Headline hysteria almost cost Buffalo its place on major league baseball's short list of National League expansion candidates this week, Bisons President Robert E. Rich Jr. said Wednesday.
Rich said reports based on his letter Saturday in The Buffalo News questioning the economic viability of a major league team here eventually wound up in the New York Times and in front of the National League selection committee.
The Times used an Associated Press story, based on the Saturday story in The News about the letter, and the story accurately reflected the letter's content, which did not indicate that Buffalo was withdrawing from the competition for a franchise.
But when the story appeared Sunday in the Times, the headline read: "Bowing Out in Buffalo."
"They (National League committee members) woke up, and the New York Times said Buffalo bowed out," Rich said. "We reassured them about what we said and sent them the original letter. It's a case study for Journalism 101." Rich said Buffalo would have been stricken from the list had National League representatives not called him for an explanation.
"I'm not saying The Buffalo News or the Times are wrong, but it is a graphic illustration of some of the problems in journalism," he said.
In a related matter, Rich said he can't meet with the Common Council next week to discuss the latest developments in his bid for a major league franchise. A Council committee recommended Wednesday that the full Council approve a $2.5 million design contract for improvements at Pilot Field on the condition that Rich meet with the Council.
The committee members had set Dec. 28 as a
tentative meeting date. Rich said a prior commitment prevents him from attending, but he added he is eager to talk to the Council after the first of the year.
"I'll be as candid as I can be, but ultimately they have to make the decision," he said. "It will be more informational than persuasive. I'll present the facts as I see them."
Ellicott Council Member James W. Pitts, who suggested the date, said later Wednesday that meeting after Jan. 1 should not cause a problem. The full Council probably won't consider the design contract until Jan. 8 at the earliest.
Rich's tale of how the Times' headline almost scuttled Buffalo's chances began with his decision to write his now well-quoted letter to The News. The letter discussed the economic hurdles of major league
baseball and said that while the Riches remained committed to obtaining a franchise, it would not be at any cost.
"We were having difficulties getting our point of view across," Rich said. "We had said from time to time, and especially with The Buffalo News, that our preference would be keeping baseball at Pilot Field affordable for families. For whatever reasons, it never came out in the press.
"I said, let's draft a letter in our own words, so it won't be interpreted or misinterpreted.
"Unknown to me, (News sports reporter) Bob DiCesare was assigned to do a story on this. Whoever wrote the headlines looked at DiCesare's article and said we had gloomy prospects."
The headline was: "Rich has gloomy outlook on expansion team here."
Rich continued, "The next day, (the Associated Press) picks up the story, and the New York Times looks at it and writes a story, 'Bowing Out in Buffalo.' "
The Times' story actually was a shortened version of the AP report.
Rich said it was ironic that his attempt to set the record straight with his own letter had such an unintended effect.
"Now, all of a sudden, there's a series of stories and headlines, and it translates into New York that we're bowing out," he said. "In the meantime, we had sent copies of our release to the expansion committee.
"Then we got a call (from National League committee members). 'Gee, are you bowing out?' We said, 'No, we're not bowing out,' and sent another copy of the letter we had written."
Rich said that with all the conflicting reports that have come out, it's easy to understand why the Council wants to meet with him.
"It's well within their purview to do that," he said. "Some people say the Council is cooling off in their support. The Council is reading the same papers and seeing the same reports.
"They know the economy and what's happening with free agents. It's very natural for them to ask the same questions we are asking ourselves."
Charles Rosenow, the city's lead official on the Pilot Field expansion, said Rich's willingness to talk helped persuade the Council's Economic Development Committee to move legislation needed for the $2.5 million contract.
The committee had planned to delay making a recommendation on the contract for two weeks, but Rosenow said Rich's candor changed that.
"It was approved subject to the announced willingness of Bob Rich to sit down with the Council and my willingness to schedule a meeting," Rosenow said.
Pitts described the upcoming discussions as a "summit meeting."
"The city has done a lot, and we're willing to do more," he said. "The question is, what is happening privately? Who is involved privately at this point, and are there things that would take place differently now that we're on the short list?"
Rosenow said he doubts Rich will go into detail on his private financing at the meeting. He also said major league baseball is unlikely to send a representative.
The session will be a helpful prelude to the resumption of formal negotiations between the city and the Bisons for a new Pilot Field lease in the event the city gets a major league franchise, Rosenow said. He said the two sides were "significantly" apart at the last session two weeks ago. One estimate at City Hall put the gap at $3 million.
"The city is looking for assurances in light of the recent letter by Rich in the paper that he is willing to proceed at (some) risk and what type of risk that is," Rosenow said. "We are willing to go ahead based on an equal risk."
North Council Member David P. Rutecki said the city should push to finish its lease negotiations with the Bisons within six to eight weeks. He said that would present a stronger case to the National League.
"While there are significant obstacles, I'm optimistic we'll find a solution to the city's position that local property tax dollars won't be used to subsidize baseball," Rutecki said.
Rosenow said the Council's meeting with Rich probably will be open to the public but may close its doors if private financial matters come up.