I Never Got to Say Goodbye
McCoy Stadium Sunset. Photo by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey.
The news that so many baseball fans dreaded, but still expected to hear was announced yesterday. There will be no minor league baseball in 2020. Obviously, this will have a great effect on those who play, work at and love going to their local ballparks. This is a story about one of these people. With no games being played in 2020, this longtime Rhode Island resident, Pawtucket Red Sox fan and former Pawsox employee will not get a chance to bid McCoy Stadium a proper farewell.
After 50 seasons at McCoy Stadium, the Pawtucket Red Sox have played their final game at the old ballpark. The team, wooed by a sweetheart stadium deal, will be moving 45 minutes north to Worcester, Massachusetts, and their new home, Polar Park, for the 2021 season. Since the day it was announced that the Pawsox would be leaving Rhode Island, I’ve been thinking about the massive hole that this team will leave in the fabric of the community. While Rhode Island has lost teams before (the Providence Reds called the Ocean State home for 52 seasons before moving to Binghamton, New York in 1977), this time it feels different. Looking at it from a purely personal perspective, it’s amazing how much of my life has revolved around McCoy Stadium.
After Throwing Out the First Pitch at McCoy Stadium. Photo by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey.
As a sports-crazed boy living in a home with parents who did not share my passion, my exposure to sports was largely limited to watching games on television. Luckily for me, I had an uncle who was also a big sports fan. My Uncle Sid would take me to McCoy for a game a few times each summer. In those days the Pawsox really struggled to attract fans, so they gave away tickets by the thousands to get people to come to the ballpark. Local schools would receive passes that were good for a selected series of games. Since my uncle was a teacher in a neighboring town, he was able to grab some passes and use them with me.
In a Pawtucket tradition that has endured through the years, I would fish for autographs at the games. I can’t remember who my first autograph was, but I can remember my own kids pulling up hundreds of autographs during their time at McCoy.
In the early 80s, the Rhode Island Interscholastic League decided to ditch their traditional divisional setup that matched teams of similar size, and have all the schools compete for a single state title. In 1982 tiny Tiverton High School ended up winning the whole thing. The championship game was played at, of course, McCoy Stadium. I can remember the student body piling in busses and trekking on up to Pawtucket to witness our friends and classmates play in the championship game, with Hall and Oates’ “H2O” and The J. Geils Band’s “Freeze Frame” blaring over someone’s boom box in the back of the bus.
Paws and Sox. Photo by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey.
Years later, when I had a family of my own, it was a given that my kids would be forced to tag along to McCoy with me. The fact that neither of them loved baseball the way I did wasn’t an issue, they seemed to at least enjoy going to the ballpark almost as much as I did. There were rumors in the late 90s that the Pawsox might move (to Worcester, of all places). The International League had mandated certain amenities and minimum capacity for all their ballparks and McCoy didn’t come close to measuring up.
The resulting renovations to the ballpark made it the jewel of the minor leagues, for a little while. My friend Ben and I went to the first game of the “new” McCoy Stadium in 1999, arriving early and picking out a prime spot on the new party deck right by the left field foul pole. The spot must have been a good one because we were interviewed by several local news outfits. In hindsight, I wish we hadn’t been enjoying so many adult beverages that night.
Posing with World Series Trophies. Photo by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey.
When I later went through a divorce and was struggling with the expense of child support, a friend who was a bartender at McCoy suggested I get a part-time job at the ballpark. I remember my interview with Jim Hogan, who was the Director of Concessions at the time. It consisted of one statement: “Dave tells me you’ll do anything.” I replied in the positive and was immediately hired, beginning my career in baseball. Running a grill wasn’t what I had expected to be doing, but I had no complaints. Our crew always managed to have a good time.
A few months later, my children came to live with me full-time. I was worried that I’d no longer be able to handle two jobs with two kids at home. When I talked to Mr. Hogan, his response was “you work at a ballpark-bring them along.” Can you imagine any other place allowing an employee to bring their kids to work? I’ll forever be grateful to the Pawsox for this. My children now had an entire ballpark at their disposal. No other kids could ever collect more batting practice balls and autographs. Name a famous Red Sox player who passed through McCoy, and my kids met them.
McCoy Stadium Circa 1999. Photo by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey.
Despite the star power of players like Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, and Jason Varitek, players like Alejandro Machado, Don Wengert, and Freddy Sanchez are as prominent in their memories as any Red Sox Hall of Famer. The kids got every giveaway McCoy could hand out, had access to most of the ballpark, and hung out with players’ families during the games. They feasted on ballpark food. I blame McCoy Stadium for the fact that their entire diets to this day consist of hot dogs, burgers, chicken fingers, and pizza. They were undoubtedly the envy of all their friends.
Eventually, the kids grew up, coming to the ballpark with dad every night was no longer cool and the time commitment of a second job became too much, so I “retired” from the Pawsox. For a long time, it was strange to return to the place, but it was great to be able to actually sit in the stands once again and enjoy a game with my wife and friends. McCoy Stadium remained a fixture in our summer routine.
Pam and Paul at McCoy. Photo by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey.
I was fortunate to find a kindred sports fan when I met my wife, Pam. When it became time to discuss wedding plans, it was a given that we would have the ceremony at a ballpark. Now, Pam had spent many nights at McCoy while I was working in the concession stands, and had developed her own opinions on the old place. I just couldn’t convince Pam that getting married under a giant tent at McCoy was the thing to do. We ended up having our wedding at Campanelli Stadium in nearby Brockton, MA, home to the independent Brockton Rox. Campanelli had a wonderful event center attached to the ballpark. We got married before a Rox game and threw out first pitches in our wedding attire. Former Pawsox manager Ed Nottle and the team mascot crashed the reception. Despite my bias towards McCoy, she was right, As usual. Pam was gracious enough to agree to schedule the wedding when the Pawsox were on the road and `we did stop at McCoy on our way back from our honeymoon.
I’ve been able to fulfill so many items on my baseball bucket list thanks to the Pawsox and McCoy Stadium. I’ve played football and softball on the field, thrown out first pitches, laid on the soft outfield grass drinking beer and watching movies on the video board, flipped burgers on ESPN (watch the footage of the 2004 International League All-Star Game), dressed as a mascot, hung out with future major leaguers and Hall of Famers (and Donny Osmond), lifted championship trophies and so much more.
Kissing the Governor’s Cup. Photo by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey.
While I was never able to parlay my part-time gig with the club into full-time employment, I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who ran the Pawsox all these years. The Pawsox staff truly treated me like family. I was invited to special events and when money was tight, they were always there to give me extra hours. I’ve never had another employer who treated me as well as did the Pawsox. Whenever Pawsox President Mike Tamburro would see me around the stadium, he would joke “when are you coming back?” My response was typically “you couldn’t afford me now.” That was never really true, I would have come back in a heartbeat.
Although I won’t get the chance to hang out at Ben Mondor’s place one last time, the memories will never fade. More than just the games on the field, it’s been the people that filled McCoy that have made it so special. So many of the fans I used to serve and bump into around the ballpark have become dear friends. The teenagers with whom I worked during my time at McCoy are now in their thirties and forties. I would bump into them from time to time with their own families, and of course, we would reminisce about the “good old days,” when McCoy would host crowds of over 7,000 every night.
Walking off at the Final Pawsox Game. Photo by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey.
I had been hoping to share my final Pawsox game with those closest to me. That I won’t get this chance is without a doubt my biggest disappointment with the cancellation of the season. My children, who had been coming to McCoy since they were in diapers, would have been with me. I wonder if this day would have been as difficult for them as it would have been for me. Among the throng of Bakers who would have descended on the ballpark on Labor Day would have been my granddaughter, who would have been eight months old and going to her first baseball game. She would have been the fifth generation of the family I dragged to “The Bucket.” I was six years old when my family moved to Rhode Island, and McCoy Stadium has been a part of my life for close to five decades.
While Pawsox fans have taken their anger out on the team over the past two-plus years by staying away from McCoy, I don’t expect that that would be the case at the Pawsox’ last game. We all would have come to say our final farewells. It would have been nice to see the place filled to the brim with Pawsox fans one last time.
Saying goodbye would have been really hard. Not being able to say goodbye is even harder.
Ben Mondor Statue in the Snow. Photo by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey.
Follow Paul Baker’s stadium journeys on Twitter and Instagram @PuckmanRI.