When Buffalo’s Coca-Cola Field, originally Pilot Field, opened in 1988, it was an ambitious early-step in what would become a revolution in ballpark architecture. Designed by the HOK Group, the ball diamond was a radical departure from the boxy, multi-purpose entertainment centres of the day. Instead, Buffalo’s new diamond, which grows outward from the corner of Swan and Washington, would return to the classic jewel-box design of the early twentieth century: exposed brick and steel, wooden seats, a two-tiered grandstand; perfect to capture the distant-intimacy of a baseball crowd in the summertime. Four years later, the same group would carry this concept to Baltimore for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a marvel which set the tone for nearly every major league ballpark built since.
Apart from its design, the diamond was also ambitious in purpose. With Major League Baseball set to expand, Buffalo had worked its way onto the shortlist of potential destinations. The new ballpark was the centrepiece of its pitch, along with a new light-rail system to bring fans into the downtown. At opening Pilot Field could accommodate nearly twenty thousand fans, but it was built to allow for expansion; should a major league team arrive, it could be renovated to hold up to forty-thousand. It was stunning and welcoming, retro but with the most modern amenities and technology. Buffalo took a bet on itself and executed it with stunning precision. It was ready to establish itself as a city worthy of the highest level of baseball.
Thirty years later, major league ball never came. Teams went to Florida and Colorado instead. Within a few years, Pilot Air Freights defaulted on their payments, and it was renamed the Downtown Ballpark. Since then it’s been NorthAmeriCare Park, Dunn Tire Park, and, after this season, something new entirely. The diamond has been renovated, but, instead of an expansion to its capacity, it’s contracted to hold roughly seventeen thousand fans.
Today Coca-Cola field is a monument to Buffalo’s misplaced civic ambition: an open-air stadium in the snowy city, when the season spans from April until early November, was perhaps optimistic. It’s also, though, a reminder of more than a century of Buffalo's proud baseball tradition. I’ve been driving to Bison games with my dad for as long as I can remember. They’re lovely and personal in a way a night in Toronto’s Rogers Centre never is—and the beer is affordable. In the field’s museum sits an inscription from former Bison Johnny Peralta, a fifteen-year major league veteran, in which he calls Buffalo his “favourite baseball city.” It’s easy to see why. The fans are loyal and forgiving, the longest-tenured employee is a beer vendor who wears a “coneheads” hat. They have a mascot-race each game, traditionally between two chicken wings, a carrot, a celery stock, a ramekin of blue-cheese dip, and a beef-on-weck sandwich. Nowadays the chicken wings, upset with the sandwich’s unlawful antics, have seceded from the race to start their own, two innings earlier. Afterward, fans stay for fireworks.
Buffalo didn’t get what it wanted from baseball, but it got something that, if maybe a bit broken, is completely beautiful. Sometimes things don’t work out as planned, even when you do everything right. Coca-Cola field, then, is a reminder to appreciate what you’ve got.