Is This the End of the Pawsox?
Ever since the passing of longtime Pawtucket Red Sox owner Ben Mondor in 2010, questions about the future of the franchise and their longtime home, McCoy Stadium, have haunted Pawtucket. It appears that those questions are about to be answered, and if you are to believe the rumors, it doesn’t look good for Rhode Island baseball fans.
On February 23, 2015 the team was sold by the family of long-time owner Ben Mondor to a group of local businessmen, headed by James Skeffington. Mondor had rescued the team from bankruptcy in 1977 and proceeded to build the Pawsox, as they are known locally, into a Rhode Island institution, taking the team from irrelevant to one of the model franchises in all of minor league baseball. Mondor stressed a family friendly atmosphere and affordability as the cornerstones of his operations.
Almost immediately, the new ownership group announced their intention to move the team out of its long-time home in Pawtucket to a new ballpark located in nearby downtown Providence along the Providence River. This proposal, which called for $120 million in public funding, met with immediate and unanimous disapproval from both local civic leaders and citizens.
In May, Skeffington unexpectedly passed away, creating a leadership vacuum within the new ownership group. Larry Lucchino, well known to local baseball fans as the president of the Boston Red Sox under owner John Henry, stepped into the void.
The team originally targeted a parcel of land for development adjacent to the Providence River and the downtown area. After months of negotiations with the State, City and landowners Brown University, team ownership abandoned plans for this site. Public opposition for funding of a new ballpark remained high.
The team essentially became a free agent at this time, creating opportunities for other cities to make their pitch to be the new home of the Pawsox. Massachusetts cities Worcester, Springfield and Fall River were all rumored to be preparing bids.
The team conducted a feasibility study to determine the extent to which repairs would be needed to continue playing at McCoy Stadium. The study concluded that renovating McCoy Stadium would cost $68 million, while building a new stadium on the same site would cost $78 million.
In September of 2017 the Pawsox and the City of Pawtucket proposed construction of an $83 million stadium, The Ballpark at Slater Mill, on the site of the old Apex department store on the shores of the Blackstone River adjacent to Interstate 95. The team would finance the bulk of the project, footing $45 million of the costs. The State would pitch in $23 million and the City the remaining $15 million. It took the legislature over a year to approve funding for the project, finally passing an amended financing plan in June of 2018. The new plan put an increased burden on team ownership and private investors to finance the building of the stadium. Analysis of the plan predicted actual costs would exceed $200 million in total.
Meanwhile, the nearby city of Worcester, MA, was working on their own plan to “woo” the team. While Rhode Island delayed and debated, the city council of Worcester, backed by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, gave City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. permission to do whatever he needed to do to get the team to move. Augustus quickly moved to meet with Pawsox brass and local business leaders to drum up support for their own stadium deal. Details of the Worcester deal have not been made public, but Pawtucket mayor Donald Grebien has admitted that the terms of the Worcester deal are much more favorable to the team than its Pawtucket counterpart. Reports have leaked that the burden to Pawsox ownership is as much as $25 million less in Worcester.
Once both plans were on the table, it was up to the team do decide what to do. It was anticipated that the announcement would be made at the conclusion of the 2018 season. It now appears that we may not have to wait that long.
On Thursday The Worcester Telegram’s Bill Ballou reported that the unveiling of the Worcester Pawsox ballpark plan will happen the week of August 13. Worcester Magazine reported on Friday that “an announcement that the Pawsox will move to Worcester in 2021 is imminent.” Dan Glaun from MassLive reported that Minor League Baseball applied for a trademark for the term “WooSox” last week. In addition, Pawsox brass attended the groundbreaking ceremony for a public market project to be located just steps from the site of the new ballpark. Pawsox management have been spotted at sites throughout Worcester in recent days, adding fuel to the rumor mill. Neither the team nor the city have stated anything publicly, but the buzz in the area is growing stronger by the day.
Other reports indicate that the City of Pawtucket has been engaging team ownership in private negotiations in a last-ditch effort to save the team. It is thought that the only chance the city has at keeping the team is to disengage itself from the state in talks.
The current lease between the Pawsox and the state of Rhode Island, which owns McCoy Stadium, runs through 2020. However, having a lame duck team play in cavernous McCoy for two years would be in no one’s best interest, so the team has been checking out the only ballpark in the Worcester area, Hanover Insurance Park at Fitton Field, on the campus of Holy Cross. Fitton Field hosted the Worcester Tornadoes of the independent Can-Am League from 2005-2012, and currently serves as home to the Holy Cross Crusaders baseball team as well as the Worcester Bravehearts of the summer collegiate Futures League. The ballpark only seats 3,000, so some temporary stands would need to be installed for the Pawsox.
There may be a silver lining to this franchise move. Among the many rumors circling McCoy Stadium these days is that as part of the Pawsox move, the franchise will allow a lower-level team to move into the old ballpark, specifically a team from the New York-Penn League. Rumors have surrounded the Batavia Muckdogs for several seasons. Could we be looking at a new home for the Muckdogs? Stay tuned.
The Pawtucket Red Sox have played at McCoy Stadium since 1970, competing in the Eastern League for three seasons before moving up to AAA International League in 1973. The team led the circuit in attendance several times, most recently in 2008. The Pawsox have won four league championships during their time in Pawtucket.
The Pawsox have twelve games remaining on their home schedule, with the 2018 season finale scheduled for Labor Day afternoon. The clock may be ticking for those looking to visit one of minor league baseball’s oldest ballparks. It’s starting to look like it is time to trade in your Pawsox for a pair of WooSox.
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