This baseball tale wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not even close.
It was at least a decade ago when I found myself lounging around the press box at McCoy Stadium on one of those beautiful, warm summer days that made Ben Mondor and his crew smile so much. Around the fourth inning I saw Lou Schwechheimer in an adjoining box and joined him for a chat.
Now a `chat’ with Lou wasn’t a two minute Hello. He was always a bit long-winded, but full of details. On this day he opened up and revealed a large chuck of his heart and his dreams. He said he’d been inspired from a stint of graduate work at Harvard University and was close to securing an exclusive right from Minor League Baseball to bring a team to Cuba.
Cuba? Yes, Castro’s Cuba, where baseball is religion.
I wished Lou well and he returned to general managing the PawSox, a position that earned him, team president Mike Tamburro and their team deserved acclaim throughout baseball. Tamburro hired a 20-year old Schwechheimer out of the University of Massachusetts back in 1979 and he went on to teach legions of youngsters the promotion/management/customer service game for the next 30-plus years.
“I feel like the PawSox helped raise him,” Tamburro said. “He was more at home at McCoy Stadium than in his own home. He was here morning, noon, and night, and there were nights when he even slept here. Every member of our business community, and tens of thousands of fans, knew him by name. He had remarkable interpersonal skills.”
Even as the walls of venerable McCoy slowly began to erode after Mondor’s passing in 2010, Mike and Lou remained Rhode Island’s baseball Boys of Summer. When Mondor’s wife looked to sell the team, Schwechheimer’s time for an Act II arrived.
In 2015, the dream took a giant step forward when Schwechheimer formed the Caribbean Baseball Initiative. He assembled a group of Rhode Island business leaders, baseball friends and even a few former ambassadors who purchased minor league teams in New Orleans and Port Charlotte, Fla. While many saw this move as a jumping off point out of Pawtucket, we knew better. Schwechheimer was plotting a road to Cuba, as then-President Barack Obama began normalizing travel to the island nation.
Schwechheimer and friends took at least a dozen trips to Cuba and the Caribbean, playing the diplomatic game and hoping against hope that a Triple A team may one day be able to call Havana home. There are timeless pictures of Schwechheimer pitching to young Cuban boys in some grass ball field, a man alone with his dreams.
In New Orleans, Schwechheimer inherited a Triple A team dying on the vine. The Zephyers owned a small following so management tried to shake things up with a rebranding effort where fans would vote on a new name. The winner? The New Orleans Baby Cakes.
The name change didn’t move many meters in the sweltering Bayou and by the fall of 2018, the Cakes announced they were breaking their lease and moving to Wichita, Kansas.
That’s where Schwechheimer’s next – and ultimately final – dream unfolded. His CBI group struck a deal with Wichita where the city would pay roughly $75 million to help build Riverfront Stadium and, on budget and on time, the ballpark rose in the city’s downtown.
Schwechheimer’s dream became a reality.
As the first members of the Wind Surge prepared for a season in spring training, Wichita prepped for its big unveil. Then, in a whirlwind span of only a few days in March, the sports world unraveled. Something called the coronavirus had invaded the United States and spring training was shuttered. A month or so later the minor league season was cancelled, taking the wind out of Wichita’s inaugural campaign.
As the world became familiar with social distancing, flattening the curve and Dr. Anthony Fauci, Covid-19 ran rampant. First it lit up the Northeast, now the South and West. Three weeks ago, while living in Wichita with his wife, Jane, and daughter, Jenn, the virus shockingly found 62-year old Lou Schwechheimer.
We’ve all painfully learned that this coronavirus majors in cruelty. It plays no favorites. How it took a youthful visionary like Schwechheimer with his biggest dreams still in front of him is the cruelest of ironies.
“He loved the PawSox with all his heart, and loved the achievement of restoring affiliated baseball to Wichita as well,” said PawSox Chairman Larry Lucchino. “He was so looking forward to hosting games in the new ballpark whose construction he spearheaded. This deadly virus has robbed the baseball family of one of its most dedicated souls. We offer our deepest condolences to his wife, Jane, daughter, Jenn, and to all who have loved him in the world of baseball.”
While President Donald Trump squashed any revitalization of Cuban baseball, who knows how the diplomatic winds will blow in the future. What will happen is baseball is most certainly going to rise in Wichita and it’s pretty easy to envision a Mondor-like statue sitting near the main gate of the new ballpark.
“You can’t replace a Lou Schwechheimer,” said Steve Napolillo, an associate athletic director at Providence College who learned his craft in his 10 years working with the PawSox. “We want to make sure to honor his legacy and passion and do everything at the highest level so Lou will be smiling down on us.”
Sadly the harsh, painful truth is that Schwechheimer won’t get to see his dream in action. Future fans in Wichita won’t get to know his warm, easy smile but will appreciate the story about the guy from Rhode Island who worked his hardball dreams into reality and built a legacy in Kansas.
But for Schwechheimer’s family and baseball friends the cruel reality is stark. This certainly wasn’t the way this baseball tale was supposed to end.
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