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Rating Ballparks From the Broadcast Booth

Bisons play-by-play voice Ben Wagner looks at International League venues

Fans who visit ballparks and stadiums are usually on the prowl for customer amenities—good things to eat, play areas for the kids, superb scoreboards, and entertainment diversions. Players and coaches have a keen eye on the creature comforts available in the clubhouses, things like weight rooms, exercise machinery and batting cages.

So what is it that a broadcaster looks for when traveling to a baseball game to call a game? And which of the ballparks in the International League rate among the best of the best?

The person to ask these questions is Buffalo Bisons play-by-play voice Ben Wagner, who took the helm of the Buffalo radio booth in 2007, and pretty much calls all 144 games of the team’s schedule, home and away. Since taking over the broadcast duties, Wagner has seen the International League undergo drastic changes, with franchise shifts from Ottawa and Richmond to Lehigh Valley and Gwinnett, as well as the opening of several new ballparks.

“One of the first things I look for when I get to the booth is the backdrop of the ballpark, the feel and the look of the place. Sometimes when it’s a downtown venue, you get the noise and murmur of the streets. You can feel the city life and things going on around it. Other ballparks, you may not be able to hear the hustle and bustle of the city, the fire trucks screaming by, vendors in the streets, things like that. I try to view the venue as a fan, but also get my bearings in terms of sightlines because if I need to call the game, it’s the first thing I want to get acclimated with,” said Wagner.

Being in the media, it’s important that easy and unfettered access from the press level to the clubhouse and the field be part of a good stadium design. “My day involves two important pieces—getting the game lineup and the pregame interview. When I get to the ballpark I want to set up the equipment and then hustle downstairs right away. Bobbing and weaving through crowds and concession people can be a challenge. These are some of the stupid little things that become important over the course of 144 games.”

Buffalo rates in the middle of the pack according to Wagner, stressing the superior view of the field and corners from Coca Cola Field’s high pressbox, but lamenting the lack of open windows to the seating bowl. “Windows, number one,” said Wagner. “You get a cool effect from hearing the full murmurs of the crowd and the energy that comes off the fans.”

In total, the International League has come a long way since he started calling Bisons games. “They not only continue to upgrade the facilities, but correctly analyze and evaluate the trends in the markets,” said Wagner. His favorites? “What they have now in Columbus is astronomical.” Huntington Park in the city’s downtown arena district opened in 2009. “I like destination places for baseball people. I think it’s imperative that for the arrival of a ballpark that’s moving downtown, that it be beneficial for the local economy around it. And if you have a love affair from the local community, it trickles into the building. That is when the ballpark experience succeeds, from the moment fans pull into their parking space and make their way to the venue.”

Like Charlotte, for example? Their new BB&T Ballpark in Uptown Charlotte opened this season to rave reviews. “The skyline almost topples into the field. Their stadium went from worst to first in the league, as before we had to travel miles into South Carolina to this awful desolate stadium, we all packed in to travel vans for the trip over,” said Wagner. “Now you have a place with vibe and with life. Now it’s a social destination. It’s an entertainment venue first and foremost.”

Wagner also has a bias for Indianapolis, as their Victory Field is located on the edge of a bustling and vibrant downtown core. “I’m from Indiana and it becomes a destination for me and for friends and families,” said Wagner. “I blow out the comp list for tickets,” he joked. But actually, I rank Louisville ahead of Indianapolis. It’s an easy trip from the clubhouse to the press level. It’s an easy trip to the field. But they did so many things right, in a part of the center town that’s having its own renaissance. And their staff, especially my fellow broadcaster, goes the extra mile to accommodate us and take care of all our needs. These relationships fostered through the years make it fun to do the job.”

There have been many stories from the road—engineering glitches with the broadcast, the inevitable visa issues with a foreign player on the roster as the team headed across the border towards Ottawa. But one of the more memorable broadcast experiences had to be in 2012, when the Bisons traveled to Boston’s famed Fenway Park to play the Pawtucket Red Sox in the annual Fenway Futures event. “It was great,” said Wagner. We drove all night to Fenway, it was a chaotic day, but to soak it all in, not a moment of that experience was lost on me. We sat in the visitors broadcast booth, where many greats of the game have sat for a really long time. I think it’s OK to be giddy about it. I don’t know if I will ever get back there, but we were there, with my partners Duke McGuire and Pat Malacaro, and the whole big league experience, it is something that I will never forget.”

With talks starting to rustle about further upgrades to Buffalo’s Coca Cola Field, Wagner offered these rapid fire ideas for future enhancements: “Lower the overall capacity of the ballpark, expand picnic and party deck areas, create a diamond view fan experience behind home plate, and a safe and inviting area for a children’s playground.”

“Speaking selfishly?” Wagner concluded. “Of course, enhanced press and broadcast facilities. And windows. Definitely windows.”

Around the Bases... (CNU22 Edition)

• Over 1200 people descended on Buffalo last week for the Congress For New Urbanism convention in Buffalo. A number of participants dropped by the school day game at Coca Cola Field last Thursday morning, where Bisons President Jon Dandes gave our visitors a tour of the ballpark.

• Regrettably, the CNU printed materials and guides did not include a reference or suggestion to visit downtown Buffalo’s ballpark. It could have read something like this: “Opened in 1988, Coca Cola Field, home of the AAA Buffalo Bisons, is located on the site where once stood Ellsworth Statler’s very first hotel. Designed by HOK Sport, it was considered a trendsetter in urban ballpark design, mimicking the retro look of baseball fields of the earlier 20th century, and became the design template for major league ballparks in Baltimore, Denver, San Francisco and St. Louis. Buffalo’s stadium achievement was also replicated in dozens of minor league cities, where many new urban-based ballparks have been constructed over the past quarter century”.

• Nonetheless, it is certain that a majority of local preservationists and urban activists treasure our baseball team and beautiful ballpark, where over 500,000 patrons visit every season, contributing to the ongoing growing vitality and energy of our city and its downtown core.

• Cheers and congratulations to local urbanist leaders Chuck Banas, Chris Hawley, Nate Neuman, Mike Puma and David Torke for all the great work they did in welcoming the world to our great city and CNU22.

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