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Buffalo's downtown ballpark: The house that Jimmy built

There was nothing ceremonial about the first pitch. He came with his own glove while sporting his Buffalo Bisons team jacket. He would pull aside a ballplayer, any ballplayer, and ask to play catch for some warm-up tosses.

Jimmy Griffin wasn't there just to throw out the first pitch to open the baseball season in Buffalo.

He was there to throw a strike.

The former Mayor of the City of Buffalo was also the Mayor of Buffalo baseball. Jimmy Griffin and baseball are synonymous for a generation of Western New Yorkers and as Coca-Cola Field celebrates its 30th season of baseball, the downtown ballpark is affectionately known to many as "The House that Jimmy built."

"How many games have you been to and you've seen people throw out a first pitch? Jimmy is the only person I have ever seen throw out a first pitch with his baseball glove," said former Bisons General Manager Mike Billoni. "Every time he came to throw out a first pitch, he had a baseball glove. Then he would take his son and go up to the season-ticket seats that he bought in 1988 and had until he died in the first row of the 200 level."

Griffin is immortalized at the downtown field he helped create. The only statue at Coca-Cola Field, located at the aptly named 1 James D. Griffin Plaza, is of Griffin throwing out the first pitch. That's where on Sunday, the Run Jimmy Run 5K begins, a five-year old event put on by Griffin's family to raise money for the Alzheimer's Association of Western New York.

Griffin died in 2008 from the rare brain condition Sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and nine years later, people come to the 5K not only to run but to remember the man who was mayor of Buffalo from 1978 to 1993.

"I was surprised how after the race, people will stay and share stories about not just my dad but for some of them about the time they spent working with the city," said his daughter Maureen Griffin Tomczak. "People just love to tell stories."

And there are plenty of Jimmy Griffin stories to go around.

But before we get to the baseball stadium that helped begin a revival of downtown Buffalo, we have to go back to the 1970s, when Buffalo was without a baseball team and Griffin wanted desperately to change that.

Bringing Baseball Back

Buffalo's baseball history dates to the late 1800s, but the tradition was stopped in the late 1960s as unrest near the Bisons' ballpark at the time – War Memorial Stadium on Buffalo's East Side – caused attendance to plummet and baseball to pack up and leave.

The late baseball historian Joe Overfield described the 1969 season this way in his Bisons history published online by the club:

"On July 19, hoodlums, armed with knives, invaded the Buffalo clubhouse at War Memorial, causing management to postpone the scheduled game because of  'threatening weather.' The players at first refused to play any more games at the East Buffalo park, but later relented and agreed to play Sunday games there."

By August, the parent-club, the Washington Senators, cancelled their working agreement with the Bisons as attendance hit an all-time low of 77,808.

An agreement with the Montreal Expos allowed the Bisons to start the 1970 season in Buffalo, but by June they were relocated to Winnipeg and professional baseball in Buffalo was dead.

Dead, that is, until Jimmy Griffin had an opportunity to revive it.

In 1978, the Double-A Eastern League was looking to move its Jersey City team. For $55,500, a group of Buffalo investors, including Griffin, bought the franchise and moved it to Buffalo. Griffin was seen as the guy who brought baseball back to the Queen City. For Griffin, baseball was part of his life's blood. It was everything that was good – family and community. And he wanted that to continue for Buffalo and Western New York.

"They had no money growing up so a Christmas present was a baseball bat," Tomczak recalled of her dad. "So a kid would show up with a baseball bat. A kid would show up with a ball. And maybe they'd all have a mitt. And that's what they would do at night after dinner – go play catch with their dad."

The tradition of family and baseball continued for Griffin with his own family. Tomczak recalled her father packing kids into the car to go to War Memorial Stadium to watch the Bisons.

"He would drive around the neighborhood and any kids that were friends of ours that he would see out, he would pull over and say, 'Go in and tell your mother the mayor's taking you to the ball game.' And sometimes, we'd say, dad we just want to be with you, but he was always including any kid that wanted to go to the ball game," Tomczak said.

Bisons president Bob Rich Jr. with Gov. Mario Cuomo and Mayor Jimmy Griffin at the 1988 opening of the downtown ballpark.

"He'd give us money, say go get something to eat and meet me back here after the game. And we just had fun. He never left his seat. People came to him. So we always knew where he was and we could find him if we needed him. For him, bringing kids and families to a baseball game was such a great thing to do."

Even as Griffin supported the Bisons in their East Side home, he was dreaming of a new facility, one that was just for baseball, in the heart of downtown Buffalo.

"He loved the game," said current Bisons general manager Mike Buczkowski. "He talked about playing baseball as a kid. I think it was his uncle who taught him and his brothers how to play. He came, like my parents, from an era in Buffalo where you didn't have the Sabres. The Bills weren't really coming in yet. You know the two biggest sports were boxing and baseball. Luke Easter was the Jack Eichel of the day. Back then, they were the guys. You grew up going to Offermann Stadium and seeing baseball and he used to talk about that. 'When I grew up I went to Offermann. It was a baseball stadium.' Nothing against War Memorial but it was a football stadium. He envisioned a baseball stadium and being able to bring it downtown and bring life to the city."

The Downtown Dream

Building a baseball stadium in downtown Buffalo seemed to always be on the mind of Griffin. Pete Weber, who did play-by-play for the Bisons from 1982 until 1995, remembered the discussions they would have.

"We're going to get a ballpark built downtown," Weber recalled Griffin saying. "He had pushed with every ounce of energy and persuasiveness and anything else he had at his disposal to make sure this got built. You know with how slowly political things move, how dedicated he had to be to that cause. … I thought he was passionate enough that it was going to get done."

In July 1986, a year after Triple-A ball returned, ground was broken for the new stadium on Washington Street just blocks from City Hall. Building a downtown stadium bucked the trend at the time. Stadiums were being built in suburbs, outside of city centers. But Griffin was tenacious.

"He was just all about forging ahead," Buczkowski said. "Whatever the pitfalls were, let's work around them but keep going. We need to break ground.

"I remember it was the first year the stadium had opened. It was one of the first games and he would come all the time. He'd sit up here with his brother Tom in the club level and I was talking to him and he said, 'You know Mike, there's still two agencies in Albany that have yet to sign off on the building on this place. If we had waited for them, we never would have had this.' He was just move ahead. If we build it they can't make us tear it down. He was a huge proponent of it and he was a huge proponent of having it here in downtown and making it part of what he envisioned which 30 years later is finally starting to happen."

Opened as Pilot Field in 1988, the stadium had a capacity of 19,500 built with the intention of being expandable. And they did expand the seating to 21,050 in 1990 in the hopes of attracting a Major League Baseball expansion team or enticing an existing franchise to move.

That never happened and the ballpark eventually contracted its capacity to its current 16,907.

But baseball remains a constant 30 seasons after Griffin threw out that first pitch, bringing to fruition his dream of a downtown home for his favorite sport.

The Legacy

The day of his funeral in 2008, friends and family gathered at Pettibones, the restaurant at Coca-Cola Field. Griffin's initials were designed into the grass on the field that day – a fitting tribute to the man who was so passionate about Buffalo and baseball, passionate about his belief that baseball could help revitalize the city he loved.

It took more than 30 years for his vision to start to come together. Griffin was a strong proponent of what is now the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the development of the waterfront now populated by a growing Canalside operation. And perhaps part of it started with the House that Jimmy Built.

"If it wasn't for what the mayor did back in the day, it probably wouldn't have been built," Buczkowski said. "We had great ownership in the Riches. We had a community that wanted it. But without him saying we're going to do this and committing to doing it, I'm not sure it would have been built. There's one statue at our ballpark. And that's Jimmy Griffin. And that's well-deserved."

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