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Remembering Pete Calieri, a classic character of Buffalo baseball

OTTAWA -- Before heading to the Sabres' morning skate today in Canadian Tire Centre, allow me a few words (OK, more than a few) about the loss of a great friend to Buffalo baseball.

Longtime local umpire Pete Calieri passed away unexpectedly in his Grand Island home on Dec. 20 at age 66. I was unable to attend memorial services for Calieri last Monday night because I was covering the Sabres' game in Detroit, but his passing should not go unnoticed by those who love spending summer days and nights downtown in Coca-Cola Field.

(I waited to write this so it wouldn't get lost in the Christmas holiday or a weekend. Kindly excuse my editorial liberty on that front.)

Calieri's litany of career accomplishments were rounded up in The Buffalo News obituary that ran last week and they are a lengthy list. As an umpire, Calieri rose all the way to Triple-A and was an International League stalwart in the early 1980s before a knee injury ended his  hopes of making the big leagues.

Calieri played an umpire in "The Natural" and spent several of the downtown ballpark's early seasons as a fill-in umpire at third base during American Association games when a regular was ill, injured or called up to the big leagues. Calieri was also inducted into the 2012 class of Western New York Baseball Hall of Fame. And there might be no Bisons as we know them today without Calieri.

Remember, Buffalo was without professional baseball from June of 1970 through 1978 and only through an odd happenstance did it return. Here's the story, from "The 100 Years of Buffalo Baseball" by late Bisons historian Joe Overfield:

1979: This was the year baseball was to return to Buffalo. And it was strictly by accident. Buffalonian and Eastern League umpire Pete Calieri called league President Pat McKernan to inquire about his W-2 form. This income tax problem taken care of, McKernan, in passing, told Calieri that Jersey City had dropped out and a new city was needed. "What about Buffalo?" asked Calieri. "Do you have a place to play? If so, we would be interested," replied McKernan. Calieri said he would be in further touch. He then contacted his old friend, Don Colpoys, city fireman, ballplayer and manager. A conference with Mayor Jimmy Griffin followed and soon the wheels were in motion.

It was agreed that $90,000 would be needed. In fairly short order, 90 Buffalo people, including the Mayor, agreed to put up $1,000 each. Meanwhile, $40,000 was needed to buy the franchise, plus about $10,000 for league and National Association fees. Broadway Market candy dealer John Sikorski agreed to advance the money until the funds from the stock sale came in. The deal was closed and Buffalo was back in baseball after an eight-year hiatus. Colpoys, with the strong support of Mayor Griffin, was appointed general manager. A working agreement with the Pittsburgh Pirates was secured. Steve Demeter, who had played for Buffalo in 1955, was named manager.

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During the 1980s, Calieri brought an unusual angle to Bisons broadcasts on radio and International Cable. Normally, only old ballplayers are analysts. An umpire made for some unique byplay with the likes of play-by-play man Pete Weber.

When I wrote a story in June about the 30th anniversary of "Buffalo's Grand Old Game,"  the incredible oldtimers game at War Memorial Stadium that featured 12 Hall of Famers, Calieri emailed me the picture at the top of this post -- the old ump talking about the nuances of the stadium with none other than Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks while he was on the field helping the radio broadcast.

Calieri had a show on WECK Radio the last few years dubbed "Officially Yours" and it was all about rules and officiating in multiple sports. (You can listen to podcasts here). Later in life, he found a new calling in commercials and theater. The last couple years, he regularly visited the press box at Coca-Cola Field and would plop down between myself and official scorer Kevin Lester to talk baseball and the National Chicken Wing Festival, an event he enjoyed working under Wing King Drew Cerza.

Of his new career, Calieri would wisecrack, "It's going great because how many 65-year-olds can they find who can remember their lines?"  For more on Calieri's life as a Christmas angel and some hysterical recent pictures, be sure to read this blog entry by author and former WBFO radio host Christina Abt. 

Of his old career, Calieri could regale you with stories from IL games of 30 years ago featuring many big-league stars of the 80s and 90s. He was a classic. The press box will be a little less sarcastic from this day on and Peter will be missed.

Calieri's younger brother, Frank, was a ballpark staple in many roles in the late 80s and early 90s, including playing the part of Buster Bison. His tweets from last week are a better climax to this post than anything I can say. RIP, Peter.

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