IT ISN'T UNUSUAL to see Jazz coach Jerry Sloan in the box seats along the third base line. Most nights, if you stay until the seventh-inning stretch, you can catch Jazz President Frank Layden leading a garrulous version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Karl Malone and John Stockton bring their kids by several times a season. The Jazz's 1995 draft pick, Greg Ostertag, has even been out a couple of times. Actor Robert Urich drops by to hobnob with the management.After almost two seasons in Salt Lake, Buzz baseball is still the thing to see and Franklin Quest Field the place to be on a summer night.
Of course, Franklin Quest Field isn't merely the domain of the rich and famous. It's also the domain of the not-so-rich and the not-even-close-to-famous. Unlike pro basketball games, which can cost upwards of $100 a ticket to attend, you can't pay more than $7 to see the Buzz. When they say it's an affordable price, they're not kidding. Seven bucks gets you close enough to hear the players complain about the calls. For approximately the same price as lunch or a movieticket, you can watch Riccardo Ingram hit one onto the roof of the fire station in left field.
There's room to breathe and plenty of bathrooms and you can talk out loud or crunch your ice and nobody will even look at you sideways.
By most measurements, the Buzz's second season in Utah has been a success. In their final home stand of the season, they're running away with the division title.
Aside from their on-field success, they're drawing fans through the turnstiles at a rate respectably close to last year's record-setting numbers. Through Monday night's game, they had drawn 571,964 fans, for an average of 9,225. That, despite the fact that April and May came on like the monsoon season in Burma. Some nights, fans weren't sure whether they were at a baseball game or the starting line of the Iditarod.
Even after the novelty of having Triple-A back had worn off, the Buzz's drawing power held. Club officials expect they'll have drawn over 620,000 fans by the time Sunday's final game of the home season ends. Though approximately 93,000 behind last year's totals, it's still good enough to be among the top two or three minor league teams in America.
After 62 home dates last year, the Buzz were averaging 10,059 per game; this year they're at 9,225. July attendance was almost identical both years.
"We're here to stay," concluded Buzz owner Joe Buzas. "At least that's the way I read it."
That the Buzz would draw well last year stood to reason. They brought Triple-A baseball back to Salt Lake and were bound to attract a reasonable amount of interest. Like the O.J. Simpson trial, everyone was curious at first. They had new uniforms and a new name and a new retro-look stadium. People were showing up who didn't know a passed ball from a passed kidney stone.
Still, the Buzz had to be wondering what effect the major league strike would have on Year II; whether the backlash against the major leagues would seep into the minors. Buzas blustered that despite the rainy spring and the major league strike, fans would come to his ballpark.
Which they did.
While last year the Buzz were a temptation to both baseball fans and curiosity seekers, this year's Buzz offered something else: a contender. They finished second in the first half of the season, then came on like a runaway forklift in the second half. Despite enduring more than the normal turnover for a triple-A team - eight players called up to the majors and star slugger Bernardo Brito moving to Japan - they continued to play well. They went on as though nothing had happened. They got a serious case of tunnel vision.
Barring a complete collapse this week, they will open the playoffs in Vancouver Sept. 6.
Thus, the Buzz are putting a wrap on a second season which was nearly as successful as the first. Like Knotts Landing and Melrose Place, the spinoff was also smash. Not only did they provide a fine summer baseball experienced for fans, they provided a pennant.
A hard combination to ignore.
"I think," said Buzas, "that this year was even more satisfying than last. This is a great baseball town and a great sports area. I tell people back East about 55,000 fans going to basketball games on the same night last winter here in Utah. They had BYU, Utah and the Jazz playing on the same night."
Buzas had a word of advice this summer to friend David Elmore, who only last month agreed to bring professional hockey back to Utah. He told Elmore that if he built it, Utah sports fans would come.
It was all the convincing Elmore needed. Hockey was on its way.
Perhaps Salt Lake isn't as big as sports town as it thinks, but you'd have a hard time convincing Buzas. All he has to do is look in his checkbook. For two straight seasons all he's had to do is announce a starting time and open the gates and people came like it was a white sale at Mervyn's.
So at least for the time being, the Buzz are still the team to watch in the summer and Franklin Quest Field is the place to be. You don't even have to be one one of the rich and famous to attend. But you may want to call ahead for a ticket.