Baseball is back in New England. The Boston Red Sox open their home season this afternoon at Fenway Park and the team hopes to rebound after a last-place finish. Their top minor league club, the Pawtucket Red Sox, face some different challenges this season, says RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay.
Red Sox Nation is suffused with anticipation and anxiety as our Boys of Summer in Boston and Pawtucket take the field this season. After a season in cellar of the American League East, the issue in Boston is whether a revamped line-up and the addition of all-star pitcher David Price can turn around the fortunes of the storied franchise.
In Pawtucket, the stakes may be even higher. The PawSox seek to bounce back from a public relations disaster that saw attendance at McCoy Stadium drop to its lowest level since 1993. A team that regularly attracted more than 600,000 fans for many years dipped below 500,000 last summer.
Many factors are at play in this decline. The parent club in Boston had an awful record last year. The demographics of baseball are changing as younger fans migrate to the vast array of 21st century sports entertainment options, from the year-round obsession with New England Patriots football to a new love for soccer in these parts to the ubiquity of sports video games and social media.
But everyone – even top PawSox executives – acknowledge the damage done by the team’s new ownership. The new owners, led by the late Rhode Island power broker, lawyer James Skeffington left a bitter taste among fans by proposing to move the club from cozy, albeit dated, McCoy Stadium to a gleaming new ballpark on the Providence waterfront.
What made this plan even harder to swallow for fans and the state’s political leadership was the PawSox request for $120 million in state subsidies and tax breaks to finance construction of a new ballpark. This proposal crashed amid a cascade of criticism from fans and taxpayers alike.
Then came the team’s initial attitude -- that if they didn’t get a juicy public subsidy, they would consider moving the team outside Rhode Island.
The reaction in Pawtucket was furious. The birthplace of America’s Industrial Revolution is a seen-better-days-community. The manufacturing jobs that were once the lifeblood of the city’s economy are mostly gone. The departure of the PawSox was viewed by locals as an economic and psychic blow to a faded but proud city.
The product on the field was as good as ever – great baseball at affordable prices. You can still take a carload of kids to a game at McCoy for less than a trip to a movie, or the parking fee around Fenway Park.
Now, the PawSox are back at McCoy Stadium for a new season. There are no current plans to move the team. The new president , Dr. Charles Steinberg, is a veteran baseball executive known for his public relations savvy. He and team investor Larry Lucchino, another top baseball executive, are engineering a reset, both with fans and Pawtucket’s leaders.
Steinberg and Lucchino worked in the off-season to build solid links with Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien. Tony Pires, Grebien’s administration director, says there has been a ``180-degree turn’’ in the team’s relationship with the city.
Steinberg has been on a marketing blitz, saying what fans want to hear. In an interview with Rhode Island Public Radio, he frankly acknowledged the need to win back the trust of fans. The team is rolling out a slew of new promotions. Ticket prices will remain low and kids will still be allowed to run the bases after Sunday afternoon games.
In the interview, Steinberg invoked the legacy of the revered late Ben Mondor, a businessman and native Rhode Islander who bought the bankrupt Pawtucket franchise, turned its fortunes around and saved minor league baseball in the state.
Mondor was lured by other New England cities, but he never seriously considered moving the team. After the state invested millions to upgrade McCoy in the mid-1990s, the team flourished and attendance soared.
This is a crucial season for the PawSox. If the fans pack McCoy Stadium, it will be more difficult for the owners to make an economic argument for moving. City government is currently doing an assessment of McCoy’s future. Shaking loose some state bond money to upgrade McCoy would also help keep the team in its rightful place.
McCoy is a historic venue, site of the longest professional baseball ever. Yet it has few of the modern amenities, such a luxury boxes and function rooms, that bring business to minor and major league parks.
The team has to rebuild its link to the community. Yet, they aren’t running a charity. So the fans must come back. Or the PawSox longtime slogan of `Where the Dreams Begin’ could mean they start somewhere else.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org
Much thanks to PawSox super fan Jim Dawson for help on attendance statistics.