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City, state leaders celebrate victories as Blue Jays prepare for first Buffalo home game

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

For city leaders, Buffalo hosting a major league baseball game Tuesday evening fulfills a long-ago dream by those who once sought a franchise for the city. For state leaders, having the Toronto Blue Jays call Buffalo home for the 2020 season is a show of how far New York has come in lowering its COVID curve.

Blue Jays senior vice president Marnie Starkman and general manager Ross Atkins presented Mayor Byron Brown and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul with customized team jerseys. Brown, who lived in New York City as a boy, admitted having alternative loves of the Mets and Yankees through the years.

But this year, he’s definitely on the Blue Jays’ bandwagon.

“Many of the reporters have been asking me, ‘well Mayor, who are you rooting for in the 2020 major league baseball season?’ Well, the Toronto Blue Jays, of course,” he said. “On to a championship, Blue Jays!”

The Blue Jays were forced to find a temporary home venue after the Canadian government, expressing concerns for potential COVID infections brought across the border by visiting teams, prohibited the club from playing at its usual home stadium, Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays originally intended to use Buffalo as the host city for their reserve players while arranging a deal to share a major league stadium with another club. After two prospects fell through, the Jays announced in late July they would play their home games in Buffalo.

“As you already know, the process for us to determine a 2020 home season was no exception to the unprecedented year we've all been through. But the openness and creativity partnership with the Bisons organization, Major League Baseball and the government leaders brought a huge relief and excitement to our team,” Starkman said. “Western New York has welcomed Blue Jays players and fans to their home with open arms for nearly a decade. And let me tell you, that warmth has been felt for all of us that have been here the past three weeks.”

The team posted several images on its official Twitter account, including some of the players getting settled within their temporary home.

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul spoke of Buffalo baseball heritage including filming of the Robert Redford movie The Natural in the early 1980s at several Western New York locations. She also acknowledged Governor Andrew Cuomo’s late father, Mario, as being in Buffalo to help then mayor James Griffin dedicate the city’s new ballpark, then known as Pilot Field, in April 1988.

She sees the Blue Jays’ presence in Buffalo, meanwhile, as a show of how far along New York State has come in the COVID pandemic.

“We didn't know just a few short months ago that what had once been the epicenter of a global pandemic, the highest infection rate in the nation, would now be able to open our arms to Major League Baseball because we drove down that infection rate to now the lowest in the country,” Hochul said. “And that's why for baseball teams from all over the nation, when they come to Buffalo to play ball, they will know that they could not be in a safer city in all of America. And that is a statement of fact. This is the place to be.”

Buffalo Bisons president Mike Buczkowski noted Tuesday evening's game would be the first major league baseball game held in Buffalo in more than a century. The last time it happened was in 1915, when the Buffalo Blues and Baltimore Terrapins met in the Federal League. It was considered a third major league but it was short lived, operating from 1913 to 1915. Buffalo also competed in the National League, from 1879 to 1885.

Buffalo sought to return to the National League in the late 1980s. Bob and Mindy Rich, who had purchased the Bisons earlier in the decade and elevated the team to Triple A status, led the campaign to win one of the National League's planned two expansion franchises. It led to construction of Buffalo's downtown baseball stadium, originally named Pilot Field. Ultimately, Buffalo didn't get a National League team but has remained among the most respected minor league operations in baseball.

State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes paid tribute to the Rich family in her remarks.

"Years ago, they had this dream of having major league baseball play here in the great City of Buffalo. And that's a dream sometimes that you have to have. You don't know how you're going to get it. But you have to have that dream in order to make it a reality," she said. "Now, none of us would have ever thought that we would have to go through a pandemic to get a major league team playing in Buffalo. But we have to take it like it is given. And I say thank you, and welcome to Buffalo."

For Blue Jays GM Atkins, Buffalo was also part of a big league baseball dream. In the late 1990s, he was playing within the Cleveland Indians minor league system and Buffalo, then the Triple A affiliate of the Indians, was a desired next step in his career.

"I never made it to Buffalo. One of the funny texts that I got, when we got to the point we made the decision and we got clearance that we were able to play here, was from a former minor league player Huck Flener, who texted me and said 'you finally made it to Buffalo,'" Atkins said.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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