Buffalo’s Sahlen Field was built for a MLB team to call their own. After 33 years of waiting, a temporary fix will make it a reality
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August 11th is almost upon us and the “real” home schedule for the Toronto Blue Jays will commence at Sahlen Field. Jays fans may feel cheated that no Major League Baseball will be played in Canada this year, but for the fans and officials of Buffalo NY the chance to prove they are a “big league city” has been over 3 decades in the making.
Players tried to dismiss the idea of playing home games in Buffalo, despite the fact many of them are less than a year away from having done so as AAA prospects. The Canadian government couldn’t permit open travel by major league players and staff. Pittsburgh Pirates team officials invited the team to share PNC Park, but Pennsylvania government officials issued a last hour edict preventing Toronto from doing so (despite giving private assurances it would be a welcome economic boost). Baltimore, the District of Columbia, and New York City were mentioned, but Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro assessed the risk of further rejection to not be worth the reward of mollifying players’ wishes to play in a “major league” ballpark. So on July 24th, the team announced they would play a “majority” of their scheduled home games at the home of their Triple A affiliate.
Baseball fans should not be dismissive of Sahlen Field and its facilities. Originally planned as a domed stadium, severe economic downturns caused Erie County and the City of Buffalo to scale back the project. Which suited sport architecture firm H.O.K. just fine. Their vision all along for a major-league ready stadium in Buffalo called for the first “retro” style stadium ever. Make no mistake-there would be no Camden Yards or McCovey Cove or (ironically enough) PNC Park had designs for then Pilot Field not been accepted.
H.O.K took great care to “fit” the stadium into the existing surroundings and architecture, and when it opened on April 11, 1988 the ballpark received universal praise and rave reviews. The Vancouver Sun went so far as publishing a year later “(we)have seen the future of baseball, and it looks a lot like the past,” calling newly opened SkyDome “a crass toy.” Seating capacity was 19,500, but the stadium was designed to have a Lego-like option of building a second deck atop the existing facilities and expand seating capacity to over 41,000 fans. All with an eye towards bringing major league baseball to Buffalo.
Food magnate Robert E. Rich, Jr. (emphasis on the “rich”) immediately made it his primary focus to do just that after purchasing the AAA Bisons for a song (not “OK Blue Jays”). After the 1990 season, Rich pitched to Montreal Expos owner Claude Bronfman, who was trying to hold off minority partners and keep the Expos in Montreal. Yet more irony, since in 1968 and early 1969, it appeared as if the expansion Expos would have their franchise revoked and awarded to Buffalo due to no stadium available to open the 1969 season.
Having been rebuffed by Bronfman, Rich next pursued the San Francisco Giants in 1992. Giants owner Bob Lurie was in a battle of wills with local and state governments to secure a new stadium in San Francisco and had just lost another ballot initiative. Knowing the Bay Area market would prove more lucrative eventually, Lurie said “thanks, but no thanks” Rich. While technically one of 6 finalists to be awarded an expansion franchise in 1993, the lack of additional investors beyond richy Rich doomed that effort. A stadium without a major league team, Buffalo’s architectural gem underwent several renovations to make it more group and family friendly (including the installation of “wider’ seats, which seemed to be in line with the fact that three corporate sponsors have been a dairy concern, Coca Cola bottling, and now a meat packing corporation). The homefield for multiple minor league attendance records, Sahlen Field is no longer the Pinocchio of ballparks, but a real Major League ballpark, For now.
Of course additional renovations were needed to bring the stadium up to major league standards. I find it interesting that Sahlen Field could be entrusted with their highest level player investments before promotion to the big leagues but not now that they were big leaguers. Yet home and visiting clubhouse spaces have been expanded, upgrades to the infield surface are nearly completed, and LED lighting upgrades have been made by the Blue Jays and will remain permanent. Two rental mobile lighting units will be utilized during the 25 game home schedule.
This doesn’t seem to have quieted Jays player concerns about their new home. Randal Grichuk called playing in Buffalo ” a worst-case scenario” while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. seemed to be hedging his bets by saying that Sahlen Field would benefit the pitching staff more than hitters because of its larger field dimensions. Shapiro admitted that playing home games in Buffalo “has no doubt tested our team’s resilience”, but left no doubt that he expected Blue Jays players to “refuse to make excuses.”
Unlike back home in Canada and at their ersatz home in Pittsburgh, local and state officials have made it clear that making Buffalo the Jays 2020 home is a welcome challenge. Senator Chuck Schumer aggressively lobbied Commissioner Rob Manfred to green-light Buffalo’s offer. Governor Andrew Cuomo assured local officials and MLB that ” protocols are in place and it will be done safely.” A welcome sign that the welcome mat at Sahlen Field is securely in place-for now. And for Buffalo baseball interests and Sahlen Field itself, “for now” is more than enough to make it feel like a major league city.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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