This is the second in a series looking at Buffalo sports' greatest what-ifs. Read Part 1. Today: What if Buffalo had landed a major league baseball team in 1991?
Buffalo is an NFL and NHL town. In the 1970s, it was an NBA town, too. In the 1990s, it almost became an MLB town.
The slogan of the city's bid was "Buffalo: The Natural for Expansion," a takeoff on the Robert Redford movie filmed here in the summer of 1983.
It was all about how a downtown, open-air, grass stadium – not the norm back then – was the perfect place for baseball. Buffalo made the short list of six cities for the 1993 National League expansion in which the NL picked Denver and Miami for its two teams in June 1991.
In the '80s, when Pilot Field was on the drawing board and then opened to nationwide hype in 1988, Buffalo seemed ahead of the curve under owner Bob Rich Jr.
"During our first meeting (in 1983), Bob set three goals: 1. Get the Bisons back into Triple A. 2. Work with Mayor Jimmy Griffin to build a downtown ballpark. 3. Do everything in our power to obtain a major-league franchise," former Bisons General Manager Mike Billoni said in an email to The News last week.
"Some say hitting 2 for 3 is a very good average. For Bob and Mindy Rich and our entire team, the objective was always to achieve all three goals, and we almost did."
It was Commissioner Peter Ueberroth who helped set the criteria the city followed to build all the momentum for its bid. But under succeeding commissioners Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent, the criteria became a moving target.
Suddenly, virgin territories, population and television market size became the prevailing items. In addition, the Rich family fretted over a surprisingly high franchise fee of $95 million and about baseball's oncoming labor crisis.
When the NL expansion committee visited the ballpark in March 1991, the Riches were flatly told baseball had no plans for a salary cap. Pittsburgh Pirates CEO and committee chair Douglas Danforth uttered the death knell to the Buffalo bid when he infamously said in a media briefing, "You can't do anything about it and we can't do anything about it. But it would be great if you had another million people living here."
But what if the expansion bid had reached its goal?
The first item was the ballpark. Pilot Field was built to be expandable to around 42,000 seats with the addition of an upper deck, but it's hard to see how that work could have been done with fans in the park. So wipe out the 1992 season that resulted in the franchise's second straight American Association East Division title. There would have been no baseball that summer while the stadium was being upgraded.
Financially, it would have been a tough task for Buffalo to survive. In a 1994 interview with The News, a few days after Commissioner Bud Selig canceled the World Series, Rich didn't want to say he told you so. But he told you so.
The Bisons' computer models researching the game's economics pointed to a work stoppage in July, 1994 – a month before the players' strike began that ended the season.
"We said, 'Here's what will happen. Tell us where we're wrong,' and the owners didn't," Rich said. "They didn't tell us anything at all. Now the concerns we raised come to pass and a lot of people are surprised?"
"Without a control on salaries, it would have made the challenges of our small-market franchise even greater," Billoni wrote. "If there was a salary cap and the numbers worked, I truly believe Bob and Mindy Rich would have been outstanding big-league baseball owners, and I know the fans would have filled the ballpark."
Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of Buffalo-based Delaware North and owner of the NHL's Boston Bruins, was on board to join Rich's group had the bid succeeded. But MLB economics at the time were on everyone's mind.
"Irrespective of whether it was successful or not, we would have joined it, because Bobby is a good leader," Jacobs said of Rich in a 2017 interview with The News. "I would have financially helped him and worked on it. But I think in my heart of hearts, it wouldn’t have been a great idea.”
When you watch the Miami Marlins today, they are the team that essentially stole Buffalo's chance. The Marlins, who won World Series titles as a wild card in 1997 and 2003, are on their second stadium, continue to struggle with attendance and revenue. Eleven teams had a payroll of more than $150 million last season. The Marlins were 27th at $75.5 million.
The top ticket to a Bisons game today in Sahlen Field remains under $20. It's hard to see how Western New York could support an 81-game schedule where top seats would likely be three or four times that amount.
"To this day, the Bisons receive rave reviews from former players, managers, and farm directors for the big-league operation they run for a Triple-A franchise," Billoni wrote. "In typical Bob and Mindy Rich fashion, when word came down that Buffalo was not awarded an expansion franchise, they directed us to be the best Triple-A franchise in baseball and creatively offer fun, family entertainment for our fans. I am proud to see that tradition continues today.”