PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Walk into the Art Deco lobby of towering City Hall, and it is clear what Pawtucket considers its crown jewel.
It’s the Pawtucket Red Sox, the beloved PawSox, the minor-league baseball club that makes its home games a family-friendly, dollar-conscious, feel-good happening 72 times a year. Against one wall is a bobblehead doll of PawSox alumnus Will Middlebrooks. Nearby, there is a poster of hot-shot prospect Mookie Betts. And behind another glass case are team caps, balls, and 2015 schedules.
But now — in a say-it-ain’t-so kick in the gut — the top farm team of the Boston Red Sox is planning to move a few miles to Providence. It is yet another reminder that Pawtucket is, was, and probably always will be overshadowed by its larger, louder neighbor.
“I’m disgusted,” Steven Dame said after lunch near McCoy Stadium, where the club drew an average of 7,400 fans to its games last season. “To move to Providence is kind of an insult.”
Once-thriving Pawtucket, America’s first mill town, is more of a drive-through than destination these days. But residents tell visitors that more than Triple A baseball is happening off Interstate 95 near the Massachusetts border.
The city is attracting scores of small entrepreneurs to vacant space in sprawling, old factories. Plans are on the books for hundreds of jobs at larger companies. And this small city of 71,000 people turned a budget surplus the last three years, said Mayor Donald R. Grebien.
“It’s not a city in decline anymore,” said Dennis McCarten, a violin maker who plies his trade at Hope Artiste Village, where more than 100 businesses have turned a 19th-century mill into a buzzing honeycomb.
“There’s definitely a pulse in the arts in what’s happening here,” said Kent Stetson, another tenant at the village, who makes handbags that are sold around the globe. “We’re around people who are innovative, creative, and resourceful.”
But what gives Pawtucket a cachet beyond tiny Rhode Island is its baseball team, which has funneled players to the Boston Red Sox for 45 years. Parking is free, general admission seats are $9, and former owner Ben Mondor helped make the club an integral, almost indispensable part of Pawtucket’s identity.
Now, that identity is about to change for a city that has worked hard for decades to feel good about itself again.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” said Richard Tetreault, a 54-year-old maintenance worker for the city. “It’s in my blood. I saw all the greats come up through here.”
PawSox fans probably have two more seasons to enjoy their team and the quirky confines of its ballpark, built over a swamp in 1942 and nestled in a dense warren of modest homes not far from the interstate.
Rhode Island lawyer James J. Skeffington, a leader of the new ownership team, has said he wants to build a new ballpark on the Providence waterfront. More glitz, skyline views, and even home runs splashing into the river appear to be part of the plan.
Higher prices might be, too.
“For the same public who have made the PawSox who they are, I hope they’re not priced out,” Grebien said.
Longtime fans have seen all-stars, has-beens, and hard-working hopefuls parade through McCoy over the years. They have seen Hall of Famers Jim Rice and Wade Boggs, legends Roger Clemens and Dwight Evans, and the longest professional baseball game ever played: a 33-inning contest that was suspended at 4:07 a.m., April 18, 1981, and completed on June 23 that year.
It wasn’t the majors, but the caliber of baseball at McCoy was the next best thing.
“It’s sad to see them go. They belong here, but nothing we can say will change things,” said Julia Tsimikas, whose family owns the Right Spot Diner, where Mondor routinely ordered poached eggs a long fly ball’s distance from McCoy Stadium.
On the wall of the diner is an autographed photo of the 1997 PawSox. Future major leaguers Trot Nixon, Brian Rose, and Carl Pavano exude youth and promise, joined by coaches Rico Petrocelli and Johnny Pesky.
“If he were alive,” Tsimikas said of Mondor, who died in 2010, “I don’t think this would happen.” The club was sold for an undisclosed price by his widow, Madeleine Mondor, and her partners.
Grebien, the mayor, said he understands the attraction of moving the PawSox to Providence but also argued that McCoy can be redeveloped. Whether this is wishful thinking or not, Grebien sketched a grand vision of new restaurants, pubs, and attractive housing for the stadium’s plain, old neighborhood, as well as better access to the highway and public transportation.
The only things he cannot provide, Grebien said, are a city skyline and waterfront. The mayor said he was prepared to make that case the night of Feb. 22, when he was invited to a meeting, ostensibly to greet the new owners. He even brought a draft of the city’s redevelopment ideas with him.
None of it mattered. Instead of a get-together with the new owners, Grebien said, he was told bluntly by Skeffington that McCoy was off the table. The PawSox were headed to Providence.
Grebien felt blindsided. “We had no idea that the decision was already made,” the mayor said.
The amenities in Providence are sure to be sleeker and hip in ways that make new minor-league baseball stadiums a draw all over the country. On summer nights, when home runs sail into the Providence River, the cheers should echo from the East Side to Federal Hill.
In the end, Grebien said, the move will harm Pawtucket’s psyche and image more than its economics. The team does not pay taxes to Pawtucket, and only a handful of businesses are located near the stadium.
Still, one of those businesses, the Galway Bay pub, is preparing to lose 40 to 50 customers, many from throughout New England, who patronize the Irish bar before and after PawSox games.
“We’re disappointed, and we’re going to miss it,” said bartender Neil Flynn, who grew up in the neighborhood. “There’s a lot of good memories there.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.