Washington and Swan.
Those words describe a street corner in downtown Buffalo, New York where a magnificent baseball stadium can be found. If you stand on that corner, you’re right behind home plate of the ballpark with the third base side of the stadium running down Swan Street while the first base side is on Washington Street. It should also be noted that Oak Street runs past left field towards the ramp to I-90, a great view that fans have at what is now called Sahlen Field, the home of the Buffalo Bisons, the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The 2020 minor league baseball season was cancelled because of COVID-19 meaning there would be no Bisons baseball for the first time in 42 years. However, the ballpark is going to be alive this summer and fall as the temporary home of the Blue Jays because the team is barred from playing at Rogers Centre in Toronto as a result of the virus. The Blue Jays looked at a number of different options but they will call Buffalo home after the ballpark will get some enhancements that will bring it up to Major League specifications.
Words cannot express how happy I am for the city of Buffalo and the great baseball fans there because there was a time when Buffalo had a dream of getting their own big-league team when MLB announced expansion plans for the 1993 season. The Bisons played for many years at War Memorial Stadium, the former home of the Buffalo Bills and the stadium where Roy Hobbs blasted a pennant winning home run for the New York Knights off of the light tower in the movie “The Natural”. But to have a chance at the big leagues and, at the very least, become one of the great minor league franchises in the country, the Bisons needed a new home.
Why is this story so meaningful to me?
I was a student at Buffalo State College from 1985 to 1989 and majored in broadcasting. Because I worked at my college radio station WBNY, I had the chance to cover Bisons games and that afforded me the opportunity to create some great relationships with so many people in the organization. I once left War Memorial Stadium after a game when it was pouring but I had to walk a good distance to Elmwood Avenue where I could wait to get a bus back to the Buffalo State campus. Mike Billoni, then the team’s General Manager, was in his car and saw me walking up the block. He drove up next to me and said “Peter it’s pouring…get in the car and I’ll take you back to Buffalo State.”
I’ll always remember that.
I’ll also remember the day in 1987 when I arrived at my college radio station to do some sports updates when someone gave me a note that Pete Weber, the radio voice of the Bisons and a sports talk-show host in Buffalo, had called looking for me. I called Pete back and he told me that the Bisons were looking for an intern that would help with cataloguing the teams videotape collection (yeah videotape back then) and to assist in the press box on gamedays. Pete, currently the radio play by play voice of the NHL’s Nashville Predators, thought that I would be perfect for the role. I accepted the internship and that meant that I would be with the organization in the months leading up to the opening of the new downtown ballpark, originally called Pilot Field.
(Courtesy Buffalo Bisons)
I initially began my internship when the team offices were in a building above a restaurant in Buffalo before moving to their spanking new offices at Pilot Field. When I completed the cataloguing off all of those videotapes that had news reports, complete game broadcasts, interviews, and features, I transitioned to my next role as a media relations intern. I reported directly to then media relations director Mike Buczkowski who would go on to take over for Mike Billoni as the team’s General Manager and is now the President of Rich Baseball Operations, the group that owns the Bisons and two other minor league teams. I assisted in the writing of the 1988 Bisons media guide and all these years later it’s still cool to see my name in the acknowledgements.
I should point out how great the whole organization was to me back then including owner Bob Rich and his wife Mindy and so many others in the front office. They made me feel like family.
It was such an exciting time in Buffalo when the ballpark opened on April 14th, 1988. The day before, many Bisons fans showed up at the airport to welcome the team home from their season opening road trip and I went there to interview players for my college radio station. Later that day and into the evening, the team worked out for the first time at Pilot Field and I was in the ballpark stuffing media packets in commemorative plastic envelopes for the full house of reporters expected the next day for the opener.
19,500 fans packed Pilot Field for that first game in 1988, the first of many sellouts in that ballpark over the years. So many people in the baseball world raved of how great Pilot Field was and the efforts of the Bisons organization as well as how passionate the fans were about baseball was recognized by MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti. The belief was that since the beautiful new ballpark had an “old school” feel to it with the potential to add a third level that would increase the capacity, that Giamatti would lean towards Buffalo for one of those two 1993 expansion teams.
Sadly, Giamatti passed away on September 1st, 1989 and with his passing, Buffalo’s dream of getting a Major League club also died. Fay Vincent became the new Commissioner and the 1993 expansion teams were the Colorado Rockies and the Florida (now Miami) Marlins. After my time at Buffalo State, I was fortunate to start my career in sports back home in New York City and on Long Island where I’ve resided since 1979. But during those four years in college, I grew to admire the city of Buffalo and the great sports fans that they have. It saddened me that the Bisons didn’t get to the big leagues, but to me they were big league in every way.
And that brings us to today as the Bisons organization gets the ballpark ready to host the Blue Jays. Sahlen Field, which started as Pilot Field and then became North AmeriCare Park, Dunn Tire Park and Coca-Cola Field, is going to be a great home for the Blue Jays. This arrangement is also going to be wonderful for the city of Buffalo and the Western New York region with regards to revenue for hotels and restaurants and just the number of eyeballs all over North America that will be on the city this season.
It’s great for Buffalo that they will finally get to host Major League Baseball but I still can’t help but have a feeling of sadness for the fans in Western New York. Under the current public gathering rules in New York State, fans will not be allowed to attend the games. There will eventually be a time when fans of the Yankees and Mets will be able to be at their ballparks again, but the fans in Buffalo won’t be able to see the Blue Jays games at Sahlen Field unless the COVID circumstances change.
(Photo courtesy of Harry Scull, Jr.)
I remember on the day that Pilot Field (I’ll always call it Pilot Field) opened in 1988, the late former New York Governor Mario Cuomo was there and was part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony. He was so proud of Buffalo for what they accomplished and I can’t help but think that his son Andrew, the current Governor of New York, has to remember his father’s words.
“This is a proud day for Buffalo certainly, for Western New York of course, and for the entire state of New York,” said Mario Cuomo on April 14th, 1988 near the corner of Washington and Swan.
“When you cut this ribbon, you cut this ribbon to the future and you’re going to have the best minor-league stadium in the United States of America but one thing is clear…Buffalo never settled for minor leagues. Buffalo is a Major League city and I want to come back when we have the franchise for the American or the National League. I’ll be here then too.”
(Mario Cuomo and Buffalo Mayor Jim Griffin)
Mario Cuomo passed away on July 1st, 2015 but he will certainly be looking down on the ballpark he helped build when the Blue Jays take to the field for the first time. But more importantly, his son now has a chance, if the circumstances allow, to really make it a dream come true for baseball fans in Buffalo. In my heart of hearts, I hope that there is a chance for some fans to go to a few of the games. I know I’ll go to see the Yankees and Mets again someday, but who knows if Buffalo will ever have this chance again.
If the numbers continue to go in the direction that they are going, I hope that Governor Cuomo can find it in his heart to, maybe even for the final home series, give the fans in Buffalo a chance to experience Major League Baseball in their city. Maybe not 19,000, but a handful of socially-distanced fans to complete the dream that began in the late 80’s and led to the construction of a wonderful ballpark.
The City of Buffalo had a saying of “Talking Proud” in the 1980’s.
Buffalo has always been a proud city and now you certainly have another reason to be proud!
My family and I were supposed to come up and visit this summer but that was put on hold. The plan is to come next summer and that trip will hopefully include a Bisons game and some wings at Anchor Bar.
I can’t wait to be back at the corner of Washington and Swan to be at a ballgame at Pilot….okay I’ll say it…Sahlen Field!