From 1988 to 1993, at­ten­dance was over 1 mil­lion

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ready to help the grounds crew roll up the tar­pau­lin cov­er­ing the in­field.

“We al­ways have each other’s back, and in mi­nor league base­ball – when you’re al­ways do­ing every­thing in ev­ery depart­ment – it just speaks to our teamwork and to­geth­er­ness,” Bis­bing said. “It’s my sec­ond fam­ily.”

Mike Buczkowski, pres­i­dent of Rich Base­ball Op­er­a­tions and the club’s long­est serv­ing gen­eral man­ager, be­gan his ten­ure at War Memo­rial Sta­dium, the Bisons’ home through 1987.

So, too, did Mike Poreda, direc­tor of ticket op­er­a­tions, of­fice man­ager Mar­garet Russo and ac­count ex­ec­u­tive Burt Mirti.

Tom Scia­r­rino, direc­tor of sta­dium op­er­a­tions, is be­gin­ning his 26th sea­son, and Jim Har­ring­ton, direc­tor of cor­po­rate sales, is in his 25th year. Scott Lesher, direc­tor of base­ball and club­house op­er­a­tions, is in his 22nd year.

Jonathan Dan­des, who left his job in March af­ter 18 years as pres­i­dent of Rich Base­ball Op­er­a­tions to be­come Rich Prod­ucts’ cor­po­rate vice pres­i­dent of gov­ern­men­tal re­la­tions and spe­cial projects, said there can be dis­agree­ments like in any fam­ily. “The real­ity is our in­ter­nal bat­tles are fe­ro­cious and emo­tional and in­tense and all of those things,” Dan­des said. “Some of those bat­tles were bat­tle royales, but they never left the room.

“What ev­ery­one sees is the consensus, and the no­tion that we are all on the same page, and that starts with Bob and Mindy,” Dan­des said. “If there’s an op­er­a­tional phi­los­o­phy, it is that, and we have never wa­vered from it.”

The Riches say they re­main as com­mit­ted to Buf­falo base­ball as ever.

“We are blessed to be well­po­si­tioned to make sure we are good care­tak­ers,” said Bob Rich, ranked by Forbes as the 379th richest per­son in the world, with a net worth of $5.2 bil­lion.

Riches re­verse a mess

Bisons base­ball sur­vived con­tin­u­ously through a va­ri­ety of leagues from 1877 to 1970.

That’s when low at­ten­dance saw the Bisons pack up and move to Win­nipeg. The team re­turned nine years later af­ter then-Mayor Jimmy Griffin spear­headed a com­mu­nity drive to buy the team and re­lo­cate it to Buf­falo.

Af­ter four years of dis­mal play and poor at­ten­dance, the team was in dan­ger of leav­ing again prior to the 1983 sea­son. It fell to Bob Rich to step in. Rich was one of four own­ers of the Sabres when an aide of Griffin’s called him on the mayor’s be­half. The own­er­ship was out of cash and none of the in­vestors were will­ing to put any more money into the team, Rich was told. He had the know-how to run a sports team and the fi­nan­cial abil­ity to buy the club, the aide said. Would he?

“I made up my mind I was go­ing to buy the club and keep them here,” Rich said.

“I think that from Day One, we looked at this as be­ing stew­ards of the team, not nec­es­sar­ily own­ers,” Mindy Rich said.

That de­ci­sion brought the 142-year-old fran­chise a sta­bil­ity that had of­ten been sorely lack­ing.

“Over their long his­tory, the Bisons on av­er­age con­ser­va­tively changed own­er­ship 20 times, some last­ing a year or two, and very few last­ing five years,” said Jim Over­field, edi­tor of the forth­com­ing “The Sea­sons of Buf­falo Base­ball 1857-2018.”

“On at least a half-dozen oc­ca­sions, it ap­peared there would be no own­ers and the fran­chise would fold,” Over­feld said. “On each and ev­ery oc­ca­sion, un­til 1970, some­one came in and saved the day.

“What the Riches did was to save the fran­chise again, but they did more than just save it,” Over­feld said. “They turned it into the mar­quee mi­nor league fran­chise in all of base­ball.”

Fan-friendly en­ter­tain­ment and a new down­town ball­park that opened in 1988 con­trib­uted to the team’s re­vival. More than 1 mil­lion fans at­tended the ball­park each sea­son from 1988 to 1993, with the team barely miss­ing the mark the next two years.

“Bob and Mindy got the cre­ative juices run­ning from all of us,” said Mike Bil­loni, a for­mer vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager. “It was out-ofthe-box think­ing to truly make ev­ery game an event.”

Only one other time has a team in the mi­nors drawn 1 mil­lion fans.

“No other mi­nor league fran­chise has come close to what the Rich-era Bisons have ac­com­plished since the late ’80s,” Over­field as­serted.

“When peo­ple think of a pro­fes­sion­ally run, suc­cess­ful mi­nor league op­er­a­tion, they are at the top of most peo­ple’s lists,” he said.

‘A bit­ter pill’

The big­gest dis­ap­point­ment for the Riches was when the Bisons, de­spite those turn­stile-turn­ing years, lost out to Den­ver and Mi­ami when Ma­jor League Base­ball expanded in 1993.

“It was a bit­ter pill when we didn’t get a ma­jor league team,” Bob Rich said.

In hind­sight, the Riches say it was likely for the best.

“I think maybe we were blessed when you see Mike Trout sign a $430 mil­lion deal,” Bob Rich said. “It re­ally makes you ques­tion whether Buf­falo could sus­tain three ma­jor league teams given our size, in spite of the com­mu­nity’s love for sports.”

The Bisons or­ga­ni­za­tion draws raves from Randy Mob­ley, pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional League. The Bisons joined its ranks in 1998.

“From the chair I sit in, you would take a whole league full of own­er­ships with the sta­bil­ity that has been demon­strated in Buf­falo,” Mob­ley said.

“That sta­bil­ity and on­go­ing re­li­a­bil­ity are all qual­i­ties that we have grown to take for granted in Buf­falo, quite hon­estly,” he said.

Pat O’Con­nor, Mi­nor League Base­ball’s pres­i­dent, also praises the Bisons or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“I don’t know that there are enough good ad­jec­tives to de­scribe what Bob and Mindy and Jon (Dan­des) and Mike (Buczkowski) and Rich sports mean to base­ball in gen­eral, mi­nor league base­ball and cer­tainly Buf­falo Bisons base­ball,” O’Con­nor said.

“They are gen­er­a­tional own­ers who ex­ude sta­bil­ity and ex­ude class by do­ing things the right way,” he said.

Buczkowski is fre­quently re­minded of the team’s sta­bil­ity.

“Whether in our league or around mi­nor league base­ball, it seems like ev­ery year there are changes, whether own­er­ship or gen­eral man­ager or lead­er­ship changes,” Buczkowski said.

“Ev­ery time it hap­pens, I re­mind my­self how for­tu­nate I have been to have own­er­ship sta­bil­ity with Bob and Mindy, and to be able to do this job for as long as I have in the city I grew up in. I never lose sight of it.”

Not go­ing any­where

Bob Rich said Ralph Wil­son owned the Bills 18 years longer than he’s owned the Bisons, so he’s still got a lot of ground to make up.

As for a suc­ces­sion plan, it’s Mindy, he said.

“That’s the beauty of mar­ry­ing some­one who’s younger and from Cincin­nati,” he laughed while not­ing the avid Cincin­nati fan base, be­fore adding, “The real­ity is that the Bisons are struc­tured with pro­fes­sional man­age­ment.”

Buf­falo was for­mer Bisons man­ager Terry Collins’ fa­vorite mi­nor league stop of the five or­ga­ni­za­tions he man­aged.

“It starts at the top,” Collins said. “Every­thing there was al­ways or­ga­nized and on time, and it just made be­ing in Buf­falo like a ma­jor league team. They don’t know any other way to do things but first class.”

Pho­tos by Robert Kirkham/Buf­falo News

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