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Minor League's Biggest Stars Come to Buffalo

Memories of the 1988 AAA All Star Game: Collins, Smith, DiStefano, Alomar.

It's the 25th AAA All Star Game

It is appropriate that Buffalo will host AAA baseball’s 25th All Star Game and festivities next week. For it was right here in Buffalo that the first ever such event took place. In 1988, in what was then known as Pilot Field, a packed of house of 19,500 and a national television audience watching on ESPN saw the National League All Stars beat the American League All Stars 2-1. And Buffalo got to tell the nation that we were worthy of being a Major League city. Indeed, the race was on for which two cities would land the next expansion slots in baseball, and Buffalo was primed to show that we were more than up to the distinction.

What few people know is that the very idea of an All Star Game at the minor league level was almost an afterthought. Mike Buczkowski, the Bisons’ vice president and general manager, has been with the team for its entire tenure at the downtown ballpark, and well remembers what led to the creation of the event.

“The idea came up in the winter meetings of 1987 in Dallas,” said Buczkowski, who back then was the Bisons’ public relations director. “The league presidents all kicked around the idea…We were opening up a new ballpark, so our general manager said, ‘Hey, we’ll do it.’ We got ESPN on board. Great things were happening in Buffalo, so we figured it would be a good showcase for the sport in the new ballpark. I don’t remember there being any bidding or anything like that. It was just like, ‘Okay, let’s do it there in Buffalo.’”

The 25th AAA All Star Game

Home Run Derby

Monday, July 9, 7pm (gates open at 5pm), Coca Cola Field

Format: Three sluggers each from the International League and Pacific Coast League squads will participate in a three-round elimination derby, with each player allowed 10 outs per round; any non-home-run is considered an out. Most homers in the final round will be awarded the championship of the Home Run Derby. Additionally, there will be 32 targets throughout the ballpark. If hit, prizes will be awarded to a lucky fan, a section, or even all fans in attendance.

Entertainment: There will also be a Celebrity Home Run Derby, which will include former Buffalo Bills Jim Kelly and Joe DeLamieulleure, Bills running back Fred Jackson, Bills CEO Russ Brandon, Sabres winger Patrick Kaleta, and several others. The Famous Chicken will also be in the house.

All Star Luncheon

Wednesday, July 11, noon, Adams Mark Hotel. (This event is sold out.)

The keynote speaker will be New York Mets Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, who is well remembered as a lynchpin of the 1969 World Series champs.

AAA All Star Game

Wednesday, July 11, 7pm (gates open at 5pm), Coca Cola Field

Format: All Stars of the International League vs. All Stars of the Pacific Coast League

Television: MLB Network

Entertainment: There will be a spectacular fireworks show following the game. Iconic vendor the Earl of Bud will return to Buffalo and do his signature dugout dance. Outside the ballpark on the plaza, the Coca Cola Swelter Stopper truck and the Kinect for Xbox 360 exhibits will be available for fans to enjoy.

The Bisons pretty much had to fly from the seat of their pants in producing and executing the event from scratch. “There was no manual,” Buczkowski said. “We had to write it and pass it along to the next city. That city was Columbus. They tweaked the manual and passed it along to the next host, and now here it is 25 years later, and here we are again.”

The most substantial change to the event is that has become that much bigger. In 1988 it was simply a game. The Home Run Derby was hastily put together before the game itself, where sluggers from both squads were called upon to take a few hacks and put on a show for the early arriving fans. Now it has evolved to become a separate event. “There was no Derby, there was no gala,” explained Buczkowski. “The first one was easier in some ways, because we could do whatever we wanted to do. Now the bar is raised and you want to outdo the ones who ran the previous event, so that puts pressure on us to make it bigger and better.”

Seasoned fans will remember the heady times that surrounded the bringing of this game to Buffalo. Pilot Field had opened to rave reviews just three months earlier, and fans were coming in droves to experience a ballpark that had no peer in minor league baseball. National news stories were waxing poetic about Buffalo. Larry King of CNN was telling the world about the special place that had captured the imagination of baseball enthusiasts everywhere. In fact, King had agreed to participate in team owner Bob Rich Jr.’s investment group as a minor partner for an expansion team.

And then there was Rich, going to the baseball meetings, symbolically waving a checkbook and demanding that Buffalo be let in to the exclusive family of Major League cities, a perch which Buffalo had not enjoyed since 1885, the Bisons’ final season in the National League.

ESPN televised that very first game live, and back in 1988 cable TV was just beginning to explode into today’s multi-channel universe. Most subscribers had at most 20 channels on their dials, and being the day after the Major League All Star Game, there were no sporting events going on anywhere else. It was almost a perfect storm of TV viewers with eyes trained on Buffalo, and as the cameras went live to the panorama of downtown Buffalo and the new stadium, announcers Jim Kaat and Gary Thorne showed the national audience the true Buffalo spirit. “As we were ready to go live, our PA announcer was pumping up the crowd, so by the time we were on this ballpark was in a frenzy,” Buczkowski saud. “That was electric.”

Kaat and Thorne were fully prepped about the negative stereotypes surrounding Buffalo. By the time the telecast was finished, the announcers had shared their observations about our city’s good weather, its friendly people, and the team’s great fans.

Buczkowski knows that the onus will be on his front office team to put on a memorable showcase for what is expected to be a full house next week. “I would venture to guess that there will be at least 20 to 25 executives involved in baseball that will be here and who will have attended both of the events, the one back in 1988 and now this one,” he said. “I have told our staff that I want to hear from these people ‘We came to Buffalo and it was a great experience again. The ballpark still looks great, it still feels great, they have great fan support, and it’s still a great venue.’ Even though we’re now one of the oldest ballparks, this is still a great place to be.”

Back in 1988, in addition to the ESPN production crew, the Bisons welcomed national writers from USA Today, the New York Times, and daily newspapers in neighboring major league cities. While the buzz this time around will be somewhat more muted, Bisons public relations director Brad Bisbing expects a full house in the press box, including out-of-town media outlets. He and his staff will tend not only to interview requests and the more elaborate series of events that will span three full days here in Buffalo, but also to the myriad tasks that deal with the live-cast on the website, and live tweeting and blogging. “We didn’t have these sort of things back in the day,” said Buczkowski. Director of entertainment Matt Lasota and his crew, who already have produced many memorable video and musical vignettes this year as part of the game-day experience, has revealed that there will be great things to watch and experience both on the HD board and on the field to help entertain the fans.

Buczkowski will be glad to welcome the minor league baseball world to Buffalo, but has fingers crossed that all will go off without a hitch. “When we did the first one, I said, ‘Boy, I’m glad I’ll never have to do one of these again.’ Yet here we are. I think this is the appropriate place for this game. This is where it all started…And I’m sure it will be a big success.”

Buczkowski then added one more promise: “I can assure you I will not be around here for the 50th.”

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