The sun is setting at 78-year old McCoy Stadium
By KEVIN McNAMARA
Maybe the cruelest of the many restrictions COVID-19 has slapped on us all are the awful guardrails around death.
Whether you lose a loved one or close friend to cancer, a car accident or COVID, it’s a time-honored ritual to pay your respects in some way. That’s often with a bed-side visit, or a trip to a funeral home. In this pandemic, the pain stays bottled in your soul.
It’s so hard to say goodbye. It’s unbearable to not even own the chance.
I lost a dear friend during the pandemic. It wasn’t easy, but I did get to say goodbye.
Last week came time for a different kind of goodbye. It wasn’t nearly as personal and no tears were shed. At least not yet.
Baseball fans in Rhode Island, and around New England, were robbed of a chance to say goodbye to McCoy Stadium by this wretched pandemic. We’ve all come to grips with the fact that the Pawtucket Red Sox are headed to Worcester but the virus also wiped out the PawSox season in 2020. The team let fans dine on the diamond and enjoy a last hot dog, hamburger and bag of popcorn but no one left with a chance to see a final ballgame on the diamond that sits a fly ball off of Columbus Avenue.
“What’s going to happen to this place?” asked Bill Wanless, the PawSox Senior Vice President for Communications. “Look at it, it’s beautiful.”
For 35 seasons Wanless juggled a bit of everything for the PawSox at McCoy. Most had to do with the media, but in minor league baseball everyone helps plug holes. He remembers a day back in the 1980’s when he turned on the electronic scoreboard a bit early and a malfunction of the sprinkler system sent water streaming at the board.
“The lights began popping and, thankfully, Mike Tamburro (the team’s president) saw the board blowing up and frantically raced into the office to tell me to shut it off,” Wanless said. “I had to get up on a ladder and screw in new ones before the game started. We barely made it.”
A few members of the local media and some game day employees who all but lived in McCoy’s press box for years and years stopped by the old ballyard last week. We tossed a few baseballs around, threw back a few beers, and exchanged all sorts of memorable stories.
It was fun, and oh so sad.
There was the story about the sideline reporter who took the definition of a lazy, sunny day in July a bit too literally. When the guys up in the Cox-TV booth threw it down to the field for some insight, the fans at home only saw the reporter nodding off in a suite along the third base line.
There was the gem about the gift a reporter received from the Japanese media who were following an assortment of Asian players one year. Before the lucky man had a chance to open his Seiko, crafty official scorer Bruce Guindon slit open the box and replaced the watch with a plastic knife. The look on the foreign scribes’ faces when the reporter unwrapped his plastic prize remains priceless.
There are so many McCoy tales that only media people can hold dear. Way back before alcohol was banned in the clubhouse, old manager Ed Nottle would be known to fire an opened Budweiser over reporter’s shoulders in a fit of rage. Fireworks nights were a big deal with sellout crowds but scribes made sure to write like hell to escape McCoy’s crammed parking lots before the last bangs subsided.
It was always cool to see a rehabbing Red Sox star come down to Pawtucket. Manny Ramirez liked things so much he claimed his hamstring was sore for an extra day or two so he’d avoid the hounding media corps up at Fenway. Dustin Pedroia couldn’t stop exchanging waves and high-fives with all sorts of familiar faces. Then there were the guys who felt a trip to McCoy was clearly beneath them. They’d frequently deploy the weasel move out a side door to their waiting luxury SUV’s to avoid the handful of media who actually cared about their rehab stints. Hello there, Josh Beckett and David Price.
My McCoy memories go way back. I remember packing my calculator as John Parente’s stat guy for WKRI radio’s high school football package and taking in a few State Championship games on frigid December days. I remember getting a dream assignment as a newspaper intern in the summer of 1987 and covering big Sam Horn, plucky Jody Reed and hot prospects Brady Anderson and Ellis Burks. Nottle – known as `Singing Ed’ because he loved to whistle country tunes in area watering holes – had this to say to Burks when the fateful call to report to Fenway came in May: “Ellie, don’t let `em f&#k with your swing up there. You’re too good.”
The wind-whipped press box was creaky unsafe so in those days we wrote game stories in the bowels of McCoy. The umpires would constantly be dropping four-letter words when they poked their heads in to steal a few beers out of the press refrigerator.
Owner Ben Mondor was ready to leave dumpy McCoy before the state agreed to pump millions into the grand dame in 1998. In 2004, the proud triumvirate of Mondor, Tamburro and Lou Schwechheimer couldn’t stop smiling when they showed off the sparkling facility to the baseball world at the Triple A all-star game.
Time didn’t treat McCoy well and by the time Mondor died in 2010 the ballpark needed thousands of dollars in yearly upgrades. They didn’t come, however, and the team was sold. New ownership offered the most generous stadium deal in Triple A baseball history to build a new stadium in downtown Pawtucket and felt it had a 30-year deal with the state in May, 2017. But Nick Mattiello had other ideas.
Citing the bogus excuse that his `constituents’ back in Garden City had no appetite for a development in Pawtucket, the House Speaker blew up the deal. The new ownership called his bluff and will open Polar Park in Worcester in April.
Fast forward two years and as everyone looked out across the emerald green diamond the other night, it was somewhat fitting that Mattiello’s constituents had swept him out of office in decisive fashion just a few days earlier.
“If he’d gotten the boot two years ago the PawSox might still be here,” said long-time sports writer Joe McDonald. “How one guy could mess this all up is crazy. That’s Rhode Island.”
What will happen to 78-year old McCoy? The answer will come from the current owners, the City of Pawtucket and Mattiello’s pals on Smith Hill. I threw out that its fate will be determined by a combination of vision and money.
“Those things are in short supply around here,” one wag said.
That’s probably true. Sadly Triple A baseball is no more in Pawtucket, and McCoy’s days are likely numbered, too. In a few years maybe the site is a badly-needed new high school complex, or a public safety compound. Sadly, it may also become a dark, decaying old ballpark where legends once came of age.
If you’re passing by old McCoy this coming winter maybe stop and give her one last look. Remember your first game, or your last fireworks show. Maybe think back to that Thanksgiving football game in the 1980’s or Bob Dylan’s visit in 2006.
Whatever the memory, hold them dear. After all, it’s hard to say goodbye.