The baseball diamond was supposed to be the new jewel of city ball fields.
Mayor Byron W. Brown made that prediction on June 18, 2009, when he announced the project to refurbish the baseball field and the rest of Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Sports Pavilion on the near East Side.
Five years later, the baseball field ranks as Buffalo’s most unused diamond.
The field is only a block away from a school whose students would like to play there.
“We can never use the field. We’re 800 feet away, so imagine our frustration,” said John Barry, assistant varsity baseball coach at City Honors School. “I’ve watched kids go through high school and play there twice.”
“Every year we’re supposed to play the championship game there, and we never do,” said umpire Jeffrey Colbert of the National Inner Cities Youth Opportunities Baseball League.
Problems with the field’s initial reconstruction and the long delays that followed have made a scheduling nightmare of this field of dreams.
So the Johnnie B. Wiley field has gone mostly unused – only a handful of games have been played – even as school district officials deal with a shortage of baseball fields for Buffalo high school students. Teams sponsored by community organizations have also been kept off the field.
Buffalo Public Schools, in a December 2009 deal with the city, agreed to maintain the complex for 15 years.
Aubrey Lloyd, the district’s athletic director, doesn’t have a say in field maintenance and had expected the field to be used this season. But he had to redo the high school varsity schedules when he learned the field would sit idle another year.
Last month, workers laid new sod and soil on the infield to go with added outfield fences and a drainage system. The ball field finally glistens. Lloyd now looks forward to high school students playing on the field next spring.
“It’s in pristine condition today and ready to go,” Lloyd said. “I don’t want to go backwards with this field. I don’t want to disappoint my student athletes or coaches again.”
Sinking at home plate
The $2 million in contracts the mayor announced five years ago included a state-of-the-art track and a field for football and soccer. They were completed the following year.
The baseball field, part of a second phase, was expected to be ready by 2011. But delays set back progress.
Installing the drainage system took longer than expected because the new infield had the wrong mixture of sand and clay, causing batters to sink several inches at home plate and presenting a hazard on the base paths. Fixing that problem led to game cancellations in 2013 and 2014.
Mel Alston, the district’s associate architect, was project manager for the Johnnie B. Wiley project the first few years. He referred questions to a district spokesperson.
Joseph Giusiana, the school district’s executive director of plant operations, was also responsible for the work done at the complex.
Giusiana chalked up the delays to a variety of factors, including a time-consuming bidding process, the need for new architectural plans, soil analysis and bad weather that slowed contractors.
The district spent $20,000 to repair the infield. An expired warranty prevented the school district from recovering the money spent on the botched installation, Giusiana said.
“When you talk about it, it doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but an extra week here and there – I hate to say it, but it takes a long time for the public sector to get things done,” Giusiana said.
“I sense the frustration from folks not allowed to play on the field,” he added. “I might be frustrated … but we have to make sure the fields are safe for people, and that we reap the long-term benefits.”
Giusiana said the district is hiring Great Lakes Athletic Fields Inc., which fixed the infield, to avoid similar problems in the future.
History of problems
Problems at the Johnnie B. Wiley complex are not new.
The baseball field at 285 Dodge St. is bordered by Best Street to the south, on the edge of the Fruit Belt, and Jefferson Avenue to the east, It was the site of War Memorial Stadium, where the Bills played football for their first 13 seasons through 1972. The Bisons called it home during the 1960s and from 1979 to 1987.
The $6.8 million facility – named for a community advocate – was dedicated in December 1992. The failure to develop an operating plan, however, kept a fence around the field locked the following two summers. Then-Common Council Majority Leader James Pitts used a bolt cutter in 1993 to let children inside.
Then a $2 million federal grant intended for the complex went missing for more than a decade.
The money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development was approved in September 1992. But the paperwork wasn’t finalized until March 1995 under Mayor Anthony M. Masiello. Sometime later, city officials lost track of the funds, possibly because council district boundaries were redrawn. HUD officials said the grant went off their radar because the funding category was moved into a different division.
It wasn’t until early 2007 that a HUD intern came upon the unspent $2 million while reviewing old files to make sure they were properly closed.
The News reported the unused grant’s existence in January 2009. The Brown administration announced a plan for the athletic complex about three weeks later.
The Buffalo Bisons and the Rich Family Foundation give more than $60,000 annually for the school district’s varsity baseball teams, buying equipment and uniforms, paying for assistant coaches and supporting the Junior Bisons, made up of the city’s better high school players.
More than $200,000 was also given toward the improvements at the Johnnie B. Wiley complex.
Paul Smaldone, who coordinates the Bisons’ support for Buffalo high school baseball, expressed frustration about the field’s lack of use.
“The Bisons put a lot of money into this field, and we were hopeful this would be something to be proud of. We believe Wiley field should be the jewel of the city baseball diamonds. I don’t know what the protocol and procedures are, but it doesn’t seem like this was a priority,” Smaldone said.
Jonathan Dandes, president of Rich Baseball Operations, which owns the Bisons, said he repeatedly asked about the delays.
“All I can say is, every time we asked – and it was often – the response was, ‘We have to get bids out,’ or ‘We have to get the right specifications and it takes 30 to 60 days.’ It wasn’t because no one knew it was an issue. What they were telling us was this is a cumbersome process,” Dandes said.
“We started this, it seems, forever ago,” Dandes said. “It should not have taken this long. But it has, and we’ve continued our support. Mr. Rich made a commitment and we’re all in, and will continue to be,” Dandes said of Bisons owner Robert E. Rich Jr.
Dandes said he will consider the wish list – dugouts, scoreboard, grandstand seating, press box and sound system – discussed several years ago before the money ran out.
“Those are things we spent lots of time figuring out, and my understanding is that they are still on the table,” he said.
Kenny Simmons, commissioner of the National Inner Cities Youth Opportunities baseball league, was frustrated for years by the poor conditions at the Wiley ball field. The league, created with the help of Major League Baseball, seeks to reverse the declining interest in baseball by African-American youth.
The league once played games at the Johnnie B. Wiley complex.
But it moved games to Walden Park.
Simmons said the city parks department has done a good job of cutting the grass and chalking the foul lines. Still, he misses playing at Wiley as well as the season-opening parade along Jefferson Avenue.
“It’s right in the middle of the community, and it’s kind of upsetting that nobody can use it,” Simmons said.
Simmons, a member of the complex’s community advisory board, has met with officials and has confidence the field’s fortunes will soon change.
“It might be turtle steps, but I know they’re making progress,” Simmons said.
Mike Webster, coach of Olmsted’s varsity team, is among those puzzled by why the baseball field has not been used.
Webster said he was told the field would finally be ready this year. But his hopes were dashed when he drove by a few weeks before the season ended and saw work being done.
“It’s a beautiful facility with incredible history, and the failure to be renovated correctly is incredibly frustrating,” Webster said. “The kids lose that ability to play on what was once a professional diamond. They don’t know how much has happened there, but it gives us a teaching tool to explain some history to them.”