Thank you once again to Ben Wagner for doing this interview with Bluebird Banter. Jays fans, you can follow him on Twitter with the handle @benwag247. You can find Bluebird Banter there too at @BluebirdBanter, and I am on Twitter as @Minor_Leaguer.
On Monday in part 1 of this interview, we learned a bit about Ben Wagner, the guy who we'll be hearing calling the games of the Buffalo Bisons, the new AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. Today we continue with the second half of our chat, when we turned our topic to Buffalo and their beautiful downtown ballpark.
Minor Leaguer: You mentioned that you joined the Bisons in 2007. So you moved to Buffalo for the first time when you got that job. How do you like it there?
Ben Wagner: I love western New York. It’s been a really nice move for both my wife and me. Being in a passionate sports town for football, and obviously hockey as well—they love their hockey here in western New York as they do obviously in Canada. We spent three seasons in New Jersey as I mentioned, but we’re both from Indiana so it’s a very Midwestern feel to the city. I was actually telling the people in Toronto that one of the greatest perks about making the move to Buffalo has been Toronto, because it’s been so close and the proximity. We love going up there as sightseers and tourists doing some of the stuff and enjoying the sites, the sounds, the foods, the flavours of Toronto. Now I even have a reason to go, which makes it even more inviting.
ML: I hope a lot of Buffalonians come up to Toronto and spend some money, because we’ll be going down there to spend ours.
BW: We’ll welcome you with open arms.
ML: Buffalo's ballpark, Coca-Cola Field, is a pretty big stadium for a AAA team.
BW: It is the largest minor league ballpark in America—18,000+ can be here and we were fortunate enough to have had two very marquee events in front of the national stage [in 2012]. In the AAA All-Star Game this summer, over 17,000 fans showed up for the Home Run Derby and we sold out the All-Star Game. And our best Independence Eve celebration on July 3. When you combine all three events, we had over 50,000 fans at the ballpark, so this ballpark will get full and will be a lot of fun when the weather turns warmer and I think the fans are going to enjoy it and the new Blue Jays farmhands coming into town will really enjoy it as well.
ML: Did you get the chance to broadcast that AAA All-Star Game as well?
BW: I did. Actually, I was asked in the winter, maybe February or March, and they said "it’s gonna be in your backyard do you want to be part of the broadcast," and I was very honoured to say yes. It was something that I took great pride since it was going to be carried in all 30 AAA markets plus over the Armed Forces Network so it was available at all the stations and the ships at sea for our armed service men and women. That was a really cool event to be part of and to try to be part of a huge production.
ML: When Jays fans go down to Coca-Cola Field, do you have any food and beer tips?
BW: Well, I’ll tell you what—there is a lot of good brew right here in the ballpark. We’ve got great partnerships with a couple of local breweries, we have a lot of craft beers available in our concession stands in our craft beer corner. We’ve partnered up with one of the vendors here in Buffalo and in consumer craft beer, so we’ve got a lot of different flavours of beer and foods right here in the ballpark. One thing that we’ve done in the last couple of years is to bring in those western New York flavours. So you’ve got great chicken wings, you’ve got beef on weck from Charlie the Butcher, who’s a great figurehead here with his sliced roast beef, and we serve Sahlen's hot dogs which are great here in western New York. So there’s a lot of local flavour already right here in the ballpark, and that’s one thing that we really pride ourselves on. So if you’re visiting from far or even near, you’re going to feel at home as a western New Yorker when you are coming into the ballpark.
Then there’s plenty of options as you move downtown as well. Just across the street there’s a great place, a couple blocks away there’s plenty of food and beverage stops for fans that are coming in. The good news is once you park the car around the ballpark you’ve got those options, and you’re just 5-10 minutes away from the Peace Bridge. So once you clear the border, you’re in the home stretch of your travels. You can park it, forget it, enjoy the ballgame, fill up with some food and some brews and bolt back to Ontario if you’re just spending the day, or if you’re going to the hotel too, you can just leave your car. It really works out with this downtown ballpark situation that Buffalo has had. Many fans have taken the advantage now for 25 seasons.
Panorama of Coca-Cola Field in downtown Buffalo. (Photo courtesy of Ben Wagner)
ML: When do gates open before each game?
BW: One hour before the first pitch. The only time that will change is for our Friday Night Bashes, and gates times haven’t been set—and the last couple of years we’ve tweaked a couple of things with plaza parties—so if we are going to start a plaza party at 5:30 before a 7:00 game, we’re going to open those gates as well. Pending any development there, you can always use the staple as gates open one hour prior to the first pitch. Here in Buffalo we’re going to play 1:00 on Sunday afternoons, and in April and May at 1:00 on Saturdays as well, and then generally it’s a 7:00 start time with a couple of wrinkles thrown in as well. The game times are already set on Bisons.com the whole schedule is right there for anybody to print the PDF and slap it on the refrigerator today, because those game times are set and we’re ready to roll.
ML: Are there any special promotions in this upcoming year that you’re aware of? And any past promotions that you’ve really enjoyed?
BW: What we’ve done here in Buffalo that fans have really connected with, and I loved seeing, is that we’ve done a western New York replica series. We’ve had replicas done of the ballpark, we’ve had replicas done of Central Terminal here in Buffalo, city hall has also been one, we’ve done a replica of the old Buffalo auditorium, the Memorial Auditorium that used to stand just a couple of blocks away before the Sabres moved into the First Niagara Center. These replicas have been something that have resonated with fans and really have become one of the true collectibles in our promotional schedule. So, once we unveil all our promotions that will be one of the keystones for fans that are gobbling up tickets. There’s the usual bobblehead mixed in as well as a couple of seasonal giveaways—we mixed things in and out depending on what the hot item is at promotional seminars. We’ll dabble in anything that is usable or have a long shelf life for our fanbase.
You can see pyrotechnics on Tuesday home games once the summer rolls around with some of our festival nights. And of course, the staple always is the big Friday Night Bash—those are our biggest nights, the gates open early, we have a lot of fun, the crowds are huge, and we always walk away with fireworks at the end of the ballgame. The fireworks shows are spectacular; they definitely do not skimp on fireworks after a Friday night ballgame here.
ML: I didn’t know about that—now I need to push ahead my plans of coming down on the weekends!
BW: Yes, definitely! Friday nights are always a value and if you can take advantage in one of our ticket packages: we have a Friday Night Bash Pack, and there are also ways you can mix and match and hopefully fit whatever your travel schedule is, or if you’re coming down for a long weekend. There always seems to be something that accommodates the fans; the Bisons’ ticket office and the people in the front office really take a lot of time trying to ensure every fan an opportunity to see as much of the ballpark, and of course baseball, throughout the season. It’s important, too, to pay attention to the schedule of promotional giveaways early in the season, because you may have something—like our coin series that we did last year—that’s part of a season-long promotion. So when July rolls around and you think, "man I haven’t been to the ballpark yet," you’ve missed a lot of fun!
ML: I know that the Buffalo Bisons are doing a big re-branding for a new logo and new uniforms. Have you had a chance to sneak a peek at what the artists have been doing? Do you have any insider information you can give?
BW: No, I wish my pay grade allowed me to see those things before they become final, but ordinarily they don’t, so I can’t even provide you any insight. One thing that was talked about during the press conference about the announcement with the Blue Jays is that we’re done with the blue-and-orange colour theme. We’ve got a lot of feedback from our fans on what they were hoping to see, and I know our front office has been really working to fast-track not only the logo but what kind of colours we’re gonna have. Hopefully, instead of taking two-to-three months, we can get that out in a six-to-eight week window. So, it’s easy to figure out that sometime in November, judging from what was said at the press conference, that they’d want to roll this out and hopefully get enough merchandise ready for Opening Day so fans can be decked out and look great. Not only for Opening Day but through Spring Training as fans go down from western New York and Ontario and be in Dunedin sporting their new Bisons gear. And maybe you can even get them as a holiday gift.
ML: So will you be down at Dunedin for Spring Training this year?
BW: Yes, we definitely will be down there at some point, I’m not sure right now what the time frame is going to be. We’ll see how the Spring Training schedule lines up on the big league side and on the minor league side. Historically we’ve always gone down for at least a week; I don’t expect that to change, maybe we’ll hopefully be able to extend it as well. What we’re going to do while we’re down there is not to just kick back and watch games. We’re going to be busy, we do three weeks of season preparation with radio coverage and we throw that online as well, also we shoot enough material to take back and put together two TV shows as primers for Opening Day here in Buffalo. So we’ll be busy while we’re down there and we’ll have cameras and recorders ready and talk to a lot of the new faces we’re going to meet on the players’ side. We’ll also try to re-familiarize ourselves with a number of things, like coaches and people in the past who have come through here.
ML: In Buffalo, you must have known Torey Lovullo, who managed the team and is our first base coach.
BW: Two out of the three seasons that Torey was in Buffalo, I actually worked with him in his final two before he went to the Red Sox. So in 2007 that was his middle year here in western New York, and the final year in 2008 which was also the final year of the affiliation with the Indians. I got an opportunity to stay with him and he was my first manager, and he could not have been more accommodating. I think the people in Toronto have already realized that, just how media friendly he is first to talk with, and he’s got the same goals as I do. He wants that job where he’s going to be the guy who calls the shots as a Major League manager, and he’s done everything in his power to continue to develop. Torey is a guy who knows baseball, but also the fact that he also wants to be a manager and he’s picking the right brains to do so and it’s great seeing him involved in those conversations this time of year.
ML: Did you get a chance to say "hello" when you were in Toronto?
BW: I did actually. When we were meeting up with some of the Blue Jays people, he actually came into the meeting, which was great. His connection to western New York goes deep as a player first, and then a coach—he actually married a girl from western New York. So it’s near and dear to his heart. This affiliation is something that he had been hoping for as well, so it was no surprise to see Torey pop up to the meetings. When we were down on the field during batting practice, I had a chance to speak with him at length once again. So, no doubt he’ll make the time for both Blue Jays fans, but that connection to Buffalo is something that he’s going to take a step further and make sure he’s part of as well if his schedule allows.
ML: What do you do in the offseason? I’m sure you don’t just kick back and do nothing! What’s on the to-do list?
BW: Well on the to-do list right now is to make sure that we cover every base to provide Bison fans and our new fanbase that is connecting with Buffalo for the first time with as much coverage as possible. A lot of my time recently has been dedicated to try to make sure people through Rogers Communications can find Buffalo and Bison baseball at their fingertips whether it’s from a fan’s perspective or people in the Blue Jays office can pull highlights from our ballgames. We’re going through those channels and making sure we’ve got all our bases covered, to use a horrible pun. Whether it’s radio or television we’re trying to explore a lot of avenues to see if people in Canada can tune into a Bisons game, whether it’d be on TV or radio. We’re doing a lot of legwork right now to see what’s available and what’s also interesting through various media agencies.
On a personal standpoint, football season is here so I’m doing college football on TV, and also during the basketball season I do a lot of broadcasting again in the winter months on the basketball side, covering college basketball on radio and television. So I stay busy. I can’t wait for opening day to roll around because that’s the true passion, so I just try to stay busy enough to stay out of trouble here in Buffalo, and get ready for baseball season coming around.
ML: We're going to end the interview with some lighting round questions. First: who do you have winning the World Series?
[Note: The interview was conducted in the morning of Wednesday, October 10]
BW: Wow. You know what? I thought the team I was going to pick was going to be the Cincinnati Reds, and now with the injury situation—who knows? I really had a tough time watching the games the past couple of days and try to figure out who’s going to go, but I have to stick with my pick and have to say Cincinnati, because that’s the team I had going into it. I’m going to roll with the Reds and hopefully they don’t let me down.
ML: Who’s your pick for the American League MVP?
BW: I’m going to stick with Miguel Cabrera. He’s got to be the MVP, you win a Triple Crown, and that’s something that hasn’t happened in eons since Yaz was able to do it, so I’m going to stick with Miguel Cabrera. I think he’s had a phenomenal year.
ML: Who will manage the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013?
BW: Wow. You talk about a tough question and a lot of debate. That is maybe the burning question we have here in our office as well. But I’m going to stick with what Alex Anthopoulos had said and I think he wants to keep John Farrell, and I think John Farrell wants to really build something in Toronto. I’m going to say John Farrell will manage in 2013.
ML: Who’s your pick for the Ford C. Frick Award?
BW: I voted early, I voted often: Tom Cheek.
I think Ben just made a lot of fans north of the border with that last answer. I hope that this interview has informed you a bit more about the Jays' newest farm team and have piqued your interest in taking a short road trip down to Buffalo to catch a few games in 2013 and beyond!