(WIVB) – It hit home for Mike Buczkowski on the night of March 11. He was watching TV and saw that an NBA game between the Jazz and Thunder had been called just before tipoff when officials learned that Utah’s Rudy Gobert had rested positive for coronavirus.
Buczkowski, the president of the Bisons and two other minor-league teams, was in Dunedin, Fla., the spring home of Buffalo’s parent Blue Jays. The next day would be the first of his Florida trip. He had the sinking feeling that his visit would be a short one.
“Charlie Wilson, the director of minor-league operations for the Jays, called and asked me what time I was heading over,” Buczkowski recalled. “I said in a hour. He said, ‘Well, you better hold off. I’m not sure we’re going to be letting people into the administration building.'”
Buczkowski showed up and spent the next day at the facility. But he had to keep his distance from the athletes. That day, sports leagues around the nation were reacting to what had happened in Oklahoma City. Operations were quickly shutting down as fears of the pandemic hit home.
“I thought about that minor-league clubhouse,” Buczkowski said. “You have 220 players in there, 220 players sitting in a locker room right next to each other. All it’s going to take is one person to contract it. I thought, ‘We’re not going to escape this.’
“A couple of days later, I was on a flight home.”
While Buczkowski toured the Dunedin fields, officials in Major League Baseball were swiftly deciding to postpone the rest of spring training and delay the start of the regular season by two weeks — a projection that turned out to be wildly optimistic as the virus spread through the nation.
So on Thursday, which would have been the traditional Opening Day in the Major Leagues with all 32 teams in action, “Booch” was sitting home in Hamburg, feeling sad and empty.
“You can only watch so many classic games on TV, you know?” he said. “I think I’ve already had my fill of the classic games. This would have been a day when I had the TV on, watching game after game after game.
“Not only watching games,” Buczkowski said, “but knowing it’s spring, and summer’s coming, and that great overall feeling that we’re missing right now.”
Yes, spring is here, and while Americans understand the gravity of the coronavirus and the need for social distancing, it’s still tough to take. You see the sun shining and the bright blue sky, and the little kid in you remembers how you longed for baseball to arrive.
Booch is in his 34th season with the Bisons. He started in 1987, a year out of college, the last year the team played in War Memorial Stadium. He has been public relations assistant, director of PR, assistant general manager, then GM and vice president.
Finally, a year ago, he became president of the Riches’ three franchises in Buffalo, Arkansas and West Virginia. Buczkowski, who had been the longest-tenured GM in team history, turned over the GM’s duties to Anthony Sprague.
In all that time, Booch has never seen anything like this.
“No, never,” he said. “We’ve obviously had challenges. I remember years with six rainouts in a row, or six snowouts in a row. I remember the year we had the BPO for July 4th. We played the game and had the concert but it was too windy to do the giant fireworks show. I had to go out on the field tell the crowd. I got booed.
“But nothing compares to the magnitude of this.”
He’d gladly take the boos now, or sit through one of those dank, 39-degree April nights. At least there would be baseball. As it stands now, his most optimistic projection is for MLB games to resume June 1, and the minor leagues maybe a week or so later.
“I think so much would have to go right every single day for that to happen,” he conceded. “In planning for our three teams, we’re looking at, ‘OK if we’re not playing in April and May, what events were scheduled that could be rescheduled?’ We could schedule them later in the year. We kind of keep backfilling until we get some definitive answer on when we’re going to start. We keep contingency planning every day.”
The worst possibility, of course, is that the entire baseball season will be wiped out. That’s a grim prospect for a guy whose entire adult life has been spent working in Bisons baseball.
Buczkowski grew up in South Buffalo. His late father, Stan, worked in the Griffin administration. His grandfather, Huck Geary, played for the Bisons and for two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Mike played hockey for four years at Canisius College for Brian Cavanaugh and graduated with a communications degree in 1986. He worked for the college radio station and would sometimes report on the hockey team.
“Between classes, he would hang around my office all the time,” Cavanaugh recalled. “One day I asked him, ‘What’s your major? He said ‘Communication’. I said, ‘Well, you got to do an internship, right? You want to do it with the Sabres?’
“He said, ‘You could do that?’ I said, ‘I know a few people.’ So I got him an internship with Rick Jeanneret, feeding him statistics and — well, they had beer in the press box then.”
He got the internship at WBEN. It ended in December, but they kept him around, doing part-time radio work for John Demerle. Once in awhile, John Murphy would send Booch out to a high school game and have him call in to One On One Sports.
In June of ‘87, the Riches fired their PR director. Mike Billoni, the GM at the time, called Demerle and asked if he knew of anyone who might be interested. He recommended Booch.
“I interviewed on a Friday and started on a Monday,” Buczkowski said. “I was in the right place at the right time.”
He never left, though his place of work changed pretty soon. A year later, the Bisons moved into Pilot Field, their brand-new jewel of a downtown ballpark.
“It’s funny,” Booch recalled. “As we got toward the end of the ’87 season, everyone was getting sentimental about War Memorial Stadium. I had no allegiance to the place. I arrived in June. I grew up in South Buffalo. I would drive by Pilot Field every day. I would look in and say, ‘Look how great this is!’
“Toward the end, we’d play this song, ‘There Used To Be A Ballpark,” by Frank Sinatra, and people would be crying. I’d be thinking, ‘What are you crying about? Did you drive by the place they’re building downtown? What are you going to miss about this place?’”
Thirty-two years later, Buczkowski still has a big place in his heart for that downtown jewel. It’s really been about people, the fans who show up even on those bitter April nights, who bring their kids to Friday Night Bashes and Star Wars Nights. And of course, all the players and coaches and countless people who have worked there over the years.
That’s what makes it so difficult now, having to work from home and being detached from people (aside from the Microsoft Team videoconferences). Baseball shut down a week before the Bisons’ annual job fair, so the hiring of the vital “game-day associates” is indefinitely on hold.
“A number of people return year after year, but we’re generally hiring 200, 250 new people each year to work at the ballpark,” he said, “which we didn’t get a chance to do.
“The hard thing for us is, we don’t have a definitive plan at this point. Until we get a little clearer picture of a start date — and I don’t know when that will be — or a clearer picture of the disaster of not playing, we’re not at a point of knowing what we can do yet.”
It’s only baseball, but it’s a void, and a lot of people are affected. Buczkowski’s son, Mike, is in catering for Delaware North, which put more than 2,000 full-time workers on leave this week. His daughter, Jennifer, plans events for the elderly in Rochester. Her little boy, his first grandchild, will be 1 year old in April.
“That’s the worst part of this,” Booch said. “I can’t go and see him in person. I learned how to use FaceTime, which I never thought I’d do. I learned, because that’s how I get to see my grandson.”