Minor League Baseball Chief

Offers Ideas for Buffalo Ballpark

> by Andrew Kulyk

The president of Minor League Baseball, Pat O’Conner, was in town last week, making the visit to Coca Cola Field to deliver a prestigious award to Buffalo Bisons third baseman Matt Dominguez.

Playing last season for two different teams in the AAA Pacific Coast League, Dominguez earned the Minor League Gold Glove Award, one of the top distinctions in all of Minor League Baseball.  The award was presented in a short pregame ceremony onfield prior to last Saturday’s Bisons game at the downtown ballpark.

So just who is Pat O’Conner? Not exactly a household name in baseball circles, but O’Conner heads the St. Petersburg, Florida based staff that oversees all of the teams in the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. And that includes the International League, to which the Bisons belong. O’Conner has spent 23 years in that office, elevated to the title of president in December of 2007.

In his tenure with the NAPBL, O’Conner has seen minor league baseball teams grow to new heights in terms of revenues, attendance and franchise values, along with a spate of new construction of ballparks throughout the country and at every level of the sport from short season A all the way to AAA.playball-1

Back in August of 2014, the Buffalo Bisons announced that they have teamed up with the design firm Populous to do a study for what is hoped to be a dramatic remodeling and remake of Buffalo’s Coca Cola Field, now in its 29th season the second oldest park in the International League. At that time the team announced that all special reserved 100 level seats would be replaced with new and wider Kelly green seating, and that was completed in time for the 2015 season.

Since that announcement, things have been quiet from the executive offices at One James D. Griffin Plaza, except for occasional pronouncements that work is in progress and the public and the media would be informed in due time of the team’s plans.

So we sat down with O’Conner, who has toured and visited most of the minor league stadiums throughout the country, including the newest one, Spirit Communications Park, which opened just last week in Columbia, South Carolina. The major question – what would he suggest for design elements for downtown Buffalo’s Coca Cola Field.

“I think that this is one of the first and one of the last cathedral type stadiums. By saying that I’m saying it’s big,” said O’Conner in reference to Buffalo’s Coca Cola Field. “It’s a lot of concrete. It’s very comfortable. And very fan friendly. It was built at a time when large open spaces just weren’t that important. I think that’s a societal change. So start with common areas, with socializing areas. That has now become very, very important. For example, drink rails with high seats, attractive gathering areas, that sort of thing. You don’t build a church for Christmas and Easter. And you don’t build a ballpark for those special nights where you will have a guaranteed sellout.”

Referring to the new ballpark in South Carolina, O’Conner said, “The 360 walkability and views from all around are almost essential in today’s ballpark, and the footprint of your ballpark did not allow that.  Down there they have all sorts of varying and interesting viewing areas down the lines, not necessarily to pump up ballpark capacity, but give fans and families with kids different options for enjoying the entire ballpark. And that’s what today’s modern ballpark is, not just watching a game but appreciating the venue and all the different things it has to offer.”

O’Conner is very much aware that Coca Cola Field has experienced seating capacity reductions (from a high in the 90’s of 21,050 to it’s current capacity of about 17,600). Would a further reduction be in Buffalo’s future? “When you crunch the numbers, you reduce capacity but you do it in such a way as not to reduce revenue. Bucz (Bisons General Manager Mike Buczkowski), like any front office executive, looks at ways to repurpose the space with the goal of getting patrons to spend money and offering them entertainment, food and merchandise options to do just that.”

“When I look at any ticket window at any ballpark, I always ask are you appealing to every demographic possible? To that person who wants a $5 admission just to catch a game, to the guy who wants the cushy seat and wait service and be pampered.  When you can do this you’re inclusive of everyone, every demographic. The newest generation of ballparks offer those options and with the size of this place, the sky’s the limit in terms of what you will be able to do here.”

With over 160 team clients, we put O’Conner on the spot… what’s his favorite ballpark. “I get that question all the time, it’s like asking which is your favorite child,” O’Conner laughed.

But continuing, he said, “I do have some favorite ballparks. At AAA, Huntington Park in Columbus is special. I go back to the parks in Memphis and Des Moines all the time.”

As for Buffalo, “This is a palace park. A Major League park. This is a fan base that deserves the best.  And if there’s any organization that can pull it off, I know it’s right here in Buffalo.”