Sea Dogs right-hander Teddy Stankiewicz pitches against the Altoona Curve at Hadlock Field on Friday. (Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald)
There is movement afoot in New England, as the seemingly entrenched Pawtucket Red Sox announced that they are moving to Worcester, Massachusetts.
Might this affect the Sea Dogs and their popular affiliation with the Boston Red Sox?
Not likely … but it is worth looking at.
Pawtucket has been home to Boston’s Triple-A team since 1973. An ownership group headed by former Red Sox president Larry Lucchino bought the team in 2015. He lavished praise on everything in Rhode Island, except ancient McCoy Stadium, opened in 1942. Lucchino wanted a new stadium and pitched a plan for a site in Providence.
It fell through, as did efforts to get financing for other sites in Pawtucket. Lucchino became willing to listen to out-of-state offers, and Worcester pounced.
In a press conference Friday, the team announced plans for a $90-million, 10,000-seat stadium (almost half of it funded by the ownership group). Lucchino is bringing aboard renowned Janet Marie Smith (Camden Yards, Fenway Park improvements) to design it. The stadium will be ready for the 2021 season.
So, what does this have to do with the Sea Dogs?
Well, in 2021, there will be an empty stadium in Providence County, Rhode Island. Maybe a certain Double-A baseball team could play there (trivia: The Pawtucket Red Sox were originally a Double-A team from 1970-72).
Could the Sea Dogs move to Pawtucket?
“The Sea Dogs aren’t going anywhere. No plans to,” said club CEO chairman Bill Burke.
The Burke family brought the Sea Dogs to Portland as an expansion team, playing their first season in 1994.
Burke knew of the Triple-A team’s move from Pawtucket to Worcester, “but we were never thrown into the pile.”
There is the remote possibility that another Eastern League team could move to Pawtucket — the former Triple-A town of Richmond, Virginia, attracted the Double-A team from Norwich, Connecticut, in 2009 — and eventually land the Red Sox affiliation (Portland, which became a Red Sox affiliate in 2003, has its current affiliation agreement with Boston through the 2020 season).
But there are two reasons why that is very doubtful.
One is that minor league teams have territorial rights. Ever wonder why Worcester did not already have a minor league baseball team (except independent league clubs)? Worcester and Pawtucket are in neighboring counties. If Worcester wanted an affiliated team, it would need permission from Pawtucket (which it never got).
If Boston’s Triple-A team moves to Worcester, then Pawtucket would need permission to get a team.
The Triple-A ownership group made that clear in its press release Friday: “Pawtucket and Worcester are part of one market as defined by Minor League Baseball.”
With Pawtucket only 42 miles from Worcester, a new team — that is paying for a new stadium — is not going to encourage competition for fans.
If, for some reason, Worcester allowed a team to move to Pawtucket, there is no reason to believe the Red Sox would move its affiliation from Portland to Pawtucket. Red Sox officials, on and off the record, have continually praised the Sea Dogs as a model minor league franchise.
When an Eastern League team was moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to Manchester, New Hampshire, in 2003, there were rumors that Manchester would make a push for the Red Sox affiliation. The Sea Dogs were concerned. The Red Sox responded by extending their agreement with Portland for four more years (the longest-allowed extension, according to minor league rules).
“There is no place else we would rather be, or we could imagine being,” said then-general manager Theo Epstein.
More recently, Red Sox Director of Player Development Ben Crockett said, “The Portland Sea Dogs and the Burke family have been tremendous partners.”
The Sea Dogs have continually met any request by the Red Sox, including a new clubhouse, built in 2008.
Portland, despite being one of the smaller markets in the Eastern League, ranks third out of 12 teams in attendance, with an average of 5,592 fans. Pawtucket is averaging 5,723 fans this year.
Assuming Worcester’s stadium plans go through and Pawtucket loses its team, there will be speculation about Pawtucket’s future.
But the Sea Dogs are staying in Portland, with their Red Sox affiliation.
Portland Press Herald staff writer Glenn Jordan contributed to this report.
Altoona second baseman Alfredo Reyes tags out Sea Dogs baserunner Danny Mars, who was trying to steal second, during the second inning at Hadlock Field on Friday. (Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald)