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33 in the books: PawSox say goodbye to McCoy

In absence of farewell campaign, team stages epic Grand Finale
McCoy Stadium hosted the Pawtucket Red Sox for 50 years, from 1970 through 2020. (Joe Jacobs/Pawtucket Red Sox)
@BensBiz
October 20, 2020

In 2021, the Pawtucket Red Sox will move across state lines, some 45 miles to the northwest, and become the Worcester Red Sox. 2020, then, has marked this International League entity's 50th and final year at historic -- and much beloved -- McCoy Stadium. This milestone year came, and has

In 2021, the Pawtucket Red Sox will move across state lines, some 45 miles to the northwest, and become the Worcester Red Sox. 2020, then, has marked this International League entity's 50th and final year at historic -- and much beloved -- McCoy Stadium. This milestone year came, and has now went, without a milestone season to accompany it. Therefore, the team had to come up with creative ways for fans to say goodbye.

"The PawSox played their first season as a Double-A team in 1970 and then became a Triple-A team in 1973. Our affiliation with Boston is the second-longest affiliation in all of Triple-A, behind Omaha [and the Kansas City Royals]," said Bill Wanless, the Pawtucket Red Sox's senior vice president of communications. "We planned to make all of 2020 a celebration, a celebration of our 50 years of existence."

McCoy Stadium, meanwhile, predates the PawSox by nearly 30 years. The ballpark opened in 1942 and was later named for the Pawtucket mayor, Thomas P. McCoy, who spearheaded its construction. It first hosted Minor League Baseball upon the conclusion of World War II, serving as the home of the New England League's Pawtucket Slaters from 1946 through 1949. It's the oldest ballpark in all of Triple-A; come next season, that honor will belong to Tacoma's Cheney Stadium.

McCoy has served as the final rung of the Minor League ladder for generations of Boston Red Sox stars, with fans cheering those players on while enjoying a hot dog and a beer (or, more regionally specific, clam cakes and frozen lemonade). Parking is free, tickets are cheap and autographs are procured from the ground-level dugouts via a unique form of seating bowl "fishing" (bring your own string, pens and buckets).

No single event could properly honor the repository of Rhode Island baseball memories that is McCoy Stadium, but the PawSox did their best under 2020's trying, socially distanced circumstances. The team staged a "Final Weekend Celebration" Thursday through Sunday, culminating in a "Grand Finale" 33-Hour Marathon of nonstop McCoy Stadium events.

The number 33 has a special significance to the PawSox, their fans, McCoy Stadium and baseball as a whole. On April 18, 1981 -- and well into the early morning hours of April 19 -- the PawSox and Rochester Red Wings played to a 2-2 tie over the course of 32 cold, wet innings. Play was then mercifully suspended, and the game resumed on June 23. By that point Major League Baseball players were on strike, so the eyes of the sporting world turned toward McCoy Stadium. Pawtucket won the game in the bottom of the 33rd inning as Dave Koza's RBI single drove home Marty Barrett with the winning run. Both teams featured a future Hall of Famer in the historic contest, the longest game in professional baseball history. Cal Ripken went 2-for-13 for Rochester, while Wade Boggs collected four hits in 12 at-bats for Pawtucket.

Inclement weather forced the PawSox to adjust their Final Weekend Celebration itinerary. Nonetheless the team was able to pack in all of the scheduled events.

"It was a chance to thank our fans, to have them come out to the ballpark one more time," said Wanless. "We had an open house so they could roam around the ballpark, play catch, take photos, run bases and see their kids taking batting practice.... A key part of the [33-hour Grand Finale] was that we were able to continue the tradition of our [Boy and Girl] Scout Sleepovers. We offered the opportunity to Rhode Island scouts, and many of them were brave enough to do it. The temperatures [on Saturday night] were in the 40s."

Sunday's slate of events included morning batting practice for high school senior baseball and softball players, who had been deprived of playing the final season of their high school careers. This was followed by a racial justice and equality-themed Unity Fest, staged in conjunction with Black Lives Matter Rhode Island. Afterward, the PawSox hosted the final installment of "Dining on the Diamond," in which the McCoy Stadium playing field is converted into a full-service restaurant.

A young fan hones his outfield technique during McCoy Stadium's Final Weekend Celebration. (Joe Jacobs)

Of course, this weekend's McCoy Stadium sendoff was a far cry from what the PawSox had planned going into the season. As it did with all Minor League Baseball teams and virtually everything and everyone else, COVID-19 forced the team to adjust.

"Our ownership group kept us all gainfully employed. There were no furloughs and no layoffs among the entire staff. I don't think there are many teams in Minor League Baseball that can say that," said Wanless. "Larry Lucchino, who spent a long time as a [Boston] Red Sox executive before he became our chairman and principal owner, he told us that people are often judged by their entrances and their exits. We are leaving, and we wanted to do it first class all the way with our heads held high, giving fans the best experience that we can. That resonated through this season that never was, to do it right by everyone and not just mail it in."

Wanless and the rest of the PawSox staff kept busy throughout the year, even though there was no final season to be played. As they did in 2019, the team staged a "50 Acts of Kindness" initiative that included equipment donations, scholarship awards and mascot appearances throughout the community. This later expanded to include a massive food drive, in which McCoy Stadium served as a parking lot drive-thru distribution area. This distribution technique was later employed for giveaway items, with fans driving to the ballpark to obtain souvenir bobbleheads and replica jerseys.

"Dining on the Diamond" debuted in late May, and soon became one of the team's signature 2020 endeavors.

"The concept of serving dinner on the field itself, we were the first to come up with it -- 25 or 30 teams copied the idea," said Wanless. "There was a story about it _The New York Times_, so it got nationwide attention and became a real phenomenon. Thousands and thousands of fans got to experience a last night at the ballpark that way. They were just so happy to get out of the house and go somewhere. Our executive chef, Tom Whalen, he had worked for the Oklahoma City Thunder for a number of years. He's a Rhode Island native who wanted to come home. So the food was great as well as the atmosphere, which included one of the most iconic things about McCoy Stadium: its sunsets."

PawSox fans dine on the diamond under a blazing McCoy Stadium sky. (Joe Jacobs)

And just like in every season since 1970, McCoy Stadium hosted premier Red Sox prospects. The ballpark served as Boston's alternate training site, and the PawSox provided live streams of the daily intra-squad games along with commentary from their broadcast crew.

"We had three recent Red Sox number one picks," said Wanless. "2016, Jay Groome. 2018, Triston Casas. And 2020's number one pick, Nick Yorke. That meant something for the fans, giving hope to what the Red Sox are doing as they rebound from a disappointing season. And they got to see guys acquired in trades, including Jeter Downs, who was part of the Mookie Betts deal. So fans got to see them and we did Zoom interviews a couple times a week. We got great exposure on TV and in print with those interviews. So we had baseball and real top players. Through an adverse situation, we were able to do whatever could to get through the season and make it positive. That brought us to where we are now."

McCoy Stadium served as the alternate training site for the Boston Red Sox.

As to where the PawSox are now ... well, they're still at McCoy Stadium. The team's lease at the city-owned facility runs through January, and Wanless says there may be more opportunities for fans to visit. A "ballyard sale" is tentatively planned for December, for example, in which fans can purchase McCoy Stadium miscellany such as seats and signage.

But with the PawSox's exit from McCoy Stadium nearly complete, it's now time to plan for an entrance.

"I think fans will love the new ballpark in Worcester," said Wanless. "It's an intimate ballpark, nestled in a thriving downtown in the second largest city in Massachusetts. There's a huge fan base excited to have it, and that includes our fans in Rhode Island. We need to maintain that relationship. We'll have the two most important elements: unbelievably loyal and knowledgeable fans and great players. That, for me is the takeaway when I think of the PawSox, and it will carry forward to the WooSox."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.