Traditionally, the period between the end of the World Series and the start of Spring training is referred to by old time baseball people as The Hot Stove League. It’s that time of year when fans, players and management all like to sit around a warm fire to ward off winter’s chill and commiserate about what went wrong last season and what the home town team should do to guarantee success in the season to come.
Every year in January, the Pawtucket Red Sox host a Hot Stove Day. They throw open the offices, locker rooms and training facilities beneath McCoy Stadium to the public, hand out free hot dogs and soda and let the fans meet members of the team in person.
In the hallways below the stadium, the walls are festooned with hundreds of photos, news stories, score cards, signed baseballs and other memorabilia about the PawSox franchise. There is the box score for the longest baseball game ever played, which happened at McCoy in 1981. I was there for that game, at least the first 17 innings. And an original score card from the epic Mark Fydrich/Dave Righetti pitching duel in 1982 when an overflow crowd roared with delight as Fydrich bested Righetti for the win. I was there for that one too. Some of the biggest names in baseball history have appeared at McCoy on their way to the big leagues. A special section is dedicated to photos of those players.
Don Henley calls baseball players “the boys of summer” because they play their games during the warm weather months. With rules that have changed little since the 1880’s, baseball has become America’s most iconic sport. During World War II, American sentries would ask “Who won the “39 World Series?” Anyone who didn’t know the correct answer was presumed to be a Nazi spy.
Baseball is Mom, hot dogs and apple pie all rolled into one. As each season ends, it is always followed by a new one, filled with hope and promise. According to John Fogarty, when baseball returns to the cities and towns of America, “We’re born again. There’s new grass on the field.”
The 2014 season began this week with Truck Day at Fenway Park. That’s when a tractor trailer loaded with uniforms, bats, gloves, hats and other assorted baseball paraphernalia leaves Boston on its way to the Red Sox spring training facility in Ft. Myers, Florida. Pitchers and catchers report this Saturday. Those of us left behind look at the frozen landscape outside our windows and dream of when the “boys of summer” return to Beantown. Then we will know for certain that warm weather is on its way.
As much as we here in New England adore our Red Sox, going to a game at Fenway can be expensive and difficult. Parking? What parking? And getting home through traffic after the game can take hours. A family of four should plan on spending upwards of $500 for the privilege of watching a Red Sox home game.
Yet just an hour down the road, fans can park free within a block or two of McCoy Stadium and enjoy real baseball for as little as $8.00. The concessions even offer real Fenway Franks and bags of salted in the shell peanuts. Being allowed to throw your peanut shells on the ground without your mother yelling at you is one of life’s great pleasures!
McCoy Stadium has a history of its own. It is built on what was once a landfill owned by local businessman, James McCoy. When McCoy became mayor of Pawtucket, he donated the land to the city for an athletic facility, thereby absolving himself of any financial liability for cleaning up the mess he created. For generations, tickets cost only a few dollars, but the stands were seldom more than half full. During the years when Tom Yawkey owned the Red Sox, little attention was paid to the team in Pawtucket. The stadium became a dingy, dirty hulk. There was even talk of tearing it down and moving the team to another city.
In 1977, a fellow by the name of Ben Mondor bought the team. He cleaned up the stadium, fixed the broken windows and painted the old park from top to bottom. Then he started programs to attract local youngsters and the kids brought their parents along with them. Mondor convinced the management of the parent Boston Red Sox to invest in the Pawtucket team, which brought better players to McCoy. After a decade of hard work and creative sterwardship, Mondor turned the PawSox into one of the most successful minor league teams in baseball. Home games are now sold out weeks in advance, even though ticket prices have jumped to $8.00!
Baseball is more intimate at McCoy. The stands are built close to the field with the dugouts and clubhouses underneath. Local kids bring a plastic pail with them to the park. Before the game starts, they put a program or baseball or hat into the pail and lower it on a string to the dugout below, hoping to get an autograph.
There is something poignant about all those faces and all those stories we see arrayed along the corridors at McCoy Stadium on Hot Stove Day. In a world where change seems to happen hourly, baseball is a constant in our lives, a talisman that connects us to our past and gives us hope for the future.
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