By Andrew Kulyk
There are bobbleheads and then there are bobbleheads.
Over the years, the Buffalo Bisons have treated their fans with special giveaway promotions, often showcasing some of the greatest and most memorable players to wear the Buffalo uniform.
Yet few promotions have caused a buzz and a stir more than this weekend’s bobblehead giveaway, featuring none other than the legendary Mark Aichinger.
Aichinger has never played in a Buffalo uniform. He hasn’t set any baseball records. He hasn’t wowed the fans with his athletic prowess. Yet here he is, the center of a raucous celebration of his presence and achievement and his participation in everything that is Buffalo baseball.
For over 30 years, Mark Aichinger has showboated, and screamed, and heckled, and cheered, from his perch just a few rows up in section 102 at Sahlen Field. A special needs individual who deals with vision and hearing issues, the 59 year old Aichinger can be seen clutching a radio close to his ear as he listens to the radio play by play broadcast. His presence can be heard, and felt, throughout the ballpark, amongst the fans, the front office and game day staff, and most importantly, the players and coaches who hear loud and clear when Aichinger heaps his cheers on his beloved Bisons, or his scorn on the opposing team. He has clearly earned the title of “Superfan”, even eclipsing the “Joe Byron Fan of Year” award, which he was awarded in 1997.
Assistant General Manager Brad Bisbing revealed that the planning for this event actually began before the 2022 season. “Going into last season, we weren’t quite sure what the (Covid) protocols were going to be. We wanted to make sure to do a celebration that really pays tribute to Mark in the best way possible. But this year, in our winter brainstorming meetings, we said ‘this is the year, let’s do it.’”, said Bisbing.
Sahlen Field, ‘nee Pilot Field, has had its share of celebrity characters over the thirty year plus history downtown. Team driven vendors such as the Earl Of Bud, Larry the peanut guy, and the ageless Conehead have entertained, between hawking beer and peanuts in the concourse and in the stands. In the early years of the stadium, noted octogenarian fan “Quinny The Twister” joined up with young Bisons interns to pump out the dances to the Chubby Checker song “Let’s Twist”. During the team’s multi year playoff runs, and three league championships starting in the late 90s, Paul Siska and his “megaphone maniacs” led the charge from their seats right above the Bisons dugout, then on the first base side.
Yet no one, no supporter of the team, has had such an enduring run as Aichinger. His signature insult, “You Stink”, has not only become a rallying cry. It is now a social media hashtag.
This weekend’s festivities have drawn attention throughout the baseball world. “We’ve heard from players and coaches that haven’t set foot in Buffalo for fifteen or twenty years, “said Bisbing. “And we’re still getting tweets and messages from former players saying stuff like, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing!’” Bisbing said that former Bisons Alex Ramirez and Jason Cooper, mainstays of the team in the late 90s and now both overseas, have sent messages of support. And they are among many formerly associated with the team who have asked, “how do I get my Aichinger bobblehead”.
This past week the Bisons announced that the bobblehead allotment had been increased to 3000 at the turnstiles. By the time the gates opened at 5pm, one hour before gametime, the line of fans snaked all the way down Washington Street and past the parking ramp.
The last time any Bisons bobblehead giveaway garnered so much attention was back in 2005, when the team hosted the late NBC news journalist Tim Russert, a Buffalo native, along with his son Luke and dad “Big Russ”. Three generations of Russerts at the ballpark, while fans lucky enough to be first in line got their own Russert bobblehead souvenir, a likeness depicting him holding a chalkboard listing, “Buffalo! Buffalo! Buffalo!”. This was a knockoff of the same chalkboard shown on TV on election night in 2000, when Russert was amongst the first national correspondents to reveal that that year’s presidential election all came down to “Florida! Florida! Florida!”
And as incredible as it sounds even to hear it, the current Mark Aichinger bobblehead buzz has been that much bigger.
Saturday night’s festivities, staged by the Bisons’ game ops crew, hit all the triggers. Aichinger was invited on to the field to throw a ceremonial first pitch to Bisons general manager Anthony Sprague. The evening was replete with tribute videos from former Bisons players and managers, including former managers Brian Graham, Jeff Datz, Torey Lovullo and current manager Casey Candaele. Even former Bisons play by play man Jim Rosenhaus, now a member of the Cleveland Guardians broadcast crew, chimed in with words of support.
Game ops even presented a “You Stink Cam”, Aichinger’s signature pose where he raises one arm, gestures towards his armpit with his finger from his other arm, while shouting “You Stink” to heckle opposing players. The fans got it, many captured mimicking the gesture on the Bisons HD board.
With the Bisons holding a 7-0 lead over the Indianapolis Indians as the game went to the top of the ninth, Aichinger had his final moment. Standing from his seat behind home plate and turning backwards towards the crowd, thunderous applause rained back down on him. He gestured with his arms to cheer even louder, and the fans responded in kind.
It was one of those feel good moments, crafted by a baseball organization to do things inside the stadium which transcend the game on the field. “We still embrace the slogan, ‘Every Game’s An Event”, said Bisbing.
And like many events at Sahlen Field, this one will resonate for a long, long time.