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WHERE'S Buster!?"

"Buster's on his way."

"I know the place is empty, but if we don't start now we're going to miss the first pitch."

"You better go then."

The Pizza Hut Car cruises along the warning track, across the foul line, and turns left toward a cluster of Louisville Redbirds warming up on the sidelines.

"Watch out for the pitchers!"

It's showtime, folks. At Pilot Field.

Buffalo Bison baseball comes wrapped in a James Brown cape of broad comedy and civic hipness. Every game's an event -- that's the club's slogan. The result is the closest thing to theater in professional baseball.

A cozy relationship with business gives a commercial tinge to all the hoopla: The Bells Friday Night Bashes. The Marine Midland Concert Series. The Earl of Bud(weiser).

Even Buster Bison, the team mascot, gleefully joins whatever promotion is on stage.

In other parts of our lives, we complain about stupid commercials on television and ugly billboards on the highway. But somehow we don't mind so much the marketplace atmosphere at Pilot Field.

The reason is that deep down we know the Bisons aren't doing it for greed, even though the sponsors pay big bucks. Mindy Rich, executive vice president, said the other day that promotional revenues are pumped back into staging more entertainment to please the fans and build attendance.

But she didn't have to persuade us. The events are so goofy. The Bisons must do it for fun. Or to bring major league baseball to Buffalo.

Now the Pizza Hut car has reached the pitcher's mound. Pat Caveny of Snyder gets out and trots out to left field with his mitt. Mark Glieco -- the Bison promoter whose voice on the walkie-talkie urged the Pizza Hut car to avoid plowing through the opposing team -- sets up a ball launcher on the mound.

If Caveny catches all three pop-ups from the machine, then every fan in the stands will get a free pizza from Pizza Hut. The peer pressure on Caveny is enormous.

But he catches all three fly balls. Everybody cheers.

So does Doug Duever, vice president for operations and marketing of Southern Tier Pizza Hut Inc., watching the action from a box with Bob and Mindy Rich.

"We hope a few people might try Pizza Hut that ordinarily wouldn't," says Duever, whose company owns 50 Pizza Huts in the region.

Only 1,300 people braved the wind and drizzle for this game, the second of the season. Pizza Hut, with WGR Radio, has scheduled eight more Thursday afternoon pop-ups for the rest of the season. A sellout crowd means more than 19,000 free pizzas for the fans -- provided the person selected to catch the balls doesn't choke.

While local companies have increased their support of the Bisons every year, now the Herd is drawing more out-of-town marketers: Procter & Gamble, Scott Paper, General Mills, to name three recent arrivals.

P&G last year gave discounts on tickets if fans brought proof-of-purchase labels. That was P&G's first Triple A sponsorship -- and now P&G is
looking for other Triple A teams with the market savvy of the Bisons.

"What we're finding is they're the best organized, so it's tougher to deal with the other ones," said Greg McLardie, who works on P&G's Era brand.

That's what the Bisons like to hear. Being the best impresarios around is far from a frivolous endeavor. It's part of the grand plan to build credibility for the club and bring a major league franchise to Buffalo.

"We want people to know the way to our door when we get major league baseball," said Marta Hiczewski, assistant general manager of the Bisons.

The joke around the Bisons is that everything is for sale. City Mattress owns the seventh inning stretch all season. Buster kisses three women "good-night" during each stretch and gives them City Mattress coupons. Key Bank owns stolen bases. Sorrento Cheese is the proud sponsor of batters on hitting streaks.

"The only thing we didn't sell is the 3-and-2 pitch," quips Mike Billoni, the Bisons' general manager. "This 3-2 pitch is brought to you by . . ."

The one truly annoying bit of marketing during games is the stupid Burger King theme song played on the public address system. It's the only ad jingle the Bisons broadcast. Wow, that must rake in bucks. But, please, leave the P.A. for rock and roll and baseball stats.

The promoters try not to damage the integrity of what they call their real "product" -- baseball. The Bisons' new print ads created by Healy-Schutte each show a baseball, but there's something wacky about the ball -- it's got a burning fuse, or a pair of glasses -- as if to say: "Come watch a ballgame, but that's not all you'll get."

Now the Pizza Hut car is off the field, and Billoni and the Riches settle back to watch the Bisons beat the Redbirds.

Bob swears he's not going to get worked up over each play, but he does anyway.

The trio can't stop thinking about marketing. Bob and Mindy tell Billoni about their great idea of using "Wild Thing" for the theme song of one player, the way it is used in the new Charlie Sheen movie about baseball.

Billoni chatters into a walkie-talkie: "Make sure the radio audience knows that the guy caught all three balls, so everyone gets a pizza."

"Congratulate Buster for getting the Frisbee up to the second deck."

Sure enough, the stadium announcer congratulates Buster. The fans cheer. Then Buster tosses another Frisbee up to the second deck. The fans cheer louder.

"Every event's a game," says Billoni.