Bills fans feel 'betrayed'

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:15 AM ET

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Pull up to the Big Tree Inn on any given Buffalo Bills football Sunday, and your nostrils flare from the delicious aroma of searing meat wafting from the tailgate parties at the adjacent Ralph Wilson Stadium parking lots.

Just a fourth-down punt away from the stadium, the Big Tree has been a post-game watering hole for Buffalo players dating back to Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas, a tradition carried on by present-day Bills Marcus Stroud and Kawika Mitchell.

It pretty much has been that way for any Buffalo Bills home date for decades.

Except this Sunday.

This Sunday, the Buffalo Bills play host to the Miami Dolphins -- in Toronto.

An alleged home game for the players, but not for many of their loyal supporters in western New York.

As of last week, various reports said only several thousand tickets for Sunday's game were purchased by customers in the Buffalo area.

It's easy to see why.

From business owners in Orchard Park to season ticket holders who have braved rain, sleet, snow and ice at The Ralph -- sometimes all during the same quarter -- there are feelings of bitterness and paranoia toward the Toronto game.

Most of all, they feel robbed of the experience -- and, in some cases, revenues -- that home games here provide.

"It hurts the whole area, from parking to concessions, everyone," Sharon Kaiser said yesterday. "As for the fans, a lot feel betrayed. That's pretty much the consensus."

Kaiser, who works at the Big Tree, has just finished serving liquid refreshments to a handful of locals. The topic de jour? Being screwed out of a home game, of course.

"A lot has to do with the (ailing) economy," Kaiser said. "A lot of people here want to spend their money in Buffalo. If someone has season tickets, why would they want to drive two hours to watch a game? It's such an inconvenience."

"And don't forget, they are taking the Miami game away from us," chipped in a nearby patron. "Our biggest rival. It sucks."

Kaiser said local business owners met at the Big Tree earlier this week to discuss the impact Sunday's home-away-from-home game will have from a financial standpoint.

Whatever the numbers are, they are not good.

Just across the street from the Big Tree is a parking lot that is frequented for home games by Lee Evans Sr., father of Bills receiver Lee Evans. Lee Sr. makes the three-hour drive from Cleveland in his motor home, then sets up shop for the tailgating, like thousands of others in the surrounding lots, fields and lawns.

Not this Sunday. Not here in Orchard Park, anyway.

For son Lee, there is a soft spot for those Bills fans who, rightly or wrongly, feel the Bills-Toronto Series is a harbinger of the team one day bolting Buffalo for good.

"I'm from Cleveland," he said. "And the same thing happened when the Browns left Cleveland."

Young Lee was just 15 when the Browns fled for Baltimore in 1996, leaving behind a rich legacy that included icons like Otto Graham and Jim Brown.

"I was shocked," Evans said. "If they could leave Cleveland, then anything can happen.

"Certainly from the perspective of the fans, you can see where the problem may be."

Offensive tackle Langston Walker knows why locals here are fretting, even though the Toronto game makes financial sense for the franchise.

THE LOGIC 'SUCKS'

"We can't fool ourselves and say the Buffalo area is a big market," Walker said. "The Bills have done everything to ensure the team stays, and this is part of it. At the same time, John Q Public is not going to understand that a team that makes millions of dollars must go play in a foreign country to stay profitable.

"Hey, a couple of games north of the border is better than moving the team far away to a place like Los Angeles."

For loyal patrons at The Big Tree, that type of logic "sucks."

And so does being stripped of a home date against the hated Fish.


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