How Buffalo Almost Lost the Sabres…to Baseball

 This photograph is from Jake Haggmark. You can see this picture and more of his work at

This photograph is from Jake Haggmark. You can see this picture and more of his work at

This piece was originally supposed to be a far-fetched story about an alternate universe. A universe where our summers were spent in the massive confines of Coca Cola Field, and our city’s infrastructure was built around a state-of-art baseball stadium shadowed by the tallest buildings in all of Buffalo. It was a beautiful world; enjoying the highest level of our national pastime underneath the cotton candy clouds of the summer sky, in the greatest city in the world. But like all fairy tales, death plays a pivotal role. Simba loses his father in a stampede, Quasimodo loses his mom to religious bigot, and the city of Buffalo lose the Sabres to baseball. This piece was originally supposed to be a fantasy when in reality…it almost came true.

The story begins in the year 1988, just before the soon to be Buffalo sports renaissance. Everything seemed to be looking up in the Queen City, so much so that the word “expansion” was being uttered around town for the first time in two decades. Major League Baseball was looking to add a few teams and Buffalo seemed like a prime market. Even with such a small population our then 39th ranked television market put us right up there with Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Kansas City. A stadium was no longer an issue as Bob Rich Jr. and HOK Sports just built a gorgeous 19,500 seat ballpark, with plans to expand it to a Major League size of 45,000. By the time 1991 came around everyone was in agreeance that Buffalo was ready for baseball…everyone but the local government.

Things were not nearly as good however just a few blocks down Washington Street. The Buffalo Sabres made the playoffs the past four seasons but the team failed to even come close to the black. The Sabres turned into a money pit, losing $32 million dollars during a three year span in the early ‘90s.  With the beloved Memorial Auditorium heading into its fifth decade, it cost more to maintain than the revenue it generated. It became such a problem that Knox refused to sign a new lease with the dated Aud and demanded government aide for a new arena. The Sabres estimated the new project would cost in the range of $65-90 million, and offered to fork up some of the money.

This left city and county officials with quite the quandary. New York State did not have nearly enough money to fund a new arena for the Sabres and expansion for Pilot Field; some one had to get the raw end of the deal.

Now, we all know how this story ends and i can get into it if you want, but that would make this more of an informative feature. I told you at the start this was going to be a fairy tale and dammit, that’s what i’m going to give you. So let’s retrace. Major League Baseball ultimately chose Denver and Miami for expansion, likely for demographic reasons. This allowed government aide to go to the building of the the now First Niagara Center, squashing all future dreams of big time baseball in Buffalo. But what if it didn’t? What if the state opted to fund a Pilot Field expansion, essentially telling Knox to kick rocks? For the sake of the story let’s say they do and by the time commissioner Fay Vincent had to make a decision, the city of Buffalo was Major League ready and ultimately wins the bid. How much would that change?

For starters, this would immediately put the future of the Sabres in jeopardy. Knox was adamant that his team needed a new arena or else they would not be able to feasibly stay where they are. Luckily for Sabres fans, the team and the city were able to build the First Niagara Center before their owner’s eventual passing in 1996. However, if Buffalo was awarded baseball there would be no fancy new arena and the fate of the Sabres would have expired with Knox.

It would have been illogical for the new owner to buy the team and finance a new arena making it safe to assume the Sabres would have gone the way of the dodo.

Yes, death is imminent in almost every fairy tale, but someone always has to rise above and become the hero. The demise of the Sabres would be a tragic and devastating one, but not for everybody. Someone must come out from the rubble and save the city. But that’s for you to decide.

Does Bob Rich become our white knight? Does Terry Pegula ever make it to the city? What happens to the Bills? Nobody knows, but that’s the beauty of fairy tales and create your own adventures. We can jump as far down the rabbit hole as we want. So go, talk amongst your friends and colleagues, spark debate about what could have been, and remember - no matter what you’re right.