Many of us are looking forward to the Toronto Blue Jays' Opening Day on April 2, but we should also pay attention to the Buffalo Bisons' Opening Day a couple days later on April 4 when they play the Rochester Red Wings at 2 pm in Buffalo's beautiful Coca-Cola Field. The Blue Jays game that night starts at 7:07 pm, so conceivably you could catch the Bisons game then make it to the Rogers Centre before the fifth inning (actually, since Mark Buehrle is pitching, maybe the seventh). Tickets are still available at Bisons.com and range from $9-$12 USD. The Bisons' mascot, Buster T. Bison, announced earlier this week that he is so sure the Herd will win on Opening Day that should they lose, everyone in attendance will get a free ticket to a future Friday night game. All fans will also receive a Bisons magnetic schedule.
Back in February, I had a chance to speak with Buffalo Bisons general manager Mike Buczkowski. He doesn't tweet too much, but you can follow him @BuffaloBisonsGM. Because it was a lengthy chat, I separated it into three parts that will appear throughout this week. Today, we will cover a little about the "Bisons Experience".
Minor Leaguer: What does a minor league general manager do?
Mike Buczkowski: Well, a minor league GM does a little bit of everything. I always tell people, that in my case, we have such a great staff that the greatest thing I can do is to stay out of the way and let our staff do their jobs. We have a very experienced staff here—we have a number of people who have been with team for over 20 years and a great wealth of talent and experience. Overall, the minor league GM’s job is to coordinate the staff and to make sure that the ballpark remains a great place for fans to come and visit. We call it the "Bisons Experience" and what we are constantly trying to do is to enhance the Bisons Experience so that when you come to Coca-Cola Field it’s clean, it’s safe, it’s fun, it’s affordable, there is great value there, and you enjoy a great day or night at the ballpark with your family or your friends.
ML: How did you get this job? You’ve been with the Bisons for over 20 years now, right?
MB: I’ve been with the team for 25 years. I started in 1987, which was our last year at our old ballpark at War Memorial Stadium—that’s where The Natural was filmed. I kind of got lucky. I was working at a radio station that was broadcasting the Bisons’ games and they had an opening in mid-season for a PR coordinator. The general manager called the radio station and said somebody just left and they needed someone right away, asking if the station had any candidates. I went over to interview on a Friday and started on the Monday because it was right in the middle of the season. So I got my foot in the door that way and eventually became the PR director, then assistant general manager, and before the 1994 season became general manager.
ML: On the PR front, how do you market and promote the Bisons team when you don’t know who will be playing until the end of spring training every year?
MB: Right, and not only that you only get the roster right before Opening Day, the roster can change every day, every other day. Your best player can be gone at any point, if there are injuries—which hopefully there aren’t going to be many for the Jays—you can lose two or three guys in one day. Those are the things we can’t control. A lot of people ask what kind of say we have over who gets called up, and my answer is always that often the only decision we have is whether the guy is on the 7 am flight or the 8 am flight to go join the big league team. Those decisions are made by the parent club and those are the things we can’t control.
But what we can control as a minor league team are the fan experience of coming to a game and enjoying a high level of baseball. If there are fans in southern Ontario and Toronto that have not seen a AAA baseball game, they should know that one of the things I always hear from first-time fans is that they’re surprised at how good the level of play is. Many guys who are in AAA baseball are here because of a numbers game when they are caught in a place where there is just no room for them. It doesn’t mean that if there was an open tryout for all 30 major league teams that the guy won’t make one of the teams. A lot of times guys are just here under circumstances like coming back from an injury. So, without being able to control all that, what we want to control is the fan experience and making this one of the great minor league ballparks in the country.
ML: What are the must-see games, what are the promotional days that we should look forward to this upcoming season?
MB: For all 25 years, every Friday night home game had been a fridaynightbash! We open the ballpark early that day (at 5 pm), invite fans in early for food and drinks specials (we call that Happy Hour) when they get to watch the end of batting practice and then stay for the game. The game usually has a fun theme like classic TV night or trivia night. That theme runs through the night with music and fun things to do between innings for fans. The big staple of the fridaynightbash! is always a post-game fireworks show. Don’t forget that you can catch a good baseball game, and you can do that for $13 a ticket. It’s a great, affordable way to spend a night out. Our ballpark is beautiful, it was built by the same architects (HOK Architects at the time, now called Populus) who went on to build most of the "classic" ballparks in the major leagues such as Camden Yards, Coors Field, Yankee Stadium, and Citi Field. So Coca-Cola Field has that classic look, meant to look like an old time ballpark but with all the modern features. When it’s a beautiful night in the summertime in western New York, here is one of the best places to be.
ML: What’s the temperature like in April?
MB: Think about if Toronto didn’t have a dome, what those days and nights might be like, so definitely there are some challenges in April and May. The weather does play a little role, but then it gets to be so nice here in the summertime. We don’t get the 100-degree heat or the humidity. Most of our promotions—our bigger promotions—do start in June for that reason for that reason, and for when the kids are out of school.
ML: Tell me about the fanbase in Buffalo.
MB: So much of what we rely on for our fanbase is really two-fold: we have the baseball fans that want to see certain players or opponents play, or people who just love baseball, but we do family entertainment as well. We don’t consider our competition to be the Buffalo Bills or the Buffalo Sabres, we consider our competition to be anything that families are looking to do in the summertime, whether that’s amusement parks, or going to the movies, or taking small vacations. We want to be in that mix, we want people to consider the ballpark in those terms.
In the past, it was difficult to hook onto an affiliate. At first we were with the Pittsburgh Pirates, had a long time affiliation with the Cleveland Indians, and for the past four years with the New York Mets. What’s great about this affiliation with the Blue Jays is that it gives our fans a real chance to actively participate and go see the former Bisons that go to Toronto to go play for the Blue Jays, being an hour and a half away. The other places were a little bit too far, but you do notice over time that people did tend to follow those teams a little more closely since they do feel a connection with those players that go up there. The great thing is that they can personally go see them not just see a game on TV or read about it in the newspaper. And not to mention where the Blue Jays are and what they’ve done to transform their team into a contender. The more buzz there is about the Toronto Blue Jays there is in Buffalo, the better for us. Our best years in terms of wins and losses for the Bisons came when the Indians were a perennial playoff team and a World Series contender because their roster was so full, and so stacked with players—much like Blue Jays are now—that there wasn’t a lot of movement because there just wasn’t places for young players to go. If your team is a first place team and has a guy who’s doing well at every position, you don’t make those moves. That afforded the Indians to have their players develop more, continue to have success at the AAA level, and eventually, I believe, that’s what made those players even more ready when they finally got a chance. That created a bit more stability on our roster, and like I said that was when we had our best success.
ML: Is there a reason why the two clubs chose to sign a two-, rather than a four-year contract?
MB: Not really anything more than it has been our tradition to do that. Of all of the years under the ownership of Bob and Mindy Rich, we’ve only signed one three-year agreement with the Cleveland Indians, and there used to be a time you could sign one-year agreements, but that changed. We used to sign just one year at a time. With all that being said, and Paul Beeston have said it and our owners have said it too, we hope that this is the beginning of a 22-year, 42-year agreement. There is so much synergy and opportunity here that both organizations have to work together that we foresee this being a long relationship.
Much thanks go to Mike for speaking with me. Parts 2 and 3 of this interview will be posted over the next week, so keep coming back to Bluebird Banter!