Woo fans bid Sox hello

May 12th, 2021

WORCESTER, Mass. -- I bowled candlepin once a week in high school and averaged in the 80s because an alley game with a smaller ball and narrower pins is hard. Growing up, my Dad and I (and sometimes my sister) would have breakfast every Sunday at Friendly’s. I drop the occasional “wicked” instead of “very.” I lived off Exit 8 on the Pike until they recently changed the exit numbers to match up with mile markers. I’ll still call it Exit 8 for the rest of my days, I think.

My Dunkin’ order is medium regular when I’m home. Medium, milk and sugar everywhere else. I’m like Leo’s character in The Departed in that way.

Most importantly, for the purposes of today’s gathering -- the first game played by Triple-A Worcester in the history of the newly opened Polar Park -- my sister was born in Worcester. (I’m a Springfield baby.) She graduated from Worcester State College in the spring of 2014. She met my brother-in-law there. She works now at UMass Memorial Medical Center at the Memorial Campus, right off 290. That same hospital is where my nephew and niece were born. Worcester is also where we shuffled back and forth to for much of December during a family emergency -- one with a blessedly happy ending.

Worcester has long been my family’s backyard. Now, it’s a backyard with freshly cut grass, a jewel of a diamond in the center and a big wall in right.

I’ve covered Minor League Baseball since 2012. In that time, teams have been added in far-flung places like Amarillo, Biloxi, Columbia, Fayetteville, Fredericksburg, Pensacola and Wichita to name but a few. Nearby, a new team took hold in Hartford -- where my Mom lived for some time as a kid -- but this is different. Minor League Baseball has arrived at my home.

And this is Opening Day.


Worcester is a city of many nicknames. Wormtown. City of Seven Hills. The Woo. Or as it would most like to be known, the Heart of the Commonwealth. Worcester is 55 miles from Boston Harbor and 97 miles from the border in West Stockbridge. This isn’t Jersey, where there’s a debate. There is a Central Massachusetts -- the land beyond 495, you might say -- and Worcester is the center of that center.

The most clogged artery? Well, that’s Kelley Square, located just down Madison Street from Polar Park. Before a recent redesign, Kelley Square wasn’t at all a square. More like a spot where eight (yes, eight) streets intersected with a small island in the center to make the driving extra interesting. If you’re picturing a lot of Bay State drivers closing their eyes and gunning it, you’re not far off. The Kelley Square redesign looks more like a peanut -- a bigger island that lowers the risk of cutting your fellow human off, and instead channels everyone into more of a flow. Things are changing. Kelley Square is noticeably survivable.

Polar Park’s main entrance itself is right there on Madison Street, and it makes no mistake about making visitors know this is a Red Sox affiliate. Giant rings from the Major League club’s World Series wins line the way to the front gate -- an on-the-nose reminder of the standard set by the organization and the expectation of the fans in the region.

The fans on this day are still awestruck by the concept of Opening Day. They wear the typical Pedroia and Ortiz jerseys, but they also have new ones with Worcester 6 on the back, in honor of the firefighters that died in The Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire of December 1999. They wear Wepa jerseys in celebration of the club’s new Copa identity. They wear shirts with smiley faces on them to acknowledge the alleged birthplace of that symbol. A sampling of what’s overheard from those entering the confines around noon, three hours before scheduled first pitch.

“So exciting, huh?”

“This is Triple-A baseball, and I walked here.”

But what sticks with me most are those that make this feel like the new town square.

“Good to see you.”

“Hey, how’ve you been?”

Worcester has a population of roughly 185,000 -- making it New England’s second-biggest city. Only 2,377 have been allowed in for Opening Day due to Massachusetts’ COVID-19 restrictions, but to walk around early on and take in the masked masses pointing, bumping fists and elbows is to feel like Worcester is also New England’s biggest small town.

That feeling extends to the opening ceremonies as designed by former Red Sox executive and current WooSox president Dr. Charles Steinberg.

A welcome ribbon was draped in the outfield, extending from left all the way to right. With the “Field of Dreams” theme playing over the loudspeakers, the city’s seal -- a heart surrounded by laurels -- was unfurled over the batter’s eye in center. Twenty-five seconds later, another banner dropped over the Worcester Wall in right. “Welcome to Worcester,” it read. Almost like it was carrying a message for baseball itself. The fans knew where they were. They had been waiting for this since 1925, the last time the Worcester Panthers (a Boston Braves farm club) played as an affiliated team in this city. The manager on that club: Casey Stengel.

More recent New England legends gathered on the field before first pitch. James Taylor -- writer of the line “From Stockbridge to Boston” -- sang the national anthem, guitar in tow, with his son Henry. Jim Lonborg (1967 AL Cy Young winner) seemed to genuinely surprise Gov. Charlie Baker on the mound. Luis Tiant, he of the wiggly delivery and cult status in Boston, was announced to cheers as was Hall of Famer Jim Rice. The biggest cheers came from fellow Cooperstowner Pedro Martinez, whose last season in Boston was the famed 2004 campaign.

Celtics legend Bob Cousy grabbed the mic for what was meant to be two words but became a lot more.

“I’ve never seen an event electrify a city the way this event has,” the former Holy Cross star said. “Play ball.”

First inning

That first delivery came at 3:09 p.m. from WooSox right-handed starter Raynel Espinal. Right down the middle, 92 mph, strike one.

I immediately think back to a conversation I had on Monday with hitting coach Rich Gedman. Gedman grew up in Worcester, went to the same high school as Denis Leary (saw him in a play he can’t remember), signed with the Red Sox as a prep player, was the 1981 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up as Carlton Fisk’s replacement and was the catcher on the 1986 team that came so close to a World Series title. After a few years spent as an indy ball manager and the hitting coach at Pawtucket, Gedman’s circle back to affiliated ball in his hometown has been a large one, but upon that first pitch, it’s officially been completed.

“I'm proud of the fact that I grew up in the city of Worcester and that they're able to do something like this,” he said Monday. “That first pitch will probably bring a little melancholy. It's probably not going to be given its justice, because of the smallness of the crowd. But I'm sure the people that are there to get to see this are going to be really happy and enjoy a wonderful opening ceremony. Then, it's business as usual.”

Right, business as usual. This is about a game. The seventh of the young 2021 season for both Worcester (2-4) and Syracuse (1-5), and it opens with some fireworks. Mets leadoff hitter Johneshwy Fargas lined a 1-2 pitch to left. Marcus Wilson chased down the ball at the track and fired it in toward shortstop Jeter Downs, who completed the 7-6-5 relay with a perfect throw to third to nail an overexuberant Fargas going for the triple. The Mets got two runs in the inning on four more singles off Espinal, but the early excitement was not subdued.

Second inning

As John Updike wrote, “It was in the books while it was still in the sky.”

Marcus Wilson gave the WooSox their first hit and run in the history of Polar Park, taking an 0-2, 88 mph pitch from Syracuse starter Jesus Reyes the opposite way and into the second row of the Worcester Wall -- a 22-feet blue cousin of Boston’s Green Monster with similar seating on top.

“At the alternate site, there have been some home runs there that you think are actually majestic,” Gedman said. “The way they travel out of there with this big right-field wall and just look like they disappeared into the day or night, it can be great to watch.”

This would prove to be prophetic.

Third inning

As the game settled in, it was a time to take in the actual sights of Polar Park in Worcester’s Canal District.

The Worcester Wall, of course, loomed large and was reminiscent of something similar in Hartford’s Dunkin’ Donuts Park. While there has been a movement to make copies of Fenway Park in places like Portland, Greenville and Fort Myers with green replicas of the Monster, it was a bit of a comfort to see Polar Park take on its own flavor with blue coloring and placement in right, instead of left. Worcester can be in Boston’s shadow in almost every other way. It can have its own color and spot on the field in this case.

Other standouts are the twin spires of Union Station poking through the skyline in left-center and the actual railroad line still in use that runs near parallel near to the left-field wall. It’s reminiscent of the Ted Williams tall tale about hitting a ball in San Diego that landed in Los Angeles. It got there by rail. Maybe Hartford or Springfield can be goals for future Triple-A East right-handed sluggers.

Bottom line: this feels like a piece of the Canal District, not lording over it. It’s no surprise this came as the result of the work of Worcester chairman Larry Lucchino and architect Janet Marie Smith, who worked together on Baltimore’s Camden Yards -- the blueprint for all modern ballparks. Perhaps Madison really is the new Eutaw.

Fourth inning

Neither Espinal nor Reyes is perfect through three innings, but it’s always something I remember to check at this point of any ballgame. On Aug. 10, 2003, I thought it was a good sign Bronson Arroyo, pitching for Pawtucket, had made it through the Buffalo lineup once without allowing a runner. He would eventually complete the fourth perfect game in the history of the International League. That memory is why anything is possible anytime you’re at the ballpark.

A few quick words about Pawtucket and, specifically, McCoy Stadium.

If Fenway Park is a cathedral, McCoy was the local church. It wasn’t awe-inspiring. It didn’t leave you frozen in your tracks upon first sight. But it felt closer to home, a place to reconnect with the game we all love in the first place. It’s where I had a middle school birthday party. It’s where we actually got on a videoboard for the first time. It’s where I saw Bronson Arroyo throw a perfect game and John Smoltz rehab during his brief Red Sox tenure. McCoy was famous for many things -- a 33-inning game between Pawtucket and Rochester in April 1981 chief among them -- but it might be remembered best for its raised bowl wrapped around the infield. Dugouts were at actual ground level with fans seated above, leading kids of all ages to drop buckets of balls, mini-bats and other pieces of memorabilia attached with string, fishing line or whatever they had handy down to players below. While autograph seeking is widespread, this method felt unique to McCoy.

And if there’s anything New England loves, it’s claiming something as unique to itself.

It’s enough to make you wonder what Polar Park will lay claim to in the weeks, months and years ahead. Is it the Worcester Wall? Is it the placement in the city? What will reveal itself about this place in the same way McCoy did in its 50 years?

Fifth inning through seventh inning

The other question on everyone’s lips -- how will Polar Park play?

As Gedman alluded to, the Red Sox held their alternate training site workouts, sim games and scrimmages in Worcester, giving the stadium an unofficial opening that hopefully won’t be seen again beyond 2021. But even a month’s worth of those are too small a sample. Tuesday’s Opening Day provided yet another data point -- an offensive one.

Polar Park measures in at 330 feet down the left-field line and 320 to right. Center extends out to 403. There is no Fenway triangle here; instead there are acres of space in left- and right-center at around 399. However, on Tuesday, the wind gusted from left to right, allowing batters to take advantage of the short porch.

Never was that more evident than in innings five through seven. With two outs in the fifth, No. 97 overall prospect Jarren Duran golfed a down-and-in slider from Reyes that went two rows deeper among the Wall seats than Wilson’s initial shot to tie the game, 3-3.

An inning later, Syracuse designated hitter Deivy Grullón -- a right-handed hitter unlike Duran -- went way out to right-center for a shot that Trackman measured at 475 feet, the longest of the day.

In the seventh, WooSox first baseman Josh Ockimey got in on the homer parade with his own 445-foot blast to right-center off Mets left-hander Stephen Tarpley. Three pitches later, Duran connected on a solo shot in almost the same spot as his first homer. It’s his first career multi-homer game. That’s notable considering the Red Sox No. 3 prospect made developing pop a priority at last year’s alternate training site.

Duran’s long ball is the sixth of the day between the two sides -- four for Worcester, two for Syracuse.

“We never witnessed the wind blowing out to right-center at the alternate site like it was today,” said Worcester manager Billy McMillon. “I'm hoping that was an anomaly, but a lot of those home runs were well-struck and probably would have been home runs anywhere. The more we play here, we'll get a better sense of how the field actually plays.”

At least for one day, Polar Park played like an extreme hitter’s park. We’ll see which way the wind blows Wednesday and beyond.

Eighth and ninth inning

From a baseball perspective, the final two frames kept the new local faithful on the edge of their seats. Recently cut by the Cubs and making his Red Sox return, Brandon Workman escaped a bases-loaded jam with one out in the eighth with only one earned run allowed, though he needed 29 pitches (only 13 of which were strikes) to get through his only frame. The WooSox got two insurance runs in the bottom of the frame to make it 8-5, and reliever Kaleb Ort kept it that way by facing the minimum in the ninth to earn the first save in Polar Park history.

But I’d be lying if I said that’s where my attention was entirely in the final few pitches and hacks.

McMillon said in his postgame press conference that the crowd felt a lot bigger than the allotted 25 percent capacity, and in some ways, I suppose that was true. But in these days when we’re still not at 100 percent capacity in most ballparks across the country, it was almost impossible to think about who wasn’t there either.

I thought about my parents, how they were the ones who always said yes to bringing me around New England for ballgames but couldn’t this time due to the COVID-19 restrictions and other health-related issues. What Bay State comforts await them when they are able to see a game here?

I thought about my sister and her kids. My nearly-four-year-old nephew already owns a WooSox shirt and hat, ready to root for what will become his local nine. What memories will he have of Polar Park? What level of inspiration will he get from a majestic Duran blast into the Worcester night?

I thought of friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, anyone I’ve crossed paths with who would have loved to be a little closer to Minor League Baseball in the past. I think of those in Amarillo and Biloxi who understand that feeling and smile at what's ahead for those in Central and Western Mass.

Worcester 8, Syracuse 5. "The Woo" by Pop Smoke blared over the speakers. Two-thousand-plus headed back out the gates, ready to crowd the peanut of Kelley Square with smiles on their faces and their shirts.

For the first time since September 2019, affiliated baseball is back in southern New England. For the first time since 1925, affiliated baseball is back in the Heart of the Commonwealth. Baseball is back in the backyard. Baseball is back.

Wicked cool.