Worcester Red Sox play first home game at the newly completed Polar Park

Let’s Play Ball

Worcester Red Sox play first home game at the newly completed Polar Park

Polar Park, the sparkling new home of the Worcester Red Sox, is a younger sibling of sorts to Boston’s iconic Fenway Park (minus the signature green.) (Worcester Red Sox/press release)

The Worcester Red Sox, the Boston Red Sox’s Triple-A minor league affiliate, christened their new home yesterday at Polar Park, a years-in-the-making $157 million facility that ranks as the most expensive MiLB ballpark ever constructed. As of September 2018, Polar Park was the fourth most expensive Triple-A park. Subsequent cost overruns, however, catapulted the 9,508-capacity (a figure that nods to the area code for Worcester and much of Central Massachusetts) Polar Park to the top spot.

Yesterday’s home opener against the Syracuse Mets kicked off following a pregame celebration with the new stadium at 25 percent capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Designed by Tommy Quirk, a Worcester native and president of the Somerville, Massachusetts-based D’Agostino Izzo Quirk Architects (DAIQ), Polar Park began life with a totally different name and in a totally different New England city: The Ballpark at Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Home to the Pawtucket Red Sox, the predecessor to the Worcester Red Sox, that stadium was first announced in 2017 as the $83 million replacement for the Pawtucket Red Sox’s aging, 75-year-old home, McCoy Stadium.

Plans for a new Pawtucket ballpark were scrapped, however, in 2018 when owner Larry Lucchino announced plans to relocate the team to Worcester, the second-most populous city in both Massachusetts and all of New England. The announcement came after Nicholas Mattiello, the former speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, scuttled a deal that would have financed Pawtucket’s much-anticipated new ballpark. (Anger at Mattiello still runs high in the Ocean State.) Shortly thereafter, the Worcester Red Sox—or “Woosox”—were born.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new stadium in Worcester, which anchors a two-phase, $240 million planned redevelopment of the city’s “resurgent” Canal District master-planned by Beyer Blinder Belle, was held in July 2019 with famed local soft drink company Polar Beverages securing the naming rights. Construction at the triangular 6-acre site was halted for several weeks during the pandemic, although officials believed that the ballpark would be completed in time for the start of the minor league baseball season. The first home game for the Red Sox, in its team debut, was initially scheduled for April 13 but was ultimately pushed back to yesterday, May 11, following an announcement that the kick-off of 2021 Triple-A season would be postponed.

Working alongside visionary ballpark architect and planner Janet Marie Smith (now executive vice president of planning and development for the Los Angeles Dodgers) in a design consultant role, the design of the new stadium, in both Pawtucket and Worcester, was steered by DAIQ from the get-go. While DAIQ has overseen a number of major institutional, retail, and entertainment projects, the firm is perhaps best known for heading a series of capital improvements at the historic Boston home of the Worcester Red Sox’s major-league counterpart, Fenway Park. DAIQ has also spearheaded major overhauls at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and at Dodger Stadium.

The Polar Park website describes Lucchino and Smith, who previously worked together on Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards and on the transformative renovations at Fenway Park, as the “Rodgers & Hammerstein of ballpark ambiance and architecture.” (Lucchino served as president of the Orioles from 1988 to 1993 and as president and CEO of Red Sox from 2002 to 2015 with a stint as CEO of the San Diego Padres between the two.)

In addition to the cost of the stadium itself, the City of Worcester has, as detailed by the Worcester Business Journal in January, committed to at least $15 million in infrastructure upgrades around the facility per a proposed lease agreement between team ownership and the city. The state will also reportedly contribute a total of $60 million to the project, including for a parking garage and for housing subsidies for the planned mixed-use development. As of January, construction on neither of those stadium-adjacent elements had kicked off yet.

While the completion of Polar Park has generated excitement amongst Worcester residents and baseball fans across New England, the project has also been mired in controversy due to its high cost, the paltry number of construction contracts awarded to minority-owned companies, and the execution of the ballpark itself, which one local critic found to be “underwhelming” and evidence of “not so much an architectural shortcoming as a failure of city planning and a lack of vision.” Other recent assessments have been decidedly much more laudatory.