The Ballpark at Slater Mill

In as big a sign of spring as the crocuses, baseball is back in Rhode Island and the Pawtucket Red Sox are underway for the 2018 season. The PawSox have served as a minor league baseball team for the Boston Red Sox since 1970, playing all 48 seasons at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket. McCoy has been a staple of Pawtucket since it was built in 1942, serving as the home ballpark of the New England Slaters and Eastern Indians before the Pawtucket Red Sox took over.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Robby Scott, who played with the PawSox originally and is back with them recovering from elbow surgery, told me about how he enjoys playing at McCoy, “It’s a little different just because of how the field is shaped up with the players and the fans above the dugout and that kind of stuff… It’s a fun place to play, it’s historic, it’s unique.”

McCoy has served as a destination for fans to come see the next generation of Boston Red Sox stars without having to pay the obscene prices it takes to get a ticket to Fenway; a trip to Fenway also will include absurdly high parking costs and a bottled water may run your trip expenses through the roof.

The low cost of tickets and the atmosphere with the team has created a large, passionate fan base within the city. Kevin Boles, manager of the PawSox, talked to me about the fan support the team gets from the city of Pawtucket. “We have a loyal fan base, I’ll tell you what… Sometimes it surprises you, the weather can be miserable, it can be tough, it’s cold, but the people still show up.”

The problem for McCoy, however, is the aging stadium is on its last legs. The PawSox are under contract to continue at McCoy until 2021, but there is little chance the team will stay there after the contract expires. There is no way to continue playing baseball without major renovations to the stadium, and neither the team nor the city is too keen on the idea of making major renovations to a 75-year-old stadium. After their lease expires, the team is likely to find a new home, whether it’s in Pawtucket or somewhere else.

The team’s initial proposal came in 2015 when the team wanted to move to Providence. The proposal fell through due to very high costs that would be paid for by the state and the risk of the public having to pay a portion of any potential overrun costs from building the stadium. With that proposal failing, the PawSox looked for an alternative in their own backyard. They proposed the idea for The Ballpark at Slater Mill, a new stadium at the old Apex complex in Pawtucket. The plan would split the cost between the team, the state and the city; guarantee any overrun costs are paid for by the team; and most importantly, they would keep the team in Pawtucket.

The PawSox and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation spent an extensive amount of time working together to create a proposal that would benefit both the team and the city. The project, proposed in 2017, would cost approximately $83 million with 54% of the project coming from the PawSox, 28% coming from Rhode Island and 18% coming from the city of Pawtucket. The park would be publicly owned and would be open as a park with a year-round event calendar when the team isn’t playing.

The proposal is in place and the PawSox now wait on state legislature. The Rhode Island Senate passed the bill on January 16, taking the first step toward keeping the team in Pawtucket. The bill has since been sent to the Rhode Island House of Representatives for consideration.

I spoke to Rhode Island Representative from Pawtucket, Carlos E. Tobon, about the bill, and he stressed that everyone is working hard to get the bill finalized and to get it to a vote. “Our delegation is working hard to keep the discussion going.”  

He described the bill passed in the Senate as a companion bill, which is now being negotiated further until the House has a bill they find suitable to vote on. He was unable to speak on the time frame for the vote at this point, but said, “It might be sooner than you think, indications are positive, but there are no guarantees.” The legislators do not want to rush into a vote until the bill has been carefully checked and negotiated. If the bill is not properly negotiated it may falter in the vote and send the PawSox packing.  

Tobon also focused on the fact that The Ballpark at Slater Mill would serve as much more than the home of a minor league baseball team. “This isn’t the Pawtucket Red Sox stadium, but a public park for the state of Rhode Island where the PawSox are the main tenant.”

If the bill fails to pass, other cities would jump at the chance to host the organization; Malden, Salem and Worcester, Massachusetts have all discussed the possibility of taking the team if they were to leave Rhode Island. Worcester has made a very strong case for the organization, and if Rhode Island fails to approve the new Pawtucket stadium, they are the most likely destination.

Pawtucket has shown a strong desire to keep the team and the fans are still with them. Pawtucket is very passionate about baseball and their Pawsox. Kevin Boles described the enjoyment of playing in front of the home fans, “It’s fun because they’re passionate about baseball, and they’re passionate about the Red Sox.”

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