At Sahlen Field, Garcia Leonard typically takes in spring and summer above Lake Erie from a balcony view. He often stands at a second-level alcove in the façade to capture photos as the evening sun dissolves into the lake, a view he appreciates from April until the end of the Buffalo Bisons season, usually in time for Labor Day.
Yet there has been no season like this one, at least not for 60 years. Leonard, a Bisons usher with 33 years on the job, wore a windbreaker and turtleneck Thursday against a chilly wind. He stood at his Section 218 overlook and studied the sky over the lake, where a hidden sun tried to punch a beam of light through sullen clouds.
“I love baseball in autumn,” said Leonard, speaking of a Bisons club that local historian Brian Frank said is playing its first home games in true fall since Buffalo swept three in a row in the old Junior World Series against Louisville in the final week of September 1961, while Roger Maris was chasing Babe Ruth's home run ghost in the Bronx - and just before the team went South to finish off a sweep.
One of the stars for those Bisons was Ted Savage, chosen as Most Valuable Player that season for what was still known – let us offer a sigh – as the International League.
In the third game of that series at the old War Memorial Stadium, with the Bisons trailing 5-3 in the last of the eighth and one man on base, Savage drilled a single that barely eluded the glove of shortstop Amado Samuel, just before Bob Sadowski – who had two home runs in a single inning two days earlier – smashed a three-run homer over the big screen in right field.
It is a feeling known to this fall's equally memorable Bisons, who won Friday at Sahlen when "El Coffee," Gregory Polcano, drove a three-run clutch homer of his own to right, this one a walkoff to end the game.
The Bisons' top two plays of the year downtown both came in Game 3 of the Triple-A Final Stretch.
Savage, the hero so long ago, went on to spend nine years in the majors. Now 85 and living in Missouri, he got on the phone the other day to say he remembers details from that year in Buffalo far less than he remembers the autumn result.
“We won it all,” he recalled in a soft voice.
Savage ripped that clutch hit on Sept. 26, 1961, exactly 60 years ago Sunday. In the following years, changes in baseball meant the Bisons were never at home again once the calendar clicked into fall, at least not until the combination of a pandemic with a new late-season “Final Stretch" configuration for AAA teams leaves this Buffalo club – champions of the blandly named Triple-A East Northeast Division – still rolling in late September, almost a month after they usually finish.
They play again at 1:05 p.m. today, and then Leonard, a veteran Bisons usher who handles similar duties at Highmark Stadium, will join a handful of Nickel City loyalists in doing an unusual Sunday doubleheader. He will hustle from the 1 p.m. Bills game against Washington in Orchard Park to take his place at the 6:05 p.m. Bisons home finale against Lehigh Valley.
Many readers sent in replies to Sean Kirst's question: If you had the chance to attend a major league game in Buffalo with any one person in your life, living or dead, who would it be?
To the west, in Silver Creek in Chautauqua County, grape farmers gathered for a blessing the other day to offer a little boost to the annual harvest of all those sweet–smelling acres of Concords. To the north, in Niagara County orchards not so far from Lake Ontario, thousands of apples hang ripe on the trees.
At such an autumn moment, in a way that almost never happens, the Bisons are still playing baseball at Sahlen Field.
“The people here now, they’re the same ones you see in early April, the true baseball fans,” Leonard said. “They’re here for the Bisons, and they’re here for the game.”
On the field, head groundskeeper Kelly Rensel and crew members Adam Noyes and Joe Mogavero spent much of the day preparing the diamond for the game. “Hoodie weather,” said Rensel, an Erie, Pa. native hired in Buffalo last March from Michigan's Great Lakes Loons, part of a long minor league pilgrimage with a goal of someday making a career out of caring for the turf of a big league team.
He had a pretty good hunch when he accepted the job in Buffalo that the dream would happen fast, or at least a taste of it: For the second-straight summer, unable to go to Canada due to the pandemic, the Toronto Blue Jays made Sahlen Field their temporary home.
That meant Rensel was “often changing first base for an MVP candidate,” he said of Vlad Guerrero Jr., while Noyes – a West Seneca native who works a second job as a cashier at Tops – would occasionally don a helmet for across-the-outfield sprints, carrying jackets for the newest relievers from the bullpen, a major-league dash that drew noisy applause from a Buffalo crowd always ready to celebrate its own.
As for Mogavero, he was groundskeeper for the Batavia Muckdogs before MLB wiped out the venerable NY-Penn League. Rensel, after taking a look at those credentials, gave Mogavero a job. The three men worked together Thursday, and Rensel – speaking of the particular challenge in Buffalo – described a nearby force of nature with words he might use for a mercurial old friend.
“That lake,” he said of the way Erie can whip up a fast autumn wind and rain. “It loves to play games with us.”
Even so, “the grass is happy” in the fall, Rensel said, and something in the scent in the air and the golden texture of the light is a statement of what drives everyone in the pro game.
In baseball, the whole point is to keep playing in the fall.
Frank Heyden, 82, a lifetime baseball guy from Tonawanda, can remember seeing many of those Bisons games in 1961. It was the team's first year in the Rockpile after the ill-fated decision to leave Offermann Stadium, and Heyden rattles off name after name from that roster – including the late Babe Birrer, a Buffalo-raised pitcher who had a playoff victory against Louisville.
“They won a helluva lot of games," Heyden said of that Buffalo team.
What the Jays accomplished at Sahlen Field – unimaginable until the pandemic changed dynamics that long seemed fixed in place – gave Buffalo, already rich in baseball lore, an even more unique place in that heritage.
Charlie Greene, a passionate officer in the Bisons Boosters Club, showed up Thursday both to work a booth at Sahlen Field and just to cherish the chance to be there in the autumn. The Bisons will travel the Thruway next week to finish up in Syracuse, continuing a rivalry that goes back to the International League of the 1880s and that still feels a part of it – even if the big leagues got rid of the IL this year.
Sunday, the Bisons will play beneath the towers of downtown one more time, a game as deep into September as the team has gone at home in 60 years. Leonard, the longtime usher, spoke of it as he looked out past Seneca Street from his Sahlen balcony, facing a fall wind off the lake that can wriggle inside the warmest jacket and thinking about childhood days inside the Bethel AME Church on Michigan Avenue.
He would be there, a little kid surrounded by adults, when the congregants would hear an awestruck roar from neighboring and long-gone Offermann Stadium, and someone in the pews would say out loud, in reverence:
“Wow. Luke Easter must have hit out another one.”
Leonard, now 66, often contemplates what a graying mentor warned him about long ago, how the years go as fast as lightning as you grow older. So he intends to soak in the manic passion as the Bills face Washington, before leaving for downtown and a more contemplative kind of duty.
He reflected on how every season seems to bring the loss of a few more ballpark regulars at Sahlen, friends he mentioned wistfully from his ballpark balcony above his city, where he looked toward the lake and offered two words that captured everything.
“Almost October,” Leonard said, of life and baseball.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at email@example.com.