The pitch to families

By Josh Farnsworth
The youngest fans will find plenty to cheer about at Worcester's new Polar Park.

The buzzing of a television with limited channel selection in Kristi Fritscher’s home growing up in the Leominster-Fitchburg area was routinely affixed to sports. Sometimes basketball or football. Other times, NASCAR or wrestling.

And then there was baseball. But not just baseball. 

Red Sox baseball. 

Those warm, summer nights Kristi and her dad spent side-by-side watching the likes of Nomar Garciaparra, Trot Nixon and her favorite and unofficial Red Sox muse - Mo Vaughn - forged a passion for baseball and gave a strong daughter-father bond even more fortitude.

It’s the type of instilled passion that has Kristi never missing a game if she can help it. She takes in every inning she can on TV or on the radio - spring training included. It’s why visits to Fenway Park on her birthday and anniversary with husband, Scott, have become annual traditions.

It’s what she also uses as a way to connect as a parent now herself to Adam, who turned five this month. 

“It’s something we do together,” said Kristi, who is now a resident of Barre. “He hasn’t found ‘his Mo Vaughn’ yet, but we have been to Fenway Park a couple times, gone to see the (Future Collegiate Baseball League of New England team) Worcester Bravehearts and Pawtucket Red Sox, and he just has so much fun when we go.”

It’s no wonder that back in 2018, as the Red Sox organization’s beloved Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was announced to be relocating to Worcester for the 2021 season, Kristi took notice.

She has been a booster club member since 2019 - long before a first pitch would be thrown by a member of the Worcester Red Sox (quickly now becoming known affectionately as the WooSox) or before a single shovel of dirt was ceremoniously unearthed at their newly built Polar Park.

“I wanted to make sure I had every update,” she said. “I hope it’s a team Adam gets excited to go see - to get that feeling when you walk into a stadium and get excited for baseball.”

While she is more diehard than most, Kristi is one of many Bay State residents whose admiration for the Boston-based ballclub carries so much weight in this area. And with an option in Worcester, the long drive to Boston for residents in central and western portions of the state brings the baseball stadium experience that much closer.

WORCESTER - Fans file into Polar Park for the first night game on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

The show beyond the show

The names are only familiar to diehards like Kristi - those promising prospects that she is excited to see progress such as Tanner Houck and Jeter Downs. But to the casual fan, the Worcester Red Sox are not selling the same star-fueled, baseball-centric show as their flashier big brother in Boston.

In Worcester, much like anywhere a minor league stadium stands, the extra energy needed to make a season a success goes into an overall ballpark experience outside the white, chalky lines.

“Families are the lifeblood of this organization,” said Steve Oliveira, Director of Worcester Operations for the Red Sox. “In Worcester, we pride ourselves on being a fun, affordable option, especially for families. When people hear, ‘Red Sox’, their mind goes one way: to Boston and Fenway Park. This is a whole different product. We want people to come to Worcester multiple times a year, and bring their families to experience Polar Park with them.”

Ticket prices play into the value proposition the WooSox look to strike. Oliveira said single game tickets start at $8 for kids, $9 for everyone else - prices much more favorable for families attending a game than the parent club in Boston.

For parents of many young kids, the greatest opponent in any ballpark is attention spans. The average length of a minor league game in 2018 - even with newer rules aimed at moving games quicker to their conclusion - clocked in at two hours, 45 minutes.

That puts a premium on teams providing entertainment value in between innings and around the fringes of Polar Park to retain young fans as long as possible. Sure, there will be an assortment of classic ballpark amusements, like face painting, balloon artists and more. Oliveira said he believes all the advanced options of things to do will help parents keep their kids well entertained whether they are into the game or not.

“We know the challenge of having kids sit through a nine inning game,” he said. “It’s about the experience and the atmosphere. We know the number of people who come to a minor league game and leave without knowing the score or who even won is significant. They are coming to just get outside in the summer sun and be entertained.”

The WooSox are launching a kids’ club aptly dubbed the “WooCrew Kids’ Club," a loyalty program that produces points for members whenever they perform a task, such as follow the WooSox on social media. The WooCrew is free to join, but does also include a paid tier portion of its membership with additional incentives.

“We feel like the WooCrew will be able to take engagements with young fans to a whole new level,” said Oliveira.

Oliveira said the WooSox are looking to partner with local little leagues as well. Their hope is to be able to host little league parades and opening ceremonies and involve youth baseball and softball to reinforce to kids that the Worcester Red Sox are a neighbor and active member of their community baseball scene.

Polar Park will have some specific amenities to help all family members get something positive out of the ballpark experience. There is a sensory-friendly room at the park designed to help some fans, especially those on the autism spectrum, “get away from the hustle and bustle” of an otherwise energetic stadium, according to Oliveira. There will also be some game experiences in the works with considerations towards fans with peanut allergies.

“We want our games to be accessible to all fans,” said Oliveira. “This ballpark is for everyone.”

Some of the family-friendly benefits of Polar Park are still being completed. A berm beyond the leftfield fence will be used for a picnic area for fans and a kids playground area just a short baseball’s throw past centerfield are two projects the WooSox hope to complete some time around Independence Day.

As for Oliveira, his favorite feature of Polar Park - and one he feels kids will enjoy, too - happens to be a product of its location to nearby transportation.

“We are close enough to where an active train goes by and my two-and-a-half-year-old loves trains,” he said, noting that it is similar to a train that drives across the top of the fence in the Houston Astros’ major league park after a homerun is hit by the home team, only these trains in Worcester are the real deal. “You can feel the train passing by. I can’t wait to see that happen. I think it’s a really cool feature.”

Worcester will continue some of the same traditions when pandemic restrictions allow, such as having the kids run the bases after games or play catch on the field pregame - standby traditions that started in Pawtucket.

Other minor league stadium favorites such as fireworks displays are in the works for later this season. The return of Scout Nights - where boys scouts and girls scouts camp out on the field and take part in activities such as watching a movie on the big video board - could happen by next year if a return to more normal, pre-pandemic times settle in.

Oliveira said they have other plans that will probably have to wait until next year based on pandemic and social distancing concerns.

“We are going to focus on what we can control,” he said. “We’ll provide music you can get up and dance to, and having a well-trained staff that is focused on making a family’s experience better.”

WORCESTER - The sun sets over Polar Park as WooSox fans enjoy the first night game against the Syracuse Mets on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

Reconnected

The 2021 season comes after a year or so of great change within Minor League Baseball. The 2020 season at all Minor League Baseball levels was cancelled and the entire structure shifted and realigned- resulting in the demise of 43 minor league teams.

For Worcester baseball fans, 2021 represents a new beginning and a chance to connect with new fans or reconnect with avid ones. Oliveira said they are working on a mechanism to receive feedback for what is connecting with fans and what is not, but believe 2021 is a baseline they will use to measure how well families respond to the overall ballpark experience.

With pandemic restrictions in place, only a certain percentage of capacity will be able to attend right away. Oliveira admits that means 2021 could be an outlier when looking at the various books of programs and events and forms of entertainment they hope Polar Park can have as compared to when 100 percent capacity can be achieved.

For Kristi, the arrival of the Red Sox organization is already helping bring the family even closer together.

Her father has a physical disability that makes a car ride to Boston or Pawtucket unreasonable. With her dad close enough to Worcester, however, more Red Sox games are in their immediate future. Kristi, Adam and her dad represent three generations ready to affix their attention on baseball once again.

Maybe Adam will find “his Mo Vaughn.” 

Either way, he’ll have plenty of family close by to continue a legacy of Red Sox memories forged on those warm, summer nights side-by-side.

“The experience and time together as a family is great,” she said. “You’ll never regret time spent together. It’s not just about baseball.”

WORCESTER - WooSox fans cheer the team on during the Opening Day ceremonies at Polar Park on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.