The Set-up: Last weekend, the Buffalo Bisons put on Star Wars night at Pilot Field (Sorry, but that’s what I call the stadium). Look, I’m as big of a Star Wars fan as the next person, but a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, America’s past time in Buffalo was truly a force to be reckoned with and we didn’t need Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker to make the turnstiles move. In a city where citizens flock to the waterfront and observe the mini-shops/tents on display, I can only imagine what it was like in 1988, when Pilot Field opened.
If you build it, they will come..and boy did they come.
The Bisons first home opener sold out in just 84 minutes and suddenly, for Buffalo, baseball became an event. It was something new and unique. First you had the stadium, which was unique because the design was a retro-style ballpark, which set the trend for teams like Baltimore and San Francisco, to have home fields designed like Buffalo. So, forget the O’s owning the nostalgia trademark with the old/new school ballparks, because we started that!
This wasn’t a one hit wonder, as the Bisons shattered attendance records for AAA and even outdrew several MLB markets like Montreal, Cleveland and Oakland. To put it in perspective, the Bisons sold 1-million tickets for 6 straight years, and only one other minor league team went over that mark and that was just for one season. The fans weren’t coming out because they were dying to see Carlos Garcia and Al Martin. They came out because it was cool to see a baseball game in Downtown Buffalo. The other reason was that fans who bought season tickets were hoping that those AAA stubs would eventually become MLB tickets.
What happened: During the mid-80’s, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth issued an expansion criteria that was led by open-air grass ballparks and for teams to have solid ownership. We all know that the Rich family/products have been a part of Buffalo for almost 30 years and were avid baseball lovers. With Pilot Field and Bob Rich in place, it was a long shot, but Buffalo had a slight chance at getting the deal done.
They would get their chance six years later.
The National League announced six possible cities for MLB on Dec. 18, 1990. It was Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, Denver, Buffalo and Washington, D.C. However, as I alluded to earlier, it was a long shot. So long in fact, that Bob Rich wrote a letter to the editor of TBN, saying that the economics of the game were probably too screwed up to work in Buffalo. In his words: “We do not believe in baseball at any cost.” Well, that was great. What the hell was the point of MLB even putting us on a list then?
Another obstacle facing MLB in Buffalo was when Fay Vincent, who replaced Commissioner Giamatti after his death, favored large television markets. Eh…. I’m sure we’ve all heard about the TV market way too much over the years here in WNY. Also, MLB was going to charge $95 million for the expansion fee, while the Bob Rich’s expectations were $50-60 million.
I don’t really remember this time period all that much, as I was only 11-years old. However, I do remember the anticipation for the MLB expansion committee coming to Buffalo. They were going to look at the stadium, meet city officials and probably eat Anchor Bar Wings. I remember fans were just praying that the weather would be awesome. Heck, I think we brought in a Indian to do an anti-rain dance. That seemed to be the biggest worry that I remember. Not any of this money or TV market stuff. I remember how Tom Jolls kept circling March 25th, 1991 on his long range Accuweather forecast. Why? Because that was the day the committee was coming to Buffalo.
Please don’t rain. Please don’t rain. Please don’t rain.
I swear to you, that’s all I remembered: Please let the weather be nice. Well, the weather kind of sucked on that day. It was rainy and cold. Great. Story of our city’s life. Anyways, I’m sure even if it were 80 degrees out and “The Natural” came out with the 2nd version of the “Wonder Bat”, it still wouldn’t have mattered. The death knell came from the chairman of the expansion committee, who said, “Buffalo would be great if you had another million people living here.”
Well, that’s a wrap.
To add salt to the wound, I remember when the committee went to Colorado. The weather was awesome! I’m talking like 70 degrees. You just knew we were finished. The final nail in the coffin came on June 10, 1991, when Florida and Colorado were announced as the winners and were set to play ball in 1993.
What if Buffalo got a MLB team? I know the cynic in me would say that the Buffalo Rockie Marlins would either become today’s version of the Pirates, or, would have moved to Washington, or, worse, been contracted. However, this is Buffalo! We love to drink and have a good time. We are a sports town…a major league sports town. You’d think the expansion team would have built off the excitement of Pilot Field opening.
Of course, we also love a winner (compare the popularity of the Sabres from 02-04 to 05-07). There’s your key. Success in baseball can be built by having $200 million dollar payrolls (not happening here) or by having a solid minor league system (hmmm..maybe the Rockie Marlins could have hired Darcy Regier?). I think it’s safe to say growing the farm system would have been the mindset of management.
Another thing to keep in mind is that in 1994, MLB went on a strike and for the first time since 1904, there was no World Series. We all know that it took MLB almost 5 years to recover from that (98′ HR chase). Does the strike hurt Buffalo? Maybe..but, keep in mind that after the NHL lockout, fans came back in droves because the Sabres were kicking ass. I don’t remember anyone saying “Fu#$ the Sabres, they turned their backs on us!”
Quite the opposite.
So, lets say the baseball team becomes the Twins of the 2000’s. What happens to the Sabres? Not a typo. What happens to the Sabres when they declare bankruptcy and their owner is hauled away in handcuffs? Maybe the NHL says, “Forget this! The city already has two established teams in the Bills and Bison Rockies. Maybe we need to leave?”. As of today, Buffalo can barely support two local teams. As the expansion committee alluded to, Buffalo needed another million people.
In the last 20 years, it has felt like 20 million people have left Buffalo for the Carolinas. If we have three teams, maybe, the Sabres move because the baseball team would have took away a chunk of their revenue. Remember, Bob Rich is a respected businessman and I seriously doubt he would have stolen money from his parent company like John Rigas did.
Another thing working against the Sabres and Bills are that MLB tickets are cheap. You can get bleacher tickets at Yankee Stadium for 20-40 bucks. You can’t get that deal with the Sabres (Unless they are playing the Panthers) or the Bills (Unless it’s Sorgi vs Brohm for the season finale). Never underestimate the value of a cheap thrill.
Lastly, what about the interest in the Bisons today? Right now, Bisons have about 3,500 season ticket holders. That’s a far cry from 1988. I think after MLB said “No” to Buffalo, some fans might have decided to stop supporting the team. I just don’t remember the same electricity around the team in 98′ as in 91′. I know some will say the Mets being an absolute joke factor into it today. However, I think the stadium ambience got old and having no MLB team factored into the Bisons not doing so well at the gate.
Anyways, I think it’s just crazy to imagine that 20 years ago we were considered for a MLB team. Can you imagine if news like that broke today? I’m sure if the expansion committee came today, we would treat them the same way the Town of Redbud treated the folks who were trying to buy the Farmer’s house in the movie “Funny Farm” (Watch the movie).
Thanks to Mike Harrington for the research provided on this piece.