Scott MacKay Commentary: Whither The PawSox?

Jan 30, 2015

Rhode Islanders have been transfixed lately by snow drifts and the Super Bowl. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says it’s time to look ahead to spring and the return of baseball.

Has dealing with that white mountain in your driveway reminded you that one never has to shovel humidity? Do you yearn for a sport where the balls can be scuffed, but not deflated?

The fate of the Pawsox staying in Pawtucket is unclear. Gov. Gina Raimondo said she has not talked with Red Sox owners about keeping them here.
Credit File/Aaron Read / RIPR

Are you so sick of winter that you day dream about daffodils, Easter, Passover and….the crack of bat on ball. The New England weather may be more suited to a New Hampshire primary than the home opener on the lawn at Fenway or McCoy. Yet, spring training is but two weeks away.

(For why baseball is a better game than football, we turn to conservative columnist George Will, who wrote famously that football is too much like modern life:  ``Violence interrupted by committee meetings.’’)

The baseball cliché is that hope springs eternal at the beginning of the season. This year in Rhode Island, hope is leavened by the fear that our beloved Pawtucket Red Sox, the Boston Red Sox top farm team, faces an uncertain future at McCoy Stadium.

The PawSox have been a summer fixture in the Ocean State since the 1970s, when Ben Mondor rescued the franchise from bankruptcy and turned  games into family-friendly outings that featured young players working their way to the major league club in Boston.

Mondor fashioned a franchise with the slogan ``where the dreams begin’’ that was deeply involved in the community. A Rhode Islander who relished his role as team owner, Mondor kept  admission and concession prices low, especially for the young and old.  The PawSox, or PawSawx, in Vo Dilendese, evolved into affordable entertainment; you could take a carload of kids to a game for less than the cost of a movie.

The team was a success on the field as 500,000 or more fans passed through the turnstiles every summer. McCoy was also home in 1981 to the longest professional baseball game ever played,  a 33-inning marathon that was chronicled by New York Times columnist Dan Barry in his book ``Bottom of the 33rd’’, a lyrical love note to baseball,  Pawtucket and the team.

It was decidedly blue-collar entertainment in a famously working-class city. Pawtucket, as every Rhode Island schoolchild learns, was the home of the American Industrial Revolution, the place where Samuel Slater opened the young nation’s first textile mill. Pawtucket also hosted the first labor strike in the country in 1824, when textile workers thought they deserved living wages.

The Pawsox started playing in McCoy Stadium in the 1970's. The Boston Globe broke the story in November that they might be leaving.
Credit File/Don Borman / RIPR

Mondor died shortly after the final pitch of the 2010 season. He was 85 years old and suffered from cancer and heart trouble. For several years before his death, Mondor hinted at retirement. But every April, he was back at McCoy, in his box along the third baseline. When asked  why he never retired, Mondor once said, ``What am I going to do, go to Florida. There’s nothing there but old people.’’

Now, the team which is owned by a trust controlled by Mondor’s widow, Madeleine Mondor, is on the block.  Boston Globe baseball writer Nick Cafardo broke the story of the sale, saying that a group led by Larry Lucchino, one of the Boston Red Sox owners, is the likely buyer.

Then a news blackout curtain came down. Reporters trying to follow the story have found it easier to get news from the Kremlin than to decipher the impending Paw Sox sale. Rumors filtering through the regional sports media indicate that there is no guarantee the new owners will keep the team in Pawtucket, the fabled, yet faded mill town that has been loyal to the team for all these years. (As spring training starts and reporters have little to write about, the PawSox questions will get louder).

This isn’t the first time Rhode Island has been threatened with loss of the PawSox. Massachusetts tried to poach the team in the mid-1990s. Then Gov. Bill Weld offered to build Mondor a $40 million stadium in Worcester as bait to leave Pawtucket.

Rhode Island responded. Then-Gov. Lincoln Almond, a Mondor friend, and then-House Speaker John Harwood, a Pawtucket natïve, patched together a plan that put about $12 million in state bond money into renovations at McCoy.  Mondor contributed about $4 million of his own to spruce up scruffy McCoy. The team stayed.

Pawtucket city officials have tried to respond. Mayor Donald Grebien and the city council have put together a committee to try to keep the team. Gov. Gina Raimondo has instructed her economic development team to work with the city, but she acknowledged Friday that she has not had discussions with Boston Red Sox owners. (If the Paw Sox leave on her watch there will be an avalanche of criticism that will dwarf anything that dropped in the recent `Juno’ storm).

Tony Pires, Pawtucket’s administration director, acknowledges the city is in the dark about sale negotiations. He says, ``both the city and the state are anxious to speak to whoever the new owners are.’’

PawSox spokesman Bill Wanless said Friday that there is ``nothing new’’ to report. ``We are gearing up for the 2015 season, which can’t come soon enough.’’

For Rhode Island, news of what happens to the PawSox after this season, is what we can’t hear soon enough.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org