WORCESTER — While 92-year-old Bob Cousy delightfully milked his two-word “Play Ball!” script into a three-minute-plus stand-up routine that poked fun at himself and anyone old enough to know who he was, baseball’s return to Worcester had to wait a little longer.
Worcester Red Sox starter Raynel Espinal paced semi-patiently in circles behind the mound, tossing the ball in and out of his glove.
Syracuse Mets leadoff hitter Johneshwy Fargas, bat in hand, sprinted up and down the third-base line to keep fresh.
Finally, Cousy, a Worcester resident the last 75 years, passed off the mike, grabbed his cane, and walked slowly off the field.
And at 3:09 p.m., four minutes later than scheduled, Espinal threw a 93-m.p.h. heater to Fargas for a called strike, the first pitch in Polar Park history and the first pitch thrown by a professional baseball player in Worcester in 96 years.
For what turned into a glorious mid-May day of baseball, especially for the home team, the wait felt worth it.
With four no-doubt home runs — two jacked by top outfield prospect Jarren Duran — the Red Sox’ Triple A affiliate minted its new $118 million digs with an 8-5 victory that featured pregame ceremonies with enough major- and minor-league flourishes to delight the 2,377 (at least) fans.
“There was a lot of buzz, a lot of excitement here,” said WooSox manager Billy McMillon. “It was really cool to open up the stadium for the WooSox and to get a W.”
The hour-plus pregame ceremony began over the loudspeaker with Tom Hanks singing the theme song to “Polar Express” and it was all aboard after that, with longtime Fenway Park maestro and now WooSox president Dr. Charles Steinberg orchestrating the proceedings.
After introductions of the teams, a presentation of colors concluded with a moment of silence for victims of the pandemic as well as a call for an end to the country’s divided state. The PA announcer intoned, “Let us come together through baseball, our national pastime, the game that reminds us that we are and must always be united.”
On guitar, James Taylor and his son Henry sang the national anthem, followed by a parade of local and state leaders, sponsors, and team leaders — including team chairman and principal owner Larry Lucchino (“the man who chose Worcester”) — carrying a ceremonial red ribbon that stretched across the outfield before being cut by stadium architect Janet Marie Smith.
The action then moved to the diamond, where Governor Charlie Baker, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, and Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty mingled with Red Sox legends Jim Rice, Pedro Martinez, Luis Tiant, Jim Lonborg, and Tommy Harper as hugs were exchanged and first pitches were thrown and dropped.
The WooSox fell behind, 3-1, before tying the game in the fifth and then going ahead in the seventh on back-to-back home runs by Josh Ockimey and Duran.
The first WooSox home run (and hit) came in the second inning, courtesy of Marcus Wilson. As the ball sailed out and ignited the crowd for the first time during the game, Rice, watching in a suite with Tiant, Harper, and Martinez, teased Tiant.
“That’s how I used to hit off of you, Louie,” he said.
To which Tiant uttered a profanity and said, “When [Rice] saw me, he cried — he hit .182 against me, 14 strikeouts.”
Tiant was closer to the truth — in 21 at-bats, Rice never homered against him and hit .190, with six strikeouts — and the trash talk merely intensified in a feel-good way, with Rice, 68, lifting the heel of the 80-year-old Tiant to say there would be too many tree rings to measure if someone sawed into it.
After Lucchino sat down next to Martinez and explained the many challenges posed by the creation and construction of his fifth ballpark, he looked as if he would float to the ceiling when Martinez told him emphatically, “This is a major league ballpark.”
Worcester’s gain is also the tale of Pawtucket’s loss, as the Red Sox’ Triple A affiliate moved out of Rhode Island after Sept. 2, 2019, to end a long saga in search of a new home.
That journey ended shortly after Cousy finally got to yell, “Play ball!”
Before he got there, with the homer-friendly wind whipping his wispy, shoulder-length white hair, Cousy said, “I’ve never seen an event electrify a city like this event has.”
The lights are on at Polar Park, and the WooSox are home.