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They Built It, But the MLB Never Came

They Built It, But the MLB Never Came
Flickr/RoswellPark

On Wednesday, the AAA All-Star Game will be held at Buffalo's Coca-Cola Field. It will hardly register a blip on what is annually America's least interesting half-week of sports. It is, however, a celebration of sorts for the ballpark as well as the event, with the host stadium and AAA All-Star Game both celebrating 25 years. It's also a time for the city, and even the sport itself, to look back at how things have changed.

In 1988, then-named Pilot Field debuted with the pomp and circumstance more often seen with a major league stadium. That's because the major leagues was what Buffalo had on its mind all along, not just for baseball but for its national image. 

That civic ambition turned it into a brief and unexpected success story. Here was the 'Armpit of the East', propping itself up with an architectural vanguard of a baseball stadium, accessible via a new light rail system, willing itself toward major league status.

A previous attempt for expansion in 1969 was so close, the The New York Daily erroneously reported that Buffalo, along with San Diego, had been awarded a new franchise (Montreal was awarded expansion instead). Unlike 1969, the city had now rid itself of the notoriously awful War Memorial Stadium and replaced it with an eye-catching new ballpark. The idea was, if the city could build the best baseball stadium in the country and fill it up every night, then the MLB would have no choice but to let the more sports-crazy than wealthy Buffalo have the big league team they wanted.

HOK Sport, now known as Populous, was keen on experimenting with a retro-themed ballpark concept. It was an inevitable shift in stadium design, New Urbanist nostalgia trickling down to tradition-loving baseball, but had at that point still not been done. Those principles merged perfectly in Buffalo, where a growing preservationist community, an eager mayor, and an ownership group looking for a 'wow' factor were all on board with a final product that was about to change how people experience a baseball game.

The idea of a light rail accessible, downtown stadium sharing an already existing parking infrastructure with a daytime workforce was an urban planner's dream come true. Somehow, one of America's most devastated downtowns was teaching the country how to integrate a new stadium into its surroundings.

The stadium included street level amenities like a full-scale restaurant and a team store, and inside, specialty concessions and what was then a massive, state-of-the-art scoreboard — all things unheard of for the minors, and at the time, rarely found in the majors.

Fans showed up in numbers never before seen in minor league history, drawing over a million people each season leading up to baseball's expansion decision. An emerging college rock band even made it the centerpiece of a 1990 music video. The downtown ballpark was a hit, its principles trickling into MLB parks like Baltimore's and Cleveland's soon after.

Ownership and the city did everything it was supposed to do. It built spectacular facilities and filled it up each game those first three and a half seasons, even outdrawing two Major League teams. So when June of 1991 came and Denver and Miami were given the two expansion franchises, the city's pursuit of big time baseball ended as deflating heartbreak to a population just months into coping with 'Wide Right.'

Any city's pursuit of an expansion team is far from certain. In a 1989 New York Times article, an anonymous official from another city pursuing expansion at the time compared the process to getting into Heaven, saying:

"Everybody wants to get there, but nobody knows what the rules are. The rules always change. And the one rule that doesn't change is that you can't get mad when the rules change, since that might hurt your chances."

St. Petersburg, Florida even built a domed stadium, only to be rejected that same year (they were granted a franchise later in the decade). Baseball was evolving into a bigger, richer game, making it difficult for small markets to keep up. 

Buffalo's ownership group went out of its way to meet the MLB's requirements for expansion, but one thing it wasn't prepared for was the dramatically increased Franchise Entry Fee. MLB's expansion of 1977 had ownership groups paying as much as $7 million ($15.7 million in 1991 dollars) to join, but the '91 winners had to pay $95 million ($160.3 million adjusted to 2012 inflation). That fee signaled a new MLB that would have no place for Buffalo.

As the 1990s progressed, free agency, luxury suite prices, and television deals made Major League Baseball an increasingly exorbitant investment. What baseball became after '91 was less appropriate for a city like Buffalo than ever before, its rejection perhaps saving an already insecure fan base from the trauma of contraction or relocation later on.

Now in 2012, with the AAA All-Star Game coming full swing to the same ballpark in which it debuted 25 years ago, the city is at peace with its economic reality, the '91 rejection hardly registering a shrug. All-Star festivities will fill up the stadium just like they did in 1988, something that rarely occurs now within the sea of slightly faded red seats built to endure exactly 25 years of Buffalo weather.
 
The allure of Buffalo's downtown ballpark is gone but it remains one of the best in the minors, even as it has quickly become one of the oldest. Like much of Buffalo's grand buildings, you can feel a bigger, bolder past inside it. The last hints of a city's big league dreams.
 
Top image courtesy Flickr user Roswell Park

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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