PAWTUCKET, R.I. — In Worcester on Tuesday, fans leaped to their feet as potential Red Sox stars of the future, such as Jarren Duran and Jeter Downs, bounded from the dugout on opening day at shiny new Polar Park.
In Pawtucket, meanwhile, the murals of Red Sox players of the past, such as Sam Horn and Jody Reed, still hang, faded and torn, inside the vacant and worn concrete confines of 79-year-old McCoy Stadium.
In Worcester, the home team will take the field, stepping onto the manicured sod that earned its own promotional video and news coverage. The stadium lights are shaped like hearts, symbolizing the “Heart of the Commonwealth.”
In Pawtucket, the patchy grass will continue to be fertilized by a visiting team of Canada geese. The statue of the late, beloved PawSox owner Ben Mondor will stand sentry outside a deserted ballpark, an empty space in the heart of Pawtucket.
As the Boston Red Sox Triple-A affiliate begins a new era as the WooSox, PawSox fans remain bummed out and bitter, with the city locked in litigation with the team and McCoy Stadium serving as a COVID-19 testing site, starting Wednesday, rather than a proving ground for future Fenway favorites.
But Pawtucket officials say they are working to fill the void, pointing to plans for a new soccer stadium by the Seekonk River and a new commuter train station for Pawtucket and Central Falls.
They’re also hoping to move past a legal battle to at long last develop the underused Apex site, which motorists see from Interstate 95 — a key gateway to the city and the state.
But questions about McCoy Stadium continue to swirl. Will the site of baseball’s longest game, which saw future Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr. battle over 33 innings in 1981, be demolished? Can it discover new life as an independent league ballpark, once again echoing with the crack of line drives and dingers, offering a new generation the chance to “fish” for autographs from above the dugouts?
“In all honesty, it’s sad,” Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien told the Globe during a recent on-field interview. “The community, the state as a whole, we lost a gem. We lost a team. We lost some identity.”
Grebien said he probably won’t be visiting Polar Park this season. “It still hurts,” he explained.
Plus, Pawtucket sued the PawSox owners in January, claiming the team failed to repair and maintain the city-owned stadium, as required by contract. “I am hoping they realize they left us with a hole, and we can come to some sort of understanding,” he said. “They left a lot of things here, and they moved on.”
In court documents, team owners deny the accusations in the lawsuit.
Grebien said he had hoped Opening Day would see Pawtucket and PawSox officials standing side by side, proudly welcoming fans to a gleaming new $83 million ballpark by the Blackstone River. He envisioned the stadium — near the Old Slater Mill, known as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution — as the keystone for new downtown development.
But he acknowledged that an initial proposal for a Providence ballpark, which called for the state to provide $150 million over 30 years, with the team paying back $30 million, poisoned the well of good will for public subsidies. “That scared everybody off,” he said.
And he acknowledged that it was unwise to have later called for $38 million in taxpayer support for a new stadium, a figure that raised the specter of 38 Studios, Curt Schilling’s ill-fated video game venture that received state backing. Perhaps $37.5 million might have been a smarter ask, he said.
Grebien gave the state Senate credit for backing a proposal to keep the PawSox in Rhode Island. But critics blame former House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello for scuttling that deal by hatching an alternative plan. Grebien said that Mattiello’s plan might have worked, but it came too late in the game.
“Worcester, I think, gave away everything to get them,” Grebien said. Worcester assumed more than half of the $159 million in total design, construction, and land acquisition costs and helped cover cost overruns caused by a COVID-19 construction shutdown. Grebien said remaining in Pawtucket would have been better for both the city and the team.
But, in any case, Pawtucket is poised to jump into another game.
In December 2019, state and city officials joined Fortuitous Partners in announcing a $400 million project that would put a soccer stadium with up to 11,000 seats, 435 residential units, 60,000 square feet of office space, and 56,750 square feet of retail/restaurant space in downtown Pawtucket, across three sites separate from McCoy Stadium.
Since then, the project has been scaled back to $284 million, and the city has not been able to acquire the Apex site to include in the plan. But Grebien said he still expects the project, which has received $46 million in state incentives, to bring about more downtown development than the PawSox proposal would have realized.
“We are in a better position because we are getting more development, and a younger organization,” he said. Plus, he said, “Soccer is more of an upcoming sport.”
But first, environmental cleanup work must be completed at the Tidewater site, where gas manufacturing took place for decades. Grebien said testing is under way, and the developer hopes to secure the needed state and city permits over the next couple of months.
”They want to break ground this fall and to have the first soccer ball kicked in 2023 for the season,” he said.
Meanwhile, the outlook for McCoy remains unclear. The city would need a “strong partner” to help renovate the stadium, Grebien said. “It needs HVAC. It needs some TLC.”
Other possibilities include turning McCoy into a public safety complex, or a place to consolidate Pawtucket’s two public high schools, Grebien said. But whatever option the city pursues, he hopes the state will be a partner.
Grebien is likely to have an ally in Rhode Island’s new governor, Daniel J. McKee, a former mayor of nearby Cumberland.
At a news conference this week, McKee said, “I’m a Blackstone Valley kid, so I was clearly advocating for the PawSox to remain in Rhode Island — and in Pawtucket, in particular.”
The governor said he recently visited the soccer stadium site. Between that and the new train station, “the future is going to look very bright in Pawtucket.” He vowed to do all he can to help Pawtucket, saying, “I think they have been forgotten for a little bit too long.”
But McKee, who graduated from Assumption College in Worcester, said he might pop into a WooSox game. “I don’t have hard feelings for the people who are in the management level up there,” he said. “I think they tried as hard as they could to keep it in the state of Rhode Island.”
If McKee does go to Polar Park, he won’t see Pawtucket City Councilman Terrence E. Mercer there.
Mercer, who represents the area around McCoy, said he sees “a lot of positive possibilities” in Pawtucket’s future, but his emotions on Opening Day at Polar Park were not bittersweet — they’ll just be bitter.
“I absolutely love sitting in the stands for a baseball game, whether it’s high school, college, Triple-A, or Fenway Park,” he said. “But I can’t see myself going there anytime soon.”
“We licked our wounds and picked ourselves up,” he added. “We are going to move forward as best as we can.”