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Savoring a magical moment; Even though the downtown ballpark is no longer a field of dreams, baseball's annual spring ritual never fails to stir excitement

So much has changed in 24 years for the Buffalo Bisons.

Pilot Field has been renamed three times, to North AmericaCare Park, Dunn Tire Park and now Coca-Cola Field. For a while, it didn't even have a name.

The stylish left-hander who threw out the first pitch to open the ballpark April 14, 1988, then-Mayor Jimmy Griffin, is gone now, with a statue of his likeness set to be dedicated at the ballpark late this summer.

And the dream of major league baseball that fueled much of the energy and big crowds in the first years of the ballpark has vanished, gone for good.

But on Tuesday, some of the buzz returned to the downtown ballpark, just hours before baseball's magical annual moment:

Opening Day -- today's 2:05 p.m. home opener against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.

The Bisons are expecting a crowd of close to 10,000, with the National Weather Service calling for a strong chance of rain or even snow, and a high temperature in the low 40s.

Tuesday was a day for the usual last-minute tweaking, including the hanging of banners, some touch-up painting, the moving of new furniture into the suites and the testing of motion-detector dispensers for paper towels.

And, of course, the grounds crew was applying its final touches to the unseasonably green field.

Sounds pretty ho-hum.

But up in his second-floor office, overlooking the diamond, Mike Buczkowski, the Bisons' vice president and general manager, sounded like an excited school kid, as he readied for his 25th straight Opening Day at the downtown ball yard.

Buczkowski was working through an Opening Day to-do list, which was down to about 100 items, but he took time to talk about the special feel of the first home game of the International League season.

"There's something about Opening Day," he said. "For us, we're here all winter, and there's nobody else here. When the fans show up for Opening Day, that's when the ballpark comes alive."

Opening Day is a chance to start over every year. In Buffalo, though, it has an added significance, especially after harsh winters.

"For Western New Yorkers, it's spring, and summer is right around the corner," Buczkowski said. "It's time to get outside and enjoy baseball."

And then there are the true baseball fanatics, who celebrate the constancy of a sport played in an ever-changing society.

"If you hit a four-hopper to shortstop, you're still going to be out by a step [at first]," Buczkowski said. "You can count on it. It hasn't changed."

Each year, though, the Bisons make some changes, and this year is no different.

The biggest change may be at the food stands, where hungry fans can feast on a menu with a decidedly local flavor: Charlie the Butcher, Sahlen's, Wardynski's, Battistoni's and Consumers Beverages (craft beer).

"One of the things Buffalo and Western New York are known for is great food," Buczkowski said. "We have unique food. Why not offer it as part of the ballpark experience?"

Other changes:

*A new, second gift shop, the Bisons Team Shop, on the first-base side of the stadium concourse.

*New higher netting behind home plate, without the horizontal netting over the seats behind the plate.

*A huge logo behind home plate celebrating the 25th year of the ballpark, with the tag line "Simply the Best," referring to the fans, the park and the whole ballpark experience.

*Plenty of 25th-year promotions, to go along with the Triple-A All-Star Game and Home Run Derby in July.

*And on the baseball side, the unavailability of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre stadium this summer will send the baby Yankees here to "host" the Bisons in six games, with the Bisons batting first as the visiting team.

For the early part of the season, fans also will see a greener field. Our lack of a true Buffalo winter has forced the grounds crew to cut the grass more than half a dozen times already.

Gone are the days when the Bisons drew multiple sellout crowds -- 22 in 1988 -- and the team routinely sold more than a million tickets per season.

The Bisons, though, say they're in this for the long haul, in keeping with the priorities of the owners, Robert E. Rich Jr. and his wife, Mindy.

"Bob and Mindy have always felt that the people who work for the Bisons are stewards of the game," Buczkowski said. "To make sure that it flourishes, we're constantly bringing in new fans so baseball will be popular in Buffalo for years to come."

Play ball!