A few things you need to know before we begin:
- From the ages of 9-12, after my family had been relocated from Connecticut to Rhode Island, I was harassed, attacked, and bullied on a daily basis and it left scars that continue to impact how I value myself as a human being to this day.
- The Pawtucket Red Sox were one of the few things that brought joy into my life in those formative years and it makes me devastatingly sad to see them moving to Worcester, MA.
- That broken shell of a child that still lives inside me in the deep and dark recesses of my being, is just a little sadder today knowing that the PawSox will not be there tomorrow for generations of kids who are now like I was then.
To this day, like most people, I don’t remember exactly what I was learning during those years in school (or supposed to be learning when I wasn’t doing my own personal duck and cover drill). I am not taking shots at school – education throughout the entire continuum is very important and foundational skills that develop through content remain even when that specific content may fade. But, realistically, what we all remember most about the formative adolescent years is how we felt at various times and in various circumstances. We remember if we felt safe. We remember if we felt afraid. We remember if we felt loved and cared for and we remember if we felt abandoned. Or isolated. Or under constant attack.
I remember playing Super Nintendo with my one neighborhood friend – no, not ONE OF my neighborhood friends – late into the night on weekends, and how awesome that was. I remember going with him to see movies when it was only $5 for us to get in and absolutely loving it. I remember not getting invited to birthday parties and how lonely that was. I remember feeling like school was something I needed to survive on a daily basis and that nobody, not a single person including the adults, cared about me there, or had my back in any way. I remember feeling afraid in school all the time. Every day. All day. I remember being excluded from lunch tables and beaten up in the corners of the playgrounds and fields where nobody was watching.
I also remember throwing a baseball against a retaining wall in my driveway for hours and only going inside when it was dark, not because I was tired of it. I remember swinging the wooden bat I had gotten along the way and trying to learn to be a switch hitter. I remember throwing the ball around with my dad in the backyard for as long as he could stand it and how baseball and everything about it felt like a warm blanket on a cold night; a safe harbor in a never-ending storm that had become my daily existence.
One of the places I was happiest was at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket. Going to games there was the highlight of my time in Rhode Island. The stadium felt like a Big-League Park to my Little League sensibilities, but also cozy and comfortable. The dugouts were tall, not really dugouts at all, so the first rows of seats were something like 10 ft. off the ground. Every kid that went to a game there came with two things: a glove, and a bucket with a string. The glove was obviously for catching foul balls, but the bucket was for catching something even more desirable: autographs. We couldn’t just crowd around the dugout and reach out our hands with a ball. No, sir. We had to lower a bucket, made to hold sand and water at the beach but now retrofitted as an autograph catcher, equipped with a piece of twine tied to the white plastic handle. We’d send them down to the players milling about below. They would line up and, one by one, pluck the baseballs from the buckets, sign them, and put them back in. It was like a strange hybrid of fishing and autograph hounding and it was, in a word, awesome. I have since lost them all, which is a sad commentary on how easy it is to lose things and an important affirmation of how important it is to have memories that you can hold onto when the stuff is gone, but those baseballs with black Sharpie signatures were some of my most prized possessions. I bought baseball display cases and had them all around my room like little shrines to my heroes: baseball players.
I remember being at a game where tempers were flaring between the two teams on the field. I didn’t really understand the dynamics of all that yet and was a bit confused as to what was brewing. What I did know was that the PawSox were losing and I was frustrated, because I hated to see my boys lose. On this particular night, there were a couple of young guys in front of my family, and they weren’t my parents so they were the coolest people there as far as I was concerned. At one point a pitch came in a little too close for comfort and a Sox player glared at the pitcher. There was some jawing. A tense moment, but cooler heads prevailed. One of these two hip dudes yelled out, “Hey! If you can’t beat ‘em, beat ‘em up!” and I thought that was just wonderful. I smiled, turned, and, as loudly as my little lungs could muster, parroted what they had said word for word: “Yeah! If you can’t beat ‘em, beat ‘em up!”. I thought I was dope. My mom, on the other hand, did not. She yelled at me. The super cool dudes apologized. I was embarrassed. It’s okay, bros who are now probably in their 60s, thanks for the lifelong memory.
We left that game early and, as we walked in the parking lot toward our car for the ride home, the stadium erupted and I thought, “Oh man, I missed runs.” What I had actually missed was a brawl. I haven’t come close to seeing one again and while I don’t condone violence, I really wish we had stayed for just ten more minutes that day. I also remember always going to the 4th of July game because there were fireworks after it ended. What a day for a kid: a full baseball game AND fireworks? In the summer when there was no school? Those were the days.
You see, minor league baseball is a too often unsung hero of the game, a champion of access and affordability, and a creator of memories. MLB has taken aim at these organizations and shaken things up. I suspect more is to come in the future and what really stinks about that is the lost opportunities for kids to love baseball. Games already start at kids’ bedtimes and forget about them ever being able to watch anything during the playoffs. How is the next generation supposed to connect with and love the game the way that I do? It is less and less likely to be because of the Double-A affiliate down the road and that breaks my heart. For real.
I know and understand there is a business side to baseball that drives these decisions and I’m not making the case that they are poor financial choices. But I am suggesting that they are, at the very least, shortsighted in terms of what minor league baseball can mean to people in ways that are rarely (if ever) articulated, but run deep. When I was 10 and hated myself and hated getting up in the morning and had fits of rage at home because it was the only place I shed my anger and fear from the day I had barely survived, minor league baseball gave me hope and excitement and something to look forward to. It may sound dramatic, but I assure you this is not hyperbole; the Pawtucket Red Sox were a lifeline for me and I will be forever grateful for that. And so, as the system is turned upside down, cities are left without ball clubs, and their shared histories fade away, here is an open letter to the franchise that meant so much to me when I needed it so badly.
Dear Pawtucket Red Sox,
You probably don’t remember me. More than likely, you never knew me in the first place, but when I was 9, my family moved to Warwick, Rhode Island, chasing my father’s job that had relocated his position from New Haven, CT to Providence, RI, 103 miles away in the opposite direction. For more than a year prior, because he wanted to do right by his family, my dad traded in his 32-minute, 44-mile round-trip commute for a 90 minute, 88-mile trip one-way haul each day rather than immediately re-locate us closer to the new location or be apart from us during the week. Connecticut was our home and the place we had family and friends and connections and lives.
Rhode Island, to my 8-year-old mind, might as well have been Mars and turned out to be Hell. None of us wanted to go, but it got to the point where he had fought the inevitability for as long as he could, but the long drives and longer days simply were not sustainable and the time had come. The decision was made to move during the upcoming summer of 1989. I was not cool with it, but there was nothing to be done about that. I didn’t yell or scream or throw tantrums, but I stopped doing well in school and withdrew. My parents racked their brains to think of a way to get me excited about this life-altering change and settled on my first love: baseball.
What I didn’t know and they did was that the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox, your beautiful organization, would be a very short drive from our new home. I didn’t understand minor leagues at the time and they kept trying to explain it to me and I didn’t get it. They kept saying, “There’s a field where players who will play for Boston go and play baseball.” And I would reply, “Oh, well maybe I can play my games there with my new teams.” And they would say, “No. They are players who will play for the Red Sox but don’t yet.” And I would say, “Cool. I hope I play there after we move.” I’m much less dense about things now than I was then… usually. They were trying so hard to psych me up, but how can you get a kid excited about a move closer to a thing he doesn’t understand? So rather than continue to try and tell me, they decided to show me.
One Friday, after school, my mother put my sister and me in the car and we drove up I-95 to meet my dad. The drive took what felt like 6 hours, and was only a portion of what my dad had been doing, back and forth, every day for the better part of a year. We finally arrived at a halfway point and off we went, a father and his son, to your home: McCoy Stadium.
I don’t remember which players played in the game that night. I don’t remember what team you were even playing against. I don’t remember if my dad and I stayed for the whole thing, though I would make a significant financial bet that we didn’t because he had left the house before 6:00 that morning and we still had the hour-and-a-half trek home. But here’s what I do remember: The smell of the ballpark. The sounds of the game, live and in front of me. I remember the excitement of each pitch, every hit, and every run. I remember having my glove and anxiously hoping for a foul ball to pop my way. I remember the french fries and I remember the soda that came in a collector’s cup with the line score of the longest game played in baseball history, a 33 inning affair, circling the top. I remember not wanting it to ever end, and I remember longing to return after it was over. My dad told me he was buying season tickets for the next year and I was finally excited about moving to Rhode Island.
By the time we reached Warwick, I had really grown into my awkwardness, but I was oblivious to it and hopeful that things would work out. They did not. School became my personal Hell. At first, it was small stuff: name-calling and not letting me sit where I wanted at lunch. Then it got worse and worse, year after year until the bullying was so intense and so physical that it only stopped when the police intervened. Then it shifted to isolation and exclusion.
This one day, in fifth grade, we had come back from our art special where we had done these paintings on oaktag, a posterboard-like material. In those days, teachers would leave the room for bits of time. I have no idea where they went, but I knew when it happened, I was in for it. A kid, clearly feeling in need of entertainment, rolled up his masterpiece and smacked me upside my head with it. Intrigued by this new development, it turned into a game with kids taking turns whacking me with their art as if I were a piñata filled with the delicious reward of humiliation and self-loathing. I will tell you this: it hurt… a lot.
Somehow the grade-school paint must have chemically bonded with the oaktag to form some kind of NASA-developed Kevlar because manilla folders should not cause that much pain. At first, tears formed in my eyes. But then I was filled with an instantaneous rage that years of being the punching bag and butt of every joke had built up inside of me. I stood up, took a textbook from the desk, and went after somebody intent on causing significant bodily harm. It was probably a Tuesday. Or a Thursday. It really could have been any day because every day it was something. I hated them. I hated school. Most of all, I hated myself.
That weekend the family went to McCoy Stadium and, for 3-4 hours, all was right with the world. I fit in there. I belonged there. I felt comfortable there and I could be myself there. Nobody was going to tackle me at recess, or take my pencil away and throw it across the room. I was physically safe. I was mentally safe. I was emotionally safe. I got to eat french fries and drink from the 33-inning up and watch a ballgame.
Here’s the thing about all of this: I cannot imagine what would have happened to me if I didn’t have these games. We were not rich and I am shocked that we even had these season-tickets. I know there was an option to take the tickets as vouchers rather than actual tickets and to be able to turn them in for more seats at certain games, and no seats at certain games. That probably is what made it work; we could turn two season tickets into 4 seats for the family without having to pay double.
And this is where the worlds collide. Minor league baseball is so much more accessible to families in terms of location and cost than Major League Baseball. For me, at that age, I was just as into watching Phil Plantier and Scott Cooper and Tim Naehring and Mo Vaughn and Micky Peña and Rick Lancelotti…
With all apologies to people who live there now and have normal, fine lives, many of whom worked behind the scenes to make the organization and team possible, the four years I spent in Rhode Island were the absolute worst, and I’ll never quite be able to forgive the entire place for it. It’s not fair to you, Ocean State, and I wish I could be sorry for that. But I’m not. Maybe one day. Newport is pretty great, so I’ll give you that at least.
I really hope that Worcester knows and understands the legacy which it inherits and the ghosts of the past that it helped to keep at bay for kids like me.
Thank you. You will be missed.
Photo: “Mookie Batts” by Eric Kilby | Design by Quincey Dong (@threerundong on Twitter)