This season's best baseball romance has occurred here in Buffalo, where a record number of fans have embraced the Bisons minor-league team. An aggressive promotions strategy, aided by the city's desire to stamp itself ``big league,'' have been key elements in keeping the turnstiles spinning right up to tonight's final home game. A fair amount of the credit, though, also belongs to Pilot Field, a wonderfully inviting new stadium with all the latest amenities as well as the charm of some of the best-loved older ballparks, including a lush grass field.
It is a winning combination, especially given its location in a historic preservation district right downtown. Among the nice architectural touches are pennant-topped cupolas, a green metal roof, marble tiles set in precast concrete walls, a backlit colonnade, and graceful exterior arches.
``The stadium is the real rallying point for the fun and frivolity that's needed downtown,'' says Bisons president Bob Rich Jr.
The Rich family, which has made its fortune in the frozen food business, is one of the city's most prominent, and in 1972 bought the naming rights to the 80,000-seat pro football home of the Buffalo Bills in outlying Orchard Park.
The location of Rich Stadium has been something of a sore spot with city supporters, so it is not surprising that Pilot Field, named after Pilot Air Freight, has raised the community's morale.
One local writer says that the ballpark and the Bills' acquisition of heralded quarterback Jim Kelly two seasons ago are the best things to happen to Buffalo sports in years.
Certainly the fans have demonstrated their eagerness to watch baseball at Pilot Field. Two weeks ago a sellout crowd shoved the tickets sold this season above the 1,052,438 mark, which was the old minor-league attendance mark set by the Louisville Redbirds in 1983.
People have been lured by all manner of ethnic nights and theme nights, by a desire to show how much Buffalo wants a major league club, and by the opportunity to witness baseball in such beautiful surroundings.
Before now, the Bisons had played in dilapidated War Memorial Stadium or the ``Rockpile,'' as the facility used in the movie ``The Natural,'' was known to locals.
Mayor Jimmy Griffin, who was instrumental in getting Pilot Field built, originally pushed a domed stadium. Not many snow-belters, though, want to go indoors at this time of year.