Life In The Minors
Happy 20th Birthday, Paw Sox!
By Joe Kuras
"It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught his band to play..."
Sergeant Pepper and the Beatles never did perform in Pawtucket or at McCoy Stadium. But for the past 20 years, there has been one tune consistently topping the charts in Rhode Island. That has been the Pawtucket Red Sox, as the premier franchise in all of professional Minor League Baseball. As the curtain rises on the 1996 season, owner Ben Mondor and President Mike Tamburro enter their 20th year together heading an organization that has appealed to the masses.
In the book "DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH, Life in Baseball's Minor Leagues", by Ken Rappoport, 1979, Mondor once said of Pawtucket, "It is not the most affluent place in the world. Cultural life is suffering. The libraries are going down and the repertory company here staggers from one life-surviving drive to another."
Despite the blue collar roots and limited purchasing power of the community, as noted by Rappoport, Mondor decided to invest in professional baseball in Pawtucket.
"When I took over this franchise in 1976," Mondor told Rappoport, "this place was the pits. The team was in a bankrupt state that nobody wanted. I mean, there were hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debts here. Plus the stadium had a bad reputation. There was plenty of vandalism - kids breaking up cars and running loose around the stadium throwing hot dogs full of mustard at people..."
The stadium was in disrepair. Pipes leaked, and the only asset left in the clubhouse was one torn sofa. Professional Baseball in Pawtucket was at an all time low, as fans and creditors lost faith in ownership. The team's franchise had been revoked by the International League. The team was now owned by a businessman who never even played baseball in grammar school. Mondor had recently retired from the textile industry. If he were to don a straw hat and apron, the portly and mustachioed owner would have resembled a sausage maker or beer meister, not a baseball man. But then again, beer barons have been known to successfully run a baseball franchise.
One of his first official acts, as owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox, was to hire Tamburro as the team's General Manager. Tamburro had already been honored as "General Manager Of The Year" in Elmira of the New York - Penn League. His reputation preceded him to Pawtucket, as one of the youngest and best GM's in minor league ball.
Common sense prevailed from the start as Mondor implemented his own policy for success. He assumed the debts left behind and paid for new purchases in cash while quickly establishing his credibility within the community. On Opening Night 1977, a sea of Pinkerton guards and policemen converged upon McCoy Stadium. Approximately 135 unruly fans were ushered out of the ballpark, followed by another 10 the next night.
Mondor quickly replaced the gimmick-laden, honky tonk aura of minor league ball with a promotion of pure professional baseball, both suitable and affordable for the entire family. Box seats were priced at just $3.00, general admission $2.00, with a dollar discount for senior citizens and children under 12. It has taken all of 20 years for those prices to finally double This year, prices of $6 and $4 will be charged for box and general admission seats respectively. But kids and seniors still get a buck off their tickets!
"We made it pleasant and inexpensive to go to a ballgame," Mondor noted in Rappoport's book. "With a ten-dollar bill, you and your wife and kids can come in, have a couple of beers and hot dogs and coke, and everything else, and go home with a dollar change."
As fans stroll up the ramps to the grandstand, they have been treated to one of the most unique displays of baseball art. Mondor hired 2 local artists to paint 10 foot murals on the concrete walls. They honored all Pawtucket Red Sox players who made it to the big leagues, be it with Boston or some other MLB team. For every Mo Vaughn, Wade Boggs, and Jim Rice, there has been a Dave Stapleton, Roger Lafrancois, and Luis Aponte.
A few years ago, when the stadium exterior was in dire need of a facelift, the immediate concern centered around the murals. The Paw Sox promised to somehow retain the memory and tradition of those paintings. In their place, new removable murals were mounted on the walls, in honor of many of the same players. Often, a fan will enter the stadium by one gate, and intentionally exit through another, to view as many murals as possible.
Diaz, Ted Cox, and Mike Paxton were once traded to Cleveland by the Boston Red Sox (for Dennis Eckersley). "Players hate to leave this organization," Mondor revealed to Rappoport, "but they still write to wish everyone well." Infielder Ramon Aviles got to the Major Leagues with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1979. He appeared in the 1980 NLCS and divisional playoff series in 1981 with the Phillies. That, according to Aviles, was as big of a thrill as winning the Governors' Cup while playing for Mondor and Pawtucket in 1977.
"They've been going in and out of style, but they're guaranteed to raise a smile."
Minor League Baseball teams come and go. They move to other cities, states, and even countries. Lately they have adopted new and cutesy nicknames which appeal to the youngsters in the same manner that the World Wrestling Federation has attracted younger fans. For a a year or two, a team has "the hottest new logo in all of Minor League Baseball". But styles change. Each new logo means there's a new kid on the block, competing for the fan's dollar. So the team moves on to another city, another state, ...another cartoon character nickname and logo.
While the Pawtucket Red Sox have never gone out of style, smiles abound from the front office to the grandstands. "Ben Mondor is a fantastic owner to work for," said Tamburro in Rappoport's book. "He didn't want to hype the team the way it was in the past with assorted gimmicks that made the product seem like a carnival act. He just wants to sell baseball, be a professional. And, he's a lovely human being."
Attendance averaged 1,200 per game back in 1977, which met Mondor's hopes and expectations. During Mondor's first 6 years, attendance steadily rose, from a dismal 70,354 in '77, to 199,518 in 1982. Yet, the Paw Sox had not totally caught on with local rooters. But in 1981, two key, yet unplanned, events turned things around at McCoy, much like the 1967 Cardiac Kids at Fenway Park set off the turnstiles in Boston.
First there was "The Longest Game", a 33 inning marathon that began on the eve of Easter Sunday, April 18. The game ended in a tie at 4 A. M on the 19th, and resumed to its completion later in June. Second was the Major League player strike of 1981, causing a 50 day work stoppage. When play did resume between the Paw Sox and the Rochester Red Wings, it was more than just the only game in town. It was the only professional game in the country.
Suddenly, the Paw Sox were a known commodity.
"The strike really played a secondary role to the fact that this was the longest game in the history of professional baseball," said Mike Tamburro, then the team's general manager and now its president. "And the continuation of this longest game happened to fall in the middle of the strike in 1981, and because of that, the media attention that it created on this singular event made it THE sporting event, if not in the country, then perhaps in the world on that specific day," he said.
"So I think from that perspective, the attention that it focused on McCoy Stadium and on the Pawtucket Red Sox, for one day, catapulted this franchise from your neighborhood baseball operation to something significant in the eyes of the community." [Steven Krasner, Providence Journal Bulletin, August 14, 1994]
The strike of 1981 also provided the Paw Sox with additional exposure, as Boston's Channel 38, Ted Turner's superstation, and the Red Sox' New England Radio Network were all tuned in to the Pawtucket Red Sox.
"In 1981, it was remarkable to be on TV," said Tamburro in Krasner's Journal-Bulletin article. "It was a whole different era in minor league baseball. Something like this was really significant. And, again, what it did was it focused attention on the Paw Sox, on McCoy Stadium, and it began the evolution of the franchise, absolutely gave it credibility."
"It made us a little bigger than life, and it also exposed us to a different market for the first time," said Tamburro. "Not only did we learn a lot from it, but we had our first opportunity to basically introduce this product to New England."
At the turnstiles, the Paw Sox have created their own dynasty, as attendance has again consistently increased every year for the past 11 years. Gone are the days where the average fan could walk up to the ticket window 10 minutes before any given game time to purchase front row box seats. McCoy Stadium now seats 7,002 fans, with 390,339 diehards passing through the turnstiles in 1995. In twenty years, the souvenir stand has tripled in size, despite the traditional adoption of the parent Boston Red Sox' nickname, and the traditional red, white, and blue color scheme.
"We hope you will enjoy the show"
Fans are smiling too at the prospects of family orientated promotions, opportunities for autographs, give aways.
The Paw Sox' annual right of spring is the their Hot Stove League Party. It is usually held in February, at about the same time that the equipment van departs Fenway Park for Spring Training in Florida. By invitation only, season ticket holders and subscribers to the "Paw Sox Patter" newsletter cram the home and visitors locker rooms to meet with players and coaches, talk baseball, take pictures, and obtain autographs.
The goodwill continues to flow into the community as the Paw Sox kick off the season with a parade, and throughout the year with numerous public appearances and free baseball clinics. You won't see the famous Chicken at McCoy Stadium, or any greased pig chasing or cow milking contests in between innings. But there is a good chance you can get a Paw Sox poster, sports bottle, lunch box, or batting helmet at the turnstile sometime during the year. Compliments, of course, of the Pawtucket Red Sox and some other business in the community that now has a strong tie to the Paw Sox.
In Boston, it has been a tradition for the Red Sox to play at home on Patriots Day. In similar fashion, the Paw Sox are at home on Independence Day, where the city coincides its annual fireworks display with a Red Sox game. From the comfort of your box seat, you can watch the 4th of July festivities just beyond the centerfield wall, while players, their wives, and families sprawl out on blankets in the infield.
Regardless of won/lost records and standings, the last home game of the regular season is always a sell out at McCoy. Even if it is on a school night. At the end of the game, Pawtucket's "Boys of Summer" make one final curtain call. They show their thanks and appreciation to supporting fans by tossing souvenir baseballs to the crowd. Years ago, they tossed used game balls since used for practice. These days, it's a brand new, shiny baseball.
With each new season comes improvements to McCoy Stadium, be it on the field, at the concessions, or in the club house. The Pawtucket Red Sox have made major investments in the ballpark, with a tremendous return on investment from the fans. Today, the locker rooms are spacious and luxurious by minor league standards. Manager Buddy Bailey's private bathroom is about the size of ex-Manager Joe Morgan's office 20 years ago.
But one has to wonder when the Paw Sox' dynasty at the gate will come to an end. It is possible that the steady increase in attendance will eventually steers fans' attention to other areas. While parking at McCoy Stadium is free, there is no longer enough spaces for all of the cars. Often, the only tickets available at the gate are for General Admission seats.
The Paw Sox strive to meet ballpark standards set forth by Major League Baseball. By his own admission, "it has been a great educational process for a young guy from Worcester, Mass.," said Tamburro, who has since assumed the title of President from Mondor. City-owned McCoy Stadium was built on the swamplands of Hammond Pond in 1942. At $1.5 million, it cost more to construct than Ohio State (80,000) or Notre Dame's (59,000) facilities which were built at the same time. The land around McCoy Stadium is owned by either the City of Pawtucket, the State of Rhode Island, or the Federal Government.
When additional seating was constructed down the right field line in 1994, the only viable solution was to install bleacher type seats on a cement pad. The soft ground would not support a concrete grandstand. The Paw Sox have considered a plan to add more permanent grandstand seats in front of the existing box seats, where the front row currently sits approximately 10 feet above the playing field. But to make this addition, the outfield fences would need to be pushed back, on to federally owned land.
"We'd love to turn you on!"
The Pawtucket Red Sox continue to work with city, state, and federal governments to bring McCoy stadium up to Triple-A standards. Meanwhile, the groundwork laid out by Mondor and Tamburro 20 years ago continues with present General Manager Lou Schwechheimer. "When you're at the Triple A level, your job is to create a nice family environment for people to come and watch the prospects," remarked Lou back in February at the Hot Stove League media luncheon. "We work closely with Buddy Bailey, the coaching staff, Dan (Duquette), and everybody in Boston to make sure that we provide a good quality environment for everybody."
Schwechheimer started out as an intern in the Pawtucket organization in 1979, and has served as GM for the past 10 years. "The amount of people that have really embraced McCoy Stadium from all over New England" has been the greatest change witnessed by Schwechheimer. "The biggest change has been the fact that minor league baseball becomes to get hotter and hotter. People are excited about seeing the Minor League Prospects coming up. That has been a fun change to watch, where people didn't really know in Boston who the next prospect was. It is almost now a right of spring to come down and say 'Who's the next Mo Vaughn?; the next Roger Clemens?' There's that real hot attraction and following of what's happening at the Minor League level," remarked Schwechheimer.
No one in the organization predicted the steady rise in attendance over the past 11 years. "I think we all knew there would be a tremendous amount of success," said Schechheimer. "We've been blessed with great weather. We've been blessed with great fans. It's been one great run and we're all enjoying it.
Assuming the Paw Sox conquer the challenges of meeting ballpark standards, one could assume that Mondor, Tamburro, and company will still be in Pawtucket for another 20 years if not more. As this year's edition of Paw Sox players strive to win and make it to the Major Leagues, the Paw Sox organization is in tune to continue the winning tradition, both on and off the field.
Approximately 100 representatives of the media mingled about the locker room recently on "Press Night" at McCoy Stadium. They included newspaper, magazine, radio, and television personalities. As Mondor surveyed the crowd he remarked to no one in particular, "To think, we started out 20 years ago with just 3 people from the media here."
While there is no joy in Mudville, there are no lonely hearts in Pawtucket.
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