Even in ordinary times, the inside of a professional baseball stadium is a sight for sore eyes. These are extraordinary times, and not in a good way. So taking in a baseball game on a spring night in the spanking new stadium built by the Boston Red Sox’ Triple A affiliate in Worcester provided a lift to the fans who streamed into Polar Park to participate in the premiere season of the recently arrived Worcester Red Sox. But the team’s relocation should also provide a lift to those simply interested in how private-public partnerships executed with grit and vision can make a difference to communities that can use a boost, especially after 15 months of pandemic.
The Worcester Red Sox, or WooSox, as they are known, are the new incarnation of the Pawtucket Red Sox, which had long played in a stadium in Pawtucket, R.I., increasingly feeling the effects of Father Time. In 2018, team management, led by former Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, announced that the team would relocate to a new stadium in Worcester.
There was one catch: There was no new stadium. What there was, says WooSox General Manager Dan Rea, was a determination on the part of team owners, Worcester city officials, Worcester civic leaders and the governor of Massachusetts to make the new team in a new park a win for Worcester, New England’s second largest city. “From the start,” said Rea, “there was a willingness to work together.”
That willingness to work together has come in mighty handy, because the logistical obstacles to opening Polar Park at all, let alone in time for the opening of the 2021 Triple A season, were of D-Day dimensions. The cost of turning a parking lot into a sparkling stadium was over $150 million. Over half was provided by the city of Worcester, with the city and the commonwealth pitching in to address a limitless list of other needs. Rea and a well-tuned team of young professionals drank daily and copiously from a fire hose of challenges, ranging from design to permitting to licensing to construction. Then there was the little matter of COVID, which greatly complicated the 15 months leading up to opening day and which shut down work for seven precious weeks. Team President Charles Steinberg, whose appreciation for baseball’s impact on kids and families runs deep, conducted a series of “fan forums” designed to learn what the community wanted to see in their team and their stadium.
“We realize that a baseball team has a social mission in the community,” Rea said. “Worcester is a very diverse community in very different ways. We want our team to contribute to that diversity and reflect it.”
The team is expected to bring 750,000 visitors to Worcester annually, with an infusion of revenue for existing and new retail establishments and plans underway for two new hotels and hundreds of new housing units, as well as a burst of jobs. Still, team owners know that benefits only for the usual suspects won’t cut it. “If this ballpark benefits just a small subset of the population, we’re not living up to our obligations,” said Rea.
This is welcome news for the Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson, dean of Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Foisie Business School, who praises the team for what she terms its “significant economic impact” but who will be watching to make sure the team follows through on its laudable intentions. “I want to make sure that the benefits are spread equitably to people who are often left out,” said Dean Jackson, hoping that the team will “ensure that women and minority-owned businesses get a part” of the opportunities generated by the new team in town.
Rea and company seem energized by the chance to do good, rather than exhausted by what has had to get done to get them here. For the moment, the WooSox and their partners have furnished some good news in a time sorely in need of it.
Jeff Robbins is a Boston lawyer and former U.S. delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.