Winging It in Buffalo

I wrote this after first making a baseball trip to Buffalo in August of 2011.  With the Blue Jays’ AAA farm team now located there, the piece has new relevance, so I thought I’d revive it.  Besides, given how awful the big club has been so far, Buffalo may be the nearest place for Toronto fans to actually see something like major-league baseball being played. 

While thousands of Canadian baseball fans made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown yesterday to witness the Hall of Fame inductions of Roberto Alomar and Pat Gillick, two friends and I made a baseball trek ourselves on Sunday. Ted O’Reilly, Sam Levene and I shuffled off to Buffalo to take in a Bisons’ ball game.

Ted and I have been friends for years and he was the main instigator of the trip, put out the initial feelers, did the driving and knows the lay of the land, having made this trip a few times. For this I’m grateful – thanks Ted – it was a great time. High among the pleasures of the day was getting to know Sam Levene better. He and I met once very briefly in a jazz club years ago and we’ve been back and forth on email of late, but didn’t really know one another. As soon as I set eyes on him, I thought “Phil Rizzuto”. Like the Scooter, Sam is a small, cheerful, gentle man with wavy grey hair and glasses, though he isn’t given to calling anyone a “huckleberry”. Sam knows his baseball and jazz, is soft-spoken, good company and a veteran of baseball road trips. Once a year, he and some friends have set out by car for various minor- and major-league destinations – Syracuse, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago and so forth.

I’m thinking that this is the way to go – being unsatisfied with the local baseball experience offered at the Rogers Din-Centre here in Toronto, I think I’ll start to take myself off to where the real baseball is – elsewhere. Yes, there’s travel expense and time involved, but if yesterday was any indication, it’s a satisfying experience, seeing baseball in a setting where it’s front-and-centre, really counts for something and where the fans respond to the game itself without constant electronic distractions and prompting from some dystopian, Big Brother presence. Besides, I love road trips, especially when I don’t have to schlep a string bass around. If you’re in good company like yesterday, you can chat on the way or listen to some good music, enjoy the scenery as it passes by.

The Buffalo Bisons are the AAA affiliate of the New York Mets and would be playing against the Pawtucket Red Sox, long the top Boston farm team. The Bisons play in Coca-Cola Field, just off the highway past the border crossing. It’s fairly new and a lovely stadium, with a capacity of 20,000. This intimate size is part of its charm and the only thing that keeps it from being a major-league facility. From the outside, as Ted pointed out, it looks like a baseball stadium should, rounded and coliseum-like. The Buffalo economy makes the whole thing very affordable – a safe parking spot three minutes from the park cost five dollars – I just about keeled over, expecting it to be at least ten bucks. We didn’t have tickets, but no problem, we just strolled up to the ticket window and bought them. Ted recommended we go for first base side under the shade of the grandstand, as it was going to be a hot, sunny day. These good seats cost us all of $10.50 apiece. For the day’s baseball, I spent a grand total of $21.00 on a ticket, a hot dog and later, a beer for Ted. It was for me the bargain of the year and the whole thing was as easy as eating a grape.

Before scrounging for some grub, we went to find our seats in the park, it’s just beautiful. I experienced the same thrill as always when I first enter a real ballpark – no matter how many times or at what level – the sheer, vivid beauty of it, all crisp and laid out. The lines, the infield dirt being watered down and above all, the grass. It gets me every time, a “thrill of the grass” lump in the throat. It was so even and well-manicured that for a second, I thought it was turf and felt a small, brief pang of disappointment. But no, this was the real thing all right, a beautiful, deep, Fenway green. There’s just no substitute for real grass, just as there is no substitute for a real piano, live music, or Frank Sinatra. The sight-lines were great and the dimensions interesting – a short 325′ to left, a deep 404′ to center and 367′ to right. There was also a big, nifty scoreboard in center, which did what a scoreboard is supposed to do, namely keep you informed throughout the game. The count, the score, data on the players, all with a minimum of intrusion. There was a neat picnic area beyond the center-field fence and a lounge/bar area in right-field for those interested in doing some serious drinking with the game.

The concessions section had a nice, local, down-home feel, the prices were more reasonable and there wasn’t a large corporate or security presence. For a smoker like me, it was refreshing to be able to stretch my legs a couple of times during the game between innings, duck out for a quick butt and be re-admitted without it being a federal case. These are among the advantages of high-level baseball on a smaller scale, it’s friendlier, more human. Speaking of friendly, I enjoyed jawing with my fellow smokers from Buffalo – Buffalonians are really down-to-earth and welcoming – their city is now a downtrodden place, but it still has its pleasures, which they go for with some gusto. When they hear you’re from Toronto, they don’t look at you like you have three heads; Torontonians come there all the time and vice versa, it’s just up the road. The Blue Jays should really look into putting their farm team there, it would be a natural and attendance would be great. What the hell are they doing in Las Vegas anyway?

Not to be outdone by Cooperstown, damned if the Bisons didn’t have a pre-game induction ceremony of their own. Who knew that there was a Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame? One of the inductees would be former major-league catcher and current Yankees coach Tony Pena, who must have played for the Bisons on his way up to the majors. They had a special video feed on the scoreboard where Tony thanked everyone and apologized for being unable to attend. His son Tony Jr. pitches for the PawSox and accepted the plaque with a mercifully brief speech. The whole thing had a slightly cheesy but charming service-club feel, which was utterly ruined by the second inductee, a local broadcaster named Windbag Blah-blah-blah. He just droned on forever, telling about twenty corny stories, thanking a hundred people I never heard of. I’ve never seen a public speaker wear out his welcome so badly with a captive audience, I was praying for an errant warm-up toss from the bullpen to clock him one and knock him out cold. The collective thought bubble in the park read, “Shut up already and let’s get on with the game, for Chrissakes”.

So, the game started a little late, was (to put it kindly) very leisurely, but was a good one. The Bisons’ starting pitcher, Dylan Owen, worked really slowly – think Jason Frasor with a bad hangover, sometimes 25 or 30 seconds between pitches. Ted was on him about this immediately. Later in the game he was relieved by a pitcher named Michael O’Connor and we thought, great, he’s got to be faster. But no, he was even slower, like he went into a trance between pitches. “Throw one while we’re still young” I bellowed, but he didn’t seem to hear me.

Coming off three straight nights of gigging, I was badly under-slept, so the speeches and slow pace caused me to doze off for five or ten seconds a few times, only to be abruptly awoken by a sudden baseball noise – the crack of bat on ball, the thwock of a pitch into the catcher’s mitt, a sudden crowd roar on a base hit. I only hoped my companions didn’t notice; it was kind of embarrassing, me supposedly being a big baseball fan and all, dozing off here like Pappy Hornswoggle. It made me realize though, that the sounds of the game are much more immediate and audible in a smaller, outdoor space like this and if I’d had more sleep I would have been more riveted. To combat the drowsies, I left my seat not just for a smoke, but to stretch my legs and stroll around to various sections of the park. The sightlines were all good and once, I got down close to the field and could hear the whooosshh of an incoming fastball and the grunt of the batter as he swung and missed it. Great stuff.

The Bisons’ roster afforded some great new baseball names for my burgeoning collection. They have a pitcher named Taylor Tankersley and an infielder named Zach Lutz, who should be a figure skater, but neither played in the game. The starting lineup offered Jesus Feliciano, who has a lot to live up to with both names. Also a Josh Satin (he’s real smooth in the field) and a big Italian first baseman who reminded me of Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni, named Valentino Pascucci. Seriously. Sam commented that when Pascucci retires, he’ll no doubt open an Italian restaurant either called “Pascucci’s Pasta and Pizza” or “Val’s Place”. It’s a cert. The Bisons also have pitcher Gustavo Chacin on their roster, which had the three of us chuckling, remembering the marketing whiz who masterminded the “Chacin” cologne promotional giveaway for the short-tenured Jays’ pitcher. If any of you still have a sample lying around, I’m morbidly curious as to what it might smell like but then again, maybe not. The Bisons are managed by that old German devil Tim Teufel and their pitching coach is Ricky Bones who, I take it, found a way out of The Mob.

Apart from Satin, Pascucci and outfielder Jason Botts, the Bisons’ starters were six Latinos, two of whom were really small. Leadoff-hitting DH Luis Figueroa couldn’t have been more than 5’8″, 160 pounds. Ted pointed out that he was only about three inches taller than the PawSox catcher – when he was in his squat. The PawSox were a bigger and more powerful team, with some guys who have played with the big club, such as pitchers Hideki Okajima, Scott Aitchison, Felix Doubront.  Also, outfielder Daniel Nava and the Bunyanesque first baseman Lars Anderson, who both started in the game. They had some funny names too, like shortstop Brent Dlugach, pitcher Royce Ring and their DH was one Luis Exposito. We assumed that “Exposito” was a scoreboard typo, but the programme and PawSox website both list this as the guy’s real name. I had an uncle who insisted on pronouncing Phil Esposito’s name this way, but this was the real thing. They have a black reliever named Jason Rice and I wondered if he is the son of retired Sox outfielder Jim Rice. Most of all they have a big catcher named Ryan Lavarnway, who came into the game hitting about .380 with 13 homers and 68 RBI. With numbers like that, look for him in Fenway soon.

They say that the jump from AAA to the majors is the biggest one in pro ball, but this was high-level baseball nonetheless. The fact it wasn’t a major-league game didn’t detract from my enjoyment at all, especially given the fun surroundings. There were a couple of botched plays – a bad one in left by the Bisons in the first inning – and two errors at first base by the lumbering Anderson. There seemed to be an awful lot of foul balls and as I said, it was all too slow for my liking, but it was a good game, well played. The Bisons broke a late 4-4 tie with two runs, seemingly saving us from extra innings which we weren’t quite up for. But then damned if the Sox didn’t score three in the top of the ninth. They scratched out a run, then Andersen atoned for his two earlier errors with a monster two-run bomb to right. It served that blasted O’Connor right for pitching so slowly. The ball was hit so hard I couldn’t see it till it fell, way back into the stands. It was a home run in pretty much any park, had to have gone 420 feet and I can still hear the startling, ringing crack of it. The Bisons couldn’t do anything more against Rice, the Sox won 7-6 and we were out of there by about 4:45, a mere four hours after arriving.

Outside of the park, I now felt I knew Sam well enough to ask, “So Sam, has anyone ever told you that you look like Phil Rizzuto?” He laughed, a bit surprised. “Was Rizzuto as small as me?” Yep, holy cow, I think he was, you huckleberry.

Unless you’re a badly misplaced vegetarian, no trip to Buffalo is complete without a visit to the Anchor Bar, home of the original Buffalo-style chicken wing since 1964.  It was there we now headed with a purpose. I haven’t been since the early 1990s and it now showed signs of expansion and improvement, which filled me with a vague dread. Some things should remain unchanged, but I’m pleased to report that all is well. The walls are still covered with the old licence plates of customers from all over and the bar area still has that informal, Buffalo-working-stiff feel. You can order something other than chicken wings to eat here, but why would you? They’re just as I remember them, crispy, tangy and big. I couldn’t finish the twenty I ordered and took the left-overs home for my wife Anna, with something of an ulterior motive. She’d never had them before and loved them, which bodes well for future trips to Buffalo.

Outside of the restaurant as we were about to head home, Sam presented Ted and I with a thoughtful gift. He’d recorded an NPR show about Hank Aaron called “Hank and Me” and burned a copy onto a CD for each of us. After running through some great 1938 Duke Ellington air-checks Ted had brought along, we listened to the Aaron story on the way home. It was a very moving one about a young fan who idolized Hank when he played in Milwaukee and later wrote a fan-letter of support to Aaron when he was playing in Atlanta, chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record and receiving hate-mail and death-threats from various loonies. To the kid’s astonishment he received a heartfelt personal letter back from Hank himself, sincerely thanking him. They later went on to meet and became good friends. It was terrific, very touching. To round out a great baseball day we tuned in the Jays’ night game from Texas, a 3-0 victory and complete-game gem for Brett Cecil, which saw us through some nasty traffic on the way home.

The tough, slow trek home made for a long, tiring day and I was pretty wiped out by the time I got home. I felt very refreshed and renewed by it all the following day though and looking back on it, I highly recommend such a trip. Unlike Acton, it’s worth the drive to Buffalo.

© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

One thought on “Winging It in Buffalo

  1. marc, aaron and I took summer road trips in the 90s to several minor league teams – some really wonderful baseball moments were had. We saw teams with great names like the mud hens, greensboro bats, knoxville smokies, and so many others. The games were entertaining, including the cheezy between-innings stuff. It was baseball at its best, to me.

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