Game On: Bob Rich's sporting life
The Bills’ Orchard Park Stadium naming rights are sold. The Sabres seek a buyer after the Rigas fiasco. Pilot Field is constructed. If it happened in Buffalo sports in the last forty years, Bob Rich was involved. And in his wonderfully written new memoir, The Right Angle: Tales from a Sporting Life, the chairman of Rich Products Corporation and owner and president of the Bisons looks closely at the role he played in some of these major moments.
But he also devotes time to some of his other passions, such as fishing, charity work (he’s chair of the Cleveland Clinic’s board of directors, and proceeds from the book are going to the Boys & Girls Clubs). He’s even fishing buddies with former president George H. W. Bush. Today, Rich and his wife Melinda live in Florida, but Buffalo remains dear to their hearts. “We were in Key West for a fishing tournament, and the Sabres were playing,” he says. “It took one call, and we found the Buffalo bar. And sure enough, these guys were out there in their Bills outfits and even their Bisons hats. It’s really unique.” And so is Rich, a man who’s found success in business, family, sports, and beyond.
The book is a real mix of personal and business stories. What was the process like for you?
I really don’t think of myself as an author; I think of myself as more of a storyteller. I’ve always written journals, and I’m really proud now that a lot of my children and friends are keeping journals, too. This, in many ways, was [the result of] thinking one day, “Gee, I’d like to write something,” and going through my journals and saying, “I think I’ve got some pretty good stories here, and maybe the time is right to tell some.” Especially in the first section of the book, stories about the naming of the football stadium, the Sabres, moving into baseball, and the quest for a major league team. I think these stories are part of our Buffalo heritage … I just turned seventy years old, and I thought to myself, “You know, this is part of my life story. This is part of who I am and any legacy I give to children, family, friends, whoever.” I think these stories are a part of our history, our heritage, and I think they should be told.
Is it a little humbling to look back at some of these moments—key moments in Buffalo’s history, really—and see the role you played?
The one that is humbling is that I failed miserably on the major league bid. At the time, I thought I had failed, but it was fun to tell that story because, as history would have it, in retrospect, we didn’t lose that at all. There’s a kind of a Wizard of Oz feeling about that, if you will. You go out for the Emerald City and you realize later on that the Bisons play a role in sports history and make-up. You have sports at different levels of price, and we just fill that white space for inexpensive family entertainment.
Looking back on it now, are you sad that it didn’t come to pass or are you pleased that it really did demonstrate to you and to Bisons fans how important the Bisons are to Buffalo?
It absolutely brought that home to me. I think that I am pretty compulsive and very competitive. As I look back on my lifetime, I think I had a dream for major league that wasn’t really shared in the community. … If anything, I came to grips with what I first thought was a terrible personal defeat. I’ll never forget the letter I talked about in the book, from the woman who said, “We’re sorry for you, but we love the Bisons.”
There were no fewer than six cities who were ready to swap their team for our team as long as we kept our team in their building. … The other story that I’m really happy to get out there under the category of setting the record straight for people who said, “They cooled on it” is that we made a major cash offer for the Montreal Expos. We would have had that franchise, except the owner was a Montreal guy just like I’m a Buffalo guy, and he couldn’t bring himself to sell the team to an out-of-town buyer.
I think a final point on this is that if we had gotten that team, every year we would have been struggling to stay alive financially and struggling to get out of the basement of whatever league we were in, as opposed to making the playoffs as many times as we have in AAA and making championships.
The section of the book on the filming of The Natural is fascinating. It had to be especially exciting to see your son cast in what was really a key role, as the son of Robert Redford’s character.
[I’ll never forget when they shot the scene where] he had to catch the ball with the sun in his eyes. He caught eleven out of twelve after missing the first throw. That is, without a doubt, the greatest sports memory of my life. I’ve won and lost a few, so I can deal with losing, but my son was so fragile as a fifteen-year-old, and I could just see them saying, “Cut—bring in the understudy.” ... When he caught the ball, the look on his face was, bar none, my greatest sports memory.
He was actually chosen when he was selling Pepsis at the ballpark, and they had no idea who he was; he won that part on his own, and that was extremely exciting. I think even more than you wanting to see your children succeed, you don’t want to see them fail, and that was what was going through my mind. I just thought, “Please, Lord, don’t let him fail,” and my prayers for him were answered.
What are your thoughts on the current Bills and Sabres ownership situations?
Starting with the Sabres, I, like everybody else, am a Terry Pegula fan, because I think that he brings some youthful passion to this. I think he’s off to a great start. You can tell that he respects the game, respects the area, and he’s driven to win; I think it is a wonderful thing that he was able to step up. Concurrently, I wouldn’t dismiss the role that Larry Quinn and Tom Golisano played. … They have put Terry in an enviable position where, with some tweaking, he can win a Stanley Cup.
As far as the Bills, I think we have been fortunate to have somebody who came in and has stayed throughout thick and thin and run a team that took us to four straight Super Bowls. Even though Ralph Wilson and I obviously have crossed swords in the past, I wish him nothing but good fortune.
Would you …
I’m going to pre-guess your next question.
You know Buffalo sports fans.
As I get older, I’ve been thinking about how I would feel if I heard people speculating on what was going to happen with something I owned because of my age. I would be pretty hurt. I think it’s probably wrong for people to talk in those terms. Having said that, I’m a Buffalo guy, and I think the Bills are extremely important to the community, and I think that there are quite a few people who share those feelings. Maybe that leads to speculation as to what goes on, but I think for all of us who live in Buffalo, grew up in Buffalo, run businesses in Buffalo, and raise families in Buffalo, the Bills are very important to us.
Rich will hold a book signing from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 4, at Talking Leaves Books, 951 Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo.
Associate editor Christopher Schobert spent many summer afternoons at Pilot Field.