Over the last 10 months, the Pawtucket – and soon-to-be Worcester – Red Sox have offered a kaleidoscopic view of the relationship between a minor league team and the community it serves.
At its core, the Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox represents a way station for players with big league ambitions. The primary mission of both players and the franchise itself is to help a big league team win. For those in uniform, their Triple-A team’s address is mostly a passing concern.
But for cities and their residents, the presence of a minor league team is – or at least is meant to be – anything but transient. Minor league ballclubs play a critical role in the identity and social ecosystem of their communities, a notion explored in unprecedented fashion by the PawSox in recent months.
The franchise neared the end of a half-century marriage with Pawtucket while preparing for a new union with Worcester. Inevitably, the effort to connect with both communities – to honor the team’s history at McCoy Stadium while celebrating the anticipated 2021 move to Polar Park – was going to prove challenging.
Then, months of planning for the “hail and farewell” season were crumpled and tossed aside as the minor league team worked to redefine its mission without the central activity – baseball games – that anchors everything it does. The minor league season was postponed and then finally, on June 30, cancelled.
Yet the franchise did not remain idle without games. To the contrary, the whirl of activity and charitable undertakings by the PawSox underscored the impact that a minor league team can have on its community – and some of what likely will be lost by dozens of communities in 2020, with Minor League Baseball facing a financial crisis and the likely contraction of 42 teams.
“I think we’ve taken all too long for granted that they’re a minor league team. They’ve become more than that in the community,” Pawtucket mayor Donald Grebien said, considering the role played by the PawSox this spring. “They’re entrenched here and have been. They’ve become so important. They’re a community leader.”
So what does it mean to Pawtucket that they’re leaving Rhode Island, moving 45 minutes away to the opposite corner of the Blackstone Valley? And what does it mean to Worcester to gain a prominent new resident?
McCoy Stadium’s Labor Day turnout on Sept. 2, 2019, appeared considerably less than its announced size of 5,049 for the final game of the 2019 PawSox season. Yet the afternoon offered plenty of delight – hot dogs, ice cream, goofy entertainment , kids posing with mascots Paws and Sox – against the backdrop of a competitive Triple-A baseball game that featured some of the most promising prospects in the Red Sox farm system.
Most in attendance basked in a chance to enjoy one last 2019 game for the Red Sox’ top minor league affiliate, the last of the 50th season of the Pawtucket Red Sox. PawSox outfielder Cole Sturgeon’s third homer of the game closed out a 10-inning, 5-4 walkoff victory over Lehigh Valley – a final thrill of 2019 at McCoy.
After Sturgeon’s walkoff, PawSox players streamed onto the field, armed with bags of souvenirs to toss to fans – unaware that the distribution of mementos likely punctuated the final game of a Red Sox minor league affiliate in McCoy.
It’s really happening
In the process of creating a nickname and logo for the Worcester Red Sox, team officials spent months trying to get to know Worcester – its city culture, its neighborhoods, its diversity, its history – while seeking out suggestions for potential names of the minor league team.
Despite the biting cold on Nov. 2, 2019, hundreds turned out at Worcester’s Mercantile Center to see the result of a process that generated more than 200 suggestions: The unveiling of the name and look of the WooSox, with lettering that offered a nod both to the first pro team in the city (the 19th-century Worcester Worcesters) as well as a heart in the “W” that paid homage to the city’s self-proclaimed title of the “Heart of the Commonwealth.”
Those in attendance were largely ecstatic, and in some cases overcome by the idea not just of a team but a Red Sox affiliate in Worcester.
“I can’t believe I’m actually part of this sitting here,” said PawSox hitting coach Rich Gedman, a Worcester native. “It’s very, very emotional.”
Though snow blanketed the field on Dec. 7, 2019, fans trooped through McCoy Stadium for the annual Enchanted Village Holiday Party. In this case, despite the signs of holiday festivity – players signing autographs, hot chocolate, cookies, games – a hint of melancholy loomed as fans bought tickets and souvenirs in advance of what was to be the final season of the PawSox in their longtime home.
Mementos from the ballpark were on sale, with mixed emotions taking root among those who purchased them. As Pawtucket residents Ehrin and Cassandra DeMeule toted a seat out of McCoy, they lamented the fact that their opportunities to sit in the actual stands were dwindling.
“I could not not have a piece of this place at my house with me,” said Ehrin DeMeule, who estimated that he’d been to hundreds of games at McCoy and planned to attend all 70 home games in 2020. “It’s always been a part of everybody. It’s a shame, it’s embarrassing that this is leaving the state of Rhode Island, that something couldn’t come together to keep this here.”
Mike Lyons, a PawSox employee in corporate and community partnerships, took time to appreciate the familiar faces who made it to McCoy – knowing that many of them would appear rarely, if ever, once the team moved to Worcester.
“When you’re here every day and you walk through the stands every day, you get a real sense of what this means to people in this community,” said Lyons. “The ones we’re hurting for are the ones who won’t make that trip up there.”
By Jan. 28, members of the front office were familiar with the drive up and down Route 146 between Pawtucket and Worcester – the location of the two traffic lights, the speed traps, the somehow fitting passage over Purgatory Road in Northbridge.
It was the sort of day that revealed the frenzy of activity surrounding the franchise in its ambitious dual-track approach to its future. Minor league teams operate with small-business principles, with most employees asked to assume responsibilities well beyond their official job descriptions. The franchise’s work in two towns created an even greater expansion of roles.
“It seems simple but even answering questions in Worcester and giving PawSox business cards, there are these balances that you learn how to manage,” team executive vice president Dan Rea said during a meeting in his McCoy office in which he periodically moved a bucket to catch a water leak. “There’s not exactly a playbook. We’re kind of inventing that from scratch and making the most out of a very unique set of circumstances.”
A morning staff meeting ticked down the list of activities in both Pawtucket and Worcester – a massive expansion of promotions and alumni guest appearances for the final PawSox season in McCoy; regular season ticket sales for 2020 in Pawtucket; season ticket sales for 2021 in Worcester; charitable activities in both communities.
Shortly after lunch, several staffers made the drive to the Worcester Public Library to announce the formation of the WooSox Foundation, making a $25,000 donation to support renovations at the library and announcing the start of a college scholarship program for Worcester students.
“We’re not just here on a one-way street. This is a two-way street,” said PawSox chairman Larry Lucchino. “We want to be something that grows to become one of the biggest, best, most integrated charities in Minor League Baseball.”
Even so, the organization insisted that its community role in Pawtucket wasn’t going to end in 2020. Minor League Baseball defines the territorial rights of the franchise as extending across the Blackstone Valley.
“We’re going to still be good to Pawtucket,” said PawSox president Charles Steinberg. “You’re not turning your back on a community connection.”
That ongoing commitment was not the only reason Lucchino wanted to avoid getting too caught up in the notion that a final season in Pawtucket might be heavy on heartbreak.
“I want to celebrate. This has been a great run. And,” he cautioned, “maybe something will go wrong [with the move to Worcester].”
An unexpected wrinkle
No one imagined just how much could go wrong.
One day before the scheduled PawSox home opener on April 9, McCoy Stadium’s parking lot was repurposed. With games postponed indefinitely and construction in Worcester halted, the team had partnered with the city of Pawtucket and Ocean State Job Lot to distribute food to local families in need. More than 1,200 cars drove through the lot to receive groceries.
That food distribution was the first of several for Rhode Island families amidst the devastating hardship wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The team also found other ways to help – donating its frozen food to families in need, turning ponchos (sold chiefly during April games) into personal protective equipment that could be given to hospitals in Pawtucket and Worcester, and providing meals for first responders.
“The goodwill efforts in Pawtucket are not only still going on. If anything, they’re increasing,” said Steinberg. “What you see is that when you eliminate the actual baseball play, as we’ve been forced to do, you still have a community institution that is a presence and a generator of goodwill. You’re seeing in the pandemic how much good something as potentially superficial as baseball can be and how deep its role in the community turns out to be.”
By the end of June, according to the team, more than 1.7 million pounds of food had been distributed from the McCoy Stadium parking lot.
Some of the team’s contributions – taxable tickets and gameday revenues, employment of more than 100 game-day staffers, in-game charitable fundraisers such as a 50/50 raffle – fell by the wayside without games. But in many ways, the impact made by the PawSox assumed a brighter spotlight by virtue of the absence of baseball.
The club’s relief efforts (as well as innovative revenue-generating activities, foremost the team’s “Dining on the Diamond” outdoor dining nights) highlighted the nimble and adaptable nature of minor league teams. Projects such as the massive food distributions were planned with just a day or two of notice from the city. Meanwhile, the team sought out longtime charitable partners to try to help them navigate rocky terrain.
“They’re acting like a partner now even more so than they ever have,” said Jim Hoyt, CEO of the Pawtucket Boys and Girls Club. “Sure we’re going to miss the PawSox. They’ve been fabric of the community. But they will continue to support what we’re delivering day-to-day.”
Despite the lost final season in Pawtucket, and despite anxiety sweeping minor league franchises who fretted about their survival, the PawSox had a life preserver all along: The move to Worcester. No one knew what the ballpark experience might look like in 2021, but interest in the WooSox – as shown by increasing season-ticket commitments as well as real estate activity around the park – remained high.
“One advantage we have that many others don’t is that we are going to have a new ballpark, a new experience,” said Lucchino. “All of that lends itself to some optimism.”
That sense wasn’t reserved just for those with WooSox business cards. As Worcester city officials toured the Polar Park construction site on June 29, they looked beyond the present moment – beyond the rain, beyond the dirt turned to mud, beyond the masks worn by all on the media tour and the absence of pedestrians in the Canal District – to imagine a very different future.
Next April, they daydreamed, the site where they stood and that was roughly 40 to 50 percent complete would be filled with thousands of people coming to a WooSox game. Perhaps they’d have stopped at the nearby Worcester Public Market or in a new business set in one of the increasingly sought-after buildings surrounding Polar Park prior to arriving at the park.
While team and city officials on the tour articulated a goal of moving into Polar Park in April 2021, they couldn’t say with certainty that it would be achieved. Nor could they be certain whether the new ballpark would be able to open to full capacity or whether it will have to control the number of patrons.
“The meaning [to the city] is the same it was before. It’s not lost on people here. … When this is done next year, this is going to be one big party,” said Worcester mayor Joseph Petty. “The city and people will have a real sense of community spirit here. Worth every penny.”
“I don’t think we could do another project that would have that kind of catalytic impact,” agreed Worcester city manager Ed Augustus Jr. “We didn’t build this for just a year. We built this for 50 years. Nobody could have anticipated a global pandemic. But we think that whether it’s a year, 18 months, 24 months, we’re going to be in a situation where we can fill this ballpark.
“Given the year we’ve been through,” Augustus continued, citing the death of a firefighter last December, the COVID-19 shutdown, and the gutting aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, “the community needs something uplifting, needs something positive, needs something hopeful. I think this is it. This is a lot of kind of memories that are going to be created in the space, a lot of kids will grow up saying they remember coming here with their dad, their grandfather, their family. That’s the kind of magic of a ballpark like this.”
One day after the tour of the park illuminated a path toward the future of the WooSox, the history of the PawSox likely reached its terminus. Minor League Baseball announced the cancellation of its season.
The ambitious plans for the last hurrah in McCoy – perhaps a reunion of Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr., the two Hall of Fame third baseman who took part in the famous 33-inning game in 1981 – had been scuttled. Barring a derailment of construction in Worcester, the last PawSox game at McCoy had been played.
Steinberg sought silver linings, noting that, if the major league season begins, McCoy Stadium will again be used in service of the Red Sox, with 60-player pool members who aren’t in the big leagues using the ballpark to stay ready. In essence, McCoy might revert to its primary purpose as a supplier of big league depth and a setting where prospects can develop. Perhaps, he mused, the team could stream workouts or intrasquad games, giving longtime fans another chance to see baseball in the 78-year-old venue.
“You’re glad to think that baseball will be played at McCoy. But the circumstances are as unusual as 2020 has been,” said Steinberg. “The biggest disappointment is that we didn’t get to present a season full of sentimental, catalytic moments. While those visions are dealt a blow, it actually doesn’t diminish our optimism and our hope that we can still create a fitting farewell somehow, some way for PawSox baseball at McCoy Stadium. Maybe the end of the story hasn’t been written yet.”