Baseball is back in New England this week, as both the Boston Red Sox and the Pawtucket Red Sox begin their home seasons. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders if Rhode Island state government can forge a new stadium deal to keep the PawSox in the Ocean State.
The weather of late may be more suited to the Stowe Winter Carnival than the summer pastime of baseball. No matter, this week the Red Sox open their home season at Fenway and The PawSox take the field at McCoy to mark the real start of spring in these parts.
New England’s joy in all things old and historic applies to baseball. Not for nothing is the region known as America’s attic. Fans have thronged Fenway for more than a century and the Red Sox franchise is stronger than ever.
Things in Pawtucket aren’t so rosy. McCoy Stadium, named after a mayor known for his tolerance of the idea that death shouldn’t necessarily end a citizen’s right to vote, is eight decades old. It has hosted the Red Sox top minor league club since the 1970s.
McCoy stadium is known among hardball devotees as the scene of the longest professional game ever played, in 1981. It lasted 33 innings and was chronicled by New York Times journalist Dan Barry in his book “Bottom of the 33rd,” a love note to minor league baseball, the team’s seen-better-days home city and the fans who weathered inning after chilly inning.
Rivaling that famous extra innings marathon is the game now being played at the Statehouse over a deal that would use a state taxpayer subsidy to help the PawSox build a new $83 million stadium on Pawtucket’s downtown riverfront. The latest agreement has been approved by Gov. Gina Raimondo and the Rhode Island Senate, but has been held up in the House. The most influential House member, Speaker Nick Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, has yet to sign on.
At stake is whether taxpayers should chip in to help privately-held sports teams build stadiums, an issue that has provoked passionate debate around the nation. The PawSox ownership is willing to put up more than 50 percent of the construction cost. The state’s share would be paid off from proceeds of the more than $2 million in annual taxes the team harvests from levies on player income and sales of food and drink. The park would be publicly-owned.
There have been rounds of debate and public hearings on the proposal, dragging on for several years. Yet, there is no end in sight. Raimondo was asked about the stadium’s fate last week as she walked into an elevator at the Rhode Island Convention Center. “Call Mattiello,” she said as the door closed.
The PawSox have been part of the fabric of summer in Rhode Island for 43 years. It was owned for most of that time by the avuncular Ben Mondor, a fan who steered the franchise from bankruptcy to fine baseball at affordable prices. But Mondor, who died shortly after the final pitch of the 2010 season, isn’t walking back to the owner’s box.
The new team ownership, led by veteran baseball executive Larry Lucchino, has been deeply involved in negotiations with the state and city. Lucchino has been patient; he says he wants the keep the team in Pawtucket.
But the team can’t wait forever. Its lease at McCoy runs out in two years. So the owners are listening to other cities, notably Worcester. The team insists talks with Worcester are not a bargaining ploy. “We run a business, we need a ballpark to play in in 2021,” says Kim Miner, PawSox senior vice-president.
Pawtucket has a fabled past, but has fallen on hard times in recent years; its theater (The Gamm) is leaving, the hospital closing and Hasbro seeking a new corporate headquarters outside the city. City leaders view a new stadium as an anchor of downtown revival.
The state’s snail’s pace response only heightens Rhode Island’s dubious reputation as a place where it’s tough to do business on anything that involves government .
If the pols can’t get a deal done, Rhode Island will be left with a rusting stadium and no Triple A baseball. All that will remain is the usual Ocean State trope, to make some form of art, such as a documentary film or a play of loss. We already have “Benny’s, the Musical.” Does anybody really want to stage PawSox: The Final Innings?
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 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