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LOTS TO UNPACK AS BUFFALO BISONS SET TO ‘PLAY BALL’

35th season downtown in the league’s oldest ballpark

By Andrew Kulyk

Check out the date. It was still March and the Buffalo Bisons took to the field to open up the 2023 season, their 38th season of triple A in the modern era and 35th season downtown. The team opened this year this past Friday in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and come home to Buffalo come Tuesday holding a 2-1 record on this young season.

On the first day of practice this past week, groundskeepers at Sahlen Field were scurrying about making touch ups to the field. Pallets upon pallets of canned and bottled beverages jammed the loading dock entrance, all in preparation to serve customers on Opening Day Tuesday. Players were exploring around amidst the labyrinth of clubhouse rooms, still acclimating themselves to their new digs. And the media interview room? In walked manager Casey Candaele, beaming from ear to ear. “Buffalo, I love it here! Give me a table to jump on!” exclaimed Candaele, referring to a well known tailgate ritual done at Buffalo Bills games.

Candaele returns to Buffalo for his third season as Bisons manager, although fans who follow the team haven’t really seen that much of him around these parts. In 2021 the team relocated to a temporary home in Trenton, New Jersey, while the parent Toronto Blue Jays took of residence at the downtown ballpark for a good portion of the season. The Bisons didn’t return home that season until the middle of August. Then in 2022, Candaele got a callup of his own. a promotion to Toronto as a bench coach, where he served through the end of the regular season and the MLB playoffs.

Baseball in March. “I’ve been here before. Like in April, you just try to battle through it until it gets warm. Everybody’s in the same boat so if you can get the games in that’s great. We’ll go out and we’ll deal with it.”, said Candaele, as his players were prepping for a team meeting while a spotty drizzle and 40 degree temperatures awaited outside.

Like many AAA teams, the Bisons will roll out a roster of many unfamiliar names to local fans. Two familiar pitchers who have seen time in Buffalo are Casey Lawrence and Nate Pearson, both on the current active roster.

Another somewhat familiar name with a Buffalo connection is veteran outfielder Wynton Bernard, who attended Niagara University before going into professional baseball. At 32, Bernard spent much of his career in the minor leagues, getting his first ever major league callup last August with the Colorado Rockies, where he played in 12 games.

Bernard talked to the media on Tuesday, and sounded genuinely excited to be wearing the Bisons uniform to open the season. “It’s pretty sweet. My life has certainly come full circle. It’s not home, but it certainly was my home for a couple years.” Bernard was happy to join the Blue Jays organization during the offseason, citing their commitment to winning and taking the next step towards a possible World Series run. AQs for the Bisons? “We have a solid team here and everyone had a really good spring training. Hopefully everyone will do well here and in the big leagues too” said Bernard.

Lots of new things in Bisonsland this year.

To begin with, AAA baseball announced a new playoff format, after scrapping postseason play due to Covid and the reduction in the roster of organized minor league baseball franchises.

Starting this season, the schedule will be broken into two halves. The first half champion, which ends on June 25, will host a best of three playoff series come late September. The opponent in that series will be the second half winner.

The eventual winner of that playoff contest will be crowned International League Champion and will face off against the Pacific Coast champs in Las Vegas for AAA supremacy.

“It’s not where we used to be in terms of playoffs, but it’s a start,” said Bisons General Manager Anthony Sprague this past week. The team last hosted playoff baseball in 2005. The team won the International League regular season champion title in 2021, in a year where they played most of their home schedule in Trenton, New Jersey. There was no playoff tournament that year.

The team has partnered with a company called SpotOn to introduce mobile concessions ordering service. “We’ll be starting with select concession stands to start,” said Sprague, “with the hopes of eventually making this feature available for all our food menu.” Fans will be able to access this service via a QR code which will be on the scoreboard and go to prompts from there.

Speaking of concessions, it will be pierogi, pierogi, pierogi, this year, as the team is bringing in Alexandra’s Pierogi to a new concession stand in the home plate concourse area. They will be offering several varieties, sweet cheese, kraut, potato and bacon and potato/onion. But the headline will certainly be a special “Polish Poutine” pierogi dish – dumplings topped with bourbon gravy and cheese curds.

The in house restaurant, Consumer’s Pub At The Park, has a new and remodeled bar area, and down the first base side is a double in size Resurgence Beer Garden, a popular hangout at the Fridaynightbash events.

The Bisons have also partnered with Marvel to produce a specially designed Bisons Marvel logo, depicting a fierce Bisons emerging from a harsh Buffalo winter. There will be two Marvel inspired promotions this year – on Friday, May 19 and on Saturday, September 9.

Like everything in life, ticket prices will go up this year. “We are doing our best to try and keep this a family affordable experience”, said Sprague. Window prices on the day of game will be 19.50 for special reserved seats, 16.50 for reserved seats, and 13.50 for youth and senior citizens. It pays to plan early – customers can save $3 a ticket for advance purchases. The team will also accept Canadian money at par for ticket purchases through the end of May. With the US dollar trading at roughly $1.35 Canadian, those savings add up.

Sprague is hopeful that fans from Canada will return to Buffalo, after three lost seasons due to the Covid pandemic, and then ever shifting testing and vaccination requirements to be able to cross the border. Travel between Canada and the United States has pretty much returned to normal.

The team is ready, presenting baseball in what is now the oldest ballpark in the International League. Even with all the additions and improvements that have been made to Sahlen Field over these past few years, most notably the HD scoreboard by the team, replacement seating in a good portion of the seating bowl, and massive enhancements by the parent Blue Jays during their two year residency here (new playing field, lighting, and complete overhaul of the service level and clubhouse). Sprague is promising more. “We’re going to be turning our attention to fan areas, and what we could be doing to make this an even better fan experience moving forward,” Sprague promised.

It all starts Tuesday afternoon. Newly retired local sports radio personality Howard Simon gets the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Where would you rather be than at Sahlen Field?