In W. F Kinsella's short story, The Thrill of the Grass, baseball fans quietly reclaim the purity of the game during a strike by sneaking into the stadium at night and slowly replacing the Astroturf with natural grass, creating a small green jewel or "diamond" in the middle of what was an ugly, concrete landscape.
Baseball is magical to Kinsella, best known for his Shoeless Joe, which became the classic, Field of Dreams movie, starring Kevin Costner. That magic worked when I emerged from a concrete tunnel in Buffalo's Dunn Tire Park to the airy stands where I beheld the beautiful field, laid out like a huge, shimmering emerald.
With the loonie gaining momentum, tickets to Bisons' AAA games are reasonable for Canadians, in fact a deal compared to what you pay at a similar Blue Jays event The best seats in Buffalo are $13 Cdn per ticket compared to $44 in Toronto. For Niagarans, it's an easy drive, there's ample parking at the stadium and you are close to the action, not stuck in nosebleed territory in the stratosphere of the upper sky deck.
Best of all, in romantic Kinsella fashion, the game is played on real grass, not a plastic imitation form that might cause baseballs to react like a rubber lacrosse version.
On a perfct sunny Sunday afternoon, we sat two rows back from the opposition dugout, close enough to home plate to hear the "pop" of a fastball hitting a leather, oversized mitt and catch the furtive signs flashed by coaches at first and third to the batters and runners.
Western New York's gem opened in downtown Buffalo on April 14, 1988 and inspired a trend of new ballparks. Boasting a restaurant and the largest video screen in minor ball, Jonathan Dandes, president of Rich Baseball Operations, labels it a "world-class facility" and Erie County politician, Joel Giambra, rates it "one of the finest ball parks in all of professional baseball." I agree.
There isn't a poor seat in the house, and the sense of immediacy is exciting. You feel like you are at a ballgame even without the vendors shouting their mantra, "Popcorn, Crackerjacks, cold beer!"
Continual upgrades, and improvements have been made to host concerts and other non-game events (even a family camping and movie night). The right field bleachers were removed to create a picnic and grassy-hilled family area.
This day, we watched the first-place Bisons shut out the last-place Indianapolis Indians. The scoreboard featured electronic replays and buoyant fans of all ages dancing in the stands between innings. Another video display area.recorded the speed and type of each pitch, allowing me to track fastballs, sliders and curves ranging from a swift 96 to a sluggish 76 mph.
Buffalo's squad is affiliated with the parent Cleveland Indians. A drawback for fans is that a good player might last weeks or months before being called up to the majors. The incentive to make "the bigs" is evident by the commitment of the players and with good reason.
An International League salary ranges between $15-40,000 US, but in the majors with a base salary of $200,000 and some stars commanding between $10-20 million per year, the sky is literally the limit. Wouldn't that make you run the bases a little faster?
Dunn Tire Stadium is worth a visit and it can accommodate approximately 20,000 fans. Last year's attendance total of 642,272 was second only to Louisville's 659,340. Unfortunately, the "International" League includes only Ottawa as a Canadian entry, lacking the Toronto and Montreal squads from my youth. In fact, the Bisons had only one Canadian listed on their roster from New Westminster, B.C., a 6-foot 4 right-handed pitcher.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
Buffalo Bisons: crowd shots, courtesy of Buffalo Bisons; Mike Keenan: pitcher, batter, retired jerseys, scoreboard, Chiefs' pitcher, Garko, park, rules
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