WORCESTER — There’s a well-known, oft-misquoted saying in the baseball world:
“If you build it, he will come.”
In the movie “Field of Dreams,” those immortal words are whispered to Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), a corn farmer wandering aimlessly through a life he didn’t really choose, feeling old while he’s still young.
The premise is simple: if Ray carves out a baseball diamond in his Iowa cornfield, which may or may not be heaven, someone will come. So, he does, and someone does. And then several someones.
In the decades since the movie came out in 1989, teams have proven — either by building or by choosing not to build — how true this adage is.
But for the Worcester Red Sox, Boston’s Triple-A affiliate, they’ve already built it, people are coming, and yet, they’re still building. This week, the ‘WooSox’ unveiled several new amenities and improvements to Polar Park, their home in Worcester for the last two years, after decades as the PawSox of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Instead of simply sending out a press release or announcing the upgrades on social media, they invited season ticket holders to a luncheon at the ballpark. After chairman and principal owner Larry Lucchino, president Dr. Charles Steinberg, and legendary ballpark architect Janet Marie Smith — whose impressive resumé also includes Fenway’s renovation and the development of Oriole Park at Camden Yards — presented the array of exciting changes, they opened the floor for questions and then mingled with their guests.
When the ballpark opened in April 2021, Steinberg said that everything about the team’s new home was a love letter to the area. To that end, the attention to Worcester-related detail is striking: the light towers in the outfield are in the shape of hearts, because Worcester is known as “The Heart of the Commonwealth.” The new mascots are Smiley Ball, in honor of local artist Harvey Ross Ball, designer of the original smiley face, and Woofster (for obvious reasons). Local businesses are front and center as advertisers, partners, and concession options throughout the park.
While many major-league ballparks, including Fenway, are drawing ongoing criticism for increasing the price of admission to the point of pricing the average family out entirely, Polar Park is affordable and caters to families. The new, free rewards program allows fans to earn points for every game they attend and dollar spent, and redeem them for a wide array of treats and activities, including a signed jersey, Duck Boat Party, and watching a game from Lucchino’s suite, with or without him. For the second season in a row, the outfield’s grassy Berm will be peanut allergy-friendly, and this year, the entire ballpark will be peanut-free from May 16-21.
The new left-field Fan Deck offers more seats and new activities, including cornhole and live music. They’re installing heaters around the concourse and other select areas, to keep fans warm in chilly, windy early months of the season. There will be five Blue Woo all-electric shuttles (up from two) this season, to offer free rides to and from the area’s parking facilities.
An already robust concession list now includes lobster rolls and New England Clam Chowder. Fans can skip the lines altogether by scanning the QR codes at their seats to order select snacks, including chicken tenders and fries. Every Tuesday, $12 gets you three tacos and a margarita.
The results of their ongoing efforts and devotion to their fans are clear: in their sophomore season, the WooSox welcomed 546,995 fans and finished sixth out of 120 cities in minor-league attendance. Despite being a barely-above .500 team on the field, they averaged 7,493 fans per game and had 42 sold-out contests at home.
Of course, many of the ways the WooSox cater to fans are doable because they’re not a major-league team. Their ballpark has a capacity of 9,508, while Fenway can seats up to 37,755 for night games. And unlike their major-league affiliates, who can count on tens of millions from lucrative tv and streaming deals before they even open their gates for the year, minor-league teams must cater to fans, because they rely heavily on attendance-based revenue such as tickets and concessions. It’s a key reason the 2020 MiLB season was canceled, while MLB still ended up playing a 60-game season and full postseason.
But to say that the Red Sox couldn’t do some of the things the WooSox do for their fans would be laughable. If anything, their deep pockets enable them to implement many of these changes, and likely more. Nearly 50% of MLB teams hosted one or more dog-friendly games last year. The Arizona Diamondbacks have allowed dogs at Chase Field for years, and even hosted pet adoptions. The Seattle Mariners have five Bark at the Park games on their 2023 schedule.
In the past, maybe the Red Sox didn’t feel they needed to resort to gimmicks or allow Man’s Best Friend in to fill “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark.” Winning more championships this century than any other team has been a fairly solid selling point. But Fenway just had its worst home attendance numbers since 2000 (before giving up Xander Bogaerts) and the Sox still announced an increase in pricing for the upcoming season. Given how fans reacted to John Henry’s appearance at Winter Weekend last Friday, they might want to reconsider this approach.
It’s easy to get people to come at the beginning of something new and exciting — humans are curious by nature — but they need a reason to keep coming. Otherwise, they’ll move on.
Imagine if every team, both major and minor, kept building.