PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Amid the vivid sunlight of a late-summer afternoon at McCoy Stadium, you could hear the pleasing pop of a mid-90s fastball smacking the catcher’s glove.
You could hear the bursts of country twang or urban hip hop providing walk-up music for batters.
You could hear the cheers and chatter of a crowd.
But if you looked around, you could see that the crowd noise was piped in, that the souvenir stand was shuttered, that the fried dough cart was idle.
You could see that the pitcher and batter were wearing the same Red Sox uniform — part of a “taxi squad” of players ready to fill the ranks at Fenway Park.
You could see that all 10,031 seats were empty and that not a soul was on the grassy berm beyond the left field wall where generations of children have eagerly awaited home run balls.
You could see, in other words, that this was not how the Pawtucket Red Sox had hoped to wind up their final season at McCoy Stadium before moving to Worcester.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox had been hatching plans to celebrate a half century of PawSox baseball at McCoy. The team had been hoping to bring back PawSox stars and to mine the rich memories of innings past, including the 33 innings of baseball’s longest game.
If not for COVID-19, the team would be gearing up to hold the final home game of the final season on Sept. 7 — a grand Labor Day finale.
But on a recent day, while the crack of the bat echoed in McCoy, there were no children “fishing” for autographs by dangling baseballs in buckets from above the dugouts. There were no beer-bellied fans ordering Foolproof Backyahd IPA. There were no young people running down ramps past the faded murals of Fidrych, Hobson, and Conigliaro.
“It was going to be bittersweet anyway,” said Pawtucket City Councilman Terrence E. Mercer, who grew up not far from the left field foul pole and whose district now includes McCoy Stadium. “But the cancellation of the season took all the sweet out of the bittersweet.”
Dr. Charles Steinberg, president of the Pawtucket Red Sox, said that while it’s late in the game, the team is hoping to find a way to mark the end of this era.
“I don’t know if we know yet how this story is going to end,” he said. “Perhaps there is a way to still have a finale to this year in some form.”
For example, he noted the PawSox have been inviting fans to dine on the field at McCoy Stadium this summer, and more than 3,600 families are now on the “Dining on the Diamond” waiting list. So, he said, there might be a way to organize a “some grand version” of “Dining on the Diamond.”
Or, perhaps there is a way to organize one more ballgame, whether this year or next, Steinberg said. The team had been thinking of bringing back stars to play catch with fans on the field after the last game, and “that is still an idea that we think would have resonance,” he said.
As with so many things these days, the plans will hinge on the pandemic and the limits placed on events such as ballgames.
Meanwhile, the PawSox are preparing to move north, up Route 146, to Worcester.
On April 1, the pandemic prompted the City of Worcester to suspend construction of Polar Park, which is scheduled to become the new home of the Red Sox Triple-A affiliate in April 2021. Construction resumed in mid-May, and it is now back on track, Steinberg said.
But when it moves to Massachusetts, the team will leaving behind some broken hearts in Pawtucket.
Gilbert Taylor bought a house right behind McCoy Stadium 15 years ago after spotting a real estate ad for a “baseball lover’s dream,” and he is sorry to see that dream ending earlier than expected.
“It’s been quiet this summer, real quiet — nobody around, nothing happening, no fireworks, no nothing,” Taylor said. “It’s real sad. I mean, I still can’t believe they are going.”
He said that with such little activity around the ballpark, people have dumped mattresses and tires on Ben Mondor Way, the stadium access road named for the beloved PawSox owner who died in 2010.
“No one is watching, guy,” Taylor said. “That’s what’s going to happen: It’s going to turn into a dump.”
The Pawtucket Red Sox began playing at McCoy in 1970 as a Double-A Eastern League franchise featuring players such as Carlton Fisk. Three years later, the team moved up a level to become the Boston Red Sox’ Triple-A affiliate.
Bill Wanless, the PawSox senior vice president for communications, said the team had been prepared to celebrate this season with a series of events designed to be “a thank you and a celebration of 50 great years.”
For instance, the team planned to induct Jason Varitek and Nomar Garciaparra into the Pawtucket Red Sox Hall of Fame. And it planned to give away bobbleheads commemorating the four most recent Red Sox championships, including one that shows Keith Foulke flipping the ball to first to end the 2004 World Series.
But the pandemic postponed those plans.
So instead, Wanless said the team will hold a “ballyard sale” in October to sell PawSox memorabilia. And Steinberg said team will find ways to honor PawSox history in the new stadium.
Wanless said it’s not clear what will be done with the player murals that now ring the entrance ramps at McCoy.
Photographic images of players such as Jonathan Papelbon and Derek Lowe remain crisp, but the older paintings of players such as Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd and Sam Horn are faded and torn.
Wanless said fans have been able to watch the simulated games on Facebook Live and Twitter. But the pandemic has kept fans from seeing the future stars in person.
“I’m sad this is the way it’s going to end for McCoy Stadium,” Liebenow said.
So what’s next for McCoy?
Mercer, the city councilman, said the team has notified the city that it won’t renew its lease for McCoy after it expires on Jan. 31. That outcome has been inevitable for a couple of years ever since the state’s top leaders “booted the ground ball” in trying to keep the team in Rhode Island, he said.
“So we are back to square one with the whole complex,” Mercer said.
Options that have been discussed include bringing in a lower level of minor league baseball, hosting a soccer team, allowing residential development, or tearing down the stadium to build a new city hall/public safety complex or a large school complex.
Meanwhile, Mercer must drive by McCoy every day, past the empty parking lot, past the empty grandstand, knowing the end of an era is near.
“It’s difficult for a lot of people in Pawtucket,” he said. “My first job was selling popcorn and peanuts in the stands. I played high school games there at Tolman High. I brought my kids to games there countless times. It’s a personal thing for me.”