LOWELL — Dave Heller got his ring on Opening Day. At LeLacheur Park, home of the Class A Red Sox affiliate Lowell Spinners, the team owner was presented June 14 with a World Series ring for his part in the parent club’s championship 2018 season.
Heller was thrilled to get the jewelry, happy with the ongoing upgrades his administration has brought to the ballpark, and pleased that his young team beat the Connecticut Tigers, 6-3. But he was also thinking about the bigger challenge that lies ahead: the impending arrival of the Red Sox’s top minor-league affiliate in Worcester, less than 40 miles away.
Last August the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox announced their plan to move from Rhode Island to Worcester in time for the 2021 season. On Thursday, July 11, the city of Worcester held a groundbreaking ceremony for the future Polar Park. For many fans, it seems, the PawSox will become the “WooSox.”
For Heller, it’s been a trying year. This spring his Quad City River Bandits, flagship of the four minor league baseball teams he owns, were forced to play almost all of their games on the road after massive flooding left their Davenport, Iowa, ballpark on an island. Now he wants to make sure the Spinners can weather a storm cloud of their own.
After buying the Spinners — the Class A “short season” New York-Penn League team for which current Red Sox stars including Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi played on their way to the big leagues — in 2016, Heller quickly negotiated a 10-year lease extension for LeLacheur Park. The team, which moved to Lowell in 1996, has played there since the ballpark opened in 1998.
Last year the Spinners extended their affiliation with the Red Sox through the 2020 season. Right now, however, Heller can’t say whether the Red Sox will be interested in renewing that player development contract once the Worcester team is in business.
“We are particularly fond of our relationship with the Spinners and the City of Lowell,” responded Red Sox President and CEO Sam Kennedy in an e-mail exchange. “Lowell usually features our recent draft picks each summer, which makes it quite easy for our Baseball Ops group to keep a close eye on their progression. We are hopeful the club will stay in Lowell for the long term.”
There has been some speculation in Lowell about the future of McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, and whether that city could attract another competing minor league franchise.
Amid all the intrigue, Heller has been assuring Lowell’s civic leaders and baseball fans that he has no contingency plan to leave the city. He’s had no discussion — “not a single conversation, meeting, e-mail, or smoke signal,” he swears — with any other community.
“There’s a lot of excitement and dynamism here,” said Heller, who serves on the board of the Lowell Plan, a private nonprofit. “There’s a real sense that things are about to take off.” He cites the smart-growth plan for Lowell’s Hamilton Canal area, the launch of an ambitious project to build a new high school, and the forthcoming completion of the new Lowell Judicial Center.
“It’s a chance for the whole city to reinvent itself,” said Heller.
Heller sees his investment in minor league baseball — and his signature family-oriented improvements and additions to his ballparks, including amusement rides and on-field promotions — as a kind of civic duty. An affordable professional baseball game is “the one thing that can take a diverse, disparate, multicultural community and bring it together,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing to see.”
Mayor William Samaras said he believes in Heller’s commitment to Lowell. Right now, he sees little point in hypothesizing about the future relationship between the Red Sox and the Spinners.
“I don’t believe we should jump at shadows,” he said. “So far, everything we’ve heard from the Red Sox is that they’re committed to the city of Lowell.”
Heller is proud to represent Lowell. He restored the “L” to the team’s caps, and he’s pushing a new nickname, the “MillSox,” based on the city’s industrial history. But he knows he’ll need to cast a net bigger than Lowell proper to compete for fans when the Worcester Red Sox take the field in 2021.
“Our challenge is to broaden the team’s appeal, to make it more of a Merrimack Valley team than a Lowell team,” he said.
Jim Flynn, who is a father of eight, seven of them boys, spent plenty of time at LeLacheur when his kids were younger. He manages the Catcher’s Mitt Pub in downtown Lowell.
“I think the Spinners’ draw is because they’re with the Red Sox,” he said. He pointed out that Lowell had a minor league hockey team for a dozen years, beginning in 1998. Originally called the Lock Monsters, they became the Lowell Devils when the NHL’s New Jersey Devils acquired the franchise in 2006.
“If they were affiliated with the Bruins, they probably would have lasted,” he said. “But it fizzled.”
For now, Heller and his team will take on the increasing challenge of securing a share of the region’s family entertainment dollars. Besides Worcester, the Spinners already have nearby competition from the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the Toronto Blue Jays affiliate whose home stadium is just a half-hour north in Manchester.
Sitting at the desk of Spinners general manager Shawn Smith — when Heller is in town, they share the office — the owner claimed he’s never fallen in love with a community so fast. Raised in Connecticut, he made his name as a political consultant in Washington D.C. His other teams are in Billings, Mont., and Wilmington, Del.; he and his family make their primary home in Davenport, Iowa.
As he spoke, his son Dylan, 11, sat at a table across the room, headphones on, tapping the keyboard of a laptop. The welcome that Heller and his family received upon their arrival in Lowell was unprecedented, he said.
“If there was a residency requirement, it was about five minutes,” he joked.