update and revision of Joseph M. Overfield’s The 100 Seasons of Buffalo Baseball.  I have been working with Overfield’s son, Jim, a retired history professor at the University of Vermont, for the past three years on this book project.  To learn more about the book and sign up for our newsletter visit www.herdchronicles.com.

In the chapter titled Owners and Executives, local writer Budd Bailey authors the story about Bob Rich Jr., in which he writes, “The Riches had gone 2 for 3 on their goals which is a pretty good batting average.” That is because we became a Triple-A franchise in 1985 and Pilot Field opened in 1988.  However, a deal to obtain the Expos did not happen and the National League selected Miami and Colorado in 1990.

When Tuesday’s game becomes official, Bailey will have to edit that statement to state: “37 years after purchasing the Bisons and setting his goals, the third goal has been achieved and he’s now hitting 3 for 3—a perfect batting average.”

This is certainly not what Bob and his wife, Mindy, had in mind when they spent years and a lot of their own money in the late 1980s chasing the city’s dream of landing an existing MLB team (Montreal Expos) or a National League expansion franchise.

National baseball and sports broadcaster Bob Costas with Mindy and Bob Rich and myself when he visited the ballpark after it opened in 1988.  A true baseball fan, he loves the ballpark.  He now works for the Major League Network and there is a chance he can be here.  Photo from the Michael J. Billoni Collection

Rather than being in the clubhouse with the big-league players, managers and coaches and then watching the Jays play the Miami Marlins from their suite inside Sahlen Field, the Riches will be watching it all on television from their summer home in West Virginia.  Even if they were here, the rules surrounding interactions with players and staffs are so strict, the Riches would have had to keep their distance because MLB cannot afford any further outbreak of this deadly virus.  Last week, because numerous Marlins’ players and then St. Louis Cardinals’ players and staff became infected, there was talk MLB would shut down the season.  Rather, they have created an extremely detailed book of procedures for every team and player to follow.

That means, forget about using the corporate suites or Consumer Pub at the Ballpark to watch any of the Jays home away from home games in Buffalo.  Your best seat is in front of your television set if you have the MLB Ticket.  That is where I will be on Tuesday evening hosting a Jays’ Watch Party.

I have heard and read the rants of baseball fans about their disappointment at not being able to watch these games here.  Get over it.  The Jays are here because the Canadian government has ruled against them coming and going from Canada to play their games in the Rogers Centre.  That led to them looking at playing their home away from home games in Pittsburgh or Baltimore before settling on the home of their Triple A affiliate.

The temporary portable lights that will provide additional light in addition to the new, brighter bulbs they installed in the existing poles

The reasons the players wanted to be housed in a big-league facility is that this is 2020 and clubhouses for these multi-millionaire athletes are palatial suites.  Because teams have so much money invested in their players, the training rooms, weight rooms, wind down rooms, lounges, etc. are way above what Triple A ballparks can provide.

Having them select Buffalo over being the home team on the road in an opponent’s park, I am sure has much to do about the nearly 30 year relationship the Bisons owners and Mike Buczkowski, president of Rich Baseball Operations, have with Mark Shapiro, the president of the Jays and Ross Atkins, their General Manager.  Both of them go back to when they were with the Cleveland Indians and the Bisons were their Triple A affiliate.

They know when the Riches, Buczkowski and his front office team, including General Manager Anthony Sprague and Assistant General Manager Brad Bisbing, say they will do something, it is done first class.  This ask, however, was bit higher than any previous ask—turn Sahlen Field into a big-league ballpark in a couple of weeks.

Cutouts of Jays and Bisons fans that Jays sold for charity

Working closely with members of the Jays’ front office and MLB officials, it is happening and come Tuesday evening the baseball world will see the Buffalo version of Rogers Centre, complete with Jays logos all over the inside and outside of the ballpark; the interior walls have changed from Bisons’ green to Jays’ blue complete with logos of some corporate sponsors.

Ben Wagner, Voice of the Bisons for 11 seasons and now the Voice of the Blue Jays, was on the Buffalo Baseball Booster Club’s monthly Zoom meeting this past Saturday  and he provided an insight into what the Jays will see when they arrive at the ballpark on their off day Monday.  The Jays have taken over the entire service level in the ballpark, which previously had clubhouses for the visiting and home team and two adjacent batting cages.  The cages are out, the area was thoroughly cleaned, painted and decorated to resemble the Jays home clubhouse.  The Jays will walk through the former visitor’s clubhouse and use the third base dugout as their dugout.

Watering of a new infield grass and dirt

Inside the Oak Street gate, on the main clubhouse, the Jays have constructed an identical weight room complete with the same photos on the walls they are accustomed to seeing in Toronto.  The indoor batting cages are also in the concourse.

Tent that has been constructed for the visiting team

For the visiting teams, three quarters of the entire parking lot behind the center field fences has one of the largest tents I have ever seen with nearly one dozen air conditioning units along its sides.  That will be their clubhouse, training room and probably a weight room with social distancing between lockers assured.  We can only imagine what it must look like inside.

Outfield wall with Toronto sponsors

On the field, the Jays, MLB and Bisons ground crew staff have been working night and day to ensure the field will be up to big league standards on Tuesday and for the remainder of the irregular season through September.   They have also installed new lights and there are portable lights to ensure it is bright enough for the television broadcasts.

The costs are being covered by the Jays and MLB.

Why is this great for Buffalo?  Think of it as a six-week Chamber of Commerce moment for Buffalo, Erie County and New York State; the Bisons and its ownership team from Rich Products.  Even though no fans are allowed inside, there will be media here and suddenly, in this irregular season, this becomes a big story.  The Wall Street Journal’s acclaimed baseball writer, Jared Diamond, has been working on a story this weekend for Tuesday’s issue; the New York Times is sending a reporter and photographer and locally, Mike Harrington, a member of the Professional Baseball Writers Assn., has led daily coverage in The Buffalo News and WIVB-TV has assigned reporter/anchor Chris Horvatis to this story since it was announced the Jays are coming to Buffalo.  Every local broadcast station and radio news station has covered this extensively and on Monday, August 10 at 7, WIVB will carry a special about the Jays in Buffalo.  This is big news.

Dugouts and auxiliary dugouts

During this unprecedented year because of the Covid-19 pandemic which saw Buffalo’s beloved Bisons have to cancel its season, the Jays calling this their home away from home, is bringing some excitement here.

The dream would really be complete if they surprise the baseball world and win the World Series which means they would have to return in April 2021 and raise a World Series flag in Sahlen Field, their home away from home in 2020.  They would probably also present Bob and Mindy Rich and Mike Buczkowski with World Series rings.

Written by Michael J. Billoni

Michael J. Billoni

A journalist for nearly 50 years who was an award-winning sports reporter for the Buffalo Courier-Express until it closed in 1982. He was the former vice president/general manager of the Buffalo Bisons and a member of the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame. Handled the promotions and publicity for Buffalo’s undefeated heavyweight boxer, “Baby Joe” Mesi. Founder and is managing partner of Billoni Associates. He authored and managed “Robert E. Rich—Memoirs of an Innovator,” the biography of the founder of Rich Products Corp; published 'All In," the memoir of businessman Ronald Zoeller and is currently publishing The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball, the most comprehensive history of professional baseball in the city. It will be released April 17, 2020.

Mike and is wife Debbie love Western New York and always try to help others and encourage positive thoughts

View All Articles by Michael J. Billoni
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