Providence and Pawtucket border one another, but when it comes to Minor League Baseball the two cities are a world apart.
The new ownership group of the Pawtucket Red Sox, led by outgoing Boston Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, wants to relocate the team from its long-time home of McCoy Stadium to a proposed downtown riverfront stadium in neighboring Providence. Building this stadium requires both public land and public money, and McCoy is already considered by many to be a public treasure. Therefore, this relocation plan hasn't generated much public goodwill.
Opposition to the PawSox relocation plan has been intense from the moment it was first announced in late February. This opposition has manifested itself in a variety of ways, including frequent protests and "sign-holding events," calls and letters to elected officials and a steady barrage of social media agitation. (A Twitter hashtag of #38stadium, referencing the publicly funded debacle that was Curt Schilling's 38 Studios, has gained popularity in recent weeks).
I visited McCoy Stadium on Sept. 1, a day in which the Pawtucket Times had a front-page story about the latest anti-stadium protest (staged on the proposed site of the Providence ballpark). That afternoon I spoke with Jeff White, a financial advisor within the Boston Red Sox front office who has devoted much time this season working on the new stadium proposal.
"We understand completely why some people would be concerned and upset. That's the great country that we live in," White said. "There's a chance for everybody to have different views on this."
• Ben's Q&A about stadium relocation with the PawSox's Jeff White »
That night, as the PawSox took on the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, I got the chance to hear a few of these "different views" first hand.
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It all started innocently enough. It was the sixth inning of the ballgame, and I had recently been introduced to long-time season ticket holders (and long-time friends) by the names of Gloria and Jane. They were sitting behind home plate, shaded toward the third-base side of the stadium, a smattering of other McCoy die-hards surrounding them. The crowd was sparse this Tuesday evening; school had started that day, and an autumnal chill was in the air.
After a few minutes of talk regarding some of their favorite McCoy memories and players -- "Mo Vaughn couldn't catch a pop-up for beans," said Gloria -- I asked about the new ownership group's plan to relocate the team to Providence. A quiet conversation then got very loud, and from this point forward Gloria and Jane had very little to do with it.
"They're out of their minds!" said Pat Gorman, sitting to my left.
"Out of their minds," echoed Pat's sister, Kathy.
"We're all against it, totally against it," said Pat, gesturing in both directions. Both her and Kathy are season ticket holders.
"Don't even ask us that question," said Jane Stapleton, who was sitting in front of me, alongisde her husband, Jim.
She didn't need to be asked, as it turned out, and had plenty to say on the topic. The Stapletons, who run a funeral home in Cranston, just south of Providence, have been PawSox season ticket holders for the past 17 seasons. Jane, her tone soft-spoken but angry, quickly became the de facto spokesperson for the group of fans sitting in my immediate vicinity.
"There's a lot of feelings here," said Jane. "First of all, it's the fact that they wanted us [the taxpayers] to pay for it. It gets forced upon everyone in Rhode Island, but you know what? There's the father and mother who have kids, who would love to be able to afford to come here, but they can't. And now they're going to have that put on their shoulders, to pay for something they can't even afford to do themselves. That's wrong. You can afford to buy [the team], you should be able to afford to build [the stadium]. Period."
• Read more about Ben's visit to Pawtucket on the Biz Blog »
In addition to concerns about how the Providence stadium will be funded, there are concerns about its location.
"And then you go, and you put it in a place with no parking," continued Jane. "We have nine grandchildren. I don't want them walking in that part of Providence to find a space somewhere. Here [in Pawtucket], we have 20 different streets you can park on. There [in Providence], they're going to have one going north and one going south.
"And you know what they say to us?" she continued. "Take a bus. Take a train. Well, how many buses is it gonna take to get 10,000 people out of this park? It's just not feasible. It's just saying we're stupid. It's just not reality. If Ben Mondor were here, he would have done this in a much smarter place."
Mondor, who owned the PawSox from 1977 until his death in 2010, was known for his hands-on and approachable leadership style. This is in stark contrast to the widely held public perception of the new ownership group, which has developed a reputation for being imperious and aloof.
"When Ben Mondor first came here, he was averaging something like 700 fans a night," said Jim Stapleton, speaking in a more measured tone than his wife but of similar opinions. "He was outside the main gate every single game. 'Hi, I'm Ben Mondor. What can I do to help you?'"
"But you get new people come in, and they want to throw away everything you've had. You're going to have animosity toward them," said Jane. "If the previous owner had tried to do this, it probably would have been a lot more sentimental. This whole thing came down really poorly."
"We're worried we're gonna lose that family atmosphere," added Pat.
It was hard for me to imagine PawSox fans such as the Stapletons and the Gorman sisters supporting any new stadium proposal whatsoever, under any circumstances. Because a new stadium would mean the loss of McCoy, a place where, for decades, they made memories and formed friendships.
"The only thing that keeps us coming back is the camaraderie," said Jane, with Pat and Kathy nodding their heads in agreement.
"Did you come here before the game? Did you see all of the milk cartons and the milk bottles?" Jim asked me. He was referring to the unique McCoy tradition of "fishing" for autographs with fans lowering items into the dugout via milk cartons tied to a long string. "The players all talk about it. Major League players that played here first ask them what their thoughts are on Pawtucket and McCoy Stadium. To a man, everyone would tell you this was an absolute fun time."
"Look at Boston. Look at Fenway Park," said Jane. "They don't want to change that. Can you imagine losing that? The Green Monster and all? It's an old stadium, but it's an institution and people revere it. And I think, in a very small way, that's what we have here."