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Buffalo Is Making a Major League Move

The Washington Post

The outside of the ballpark is neoclassical and blends nicely into the carved doorways and chiseled gargoyles of a proud city’s historic preservation district.

It calls to mind Ebbets Field and Connie Mack Stadium, with its arches, backlit colonnades and marble tiles. And as recent stadium architecture has produced facilities that resemble spaceships more than ballparks, $43 million Pilot Field may be the next logical step.

Architects for the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles apparently intend to design similar structures, hoping to somehow combine the aesthetics of the ‘20s with the efficiency of the ‘80s.

Which Buffalo, of all places, has done. Outside, Pilot Field is the place thousands of depression-era kids still may dream about, but inside it’s a stunning replica of Royals Stadium with its symmetrical design, impeccable sight lines and easy access.

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In between, though, are touches no one has ever put into a stadium and another of a dozen or so reasons why Buffalo has been one of baseball’s most amazing success stories in the summer of ’88.

It’s about an operation that has been so efficently run and so stunningly effective that when the gears of expansion finally grind into motion, Buffalo is no longer just another candidate. It’s The Candidate, the new model for every Washington, Tampa and Nashville, a city that has decided it won’t be refused.

It’s the city that decided to do everything correctly, a place that knew if it didn’t come up with dramatic (and fast) results, the expansion derby would sweep through to the bigger cities.

“The dream that everyone in baseball shares is getting to the majors,” said Robert E. “Bob” Rich, chairman of Rich Products, owner of the Class AAA Buffalo Bisons and the driving force behind Buffalo’s expansion campaign. “It’s the thing that everyone shares, including the shortstop in Appleton, Wisconsin, and every city with a minor league team. Well, how does that shortstop get there? He does it by putting up the numbers. We decided to put up the numbers.”

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So they opened a new stadium right downtown this year and drew more fans (1.186 million) than any minor league team in history.

They put together a 40-person major league marketing and public relations staff that has been so stunningly effective that season-ticket sales had to be cut off.

They built a 19,500-seat stadium that has everything, including a plan that would expand it to 40,000 seats in five months. It has a 300-seat restaurant that’s open daily and has been packed whether there’s a game or not. It has 38 luxury suites. It has a food court (which is also open daily in the hope of getting downtown workers into the habit of walking from their offices to the ballpark) that serves everything from manicotti to ribs to chocolate chip cookies.

Every concession stand is equipped with a charbroiler, proving that a ballpark hot dog doesn’t have to be a boiled weenie on a soggy bun. It has roast beef (a Buffalo staple along with chicken wings and soft-shell tacos) that is sliced while you wait and ice cold beer and soft drinks are guaranteed not to be watery.

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It has wheelchair seating throughout the stadium “because I hate the way teams corral (disabled people) in one area like they’re not fit to be with the rest of society,” Rich said.

It has women’s lounges that not only are spotless, but that come with full-length mirrors, makeup trays and changing tables for babies. It has a nightly tent party and five fireworks shows and birthday cakes.

“Our philosophy is to control the uncontrollables,” Rich said, “and in the minor leagues that means controlling the things away from the field. If you own the New York Yankees, you’ve got Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly to market. You don’t have those guys here, and if you do get them you don’t keep them long. A few fans will want to come out and see a Gregg Jefferies (of Tidewater, now playing well for the Mets) because he’s supposed to be one of the next superstars. But most people don’t follow it closely.”

So Rich, 43, a nonstop talker and hand-shaker, MBA and a member of 18 corporate boards, decided to concentrate on other things.

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“It’s the experience,” said Mindy Rich, his wife and a former ad executive for Bristol-Myers. “You remember the touches. Someone may leave here remembering the Bisons lost another game, but still enjoying the experience.”

The Bisons have been so popular that the Riches stopped season-ticket sales at 9,000 “so there would always be some tickets available,” Rich said.

“People called up and told me I’d flipped, that any idiot knew not to turn people with money away. But I saw it with the (NHL) Sabres and know of it happening in other places. You’re hot and you sell out every seat before the season starts. You shut down your group-sales department and cut back on marketing. You’re in good shape for a few years, but one day you look up, your best players have retired, your fans are old and the team is struggling.

“So you’re right back out at the Kiwanis Club luncheons with your highlight film, and sometimes you can get the fans back and sometimes you can’t.”

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The Bisons sold out Pilot Field 22 times, and the 10,500 available opening-day tickets went in 84 minutes as a hundred or so fans braved a 20-degree March night for a crack at a seat.

By the time the Bisons packed the stadium for the last time Thursday night, they had made history. Clearly, though, Rich’s goal was not to have the most successful minor league operation in history.

“When I got involved in 1983 I said that anyone using the word ‘minor league’ would have their hands cut off,” Rich said. “When we moved into the Pilot Field this year, that wasn’t a problem. It’s not minor league in any way.”

It’s major league in almost every way, from the spacious clubhouses to the 80-foot electronic scoreboard and to the bat boys’ dressing area.

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He has done it with a staff that already has grown to more than 40 people, and includes an aggressive full-time marketing department and a public relations staff that produced a 168-page media guide. Mindy Rich also formed a volunteer season-ticket sales force modeled after the Lancers in Kansas City and the Designated Hitters in Baltimore.

“Some major league teams don’t do things this efficiently,” Mindy Rich said.

Neither have many minor league teams begun to develop farm systems. Rich recently bought the Class AA Wichita franchise, his first step toward that end.

But most remarkably is that he has brought baseball back to a city it left for nine seasons in the ‘70s, then was about to leave in 1982 before he stepped in to buy a team that was bargain-basement priced at $100,000.

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“I did it because I’m a Buffalo guy,” he said. “I’m third generation here. Our company (the largest frozen-food manufacturer in the country) has 900 employees here. I thought it was important, just like the Bills and Sabres are important.”

It didn’t look like a great investment. That season, the Bisons drew 77,077 -- fewer than 1,000 per game -- War Memorial Stadium, the creaky old facility that was the park used in Robert Redford’s period movie “The Natural.”

“A ‘20s movie,” Rich said, “and the park needed very little work.”

Rich’s most remarkable achievement may not be in building the second minor league franchise to draw a million fans, but in attracting almost 500,000 fans to watch games in War Memorial -- nicknamed “The Rockpile” by players shipped back to the minors.

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“It was the same philosophy there as here,” said Bisons General Manager Mike Billoni, a former sportswriter whose marketing gimmicks (pig races, concerts and contests) have earned him the nickname “P.T.”

“We wanted people to come see the game, but when they left we wanted them to have enjoyed the experience. You can do that whether your team won or not. You can serve the best food and coldest beer. You can be treated politely.”

The Bisons hosted the first Class AAA all-star game in history, and they also hosted the National Old-Timers Game, which had spent its first seven seasons at RFK Stadium.

“Baseball in Buffalo will be one of the most exciting events of the summer,” Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth predicted in March.

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He was right, but it was a far different attitude that Rich discovered when he and 13 other cities were invited to make pitches to baseball’s Long Range Planning Committee in 1985.

“Basically, the press laughed at me,” Rich said. “My inclination was to lash out, but I needed them on my side. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.”

But Rich says the reception he got in front of the baseball people was far different. He brought a low-key brochure that was an attempt to lay out why Buffalo deserved a team.

He knew what the hard questions were in advance, and he gave answers before he heard questions. He told the committee that Buffalo’s weather is lousy in the winter, but that during the summer months it’s better than New York’s. He said Buffalo did have the 34th television market in the country, but that when cable and UHF markets were counted, his city ranked eighth. He considered that an important point because he wanted it known that Buffalo’s ball club, like the Minnesota Twins, St. Louis Cardinals and others, would be a regional team.

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“We weren’t allowed to count that,” he said, pointing across the Niagara River toward Canada. “But we’ll get those fans, too.”

He attacked the issues of unemployment and crime. Yes, he said, the heavy industry jobs have left, but as they’ve gone the service industries and white-collar workers have discovered the city.

He was about halfway through his presentation when someone -- he believes it might have been Detroit’s Jim Campbell -- ke up.

“Wait a minute,” he remembers Campbell saying, “we all know about Buffalo. Some of us have played there. All of us have been there. We like the place. What can we do to help?”

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By the time he left, Rich believed that if the stadium plan went through and attendance was what he was hoping for, Buffalo would be in the big leagues sometime in the ‘90s.

“I enjoyed it because I was talking to them as one of them,” he said. “I wasn’t talking just theories or demographics. We’re out there doing it. We know what it’s like when someone gets conked with a foul ball. We know what it’s like to have a week of inclement weather when you’ve had good pregame sales. Although we weren’t in the bigs, we were a partner.”

Since then, all the pieces have fallen into place, all, that is, except for the awarding of an expansion team.

“My gut feeling still says it’ll be 1990,” he said, “and that we’ll be playing in ’91 or ’92. But something had better happen fast.”

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He apparently has envisioned it hundreds of times, and late one afternoon last week, as groundskeepers worked on the lush green sod and players jogged slowly in the outfield, Bob Rich stood behind home plate and saw it all again.

“I get excited,” he said. “I get excited just thinking about it. I really believe our day is coming.”


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