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Inside Baseball: Sahlen Field has never been MLB-ready and that's OK

Inside Baseball: Sahlen Field has never been MLB-ready and that's OK

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Buffalo Bisons

Sahlen Field opened in 1988 and remains the largest stadium in the minors, with a capacity just under 17,000.

Fans seem to have one key, recurring question while waiting for the Toronto Blue Jays to decide whether to play regular-season games in Buffalo or elsewhere: Why isn't Sahlen Field major-league ready?

The downtown facility is in solid shape, looking nothing like a 32-year-old place. But it's a Triple-A ballpark, albeit one of the nicer ones you'll find even after all this time. That's not a slam either. It's the fact.

Lots of fans who might not have been around during the expansion chase of the late 1980s and early '90s – or who might not have been born yet – have asked why the ballpark is so "deficient" now.

It's not. Even during the glory days, when the tickets-sold count exceeded 1 million for the first six seasons after the park opened in 1988, it was not a major-league facility.

Then named Pilot Field, it was by far the nation's best minor-league park. It was built with major-league expansion in mind and with some bells and whistles the big leagues noticed.

But it only seated 19,500, and there was lots of work to do had the major leagues called in 1991. The stadium was expandable to around 42,000 with the addition of an upper deck and a looping of the current club level around right field, well past the foul pole. Those plans were widely displayed in the early '90s.

That was the biggest thing that would have happened had Buffalo gone to the majors. Lots more would have taken place as well, and some of those improvements have actually occurred in the park's ongoing life as the Bisons and local government entities have introduced many upgrades involving seating, suites and the scoreboard.

Over the years, in part at the behest of the then-parent Cleveland Indians, new batting cages with mounds were built on the service level and the clubhouse. Trainers' areas, weight room and coaches' offices were expanded. The fences were also made more reasonable than the original dimensions. Most fans don't know the distances closely resemble Progressive Field in Cleveland so the Tribe could get a better gauge on how prospects, specifically pitchers, were doing in Buffalo.

As for fans, ballparks served mostly hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jacks in the late '80s. Not much in the way of exotics. Nobody had a food court until we saw one behind home plate in Buffalo. Who had a restaurant in the ballpark? Not many teams. We had a sparkler in Pettibones Grille.

Big-league parks back then weren't opulent palaces. Teams like Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Philadelphia played in various states of dumps, beloved by some fans and reviled by many others. Both places in New York (Shea and Yankee) were gritty and plenty grimy, with no sign of wine and cheese. Look at where all of them play now as part of the stadium building boom of the past 25 years.

You'd probably be shocked to learn that the Giants and Orioles visited Buffalo to check out Pilot Field before they built Oracle Park and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which are now considered two iconic downtown stadiums. But that happened.

You've heard a lot the last few days about the Sahlen Field lights, which were upgraded in 2011 with poles that were much shorter than the ones originally installed at the park's opening. Players universally told you then that the situation on the field greatly improved. Fans continue to tell you they got the short end, as it's noticeably darker in the seats, especially in the upper level. The lighting issue for the Blue Jays and MLB is much more about the view for television than the game.

The clubhouses are only marginally smaller than new Triple-A parks, but MLB clubhouses have just become a game of one-upsmanship in each city. There is, however, plenty of space for social distancing here, perhaps even using the suites as dressing quarters as the Red Sox have done in Fenway Park.

The Sox, in fact, have become a prototype for using all your available space. They've repurposed the Fenway concourses for weight rooms and batting cages, and the Bisons had plenty of room to do likewise. With no fans, the ballpark footprint here is large. Two levels, a giant outdoor plaza, a center field area. Lots of places for the Blue Jays and opponents to do what team president Mark Shapiro called "reimagining" when he talked to reporters Saturday.

The Blue Jays always had their highest focus on staying at home, and that was MLB's goal as well. It does not want its teams playing in non-MLB facilities, unless it is a special event in which MLB is strictly controlling the environment. Think of places like Williamsport, Pa.; London; Australia; or this year's Field of Dreams Game in Dyersville, Iowa. Doing a 100-mph buildup of a minor-league park in less than two weeks is probably not something MLB wants to be doing.

So just remember this if the Blue Jays don't come to town and whenever the Bisons get back on the field in 2021: There's nothing acutely wrong with Sahlen Field. You've had a great time there for more than three decades of summers.  

It's just not a major-league park. And that's OK.

Bona's Grey part of DBacks' purge

When major-league clubs flushed their organizations of minor leaguers in late May and June, Frewsburg native and St. Bonaventure graduate Connor Grey was one of the Diamondbacks' 64 cuts. He's best known for pitching a perfect game for Class A Kane County (Ill.) of the Midwest League in 2017.

A 20th-round pick in 2016, Grey pitched at three levels of the Arizona chain last season. He was 2-1, 3.32 at Class A Visalia; 2-0, 2.93 at Double-A Jackson; and 0-1, 9.39 at Triple-A Reno. Overall, 20 of his 24 outings at the three stops were in relief. He had 51 strikeouts and 24 walks in 65 combined innings.

Herd grapevine

• Former Bisons and Blue Jays outfielder Anthony Gose, now trying to make his way back to the big leagues as a left-handed relief pitcher, was sent to the Indians' Alternate Training site to get more reps.

Gose, 29, played for the Bisons in 2013 and 2014 and batted .254 while playing 140 games as an outfielder for the Detroit Tigers in 2015. He turned to pitching in 2017 and advanced to Double-A Akron last year, combining to post a 2.48 ERA with 35 strikeouts but 29 walks in 29 innings at two levels of the Tribe chain.

In spring training in March, Gose was hitting the high 90s on the radar gun in one outing and struck out nine in 5 2/3 innings. But Wednesday night during an intrasquad game, he got torched for a grand slam by Domingo Santana and the Tribe decided he needed more refining.

• Add another career honor for Dodgers manager and Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Roberts, who has been selected as one of nine inductees for the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame. Roberts, who played for the school from 1991-94, is still the school's career leader in stolen bases with 109. He's the Bisons' modern-era leader with 97 steals from 1998-2001 and was inducted into their Hall in 2013.

It's a star-studded UCLA class. Other inductees include NBA standouts Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love, and long jump world record holder Mike Powell.

• Outfielder Socrates Brito, the Bisons' MVP last season, is back in camp with the Pirates after testing positive for Covid-19. Brito, on the roster for veteran insurance, batted .282 with 16 homers and 67 RBIs in 97 games for the Herd after coming down from Toronto following a 3-for-39 slump. He was at .318-17-69 in 2018 at Reno in the Diamondbacks chain.

• Eli Selby, a Mississippi high school senior who is the son of Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Bill Selby, has committed to play baseball next year at Niagara University. A 5-foot-9 catcher, Eli Selby plays at Magnolia Heights High School. Bill Selby played with the Bisons from 1998-2002 and is the franchise's modern-era leader in hits (378), doubles (90), runs (217) and RBIs (245). He's third in games played (370) and home runs (60). Bill Selby was the Herd's MVP in 1999 and was inducted into the Hall in 2007.

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