Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

In Pawtucket, Angst and Anger Over New Owners' Plans to Move Beloved PawSox

Eric Wilbur/

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — There’s been a freeze lately in this city so intertwined with minor league baseball, a negativity that had nothing to do with the sub-zero temperatures that greeted its residents in the early hours on Tuesday morning.

While McCoy Stadium sits dormant beneath a weight of snow, still more than a month before welcoming the Pawtucket Red Sox back for another season — slated to be one of the last played along Columbus Avenue, as it turns out — an uncertainty that has little to do with the team’s prognosis plays out in the city blocks surrounding the 73-year-old Rhode Island landmark.

There’s anger and apprehension, not to mention the general feeling that Pawtucket has had its heart ripped out. For that’s what the Pawtucket Red Sox represent to this area, only a few minutes’ drive from the Massachusetts border: Its livelihood.

And now, within time, it’s likely all but gone.

“It’s going to kill the town,” said Heather Turgeon, a 37-year, lifelong resident of Pawtucket, upon news that the new owners of the Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox plan to move the team to a new stadium in a yet-to-be-determined location in Providence. “It’s seriously going to kill the town.”

When the announcement was made official on Monday, that a group of investors, led by Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, had purchased the Pawtucket Red Sox from the widow of longtime owner Ben Mondor, the fears of local residents and baseball fans in the immediate area who had become so attached to summer nights at McCoy also became a reality. The team was looking elsewhere for a new stadium in an urban environment, more specifically, in the state’s capital a few miles down Interstate 95. McCoy, which the PawSox have called home since 1970, would be too expensive to renovate, investor James Skeffington said Monday, the group choosing to sink $60-$70 million into a more modern destination instead.

“The problem is the infrastructure isn’t there anymore,” Skeffington said. “Times have changed, ballparks have changed.”

Maybe that is welcome news for causal baseball fans looking for the shiny, new toy where they can spend their entertainment dollars on Rally Monkeys and daiquiris, but in blue-collar Pawtucket, the realization of inevitable progress comes with a nostalgic heartache. The PawSox, an inexpensive, family-friendly destination for baseball fans itching to watch a young crop of Red Sox on the rise, have defined this city for decades, even more so than its neighbor Hasbro, the toy company that also calls Pawtucket home a few miles away on Route 1A.

“It’s all we have,” said Gary Tucker, a 53-year-old chef who rents an apartment above the Galway Bay Irish Pub, just a tape measure shot from the left field wall at McCoy. “It’s all Pawtucket really has as far as something like that, right? That’s it. Yeah, it’s going to hurt.”

Tucker has lived in Pawtucket all his life — on and off, he said, with his work as a chef taking him here and there. His parents still live down the street on Columbus Avenue, and even in the bitter chill of what remained of a February marked by record cold, he could still imagine the sounds of the ballpark that filtered into his window along with an evening summer breeze. He recently added his name to a petition that local DJs “Paul and Al” had pushed their listeners on WHJY to sign in order to, hopefully, keep the team in Pawtucket, but he’s also resigned to the reality.

“It’s kind of a bummer. It’s been here for a long time. It’s been here since I’ve been a kid,” he said. “I’m from Pawtucket, and I’ve always had the Red Sox here. So, it’s kind of sad.

“If it’s sold, it’s sold. There’s not much you can do about it, I guess.”

Next door at the Right Spot Diner, where you can get a plate of two eggs, home fries, and toast for all of $2.95 ($3.55 after 11 a.m.), a modest Sanyo boom box carries the discussion from local AM station WPRO about the sale and move of the team. A local patron scoffs at the news from down the counter, behind which a waitress is re-filling cups of coffee.

“It’s disappointing, but what can we do?” she asked, only giving her name to a reporter as Julia. “Nothing. Nothing’s going to change, it looks like they’ve made up their minds, right? Pawtucket is going to lose a lot.”

For certain, the PawSox atmosphere is gritty. The immediate area surrounding McCoy is littered with triple-deckers and the A-1 Mobile Park, not exactly the kind of environment new owners looking to make a splash want to boast about in the high-priced environment of Major League Baseball. But it’s also a minor league atmosphere beloved by its visitors for its simplicity. Pawtucket is perhaps king of minor league cities because of its lack of pretentiousness, a jewel of the game in the midst of local reality. Despite its nearly $20 million renovation 16 years ago, McCoy is a bare bones nugget that lacks most modern amenities. There are also few better places to spend a summer night in all off the Ocean State.

Still, there's always the sense that it has to be better to keep up in the world of a minor league baseball Renaissance. While rumors of the sale swirled earlier this year, Tony Pires, Pawtucket’s director of administration, told the Providence Journal that the city had discussed with the PawSox ownership the viability of improving the area around McCoy Stadium to make it “a little more of a destination-type location, not unlike -- perhaps on a small scale --  what you see up at Patriot Place with the New England Patriots in Foxboro.”

Boutique shopping and fine dining. It’s all so…not Pawtucket.

“And that’s the problem,” an emotional Turgeon said, choking on her words . “They’re looking for the money aspect of it by moving it to Providence, Oh, you got all these bars? Look at Fenway, the whole strip is all bars. Everyone is getting all tanked up and then going to see the game. But…oh, there’s not enough bars around here? It’s not enough for you? It’s been here for over 30 years. My father went there. I went there. I won’t set foot in the new stadium. I will not.”

Turgeon was at the counter at McCoy Market, across the street from the ballpark, where she pointed to the front page of the morning’s Providence Journal, which detailed the possible plans for a new stadium on former Route I-195 land, arguing how bad such a development would make Providence’s already-congested traffic at the downtown intersection of I-95. “It’s a very stupid idea,” she said. “Traffic itself, it’s the dumbest idea ever. Look, you’ve got 95 and 195, which you already have traffic problems, now you’re going to have people going through the city to avoid 195. Now you’ve got the morning traffic and the afternoon traffic, never mind the traffic you’re going to have for the games.”

She has a point, said the convenience store’s cashier Mike Shaloub, a native of Jordan who moved to Pawtucket more than 30 years ago, lamenting the loss of the team in his own way.

“I lost a friend. I lost a friend of mine,” he said. “People come here from different parts of Rhode Island and Mass. and Connecticut. That’s what I’ll miss. All my friends that come from Coventry, Warwick, Connecticut, Bristol, Woonsocket…”

Those who scoff at resistance over the move are clearly missing the point. This isn’t about moving a team five miles down the road, it’s about ultimately killing a city’s entire character. Generations have come here for baseball, have traveled to a place synonymous with the big league club up the road. Who among us doesn’t still possess at least one of the commemorative cups acknowledging the longest professional baseball game ever played, a 33-inning affair in 1981 that was deftly chronicled by Dan Barry in the book, “Bottom of the 33rd?” That enjoyable account that only follows the game through the eyes of the players, but also pays careful attention to the residents of Pawtucket, the city that has welcomed these hopeful professionals into their community for years.

“The city would also inherit a knowing hardness,” Barry wrote in that book’s prologue, “an understanding to pass on to its children that life is a matter of endurance; Not everyone wins.”

Thirty-four years after Dave Koza drove in Marty Barrett with the winning run, that rings more true than ever.

“I read in one of the papers that this is the best Triple-A stadium in the league,” Turgeon said. “So why would you - and they just rebuilt it - why would you leave? Why would you take it out of here when it’s the best. It just makes no sense.

“What are we going to have now? We aren’t going to have anything. The only thing we have left for tourism is that stadium. It’s the only thing that’s bringing money into this town. And they’re going to take it away.”

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