CONSIDERING THE WEATHER was somewhere between chilly and downright cold, and the game was being televised anyway, and Franklin Quest Field is now officially a year old and therefore no longer an item of curiosity, Salt Lake Buzz owner Joe Buzas was feeling good.
The crowds were back.Monday night was the kind of home opener an owner dreams of. The place was almost full, despite several good reasons - not the least being the nasty baseball strike that just ended - for not coming. But once again, Buzas was reminded why he brought Triple-baseball from Portland to Salt Lake City: a stadium full of kids wearing Buzz shirts and buying Buzz hats and parents shelling out $3.25 for a hot dog and $2 for a Coke.
The kind of night that makes an owner's heart warm.
"I'm . . . I'm . . . overwhelmed," said Buzas.
If any of the 10,754 fans who attended Monday's Buzz-Vancouver game weren't enthused, it wasn't his fault. He'd pulled out all the stops, not the least of them being an 8-4 win over Vancouver. "If people don't think this is a great sports area," Buzas gushed, "you couldn't prove it by me."
Indeed, so far the Buzz have been as popular in Utah as minivans. Like Temple Square and Park City, if you haven't seen the Buzz, you haven't seen Utah. Last year the Buzz drew over 700,000 fans, setting an alltime minor league attendance record. They came to watch baseball, but they also came to rhapsodize over the green sweep of the outfield and the muted uniformity of the stadium.
If there were apprehensions about the Buzz's second season in Utah, Buzas couldn't be blamed. He had to wonder if fans would return for reasons other than curiosity. And whether the baseball strike would cause a negative backlash. He got his answer when the Buzz sold 500 more season tickets than last year.
"Some people come just for the atmosphere," he continued.
Thus, by the time Monday night rolled around, optimism was high. "We'll get 12,000 (capacity)," said General Manager Tammy Felker-White just before the game began.
That the Buzz would draw so much attention so early isn't really such a surprise. Salt Lake is a place that has a working knowledge of the word "hype." A place that brought us the Final Four the year Magic Johnson and Larry Bird dueled in the NCAA championship game; where they staged an NBA All-Star Game that came off looking like the world's largest bazaar. A place where they've taken self-aggrandizement to a new level as they attempt to bring the 2002 Winter Games to Utah.
In that light, it wasn't surprising that Monday's blast-off arrived as a major production. Actor Robert Urich showed up in a luxury suite, flashing his boyish grin and hobnobbing with local officials. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan took up residence in a seat along the first base path, staying until his bad knees started to ache in the cold. Jazz President Frank Layden continued a tradition of standing on the dugout to lead the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh inning stretch. He received a standing ovation for his effort - largely because everyone was standing anyway. Mayor Deedee Corradini proudly appeared to look over what her efforts had wrought.
The A-list celebrities also included former Atlanta Braves' star Dale Murphy, who paused to rave about the field's setting, making it sound as though he almost wished he'd spent his career in the minors.
But even Murph wasn't tabbed to throw out the first pitch. That honor went to Jazz guard John Stockton, who walked to the mound, mitt in hand, and unloaded a perfect fastball into the mitt of Bernardo Brito.
"If I was a scout," bellowed Buzas, making sure Stockton could hear, "I'd sign him up as a young pitching prospect. He threw the hell out of the ball."
Promptly on cue, the Buzz dispatched Vancouver without a problem, breaking away from a tie with four runs in the fourth. Brito, easily the Buzz's most popular player, obliged fans with a two-run blast to right-center in the first inning. The crowd roared its approval. Just to make certain everyone went home happy, two other Buzz players, Dan Masteller and Tom Quinlan, also homered during the game.
Soon enough, though, the big night was done. Another home opener was in the books. Mayor Deedee had built it and they had come. Buzas, who has seen over 70 home openers in his life, was feeling young again, the way he always does when the Boys of Summer return. "Each one is different. Each one you worry the night before if you forgot to do something," he said.
But this time, there was no need for worry. Bad weather and baseball strikes were no match for green grass and big hype. They'd come to have fun and they were going to have it. Like Buzas, everyone seemed a little overwhelmed.