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Mondor continues to work minor miracles in Pawtucket

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- It was 11 runs, 16 hits, and 1 error for the Norfolk Tides, and 1 run, 4 hits and no errors for the Pawtucket Red Sox, but to the 8,943 who came to McCoy Stadium yesterday afternoon, it didn't matter, at least not very much.

For those fans had gotten what they always get here, and that was a full bang for the entertainment buck. The sun was out, the ballpark had a festive air, and the price was right. It was a great way to spend a Memorial Day afternoon. This is the way it's been here for 30 years, or ever since Ben Mondor rescued professional baseball in Rhode Island.

Winning is always preferential to losing, naturally, but if you're running a minor league baseball team, it's not necessarily the point.

``After all these years, fans understand what we're here for," explains team president Mike Tamburro. ``They know we're here to develop players for the Boston Red Sox. We understand that it's all about having a family atmosphere, with family entertainment, while keeping the prices right.

``Our biggest challenge when we came here in '77 was to educate the fans as to the role of Triple A baseball, which is to develop players, and 30 years later they understand that."

That's right; 30 years. ``Would you believe that?" inquires Mondor. ``Who'd believe we'd be in our 30th year?"

Ben Mondor was a newly retired 51-year-old businessman full of endless time and boundless energy when his friend Chet Nichols broached the idea of purchasing the Pawtucket Red Sox, who were, quite literally, bankrupt at the time. And don't even ask what their reputation was in the community.

``Reputation?" laughs Mondor. ``They had none."

But taking over bankruptcies is what made Ben Mondor rich in the first place. A hopeless operation such as the PawSox was right in his wheelhouse, another business version of a batting-practice fastball. And so commenced the requisite wheeling and dealing, all abetted by Haywood Sullivan's fervent desire to maintain a Triple A franchise in oh-so-handy Pawtucket. Absent Sullivan's determination and assistance (e.g. providing the bankrupt franchise with uniforms), the PawSox might be, as the great Ned Martin might have said, long gone and hard to find by now.

``I wasn't a baseball man," Mondor points out. ``I was a businessman. I figured with my experience in bankruptcy, I'd give it five years to bail it out of the hole."

As dazzling as his business acumen was, what proved to be of far more value in establishing the PawSox as a viable part of the Rhode Island/Southeastern Massachusetts community were his people instincts. Just following Mondor around in those days would have been worth 10 years of Harvard Business School.

Mondor wasn't about tricks, gimmicks, or bells and whistles. His formula for success was to find the best people he could to work for him, pay them well, and then work the community, one by one if necessary, to promise people that going to McCoy Stadium would be a pleasurable experience.

Let me put it this way: Ben Mondor must be pretty good to work for. Tamburro has been with him the full 30 years. Vice president and general manager Lou Schwechheimer came in as an intern a year later. Go ahead, find another local business, of any description, whose three-man management team at the top has been together for 29 years. And it doesn't stop there. Vice president of public relations Bill Wanless has been there since 1985, and by all accounts, he seems to have gotten the hang of it.

``We have a lot of people who've worked for us 20 years or more," says Mondor, ``and in many cases it's the only job they've ever had."

So start with the employees, who all have been indoctrinated in what we shall call the Mondor Way. Then look at the basic policies, starting with cost. The highest ticket price at McCoy is $9.

``The thing I'm most proud of," says Mondor, ``is that we had a $4 general admission ticket when we started and we still have a $4 general admission ticket today."

They started with about as close to nothing, attendance-wise, as you could have. The 1977 attendance was 70,236. Last year they drew almost 10 times that. The facility is still McCoy Stadium, except that it really isn't. Built in 1942, it was a dank, dreary, dilapidated mess of a place -- a dump built on top of a dump, remember? -- when Mondor & Co. assumed command. McCoy Stadium now seats 10,038, and it can accommodate 11,000 with standees. But that's not the half of it.

Thanks largely to a bold and imaginative renovation seven years ago, McCoy is very much a modern stadium, with modern amenities, but one that retains a distinct personality. Its signature elevated construction has given birth to a celebrated method of obtaining player autographs, as kids lower scooped-out plastic containers containing baseballs, programs, hats, pens, etc., to field level, where players can conveniently sign and send the containers back to their owners. This practice is an essential part of McCoy's charm.

Success wasn't instant. There was a lot of ill will to overcome, which is understandable when the people before you left behind $2 million in unpaid bills. Trust had to be earned. People had to feel certain that your word was good, and they needed to see consistent behavior.

It would be impossible to overstate just how interwoven with the local community the PawSox have become. On Saturday night, for example, they had another one of their fabulously successful Scout Nights, at which Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts pitched more than 800 tents on the outfield grass and spent the night. This idea, the brainchild of Schwechheimer (who as a youth was both an Eagle Scout and a baseball junkie), has been ongoing at McCoy for 15 years and is now being copied by major league organizations such as the Cardinals.

The experience includes a baseball clinic, a game, a barbecue, a baseball movie on the big center-field screen, ``Taps" at midnight (so help me God), a dawn awakening, and breakfast. By 7 a.m., the tents have been broken down, and it is as if no one was ever there. It started out with 200 campers and now there are six Scout Nights for 4,500.

The difference between the Pawtucket experience and St. Louis? The McCoy Scout Night costs $23 a person. The one at the new Busch Stadium will go for $300.

There is only one problem for the PawSox: the fact that Ben Mondor will be 82 on his next birthday, and sooner or later he will be tempted to accept one of the ``three or four" offers he gets annually to purchase the club. If there's ever been a city that should be rooting for the cloning of human beings, it's Pawtucket, R.I.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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