• April 25, 2019 |

    the closer

    the pawsox legacy and the minor league experience

    article by , illustrated by

    On a sunny day in late March 1997, my parents put a baseball cap on my four-month-old head and drove me to Turner Field. The stadium had been built for ceremonies as well as track and field events for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, but had been recently retrofitted into a baseball stadium. On that 70-degree day, the Atlanta Braves were about to play their first game in the ballpark.

    That first game did not lead me to an undying passion for baseball (I slept through it). But I did develop a love of going to baseball games. I relished in every minute of the fan experience. The days that I got to throw on my Chipper Jones T-shirt and a Braves baseball cap were special ones. My family would hop into the car and navigate the tangle of Atlanta highways. Once in our seats, I’d watch each pitch with bated breath, listening for the satisfying thud of the baseball hitting the catcher’s mitt or the crack of the ball making contact with the wooden bat.

    After a couple innings of dedicated focus, my little brother and I, and later our little sisters, would peel ourselves out of the hot plastic seats to run laps around the stadium. We would weave through the concession stands and admire the glorious array of junk food, hoping to get our own ice cream or frozen lemonades. Then our parents would drive home while we were half asleep in the backseat of the car after hours of watching and cheering in the hot sun, our shirts sticking to our backs with sweat and ice cream staining the Braves logo on the front. For years, watching baseball was something I associated strongly with Atlanta. Each time I heard the notes of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” it would take me back to those summer days at Turner Field.

    But near the end of my first year at Brown, I realized that this iconic American sport was something that I could also experience in Rhode Island. In fact, I learned that there was a minor league team just a few miles away. So, a few people from my dorm met at the Thayer tunnel and hopped on a RIPTA bus to McCoy Stadium, home of the Pawtucket Red Sox. The bus took us up Hope Street, across I-95, and over the Seekonk River before plopping us in the middle of a sea of houses. The neighborhood was so residential that it felt impossible that there could be a stadium nearby.

    But after a couple minutes of walking, the ballpark came into view. The structure sits at the end of Pond Street, a subtle reminder of what had existed there before it. The Narragansett and Wampanoag peoples had originally lived on the land before European settlers came and established Pawtucket as an industrial center. In the 1830s, a man named Samuel Hammond constructed a reservoir there. Hammond’s Pond was used as a recreational area for decades, but over time fell into neglect, eventually becoming an unappealing swamp.

    In the 1930s, Mayor Thomas P. McCoy requested to put a stadium on top of this swamp. According to someone who knew the mayor, he pushed for this idea “against the pressure of EVERYONE in his Democratic city organization.” But this mayor knew how to get what he wanted. He had undeniable charisma and passion and became a very influential figure in Pawtucket. At one point, McCoy was the mayor, city auditor, city comptroller, chairman of the Sinking Fund, chairman of the Purchasing Board, clerk of the city council, and the city’s Weigher of Merchandise. McCoy saw baseball as a morale-booster for local mill workers; he had been a union leader and saw a stadium as a way to not only give workers a diversion but also employ many of them who were recently unemployed.

    McCoy got what he wanted, and stadium construction began in the 1930s. The project was expensive, especially because, as Pawtucket folklore tells it, trucks kept getting sucked into the swampy ground. It was completed with a final cost of $1.5 million, far above the projected $600,000. McCoy laid the cornerstone in 1940, and in 1942, the city officially celebrated its completion. At the time of opening, tickets were free with the purchase of a 25-cent defense step to support the war. McCoy passed away in 1945, and the following year the city dedicated the stadium in his honor.

    Initially, the Pawtucket Slaters, a minor league team named after the industrialist Samuel Slater, played at McCoy. They left after four seasons and then, for 14 years, Pawtucket did not have professional baseball. The city used the stadium for events and treated it as a storage unit for heavy machinery and sand. That dry spell ended in 1966 when the Pawtucket Indians came to McCoy for two years before moving to Connecticut.

    In 1970, the first team known as the Pawtucket Red Sox started playing there. The team got its colloquial name, the PawSox, in 1977. That year, self-made millionaire Ben Mondor had saved the team from its downhill spiral by taking it over. However, three weeks before the season started, they still didn’t have uniforms. The Boston Red Sox general manager Haywood Sullivan sent over a set of 48 old home and away uniforms. These uniforms bore the word “Boston,” so the Pawtucket general manager suggested they remove that stitching and replace it with PawSox, which the team has been known as ever since.

    Throughout this historical rollercoaster ride, one claim to fame has stood out in Rhode Island lore: On McCoy field in 1981, the PawSox played the Rochester Red Wings in the longest game in baseball history. On April 18 at 8:25 p.m., the game began, and the teams battled it out for 32 innings (a normal game has 9 innings) until 4:07 a.m., when the game was finally suspended. By the end, only 19 fans remained in the stadium. The game resumed on June 23, and within 18 minutes, the PawSox scored a 3-2 victory after a total of 33 innings.

    This hub of sports and community, once filled by millworkers and later attended by new waves of immigrants who moved to Pawtucket, is now in its second to last season. The PawSox are set to move to a new stadium in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2021, where they will be renamed the WooSox.

    When I first walked up to McCoy Stadium on that May afternoon, I had no idea about the history that brought that stadium into being. All I knew was that I couldn’t wait to sit down with a bowl of ice cream and forget about finals for a few hours. The first thing I noticed was how approachable the stadium was. Atlanta’s Turner Field, where I grew up attending Braves games, could fit almost 50,000 perspiring fans. In contrast, McCoy holds barely over 10,000 seats. During my first game, my group’s tickets were general admission, so we had free reign to choose our seats (at least I think we did; if we were wrong, no one corrected us). It was a drizzly day, so we had our pick of most of the stadium, sliding into seats a few rows behind home plate.

    At McCoy, you get to see talent that’s almost on par with what you would see at Fenway, but in a much more intimate setting. These minor league players are just at the brink, working towards their big break and a chance to move up to Fenway Park in Boston. Indeed, famous players like Roger Clemens and Kevin Youkilis spent time playing for the PawSox in the minor leagues. Also, major league teams sometimes send players down to their minor league teams while they recover from injuries, as the Red Sox did with “Big Papi” (David Ortiz).

    Beyond the high-quality baseball, McCoy never fails to deliver a stellar fan experience. After one game, PawSox reps asked fans to come down to the field and grab a partner. They handed each pair of fans a baseball. Over 1,100 of us lobbed the balls back and forth with our partner, and together we broke the record for the world’s largest game of catch. The following spring, I witnessed a giant candy hunt on the field after the game. Kids darted around the green grass and grabbed for Smarties and Twizzlers. The PawSox also let kids stay after some games and run the bases. On some summer nights, they fill the outfield with tents for Scout sleepovers.

    I most recently attended a game at the beginning of this school year. That time, a mix of the original first-year crew and some others whom I had told about the PawSox just the day before loaded into cars and headed out. At that point, I really should have known to check the schedule to see what kind of treat was in store, but I enjoyed being surprised. As it turned out, there was a Grease-themed fireworks show to cap off the game. It was a warm night during Labor Day weekend, and the stadium was packed with families soaking in their last taste of summer. The sun moved its way across the sky throughout the game, casting bright shades of orange as the fourth inning began and disappearing by the final pitch. Minutes after the last ball thudded into the catcher’s mitt, one burst of fireworks shot up into the night. Then “Summer Nights” came on over the sound system, as well as “Greased Lightnin’,” “You’re the One that I Want,” and all of the hits that gave us nostalgia for a time period none of us had ever experienced. It was the second to last game of the season, and the crowd sang along to every word as they clung on to the final remnants of summer.

    On April 13th, the team played one of their last home openers ever as the Pawtucket Red Sox. In 2021, they’re going to fold up their PawSox uniforms and button up WooSox uniforms, entering a new chapter of baseball for this team. A lot has changed about McCoy since the first pitch in 1942: The stadium itself has been renovated and expanded, and the fanbase that once attracted millworkers while the PawSox now sport “Osos Polares de Pawtucket” (polar bears) uniforms at Tuesday home games “to celebrate the team’s surrounding Hispanic community.” The players now come from across the globe and live in a different world than the players who first took the field at McCoy. And outside the blue plastic stands, the city of Pawtucket has continued to evolve. But some things have stayed the same: the hush before a pitch, the sound of a bat making contact with a ball, and the cheer of fans that echoes through the neighborhood as the ball soars through the air. There are still two whole summers of baseball-filled afternoons in Pawtucket, so make your way to McCoy to cheer on the PawSox.

    Details about PawSox history come from Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game by Dan Barry; “A City Braces for Its Ballpark to Go the Way of Its Mills” by Dan Barry in the New York Times; and “History of Pawtucket Red Sox Baseball” from Boston’s Pastime website.