It was set up to be a memorable season for the Pawtucket Red Sox, their last in Rhode Island before moving to new Polar Park in Worcester.
The franchise planned to celebrate its 50 years at McCoy Stadium with a series of pregame events, and there was hope the team would be competitive given the infusion of talent at the Triple A level over the offseason.
Now chairman of the board Larry Lucchino and team president Charles Steinberg aren’t sure whether there will be a season because of the coronavirus pandemic, or whether the new ballpark will be finished in time for the 2021 season.
“We probably have as many questions as answers,” said Lucchino via FaceTime from his home. “We’re all in the middle of this thing. There are a number of things we’re uncertain about. It’s having a profound impact on us to be sure. Profound.”
The immediate concern is whether there will be a minor league season.
Major League Baseball has yet to determine how to proceed but is considering a plan to have all 30 teams play at ballparks in Arizona with players, coaches, and team staffers quarantined.
Ballparks in Florida and/or Texas could be incorporated into that plan. Fans would not be allowed into games, at least initially, but revenue would be generated from television and radio broadcasts.
Such a plan would be hard, if not impossible, for the minor leagues to emulate. Beyond the complicated logistics, minor league teams rely heavily on ticket sales, concessions, and merchandise for revenue.
“Without fans, it becomes more problematical,” Lucchino said. “It’s as much a prediction of future public health considerations as it is baseball considerations. That’s a judgment that will be made above our pay grade.
“My feeling is that we are a different business than Major League Baseball in so many ways. Much of our success and revenue comes from the ballpark experience.”
If the franchise’s next game is not until 2021, where the Triple A Sox would play isn’t certain.
Worcester officials halted construction on Polar Park April 1 after Governor Charlie Baker ordered nonessential business to close until at least May 4.
“We’re following the lead of the government for public safety concerns,” said Lucchino, who expects the shutdown to continue to beyond next week. “We’re obviously hopeful we can resume it. But resume it under what conditions? That still remains to be seen.”
In ideal conditions, meeting deadlines to open a new ballpark can be difficult. Now the PawSox could be looking at paying overtime to workers to complete the project on time.
“It’s hard to quantify in terms of schedule and budget,” Lucchino said.
Lucchino and Steinberg are already considering several alternatives. One obvious choice would be to return to McCoy Stadium for at least part of next season. The team’s lease with Pawtucket includes the possibility of an extension, subject to negotiation.
Another route would be opening Polar Park before it’s fully complete.
“We’re committed to Worcester and Central Mass., and that’s where we’d like to be,” Lucchino said.
The PawSox have approximately 40 full-time employees who are now working from home. There are front office meetings at least once a week via video.
“We have a talented team and we’d like to keep them together as long as it’s fiscally possible,” said Lucchino, who was president and CEO of the Red Sox from 2002-15. “We’ve set no deadline as to when that would be. Our people know we hope to keep them on as long as possible.”
With no games, the PawSox have turned to community service.
“We’ve redirected the energies to grapple with what you do in these times,” Steinberg said. “No. 1, to be helpful to those who are impacted, and No. 2, to invent new ways to present entertainment or aspects of baseball that can lift people’s spirits when they’re sitting home.”
To that end, the PawSox have provided lunches for first-responders, delivered meals and coffee to hospital workers, and turned team ponchos into medical gear.
The team also partnered with Ocean State Job Lot to distribute free food to families in need. Team staffers met at McCoy Stadium and dropped bags of groceries into the trunks of cars. Two days drew more than 2,000 vehicles.
“The people were telling us that was badly needed,” Steinberg said.
The PawSox also have used social media to reach out to baseball-starved fans. Manager Billy McMillon and eight players did a video chat and took questions from fans last week on Facebook.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and people really miss baseball,” Steinberg said. “It’s a way to scratch that itch. Thank goodness for the hunger people have for baseball.”
Lucchino has been involved in baseball since 1978 and Steinberg since ‘76. Both got their starts with the Baltimore Orioles. The pandemic is a challenge for the game unlike anything they’ve experienced.
“As Peggy Noonan wrote in one of her articles last week, this is history writ large,” Lucchino said. “This is history. What we’re talking about here are new and gigantic issues that haven’t been presented before."
For baseball executives at any level, the task is to persuade people to attend a game. How that will work in years to come remains uncertain.
“Naturally, we’re full of questions," Lucchino said. "What are the short-term effects and what the are permanent, long-term post-pandemic operation changes that will come about?
“It’s too soon for us to know. But we are beginning to spend time thinking about that.”
For now, Lucchino is looking forward to baseball in some form.
“I’ve had 41 consecutive days of social distancing,” he said. “Like everyone, I’m growing impatient. But that’s always been a problem of mine.”