By CHUCKIE MAGGIO
The “never leave a game early” crowd gained a vocal member on April 9, 2011.
That day was a high-water mark in a fun era of Rochester sports. The Red Wings had their home opener at Frontier Field while the Knighthawks hosted the bitter rival Buffalo Bandits at the Blue Cross Arena that night. First pitch was scheduled for 4:05, while opening faceoff was set for 7:35. My family, Knighthawks season ticket holders who never missed Opening Day, was prepared for a rare double.
The baseball gods must have been cognizant of box lacrosse encroaching on their holiday, because the game naturally went well into the evening. We left before the ninth, the Wings down a run, to get to the Blue Cross. I learned of the wild 12th inning walk-off victory that capped a four-hour, 11-minute affair in the concessions line at halftime.
The Knighthawks were mired in a scoring drought, stymied by Bandits goaltender Mike Thompson in a 9-8 defeat that had the boisterous orange-clad Buffalonians boasting from the concourse all the way down I-90. Those who stayed until the baseball game’s conclusion were treated to a dramatic Wings comeback, propelled by Trevor Plouffe’s tying home run in the ninth and Jeff Bailey’s two-out, two-strike blast to walk it off against Scranton-Wilkes Barre.
Hindsight, as always, is 20/20.
The Red Wings would have received my full attention today. I would arrive at the ballpark around 4:30, get my things settled in the press box and greet the other reporters and team staff. A conversation with stadium organist Fred Costello, however brief, is always on the agenda. Costello is a Rochester fixture who spurned offers to join the Yankees, Mets, Rockies, Flyers and Sabres to continue playing here. The upcoming season will be his 44th.
This would have been my 24th Opening Day in 26 opportunities. I missed two while I was away at St. Bonaventure, but the opener has been one of my life’s greatest traditions since 1995 at Silver Stadium. I was three months old.
Opening Day isn’t always set against a sunny spring backdrop; braving snow, rain or the enigmatic wintry April mix is commonplace. But the day never fails to breed optimism for spring and summer, optimism we could have greatly used during this devastating coronavirus pandemic that makes sporting events and large gatherings untenable.
The Red Wings matter to this city, every season. Their 66 home games last year attracted 451,853 fans, a better average attendance than International League foes like Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Pawtucket and Syracuse. Their standing as a summer activity staple has helped them avoid the fates of teams like the Rattlers and Rhinos who either relocated or suspended operations due to financial issues.
Not only have I covered or attended games my entire life, I completed my college internship requirements with the organization during the entertaining 2016 season. You would be hard-pressed to find better minor league players to roll through Rochester than Jose Berrios and Byron Buxton. Buxton was so fast, such a great contact hitter, an incredible fielder. Francisco Liriano was a no-doubt major leaguer, and the one-off visits by Andy Pettitte, Steven Strasburg and the like were memorable, but every Berrios start was appointment viewing at Frontier. Getting a birds-eye view of his eye-popping pitch movement and velocity was a real treat. I still contend he would have thrown a no-hitter one hot July night if someone in the press box didn’t jinx it.
The next phenom will need to wait, but the memories the Red Wings bring each year will hold us over until then. And you can bet all 13,500 seats will be filled the day baseball returns to Rochester.