Major League Baseball never came to Buffalo, but that doesn’t mean the Queen City didn’t make an impact on the sport.
The city best known for chicken wings and Super Bowl runners-up may want to add another line to its welcome sign: birthplace of the modern ballpark.
Pilot Field—which opened in 1988, hosted the first Triple-A all-star game that summer and was once on the short list for an expansion big league franchise—served as the model for classic ballparks built a few years later, like Chicago’s Comiskey Park and Baltimore’s Camden Yards. The ballpark, which has since been re-named Coca-Cola Field, also proved that minor league teams could think big—though not as grandiose as Pilot Field’s original 20,000-seat capacity—and helped kick off the building boom that transformed minor league baseball from mom-and-pop status to a billion-dollar industry.
“This is where it all started,” Bisons general manager Mike Buczkowski said, “building a brand new stadium and making it look like a classic park. This started the trend.”
Like the ballpark where it was first played, the Triple-A all-star game is also celebrating its 25th anniversary this season. The decision to bring the game back to its Buffalo roots this year was an easy one.
“It was pretty clear cut that we should go back to Buffalo and, in some ways, pay homage to what they have done for 25 years,” International League president Randy Mobley said. “And in some ways, this is a big thank you for getting us off to such a good start.”
Pilot Field did more than just kick-start the Triple-A all-star game. It was the first of many stadiums to stray from the cookie-cutter, multi-use design so popular over the previous 20 years (think Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh or The Vet in Philly). It was a baseball-only venue—”this was not a typical park that had car racing on the field when the team was not in town,” Buczkowski said—that was designed with a touch of nostalgia for the sport’s Golden Era.
Pilot Field’s downtown location was unique at the time and played a key role in revitalizing a forgotten part of the city. Joe Spear, a principal with the architecture firm Populous (previously HOK) designed Pilot Field with many of baseball’s old downtown venues in mind. He brought fans closer to the action with seating just off the playing field and created a more intimate atmosphere with dugouts closer to the diamond.
Spear has been a trailblazer in ballpark design. He’s responsible for building Comiskey Park in 1991 and Camden Yards a year later, as well as roughly a dozen other influential venues like Cleveland’s Progressive Field (1994), Denver’s Coors Field (1995), San Francisco’s AT&T Park (2000) and San Diego’s Petco Park (2004). Each of his stadiums are unique, but each also share a trait that began back in Buffalo.
“Pilot Field was important because it demonstrated that ballparks could be works of architecture, not just engineering solutions for packing fans around the field,” Spear wrote in an e-mail. “I don’t believe the park gets its just due, but we definitely use it as a reference in all of our subsequent projects; any architect is influenced by his or her projects, clients and the cities in which they work.”
Major Influence In Minors
Pilot Field’s impact can be seen around the minors as well. Buczkowski was the team’s director of public relations during that debut season in 1988 but said he doubled as a tour guide because so many teams wanted to get a look at what was happening in Buffalo.
“It seemed like almost every team was saying, ‘We want to come in and look at your ballpark. We want to bring out our mayor, our sports commission.’ The San Francisco Giants came in and spent three days looking around at the ballpark . . . I spent a lot of time giving inch-by-inch tours.”
And there was good reason to want to duplicate what was happening in Buffalo. The Bisons drew more than one million fans in each of their first six seasons, and Pilot Field still holds minor league baseball’s single-season attendance record of 1,240,951 set in 1991.
The Bisons’ success certainly inspired other minor league teams to follow suit. Consider:
• Buffalo is no longer the new kids on the block, as each of the other 13 International League clubs have either built new stadiums or renovated existing ones.
• In the eight years prior to Pilot Field’s construction, 24 new minor league stadiums were built—few of which were used exclusively for baseball.
• Between 1990-96, 39 new ballparks were built around the minor leagues—nearly all of which were designed for baseball.
“(Pilot Field) probably demonstrated the possibilities to many communities and ballclubs,” Spear wrote in an e-mail. “Obviously, that is difficult to prove, but we saw others realize they also could achieve something because of Pilot Field.”
Mobley describes Pilot Field’s debut as one of two significant dates in minor league ballpark history. The other being the construction of Triple-A Memphis’ AutoZone Park in 2000, an $85 million venue that was the first major league-quality ballpark built on a minor league scale.
“The closest thing in my mind we’ve seen to (Buffalo) since has been in Memphis, just because of the grandiose nature of it,” Mobley said. “They are both big ballparks, and I don’t think anyone would build one as big as either of those today. It was not only the seating capacity of (Pilot Field) that was new, but also the behind-the-scenes operations of that facility. Go down underneath into the service level, and minor league baseball had never seen anything like that as far as the space involved. So from an operations standpoint, that ballpark really just was different from many others.”