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Buffalo Bisons set to welcome LGBTQ community to Coca Cola field

Out at the Ballpark:
Why This Matters

Buffalo Bisons set to welcome LGBTQ community to Coca Cola Field

Themed nights are nothing new as far as baseball promotions are concerned, and the Buffalo Bisons have rolled them out along with the best of them, ever since they branded the “Every Game’s An Event” theme when they moved downtown in 1988.

Italian night. Armed Forces night. Faith night. Irish night. But a Gay and Lesbian night?

Mark it down. It’s happening. Come July 16th, the Buffalo Bisons, working in conjunction with the WNY Pride Center, are staging “Out At the Ballpark,” a promotion to welcome the LGBTQ fellowship to an evening of baseball. The Bisons take on the Columbus Clippers with a 7:05pm start, and the festivities start with an outfield tent party at 5pm.

Make no mistake, this is huge. While the Buffalo Bisons have never displayed any animus towards the gay community, never before have they made any effort to be overly welcoming either. And remember the organization’s DNA—the team was revived at the AA level in 1979 by a community ownership group spearheaded by then Mayor James Griffin. Even today, the late mayor is either beloved or reviled, depending on who you talk to, and his leadership was huge in bringing baseball back to Buffalo. He led the charge to build a new ballpark, passionately (though unsuccessfully) lobbied Major League Baseball for an expansion team for our city, and recruited Rich Products owner Bob Rich to step in and take ownership of the team when the franchise was in a precarious financial hole. Coca Cola Field could aptly be named “The House That Griffin Built”, and today his statue graces the plaza in front of the ballpark, an honor richly deserved.

But Griffin also had a darker side, often displaying a loud and shrill disdain for the gay community, once famously labeling gays and lesbians as “fruits.”

That was then, and the Bisons reaching out now just shows how much the world has changed, and in such a short period of time. “They approached us,” said Matthew Crehan Higgins, Director of the WNY Pride Center, referring to the Bisons. “Once we got the details and date down and simply announced the event on social media, the response was instantly enthusiastic. In fact, we initially got more response and RSVPs to the Bisons game than to the Pride Parade, which is our big annual event.”

Buffalo Bisons Account Executive Robert Kates, who is the point person for the Out at the Ballpark event, confirmed that the team reached out. “Each off season we start getting together as a staff to start brainstorming new ideas. What can we do for new promotions. What can we do for new groups. Is there anybody out there that we have not reached out to, and the LGBTQ community was one that we had not contacted before. So once we kicked around the idea we decided this was something we could really get behind, and really making it an event.”

Kates was emphatic in stating that there was no reluctance or push back within the organization to conceptualizing such an event, and that goes to the very top of Bisons executive management. “Not one bit,” said Kates. “This is how we want the night presented, and the bosses said, ‘run with it.’ We then approached Matt (Crehan Higgins) and they were instantly on board. In fact, he said ‘we are kind of shocked that you called us,’” Kates added.

For the Pride Center, the Bisons promotion comes on the heels of the most successful Pride Week ever staged by their organization, with tens of thousands attending the weeklong festivities, capped by last Sunday’s parade and festival at Canalside. The event has clearly gone mainstream, with many families and children in attendance taking part in the fun.

“We have been welcomed to places that seemed unreachable before,” said Crehan Higgins. “But we do sometimes make assumptions on who is welcoming and who isn’t, and I guess I realized that I at first made an assumption that that is a place we would not be welcomed. So we scheduled the meeting, wanting to make sure that we were not just a vehicle for us to sell tickets for them. They made it clear that this was not the case, that we would have a say on how the promotion was presented, who would sing the anthems, and what elements would be included in the scope of activity that surround the event. From there they made good on that, and they have been doing exactly what their stated intentions were when they first approached us.”

At the MLB level, as many as 27 of the 30 teams have held targeted promotions for their lesbian and gay communities over the past decade or so. The first one took place at a Toronto Blue Jays game at Rogers Center in 2004, with star of the acclaimed Showtime series Queer as Folk Sharon Gless and Canadian Olympic diving gold medalist Mark Tewksbury taking part in the festivities and ceremonial first pitches. The event was a huge success, and in a multi cultural world class city such as Toronto, showcasing a gay and lesbian night at a baseball game offered a perfect stage,

Other teams followed. In 2007 the Philadelphia Phillies rolled out their first Pride Night. “We got exactly one phone call of complaint, a concerned mother who raised the question, ‘what about the children who are in attendance at the game?’” said Community Relations Director Deb Rinaldi. “I replied, ‘what exactly do you think your children are going to see?’ My response was met with dead silence.”

Cyd Zeigler is co-founder of, a news web site devoted to gay and lesbian athletes and to sports fans and enthusiasts within the gay community, which was launched in 2001 and became a part of SB Nation in 2012. Zeigler, who lives in Los Angeles, stated that such events were more meaningful at one time, but are less significant as the gay and lesbian movement has become more homogenized. “The idea that LGBT people are in sports just isn’t a foreign notion anymore,” said Zeigler. But for the local LGBT communities, they are wonderful rallying points to continue to wave the rainbow flag in sports. Important? Not really. Fun and affirming? Absolutely.”

Gays now openly serve in the American military; Marriage Equality is legal in 37 states and possibly soon to become the law of the land with a Supreme Court decision coming as soon as this month, and more and more gay people, couples and families seamlessly integrate themselves into mainstream society. Yet sports still remains almost the last wall that has yet to be shattered.

In the four major sports, NBA player Jason Collins made history last spring when he stepped on the court for the New Jersey Nets, becoming the first openly gay player to compete at the highest level of sports. He wore the number 98 in honor of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was murdered in 1998 in a hate crime.

Collins became a free agent at the end of last season and not picked up by any other team, and retired this past November.

For football player Michael Sam, his story had a predictable outcome. A standout linebacker, in college he came out while at Missouri and his announcement was warmly received by his teammates. In the 2014 NFL draft, he was chosen in the 7th round by the St. Louis Rams, and ESPN cameras were trained on him as he embraced his boyfriend backstage, and even President Barack Obama sent a congratulatory telegram to Sam and to the NFL.

Sam was cut by the Rams despite a good preseason showing. He ended up on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad, where he was later waived, and now plays for the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL.

“Sports is one of those arenas where it’s still very hard to identify that way,” said Crehan Higgins. “When it comes to gay athletes, there’s still the public that really doesn’t expect it. But these men who did come out have blazed a trail, and have built the courage for others to come out in the locker room. Change does happen and will happen, but it comes slowly. As time goes on we will see more and more of that as people get more comfortable and see that nothing has changed and people can interact with a gay person on the field like any member of the team.”

Zeigler agreed with that thought. “Nobody can predict when we’ll have more out pro athletes. It’ll only happen when the athletes find the courage to come out. We can’t do much more to help them than is already being done.”

Bisons Public Relations Director Brad Bisbing is responsible for interacting with the Bisons players on many levels, and has perhaps more access to the team clubhouse than any staffer in the organization. When asked if having an openly gay player on the Bisons team would be disruptive or a distraction, he replied, “Absolutely not. These guys arrive here and instantly bond with each other as a team, and are all competing for the next step, to land a spot on the major league roster. That’s their focus. I am not aware if we have or have had a gay player on the team, but if that were ever the case, I know it would be a non issue.”

And in fact, in 2004, Bisbing’s first season with the Bisons, there was a bit of a firestorm when it was revealed that Bisons pitcher and Cleveland Indians prospect Kazuhito Tadano had appeared as an actor in a gay porn film produced in his native Japan. The Cleveland Indians took a proactive response to the media deluge, staging a news conference and pretty much a “no rules or restrictions” approach to questions. Under the glare of the local and national media spotlight, Tadano stated he was not gay, the whole film thing was a college stunt and a youthful indiscretion, he didn’t care what people thought, offered no apologies, and just wanted to play the game he loved. Questions were asked to the point of exhaustion, the buzz died down quickly, and Tadano quietly went back to Buffalo to pitch for the Bisons. He eventually got promoted to Cleveland, and finished his playing career in the Japan League. In other words, just like Bisbing said, a non issue.

Both Kates and Bisbing have been buoyed by the enthusiastic response since announcing Out At the Ballpark, and are predicting even before this year’s date that the promotion will return in 2016. “We’ve had a great response,“ said Kates. Crehan Higgins laughed and added, “We talked about having Buster Bison dressed in drag. Don’t know if we’ll take it that far, but hopefully some nice surprises in store that everyone can appreciate and enjoy.” Cyd Zeigler offered this advice to the Bisons: “Embrace the event. Hoist rainbow flags. Have an LGBT person throw out the opening pitch. If the team fully embraces and co-owns the event with the community, they’ll sell more tickets and look better for it.”

And if Jimmy Griffin were alive today, where would he be on this whole thing? Melissa Kania was a young gay activist in Buffalo in the 70s and 80s, and often crossed swords with Hizzoner back in the day. Now working as a field director for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, DC, Kania said, “I just know that the Jimmy of today would head down to that pregame party, hang out with the Pride Center folks, crack open a beer and say live and let live. That’s the beauty of baseball; the love of the sport unites people. It is so perfect that the Bisons are doing this. Really, our world and our society has changed in such substantial good ways.”

The Buffalo Bisons are going Out At the Ballpark. The world has indeed changed.

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