PAWTUCKET — The sounds of a professional baseball game — the pop of a 93-mile-per-hour fastball into the catcher’s mitt, the sizzle of a ground ball ripped through the infield grass — are surprisingly loud with no noisy fans around.
The Pawtucket Red Sox, the Boston Red Sox’s top minor league team, played recently before what looked to be a couple hundred people at its longtime home park, McCoy Stadium. To be fair, it was a makeup game and the back end of a Wednesday doubleheader, not normally a big draw. But baseball is a game of stats, and the numbers are clear — attendance has fallen off, tumbling 40 percent from its 2005 peak.
Fewer fans and the mounting deficiencies of its 75-year-old home park have the beloved PawSox facing a bottom-of-the-ninth crisis that could silence the sounds of the game here for good.
The team’s owners, led by former Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, want to give the PawSox a fresh start with a new stadium in downtown Pawtucket and are looking for millions in public money to help.
But the team’s stadium plans are caught in the quicksand of state politics, haunted by past mistakes and foundering in a political climate soured — in a keen irony — by Rhode Island’s failed investment in a video game company run by former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.
(Coincidentally, Lucchino, who stepped down from the Red Sox in 2015, was running the team when it traded for Schilling in 2003.)
Wary of a backlash against subsidizing a private business, Rhode Island’s political leaders have broken out their 10-foot poles, saying nice things about the ballpark plan but not embracing it.
Without a political intervention, the PawSox organization will become a free agent next month, and the team is expected to entertain invitations to leave Rhode Island. Where the team would end up is unknown.
“If we don’t do this, Rhode Island is going to be sorry,” said Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien, the leading political champion for the new ballpark. “We’re going to lose the PawSox and, just as important, the economic development and the new revenue.”
Judging solely by Lucchino’s record of building ballparks, this should have been easier. It was his vision as an executive for the Baltimore Orioles to build a new, urban field that combined modern amenities with the intimacy, charm, and quirky dimensions of an old-fashioned ball yard. Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened to raves in downtown Baltimore in 1992 and inspired a new era of ballpark design that continues today. Lucchino would later have a hand in developing Petco Park in San Diego; overseeing an ambitious expansion and renovation of Fenway Park; and building JetBlue Park, the Red Sox’s spring training home in Fort Myers, Fla.
By contrast, erecting a modest minor league ballpark in Rhode Island should seem like batting practice. But it has been more like trying to hit a changeup from Pedro Martinez.
After a failed effort to move the team to Providence in 2015, the PawSox, the city, and the state’s economic development arm negotiated the framework of an $83 million stadium deal earlier this year. The proposal is for a 10,000-seat, city-owned ballpark in downtown Pawtucket. It would have the same field dimensions as Fenway and would be a landmark along Interstate 95. Under the proposal, the team would contribute $45 million (about 54 percent), the state would provide $23 million, and the city of Pawtucket $15 million.
The deal would keep the PawSox here for at least 30 years. The Triple-A team has been Rhode Island’s link to the Red Sox franchise since the 1970s and is an important part of the civic identity of Pawtucket, a city of about 71,000 often overshadowed by neighboring Providence.
Some of McCoy’s problems are obvious. For one, it’s tucked off in a residential area, with few dining or entertainment options nearby.
“I like this park — I don’t like the neighborhood,” Alfred Conti, 62, of Cranston, said during a recent game. “There’s nothing here. It’s all houses.” He said he would support public investment in a downtown stadium with walkable options for dining and entertainment.
Unseen to the public are structural problems that have led to storm-water leaks. Grebien said renovating the city-owned stadium would cost a whopping $68 million, a key reason he supports a new field downtown.
In May, shortly after the details of the ballpark deal were released, state Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a Democrat from North Providence, called time out. To the surprise of city and team officials, he declared there was not enough time to review a stadium bill this legislative session, which expires around the end of June. The ballpark was off the table for now, he said, though he was open to considering a bill in a special autumn session.
On the other side of the State House, House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, is in a standoff over the park with the state’s Democratic governor, Gina M. Raimondo.
Two years ago, Mattiello supported the plan to bring the team to Providence — and, when that plan failed, was left in the lurch. Now he insists that Raimondo endorse the new ballpark proposal before the House of Representatives take it up.
“If she’s not going to put her name on it, it’s a nonstarter in the House,” said Larry Berman, a Mattiello spokesman.
Raimondo, through her spokesman, said the negotiated framework for the new park “looked right on” and appeared to meet the governor’s goals of protecting taxpayers while providing an economic benefit to Pawtucket. The legislation is still being written; Raimondo would support a ballpark bill if it includes all the taxpayer protections she wants, said her spokesman, David Ortiz (not the former Red Sox slugger by the same name, of course, but a fun coincidence).
The chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party, Brandon S. Bell, said the governor and the speaker are “on a collision course.”
“It’s Mattiello versus Raimondo,” he quipped. “I have the popcorn out.”
For the record, Bell opposes investing public money in a ballpark, saying, “If this is such a great deal, they can go to a bank.”
There are several reasons why the politics of the ballpark are so perilous, according to voters and political insiders. In what seems to be the order of importance:
1) Rhode Island’s disastrous 2010 deal with Schilling’s company, 38 Studios. State officials offered a financing package to bring 38 Studios to Providence, but the software firm fizzled in 2012, leaving taxpayers on the hook for about $88 million. Legal action reduced the public’s exposure, but Rhode Islanders still owe — coincidentally — about $38 million.
In a not-so-fun coincidence for the team, the public money the PawSox want from state and municipal government also totals – yup – $38 million. If this were soccer, we’d call this an “own goal.” Detractors are mocking the deal as “38 Stadium.”
2) Members of the team’s ownership are extremely rich. Their enormous wealth comes up frequently in interviews with voters, who are aware the well-heeled group includes Tom Ryan, the former chief executive of CVS, and Terry Murray, who led Fleet Financial Group.
“These people are billionaires — why don’t they pay for it themselves?” said Irene, an 83-year-old lifelong Pawtucket resident who declined to give her last name. Pawtucket’s median household income is about $40,000.
Grebien, in response, argued that government investment gives the city ownership of the facility and more rights and control over the public uses beyond baseball.
3) The team asked for too much public money when it tried to move to Providence two years ago and set the quest for a new park off on the wrong foot. “The initial rollout was so badly handled, there are gigantic bridges to repair,” said Holy Cross professor Victor A. Matheson, who researches sports economics.
4) National trends are shifting away from providing tax money for sports arenas, according to Matheson.
Mayor Grebien said he will push for a commitment from legislators to debate a stadium bill in the fall.