It's the end of the fifth inning at Coca-Cola Field and all eyes shifted toward the outfield. On to the warning track steps the big four – Chicken Wing, Atomic Wing, Blue Cheese and, as the announcer proclaims, "Everybody's favorite CELERY!"
The characters raced toward right field, round through the Buffalo Bisons' bullpen and down the first-base line toward the finish.
Everyone was cheering for Celery, but alas, Celery doesn’t win. Celery is distracted by a gimmick. Or stops to have a one-person dance party. Or falls down. Or, infamously, was shoved by Chicken Wing on Aug. 3, 2013, in what should have been a victory for Celery on Celery's own bobblehead night.
After seven seasons of racing – and seven seasons of losing – the most popular character (mascot, baseball player or otherwise) will be retiring. Celery announced retirement plans last year making 2017 a goodbye tour. The last race for Celery will be Aug. 30, when the Bisons celebrate the 30th anniversary of the downtown ballpark.
"To be honest, it’s been a whirlwind of a year," Celery said in an email interview with The Buffalo News. "I’ve been tremendously humbled by the amazing support I’ve gotten from all the great Bisons fans. The signs, the posts on social media, even the hugs I get when I’m hanging around the ballpark! It’s all made me feel so special!"
Heading into Friday, Celery sported a record of 0-444. Celery "the loveable loser" would like to lose that moniker.
"I've never finished worse than fourth in the race. Come on, top four!" Celery said. "Listen, I haven’t been able to get the one victory. Yet. And you never know, I’ve still got until Aug. 30. It only takes one victory, just one win, and that label can be gone forever."
The one victory Celery is searching for comes in the Wing, Cheese, Celery (WCC) Race, typically held after the fifth inning at Buffalo Bisons games, although on Friday nights and for special events the race is held after the game. The WCC Race began in 2011 and Chicken Wing has created a dynasty. Chicken Wing won the opening campaign with 41 race wins, a single-season record that still stands.
Atomic Wing joined the competition in 2012, but Chicken Wing won a second-straight race series title.
In 2013, Blue Cheese mounted a late-season run to claim the season title and snap Chicken Wing's championship run.
The title went back to Chicken Wing in 2014 along with the honor of becoming the first mascot to reach 100 career wins. Chicken Wing officially claimed dynasty status with another championship in 2015.
Last season saw several upheavals in the beloved ballpark race. Atomic Wing had an 18-game win streak but then received a three-race suspension after being found to have used an "illegal condiment" – a special hot sauce that gave Atomic Wing an unfair advantage.
After Chicken Wing rebounded to take the series for the third straight year, Celery announced 2017 would be the stalk's final year of racing.
"At the end of the 2016 season. I just got to a place where I was like, ‘There’s only so much a vegetable can do!’ I just began to wonder if this race wasn’t for me," Celery said. "I mean, it’s Wings and Bleu Cheese, right? That’s the main dish! Does anyone order Celery and Bleu Cheese with a side of Wings?"
Wins and losses, and a loss of confidence aside, Celery developed and maintains a huge fan following at Coca-Cola Field complete with T-shirts and celery-themed hats. Fans loved Celery, in large part because Celery always lost. It just felt, so, well, so Buffalo sports. Celery is the underdog and as one reader noted on Twitter, "The underdog is the epitome of being a fan of Buffalo sports."
Losing, quite frankly, is part of Celery's charm, even among the younger set.
Season ticket holder Jessica Penders of West Seneca said that her 10-year-old daughter, Emma, hopes for, but never expects, a win.
"She does know that Celery is not going to win," Penders said. "But Celery always looks to be trying hard, giving a best effort. Even after another loss, Celery never throws a hissy fit, like some of the baseball players can do. I think that's what she likes about it."
While Celery's plight can help teach the life lesson of giving your best, time and again, even without a prize at the end, there's also just something fun about rooting for the vegetable. And not all vegetables are easy to root for. Just ask Nate Oliver, 37, of Williamsville.
"You could say I'm a picky eater, especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables, but I have loved celery all my life," Oliver said. "I am bummed about the retirement of Celery. For a guy who has limited likes in terms of vegetables and food in general, I was naturally inclined to cheer for Celery at Bisons' games. Celery is my favorite vegetable hands-down. Always has been.
"My pickiness in foods carries over into not liking blue cheese either, so I could never cheer on Blue Cheese in the races. Being from Buffalo, everybody likes wings. I am no exception. But I have always marched to the beat of my own drum, and I like the simple things in life. You cannot get much simpler than celery."
The popularity has been touching to Celery.
"When you are just a seedling barely sticking out of the ground, you dream of one day being able to be a part of a race like this and making people happy," Celery said. "I’ve just tried to reward the fans that have made my dreams come true with 100 percent effort every night. Buffalo is the City of Good Neighbors and we always support each other and pick others up when they’re down. And, I’ve needed my fair share of pickups! The love I’ve gotten from Bisons fans means so much to me and I hope, in this new role at the ballpark, I will be able to show them I feel the same way about them."
New role you say? Indeed. Celery will continue to be at the ballpark in 2018 but will not be a participant in the race. So Celery claimed.
Is this really retirement for Celery?
"Have you ever known a vegetable to lie?" Celery joked. "Honestly, I think this is just the right time for me. The desire to compete will always be a part of who I am, but being able to sit back and enjoy future WCC Races as well as fun-filled days and nights at the ballpark by relaxing along with Bisons fans, that sounds pretty good to me! "
Along with celebrating Celery, the Bisons will celebrate their 30th season at Coca-Cola Field (nee: Pilot Field) on Aug. 30. Along with postgame fireworks, the team will have promotions throughout the game, including $1 hot dogs. The first 3,000 fans will receive a 2004 Championship Banner Replica Giveaway. Players will wear throwback jerseys to the first year of the downtown park.
Ticket packages, which include two game tickets, two hot dogs, two soft drinks and two tickets to Opening Day 2018, are available for $30.