On the Road: Everything’s Bigger in Buffalo

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)

When the Buffalo Bisons’ home of Pilot Field opened in 1988, it was amid of wave of intense baseball optimism in the region. The facility was built not just with the Triple-A Bisons in mind, but as the potential home for a re-locating or expansion Major League team. If this dream indeed became reality, then the stadium’s capacity would be more than doubled via the addition of more than 20,000 mezzanine seats.

Major League Baseball never came to Buffalo, of course, but the Bisons’ stadium (now known as Coca-Cola Field, after a series of name changes) remains a Minor League ballpark with a big league feel.

IMG_0352And even though the city’s big league dreams were never realized, Pilot Park North AmeriCare Park Dunn Tire Park Coca-Cola Field was nonetheless a harbinger of things to come. It was the first stadium designed by HOK Sports, now known as Populous, the architectural firm that four years later designed Camden Yards in Baltimore. Its combination of retro aesthetic and modern amenities was extremely influential, helping set the stage for the ballpark revolution that was soon to come. (In which intimate, quirk-laden, baseball-specific environments —  with real grass! — replaced cavernous multi-use facilities.)

It was an accident, but I love the father-son moment captured in the photo below. The kid’s decked out in a Bisons cap, shirt, and foam claws, and he and Dad are moving toward the entrance with enthusiasm and energy. I bet they had a great night.

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This statue of former Buffalo mayor Jimmy Griffin was unveiled in 2012. From a press release issued by the team:

Griffin – who passed away in 2008 – did all he could to further the presence of baseball in the city of Buffalo, going to great lengths in support of the city’s push for a major league team – as well as in the development of Coca-Cola Field….[L]ightly crouched, glove outstretched, Griffin stands ready to deliver his first pitch – just as he did before the ballpark’s first-ever game on April 14, 1988. Considering Griffin’s omniscient presence in the area baseball scene, the statue is sure to serve as a reminder of one man’s dedication and love for a city, and a team.

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The Bisons’ name dates all the way back to 1879, as from that season through 1885 a team by that name played in the National League. (Everyone involved with this incarnation of the franchise is dead. I looked it up.) The current iteration of the Bisons arrived in 1979 as a member of the Double-A Eastern League, transitioning to the Triple-A American Association in 1985 and then, when that circuit dissolved, becoming members of the International League in 1998. Buffalo-based Rich Products Corporation bought the team in 1983, and it remains under the Rich family’s ownership. (Rich Baseball Operations is under the Rich Entertainment Group umbrella. The Rich family also owns the Northwest Arkansas Naturals as well as the new Morgantown, West Virginia, New York-Penn League club formerly known as the Jamestown Jammers. Rich Entertainment Group is also involved in the theater scene, such as the current effort to turn Bull Durham into a Broadway musical.)

Upon gaining entry to the stadium, I proceeded to the concourse and snapped the following photos. It was August 26, the last home game of the regular season, and a pre-game awards ceremony was set to take place shortly as part of the evening’s Fan Appreciation Night festivities.

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IMG_0357I didn’t quite know what to do with myself at this early juncture in the evening, so I texted my designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). “Hey, designated eater, are you ready to eat?” I queried. “Yes, obscure blogger, I am,” he replied. (Or something to that effect.)

This is Phil Walck, designated eater.

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Phil used to be a Bisons season ticket holder, but these days he attends five or six games per season. He lives in Niagara Falls and works for an unnamed “major freight forwarder.” (Major freight forwarding is a big business in this part of the country, due to the large amount of goods crossing the border between the United States and Canada.) Phil has been reading this blog for the last several years, and, when I posted my trip itineraries for the 2014 season, he jumped at the opportunity to become a designated eater.

“I love ballpark food, especially the weird stuff,” said Phil. “The only time I have hot dogs is when they’re a dollar.”

The Bisons aren’t especially “weird” when it comes to concessions, but public relations director Brad Bisbing later told me that the team has recently made a concerted effort to go local. Hence, you’ll find Wardzynski’s sausage, Charlie the Butcher’s “Beef on Weck” and Sahlen’s hot dogs. (I’m sure there are non-meat related examples, but that’s all I’ve got written down).

“Brad Bisbing, Buffalo Bisons” is a delightfully alliterative front office moniker. In search of further examples of splendid alliteration, Phil and I visited a cramped, crowded concourse concession area and procured a bologna sandwich. These are a relatively rare Minor League concession item, though I can recall that they are also sold at ballparks in Jackson (Tennessee), Danville (Virginia) and Louisville (Kentucky).

IMG_0362Looking for an escape from the the cramped crowded concourse, Phil and I headed up the stairs and immediately found plenty of room here (I later found out that this is primarily used as a vendor stocking area, and that appears to be what is happening there in the background).

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The pre-game awards ceremony was now taking place on the field, but I was more concerned with Phil’s opinion of a bologna sandwich.

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IMG_0363“This bologna is really good,” said Phil. “It’s thick — I don’t know the measurements — but they cut it thick. The bologna’s from a local deli, and the roll is from a local bakery. It’s a really good roll.”

Phil, who occasionally fries up bologna in the privacy of his own home after a long day of freight forwarding, said that “you gotta pop the middle, right in the middle. That does the trick.” Otherwise the center of the bologna will rise up like a hot air balloon and, perhaps, float away to parts unknown.

Since Phil seemed like a pretty knowledgeable guy when it came to food, I asked him the question that every Buffalonian has an answer to: Who has the best wings? He said that “it’s a very contentious issue” but it’s “gotta be Duff’s, and then Anchor Bar.”

But Buffalo is known for more than just wings. Buffalo is also known for its “Beef on Weck,” which is simply roast beef au jus on a kummelweck roll. Charlie the Butcher, a particularly well-known Buffalo-based purveyor of beef on weck, is available on the concourse.

IMG_0366The Bisons became a Blue Jays affiliate prior to to the 2013 season, and as a result there has been a considerable uptick in the number of Canadian fans visiting Coca-Cola Field. The Bisons aggressively market to fans north of the border (watch out for a future MiLB.com story on that), and Canadian money is accepted throughout the ballpark. Just keep yourselves in check, big spenders.

IMG_0370While waiting in line for our beef on weck, I caught a glimpse of legendary Buffalo beer vendor “Conehead.” My attempt to document Conehead in his natural habitat yielded woeful results, and he soon disappeared. Would I get another chance to view the Conehead, or had I missed my opportunity?

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Conehead in the wild

That question would have to wait, because, once again, it was my job to watch a man eat a sandwich. In this line of work, I have watched many men eat many sandwiches.

IMG_0373Have at it, Phil. Have at it.

Outside of noting that there was “salt in the caraway seeds,” Phil had little to say about this sandwich other than that “it’s really good, just roast beef and jus.” I guess that’s all you need to know.

But you should also know that salt potatoes, yet another New York state specialty, are also available from Charlie the Butcher. They are gluten-free, of course, so I can report from first-hand experience that these potatoes were soft, buttery, well-seasoned and, in a word, delectable. I was pleasantly surprised that such a simple item had so much flavor.

IMG_0372Thank you, Phil Walck, for treating your designated eating duties with the reverence and dedication that the position deserves. I let him eat the remainder of his beef and weck and salt potato meal in peace, as I had places to go and people to see. He later tweeted this picture, for your edification and enjoyment.

“There is lots of good food here, it’s simple stuff,” said Phil. “There’s no bacon-wrapped anything, but it’s all good.”

IMG_0377My next stop was the press box, a multi-tiered sanctum for Buffalo’s sporting fourth estate.

IMG_0378While in the press box I spoke with none other than alliteration king Brad Bisbing of the Buffalo Bisons. He pointed out that, in addition to my random wandering, I might want to pay a little attention to the ballgame that was taking place. The Bisons and visiting Pawtucket Red Sox were in a tight pennant race and both teams had premier pitching prospects on the mound. (Daniel Norris for the Bisons and Henry Owens for the Paw Sox.) The Bisons had drawn more than 11,000 fans to the ballpark in each of the last five games, but Bisbing was predicting a crowd of 16 or 17,000 for this, the Fan Appreciation home finale.

The Bisons would then end the season with a six-game road trip, because they always end the season with a road trip. This is because the Buffalo Wing Festival takes place at Coca-Cola Field each Labor Day weekend, in which some 40,000 people combine to eat 20 tons of wings.

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This festival has a fairly ridiculous origin story, which I fell compelled to share with you, the loyal, patient and marginally good-looking Ben’s Biz Blog reader:

The idea for the festival came from a movie called Osmosis Jones. Bill Murray starred as a compulsive eater with a goal of attending the Super Bowl of junk food, The National Buffalo Wing Festival. Ironically, there wasn’t one. That is when native Buffalonian Drew Cerza, now affectionately known as the Wing King, decided to make it happen back in 2002. This is a case of Real Life knocking off Hollywood!

After speaking with Bisbing, I was introduced to Bisons director of marketing and entertainment Matt LaSota. The two of us wandered down labyrinthian corridors for a spell, peering into various doors along the way.

IMG_0382Behind one door lurked veteran public address announcer Jerry Reo.

IMG_0381Behind another door was a control room, housing the equipment needed to run what, at one time, was the largest videoboard in Minor League Baseball. (The Memphis Redbirds usurped this honor in 2012, one year after the Bisons’ board was installed.)

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80 feet by 33 feet, that’s what this is. (And as you can see, the evening’s vaunted pitching prospects both struggled in the early going. A pitchers’ duel this was not.) The Bisons have upgraded their sound system in recent years as well, transition from three massive speakers to 120 smaller ones (three in the scoreboard and 117 distributed throughout the park). La Sota told me that, prior to this change, the team sometimes received noise complaints from downtown law offices during weekday afternoon games. The sound was so massive, and there was little to absorb it.

IMG_0388At this juncture in the evening, the ballpark had filled in considerably and the Bisons were on the verge of announcing a sellout. The attendance for the evening was a formidable 18,025, by far the largest Minor League crowd that I had ever been a part of.

IMG_0386Just prior to my visit, the Bisons announced that 3,700 seats in the lower seating bowl would be replaced, the first phase of a multi-year stadium renovation project. The seats at Coca-Cola Field are from 1988, and, as the team’s press release notes, they are six years past their life expectancy and replacement parts are not readily available. Bisbing told me that many of the improvements to the stadium will be “unfortunately, things that the fans don’t see.” This includes converting the concession areas from electric to gas, installing new boilers and replacing light fixtures. Sexy stuff, but necessary as Coca-Cola Field, somewhat improbably, is now the second-oldest ballpark in the International League. (Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium was built in 1945 but has since been extensively renovated.)

Speaking of sexy stuff, the hard-hat wearing beer vendor was toting around a mobile draft beer unit. These things are big in Japan.

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More discerning beer drinkers might want to visit the concourse’s “Craft on Draft” beer corner, which features several selections from the local Hamburg Brewery Company (note that one beer is poured via tap with a yellow foul pole handle).

IMG_0395But if you’re spending your time on the concourse, you’re missing out on some primo baseball views.

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IMG_0391When Coca-Cola Field opened in 1988, obtaining Bisons season tickets was a prerequisite for obtaining season tickets to whatever MLB team might one day play there. Crowds in the early days of the ballpark were colossal by Minor League standards, as the Bisons drew over one million fans on a regular basis. (They drew 535,275 over 66 openings in 2014, for a per-game average of 8,110.) As the above picture shows, the Bisons are still capable of packing ’em in during beautiful summer evenings. In April, when the weather is often absymal? Not so much.

Anyhow, at this juncture of the evening Mr. Mike Zagurski was on the mound. Let’s hear it for Mike Zagurski, who has pitched for seven Triple-A teams over the last five seasons (in addition to big league stints with the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Yankees and Pirates).

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“I ain’t an athlete, lady…” 

Zagurski

Zagurski

Shortly thereafter I witnessed the nightly race between Wing, Cheese and Celery. Celery had not won a race all year and was thus a crowd favorite, but he (or she) was thwarted by a Bon Jovi-blasting carrot (Jon Bon Jovi is a villain in Buffalo, due to his now-thwarted efforts to re-locate the Bills to Toronto).

Mascot racing complete, and in search of more views, I accompanied an intern — whose name escapes me, I apologize! — on a journey into the bowels of the ballpark. (Update! The intern’s name was Daniel Kuligowski.)

IMG_0396A walk through the tunnel led to a primo spot behind the home plate netting.

IMG_0397While in the tunnel, I took this unflattering shot of Buster the mascot. I think that, going forward, I’m going to make it a point to photograph mascot posteriors.

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Buster’s cousin goes by the name of Chip, making him the only mascot whose name is a poop reference.

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Soon I was back among the hoi polloi. This what a sellout crowd at America’s largest Minor League Baseball stadium looks like. It’s an amazing thing.

IMG_0401Views from the outfield berm.

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Myself and unnamed intern Kuligowski then climbed a rickety ladder, one that led to a television camera platform. (I really hope that replacing this ladder is part of the team’s ongoing renovation efforts). Again, I present you with another view. Click to enlarge.

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While here, I witnessed a full-throated rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It would have brought a tear to my eye, if I had not had my tear ducts removed as part of an ill-fated effort to never experience emotion again.

Unfortunately, by the time I made it to the team’s Hall of Fame Room it had been shuttered for the evening. But let it be known that the Bisons have retired three numbers over the course of their history. Ollie Carnegie was the International League’s all-time home run leader until this season, when cult hero Mike Hessman of the Toledo Mud Hens surpassed him. Negro League legend Luke Easter, whose number is also retired by the Rochester Red Wings, was a productive power hitter in Buffalo despite the fact that he was in his 40s at the time. And Jeff Manto? He hit a lot of home runs (79) for the Bisons in not a lot of at-bats (923) and is recognized as the team’s “modern-day” home run leader.

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Given the size of the stadium, most of the Bisons’ between-inning entertainment is videoboard-based. This celebrity look-a-like cam got a great reaction, as it featured dozens of fans and their alleged celebrity doppelgangers.

Now dating Neil Young?

Now dating Neil Young?

The Bisons lost by a 9-3 score, and shortly after the game concluded they appeared on the field and threw souvenirs to the crowd. I dutifully yelled for them to throw something to me, but their arms were weak.

IMG_0418Fireworks then lit up the night sky, as fireworks are wont to do.

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On the way out of the ballpark, I happened to glance toward the vendor stocking area where, hours ago, freight forwarder Phil Walck had valiantly eaten a bologna sandwich. Was that Conehead that I spotted?

IMG_0422It was! My last act of the evening was to interview Conehead the beer vendor, and you can read that HERE.

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Good night, Conehead, and good night, Buffalo!

IMG_0430Until next time, I remain,

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

2 Comments

Pingback: Ballpark Visit ALERT: Coca-Cola Field (Buffalo, NY) |

I believe Jeff Manto is the one that also has his number retired by Rochester, not Luke Easter,

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