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Buffalo shines as All Star Week gets underway

It wasn’t quite a sellout. But it sure looked it.

Tonight at Coca Cola Field in downtown Buffalo 17,244 paid patrons, just a hair short of full capacity, ooh-ed and aah-ed and chanted Bisons slugger Valentino Pascucci’s name, as the Home Run Derby, the first act in the 25th AAA All Star festivities, took place on a picture perfect summer night.

Nobody went home disappointed. A celebrity derby was staged with Bills CEO Russ Brandon and New England Patriots Tight End (and WNY’er) Rob Gronkowski duking out for bragging rights. Gronkowski won the battle, with a couple of his hits even making it to the outfield fence, far beyond a specially installed fence just beyond the infield which was designated for the celebrities. Cheers were raised for former Bills General manager Bill Polian and Sabres Head Coach Lindy Ruff, but Patrick Kaleta got the loudest cheers of all.

The main derby took place between three designated sluggers from each league – the International League and the Pacific Coast League. The six participants went three rounds in an elimination format, and in what couldn’t have been scripted any better,the Buffalo Bison’s own Valentino Pascucci won the Home Run Derby, beating the Charlotte Knight’s Dan Johnson with six home runs in the third and final round to be declared champion. Pascucci was a terror in the second round, slugging 13 home runs, 7 of which cleared the high fences bordering Oak Street, sending several youngsters scrambling on the berms across Oak looking for the baseballs.

Gronkowski received the most boos and catcalls when he was introduced, the locals showing their scorn for the hated Patriots, but received a good ovation when he was presented the championship trophy following the event. “I told my friends I didn’t know what to really expect,” said Gronkowski afterwards.He also gave props to Brandon for his skills and for giving him every bit of a ride during the celebrity competition.

A late entry into the celebrity portion of the Derby was Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff. Although he didn’t get out of the first round (prompting a sardonic quip from a local scribe in the press box who we won’t identify), he was an eager participant in the event, and was seen on the sideline high giving his competitors as they walked away from the batters box. “Growing up in Western Canada, I loved to play, my brothers and dad played. I pitched and my brother caught, and vice versa, but that went down the drain when I threw out my shoulder and I never played all that much again after that,” said Ruff. He wasn’t sure if he could participate in this event, still recovering from his rib injury sustained during a practice during the hockey season. “I wasn’t sure if I could even swing a bat effectively, and I think that showed a bit tonight. But it was still great to be a part of it.” said Ruff.

“The fan support was great. All the people in the building that speaks for itself. The two batters at the end couldn’t have come off any better.” As for a future NHL All Star Game in Buffalo? “Of course,” Ruff replied. “Buffalo deserves one and it’s only a matter of time.”

There’s more to come, much more. Come Wednesday, over 900 people will fill the Adam’s Mark Hotel to hear keynote speaker Tom Seaver at the All Star Luncheon, then the best AAA prospects from all 30 teams take to the field later that evening for the 25th All Star Game. There are a very limited amount of tickets still available for the game (the luncheon is sold out) but they will be going fast.

Rob Gronkowski talks to the media