It was chilly enough Wednesday outside Coca-Cola Field that the Jimmy Griffin statue seemed to need a parka. But inside the ballpark, crews dodged the cascading snowflakes to paint, clean and get ready for today’s first game of the 2013 Buffalo Bisons season.
Yes, the weather may say winter, but the calendar says spring, and the schedule says it’s Opening Day.
It’s the 26th opener at the downtown ballpark, and 500 concessions workers, ushers and other employees will greet the thousands of fans expected to walk through the turnstiles for this afternoon’s 2:05 p.m. game against the Rochester Red Wings.
“I start the countdown as soon as I see the schedule,” said Tom “Conehead” Girot, the beer vendor who has worked at Bisons games since 1979. “It’s kind of the signal of new life.”
The Bisons might be our only sign of sports life for a while. The Bills dumped their head coach and starting quarterback after missing the playoffs for the 13th year in a row, and the Sabres held a fire sale after struggling this season.
“Usually it means the start of good weather, but that’s not the case this year,” Zack Travis, 27, a college student who lives in an apartment near the ballpark, said after buying a jersey and a ticket for today’s game. “This year, it gets you forgetting about the Sabres.”
And the Bisons’ new affiliation with the Toronto Blue Jays promises to boost the team’s international popularity.
Representatives with the Bisons and nearby businesses expect a lot of baseball fans from Southern Ontario to make the trip to downtown Buffalo to take in a game, so this may explain why poutine is popping up on so many menus.
“I added that, I think, the day I found out we were getting the Canadians,” said Marie Stachera, owner of the Irish Times restaurant near the ballpark, referring to the Quebec provincial fast food dish of French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy.
The Bisons distributed 10,905 tickets to Opening Day last year, and they’re on track to reach 12,000 or 13,000 for today’s game, said Mike Buczkowski, the Bisons’ vice president and general manager.
Opening Day is a mini-reunion, a day for fans and stadium staff to catch up with old acquaintances they haven’t seen since last fall.
“I always tell people I’ve got the greatest job in the world, because I serve my friends every night,” Girot said.
“When the fans show up, the place gets to come alive,” said Buczkowski, who started working for the Bisons in 1987, their last season in War Memorial Stadium. “I’m sure you’ve heard this before – baseball people, I think for us it’s like Christmas morning.”
Wednesday, crews were striping the field, grooming the cross-hatched pattern into the grass and painting the foul poles yellow, while Kevin Curthoys was carefully painting the Coca-Cola logo on the tops of the home and visitor dugouts.
It wouldn’t be a Bisons game without a hot dog, and the team has ordered about 10,000 of them for today’s game, Buczkowski said.
Fans should see a few new features at the ballpark, including more flat-screen TVs and an expanded selection of craft beers at Pettibones Grille, which has added “The Pub at the Park,” and a new Hall of Fame Room that celebrates Buffalo’s baseball heritage. “We’ve got 128 years of history,” said Brad Bisbing, a team spokesman.
Today’s weather should be better than Wednesday’s, when the high temperature was 36 degrees, but fans at the stadium should prepare for highs at the game in the low 40s, according to the National Weather Service.
Charlie Greene, a retired Lutheran minister who is president of the Bisons Booster Club, said he’ll wear long underwear and plenty of layers for today’s game, but he wouldn’t miss Opening Day for anything.
“It’s just invigorating,” said Greene, who winters in Florida, where he warned Toronto’s minor-league players to bring plenty of cold-weather clothing with them to Buffalo.
Attendance typically dips sharply after Opening Day and doesn’t reach its peak until the temperature consistently reaches the 60s and 70s and school lets out for the summer. That’s when the Bisons make their big promotional push, with special event games and giveaways.
Jerry and Betty Krencik were at the Swan Street box office Wednesday to buy tickets for the Bisons’ Star Wars Night, on June 22, as a treat for their 5-year-old grandson, Ryan.
The Bisons have seen attendance fall from the high-water mark of the years after the downtown ballpark opened in 1988, when the team would surpass 1 million fans for the season. Last year’s attendance was 515,898, an average of 7,370 per game.
“It’s not as full as it used to be,” Jerry Krencik said, but the North Boston resident was optimistic about the new season.
“Now that you’ve got a new affiliation, I think it’s going to be interesting to see them,” he said. “They’re going to stock them with some good players and give us something to work with.”
Krencik isn’t the only one excited about the Bisons’ new partnership with the Blue Jays, who take the place of the New York Mets.
Buczkowski said the team has a good mix of up-and-coming young players and minor-league veterans – the Bisons’ roster includes St. Francis High School graduate Jim Negrych – and the parent club’s off-season moves have some experts predicting a World Series title for the Blue Jays.
While the weather and the fan experience are the biggest factors that drive ticket sales, the Bisons say attendance goes up in August when the team is playing meaningful games. “People want to come and watch good baseball,” Buczkowski said.
Stachera, the owner of the Irish Times, which is across Swan Street from Coca-Cola Field, said she’s been waiting four years for the Bisons to link up with the Blue Jays.
She said she sees how many hockey fans from Southern Ontario come here for Sabres games, and she can’t wait for the same thing to happen with the Bisons.
But the start of a Bisons season means she’ll stay open longer on game days and she’ll add staff to serve more beer, burgers and chicken wings to hungry fans.
“Opening Day is always really fun for us. We will be packed,” Stachera said.