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Is NY-Penn League a Fit For McCoy Stadium?

McCoy Stadium

A recent report floated a New York-Penn League team as a possible future tenant for Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium, but the ballpark’s status beyond 2020 is far from certain. 

Last month, the owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox (Class AAA; International League) announced that they had agreed to a letter of intent with Worcester, MA officials for a new Kelly Square ballpark. The six-acre ballpark, tentatively named Polar Park, would open for the 2021 season and serve as the centerpiece of an 18-acre, 650,000-square foot mixed-use development.

That proposal is not at all final, but it continues to make progress toward approval from the Worcester City Council. The possibility of the PawSox moving has prompted plenty of speculation over McCoy Stadium’s future, and whether it can remain a viable baseball facility or is more likely to be demolished.

McCoy Stadium was linked to the Short Season-A New York-Penn League earlier this week. In an article for the Lowell Sun on Tuesday, Chaz Scoggins reported that the PawSox’s owners have made an effort to purchase the Batavia Muckdogs, with the intention of moving the team to McCoy Stadium after the departure of Triple-A baseball. The story also suggested that Pawtucket’s New York-Penn League club would become a Boston Red Sox affiliate which–combined with the presence of a Triple-A team in Worcester–would spell serious troubles for the NY-Penn League’s Lowell Spinners:

I have it on good authority that [PawSox chairman Larry] Lucchino has already made overtures on behalf of Fenway Sports Management to purchase the bankrupt Batavia, N.Y., franchise. Batavia is presently being operated by the New York-Penn League, which for obvious reasons would like to unload this financial albatross. Batavia is affiliated with the Miami Marlins, also through 2020. When that affiliation expires, Lucchino plans to move the Batavia franchise to Pawtucket in hopes of mollifying fans there and affiliate it with the Red Sox, leaving the Spinners dangling for a new major-league partner.

Under the terms of MLB’s Player Development Contract with the minor leagues, cities that lose their affiliations are guaranteed new ones. Club owners cannot be forced to fold their tents or move unless they choose to do so and surrender their territorial rights.

Pawtucket fans long accustomed to watching Triple-A prospects may not be thrilled about watching young players five rungs below the major-league level for a season half as long as their beloved PawSox played — but at least their team will still be connected with the Red Sox. In the game of minor-league musical chairs, the Spinners will be stuck with whatever MLB organization is left looking for a short-season alliance.

New Englanders are a provincial lot, Lowell is in the heart of Red Sox country, and the hearts of Spinners fans are with the Red Sox. An affiliation with any organization besides the Red Sox is going to make the Spinners an awfully hard sell. I can foresee Spinners owner Dave Heller bravely and gamely giving it a go for another two years after 2020. I would love to be proven wrong, but after that I fear attendance will have dwindled to the point Heller will feel he has no choice but to move the Spinners elsewhere.

This may be a little alarmist, and we’ve heard some of this information is already out of date. Over the winter, the New York-Penn League assumed the operations of the Muckdogs, effectively ending an arrangement that saw the Rochester Red Wings (Class AAA; International League) handle operations in exchange for proceeds from a sale. The league continues to run the club’s operations for now, though that is expected to be a short-term venture and it is believed that the franchise will likely be moved elsewhere under new ownership at some point in the future.

However, a move to McCoy Stadium is not at all certain. The PawSox ownership says that it does not plan to acquire another franchise and is placing its energy toward completing the agreement for a new Worcester ballpark. City and state officials, meanwhile, still have to map out the future of McCoy Stadium, and whether that includes baseball or if the ballpark’s high maintenance costs make demolition and redevelopment of the site more feasible. More from the Providence Journal:

A PawSox spokesperson said Thursday the organization has no current plans to acquire any other baseball franchises and move them to the city as a sort of parting gift. Franchise chairman Larry Lucchino and president Charles Steinberg are focused on building a 10,000-seat stadium in Worcester’s Canal District and redeveloping the surrounding area. The PawSox are expected to serve out the remaining two years of their lease in Pawtucket before moving prior to the 2021 Triple-A season.

A spokesperson for Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien’s office said no ownership groups have contacted the city to replace the PawSox in the stadium beginning that season. The city is working in cooperation with the state to determine the best use for the stadium and the surrounding area going forward. Pawtucket also remains committed to attempting to purchase the Apex site previously targeted by Lucchino, Steinberg and their ownership group for a new stadium.

Any team hoping to call McCoy home in the future would face significant renovation costs. The cracking concrete and widespread leaking ceilings and floors are among the issues faced by any tenants, as the stadium wrapped up its 77th season of baseball earlier this week. Renovation costs would run into the millions of dollars, and the day-to-day costs of maintaining the playing surface and surrounding grounds run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The future of McCoy Stadium is likely to be the subject of debate. While the departure of the PawSox leaves Rhode Island without professional baseball, it is uncertain whether the ballpark could attract a team to fill that void given its aging condition, which could make a non-baseball option for the site more appealing. And, if you were starting from scratch to put pro baseball in Rhode Island, you’d probably be talking new ballpark with Providence and not seeking to throw some band-aids at McCoy Stadium.

The PawSox had been working on a new-ballpark plan in Pawtucket for several years, and this year saw the Rhode Island General Assembly pass a plan calling on the PawSox to make a $45 million contribution to a new downtown Pawtucket ballpark, with the state paying $26 million and the city allocating $18 million. In addition, the team would pay $12 million after approval of the plan. However, the legislation approved by Rhode Island officials left open several uncertainties, as it withdrew state backing of the bonds and instead put it on the back of bondholders, which was likely to result in higher borrowing rates.

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