PAWTUCKET — An artist’s rendering showed a shiny new ballpark filled with Red Sox fans. State and city officials hailed it as a historic moment. Business leaders vowed to build restaurants and offices nearby. There was even a polar bear mascot on hand.
It was a moment many imagined playing out in Rhode Island over the past few years as the Pawtucket Red Sox considered moving from 77-year-old McCoy Stadium to Providence or, perhaps, a new Pawtucket ballpark.
But Thursday’s celebratory scene happened in Worcester.
More than 1,000 people packed onto a patch of cracked concrete to watch the groundbreaking for Polar Park — the 10,000-seat ballpark that will be home to the Worcester Red Sox when the Triple-A team moves from Pawtucket in 2021.
The new polar bear mascot posing for photos belonged to Polar Beverages, the Worcester soft drink company that is the park’s namesake.
A few hours later, back in Pawtucket at the team’s current ballpark, its longtime polar bear mascots — Paws and Sox — tried to fire up a crowd of 3,413 that had gathered for the night’s PawSox game.
But when the singer took the field for the national anthem, the microphone didn’t work, leaving her voice echoing faintly amid the many empty seats.
And while all the ingredients — beer, pretzels, and hot dogs — were in place, no amount of mustard could mask the taste of bitterness and sadness.
“I’m disappointed,” Joe Sienko, of Taunton, said as he sat in the left field stands. “There’s no reason they couldn’t do (the new stadium) here. Politics, I guess.”
Sienko and his wife, Susan Sienko, said they have been coming to McCoy Stadium for about 40 years. They used to bring their twin sons, and now they get in for the “senior” price of $6 a ticket.
So will they go to Worcester when the team moves there? “No way,” Joe Sienko said. “That’s a whole different ball game.”
Mariah Barrett, of Providence, called the loss of the PawSox to Worcester “really unfortunate.” Sitting on the grass berm in left field, she said a trip to McCoy has become a family tradition for her husband and their 9-year-old son, who had a baseball glove on, waiting for a home run.
“I think a lot of Rhode Islanders are upset,” Barrett said.
Will she go to Worcester to see the team? “You know, typical Rhode Islanders think anything more than 15 or 20 minutes away is too far,” she said.
As the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, Pawtucket has a proud history. But the loss of the PawSox will deal yet another blow to the city of 72,000 still reeling from the closure of Memorial Hospital and fretting about the potential loss of the Hasbro toy company headquarters.
“Rhode Island has taken it on the chin a few times already,” Dan Cogar, of Seekonk, said as he sat on a blanket with his wife, Sarah Cogar, and their 2-year-old son. The PawSox are a local “gem” that provides family fun and community support, he said. “We’re getting robbed of something culturally and financially.”
As the game began, Gilbert Taylor looked out at McCoy from his backyard, which abuts Ben Mondor Way, the stadium access road named for the beloved PawSox owner who died in 2010.
Taylor said he spotted a real estate ad for a “baseball lover’s dream” 15 years ago and jumped at the chance to buy a ranch house right next to McCoy. On summer nights, he sits on his back deck, grilling ribeye, listening to the live call of the game and watching post-game fireworks.
“That’s living the dream, guy,” Taylor said. “Hopefully my dream is not going to turn into a nightmare with whatever happens there.”
He has no plans to go to Worcester to watch the team in future years. “Pawtucket is like Miami Beach compared to Worcester,” he said. He predicted Worcester and Massachusetts will regret investing so much in the $100-million project. “Go break the ground and good luck to you. They are going to lose their shirt.”
That kind of disenchantment is reflected in attendance figures: The team is drawing an average of 4,796 fans per game to McCoy Stadium this year, which ranks 12th out of 14 Triple-A International League teams for per-game attendance, according to the latest statistics from the league.
By comparison, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (near Allentown, Pa.) lead the league with an average of 8,417 fans per game, while the Gwinnett Stripers (near Atlanta, Ga.) are dead last with an average of 3,261 fans per game.
Pawtucket’s average of 4,796 represents a drop of 1,186 per game from last year’s average of 5,982. And it’s a far cry from 2005, when Pawtucket led the league with a per-game average of 9,561 fans, according to league statistics.
Pawtucket City Councilman Terrence E. Mercer, whose district includes McCoy Stadium, said it’s no surprise attendance is down.
“I think people are less interested and perhaps weaning themselves from the team,” Mercer said. “Their loyalties have been insulted.”
Mercer, who grew up 200 yards from McCoy and now lives less than a mile away, said that when Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony took place in Worcester, he was thinking of “what could have been in Pawtucket.”
He recalled how amazing McCoy Stadium looked in 2000 after undergoing renovations. And he said he envisioned a shiny new stadium in downtown Pawtucket — right alongside Route 95, with a new commuter rail station nearby and people flocking to the city to watch a ballgame and drink craft beer at the city’s new breweries.
“It certainly could have been a jump start to something really good and really big in Pawtucket,” Mercer said.
Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien issued a statement, saying, “The City of Pawtucket congratulates the Red Sox and the City of Worcester on their ceremonial groundbreaking. The Red Sox were a great partner for Rhode Island for decades and their brand will be missed in this state.”
After plans for a Providence stadium fell through in 2015, the PawSox considered a new stadium in Pawtucket. Last August, team officials said they had wanted to stay in Rhode Island, but blamed the state House of Representatives for refusing to pass a stadium financing plan that had been approved in large part by the state Senate.
Earlier Thursday, Dr. Charles Steinberg, president of the Pawtucket Red Sox, took part in the groundbreaking ceremony in Worcester, tossing dirt with a shovel that had a baseball bat handle.
When asked what he would say to Rhode Islanders, he looked around, saying, “This is the day that we thought we would be celebrating in Pawtucket, in Rhode Island.”
He said Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien did everything he could to keep the team in Pawtucket. But, he said, “What you are seeing here today is such a spirit of cooperation and collaboration among state officials and city officials who collectively were determined to make this happen. And you see the results.”
When asked about the declining attendance in Pawtucket, Steinberg said, “I fully understand the range of emotions.” As a Baltimore native, he said his heart broke when the Baltimore Bullets moved to Washington, D.C.
“We are going to do everything we can to make sure the people of Rhode Island realize that this end of the Blackstone Valley is just as welcoming to them,” Steinberg said. “This can still be where their 8-year-olds fall in love with baseball.”
As night fell on Pawtucket, the PawSox squandered an early lead and lost to Buffalo 5 to 4.