Polar Park Stadium and the Debut of the Worcester Red Sox

A look into the first season of Worcester’s new home team

Maggie Davis, Contributing Writer

The WooSox go through the high-five line after a win over the Lehigh Valley IronPigs on September 7, 2021. (Katie Morrison / MassLive)

As autumn begins to rear its head, baseball season is drawing to a close, which means the nascent minor league baseball team that’s taken Worcester by storm has nearly completed their first year. Despite being the second-largest city in New England, Worcester didn’t have a professional baseball team to call its own until 2021. With the newly constructed Polar Park Stadium, the Pawtucket Red Sox (PawSox!) of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, have relocated to Worcester. Their official name is the Worcester Red Sox, the Triple-A Affiliate team of the Boston Red Sox, but they’re most commonly known as the WooSox. 

Rendering courtesy of City of Worcester

Polar Park came as the shiny cherry on top of the wave of development in the past few years that’s been dubbed the Worcester Renaissance. 

But is it going to contribute as much as hoped? 

Exorbitant Costs Draw Criticism 

The project has garnered its share of controversy for the expense — was this really the best way for the city to allocate money? It cost a pretty penny, with the final cost coming to over $159 million, split between the team and the City of Worcester, with the city shouldering $99.4 million. This was just part of a wider, $240 million redevelopment project for the Canal District. 

The city expects the ballpark to more than pay for itself in the upcoming decades. 

“We created a DIF [District Improvement Financing] district to capture the revenue from retail and these properties and a new incremental increase in taxable value to fund that, as well as some of the parking we have,” says Worcester city manager Ed Augustus. “Those two sources are the way we’re paying for our piece of it. The conservative projections have it netting out at the end of 30 years for the bonding to be positive by $20 million-$25 million.”

Not to mention the many other economic benefits of the stadium. The ballpark itself will be hiring a few hundred employees. The swarming crowds it is projected to bring to the Canal District will likely bolster local businesses as well. The overall Canal District redevelopment project expects to create over 500 full-time and 2,000 part-time jobs in relation to Polar Park as well as the hotels, apartments, and other businesses coming to the area. 

In 2020, Bloomberg ranked Worcester 8th in the U.S. and 2nd in New England (runner-up to Boston) among cities most likely to recover quickly post-pandemic, as far as the economy is concerned. This is no accident or coincidence, but a result of the persistent work that the city is putting into keeping the momentum of the Worcester Renaissance that was lost in the past year.

More than just job creation, the WooSox generate plenty of money for local businesses and restaurants as well. Spend a day downtown when there’s a home game; street parking is impossible to find for blocks around the stadium, and the sidewalks are swarming with fans browsing the area before and after the game. On Friday night (9/10), their seasonal attendance surpassed 300,000, an impressive milestone that puts them behind only five other Triple-A teams in attendance this season, and they still have seven home games left this season.

Onto the fun stuff…

Economic success aside, how has the team been performing? 

They’re knocking it out of the park!

Jarren Duran at the plate in Worcester. (KATIE MORRISON / MASSLIVE)

Though their Friday night game against the LeHigh Iron Pigs ended in a 6-0 loss, it came after a winning streak of 8 back-to-back games. This was the longest winning streak that the team has had since 2018 as the PawSox. After the loss, the team is still ranking third in the Northeast Division of Triple-A teams, at 63 wins to 49 losses. 

To celebrate their impressive first season, the team plans to host Fan Appreciation Day events on September 12th and on September 26th at Polar Park, giving out thousands of prizes and gift cards.  

“It will take a long time, maybe years, to thank our fans for a season made so special by their energy, enthusiasm, and appreciation,” said Dr. Charles Steinberg, club president. “The excitement we have felt in this city since 2018 has continued unabated in 2021, and we are so honored to be a part of this chapter of Worcester’s social and cultural history.  If it takes years to thank everyone, well, we look forward to that experience as well.”

What’s behind the massive success of the WooSox’ inaugural season? Are there any star players?

Talented lineup

No one player has been responsible for their winning streaks. Someone new seems to deliver the big hit nearly every game. 

That said, a few individuals have stood out this season. 

Yairo Muñoz stole home for the winning run on Saturday, July 3, 2021 against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. (KATIE MORRISON / MASSLIVE)

Yairo Muñoz, Dominican infielder and outfielder, is batting the highest average of the team at an impressive .318. In August, he achieved a 35-game hitting streak, surpassing the 34-game record within the Red Sox organization that Dom DiMaggio set back in 1949. On August 27th, Muñoz was selected to play for the Boston Red Sox.

Josh Ockimey welcomes Franchy Cordero at home plate after Cordero’s first home run of the night on September 8, 2021 at Polar Park. (Katie Morrison / MassLive)

Close behind Muñoz is Franchy Cordero, batting .317. He’s hit 9 home runs (two in one game!) and stolen 20 bases. Beyond his stats, Cordeo is a fan-favorite for his big personality and genuine love for the game. After playing a game, he goes home and watches the whole thing from beginning to end, sometimes with Muñoz. When the Boston Red Sox sent him to Worcester, he showed up nearly three days before he was required to report and supported his teammates from the dugout for the first game, despite not being in the lineup.

Franchy Cordero bats for the Worcester Red Sox in a game against the Rochester Red Wings on June 2, 2021. (KATIE MORRISON / MASSLIVE)

Stellar starters

The WooSox hit the ground running every game. A common theme has been getting to the opposing team’s starter early; they average just over two runs in the first three innings. In the past 15 games, only one opposing starter has lasted six innings against the WooSox. Five lasted only four innings or less.

The starting pitchers are pulling their weight to get these early leads with a team ERA of 2.49. When discounting one losing game in which pitcher Alex Claudio had to start on short notice, the starter ERA would be an amazing 2.05. 

Keeping the momentum and finishing strong

They don’t just start strong and rest on their laurels; they stay aggressive. They’ve stolen 123 bases and have a conversion rate of 83% — the highest rate of successfully stolen bases out of any team.  

Don’t even bother trying to sneak a home run past these guys. In over 130 innings, only 12 home runs have been made against them, while they’ve scored 132 against other teams. 

Just during their recent 8-game winning streak, the team racked up 20 runs in the last three innings. In only three games against the Rochester Red Wings, they secured 17 runs in the final innings. 

The real celebrities of the season

Aside from the team itself, the WooSox has a few key players that can’t be left unmentioned. 

In homage to the late creator of the smiley face and Worcester resident Harvey Ball, the mascot of the WooSox is Smiley Ball, an accurate description of the smiling orb. 

@WooSox Twitter

The mascot was unveiled on October 2nd, 2020, at a celebration for World Smile Day.

Following the trend of announcing mascots on related holidays, Smiley Ball received a new best friend on August 26th in honor of National Dog Day. 

Meet Woofster, Smiley Ball’s rescue dog.  

Woofster at his debut Polar Park appearance. (Ashley Green / Telegram & Gazette)

Woofster has been a major hit with fans, but according to his Twitter, what he’s a fan of is treats and fetch.

This new mascot is likely a bit of a promotional gimmick, but he’s a cute one — and it’s for a good cause. Later this month, on September 19th, Polar Park will host DogFest New England 2021, an event to support the mission of Canine Companions which enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing trained service dogs for free. Between Fan Appreciation Day on the day of their last game and hosting this event, the WooSox are celebrating the end of their inaugural year on a charitable note.