The baseball program in the Buffalo Public Schools -- long a poor stepchild to more affluent suburban districts -- aims to eliminate that gap thanks to a multimillion-dollar commitment from the Buffalo Bisons.
"Our goal is to revive baseball within our city schools and to make this the best high school baseball program in the Northeastern United States," Mindy Rich, Bisons co-owner, said Monday.
The Bisons plan to upgrade facilities for the 12 Buffalo high school teams, supply equipment and uniforms, hire assistant coaches, provide transportation to and from games, run skill camps, sponsor summer leagues, give students greater access to Dunn Tire Park and involve Bisons coaches and players in the improvement effort, said Bob Rich Jr., who owns the Bisons along with his wife, Mindy.
While costs have not been finalized, he called the initiative a "multimillion-dollar, multiyear investment."
In addition, New Era Cap Co. said Monday it would help the Bisons fund a sweeping renovation of Johnnie B. Wiley Stadium, the main playing field for city high school teams; provide custom-made caps for all 12 schools; and have its employees help with field improvement efforts.
Those projects will cost "tens of thousands of dollars," John J. DeWaal, New Era's vice president for brand communication, said after a news conference in Pettibones Grille.
After decades in which city teams played in often-makeshift and substandard conditions, the commitments from the Bisons and New Era give the schools the opportunity to catch up with traditionally far more sophisticated suburban baseball programs, said David B. Thomas, athletic director for the Buffalo Public Schools.
"I can see us turning the corner," he said.
With the Buffalo high school baseball season opening this week, some of the improvements will be immediate, while others will take time.
The Bisons said they would:
Improve drainage at Johnnie B. Wiley Stadium, at Jefferson Avenue and Best Street, and install fences, dugouts and batting cages. Improvements also will be made at other diamonds used by city high school teams.
*Fund the hiring of assistant coaches for all 12 city teams, provide equipment and cover transportation costs to and from games.
*Establish a summer league for high school players, run skill-based camps for both coaches and players, make Dunn Tire Park facilities available and involve Bisons players and coaches in instructional activities.
*Retain Paul J. Smaldone, longtime baseball coach at Canisius High School, to oversee the Bisons' "adoption" of the high school baseball program. Smaldone is the retired chief clerk of Erie County Surrogate's Court.
School Superintendent James A. Williams -- who already has sparked improvements in other sports -- and Mayor Byron W. Brown said the initiatives couldn't be more timely, since the percentage of major league baseball players who are African-American has dropped dramatically in the last few decades. Many of the Buffalo schools' athletes are African-Americans.
Williams and Brown also raised the hope that more Buffalo students would attend college on baseball scholarships.
But baseball players from Emerson Commons, City Honors and Hutchinson-Central Technical High Schools who attended Monday's news conference seemed more enthusiastic about the immediate prospect of playing on better fields with better equipment and amenities.
"It's going to be a big improvement," said Jarren Porter, a senior who plays third base for Emerson. "It makes me feel I can be on top of my game now."