I’m pretty sure that my first-ever road trip for the sadly-departed USA Today/Baseball Weekly was when they sent me to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the summer of 1993 to cover the Triple-A All-Star Game.
From that year through 2008 in Louisville, Ky., (with the exception of being assigned elsewhere in 2007 when I could have had a return trip to Albuquerque, damn you ex-employers!), the Triple-A event was an eagerly-anticipated event for me.
A chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones. A chance to see players I’d been watching and others I’d yet to see, from up-and-coming prospects to veteran journeymen.
A chance to visit new parks and new cities.
And, always, a highlight was watching the ever-escalating game of “Can You Top This?” when it came to the host teams putting on a great event.
A few of the most memorable moments?
The Home Run Derby in Toledo in 2006 where sluggers Andy Marte and Ryan Ludwick squared off in one of the most legendary duels in HRD history (well, at least in Triple-A HRD history), as Marte blasted 29 home runs in his three rounds, mostly of the tape-measure variety.
Watching Ryan Klesko, Billy Ashley and Ryan Thompson engage in tarp-sliding in the puddles created by that rarest of events, a huge rainstorm prior to the 1993 game in Albuquerque.
Acting as field/dugout reporter for ESPN during the TV broadcast of the 2002 game in Oklahoma City.
And, possibly the single most memorable and all kinds of awesome events, being present at the on-field pre-game wedding of Norfolk Tides fan favorite Benny Agbayani at the 1998 event in Norfolk. If memory serves correctly, he had actually declined a pre-break call-up by the parent Mets so that he could fulfill his commitment as planned. He and his bride had fresh leis shipped in from their home state of Hawaii and, as one of the few women on the field, I got to wear one. (Yeah, yeah, I got lei’d at Benny Agbayani’s wedding. Whatever. It was awesome.) Oh, and the gala that year was held on an AIRCRAFT CARRIER.
The gala is always eagerly anticipated, and my guess is the host team starts planning as soon as they are awarded the game, more than a year in advance (next year is in Reno and you KNOW the Aces are going to come up aces.)
So I’ve been out of the loop for a few years. I missed the Portland, Oregon, game in 2009. The Lehigh Valley (Pa.) event in 2010. The return to Salt Lake City last summer, which I would have enjoyed since the 1996 game was one of my favorites ever (due to the participants, not the gala – that was kind of lame, actually. I heard last year’s was much better.)
But there was no way I was missing Buffalo. There was just so much to be there for. The fact that it was the 25th anniversary of the game, which was launched in 1988 at Buffalo’s Pilot Field. Still a part-time sportswriter at the time, I wrote up a preview of the game for my local paper because one of our “local boys” was the starting pitcher for the American League, Roy Smith of Mount Vernon, N.Y. (now a scout for the New York Mets, who just happen to be the parent club of the Bisons).
Plus I have had a long-time connection to the club, dating back to covering them through a series of stories in 1997 as they marched to the final American Association championship before that third Triple-A circuit dissolved, and the 1998 club, which won the championship in its new home, the International League, and competed in the first Triple-A World Series in Las Vegas.
Knowing the Bisons front office, which has remained remarkably intact over these last 15 years, I had a feeling they’d win any game of “Can You Top This” to which they felt challenged.
And even so, they surpassed my expectations at Tuesday night’s gala.
Held at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, guests entered on a small red carpet and then had the luxurious and expansive old lobby, the seats in the theatre and, most notably, the stage itself to avail themselves of an array of food and drinks, including Buffalo wings, of course, as well as locall crafted beer.
To say the dessert bar was a hit would be an understatement. Check out the baseball-designed chocolate-covered strawberries, and the candy buffet provided by Eaton Chocolate (www.eatonchocolate)!
With the big league game being played on Central Time in Kansas City, there was some “down time” before the big hanging screens lit up with the game, so during that span, as folks milled and mingled, six All-Star players competed in one of – okay, THE most – creative event I’ve seen at one of these: a relay eat-off of Buffalo’s spiciest wings.
Three players each from the International League and Pacific Coast League were seated with napkins at their neck and large bottles of water in easy reach. Hosted by the Wing King, , so perfect for Buffalo, an eat-off of Buffalo’s most spicy wings. Each guy had water bottle and a bobble head of the event’s host, nationally famous Drew Cerza, aka “the Wing King.”
Though the IL would have seemed to have an advantage with two Bufffalo–based players, in Bisons (Mets) first baseman Val Pascucci and Syracuse Chiefs (Nationals) infielder Jim Negrych, a Buffalo native, the PCL rallied from behind as anchorman Jim Henderson, the closer for the Nashville Sounds (Brewers) edged out Charlotte Knights (White Sox) catcher Josh Phegley down the stretch to give the PCL the victory. The other two members of the winning team, Iowa Cubs infielder Josh Vitters and Albuquerque Isotopes (Dodgers) pitcher John Ely took home the title, Wing King bobblehead dolls and undoubtedly a case of heartburn.
Now, minor league baseball players are a tough bunch to impress.
But they were still raving today about the sleight of hand performed by Buffalo-based magician extraordinaire Lou Cirulli, aka “Magic Lou” (www.magiclou.com) Now back home after nearly a decade on the west coast in Los Angeles, he took table after table of skeptics and turned them all into dazzled believers. I am not kidding. Players, wives, owners, whatever. Just ask Charlotte infielder Dan Johnson and his wife Holly. They will totally back me up on this. He should be on the big stages in Vegas. Or late night TV shows.
Whoever had the idea “hey, let’s have a magician stroll through the tables and do tricks during the game” might have been looked at like he was crazy, but whoever it was, give that man (or woman) a bonus.
Coming tomorrow, more notes from the big day and main event, including notes from the luncheon which featured guest of honor, Hall of Famer and, may I add, my husband’s all-time favorite baseball player, Tom Seaver.