There was baseball at McCoy Stadium on Saturday. More than 5,000 people watched -- via Facebook. At first pitch, one man played the outfield. Coaches sat behind a screen, behind home plate. No white chalk extended down the baselines, and the batter’s box was simply scraped in the dirt. Everyone was on the home team, yet none of them wore a PawSox jersey.
Things strayed further from the norm when the Red Sox alternate squad’s simulated game ended. Staff lugged some 40 tables and 200 chairs onto the grass. Fans arrived as players left, and the ballpark transformed into a full-service restaurant.
“It's a little bit of a 'Clark Kent in a phone booth' kind of thing,” said Dan Rea, PawSox executive vice president of real estate development and business affairs.
Staging all this in one day during a pandemic might be a superhero act. But such is the nature of being a Minor League team in 2020. As the Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, the Pawtucket Red Sox exist, in part, to support the Major League club. Still, like all MiLB teams, they’re a small business trying to stay afloat while COVID-19 maintains its grip on the economy and normalcy in sports and beyond. So McCoy Stadium is what it should be -- a park for baseball -- by day, and what it has to be -- a temporary restaurant -- by night.
The arrangement took root right around the time the Minor League season was scheduled to start. The PawSox front office had no baseball to sell, but they had space. They considered drive-in events, like a movie screening or fireworks show, but moved on because it would have been harder to control the social conditions at such events. Staying confined within the walls of McCoy Stadium, which was built in 1942 and has been home of the PawSox for the past 50 years, could make for a safer environment.
The ingredients to make a restaurant happen were within reach, literally and figuratively. In normal times, the team’s executive kitchen produces food for players and coaches, luxury suits and the media -- usually around 500 people on a game day. So the menu wouldn’t be an issue. Finding experienced food service industry professionals from within a baseball team’s front office was a little less easy. But there was no choice.
"'Ladies and gentlemen, our business is a baseball team,'” broadcaster Josh Maurer recalled team chairman Larry Lucchino proclaiming on a conference call. “'Well, it doesn't look like there's going to be any baseball this summer. And so now our business is going to be a restaurant. Since you work for us, now your business is a restaurant.'"
Oh boy, Maurer thought. He and fellow broadcasters Mike Antonellis and Jim Cain were suddenly servers. Ticket sales associates became food runners or hosts. Lucchino brought in consultant Jason Emmett, a family friend and restaurateur who spent 15 years in various roles with Florida chain Duffy’s Sports Grill. Along with two colleagues, Emmett spent a weekend teaching Food Service 101 to the PawSox staff.
No detail was too granular. The front office learned how to serve wine, sing the birthday song, explain the menu and print out a check. They were taught to never to ask patrons to leave, even if their scheduled time was up. More polite options exist: Hey, the team store is open. Maybe you guys would want to check that out. ... It's a beautiful night out, walk around the outfield, take advantage and play catch. ... Do you need to use the restroom?
Two nights before opening up to the public on June 5, the PawSox practiced their new craft on themselves. The following evening, they invited the local media for a trial run that doubled as a marketing effort. Then reservations went live. Most nights featured three seating shifts of 90 minutes each. In four June weekends, more than 900 families totaling 3,000 individuals enjoyed Dining on the Diamond.
Last Friday, Maurer waited on nine tables. He walked 7.9 miles that night, according to his phone’s health app. He claims he’s in the best shape of his life.
“You've got to protein- and carb-load as best you can,” Maurer said. “The dining, it's a physical challenge. It really is.”
It’s been worth it. Maurer and Antonellis have enjoyed the experience. They think they’re good at it. They talk for a living, and that hasn’t changed just because hot dogs, lobster rolls and chicken caprese are involved now. They lean into the craziness of it all. Maurer likened his introduction at a new table to a broadcast open.
"In the interest of full disclosure, my normal job with the team is as one of the radio broadcasters,” he routinely recites. “But in this circumstance, you're stuck with me down here on the field instead."
That self-deprecation usually brings out a sympathetic laugh, thus beginning a unique night out that’s largely been a success for both sides. The PawSox have kept their employees working. And fans enjoyed McCoy Stadium one last time before the team leaves its home of 50 years and relocates to Worcester, Massachusetts, next season.
Some customers have cried in front of Antonellis. One couple in their 60s rekindled a romance originally sparked during a high-school football game at McCoy five decades ago. Many are stepping onto the field for the first time after years of watching future Red Sox stars play on the same surface. It’s a pilgrimage that, during ordinary times, isn't possible for most fans.
“They're walking on grass that's sacred to them,” Antonellis said. “I think it's really nice that we can give people this venue. The food is amazing, but when I read the room and look at people's faces, it's amazing to see how happy they are in this time.”
The PawSox had to pause dining operations in early July when the Red Sox called. As details of a shortened Major League Baseball season started to take shape, an alternate training site became a necessity for all teams. McCoy made sense for Boston. The PawSox were willing to open their doors, and the Red Sox didn’t want to interfere with Dining on the Diamond.
Changes were necessary to make the arrangement work safely. McCoy is a “pretty spacious venue in terms of some of its interior spaces and some of its non-fan-facing areas,” Rea said. Both clubhouses are in use, and some luxury suites have been converted to auxiliary locker rooms. A trailer in the parking lot provides properly distanced showers. The Red Sox wanted an open-air weight room, so some of the PawSox equipment was relocated to one of McCoy’s entrance vestibules.
Even with the changes, much of the stadium is off-limits to PawSox employees, so as to create a semi-bubble for the players. On days with a sim game in the afternoon and dining in the evening, the Red Sox agreed to be finished by 3 p.m. Employees not involved with the broadcast of that day’s game arrive promptly at that time to get the restaurant set up for the first reservations at 5:30. When the last customers leave, they take it all apart as if there were never a restaurant there at all.
“The last serving of the night,” Antonellis said, “we're walking around that grass making sure there's not even one french fry.”
The entire operation has required buy-in from all parties. Chef Tom Whalen and groundskeeper Matt McKinnon work around the clock. The broadcasters-turned-servers still broadcast. Safety precautions exist at every step. Masked employees greet guests when they leave their cars and again when they reach the gates, where self-screening questions are a requirement for entry. Tables, of course, are cleaned extensively between parties.
If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. And it has to be. There’s baseball -- and beer and barbecue brisket -- at McCoy Stadium, and in 2020, that’s an accomplishment.
Joe Bloss is a contributor for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jtbloss.