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Ballpark name and rosters change, but the core of the Bisons stays constant

The Bisons open the 2019 season Thursday in newly christened Sahlen Field with an assortment of players seeking to make the jump to the big leagues.

But behind the scenes, the franchise is anchored by veteran talent in the front office and building operations.

In all, 15 Bisons employees have at least 15 years of service with a franchise widely considered a sea of tranquility in the sports world.

Rich Products, headed by Robert and Mindy Rich, has owned the Bisons for the past 36 years, beginning when the Bisons played in War Memorial Stadium on Buffalo's East Side. Over that time, there has been none of the drama concerning the team's future that has at times wracked the Bills and Sabres.

"One of the main things I love about my job is that so many of us have gone through so many seasons together, good and bad," said Brad Bisbing, a 16-year front office veteran who heads the marketing and public relations department.

As Bisbing spoke he was getting ready to help the grounds crew roll up the tarpaulin covering the infield.

"We always have each other's back, and in minor league baseball – when you're always doing everything in every department – it just speaks to our teamwork and togetherness," Bisbing said. "It's my second family."

"We always have each other's back, and in minor league baseball – when you're always doing everything in every department – it just speaks to our teamwork and togetherness," says Brad Bisbing, Bisons' director of marketing and public relations. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Mike Buczkowski, president of Rich Baseball Operations and the club's longest serving general manager, began his tenure at War Memorial Stadium, the Bisons' home through 1987.

So, too, did Mike Poreda, director of ticket operations, office manager Margaret Russo and account executive Burt Mirti.

Tom Sciarrino, director of stadium operations, is beginning his 26th season, and Jim Harrington, director of corporate sales, in his his 25th year. Scott Lesher, director baseball and clubhouse operations, is in his 22nd.

Tom Sciarrino, a 25-year employee, is director of stadium operations.

Jonathan Dandes, who left his job in March after 18 years as president of Rich Baseball Operations to become Rich Products' corporate vice president of governmental relations and special projects, said there can be disagreements like in any family."The reality is our internal battles are ferocious and emotional and intense and all of those things," Dandes said. "Some of those battles were battle royales, but they never left the room.

"What everyone sees is the consensus, and the notion that we are all on the same page, and that starts with Bob and Mindy," Dandes said. "If there's an operational philosophy, it is that, and we have never wavered from it."

The Riches say they remain as committed to Buffalo baseball as ever.

"We are blessed to be well-positioned to make sure we are good caretakers," said Bob Rich, ranked by Forbes as the 379th richest person in the world, with a worth of $5.2 billion.

Riches turn around a mess 

Bisons baseball continued continuously through a variety of leagues from 1877 to 1970.

That's when low attendance saw the Bisons pack up and move to Winnipeg. The team returned nine years later after then-Mayor Jimmy Griffin spearheaded a community drive to buy the team and relocate it to Buffalo.

After four years of dismal play and poor attendance, the team was in danger of leaving again prior to the 1983 season.

It fell to Bob Rich to step in.

Rich was one of four owners of the Sabres when an aide of Griffin's called him on the mayor's behalf. The ownership was out of cash and none of the investors were willing to put any more money into the team, Rich was told. He had the know-how to run a sports team and the financial ability to buy the club, the aide said. Would he?

"I made up my mind I was going to buy the club and keep them here," Rich said.

"I think that from Day One we looked at this as being stewards of the team, not necessarily owners," Mindy Rich said.

That decision brought the 142-year-old franchise a stability that had often been sorely lacking.

"Over their long history, the Bisons on average conservatively changed ownership 20 times, some lasting a year or two, and very few lasting five years," said Jim Overfield, editor of the forthcoming "The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball 1857-2018."

"On at least a half-dozen occasions, it appeared there would be no owners and the franchise would fold," Overfeld said. "On each and every occasion, until 1970, someone came in and saved the day.

"What the Riches did was to save the franchise again, but they did more than just save it," Overfeld said. "They turned it into the marquee minor league franchise in all of baseball."

Fan-friendly entertainment and a new downtown ballpark that opened in 1988 contributed to the team's revival. More than 1 million fans attended the ballpark each season from 1988 to 1993, with the team barely missing the mark the next two years.

"Bob and Mindy got the creative juices running from all of us," said Mike Billoni, a former vice president and general manager. "It was out-of-the-box thinking to truly make every game an event."

Only one other time has a team in the minors drawn 1 million fans.

Opening day at Pilot Field, 1989: As the day's excitement swirled around them, Mindy and Bob Rich took a moment for themselves. (Buffalo News archives)

"No other minor league franchise has come close to what the Rich-era Bisons have accomplished since the late '80s," Overfield asserted.

"When people think of a professionally-run, successful minor league operation, they are at the top of most people's lists," he said.

'A bitter pill'

The biggest disappointment for the Riches was when the Bisons, despite those turnstyle-turning years, lost out to Denver and Miami when Major League Baseball expanded in 1993.

"It was a bitter pill when we didn't get a major league team," Bob Rich said.

In hindsight, the Riches say it was likely for the best.

"I think maybe we were blessed when you see Mike Trout sign a $430 million deal," Bob Rich said. "It really makes you question whether Buffalo could sustain three major league teams given our size in spite of the community's love for sports."

[RELATED: Plenty of new amenities around Sahlen Field, International League]

The Bisons organization draws raves from Randy Mobley, president of the International League. The Bisons joined its ranks in 1998.

"From the chair I sit in, you would take a whole league full of ownerships with the stability that has been demonstrated in Buffalo," Mobley said.

"That stability and ongoing reliability are all qualities that we have grown to take for granted in Buffalo, quite honestly," he said.

Pat O'Connor, Minor League Baseball's president, also praises the Bisons organization.

"I don't know that there are enough good adjectives to describe what Bob and Mindy and Jon (Dandes) and Mike (Buczkowski) and Rich sports mean to baseball in general, minor league baseball and certainly Buffalo Bisons baseball," O'Connor said.

"They are generational owners who exude stability and exude class by doing things the right way," he said.

Buczkowski is frequently reminded of the team's stability.

"Whether in our league or around minor league baseball, it seems like every year there are changes, whether ownership or general manager or leadership changes," Buczkowski said.

Mike Buczkowski, president of Rich Baseball Operations and Bisons general manager, right, and Rob Free, vice president of food and beverage services, are among the veteran staff working for the Bisons as it opens the 2019 baseball season. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"Every time it happens, I remind myself how fortunate I have been to have ownership stability with Bob and Mindy, and to be able to do this job for as long as I have in the city I grew up in. I never lose sight of it."

Not going anywhere

Bob Rich said Ralph Wilson owned the Bills 18 years longer than he's owned the Bisons, so he's still got a lot of ground to make up.

As for a succession plan, it's Mindy, he said.

"That's the beauty of marrying someone who's younger and from Cincinnati," he laughed while noting the avid Cincinnati fan base, before adding, "The reality is that the Bisons are structured with professional management."

Buffalo was former Bisons manager Terry Collins' favorite minor league stop of the five organizations he managed for.

"It starts at the top," Collins said. "Everything there was always organized and on time, and it just made being in Buffalo like a major league team. They don't know any other way to do things but first class."

Curt Anderson, an 18-year employee, loads kegs of beer in anticipation of the season opener. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

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