This story is the first in a summer series on New England minor league ballparks.
If you’re searching for the real reason why the new owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox padded the announcement of their acquisition earlier this year with the accompanying news that they would move the team from its longtime home at McCoy Stadium, pay a visit to the Dusza-Almeida Post 2339.
The Pawtucket veterans home is one of the few lingering places to grab a beer before a game in this blue collar neighborhood. It’s an area that has recently come under the microscope thanks to a new ownership intent on “improving’’ the product of a minor league baseball team that has built its roots in an environment less than admirable to big money.
The amount of triple-decker homes surrounding the Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox here can be suffocating, a veritable black eye to the neighborhood revitalization that comes with the territory of most downtown stadium efforts.
Upon surveying the drab interior, one can imagine the Dusza-Almeida is the sort of place where Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, a pivotal member of the group that recently purchased the Pawtucket Red Sox, would reflexively recoil and run to the nearest state politician, begging for state funds in order to build the team affectionately known as the PawSox a new ballpark in the more welcoming Providence just to the south.
For sure, this is a place that is frozen in 1981 as most locations of its ilk tend to be. The bartender—damn any local regulations—is smoking a cigarette behind the bar just before noon, with the stamp machine (yes, the stamp machine) behind him. The Price is Right plays on a TV set up in the corner of the bar. Newcomer Drew Carey is playing host, yet the patrons are probably still wondering when Bob Barker is getting back from his vacation. A few beams of light filter in from a window to the right, illuminating curtains the look like ones my grandmother forgot to clean before she died.
If you want a drink, one of three styles of beer – Bud, Bud Light, Miller Lite— will have to do at the Dusza-Almeida, a place bereft of discussion about IBU or texture of any sort. Should you choose, there’s a limited, two-shelf offering of hard liquor. A tiny selection of Cheetos and Funyons hanging on the wall nearby boasts the entirety of the lunch menu.
It’s a different situation next door at The Roast House, a more family-friendly pub-style atmosphere with a full luncheon menu, not to mention a more balanced selection of libations, including local outlet Narragansett, in addition to a menu that delivers porter, IPA, and hard lemonade. It’s one of the only places of its kind within walking distance from McCoy. There’s the Mei King Chinese restaurant and the Right Spot Diner, a tape-measure shot from the outfield wall, where the hot dogs rival those at the concession stands inside the venerable ballpark.
Good luck finding patio dining in an area where “gastropub’’ is a phrase about as foreign as, “Go, Yankees.’’
No, modern amenities is not exactly a term you’d use to describe McCoy Stadium and its immediate surroundings, one of the primary reasons why the team’s new ownership is looking to uproot and erect a pristine destination in downtown Providence, backed by public funds, not to mention all the willing ancillary projects that would come along with such an venture. Which means, the diner might be replaced by a Dunkin’ Donuts, the Mei King, a PF Chang’s, and the Dusza-Almeida…well, just replaced.
“Progress’’ is not a term that is welcome with too much enthusiasm in this area of Pawtucket. The very mention of the word conjures assumptions that the movement will take place without residents of this city, so defined by the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Hasbro toy company—whose headquarters are located only two miles away along Newport Avenue. Because the city is, in many ways, still stuck in time like the Dusza-Almeida. Change is treated like an inevitability that will eventually come to pass, but only when those living in it are looking the other way.
That was evident last February when news of the PawSox’ new ownership broke (backed by James Skeffington, a Rhode Island attorney who since passed away from a heart attack at age 73) along with the announcement that a new park would be the primary goal of the new regime. This is not a surprise considering Lucchino was a main cog in the building of Baltimore’s Camden Yards, San Diego’s Petco Park, and the renovation of Boston’s Fenway Park, only 50 miles up Interstate 95.
“It’s going to kill the town,’’ Heather Turgeon, a 37-year, lifelong resident of Pawtucket told me on a frigid day nothing like the mid-80-degree weather that has descended upon McCoy for this midweek matinee. “It’s seriously going to kill the town.’’
“It’s all we have,’’ said Gary Tucker, a 53-year-old chef who rents an apartment above the Galway Bay Irish Pub, just shy of the left field wall at McCoy. “It’s all Pawtucket really has as far as something like that, right?’’
It’s hard to believe — scratch that — it’s damned near impossible to believe that it would cost at least $65 million to renovate McCoy Stadium, as ownership suggested earlier this year, in order to bring it onto an even playing field with some other minor league ballparks. That’s the key phrase, for “other minor league ballparks’’ have the room and foundation to welcome other attractions. A micro beer tent. A kids zone beyond the right field wall. The types of surroundings that welcome baseball fans for a much longer spending session than the three-hours plus during which they’ll enter few other locales besides the welcoming gate at McCoy.
To the naked eye, there’s nothing structurally wrong with McCoy. In fact, its 1999 renovation, which included the left field seating, outfield bleachers, and an increase in seating by more than 10,000, continues to bedazzle a park that was, admittedly, getting tired and past its prime some 20 years ago. It remains one of the smallest parks in the International League, but it is also a crown jewel on the New England minor league landscape. It’s hard to imagine any others that have the abundance of prime seating one can find at McCoy.
Box seats hover over the home and visiting dugouts, tucked away on field level, while the picnic crowd enjoys a BBQ lunch within spitting distance (not that we’d encourage it, even if the Yankee-affiliated Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders are in town) of the visitors’ bullpen in short, right field. Even the $9 general admission tickets afford a proximity that those more trained at Major League ballparks would rarely be privy to—a closeness to the action and the ballplayers that couldn’t be duplicated at a new park without a step-by-step imitation model being built.
McCoy—in some fashion—has been on this land along Columbus Avenue since the early 1940’s, hosting a handful of professional baseball teams until the Red Sox came calling in 1970. It became the Triple-A affiliate we’ve grown accustomed to three years later. Though it was 1977 when local businessman Ben Mondor purchased the team and truly created a Rhode Island institution. The club became an attraction for the Ocean State, not to mention, for Pawtucket — Pawtucket.
During Mondor’s first year as owner, the team drew a mere 70,000 fans. From 2004-09, the PawSox drew 600,000 per year, an increase of nearly 10 times his initial season. The legacy of Mondor, who died at the age of 85 in 2010, is evident everywhere, from the road sign that bears his name, to the statue of his likeness in a garden just outside the main gate adjacent to left field.
“We’re blessed to make our living playing a little boys game on freshly cut green grass under God’s blue sky,’’ reads the inscription on the Mondor statue, a somewhat-cliched remembrance of the man who is generally regarded to have saved baseball in this state. But damn it, if the words don’t ring true on this day, created solely for the pleasure of a Wednesday matinee.
It’s on a day like this—when the park smells of sunscreen, the normal litany of fried baseball food, and the wafting scent of nearby New England Linen Supply’s dryers working overtime—that baseball is perfect. And really, if you haven’t been to a minor league game in 2015, may I just try to convey the majesty that is the pitch clock, here located in center field at the base of the wall? The pitch clock is a revelation that we’re already witnessing work on a Major League level, especially where Red Sox lefty Eduardo Rodriguez has brought it to the big leagues with a speedy efficiency that suggests all pitchers should make a handful of starts at the Triple-and-Double-A levels in order to make it part of their routine.
The 20-second countdown keeps rhythm in the game, but only so that the grounds crews aren’t working until 9 p.m. following a 1 p.m. start, but also so the game has balance, like a plot line that doesn’t stray from its thesis. Oh, it is a pleasure that has to be experienced if only for the reminder that baseball can be an enjoyable 2 hour and 30 minute experience instead of the bloated four-hour affairs we’ve had to endure over the past two decades of the sport’s dip in popularity.
Red Sox starter Justin Masterson, who signed a one-year, $9.5 million contract with the parent club during the offseason, and struggled with a 5.58 ERA over eight starts, is here on a rehab assignment, and is particularly impressive against the Charlotte Knights, an affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Over 13-2/3 innings at the minor league level, Masterson has indeed seemed to rediscover whatever grip he was missing earlier in the season, going on to post a 3.29 ERA prior to his recall and eventually, an impressive performance in his major league return against the Tampa Bay Rays.
He’s also lights out under the sun-splashed sky above McCoy on this June afternoon, allowing two hits and one earned run against the Knights over six innings of work, a preview of the sort of outing he’ll give the Red Sox in just a couple more weeks.
His teammates have given him little to crow about though.
For a minor league system supposedly booming with talent, the PawSox’ lineup isn’t exactly a Murderers Row. Blake Swihart is in the majors on an emergency basis after the Red Sox lost catchers Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan to injuries, leaving behind a disappointing handful of seasons from Boston’s next guys up. Third baseman Garin Cecchini is hitting only .190, highly-regarded shortstop prospect Deven Marrero a mere .245.
Joe Kelly is also a newfound attraction in Pawtucket, after Boston optioned him to the minors last month after going 2-5 with a 5.67 ERA with the Red Sox. Allen Craig, who along with Kelly, was a key acquisition that the Red Sox received last summer in exchange for John Lackey, is hitting .276 since his demotion in May with three home runs and 31 strikeouts in 177 at-bats. John Lackey is 6-5 with a 3.30 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals, leading the NL Central. How’s that working out?
McCoy Stadium through the years (Story continues after gallery)
At the top of the lineup is a player who’s becoming a Boston enigma in Jackie Bradley, Jr., a center fielder with unparalleled talent on the defensive end of the game, yet can’t seem to translate his .320 batting average and .863 OPS to Major League pitching. He’s still hitting well under .200 this month in the majors since his return last week. Each time Bradley gets the call from the Red Sox, he struggles, albeit in only a fraction of the time allowed to instant starters Swihart, Mookie Betts, and Xander Bogaerts over the last three seasons.
Then there’s the pitching, soon to be located at a major league ballpark near you. Or not.
It’s no secret that arms like Henry Owens (2-6, 3.28 ERA, rebounding after a rough start to the 2015 season) and Brian Johnson (8-5, 2.68) — both lefties — will be two of the more sought-after trading properties at next month’s deadline, should the Sox get back into the AL East race and feel they can pick up the pieces needed to do so. Or, the Red Sox could find themselves in a selling situation on guys like Clay Buchholz and Wade Miley, opening up room for youngsters like Owens and Johnson to stay.
Pat Light, the fireballing pitcher converted to reliever this year, has struggled a bit, posting a 4.32 ERA over his first 8 1/3 innings, but also figures to add an arm to the Boston relief corps at some point later this season. Matt Barnes has already been up and down the Pawtucket Corridor, as the short distance between Fenway and McCoy is affectionately known as by players.
But with Bogaerts and Pablo Sandoval (for better or worse) plugging up the gaps at shortstop and third base, respectively, for what seems like the foreseeable future in Boston, guys like Cecchini and Marrero are likely to be dangled on the open market. The duo also happens to play heroes against the Knights, when Cecchini drove in his teammate with a single in the bottom of the ninth inning to break a 1-1 score and give the PawSox a 2-1 victory that sends the afternoon crowd home happy. The result probably sent them to brag to their parents or significant others about where they spent the day while everyone else was at the office.
The crowd at McCoy roars in the wake of victory. The ballpark shines amidst the celebration with an almost emotional glow that suggests its best days are not merely behind it. Not on days like this.
The seminal event to take place at McCoy Stadium, of course, happened in 1981, when the PawSox and Rochester Red Wings played a 33-inning contest over the course of two days. It featured some of the biggest names of Boston baseball’s last generation: Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken, Jr., Joe Morgan, Bruce Hurst, Rich Gedman, Marty Barrett, and Bob Ojeda. There’s a mural dedicated to the historic game at the home plate concourse at McCoy, but to get a true sense of that game and Pawtucket’s place in the story, it’s imperative to read Dan Barry’s book, “Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game.’’
Barry, a writer for the New York Times, upon learning about the possible demise of McCoy Stadium earlier this year, wrote the following:
But do the new owners understand Pawtucket tradition? Do they know why free parking matters, and having boy and girl scouts camp overnight on the outfield grass, and being able to take a family of six to a ballgame without stopping first to pawn an heirloom?
Have they sat in the shadowed lap of the old ballpark after another tough day’s grind, shouting encouragement to up-and-comers and down-and-outers while amiable ghosts share your peanuts and steal sips of your beer?
Do they understand McCoy?
To understand McCoy is, indeed, a task not easily surmised upon a single visit. The experience can be a jarring one to those travelers expecting a jewel like the one the Red Sox’ farm system boasts in Lowell, or surrounded by peripheral attractions aplenty like in Portland, Maine. As Barry notes, “There have been other troubles. A structure built on a sinkhole more than 70 years ago by a roguish mayor may never be free of patchwork and periodic renovations, and its aesthetics are more in the mind than the eye. The stadium sits a couple of miles from the interstate, and the neighboring surroundings — of modest homes, triple-deckers and an industrial park — do not make for a “destination’’ experience. Even with that Dunkin’ Donuts around the corner.’’
Maybe, just maybe, like the players it hosts every season, whether it’s time to make a trip to the Major League, or have that all-too familiar internal discussion about when is the right time to hang them up, it is time to move on from McCoy.
This may be all Pawtucket has, but the experience is more than many other surrounding towns in Rhode Island can claim; affordable family fun without a twist.
Beer gardens and fancy cocktail lists be damned, baseball can still survive here.