The 25th anniversary season at Coca-Cola Field would be a special one on its own merits. But throw in some national attention come July and the Buffalo Bisons have plenty of hopes for a big season on the field and a better one at the box office.
The home opener is Wednesday at 2:05 against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees and it begins a nine-game homestand. The Bisons play 78 games downtown this year rather than the usual 72 because six games against Scranton will be played here, with Buffalo batting as the visiting team, due to the season-long renovation of PNC Field in Moosic, Pa.
In addition to those 78 dates, there will be two other ones the team has circled on its calendar for nearly two years. The 25th annual Triple-A All-Star Game, which was first played in Buffalo on July 13, 1988, will be held again here on July 11.
Back then, the game was the only official event. Now, there will be a Triple-A Home Run Derby on July 9, a gala gathering at Shea's Buffalo on July 10 and a luncheon at the Adam's Mark on July 11 featuring Hall of Famer Tom Seaver that is already close to a sellout.
"It's so much more than the game now," said Bisons Vice President/General Manager Mike Buczkowski. "In 1988, we just had guys fly in the night before, and we did a little home run derby before the game. Now it's really a three-day celebration of Triple-A baseball with most of the executives from the teams all coming to see your ballpark."
The Triple-A Home Run Derby will include appearances by the Famous Chicken.
If Bisons slugger Valentino Pascucci is still here by that point in the season, it stands to reason that he will be one of the participants.
Pascucci hit 38 home runs in Buffalo the last two years and is one of just three Bisons (the others are Jeff Manto and Dusty Wathan) to have a three-homer game downtown.
"Home run derbies are always fun, even the ones here with the Buffalo team," Pascucci said, referring to the club's annual postgame August event.
"Last year we had a good one I ended up winning. Anytime we have a home run derby, hopefully I get my name in there."
The flagpoles outside the ballpark on the Swan Street Plaza are adorned with the All-Star Game logo and the team's "Simply the Best" 25th anniversary logo, a tribute to the Tina Turner classic that has been played following the last out of Buffalo victories for many years.
Tickets for the Triple-A All-Star Game are $25 and the Home Run Derby is $15. All seats are reserved and are the same price regardless of location in the ballpark. There are discounts for groups, and individual fans can also purchase a package for both events for $35.
The 25th anniversary theme will be the major one throughout the season, and it fills the club's promotional lineup. There will be fan balloting online at Bisons.com to select the "Bisons 25 Seasons Team" in conjunction with the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame committee, and fans are being asked to submit their favorite ballpark photos from seasons past to firstname.lastname@example.org to be used on the BisonsTV HD board.
On Saturday, the anniversary of the first game ever at the ballpark (a 1-0 win over Denver on April 14, 1988), the team will begin handing out a five-part commemorative coin series depicting a top image from the park's history. Additional "25th Season Saturdays" to feature the other coins will be May 19, June 16, July 21 and Aug. 14.
The annual Youth Jersey Day giveaway (June 28) will feature the red, white and blue top the team wore in 1988. The 25th anniversary logo will be featured on Cap Day (June 30) and City Hall will be the subject of the popular replica figurine giveaway (July 18). The Earl of Bud, the dancing beer vendor who was a ballpark staple in the '80s and '90s, will make a special appearance on Aug. 23 as part of his Bobblehead Night. The seasonlong tribute culminates with a special 25th Season Celebration on Aug. 25, with guest appearances, prizes and a special postgame fireworks display.
"This season has been a lot of fun in preparing for," Buczkowski said. "Any time you reach a milestone season like this, you naturally look back at all the great things that have happened in 25 years. There's things we're doing research for and you see the articles and pictures. and you really start to go down memory lane and remember those players, remember those events."
Fans used to shopping at the Sabres Store in First Niagara Center or even at the Rochester Red Wings team shop in Frontier Field have often wondered why the Bisons' Batter's Box gift shop on the ballpark's third-base side was so dinky.
The team took steps to alleviate that this year by building a second shop on the first-base side that's 50 percent larger. On busy nights, both will be open and stocked with the team's new line of 25th anniversary and Triple-A All-Star Game merchandise.
"The gift shop we've had at third base is not big and we've known that," Buczkowski said. "When this ballpark was built, there wasn't yet the big boom of minor-league baseball merchandise that there is now. Having another full-service gift shop is a big change."
Back in 1988, then-Pilot Field was one of the first ballparks to go with a food court concept. It's been copied everywhere since and the Bisons have continued to tweak the menu. This year, the emphasis is on local products.
Sahlen's will take over as the hot dog vendor at the behest of fans. Charlie the Butcher will be serving beef on weck at Section 103 and in party areas. Wardynski's will take over the Italian sausage, and Consumer's Beverage will open a new craft brew corner at Section 122 to expand on the concept that debuted last year. There are also several new entrees on the menu at Pettibone's Grille.
"Food has always been a huge part of what we've tried to do with the ballpark experience," Buczkowski said. "And I think it's natural if we're all about Buffalo that we try to incorporate the great array of foods that we have here."
>Elsewhere in the park
Just in time for the home opener, the Bisons have wrapped up work on a new home plate netting system. It will be 15 feet higher than the old net, which has been replaced a few times since the ballpark's opening, and will not have a horizontal netting over the seats behind home plate.
Two results: Folks on the club level who regularly duck screamers fouled back should be a lot less in play because many of the balls will gently hit the net, and those seated on the 100 level behind the plate will have to keep their head up for those lazy foul pops that have landed on the net over their heads all these years. You can make the play or maybe grab the ricochet, too.
The new net is what's used in places like Citi Field, Nationals Park and Atlanta's Turner Field. It's light (62 pounds), is stronger than steel and will cut down on bracketing that serves as obstructions for fans and television cameras.
The team also made a $50,000 investment to completely renovate 17 suites on the club level with new furniture, decor and flooring. The multiroom themed party suites remain popular and available on a game-by-game basis.