AP NEWS

By Chaz Scoggins

September 4, 2018

Special to The Sun

Five years from now, unless fans and the city’s leadership mount an intense effort to save the Lowell Spinners, I would not be the least bit surprised if Lowell no longer has a minor-league baseball team playing at LeLacheur Park.

In spite of the Spinners popularity, there are behind-the-scenes maneuvers in play that could well spell the end of a glorious quarter century of minor-league ball in the city -- the longest uninterrupted and most lucrative stretch of professional baseball in a checkered history that dates back nearly 150 years.

I covered the Red Sox for 40 years and the Spinners from their inception for The Sun until retiring 5 1/2 years ago. But I have not lost touch with the game. I continue to work as an official scorer at Boston Red Sox games, I call several Spinners games every summer telecast by Chelmsford Telemedia, and I have been the unofficial Spinners historian and records-keeper since they came to Lowell in 1995.

I still have numerous pro baseball contacts, and they are telling me that the future of the Spinners could be in serious jeopardy. Here’s why:

Superficially at least, the recent announcement that the Class AAA Pawtucket team will be moving to Worcester should not pose a serious threat to the Spinners. The two cities are 45 miles apart, and it’s not likely both teams would be playing at home during the same dates very often during the summer. The presence of a Worcester team itself is not the threat to the Spinners’ well-being; the threat is who owns the club.

For nearly all of the last 45 years Pawtucket enjoyed a cozy and rewarding affiliation with the parent Red Sox. It is the second-longest continuous association in Minor League Baseball after Philadelphia’s relationship with Reading, Pa. But that began to change in 2015 when lightning- rod Larry Lucchino stepped down as president and CEO of the Red Sox. Lucchino did not fade very far into the background.

Lucchino and a group of Rhode Island businessmen purchased the Pawtucket Red Sox from the heirs of longtime owner Ben Mondor. The parent Red Sox, through Fenway Sports Management, also a owns 10 percent stake in the Pawtucket club.

Lucchino’s plans was to move the team from Pawtucket to neighboring Providence and build a ballpark on Narragansett Bay. But when that plan fell through, Lucchino left the loyal citizens of Pawtucket with the uneasy, queasy feeling he had no intention of keeping the PawSox there. Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien has all but declared he believes negotiations with Lucchino to build a new ballpark in Pawtucket were conducted in bad faith, and his worst fears were realized when Lucchino announced the club would be moving to Worcester.

As one former Red Sox employee told me the other day: “With Lucchino, it’s always all about the money.”

Contracts are expiring

The Worcester team will not begin playing until 2021, after construction on its 10,000-seat ballpark is finished. The timing is ominous. Both the Spinners and PawSox have affiliation contracts with the Red Sox that expire after the 2020 season. Coincidence? I think not.

It’s obvious the Red Sox will not renew their affiliation with a club -- Pawtucket -- that will no longer exist and will instead hook up with Worcester. It is also a certainty that the Red Sox will let their contract with the Spinners lapse in spite of the fact that Lowell, like Pawtucket, has been a very strong partner for the major-league organization for a very long time. How do I know this?

I have it on good authority that Lucchino has already made overtures on behalf of Fenway Sports Management to purchase the bankrupt Batavia, N.Y., franchise. Batavia is presently being operated by the New York-Penn League, which for obvious reasons would like to unload this financial albatross. Batavia is affiliated with the Miami Marlins, also through 2020. When that affiliation expires, Lucchino plans to move the Batavia franchise to Pawtucket in hopes of mollifying fans there and affiliate it with the Red Sox, leaving the Spinners dangling for a new major-league partner.

Under the terms of MLB’s Player Development Contract with the minor leagues, cities that lose their affiliations are guaranteed new ones. Club owners cannot be forced to fold their tents or move unless they choose to do so and surrender their territorial rights.

Pawtucket fans long accustomed to watching Triple-A prospects may not be thrilled about watching young players five rungs below the major-league level for a season half as long as their beloved PawSox played -- but at least their team will still be connected with the Red Sox. In the game of minor-league musical chairs, the Spinners will be stuck with whatever MLB organization is left looking for a short-season alliance.

New Englanders are a provincial lot, Lowell is in the heart of Red Sox country, and the hearts of Spinners fans are with the Red Sox. An affiliation with any organization besides the Red Sox is going to make the Spinners an awfully hard sell. I can foresee Spinners owner Dave Heller bravely and gamely giving it a go for another two years after 2020. I would love to be proven wrong, but after that I fear attendance will have dwindled to the point Heller will feel he has no choice but to move the Spinners elsewhere.

If the scenario I’ve outlined comes to pass, it will be a shame.

Saving the Spinners

Back in the mid-90s when the city actively began seeking to lure a pro team here, I believed Lowell was ripe for minor-league baseball again. And it was. Minor-league teams had come and gone for decades, and the longest uninterrupted stretch was from 1901-16.

The Spinners have been here for 23 years and played in front of nearly four million fans, including selling out every single game at 4,842-seat LeLacheur Park for 11 consecutive years. Attendance has lagged in recent years, but that’s not a problem unique to Lowell. The Spinners currently rank a creditable fourth in the league in popularity.

City and civic leaders went hard after minor-league baseball and hockey teams in hopes of revitalizing Lowell’s economy and turning it into a “destination city.” Hockey’s Lock Monsters/Devils could not live up to the promise. The Spinners did so in spectacular fashion while also generating national publicity from time to time.

The Spinners have been superb partners for the Red Sox, developing 106 major-leaguers to date, including 14 All-Stars, two NL batting champions, a NL Rookie of the Year, an AL ERA champion, and a World Series MVP. The Red Sox have sent another 31 major-leaguers to Lowell on rehab assignments. There is no credible reason why the Red Sox should end that long and fruitful association except greed and perhaps to exercise full institutional control over another one of their minor-league teams.

The Spinners have been a valuable resource to the City of Lowell. But most of the people responsible for luring the team to Lowell in 1995 are now gone or no longer in power. A new generation of leaders has sprung up, and now it’s up to them -- as well as Spinners fans -- to unite and keep the club here. They’ll have to pressure the Red Sox into continuing a mutually beneficial relationship.

Assuring that the Spinners remain in Lowell will require investments in time, spirit, and money. Massachusetts has already committed $35 million to the Worcester ballpark project. The commonwealth must decide just how important the Lowell Spinners are to the state’s economy, including giving 21-year-old LeLacheur Park a serious upgrade and applying political pressure on the Red Sox.

So everyone in Lowell, whether a Spinners fan or not, has to ask: “Just how important are the Spinners to me?” If the answer is “not very,” then don’t be shocked or sorry if the Lowell Spinners are gone within the next five years.

I’ll be sorry if that happened, but not shocked.

Chaz Scoggins was a sportswriter for The Sun from 1969-2013.

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