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As Coca-Cola Field turns 30, baseball and entertainment continue to collide

It was 1989 and Coca-Cola Field was one year old. Geri Meacham remembered coming to Buffalo, a mixed-blessing of a Triple-A assignment for her husband, infielder Bobby Meacham.

In the midst of the new stadium and the hope that Buffalo would land a Major League team, the Bisons put on a show for their fans that at times had little to do with baseball.

"I remember coming to a game and there were ice skaters skating on top of the dugouts," Geri Meacham recalled. "I said, 'Where are we?'"

Thirty years later there are no more ice skaters to entertain the fans. The minor league antics have waned, along with the seating capacity. With the hopes of a Major League franchise dashed, the Buffalo Bisons kept their Triple-A identity, one which fluctuates with the tides of the parent club, whomever that may be at the moment.

The park is not sold-out every night. But the park still holds the key to many in their baseball journeys. Sometimes, it takes nearly three decades to understand that.

What Bobby Meacham remembers most from that 1989 season was playing for Terry Collins.

Collins had yet to manage in the Major Leagues when he spent three seasons guiding the Bisons, then affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Collins, who was inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame, made a profound impact on Meacham, one that didn't really come full circle until this season.

"I was playing for Terry Collins which was crazy and great and fun and not-so-fun all at the same time," Meacham said. "I really learned a lot from him, to be honest with you. Most of the team didn't like him at the beginning. And I can't even tell you what he did, but he did something and all of a sudden we loved playing for him. The team went from 'who does this guy think he is?' to 'man we can't wait to go out there and win for him.'

"I learned from him that it's possible, even at this Triple-A level where there are so many negatives. People say, oh nobody wants to play because they're coming down or their sullen because they didn't get called back up. And I get all that, but it's possible to play as a team and get a team moving in the right direction."

The on-the-field product isn't quite what the Bisons were hoping for when they became part of the Toronto Blue Jays farm system in 2013. Entering Tuesday's game, the Herd were 61-74. That's largely the result of a free fall from June 5 to July 20 when the Bisons went 9-35.

"The record is going to end up disappointing and that stretch was a difficult stretch," Bisons General Manager Mike Buczkowski said. "We were just not very competitive for six weeks where we went from being eight games over .500, beating a Lehigh Valley team that was red hot at the time and thinking maybe we'll contend for a wild card spot or make the playoffs. And it went from that to pretty much out of it by the end of July.

"We would like to see that part of it improve. But everywhere else where we've worked with them, they've been a great partner, marketing wise and cross-promoting wise."

And the promotions have been something the Bisons have excelled at.

From signature events, like Star Wars Night and Independence Eve, to fridaynightbash! and the WCC race, the Bisons continued over 30 years to create a family atmosphere that was fun regardless of what was happening in the baseball world.

There could be a nickname change coming next year for a game, akin to Rochester calling themselves the "Plates" for one game, a reference to the popular regional food fare, "garbage plates." There are no concrete plans for perhaps one game as the "Buffalo Wings" as of yet.

Thirty years has brought wear-and-tear on the stadium, which physically has not changed much. There are touch-ups and tweaks in the works as the ballpark ages, things like painting and work on plumbing, and heating and cooling systems.

The biggest difference for fans has come with new seats, a project that's been incrementally implemented as new, wider seats, have been installed.

What's next for Coca-Cola Field? Probably more tweaking of seating capacity to keep with the trend of more party and open gathering spaces.

"We talk all the time about if we could do anything we wanted, what would we do," Buczkowski said. "Probably the biggest design change since this was built immediately after was the open concourse where fans could be in the concourse but still see onto the field. That's not the case here.

"When I go around to the newer ballparks party spaces are big. There are parks that have six or seven unique party spaces. This is still the biggest ballpark in Triple A baseball so there would be room to redo some of the seating capacity but turn those places into more of a group-friendly space or a gathering place."

Wednesday's 30th anniversary celebration will include a number of events, including $1 hotdogs, an autograph session with Jeff Manto (7-8 p.m.), the return of the Earl of Bud and a pre-game happy hour from 6-7 p.m. at the Craft Brew featuring $3 craft beers.

Bisons plan slew of 30th anniversary events including Celery's finale

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