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A Major League Effort for Buffalo

September 06, 1988|RICHARD JUSTICE | The Washington Post

BUFFALO — The outside of the ballpark is neoclassical and blends nicely into the carved doorways and chiseled gargoyles of a proud city's historic preservation district.

It calls to mind Ebbets Field and Connie Mack Stadium, with its arches, backlit colonnades and marble tiles. And as recent stadium architecture has produced facilities that resemble spaceships more than ballparks, $43 million Pilot Field may be the next logical step.

Architects for the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles apparently intend to design similar structures, hoping to somehow combine the aesthetics of the '20s with the efficiency of the '80s.

Which Buffalo, of all places, has done. Outside, Pilot Field is the place thousands of depression-era kids still may dream about, but inside it's a stunning replica of Royals Stadium with its symmetrical design, impeccable sight lines and easy access.

In between, though, are touches no one has ever put into a stadium and another of a dozen or so reasons why Buffalo has been one of baseball's most amazing success stories in the summer of '88.

It's about an operation that has been so efficently run and so stunningly effective that when the gears of expansion finally grind into motion, Buffalo is no longer just another candidate. It's The Candidate, the new model for every Washington, Tampa and Nashville, a city that has decided it won't be refused.

It's the city that decided to do everything correctly, a place that knew if it didn't come up with dramatic (and fast) results, the expansion derby would sweep through to the bigger cities.

"The dream that everyone in baseball shares is getting to the majors," said Robert E. "Bob" Rich, chairman of Rich Products, owner of the Class AAA Buffalo Bisons and the driving force behind Buffalo's expansion campaign. "It's the thing that everyone shares, including the shortstop in Appleton, Wisconsin, and every city with a minor league team. Well, how does that shortstop get there? He does it by putting up the numbers. We decided to put up the numbers."

So they opened a new stadium right downtown this year and drew more fans (1.186 million) than any minor league team in history.

They put together a 40-person major league marketing and public relations staff that has been so stunningly effective that season-ticket sales had to be cut off.

They built a 19,500-seat stadium that has everything, including a plan that would expand it to 40,000 seats in five months. It has a 300-seat restaurant that's open daily and has been packed whether there's a game or not. It has 38 luxury suites. It has a food court (which is also open daily in the hope of getting downtown workers into the habit of walking from their offices to the ballpark) that serves everything from manicotti to ribs to chocolate chip cookies.

Every concession stand is equipped with a charbroiler, proving that a ballpark hot dog doesn't have to be a boiled weenie on a soggy bun. It has roast beef (a Buffalo staple along with chicken wings and soft-shell tacos) that is sliced while you wait and ice cold beer and soft drinks are guaranteed not to be watery.

It has wheelchair seating throughout the stadium "because I hate the way teams corral (disabled people) in one area like they're not fit to be with the rest of society," Rich said.

It has women's lounges that not only are spotless, but that come with full-length mirrors, makeup trays and changing tables for babies. It has a nightly tent party and five fireworks shows and birthday cakes.

"Our philosophy is to control the uncontrollables," Rich said, "and in the minor leagues that means controlling the things away from the field. If you own the New York Yankees, you've got Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly to market. You don't have those guys here, and if you do get them you don't keep them long. A few fans will want to come out and see a Gregg Jefferies (of Tidewater, now playing well for the Mets) because he's supposed to be one of the next superstars. But most people don't follow it closely."

So Rich, 43, a nonstop talker and hand-shaker, MBA and a member of 18 corporate boards, decided to concentrate on other things.

"It's the experience," said Mindy Rich, his wife and a former ad executive for Bristol-Myers. "You remember the touches. Someone may leave here remembering the Bisons lost another game, but still enjoying the experience."

The Bisons have been so popular that the Riches stopped season-ticket sales at 9,000 "so there would always be some tickets available," Rich said.

"People called up and told me I'd flipped, that any idiot knew not to turn people with money away. But I saw it with the (NHL) Sabres and know of it happening in other places. You're hot and you sell out every seat before the season starts. You shut down your group-sales department and cut back on marketing. You're in good shape for a few years, but one day you look up, your best players have retired, your fans are old and the team is struggling.

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