The players were standing at the top step of their respective dugouts. Introductions had just ended and Tom Seaver was about to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The 67-year-old Seaver teased his catcher, legendary Cubs second baseman and Lehigh Valley manager Ryne Sandberg by pretending to go all the way back to the rubber. After two or three shuffles and smiles, Seaver finally put both feet on the grass and tossed a strike.
The sellout crowd clapped, probably a little out of relief that the bit didn't go on longer. Both teams readied to take the field and the Bisons' staff prepared to exhale from a week described by PR good guy Brad Bisbing as “like planning four weddings in seven days.” Up on the video board – ahem, the $2.5 million HD video board – was a well-put-together highlight video of all the Triple-A All-Stars. The players' hits, diving catches and strikeouts were pasted onto the different buildings surrounding the park. It was pretty cool.
Looking around, though, not a person in the park could actually see any of those buildings from their seat. The way the park is positioned, only a handful sitting in the “Bully Hill” area in right field get the skyline. Most are staring toward the outfield, only seeing concrete and 18-wheelers beyond the ballpark. There are a lucky few could catch the First Niagara Center's giant marshmallow roof and the American flag on the top of another building piercing the white of it.
Scanning the view during the national anthem, two tiny figures caught my eye. One green blob, one white. They were on the top of a parking garage right above the green awning covering Bully Hill.
The game started. A couple runs scored. But the two bodies on top of the garage were increasingly distracting. Trying to focus on the action on the precisely cured field was like trying to look past a mole on a beautiful girl – once you see it, it's tough to stop staring.
Turns out Chris Mayo and Dave Elpren didn't know each other before Wednesday's Triple-A All-Star Game.
Mayo, who is somewhere in his late 40s, had thought he had tickets, but there was some sort of mix up and, well, it so happened that he didn't have tickets. But he'd already paid $12 for parking, so he was going to experience this game one way or another. The Amherst man backed up his 2001 Dodge pick-up truck up to the eight-foot wall and set up a lawn chair still left in the back from watching Independence Day fireworks.
At the same time Mayo was coming to the realization he didn't have tickets, Elpren was thinking he wouldn't need them. He took the bus downtown from Niagara Falls where he works as a custodian with no inkling the All-Star game would pack 18,025 into Coca Cola Field. “I'll just grab a ticket for five bucks,” he thought.
About 20 minutes before the game, Mayo saw Elpren taking photos from the top of the garage with a small digital camera. Naturally, he invited the other man over.
“That's just Buffalo hospitality,” Mayo said with a big smile and laugh. “That's what we do here.”
Elpren wasn't irritated at being without a ticket – in fact, he had watched the home run derby from a hill near Oak Street.
“This is actually better,” he said in a raspy voice. “I get more of a panoramic view from here.”
It is a hell of a view. The type that every minor league city in the country would die for. You can see all the buildings that were featured in the highlight video and a church that peeks its steeple up over the edge of the ballpark. Other buildings stand guard like the field Is Buckingham Palace.
And, oddly enough, the view is only obstructed in right field by the Bully Hill awning.
“You can even see the balls and strikes,” Elpren said. “Although you can't really see the score, there's no side scoreboard like in the big leagues, but we're pretty sure it's 2-0.”
Elpren said it reminds him of sitting in the upper deck at Yankee Stadium. He's right, you know. Especially with the ballpark packed to the brim. Though instead of hearing Bleacher Creatures yelling in the background, the sound of the crowd is just like having on an old radio on in the background. You can almost hear Vin Scully's voice echoing over it.
Neither of them is a big baseball fan, actually. Mayo says his 21-year-old daughter knows more about all the teams than he does. He isn't married; neither is Elpren.
“Two guys who don't know each other sitting in a truck on a roof watching a ballgame,” Elpren said laughing. “Uh, no, we're not married.”
Elpren wouldn't say much about why he wasn't hitched, but Mayo, a short, round man, cites his past career working in hazardous waste removal. Traveling from location to location – covering nearly every state – made life more interesting, but it was hell on relationships. And it wasn't always easy to deal with. Mayo worked cleanup after both the Oklahoma City bombing and Sept. 11th. Oklahoma City was tougher, he said.
Now he's a chef.
“My dad told me that I had to know how to cook and sew to get along by myself,” he said. “I really like to cook and yes, I can sew.”
Elpren prefers to talk politics and sports rather than about himself. He stares out toward the city, talking about how things have changed. Baseball hasn't much in Buffalo, though, except maybe the music and games in between innings. “Still, it isn't as corporate as the other sports,” he says.
Down on the field, somebody hits a line drive into the right field corner. Though they can't see the ball, Elpren, watching the runner, announces that it will be a double. He likes to talk about the game; Mayo just likes being outdoors in the sun, he says.
“I think people around here don't get as upset about baseball because it's the minors,” Elpren said, finishing Mayo's sentence like they'd been friends 20 years now. “So like he said, you can just come here and enjoy the ballpark.”
The Niagara Falls man has a point.
Coca Cola Field is a wonderful place to catch a game. Maybe you can't appreciate its beauty until you've seen it like Mayo and Elpren: with the city at its back. It's the type of place that should have a slogan reading something like, “a place that brings people together.” And, it does bring people together. But it's in a distant third place behind the city's angrier sports. The attendance isn't great unless it's a Friday night in July or there's a special event like the All-Star Game or Star Wars Night. That's why they say nobody cares. Sure, it won't ever be the topic of sports radio callers screaming for the coach to be fired, Elpren suggests, but baseball in Buffalo isn't about that. It's about a chance for the city's sports fans to come up for air from the fall months of frustration over football and winter months of living and dying with each Sabres win or loss.
Nothing could have shown better than the Triple-A All-Star Game that baseball in Buffalo is about hospitality, being outside and getting the most out of summer.
Basically, It's about two guys who have never met before enjoying a ballgame together on the top of a parking garage.
Who knows if Mayo and Elpren will stay friends forever or never see each other again. Mayo is looking forward to his daughter's wedding, Elpren will probably travel and take lots of pictures wherever he goes. Hopefully they'll get together again for baseball in Buffalo. Maybe even inside the park, next time.