Picture this: It’s 2021.
You’re driving down Interstate-95 South toward Providence, R.I., about to cross the Seekonk River, but as you drive along the bend through Pawtucket, you notice gleaming stadium lights and a sign reading, “The Ballpark at Slater Mill.”
It’s the new home of the Pawtucket Red Sox.
You crack your window and hear the roar of a sold-out crowd as the aroma of hot dogs and popcorn seep into your car. You can see home plate, the pitcher wind up, and the batter swing from your seat on the highway.
That’s what should have been.
But instead, in 2021, the eggshell-turning-brown, pyramid-shaped, almost-abandoned Apex building will still sit in the underdeveloped downtown area of Pawtucket.
In 2021, the Pawtucket Red Sox won’t be the PawSox any longer.
McCoy Stadium might be abandoned or completely torn down, Memorial Hospital will still be closed and the Hasbro Toy Company, one of the largest employers in Pawtucket, might move their headquarters out of the state.
For over a year and a half, beginning in 2017, legislation that would have kept the PawSox in Rhode Island was being changed, discussed and debated. A bill for a new stadium finally passed in August 2018, but it was too late.
On Aug. 17, 2018, the Associated Press reported at 2:30 p.m. that the PawSox signed a letter of intent to move to Worcester, Mass. and into a newly built “Polar Park,” named after Worcester’s beverage giant, Polar Beverages.
“It was a very sad day for Pawtucket and I think it was a very unwise move for the state of Rhode Island,” Sen. Donna Nesselbush said.
“Hundreds of Rhode Island labor jobs in constructing a new stadium have gone to Worcester. Two and a half million dollars yearly of state tax revenue gone to Worcester,” Rep. Mary Messier wrote in her letter to “The Valley Breeze” editor. “A new stadium was to be a year-round venue…The area surrounding the new stadium was to be home to shops, restaurants and businesses. All that would have served to revitalize the city of Pawtucket and the Blackstone Valley.”
The loss of the PawSox was a huge hit to Pawtucket, but it’s not the only blow to the city in recent months. Their aim is to find the positive in this situation by moving forward and rebuilding their city. But in order to even start a revitalization process, they must overcome one of their toughest obstacles.
Only about 400 feet away from the main entrance of McCoy Stadium on Columbus Avenue sits a mid-20th century-themed diner that serves PawSox fans, staff, owners and Pawtucket residents. A narrow aisle perpendicular with the front door splits the Red Sox red shiny booths from the stools permanently cemented to the bar.
Behind the bar, encased behind a window, sit PawSox bobbleheads in formation of a baseball diamond of the mascot Paws and some of the great players that have passed through the minor league system. Relics representative of the team that lives next door hang on the walls throughout the establishment.
But in two years-time, those relics might come off the wall or be considered antiques.
The Right Spot Diner will be in the wrong spot in two years.
The restaurant has been in their current location since 1975, just prior to when owner Ben Mondor took over the team. Rose Martelle, who has been a waitress for six years, has heard stories about Mondor coming in often for a meal from the owners of the restaurant.
“[He came in] lots of times,” Martelle said. “[Everything he did for the team and the city], he wasn’t doing for himself.”
The PawSox’s current chairman, Larry Lucchino, is a customer of the Right Spot Diner sometimes, but he’s more of a businessman, according to Martelle.
“He’s a different kind of person,” she said. “He’s never asked anyone here how they feel about [the move], which I find kind of odd.”
Martelle isn’t the only Rhode Islander that was shocked the Worcester deal happened. Even the politicians who were involved with the legislation were surprised the team decided to leave.
“The whole thing is sad. I don’t think anyone thought it would happen,” Martelle said. “I thought something would come up, somebody would come up with something.”
The PawSox’s lease for McCoy Stadium expires in 2021, which is when the team plans to open in Worcester. The team’s future is certain but the stadium’s and city’s future is not.
The PawSox wasn’t the first professional baseball team to call McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, R.I. home. The stadium was completed in 1942, but it took four years for a team to move in. The Pawtucket Slaters, the affiliate of the then-Boston Braves, was the first professional team to play in that stadium. That same year, the stadium was dedicated to Thomas P. McCoy, the city’s mayor who served from 1936 until his death in 1945.
McCoy was born in Pawtucket in 1883 and was one of seven Irish immigrant children which helped him gain popularity among the Irish Catholic mill-worker leaders, according to Dan Barry’s “The Bottom of the 33rd.” He officially began his political career in 1920 when he was elected to the state legislature. After holding various positions in his home city, he was elected mayor in 1936 and seemed to have absolute control of the city.
He used baseball to distract his city from the Great Depression and ordered the building of a stadium, which he thought would boost morale. But the area was almost impossible to build on in its current condition.
He chose Hammond Pond as the site but they had to manually drain the pond before they started building. The process was long and arduous and, legend has it, a number of trucks and pieces of equipment sank into the muck and were lost forever. The site’s unstable foundation is the reason for the untraditional “dugouts” inserted into the side of the grandstands.
The workers on the stadium and residents of Pawtucket were skeptical and nicknamed the project “McCoy’s Folly,” which stuck for years to come. The original estimated cost for the stadium increased from $600,000 to more than $1 million.
Two days before elections in November 1940, McCoy laid the cornerstone of his new ballpark. After two years of more construction, a city-wide gathering on in July 1942 celebrated the completion of the stadium, even though it cost almost $1 million over the original budget; the ballpark’s final cost was $1.5 million, to be exact. A semiprofessional team defeated a team from Lynn, Mass., during a free-admittance christening of the ballpark.
In 1946, the Pawtucket Slaters, who were named after Samuel Slater, the textile manufacturer who helped sparked the Industrial Revolution in America, began to call the new stadium home.
But the 1949 season was the last for the Slaters, and once again, McCoy Stadium was team-less. Baseball finally returned to McCoy 17 years later with the arrival of the then Cleveland Indians’ Double-A affiliate, the Pawtucket Indians, who played in Rhode Island for one year.
Beginning in 1970, McCoy Stadium became the home of the Pawtucket Red Sox. The Boston Red Sox moved their minor league affiliate that year from Pittsfield, Mass. to their current city. The owner at the time, former New York Yankee shortstop Joe Buzas, was known for revitalizing teams, but the PawSox were a challenge for Buzas.
They quickly became a successful club. In 1973, they won their first International League championship over the Charleston Charlies and also won the national prize by defeating the Tulsa Oilers in the Junior World Series. But their success grew dim and the money began to run out. Buzas decided to sell his team in 1975 to Phil Anez, an advertising guru from Woonsocket, R.I.
The team briefly changed their name in 1976 to the Rhode Island Red Sox, but the name change couldn’t help their talent or financial woes. They went bankrupt and only attracted a lowly total of 70,000 fans throughout the entire season.
Anez was dismissed as owner and the International League gave the team to a Massachusetts businessman. His first order of business was announcing the move of the team to Worcester, Mass. But the league wasn’t in favor of allowing the move to happen and began searching for a new owner.
Former Red Sox pitcher Chet Nichols approached George Bernard Mondor, but Mondor played it off like he wasn’t interested in the deal. In fact, Mondor was intrigued by the challenge presented, and after some convincing, accepted the deal.
Mondor, who was better known as Ben, was born in 1925 and never really played baseball, but understood the game, Barry wrote.
His family moved to Woonsocket from Quebec, Canada, during the Depression in search of work. After high school, Mondor enlisted in the Navy. He was ineligible for free college tuition since he wasn’t officially a citizen, so he was forced to educate himself. In the 1960s, Mondor and two partners bought a mill in the city and produced women’s wear fabrics. Through various financial strategies, he became successful and wealthy.
As Mondor worked his way to success, McCoy Stadium rotted. By 1961, the ballpark was boarded up and vandalized with thousands, maybe millions, of dollars worth of repair needed.
Mondor transformed the team and its home after he bought the team in 1977. Barry wrote, “Under Mondor, the ballpark experience centers on the game and on community…”
The stadium and team gained national attention in the ‘80s with their record-setting game. Mondor watched his team on April 18, 1981, when the PawSox and Rochester Red Wings began the longest game in professional baseball history. The game was finally suspended at 4 a.m. on Easter morning by the president of the league with the scored tied at two apiece.
The game picked up where they left off—in the 33rd inning— on June 23. After only 18 minutes, the PawSox’s big hitting first baseman Dave Koza drove in the winning run
While Mondor was the owner, McCoy Stadium, which was the smallest stadium in terms of seating in the league at the time, revealed a $17 million facelift in 1999 that added over 3,000 seats. Just six years later, the PawSox posted the highest season attendance ever into the park, which was also the highest throughout the International League in 2005.
Throughout the seasons Mondor held ownership of the team, the PawSox saw success and change. Over the years, the team and McCoy Stadium have been a stop for many future stars on their way to the major leagues and sometimes Hall of Fame careers. Many of the players like Jim Rice, Mo Vaughn, Fred Lynn, Joe Morgan, Wade Boggs, Steve Lyons, Bronson Arroyo, and Dustin Pedroia, among many others, are enshrined throughout the stadium on baseball card-like posters.
After Mondor’s death in October 2010, his wife, Madeleine, became the majority stockholder. Madeline and Ben met in church many years ago but had no children to take over the family business. Five years later, the team was purchased by Fenway Sports Management, a group of 10 investors led by an owner of the Boston Red Sox, Larry Lucchino.
A few days after the purchase of the team, news broke that plans were in the works to move the PawSox out of McCoy Stadium and Pawtucket and into a new ballpark in Providence. The proposal of a new ballpark that was officially presented in April would have cost about $85 million. The ballpark would be privately owned but the PawSox would pay only $17 million of the cost. The State of Rhode Island would pay the remaining 80 percent. The plans fell apart when one of the investors, James Skeffington, a lawyer from Providence and brain behind the plan, died from a heart attack in May.
In 2016, a study of McCoy Stadium’s structural status began. The State of Rhode Island, the City of Pawtucket and the Pawtucket Red Sox co-funded the study in order to assess the work needed on the stadium since the PawSox’s lease would be up in less than five years. Pendulum Studio, Arora Engineers, Inc., Barton Malow, BETA Group, Brailsford and Dunlavey, and S/L/A/M Collaborative conducted the study and presented its final report on Jan. 26, 2017.
The study concluded that it would make more sense to build a new stadium on McCoy’s site. A new stadium would cost approximately $78 million rather than renovate McCoy Stadium again to bring the park up to modern Triple-A baseball standards, which they estimated would cost about $68 million. They recommended the club, state and city should go even further and find a new location to build a new park on.
The study noted that the cons of renovating the existing stadium would outweigh the pros since they knew they wouldn’t be able to account for all the damages not visible to the naked eye; they would uncover more issues with the stadium as they went along. They discussed a possibility of building on the current site, but would run into many obstacles. One obstacle would be housing the team for at least one season while the new stadium was being built.
Taking into account the McCoy Stadium study and its recommendations and other available information, B and D Venues drew up and presented the earliest plans for a new ballpark in April 2017. They studied various locations, including the Apex site, Division Street and the Tidewater site, and estimated their potential revenue. In addition to a ballpark, the plans included approximate values for hotels, retail space, office space and condominiums.
During the same month, Fleming and Associates, a public opinion research firm, conducted telephone interviews for two days to determine Rhode Islanders’ desire to keep the PawSox in Pawtucket and in the state of Rhode Island. They targeted registered voters and made an effort to not underrepresented the younger voter demographic. Out of 450 samples, they concluded that 75 percent of those asked, thought it was important, either very or somewhat, for the PawSox to stay in Rhode Island. While over half of those surveyed supported the building of a new ballpark in the city of Pawtucket, most did not want the stadium to be financed with taxpayers’ money.
The next month, D’Agostino Izzo Quirk Architects revealed graphic plans that outlined where the ballpark would sit on the former Apex site. The Triple-A version of a “Green Monster” would sit along School Street and home plate would almost be in line with the Main Street bridge crossing the Blackstone River. Further down, on the Seekonk River, plans laid out an outline of a developed area off of Division Street. The Ballpark at Slater Mill, in reality across the river from the actual Slater Mill, would be easily viewable from I-95, which is traveled by some 130,000 vehicles daily.
The Rhode Island’s Senate original bill was based on the information given to them by the PawSox, Gov. Gina Raimondo and the city of Pawtucket to keep the team in the city with a brand-new ballpark.
“I think the Senate had an extraordinary process that involved the entire state. This was a state-wide issue so the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. William Conley, held hearings throughout the state so all aspects of the state could be heard,” Pawtucket Sen. Donna Nesselbush said. “There were actually some good and better ideas that we incorporated into the final proposal.”
According to Nesselbush, the Senate conducted eight hearings, 29 hours of public testimony and took into account suggestions made by residents on their website.
Nesselbush is originally from Buffalo, N.Y., but went to Brown University in the 1980s and returned to Rhode Island in 1987. When she became a full-time resident of Pawtucket, she noticed the “best kept secret in Rhode Island,” the hidden gem, the PawSox.
“It was an amazing way to see professional baseball players. It’s like baseball and apple pie—it’s part of America’s fabric,” Nesselbush said. “I could go see a great baseball game at a reasonable price on a beautiful sunny day under God’s blue sky… it was just fabulous.”
Since she moved to Pawtucket, she’s made many memories inside of McCoy Stadium including meeting Dennis Ray “Oil Can” Boyd, being invited into the owners’ box and throwing out the ceremonious first pitch multiple times.
After conducting the hearings, Nesselbush realized there was a general consensus that a majority of the people they talked to were in favor of the proposal of a new stadium.
Nesselbush knew they had two advantages when beginning the process of getting the proposal approved—the partnership between the city of Pawtucket and state of Rhode Island and the PawSox and the need for a completely new stadium since fixing the current McCoy Stadium would have been too costly.
“It didn’t make financial sense to waste money to try to fix clearly a second-rate stadium that no longer really met the criteria needed in the Independent Baseball League for what a stadium is supposed to have for the players,” Nesselbush said.
Before voting on the proposal, the Senate made sure it was economically feasible for the city and the state to build a new stadium. They conferred with financial analysts to devise a plan that would not put too much burden on the taxpayers and wouldn’t put the state in too much unnecessary risk, like Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios, a computer game company which failed miserably. (According to the Boston Globe, Schilling was “awarded up to $75 million in loan guarantees from the state of Rhode Island” so “taxpayers were on the hook for millions” when it tanked.) The Senate was convinced the plan would have ultimately paid for itself.
“Cities often have assessments of how much debt a city can handle based on its revenues from taxes and any other places the city get revenues. This was also well within the suggested levels of debt to revenue ratio. We felt confident that the city of Pawtucket would be able to repay that,” Nesselbush said. “The development and just having this beautiful Ballpark at Slater Mill would have attracted so much… Pawtucket would have had an economic boom.”
Shortly after the proposal was presented, the Senate accepted it and sent it to the House of Representatives for approval. But the House sat on the bill and didn’t act upon it until the final days of the general assembly. When the House finally took it up, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello decided to make changes to it that took away the bonds which would have created general debt. Between the time the Senate passed it and the House began discussing it, the PawSox was already weighing their options with a bigger, more expensive proposal from Worcester.
During the final days of discussion in the House, Nesselbush broke a Senate norm by wearing a PawSox t-shirt and pleaded that the House accept their proposal.
“I wanted people to know how strongly I felt about the proposal and how much of a fan I was, not only of the PawSox, but also of the Senate’s proposal,” Nesselbush said. “By breaking a Senate cultural norm, I wanted to bring attention not only to the issue, but how much I supported the issue.”
The House eventually passed the bill but the PawSox had already agreed to Worcester’s $100 million proposal.
“I, personally, appreciate the PawSox, their management, the owners, for all of the wonderful memories they gave Rhode Island and Rhode Islanders, and for all of the philanthropy. They have provided so much support to Rhode Island’s nonprofits. They have just made the days of so many Rhode Island kids… It’s a very sad loss of an outstanding institution,” Nesselbush said.
She might not make it out to Worcester anytime soon, but knows she’ll probably have to make the trip sooner rather than later.
“They say, ‘Time heals all wounds,’ and once that wound is healed, I think I will at least have to go check it out,” Nesselbush said. “It’s still a very, very bitter pill I’ve had to swallow.”
Despite the loss of the team, the city of Pawtucket will have to compensate and, in some ways, they are already in the process. The first order of business, she believes, is obtaining the Apex site they were trying hard to get for the stadium during the process.
“Pawtucket has to resolve that issue so that we have that prime real estate right off the highway. It’s hard to sell the city and get economic development there when you don’t currently own the property,” Nesselbush said.
The city has two options on how to acquire the Apex site—eminent domain or buy it from the owner for a steep price.
“We need to hit some sort of a home run with the Apex property,” Nesselbush said.
Pawtucket-native Mary Duffy Messier has been attending baseball games at McCoy Stadium since she was a young girl. After retiring as an elementary school teacher in Cumberland, R.I., she found her way into politics as a Democrat and was elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 2009. She represents District 62, in which McCoy Stadium lies. She pushed a bill that would have created an annual Ben Mondor Day.
Some of her favorite memories of McCoy Stadium and living in Pawtucket were the fireworks on July 3rd.
“Everybody cooked out, everyone in the neighborhood when we were little kids. We ran around with sparklers and waited for [the fireworks], we didn’t even have to leave our driveway and you could see it,” she said.
The significance of the club also made the trip to McCoy Stadium worthwhile, according to Messier, and the possibility that you could see a major leaguer playing for the same price of a minor league game ticket. She recalls the time she attended a game and saw “Big Papi” David Ortiz rehabbing from an injury.
Representatives Messier, David Coughlin, Raymond Johnston, Carlos Tobon and Jean Philippe Barros introduced bill H6366, “Authorizing the state to enter into a financing lease and payment agreements in connection the construction of a ballpark in the city of Pawtucket,” on June 27, 2017. They fought hard to get it passed.
“The stadium had been there 75 years, and it’s a family venue. I think that’s what people don’t understand,” Messier said. “Another thing that was a loss, not just for Pawtucket, but the entire state of Rhode Island, is the fact that they were very charitable…They did a lot and that’s going to be a big loss.”
The PawSox has been a significant contributor to charities, nonprofits and other good causes in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts. The Pawsox Foundation was established in 1998 and their “efforts have been primarily focused on improving health, education and recreational opportunities, as well as social service programs in urban neighborhoods,” according to their website page. One of their highlighted programs is the PawSox Scholars, which honor and financially assist youth as young as eighth-grade level pursue an education. Throughout the year, the PawSox hold events at McCoy Stadium and travel across the region to schools, boys’ and girls’ clubs and other charitable locations.
Pawtucket has suffered more losses than just the moving of the PawSox in recent history. They witnessed the closing of Memorial Hospital at the beginning of 2018.
“It’s mostly the insurers. They can’t seem to get together and decide what to do. They laid off so many people,” Messier said. “The problem with it is our rescue vehicles have to go to Providence now to Miriam [Hospital] or Rhode Island [Hospital]. They would like to get an emergency room in [Memorial Hospital] with ‘X’ amount of beds but the problem with the hospital is it’s so old– I think it’s 100 years old, the ballpark’s 75, that’s 100.”
The Hasbro toy company, which employs about 1,200 people, has also called Pawtucket home since the 1920s, but have recently been seriously considering a move out of the city as well. They’re currently stuck in a small building but are looking to move into a campus, possibly in Massachusetts, for their business. Messier said that there was talk that Hasbro would have been interested into moving into the newly developed Apex site if they could have secured the land.
But acquiring the Apex site has been difficult for the town of Pawtucket since the owner is unwilling to relinquish his building and land. The old department store, which is visible from I-95, could have been an ideal site for a new ballpark because of how easily accessible it is from the highway, according to Messier. Other parties have been interested in buying the property, but the building is allegedly filled with asbestos which would be expensive to remove and dangerous to future tenants.
The counteroffer to the city’s $9 million was over $20 million, she recalled, which is “an abhorrent amount of money” in her opinion. The city’s last effort to obtain the site would be by enforcing eminent domain.
“[The city] doesn’t want to do that. That takes time and courts, but if they had to, they would,” Messier said.
The current Apex is mostly abandoned, only believed to be occupied currently by a church group who has a room in the back and a small portion of the remaining department story.
Much of the blame for the loss of the PawSox has been placed on the Rhode Island House of Representatives, but Messier believes Speaker Mattiello should take the brunt of it.
She mentioned that he wasn’t happy with the form that the original bill was in so he changed it.
“He claimed his version would save the taxpayer, but I also think he had his own district in which he was running [for reelection] again and that was his one reason. He thought his constituents were not happy with the taxes involved,” Messier said.
She thinks the revision of the bill turned off the Pawtucket Red Sox organization from trying to cut another deal with the city.
“They’ve been trying to get the deal done for three years. You can understand their frustration,” Messier said.
She does admit, though, that there were some districts that were also opposed to the bill and its financial details, but most of the districts were in South County when the bill would mainly affect the Blackstone Valley.
Messier and some of her colleagues didn’t like the changes Mattiello proposed, but voted for the amended bill regardless.
“Better to have a bad bill than no bill at all in hopes of going back and trying to get things done, but before we could do it, they left,” she said.
Messier is concerned with the financial loss the PawSox move will create and its eventual impacts. Having the PawSox in McCoy generates over $2 million in tax revenue, which will be a significant hit to the city. She thinks it’ll bring Pawtucket one step closer to bankruptcy. She hopes the state doesn’t have to bail out Pawtucket like they did Central Falls a few years back, but the absence of the team might be the tipping point.
“[The new stadium] was the first step to revitalizing the city and that first step is gone, so back to the books and looking to what we can do,” she said.
She is skeptical of the move and doesn’t think Worcester is the best location for the club. When people make the argument to her that Polar Park will be closer in distance to Fenway Park, she tells them that, in fact, McCoy is a mile closer to Fenway.
What happens to the team if the stadium isn’t built in time, she asks. Messier worries about snow and how it will hinder the construction timeline. According to the Golden Snow Globe, which tracks the snowiest cities in the country with a population of over 100,000, Worcester made the 2018-2019 top 25 list and was the only Massachusetts city or town to be recognized.
“I don’t know what will happen if they have to stay another year at McCoy. I don’t know how the city will deal with that [since] the lease will be up. We’ll have to see what happens there,” she said.
There’s some optimism floating around in Pawtucket and Rhode Island, hoping that something will happen in Worcester where the deal won’t go through and they’ll have to retreat back to Pawtucket, but Messier is hoping for the opposite.
“I don’t think I can go through this again,” she said.
Although she is upset that the team she watched while growing up won’t be in town in two years, she doesn’t have any plans to visit Worcester in 2021 or beyond to see the potential WooSox play.
“I asked myself that question and I said, ‘no because I don’t want to see what we lost,’” she said.
In addition to the state legislature being involved in the discussion of the new stadium proposal, the Mayor of Pawtucket, Donald Grebien, was fully immersed in the process. He was a key supporter of the deal to keep the PawSox in town.
Grebien is a lifelong Pawtucket resident, but never was really into sports, unlike his dad, brother and grandfather. Grebien is 51 years old, so the PawSox arrived while he was growing up. He mostly remembers going as a kid with his father and grandfather, but they didn’t go regularly since his father was a New York Yankees fan.
“It was a great community venue,” Grebien said. “The PawSox, to us, were the major league team.”
Grebien played some sports, but it never was his “thing.”
“I tell everybody, ‘Politics was my sport,’” Grebien said.
He originally thought he wanted to do a trade and went to a vocational school to learn culinary, but his longtime interest in politics inspired him to switch his desired career path. Years later, after working full-time jobs, Grebien went back to school and pursued an associate’s degree at the Community College of Rhode Island in business administration. He’s looking to further his education at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I. to work toward a bachelor’s degree.
He and his wife have two children, a 19-year-old daughter who is attending CCRI and a 17-year-old son who is a high school senior. Grebien was a Little League baseball coach while his children were growing up and one of the end-of-the-season rewards for his teams was a trip to McCoy Stadium.
“It was an opportunity for kids, even my age when I was younger and even as I brought my kids there, to see first-hand the players,” Grebien said. “It was one thing to see them on TV, but it was one thing to be a baseball throw away.”
He broke into Pawtucket politics by serving on the City Council for 11 years then decided to run for mayor in 2008.
“I decided late in the game to run,” Grebien said. “We took a chance and came within 1,800 votes, but lost. And then I realized I set myself up two years later.”
He decided to run again in 2010 since his odds of winning were higher—the incumbent was retiring and it was anyone’s office to win.
He was elected mayor of Pawtucket in 2010 and was reelected again in November 2018, even after the PawSox announced they’d be moving to Worcester.
Grebien entered office right after Mondor’s death, so he first had to create a relationship with his wife, Madeline, and then with Fenway Sports Management, especially Lucchino and James Skeffington, who was ready to send the team to a new stadium in Providence.
“I’ll never forget, it was a Sunday in February, myself and my Director of Administration met with him in a local attorney’s office. We had heard the rumors they had been sold, so he comes in and we sat with him—very respectfully, it was a business decision—he looked at us on that cold, dreary Sunday night and said, ‘We’re going to Providence,’” Grebien said. “So, they never even gave us a chance.”
But when Skeffington died a few months later, the Providence deal fell through.
When the proposal for the new agreement between the PawSox and the city and state first arose, there was much negativity surrounding the deal. Many of the naysayers, he said, were opposed to giving tax dollars to billionaires. Also, the wounds still weren’t healed from the 38 Studios disaster, so a baseball-oriented deal was one of the last agreements Rhode Islanders wanted to get involved in.
“We were never able to get over the negative vibes,” Grebien said, despite the PawSox proposing to put up the most money a Triple-A team ever has.
Grebien admits that the governor, Senate president and Speaker of the House didn’t have the best relationship which made it difficult for this deal to get passed, but he knew he had to fight for his community to get it passed.
In Grebien’s opinion, “there’s enough blame to go around,” but Speaker Mattiello made a case for himself that he and some of his decisions might be the reason the PawSox were forced to weigh other options and eventually leave. Grebien recalls him aggressively trying to get the Providence deal in motion in 2015 before Skeffington’s sudden death, so Grebien thought he might be in favor of this deal, but instead, he was hesitant.
It was a great deal, he thought, and would have been beneficial for the city and its residents. It was also better than the Providence deal, but he realized it was hard to convince the taxpayers how great of a deal it actually was.
Grebien was involved in the hearings process, which he felt like they had “six million” of, but he knew they were necessary. At each hearing, constituents were able to voice their concerns or frustrations and list what they thought were the pros and cons of the proposal.
“We felt like we were out there really fighting for our community,” Grebien said.
After the hearings were over and the legislature felt that the proposal had been appropriately vetted, it was clear to Grebien that more people were in favor of the deal than opposed.
“We started to see a little bit of the change,” Grebien said about the attitudes of the municipality.
The Rhode Island Senate then went ahead and presented the governor’s proposal with amendments, which would benefit the city and state better while putting money back on the city side. According to Grebien, the deal was “fair and transparent” and paid for itself.
“It was hard to explain how good it was for the community,” Grebien said.
The deal made its way through Senate quite easily and was sent to the House of Representatives.
“Speaker said, ‘Dead on arrival,’” Grebien said. “That was a horrible message to any business.”
Grebien said that Speaker Mattiello gave him and Pawtucket his word that he would help push the proposal through by having a fair hearing in the House, but his refusal to take it up in a timely manner or hold hearings put the brakes on the whole thing.
Mattiello claimed that his constituents wanted more. But Grebien was upset that Mattiello was now dictating Pawtucket’s future and their potential economic development.
For another six more months, the Pawtucket delegation was fighting and battling to have the proposal approved as soon as possible. They felt that every time progress was being made, there was a change and that progress was erased.
“It was becoming obvious to me that [Mattiello] just didn’t want to vote on that…he really believed he was protecting the Rhode Island residents,” Grebien said. “It was very frustrating and difficult for us because it was like the goal post kept getting pushed back.”
In June, they introduced tax increment funding (TIF) into the bill, which is supposed to provide all revenues, like income taxes, meals taxes, hotel taxes, etc., that are connected to ballpark to pay for the construction bonds. The TIF shifts risk from the state and city to bond holders. The House hoped that Mattiello would realize that the TIF would protect the taxpayers and also benefit the city.
The House finally passed the bill but it was too little, too late.
“We lost the edge in January when the Speaker said no… I firmly believe, and I’ve had conversations with the owners, that they would’ve accepted the deal out of the Senate if the House would’ve just voted on it in January or soon after,” Grebien said.
For about six months, the PawSox was negotiating a potential move to Worcester for a lot more money.
“We had another meeting with the governor and the team in August, we made the presentation, and it was matter of a few days later we were competition with Worcester. Once they released numbers, there was no way Rhode Island, or in that matter Pawtucket, could ever get that,” Grebien said.
Along with the loss of their baseball team, the closing of Memorial Hospital and the potential move of Hasbro has Pawtucket worried.
“Right now, you’re in survival mode. It’s private business… They’re all different issues,” Grebien said. “It’s all reactionary.”
In order to keep private businesses in Pawtucket, Grebien believes, the state and federal governments need to help the city generate incentives.
“I have a $29 million budget…you can only do so much,” Grebien said. “We need the state to be with us, not to carry us, but to be with us to help us get the incentives.”
So, what is the future of McCoy Stadium and Pawtucket as a whole? It might not be as bad as one might think.
During the proposal process, the city discovered their gateway project—acquire the Apex property.
“The city needs a partner that’s going to work with us… [The City Council] realized about six years ago. We did what we call an overlay district which made it easier for the property owner to market out there,” Grebien said. “He hasn’t been able to do anything with that property.”
“The Council, they see the frustration, they see the lack of investment and they hear the same stories from the private owner, ‘I’m trying to do this,’ and they’re not seeing it” Grebien said. “So, during the whole process, we realized how important it is to have control of that.”
The City Council declared the Apex site a blighted property on Nov. 7, 2018 and will try to acquire the land soon.
It is important for the city to have that property to replenish their downtown area, in which they are building a new train station. They hope this convenient commuter rail will bring a younger generation to Pawtucket which is a city that is booming with breweries. They are also converting old mill buildings into livable spaces.
“We’re seeing that rehab and revitalization,” Grebien said. “We don’t have that capacity, we don’t have that critical mass.”
Grebien thinks his city has great bones, they just need to figure out what where to start.
“We’re trying to find our niche,” Grebien said.
The first step is acquiring the Apex building and then figuring out eventually what to do with a soon-to-be-empty McCoy Stadium.
“Right now, don’t know [what’s going to happen to McCoy Stadium],” Grebien said. “So, we’re trying to figure out what do we really want and what do we really need to have there?”
Since McCoy Stadium needs so many renovations, the financial cost of these renovations would determine whether it would be feasible to put something else in there or just tear it down and rebuild.
Grebien said that he’s already been in contact with a number of different businesses interested in using McCoy Stadium. Some of the potential uses for the stadium would keep it as a sports stadium or turn it into a concert venue.
“I think you’ll see it as a multiuse facility,” Grebien said. “We know they’re here for two years and we know we need to make a decision in the next couple months.”
For the Pawtucket Red Sox organization, this process was long and, ultimately, unproductive. According to Dan Rea III, the Executive Vice President and General Manager of the PawSox, the team had every intention to stay in the city, but faced trouble when the proposed deal headed into legislative hearings and voting.
“We proposed the most generous deal of its kind in the history of Triple-A baseball to keep the team here for 30 more years, a deal that we had agreed to with the city of Pawtucket and the State of Rhode Island’s Commerce Corporation after several months of negotiation,” he wrote in an email.
The legislation read that the $83 million cost of The Ballpark at Slater Mill would be split with the PawSox spending the most by paying for 54 percent of the cost. The State of Rhode Island and the City of Pawtucket would combine to pay for 46 percent of the cost. It was agreed that the PawSox would consume construction overrun costs, if necessary.
But of course, after almost a year of the proposal sitting in the Rhode Island legislature and issues acquiring the Apex site, the PawSox began exploring options in other areas, specifically Worcester, who proposed a deal hard to compete against.
“Simply put, Worcester and Massachusetts provided us with an opportunity to build a first-rate, Triple-A ballpark, as well as an adjacent mixed-use development complex, that altogether will have tremendous benefits for the city of Worcester, the Central Massachusetts region, the Red Sox organization, and all of Red Sox Nation,” Rea wrote.
Imbedded in the development plans are residential units, which Rea believes many of the players and employees of the organization and the new stadium will use. He acknowledges that many of the current employees live somewhere between Boston and Pawtucket, so since the distance to Boston is just about the same to Worcester, the organization hopes they can make arrangements to keep many of their employees.
“We’re going to continue working with employees to figure out the best situation for each person,” Rea wrote. “Suffice it to say that we hope and expect that a large contingent will continue with us.”
Worcester is the second-largest city in New England and is full of universities and top-rated hospitals. Rea wrote, “it also has a rich baseball and athletic tradition.”
The excitement and support from citizens of Worcester is apparent—the organization received over 10,000 postcards early in the process to ask the team to keep Worcester in mind as they began looking for a new city.
“Public officials and corporate leaders stepped up tremendously to make it clear that this could be a special long-term home for the Triple-A affiliate of the Red Sox,” Rea wrote.
The Red Sox organization is excited to move the team into Massachusetts in a few years and they believe it will have great benefits for both the city and the team.
“The move will help stabilize the Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox in a vibrant, up-and-coming New England city, while providing a tier-one player development conduit for the entire organization,” Rea wrote.
The PawSox will still be playing in their current city for another two years and the team will continue to work with the city and its community.
“We’re going to continue working with the Mayor of Pawtucket to make a positive impact on this community, and we’re also going to continue our discussion with local and state officials to figure out the best long-term solution for McCoy Stadium,” he wrote.
In November 2018, on Election Day in Worcester, college students were stationed at various locations asking for team name ideas. “WooSox” has been swirling through the social media stream, but the organization hasn’t officially named the team yet.
Just like the City of Pawtucket was looking to redevelop and revitalize the Apex site and its surrounding areas, Worcester plans to redesign the Canal District, the Wyman-Gordon property and Kelley Square and mimic Worcester’s industrial vibe that runs throughout the city. Also similar to Pawtucket’s Ballpark at Slater Mill, Polar Park plans to host at least 125 events year-round in the stadium.
According to the packet produced by City Manager Edward Augustus, Jr. on Aug. 8, 2018 and presented to Worcester City Council, the ballpark and the Phase 1 Development will cost almost $209 million altogether. They expect the ballpark to cost, by itself, $86 million, which is $3 million more than the proposed ballpark in Pawtucket. The remaining $122.5 million is planned to go toward infrastructure, two hotels, residential buildings and 65,000 square feet of retail space. They also plan to build a parking garage that will hold between 350 and 500 vehicles.
The plan is to begin construction in July 2019 with the opening of the ballpark for the 2021 season. After months of consideration, D’Agostino Izzo Quirk Architects, the same firm that produced the plans for The Ballpark at Slater Mill, was hired in November to develop plans for the new park. They expect the redesigned square and the ballpark to host concerts, firework displays, road races, high school/collegiate/amateur sporting events, festivals, and other community events which they estimate will attract 750,000 people.
Twenty-five miles away from McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, R.I., sits Walpole, Mass. where Joe Morgan lives. No, not Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, rather, “Walpole Joe,” former manager of the Boston Red Sox and the PawSox.
Morgan was a two-sport athlete at Boston College where he played hockey and baseball. After returning from military service, Morgan embarked on a 13-year professional baseball career. He had a hard time breaking into the majors, but had successful seasons in the minor leagues. When he decided his playing days were over, he switched to coaching teams. His coaching career began with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and then he worked his way up to a coach in the major leagues.
In 1974, Morgan began his nine-year stint with the PawSox.
“[McCoy Stadium] wasn’t too good when I first got there,” Morgan said. “It got really good when Ben Mondor showed up because he renovated the whole thing… spent a lot of money doing it there, too. It turned into a beautiful little ballpark. Even his wife worked in there and took care of my quarters that weren’t too good.”
Morgan was present during the famous 33-inning game, but didn’t manage the entire game. He was ejected in the 22nd inning for arguing with the home plate umpire that a Red Wings’ drag-bunt hit him in fair territory, but stuck around until 4 a.m. when the game was called. When they resumed the game in June, he was left in the clubhouse since his ejection carried over.
“I wanted it to go on a few more innings to make it an even 40 [innings] out of it; however, we won it in the very first inning the next time around,” Morgan said.
In 1983, the Boston Red Sox signed Morgan as a scout for two seasons but then returned to a coaching position in 1985 as the first base coach. He was the bullpen coach in 1986 then moved to third base coach in 1987. In 1988, the Boston owners fired the current manager at the All-Star break because of the team’s poor record then named Morgan acting manager for the rest of the season.
Before the 1988 break, the team’s winning percentage was under .500, but the club turned around under Morgan’s advisement. They won 12 straight games under their new manager and eventually won the American League East Division. They named Morgan the permanent skipper until 1991. The Boston Red Sox inducted the hometown boy into the team’s Hall of Fame in 2006.
Throughout his professional career, he spent the most time in Pawtucket and in McCoy Stadium and has returned for games a few times each year. Morgan was in Worcester the day of the announcement, and isn’t particularly happy with the PawSox moving in 2021, but is optimistic about the future of the ballclub.
“Here’s the story—it’s called changing times. Over the years, things always change and it’s tough on some people even like myself, I don’t want to see it move, but once it moves and they build a new stadium, it will be beautiful and people will come back,” Morgan said. “There’s no question. You’ll have plenty of support around Worcester, but I’m sure all the Pawtucket people that enjoy the game will go there, too.”
When a professional baseball player makes a stop in Triple-A, it could mean a few things—a young player is preparing for the majors, a major league player is rehabbing, the major league roster is currently full, a player doesn’t have “major league talent,” or a player is in his final years as a professional player before retiring. For Keith MacWhorter, it was a little bit of everything.
He was born in Worcester only because his father was being transferred from a job in Boston, Mass. but he had to stay in Worcester, Mass. for a year before moving officially to Providence, R.I.
While growing up in East Providence, R.I., only 10 miles away from McCoy Stadium, MacWhorter played multiple sports, but found he was better at baseball and pursued it.
During his childhood years, there was no baseball being played at McCoy Stadium, so he went up to Boston to watch the Red Sox play. He remembers going to McCoy only a handful of times while he was growing up, but a team didn’t arrive until he was away at college.
He pitched for the Bryant University Bulldogs in Smithfield, R.I. for three years before being drafted in the 15th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I was mostly a Red Sox fan… in a way I was disappointed I was signed by the Dodgers, but I eventually ended up with the Red Sox,” MacWhorter said.
After one year in the Dodgers organization, he took off a year and then tried out for the Boston Red Sox with Worcester-native Rich Gedman. They were both signed and began their careers with the Sox in 1978.
“We tried out together, we were signed on the same day, played every step of the minors together and we got called up to Boston on the same day. It was a very unusual Worcester connection,” MacWhorter said.
MacWhorter played at McCoy Stadium for the first time during a game between the lowest level of the minors and the Triple-A club.
“They wanted a local person to pitch so they called me up,” MacWhorter said.
In the book, “The Bottom of the 33rd,” Barry describes McCoy Stadium during the 1980’s as the “Alcatraz of baseball.” Although the stadium was in rough shape with cracks in the cement and old, musty couches that looked like they were picked up off the side of the road in the locker room during his first appearance at McCoy, MacWhorter disagreed with Barry’s statement.
“It was far from a prison,” MacWhorter said.
When he arrived as a Triple-A roster member in 1980, McCoy Stadium was seeing renovations since Ben Mondor had taken ownership of the team, but it wasn’t in the same condition it is in today.
“Back then it was a very dank and strange place,” MacWhorter said. “By the time I got there in 1980, it was a lot nicer, but it was nothing like it is even today. It’s almost like a semi-professional park. They have all the weight rooms and the nice equipment, sitting areas, all the nice things. They’ve improved McCoy Stadium.”
MacWhorter described the playing experience at McCoy Stadium as “unique.”
“It wasn’t all that comfortable to play in. It was unique because of the way the ballpark is. The fans are on top of you. It’s kind of an interesting experience,” MacWhorter said. “It’s one of the oddball ballparks.”
MacWhorter recalls fans “going fishing” for autographs by dropping down booklets attached to strings into the dugout.
Like many minor leaguers, MacWhorter bounced between Triple-A and the majors but had trouble solidifying a spot on Boston’s roster. He couldn’t establish a change-up, which was an essential pitch to have in his repertoire if he wanted to be a successful major league pitcher.
“The difference between the talent level in Triple-A and the majors is big,” MacWhorter said. “I always did well in Triple-A. Getting to the next level is hard… A lot of guys end up in Triple-A that never get to the next level.”
MacWhorter was in the Boston bullpen in 1980 during his college graduation. It took him seven years to graduate from Bryant University because he was playing baseball, but he finally completed his degree.
The next year, MacWhorter was back in Pawtucket, and was present for the infamous game on Holy Saturday, but only for the first nine innings since there was a rule that the next day’s starting pitcher could go home in the ninth inning to get a good night’s rest.
“We didn’t have cell phones back then, but they would’ve certainly tried to get me back [to the ballpark], but they couldn’t get ahold of me. We had just come up from Florida so nobody even had phone numbers,” MacWhorter said.
When he picked up the morning newspaper on Easter Sunday, he was shocked to see that they had played 22 innings. He didn’t know they actually played 32 because 22 was all that made the paper’s deadline.
MacWhorter arrived at McCoy Stadium the next morning expecting to see a game-used ball in his locker just like every time he’s slated to start. He preferred warming up with a ball from the previous game since it was already roughed up instead of a slippery ball right out of the box.
There was a ball in his locker that morning per usual, but it carried a daunting message: “You’re on your own.”
Thankfully for the PawSox bullpen, MacWhorter didn’t need a reliever and threw a complete game. They won in the bottom of the ninth on a walk-off homerun.
That warm-up baseball is one of the only pieces of memorabilia MacWhorter kept from his playing days and had it signed years later by the two Hall of Famers that played in the game, Cal Ripken, Jr. and Wade Boggs.
When the 1983 season ended, MacWhorter became a free agent. He knew the third base coach for the Rochester Red Wings who was hired as the manager for the Maine Guides, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians at the time, so he signed with them and spent his last season playing in Old Orchard Beach, Maine.
“I always call it the day the game retired me,” MacWhorter said. “That was the end of it for me.”
While MacWhorter was playing for the PawSox, he only lived in Pawtucket for either one or two years and said it wasn’t really a fun place to live.
“At the time, it was kind of a mill city… but there’s a nice group people, blue collar, solid following of the team,” MacWhorter said. “It was fun to play there because they were rabid.”
MacWhorter is currently a Portsmouth, R.I. resident and has been frustrated with Rhode Island politicians, especially with how they handled the process regarding the PawSox. He was convinced that the Red Sox organization would never pull the team, but he understands that the team had to make a business decision and move on since the politicians were dragging their feet.
“It’s sad that they’re leaving Rhode Island. I don’t think anyone’s happy about it,” MacWhorter said. “Worcester is a very deserving city, they’re up and coming and they welcomed this and clearly put the package together that made it easier for Lucchino and the rest of the guys making that decision to make that decision.”
MacWhorter was in favor of a new stadium on the Apex site. He said it would have been better than putting a stadium in Providence, but there would still be issues with parking. The new ballpark would have been off the McCoy site, he said, because if they just blasted it, it would have been a gravel pit.
He understood that they ran into trouble trying to acquire the Apex site, but he believes they could have found a different location, especially with all the abandoned or needing to be fix mill buildings.
MacWhorter thinks the fans who are upset about the move to Worcester should have more faith in the organization. He noted that minor league teams move more frequently than an average fan might think. He also mentioned that Lucchino has had success with building new stadiums and organizations.
“He’s a really high energy, go-getter. He’s a do-er,” MacWhorter said.
MacWhorter is expecting that Polar Park and the Worcester Red Sox will be welcomed in their new city. Although he doesn’t think the city will have the same connection with the team like Pawtucket had, but he doesn’t think the organization is trying to establish that kind of relationship.
When the new park opens in 2021, he plans to make a trip up to Worcester, but mentioned that he would inclined to make the longer drive if they hosted alumni events, which is something that PawSox have rarely done.
With the fate of McCoy Stadium currently undecided, MacWhorter hopes it’ll be put to good use.
“I would hate to see the razed. There’s way too much history for it to be razed,” MacWhorter said. “I hope they find a use for it that’s baseball-oriented.”
On Nov. 10, 2018, the PawSox Foundation hosted their third annual Veterans Home Run: 5K Walk n’ Run to support veteran causes in Rhode Island and across the country.
Following the race, a group of participants, Henry, Lisa, Al, and Chana, were leaving McCoy Stadium and spoke about the PawSox moving and what having professional baseball in Rhode Island has meant to them.
“I have a few good memories here,” Henry said. “Talking baseball here, that’s the first thing you do when you come to a stadium.”
“Imagine the great [baseball players] that have come through this field to play in the big leagues. Imagine the ones in the Hall of Fame,” said Al, who was sporting a PawSox jersey for the race.
Like Messier, some of Lisa’s favorite memories of the PawSox and McCoy Stadium were the fireworks around the Fourth of July.
“I came here many times on the Fourth of July [for the fireworks],” Lisa said. “It was traditional for me. I did it like four or five years in a row.”
For Chana, the PawSox were a warm welcome when he came to the United States over 30 years ago.
“I moved here to America in 1988. The first time I went [to a game I asked,] ‘What’s a Paw-Sock? What’s McCoy Stadium?’ I didn’t understand because I came from Thailand,” Chana said. “It was new for me and I was excited.”
The four of them feel that Rhode Island has lost a lot of state originals in the past few years which they are upset about, but their biggest fear is that McCoy Stadium becomes abandoned after the team leaves. Henry suggested that the city turn it into something for the kids like a senior league baseball field.
“We don’t want a ghost town,” Henry said.
“I hope they use this facility for something good for the community and the state and not let it become a haunted place with just a bunch of memories,” Al said.
Despite the losses over the past few years, Al is confident that one thing Rhode Islanders call their own will stay in the state no matter what.
“[They] can’t take away our beaches!” Al said.