Play Ball!


I have a few health and wellness topics in mind that I will address soon, but just as my hometown baseball team, the Buffalo Bisons' season opener on Thursday was postponed due to an all-day downpour, I will delay discussing these subjects until a later date when I see fit. Instead I want to write about an annual tradition that was near and dear to my late father's heart- opening day of the baseball season.

Our custom began in 1979 when I was a mere 8-year-old kid and the Bisons franchise was reborn after a nine-year hiatus. While the Bisons team history stretches back to the 19th century, the original franchise left town in 1970 to the dismay of local baseball fans. But then Robert Rich Jr. brought minor league baseball back to Buffalo at the end of the decade. At that time, the Bisons were a member of the Double A Eastern League. That first home-opener, played at War Memorial Stadium, also affectionately known as the Old Rockpile, where the Buffalo Bills played their home games from 1960-1972, ended in dramatic fashion as Luis Salazar of the Bisons slugged a game-winning home run into the right field stands in the bottom of the 9th inning. My father and I were among just a handful of people sitting in right field and I was the first one to run to and grab the ball. Due to the historic nature of the occasion, I got my picture taken holding up the ball that was printed the following day in the newspaper. I still have that ball sitting on a mantle with various other sports trophies and paraphernalia I've collected over the years.

We attended other opening games at War Memorial (as an aside, I played several high school football games on that field and also was an extra during the filming of the classic baseball movie The Natural, where I watched Robert Redford take batting practice, stood and sang along to the national anthem at least a dozen times, and watched a vintage airplane fly overhead, which in the film carried the ashes of a player who died after crashing into the outfield fence) as the Bisons jumped to Triple A in 1985, but it was April 14, 1988 that was the most memorable. That date was the inauguration of the brand new downtown ballpark then known as Pilot Field. As beloved as the Rockpile was for its many decades of memories and rich history, it had fallen victim to old age and a surrounding run-down, poverty- and crime-ridden neighborhood. Pilot Field with its bright red seats, modern scoreboard and updated concession stands constructed right in the heart of the city, was a stunning and giddy contrast. I was a junior in high school and skipped my afternoon classes (with the approval of the principal) so I could attend the historic game. It turned out to be a classic pitchers' duel, with the Bisons winning 1-0 as future long-time major league catcher Tom Prince's solo home run accounted for the contest's only score. Even though the Bisons were victorious that day, the outcome paled in comparison to the experience of simply being there for the stadium's debut.

My father and I attended many more home openers over the years. One of his favorite customs was to purchase a bag of peanuts immediately after we entered the stadium from The Peanut Man, an elderly black gentleman who exclusively sold freshly bagged salted or Cajun-flavored peanuts from a cart in the concourse (always from the same designated spot). Of course, we enjoyed the unique traditions of the stadium like the Earl of Bud, a long-time black beer vendor who would jump onto the top of the dugout and do the Pee Wee Herman dance to "Tequila," the perennial white beer vendor known as Conehead because he always wore a mask on his head just like the popular Saturday Night Live characters of the 1970s, and the race of the Chicken Wing, Blue Cheese and Celery mascots, that unfortunate Celery never was able to win. While we rooted on the Bisons and hoped they would win, every year the game's outcome was secondary to enjoying the atmosphere of the fragrant, freshly cut grass, the crack of the bat, a hot dog and a beer, and on the best days, the warm sunshine of a glorious spring afternoon.

Alas our tradition came to an unexpected halt when my father died suddenly in his sleep that shocking day in June, 2015. In memory and tribute to him, my sister accompanied me to the Bisons home opener last year. During that time, she had taken a month-long leave of absence from work so that the two of us could undertake the monumental task of cleaning out 45 years worth of stuff from the attic and basement of my parents' house in preparation to sell it and settle my father's estate. My sister is not a big baseball fan, but she went because we both could use a break from the massive clean-up and hours of depressing labor in the dark, dingy basement, and she knew how much this annual tradition had meant to my father and I. We had a good time, even though the Bisons lost because it was a gorgeous, sunny day and I bought a bag of peanuts and a cup of beer in memoriam of my dad. Sadly, The Peanut Man died just a few months later and that day turned out to be his last home opener.

This year, my sister did not feel like going so I only bought a single ticket to attend solo. With the scheduled opening day postponed due to rain, and the anticipated first pitch by Sabres' forward Jack Eichel canceled since the team is in Florida this weekend to play the final two games of their extremely disappointing season, I am going to hold on to my ticket for a later date when it is warmer (and not concurrent with the third round of The Masters golf tournament). Maybe I'll exchange my ticket for a Friday Night Bash so that I can enjoy the after-game fireworks. But no matter what, it just won't be the same without my dad there with me.

P.S. Notice the stark contrast between the picture of 8-year-old me in this blog post and the recent photo accompanying my first blog post and also seen on my website on the About the Author page. Look at that innocent, wide-eyed little boy with a mop top of unruly hair, full of joy and optimism, his whole life ahead of him, then scan the face of yours truly now ravaged by years of stress, anxiety and personal tragedy. The difference between these two replications of the same visage 38 years apart should serve as a lesson for all young people to embrace and enjoy your childhood because you only get to live it once and time certainly takes a toll.

#baseball #BuffaloBisons #openingday #homeopener #BuffaloBills #BuffaloSabres #WarMemorialStadium #TheNatural #RobertRedford #PilotField #ThePeanutMan #JackEichel

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© 2017 by Peter McNeela.