120 and Still Swinging.
The Buffalo Bisons’ Longevity
by Doug Carpenter
Have you ever seen the movie Field of Dreams? I hope you have. A lot of people think it’s one of the best films ever made. It’s about baseball. That’s the “field” part. But it’s the “dreams” part that seems to touch and inspire so many people… even those who’ve never watched a game in their lives.
In the film, Kevin Costner plays a relatively uncomplicated guy named Ray Kinsella who, at the urging of a mysterious, whispering voice that only he can hear, levels the corn on his Iowa farm and builds, of all unlikely things, a baseball diamond. After the dramatically surreal events of the rest of the film have finished unfolding and reality regains control of his life, Ray finds himself wondering exactly what he’s going to do with the ball field that now sits where his crop used to be.
To his wife and young daughter, the answer seems simple. Invite people… anybody… everybody… to come see it, and charge them admission. Recognizing the understandable skepticism in Ray’s reaction, co-star James Earl Jones’s character speaks one of the film’s most memorable and moving passages.
“Ray,” he says, “people will come. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. ‘Of course, we won't mind if you look around,’ you'll say. ‘It's only $20 per person.’ They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it is money they have and peace they lack.
“And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces.
“People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field. This game. It's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and could be again. Oh... people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”
Sports lore has long held that the game of baseball was invented in 1839 by Abner Doubleday down in Cooperstown, New York — not coincidentally the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Later research has shifted that honor to Alexander Cartwright, whose team, the New York Knickerbocker Club, is believed to have played the first official game of modern baseball in 1845.
Whoever deserves the credit, the accomplishment secured for baseball the all-important bragging rights among America’s big three sports as its first true national pastime. It easily edges out basketball — invented in 1891 by James Naismith and first played professionally Trenton, New Jersey, in 1896; as well as football — the rugby-inspired gridiron grapple in which pro teams first faced off in 1895 in the town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania… a full three years before the first basketball league, the National League, was formed in 1898.
Of course, by that time, here in Buffalo we’d been playing professional baseball for more than 20 years. Since August 3, 1877 to be exact, the day that the pioneering independent Buffalo Bisons team battled Rochester through 10 innings to a 0-0 tie. It was just the beginning of a great Buffalo tradition that, 128 years later, is still going strong.
There seems to be something about baseball that gets under people’s skin. And not just the splinters off a cracked bat or the Neatsfoot Oil you used to work into the pocket of your glove back in the day. But the traditions of the game. The love of its movements and its strategy. Its plays and its pride. The kind of devotion and sense of destiny that gets passed down from father to son to grandson.
If anyone was born to be part of this game — and, even more specifically, the Buffalo Bisons, it’s Mike Buczkowski. A 19-year Bisons veteran, Buczkowski has served as the club's General Manager for the past 12… longer than anyone in the franchise’s 120 seasons. But it was even further back than that that his family connection to the team was established.
From 1935 to 1937, back in the teams Offermann Stadium days, Mike's grandfather, Eugene “Huck” Geary, played shortstop for the Bisons, going on from there to play in the Major Leagues as a Pittsburgh Pirate from ’42 to ’43. Buczkowski says he earned the nickname with his Huck Finn-like habit of hanging his glove from the bat perched on this shoulder as he walked to the Cazenovia Park ball fields of his youth.
Add to that baseball bloodline the fact that his Dad is in the Western New York Softball Hall of Fame and it’s no surprise that while growing up in South Buffalo, Buczkowski dreamed of one day being part of the game himself. Following three years of varsity baseball at Bishop Timon High School, however, it was college-level play… where, he says wryly, “they had pitchers who could throw both curve balls and fast balls…” that put him on a slightly different path.
With a Canisius Communications degree and an ambition to become a sports broadcast announcer, he went looking for a way to break into the game and in 1987 found it with the young Buffalo Bisons organization, which only recently had dramatically rekindled the city’s love affair with professional baseball by returning it to the ranks of cities with AAA teams.
In the years that followed, Buczkowski himself rose through the ranks, serving first as Assistant, then Coordinator, and then Manager of Public Relations, rising finally to Vice-President and General Manager. “It’s what I always dreamed of doing,” he says. “And believe me, I know how lucky I am, to be a kid who loves baseball and grows up to be General Manager of his hometown baseball team.” From the record of his time with the team he loves, it’s a blessing he appears to have paid back with interest.
During his tenure as GM, the Bisons have led the league in attendance seven times, regularly surpassing the one million mark and frequently outdrawing four or five Major League teams. And if you’re really into statistics — and what true baseball fan isn’t — the Bisons are 823-608 (.575), have made the playoffs eight times in the last ten seasons and have won three league championships. (And that was against pitchers who throw both curve balls and fast balls.)
Whether it’s runs on the scoreboard or fans in the stands, baseball is, inevitably, a game of numbers. And although Buczkowski still remembers with fondness “when baseball was still a game,” he takes pride in what the Bisons have accomplished… synergizing the best of both worlds by giving Western New York fans competitive contemporary baseball played in a ball park that recaptures the feeling of a simpler time.
“That’s what I think a lot of people like about Minor League baseball,” he observes. “The people who come here — especially the older fans — say that this is the way Major League baseball used to be. The stadiums were intimate. You were close to the field. You were close to the players. And the players weren’t making millions of dollars. They played because they loved the game.”
Fans of Buffalo Bison teams from days gone by still remember players like that. They’re hard to forget. They were our personal “boys of Summer,” making headlines and touching hearts. Buczkowski talks about the great names from the early years with an appropriate reverence.
The amazing versatility of Ollie Carnegie, who during his 12 years with the Bisons in the ’30s and ’40s played in 1273 games, racking up 1362 hits, 249 doubles, 258 home runs and 1044 RBIs. They’re all Bison records that Buczkowski considers unlikely will ever be broken.
And then there are players who, by even more than their on-field performance, leave an impression that simply never wears off. Players like Luke Easter. A Bison during Buffalo’s burgeoning 1950s, #6 was a big man with a big smile and a big heart. His style of play was pretty big, too, testament to that being his famous over-the-center field scoreboard homer at Offermann Stadium in 1957. It was a feat that was never matched… except by him. He did it again that same year.
The legends and traditions of Bison baseball have followed the team from home to home. From the original Bison Stadium at Michigan and Ferry to Offermann Stadium, until its much-lamented demise in 1960. And later to the not-quite-right fit of a venue better-suited to football, War Memorial Stadium… which over the years had actually gone by a lot of different names, including Roesch Memorial Stadium, Grover Cleveland Stadium and Civic Stadium. By the end, though, it was affectionately known to nearly everyone as “the Rockpile.”
And finally, after the exiled years in Winnipeg, Canada, in the 1970s, home to Buffalo to ultimately take up residence in what has turned out to be one of the city’s most widely-respected accomplishments — a new downtown ball field, today’s Dunn Tire Park… or Pilot Field or North Americare Park, depending how you remember it from once upon a time. Keep in mind, however, that at its inception, this now-familiar, highly-visible landmark was in many ways quite revolutionary, providing the catalyst for some significant national trends in both sports and urban architecture.
Jonathan Dandes remembers the excitement. It began with the unveiling of Buffalo’s new ball park — which at the time was the largest Minor League stadium project in baseball history and the first new ball park to be built in an urban setting in generations. “You could say that the architectural firm that designed our stadium were the forefathers of the urban renewal approach to building ball parks in central city environments,” notes Dandes, currently President of Rich Baseball Operations.
He says that based on the reaction to its new park, Buffalo had obviously captured the attention and the imagination of both baseball fans and design enthusiasts. And the consensus was that we had created an architectural gem, one which drew visitors from across the country to Buffalo for a closer look at how we’d gotten it so right.
With momentum from their Buffalo success, Dandes says the firm went on to design similar parks for many other cities, including Camden Yards in Baltimore, Coors Field in Denver, Comiskey Park in Chicago and Jacobs Field in Cleveland. “As you travel around the country, you can see in whose image all these other parks were created.” For a Minor League city, Buffalo had clearly had a major impact on the face of the game.
But that wasn’t the end of the excitement, because over the next few years, Buffalo became the focus of intense national attention as a potential location for a Major League Baseball expansion team. When the final franchise assignments were made in 1991, the new clubs went to Denver and Miami. In the meantime, however, Buffalo had a welcome chance to shine, drawing upbeat media attention from the likes of ABC’s Good Morning, America and USA Today.
Putting aside the understandable disappointment over the “road not taken” to the Major League, the Bison organization takes great pride in what it has achieved. When the Rich family bought the AA Bisons in 1983 and then secured and relocated the AAA franchise from Wichita two years later, their goal, says Jon Dandes, was to create “a venue for family entertainment.”
Over the now 20 years that the modern-era Buffalo Bisons have been a fixture of the Western New York cultural landscape, the organization’s successful efforts to fulfill that mission have expanded well beyond the team’s consistently stellar performance both as a fan favorite and a league leader into a wide range of value-added events. These include operating the popular Pettibones Restaurant at the ball park as well as hosting the National Chicken Wing Festival and the well-attended Taste of Country concert series.
It’s a strategy that Buczkowski believes strikes a positive chord that fans appreciate at a time when the sport of baseball is already weighed down by enough negatives. Over the years, he reflects, the game has weathered its share of beleaguered seasons, from the cancelled World Series of 1994 to the current controversy over player steroid use to the on-going debate about whether dollars have become more important to the game than homers.
Buczkowski thinks that if you ask most baseball fans, “they’d much rather be talking about who’s going to win the American League East or if the Red Sox are going to be able to repeat this year. Not how much money Alex Rodriguez is making.”
“If you had talked to my parents or my grandparents, it would’ve been ‘Who’s going to bat lead-off?’ or ‘How’s that new, young kid is going to do?’ or ‘Think Hank Aaron’s going to break the record?’ It would’ve been about who was going to win and who was going to lose, not about the money.”
Valuing the traditions of the game, of course, does not means losing sight of its future and the challenges that lie ahead. The reality is that, by its very nature, baseball is more resistant to technological tinkering than, say, games like football or hockey. So while you may be able to computer-generate a virtual first down line on a televised football field or implant a microchip that will trail a streak of light behind a hockey puck as it speeds down the ice, baseball is simply baseball.
But even though the basic elements of the game… bats, balls, strikes, outs, and the occasional highly-animated disagreement punctuated by dirt-kicking… Buczkowski says tomorrow’s baseball may not necessarily be the same as the game your Father played. Like anything else, baseball is destined to evolve.
Along with considering such changes as elevating the pitcher’s mound and expanding the strike zone, he says that this year the game will be trying out a new rule requiring a batter to keep at least one foot in the batter’s box once he steps up to the plate. Cutting down on time-consuming rituals like cleat-cleaning and grip-checking should, in theory, speed up the game’s traditionally leisurely pace… a move likely to be favorably received by fans accustomed to life in the cyber-accelerated 21st century.
To be able to look back over Buffalo’s 120 seasons of professional baseball and find so much to celebrate says a lot, Buczkowski believes, about both the team and the town it plays for. “There’s definitely something magic about this place and what we’re doing, and I think it does have a lot to do with our stadium and our fans.” It also creates the kind of reputation that firmly secures Buffalo’s place on baseball’s map.
“If you’re going to play triple-A baseball,” he says, “the place you want to be is Buffalo.” And no wonder, he adds, considering that “last year on Opening Day of the 2004 season, there were 71 former Buffalo Bisons on Major League team rosters.”
Apparently, when it comes to taking pride in what we have, what we’ve done and what we’re capable of, Buffalo really is in a league of its own.
© 2005 Doug Carpenter
|photos by www.cherylgorski.com|