Tony Pires stooped down to pick up a circular slab of wood lying on the concrete. It was painted white, with a red “SEC 11” inscribed between two curved lines modeled after the seams on a baseball.
The sign sat in an aisle between two empty sections at a deserted McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, likely having fallen off its railing some time ago.
He added it to the one he already held under his arm. Two more, both labeled “SEC 12,” sat at the edge of the aisle.
McCoy Stadium, the former home of the Pawtucket Red Sox — the triple-A affiliate for the Boston Red Sox — was empty. Patches of dirt, illuminated by the afternoon sun, peeked through the infield grass.
The PawSox, a fixture in Pawtucket since 1970, left the town last year, after a long struggle to build a new stadium in the city’s downtown failed.
Pires, a former state representative and Pawtucket director of administration who fought to keep the PawSox in the city, was born two years after McCoy Stadium’s 1942 opening. He remembers playing baseball on the stadium field as a young boy.
Now, he was collecting some final souvenirs.
At the same moment, on the western bank of the Seekonk River, just south of Pawtucket’s downtown, three yellow excavators sat beside mounds of sediment in a mini-wasteland surrounded by green brush.
The site is part of the future home of Tidewater Landing, a development announced in December 2019 that, when finished, will include new homes, shops and a professional soccer stadium as part of a new chapter of Pawtucket’s sporting and economic history.
The stadium will be home to a team from the United Soccer League Championship, the second tier of professional men’s soccer in the United States, and will host games beginning in spring 2023 — fewer than five years after the PawSox announced their departure.
The project, developers and city officials agree, will likely provide greater economic benefits than the proposed new baseball stadium would have, while at the same time catering to a fast-growing soccer fanbase in Pawtucket and Rhode Island.
But among both city officials and residents, regret and sadness about the loss of their beloved PawSox still lingers.
“My heart was broken,” Pires said. “I think a lot of people’s hearts were broken.”
Pires was involved in a 2018 proposal to build a new $83 million stadium for the PawSox. But after the proposal ran into roadblocks in the state legislature and was renegotiated to remove controversial state bond guarantees that lowered the cost of the project, the owners of the PawSox decided they no longer wanted to build a new stadium in the city.
On Aug. 17, 2018, the owners held a press conference to announce their agreement to move to the city of Worcester, Mass. Suddenly, after nearly 50 years, the PawSox were set to leave.
The team had been a mainstay in the area. Its PawSox Foundation ran charity programs for local schools and, as Pires says, the team provided multiple generations of Rhode Island families with an affordable summer outing.
The PawSox’s expected final season in 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic, which Pawtucket Councilwoman Alexis Schuette said made the loss even tougher. “It was difficult … not getting a chance to say a proper goodbye,” she said.
Neighborhood residents recalled the sense of joy the PawSox brought to the area. “It was such a good vibe in the neighborhood,” said resident David Lithgoe. “To see families, little kids excited with their glove … it was real, real nice.”
“Everybody was happy,” said resident Diane Proulx. “Now, there’s nothing.”
A revitalizing proposal
The city of Pawtucket, whose Old Slater Mill is recognized as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, was once a thriving industrial city.
But after manufacturing left and strip malls opened outside the city, businesses failed or moved away.
Former Pawtucket City Councilor John Barry III remembers that when he was a kid, “there was not a vacant storefront” in the city’s downtown. Now, “that’s all gone,” he said.
Dawn Porter, co-owner of Stillwater Books downtown, called the area “sad and depressing.” Porter and her husband, Steven Porter, viewed the proposed PawSox stadium as a potential economic spark for the area.
Instead, the site where the stadium would have been is an empty, cracked parking lot hosting the old Apex department store, a futuristic, pyramidal building constructed in the 1960s that has been largely unused for several years.
When the PawSox stadium proposal failed, Steven Porter said he was left with “extreme disappointment.”
Pawtucket “is in a state of decline,” Porter said, citing the closure of Memorial Hospital in 2018 and the relocation of many small businesses from the downtown area.
Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien said the state government “realized they needed to do something” to revitalize the city after the PawSox left.
With the city and state governments eager to move on from the PawSox failure, the city solicited development proposals for the now-vacant McCoy Stadium site. It was during these discussions that project developers Fortuitous Partners proposed the first ideas for Tidewater Landing.
Brett Johnson, founder and partner of Fortuitous, said that the company thought Pawtucket was the perfect city for a new soccer stadium, given the large soccer market in Rhode Island, the new train station being built in the city and the chosen site standing right off I-95.
Grebien said the Fortuitous group was highly motivated and very willing to construct housing and storefronts on the perimeter of the stadium. “They understood (ancillary) development needed to happen,” he said.
After several revisions, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation Board approved a proposal in February featuring a $284 million pricetag, making it the largest development project in Pawtucket’s history.
The development will occur on a 14-acre piece of land currently covered by trees and vegetation on both banks of the Seekonk River. The centerpiece, an 11,000-seat stadium, will be on the western bank, but the project will also include a public riverwalk, a pedestrian bridge, shops, restaurants, apartments and a parking garage.
The state will provide $50 million in incentives for developers, including a $36 million loan that will be repaid with future tax revenue. The stadium itself will be entirely privately financed.
“It’s a much bigger, better project (than the new PawSox stadium),” Grebien said. “Soccer is up-and-coming … and also the development that is going to happen is probably 10 times larger than we would’ve gotten under the PawSox.”
The state estimates that the project will create 2,500 construction jobs and 1,200 permanent jobs, and Grebien said that over the next 20 years, the project is expected to bring in an additional $800 million in tax revenue.
Challenges of filling PawSox’s void
But the development has garnered its share of skepticism. Barry, the former councilman, expressed doubt about how much the ancillary development will help the city economically, though he thinks the soccer franchise itself will be successful.
Dawn and Steven Porter, the owners of Stillwater Books, also questioned whether Tidewater Landing will bring much business to the downtown area, which is on the other side of I-95 from the project’s site. And if stores are built next to the soccer stadium, they reason, people will have no motivation to walk downtown.
But Johnson sees it differently. The project “will lift the collective boats in the broader region,” he said.
In addition to proving its potential economic impact, the project will also have to show whether it can fill the PawSox-sized hole in the social fabric of the city.
Many involved believe the soccer team can be just as popular as the PawSox were, if not more so. City officials and project leaders cite the decline in popularity of baseball that has coincided with soccer’s rise in the United States.
And as Daniel Silva, boys’ soccer coach for Pawtucket’s Tolman High School, said, the city hosts large immigrant communities from Portugal, Cape Verde and Latin American countries, where soccer is popular.
But Silva doesn’t know if the city’s interest in the sport will translate to significant support and attendance for the USL team.
The team will need to actively make connections with the community and also make tickets affordable, Silva said. And whether the team can replace the intimate relationship the city had with the PawSox is a different question.
“A lot of the PawSox fans were so loyal … It will be tough to live up to that,” he said.
Most residents who spoke to The Herald agreed. Hubert Severe, who lives in the neighborhood around McCoy Stadium, said the new soccer team “will be something new, but it cannot replace what was there.”
“We’re losing part of our history, part of our being,” Grebien said. “So I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to replace that.”
Stadium stands idle
While the Tidewater Landing project begins to move ahead — the plan was approved by the Pawtucket City Planning Commission July 20 — McCoy Stadium remains idle.
Its future is uncertain, with Grebien previously telling WPRI that the city is exploring the possibility of bringing in another baseball team or turning the stadium into a public safety complex.
Pires believes it will likely be torn down, speculating that it could be the site for a new high school building or even a new city hall.
But in the meantime, McCoy Stadium lingers as a reminder of his and the city’s loss: slowly deteriorating, but for the moment largely the same as when baseball fans used to fill its seats. Pictures of Red Sox legends in PawSox uniforms still adorn the walkways. A giant box score 33 innings long survives on a concourse wall in dedication to the longest game in baseball history, played at McCoy Stadium in 1981. Advertisements remain the chief decorations of the outfield fence — although one appears to have fallen from the scoreboard.
Outside, a banner that used to advertise firework shows after Saturday night games hangs over the stadium’s main entrance, tattered and swept to one side. Clinging awkwardly to the metal beams, it seems a fitting symbol of a community in transition, a Pawtucket unsure of whether to hold fast to the memory of its beloved PawSox, or to let go and move on.