PAWTUCKET, R.I. — For the Massachusetts city of Worcester last week’s announcement that the top minor league team of the Boston Red Sox was coming to a new downtown ballpark for the 2021 season was a shot in the arm.
For the Rhode Island city of Pawtucket, which has been the home of the team since 1973, the news was a punch to the gut.
The Class AAA PawSox, as they’re known locally, are an institution in this former mill town of 71,000. Players like Jim Rice, Wade Boggs and Carlton Fisk passed through on the way to Hall of Fame careers in Boston (and elsewhere), and the club became a national model for success in the often-challenging world of minor league baseball.
But a change in ownership three years ago, political disagreement over funding for a new stadium and the impending expiration of the lease at 77-year-old McCoy Stadium created the conditions for an event many thought would never happen.
In the wake of Friday’s announcement, the PawSox opened a weekend series at home against the Durham Bulls. The outward vibe at McCoy was no different, but there was no escaping the fact that the team’s time in Pawtucket now appeared to be slowly, and sadly, moving toward a conclusion.
Mike Haught, 60, said he drives to McCoy from Chester, N.H., about 90 minutes away, because “the games here are much more fun than anywhere else.”
Another fan, Ed Fratus, 64, of Chepachet, R.I. said he was angered by what had occurred. “There should have been a deal to keep the team here months ago,’’ he said.
The Pawtucket club had been owned for decades by Ben Mondor, but four years after his death in 2010, his widow, Madeleine, and two longtime team executives put the team up for sale. In February 2015, a group led by Larry Lucchino, who at that point was still the president and chief executive of the Red Sox; and James Skeffington, a well-connected Providence lawyer, bought the club. The new owners quickly announced their intent to leave McCoy for a new stadium in Providence.
But Skeffington died of a heart attack three months later, the Providence plan fell through, and the team then embarked on plans for a new stadium in Pawtucket, close to I-95.
The team negotiated a stadium-financing plan with Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo last year that had the backing of the State Senate, but it failed to gather sufficient support in the House of Representatives. In June, House and Senate approved a stadium plan that would have cost the Pawtucket Red Sox more money, but by then the club was already negotiating a more attractive deal with Worcester, which was able to garner state, local and private help.
The result was the letter of intent signed by the PawSox last week to move to Worcester.
In Rhode Island, elected officials bore the brunt of the blame for the fact the PawSox were leaving. Some fans blamed the governor for not rallying more support for the 2017 plan. Others blamed the state’s legislators, particularly Nicholas Mattiello, the Speaker of the House.
What it came down to, said Sandi Barber, 67, who was at Saturday night’s game with five friends, was that Worcester “was proactive about this and we weren’t.”
Lucchino, who was directly involved in the construction of Camden Yards in Baltimore and Petco Park in San Diego as well as the renovation of Fenway Park, said at Friday’s announcement that the PawSox could not wait any longer for Rhode Island officials to come through with an acceptable plan for a new local stadium.
If the deal that Raimondo backed 15 months ago had received full legislative approval, he said, “we’d probably be building a ballpark right now in downtown Pawtucket.”
It was back in 1970 that the Boston Red Sox put their Class AA franchise in Pawtucket. Three years later, Pawtucket moved up a notch when Boston’s Class AAA team moved here from Louisville. The club was immediately successful on the field, winning the International League championship — the Governor’s Cup.
Off the field, it was a different story. By the end of the 1976 season, the team had declared bankruptcy, and in January 1977, the league revoked the franchise. The Pawtucket Red Sox were on their way somewhere else, when Mondor, a retired Rhode Island businessman, intervened.
He bought the team in February of that year, although so bereft was the club that three weeks before the start of the 1977 season, it still didn’t have uniforms. The Boston Red Sox stepped in and sent 48 sets of old uniforms to help out.
But Mondor knew what he was doing. One of his first moves was to hire Mike Tamburro, who was then 24, as the team’s general manager, and together they began to turn the Pawtucket Red Sox around.
“We wanted to create the feeling that you were coming home when you came to a ballgame,” said Tamburro, now vice chairman of the PawSox and a co-owner. “At the same time, we wanted to create a safe and inexpensive and service-oriented environment.”
The season attendance that first year was just 111,224. But by 1991, it exceeded 400,000, and it peaked at 688,421 in 2005, six years after a major renovation of McCoy.
Along the way, Pawtucket received national attention when it hosted the longest game in professional baseball history, a 33-inning affair that began on April 18, 1981, was suspended at 4:07 a.m. the next morning, and concluded on June 23.
Mondor, Tamburro and Lou Schwechheimer, who had become the team’s general manager after Tamburro was promoted, worked together for more than three decades in Pawtucket, a remarkable run considering the transient nature of the minor leagues. The PawSox became an entity that bound the state together and, fittingly, a statue of Mondor now stands outside the main entrance to McCoy.
That’s why the news hit Pawtucket so hard. Last December, the town had witnessed the closing of Memorial Hospital. Now this.
Bob Tracey, 68, a retired physical therapist, grew up in Pawtucket and, when he was younger, went to games at McCoy with his father. This year, he took a job as an usher at the stadium, figuring the place wouldn’t be the home of the PawSox much longer. What he didn’t foresee was that the team leaving Pawtucket altogether.
He said the team’s departure would be a blow to the city and the community of fans. “This place is a neighborhood thing,” he added, citing the atmosphere Mondor forged.
The team’s new ballpark will be built as part of a mixed-use development 42 miles from McCoy and eight miles closer to Fenway Park than the PawSox’s current home.
The move won’t officially be a franchise relocation, since Worcester is within Pawtucket’s territorial area. Though it’s little solace for current PawSox supporters, a familiar sight could greet them when Polar Park, named for Polar Beverages, founded in Worcester in 1882, welcomes its first fans in April 2021.
After all, Pawtucket’s current mascot, Paws, is a polar bear.