PAWTUCKET, R.I. — I can sum up my dining experience on the baseball diamond at McCoy Stadium in one word: bittersweet.
On one hand, it was pretty sweet to sit at a table right where Dustin Pedroia used to play second base for the Pawtucket Red Sox.
On the other hand, I’m still kind of bitter that the team I watched while growing up is planning to move to Worcester next year, if the pandemic allows. (Truth be told, I refused to order the Wormtown “Be Hoppy” beer on the menu because it’s made in Worcester.)
But I absolutely enjoyed taking a seat between first and second and feasting — not only on the tasty pulled pork and brisket, but also on the memories (featured on the jumbotron) of Jim Ed Rice and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, of Nomar Garciaparra and the longest game in baseball history.
With dining outdoors allowed again in Rhode Island, the Pawtucket Red Sox are inviting fans to eat on picnic tables on the field — or to order curbside pickup of baseball fare.
Members of the media got a preview last week, but the first three “Dining on the Diamond” dates — set for June 5, 6, and 7 — sold out within 88 minutes. So the club is planning to announce more dates soon, and people can now add their names to a waiting list at pawsox.com.
“If you are a baseball romantic, this is the best restaurant you can imagine,” said Dr. Charles Steinberg, president of the Pawtucket Red Sox.
Under current rules, the team can set up no more than 20 tables on the infield dirt, with no more than five people permitted at each table, he said.
Steinberg looked around the infield, suggesting the team could name those tables for players who have rounded those bases — such as Wade Boggs and Mo Vaughn, Brian Daubach and Dave Koza. (Allow me to suggest a Win Remmerswaal table.)
Before entering the ballpark, diners are required to review a list of screening questions: Do you have a fever, chills, or cough? Have you been within six feet of anyone with COVID-19 symptoms in the past 14 days? (I’d suggest another question: Are you a Yankees fan?)
Fans must wear face masks, except when eating, and hand sanitizer is available, along with condiments.
Upon entering the field, I noticed the scoreboard lit up, reflecting a game between the “PawSox” and “Spring.” It showed no score and the game not yet underway (which seemed appropriate given that the pandemic has put baseball and other spring traditions on hold).
The Boston Globe paid for the food, and I sampled from the menu, digging into pork and brisket (with macaroni and cheese, cole slaw, and cornbread), a “Classic Ballpark” hot dog, “McCoy Stadium’s Finest” french fries, and “Fun and Crunchy” Veggie Nuggets. (I brought some home for the boys).
All very tasty, if not fun and crunchy. But if I had to do it over again, I would have channeled my inner Boog Powell and ordered the “Grand Slam Hot Dogs” wrapped in bacon and served with pulled pork. (As the menu notes, that’s “not even close to vegetarian.”)
Chef Tom Whalen stepped onto the infield grass to talk about the menu. After three years with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he said he just began working for the PawSox earlier this year, and it’s a homecoming for him.
Whalen grew up in Warwick, and he pointed at seats along the first base line, saying, “My first baseball game, I sat right there.” He recalled seeing Roger Clemens play at McCoy in 1984.
Looking ahead, he said, “I’d love to do three-course plated meals out here."
But what does the future hold in store for the PawSox and for McCoy?
Amid the pandemic, it’s hard to say. It’s like we’re in some interminable rain delay, waiting for the game to commence, doing our best to amuse ourselves as we wonder what will happen.
Steinberg said it’s still unclear if the PawSox will be able to take the field this season.
“If we can do it in a safe and healthy way, of course we’d love it,” he said. “But I think there has been a worldwide lesson that the health of the community, however you define that, has to be paramount.”
Steinberg said the PawSox had been gearing up for the team’s 50th anniversary celebration and dreaming of bringing back players involved in the longest game in baseball history — a 33-inning McCoy contest between the PawSox and the Rochester Red Wings in 1981. He talked about trying to bring back Dave Koza, who drove home Marty Barrett to clinch the victory for the PawSox, and perhaps Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr. — a pair of future Hall of Famers who squared off in that epic game.
But at this point, it’s unclear if any reunions will happen, and it’s even unclear if the new Polar Park will be ready in time for the team to open next season in Worcester, Steinberg said.
The pandemic forced a seven-week delay in construction of the new stadium, he said, but work resumed on May 18. “And the steel of Polar Park is rising before your eyes,” he said, showing an iPhone photo of the stadium construction site.
Still, it remains to be seen how new safety protocols will affect the construction schedule, he said. So it remains to be seen if the PawSox might find themselves staying in Pawtucket another season, and it remains to be seen what the stadium might be used for in the future.
Amid all that uncertainty, Steinberg said it’s clear fans still want a taste of baseball, and the ballpark can provide a sanctuary.
“What you love is, when you are in troubling times, for baseball to be a salve,” he said. “If a night of hamburger and hot dogs at second base restores your spirit, just a little bit, then maybe we have done something to help.”
For more details about dining at McCoy, visit pawsox.com.