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Buffalo baseball memories

Baseball in Buffalo is having a moment tonight.

If you haven't heard, the Blue Jays are playing a "home game" tonight against the Marlins in Buffalo's Sahlen Field, traditionally the home of the Triple A Buffalo Bisons.

It's very fitting for Buffalo that the city finally gets to host major league baseball but nobody gets to see it in person, seeing as that Buffalo always wants very good sports things to happen to their city but they very rarely do (see Bills, Sabres). One of those "good things" for years was the hope that a Major League Baseball team would call Buffalo home.

The Blue Jays playing their home games this season in Buffalo isn't exactly what Buffalo fans had in mind while it was waiting more than 100 years for MLB to come to town, but they'll take it. We'll take it.

This is the biggest MLB moment for Buffalo since the days when it was actively campaigning to land an expansion MLB team back in the late 1980s/early 1990s. I remember that time well. I was living in Buffalo for most of that period, going to some of the games, even covering a few of them. Talk of maybe One Day having a major league team hovered over every Bisons game.

When Pilot Field opened in downtown Buffalo in 1988, it was supposed to be the beginning of MLB expansion courtship. The stadium was state-of-the-art for minor league baseball at the time. The Buffalo franchise had moved from "The Old Rockpile," War Memorial Stadium, a deteriorating park in a deteriorating neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo, to the shining downtown park. There was already talk of upgrading the stadium to major league standards by adding a second deck onto the current, brand-new structure.

These are tickets for that very first game at Pilot Field, on April 15, 1988. They are one of my favorite pieces of memorabilia.

Pilot Field was the place to be in the late 1980s. The stadium set all kinds of attendance records, was packed every night and drew nationwide attention as the standard for new ballparks.

I attended several games at Pilot Field, which would later become NorthAmeriCare Park in the mid-1990s, then Dunn Tire Park, then Coca-Cola Field, and now Sahlen Field since 2018. I also went to my first baseball game in Buffalo in 1986 at War Memorial Park.

That is the program from that game that I attended. The Bisons were the Triple A team of the White Sox at the time. They would switch to the Indians in 1987 and then were the Pirates' Triple A team when Pilot Field opened. The Indians reconnected with Buffalo in 1995, all the way to 2008 before the Mets took over in 2009. The Blue Jays are now the parent club of the Bisons and have been since 2013.

I don't remember anything about the game I watched at War Memorial but there is the roster for both teams that day. David Cone's name jumps right out on the Omaha side. I don't know if that's who pitched that day.

I was more concerned that my car would be where I parked it when the game was over. I parked on a side street in an unfamiliar and very rundown area. Attendance at Buffalo games was dismal at that time. There was almost no one in the park and I don't think there was a parking lot available.

Old programs are great fun and -- look! -- baseball cards!

Well, sort of, there are no backs to these and they're printed on flimsy program paper. But it's cool seeing folks like Joel Skinner and John Cangelosi in those awkward White Sox uniforms of the mid-1980s.

Since I covered some Bisons games back in the late 1980s, I was able to grab the media guides from both 1988 and 1989 back then and I still have them. They're fantastic for remembering who was on the team then (think young Pirates of the early '90s) and memories of those days.

The Bisons' managers for 1988 and 1989, respectively. Familiar faces, both. At top is Terry Collins, future Mets manager, and at the bottom is noted tobacco lover, Rocky Bridges.

I just love advertising from that time. Reminds me of those good, old days.

If you'll indulge me, here are a several other Buffalo haunts from the pages of the programs, some still there, some not, but all have been places that I frequented back in the late 1980s and in some cases revisited on later trips to Buffalo.

Bocce's is still my favorite pizza place. Ziggy's made the biggest burritos I have ever seen. JP Bullfeathers is where the staff at the Buffalo State college newspaper congregated after meeting deadline for the twice-a-week publication. We were there twice a week, often until closing. Bars closed in Buffalo at that time at 4 a.m.

Some memorabilia, circa 1986. There were more than a couple Bisons coffee mugs around at that time. Also, I owned that Bisons sweatshirt. It looked terrible. I don't know who dressed me at the time.

I don't have as many Buffalo Bisons cards from this period as I should, but I've increased my total recently. Several of these players were very popular and successful in Buffalo, including Benny Distefano, Orestes Destrade and Orlando Merced.

By 1990, I had moved out of Buffalo to work my first full-time job for a newspaper.

As luck would have it, that very summer, my boss decided to run a series in the paper called "professional baseball in New York." Since I was the Buffalo dude, I was tasked with writing about Buffalo's bid for an MLB expansion team.

It was my first favorite story that I had written for the paper at that time. I still have a copy.

(Apologies for any newbie writing.)

I had been used to writing about local high school and college teams. Pro sports was the farthest thing from our coverage area. But this gave me the opportunity to write about MLB and I was able to talk to owner of the Bisons, Bob Rich Jr., the Montreal Expos president at the time, Claude Brochu, and a few other Buffalo baseball enthusiastics.

In 1990, Buffalo still had a chance, even if they were considered a longshot even then.

Then, in June 1991, Major League Baseball announced it had chosen Miami and Denver as the spots for its next expansion teams. Buffalo's bid was dead. The momentum behind the effort was never the same.

Crowds stayed robust at Pilot Field but eventually they lessened to more typical levels. It's still a good time to go to a game there but it was really a trip to see the excitement back in the late '80s.

I wish I could remember more about the games then, but it's mostly just snippets. Here are some:

First game I saw: Buffalo Bisons vs. Omaha Royals, Aug. 3, 1986
Most notable interview in Buffalo: Interviewed Pirates prospect Jeff King, who would play 11 years in the majors.
Best player in Buffalo: Joe DeSa, a former White Sox prospect, was a giant in Buffalo in '85-86.
Favorite ballpark figure: The Earl of Bud, a beer vendor who danced the "Pee Wee Herman" to "Tequila" each night on the dugout roof. He was more popular than the players.
Longest game: 13 innings. I don't remember when or what happened. I just know Richie Sexson was involved somehow (so, late '90s). It's still the longest game I've seen in person. I attended with my wife, brother and his wife. We took the direct-route subway from the University at Buffalo campus to the park. But the subway stopped running at a certain time at night and the game went longer and longer. Finally it ended and what fans were left who didn't drive, rushed for the subway before it closed for the night.

I've written about my love for Buffalo before. I still miss it and I'll be missing it while I watch this game tonight, and feeling bad that people can't attend as they wanted to for so many years.

But it's nice seeing the town on the national stage for something that doesn't involve snow or Bills Super Bowl losses.


What a cool post. I absolutely love minor league memorabilia. I have quite a few pieces from the Tidewater Tides 70's/80's era. Love looking at the ads in the old programs. That photo on your souvenir scorecard is something else! What a capture. Also cool seeing Dave Cone on the roster. I had forgotten that he came up with the Royals in '86. I'll never forget an excerpt in Jeff Pearlman's book "The Bad Guys Won" (all about the Mets). He basically details the horror that a female sports writer experienced as she entered the Mets clubhouse as Cone was demonstrating to the rest of the team how he could tie a 5 pound dumbbell to his (you-know-what) and drag it across the room.
bbcardz said…
Very nice post. Love all the media memorabilia and ticket souvenirs. I wonder how MLB attendance would be if Buffalo had won the franchise instead of Miami.
BaseSetCalling said…
Maybe Buffalo can hope that in 2021, the Jays step up with a thank you by playing a game or three there, _with_ fans.
Fuji said…
I wish I would have visited Buffalo in the early 90's for a Bisons game, one of those Ziggy's burritos, and of course taken advantage of the 4am closing times.

P.S. Those ticket stubs from that first game at Pilot Field are sweet.
bryan was here said…
What a cool story. I remember when they were the Indians Triple A team in '87 as well as throughout the aughts until they switched to Columbus. Looking at that roster from '86, I think every pitcher on the Bison staff had pitched in the majors,as well as quite a few of their position players. Steve Henderson and Jack Perconte stick out. Theo Shaw and Dwight Taylor for Omaha were both Indians farmhands in the early '80s.

Another former Bison was our good friend Jerry Reuss, who pitched for them in 1990 during his brief comeback, which culminated in a September call-up.
Nice post, and a great article on Buffalo baseball. I never knew there were rumblings of the Expos leaving Montreal that early.

I love the old Bisons roster and program "cards" -- lots of guys who had a cup of coffee or two with the White Sox in the late 80s.
Chris said…
So much great info and memorabilia here. I'm fascinated with major league baseball returning to Buffalo, even temporarily, and I do remember the city applied for an expansion team. Your article was so much more detailed and it was great to see that firsthand perspective. How disappointing that every major city you mentioned in that article except Buffalo did indeed get an MLB franchise.
Matt said…
Great post! The Bisons hold a special place in my heart, and I remember that push for an MLB team. (I still think they could support an actual MLB team - Buffalo fans are tenacious like that.)

Like you, I don't remember much about the few games I attended. My fondest memory might be actually sitting at a game and seeing Jim Kelly nearby.
Nick said…
Terrific post! I'd definitely be in support of a team like the Marlins or Rays moving to Buffalo. From what you've detailed here it sounds like it'd be a fine spot for major-league baseball.
gregory said…
Such a great post. Informative and also entertaining with the advertisements and souvenir shop from the good ol' days. Speaking of the souvenir shop, I'd like the replica jersey, the t-shirt, the wristbands, the patch, the mug...
Looks like you had a blast writing this post.
I loved reading your post about baseball in Buffalo. I went to a game there 20 years ago, and it still sticks with me as a fan of Minor League Baseball. The Bisons played the Otrawa Lynx on a Sunday afternoon. It was a huge crowd, they were loud, and seemed to know the players really well. The super fan guy gave Milton Bradley the arm pit point several times during the game. Milton struck out near the end of the game to end an inning, place went wild, like they knew all about him before the rest of us. They also booed Mark Whiten for not running out a ground ball where the first base dropped the throw, but had time to pick it up. I do not know if I would rank the ballpark high on my list of Minor Stadiums I have visited, but the fans were top 5, easily.
Jafronius said…
Real nice post, and the pictures are just as cool! Thanks for the interesting read.

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