Red Sox legend David Ortiz visits Polar Park to help the WooSox kickoff the 2023 baseball season. Photo by Kevin Paul Saleeba
By Kevin Saleeba
WORCESTER – Fresh off their state championship, twelve North High basketball players stretched across the Polar Park baseball diamond from first base to third. It was the WooSox home opener on March 31 and each kid held a baseball ready to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to start off the 2023 baseball season. However, Sox public address announcer Ben DeCastro had a surprise for the young champs.
“And now please welcome three-time world series champion, David Ortiz!” To the amazement of the kids and the nearly 8,000 people in the ballpark, Big Papi, the Red Sox legend, emerged from the home team dugout wearing a Worcester Red Sox home white jersey. The crowd cheered with excitement. It was Ortiz’s first-ever visit to Polar Park and the Major League Baseball Hall of Famer knew how to make a dramatic entrance.
After about four minutes of hugging fans, taking selfies, signing autographs, and greeting other Red Sox legends like Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd and Tommy Harper on the field, the energized crowd saw Ortiz turn his attention to the pitching mound as he grabbed a mic.
“Hello everybody,” he said. He paused for another round of applause. “Thank you for the beautiful welcome. It’s an honor to be with you all. I’m sure you know I’m from the Dominican Republic, but I feel like I was born in New England.” He paused for another cheer. “Thank you for the support throughout the years. Let’s support the WooSox. (It’s) opening day, a beautiful day to play baseball. Go Woo Sox and God bless you all.” He then joined the state champs to throw out the first pitch.
The Woo Sox carried the momentum from the opening ceremony into the game by blasting the Syracuse Mets, 11-2. The Sox hit three home runs in the game, while Boston pitcher Garrett Whitlock, who was on the Worcester roster for a rehab stint, started the game and pitched four innings, giving up one run and striking out six on 75 pitches (50 strikes). Right-hander Jake Faria relieved Whitlock to pitch a scoreless fifth to earn the eventual victory.
The Woo Sox offense was powered by three homeruns, including a 491-foot two-run shot to right field in the bottom of the third by shortstop David Hamilton; a 409-foot two-run blast by leftfielder Greg Allen to cap off a four-run bottom of the fourth; and newly acquired designated hitter Daniel Palka hit a solo homer to center in the sixth.
Building on Past Success
The WooSox created a lot of excitement during their first two seasons in Worcester. Opening day was extra special for the club. It represented the first time the WooSox started a season at Polar Park. They are now a perfect 3-0 in home openers. They also defeated the Mets in the first-ever game at Polar Park on May 11, 2021, and they beat the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs on April 12, 2022, last season.
As of April 24, the Sox struggled out of the gate with a record of 8-12. In 2022, the WooSox finished with a winning record, 75-73. That was good for sixth place in the International League East and 10-games behind division (and eventual Triple-A) champs, Durham.
Despite the slow start, the club is optimistic with the coaching staff back with the club for a second season. Fans can also look forward to new talented prospects on the roster this summer. The club is also implementing more fan-friendly events and activities and upgraded the ballpark amenities.
Players to Watch in 2023
New and Returning Prospects
Righthanded pitcher Bryan Mata enters the 2023 season as the No. 5 prospect in the Red Sox minor-league system, according to Baseball America. Mata made his WooSox debut in 2022. He missed the entire 2021 season to recover from Tommy John surgery. Last season, he threw 83 innings across various levels, finishing up in Worcester and remaining in a starting role. The strikeouts and velocity returned following surgery. He was able to hit 100 mph on the gun but did show control trouble with 46 walks in 83 innings. Unfortunately, in his first 12 innings of the season, he has walked 12 batters, but it’s still early and Mata has a lot of potential. He is a player to keep an eye on this summer.
Along with Mata, there are several other prospects to watch, including:
- Lefty starter Brandon Walters, who was 3-3 with a 3.59 ERA, 0.90 WHIP in 11 starts between Portland (9) and Worcester (2). Opponents only batted .205 off him with 84 strikeouts to only seven walks in 72.1 innings. \
- Infielder David Hamilton, who spent 2022 with Double-A Portland, hit .251 (116-for-463) with 16 doubles, 9 triples, and 12 homeruns in 119 games. He led Double-A in steals (70) and tied for the lead in triples.
- Infielder Enmanuel Valdez, who split last season between the Boston and Houston systems, hit .296 (148-for-500) with a .918 OPS, 92 runs, 35 doubles, 2 triples, 28 homeruns and 107 RBIs. He played in 44 games for Worcester and was named to the 2022 MLB Pipeline Prospect Team of the Year (1st Team) at 2nd base. He has a powerful bat but does need to improve his play in the field.
- Ryan Fitzgerald, a versatile fielder who can play both the infield and outfield positions, while also showing some pop at the plate. He led Worcester in games (127) and RBI (72) and ranked second in runs (tied, 55), hits (99), doubles (26), and triples (4). He also hit 16 homeruns, while also being awarded Worcester’s Community Spirit Award.
- Finally, all eyes should be on Marcelo Mayer, who enters 2023 ranked as the Red Sox’ best prospect by both Baseball America and MLB.com and as a top 10 overall prospect by each publication (No. 10, 9). He ranked by MLB.com as the No. 2 shortstop prospect in baseball and ranked by Baseball America as the Sox’ top defensive infielder with possibly the best infield arm in baseball. Last season, he split time between Single-A Salem and High-A Greenville. He ranks high among Sox minor leaguers in OBP (7th, .399), SLG (6th, .489), OPS (3rd, .888), doubles (T-3rd, 30), walks (3rd, 68), extra-base hits (T-8th, 45), and runs (T-9th, 61). He recorded 28 multi-hit games while making 79 starts at shortstop between the two levels.
Tracy Back as Skipper
Chad Tracy has returned for his second season as WooSox manager in 2023. Tracy, 37, was named as the second manager in Worcester Red Sox history on December 13, 2021. His job was not easy as the club made 213 player transactions last season and set a new all-time Red Sox Triple-A record for players appearing in a single season. The WooSox used 75 different players in 2022 (31 position players and 44 pitchers). Ironically, the 2021 WooSox set the previous mark of 72 different players (31 position players and 41 pitchers). That beat the 1995 Pawtucket Red Sox during a strike year when replacement players were used for the first few months of that season, and the 2006 PawSox who each employed 70 different players.
Under the guidance of Tracy, 28 different WooSox players were promoted to Boston during last season, most notably Brayan Bello, Triston Casas, Kutter Crawford, Jarren Duran, Rob Refsnyder, John Schreiber, Josh Winckowski, and Connor Wong. All these players made the Boston roster this season.
Prior to making his WooSox debut in 2022, Tracy spent the previous seven seasons (2015-21) in the Los Angeles Angels organization, including three as a minor league manager with Low-A Burlington (2015) and High-A Inland Empire (2016-17). He also he served as the Angels’ Minor League Field Coordinator from 2018-21.
Paul Abbott is back for his third season in Worcester and his sixth season as a pitching coach in the Red Sox system. The former pitcher spent 11 seasons in Major League Baseball from 1990-2004. In 2022, WooSox pitchers were 9th in the league with their 4.40 ERA and finished over .500 for the second straight year. Sox pitchers allowed the fewest homeruns in all Triple-A baseball (117). Lehigh Valley allowed the second fewest (138).
In addition, Worcester used a Red Sox Triple-A record 44 different pitchers in 2022 and they set a new modern day Red Sox Triple-A franchise record for strikeouts in a season. WooSox pitchers were 2nd in the league with 1,411 strikeouts to better the previous record held by the Pawtucket Red Sox in 2018 (1,221 SO).
Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Rich Gedman, who grew up on Lafayette Street in Worcester, also returns for his ninth season as Red Sox Triple-A hitting coach, the longest tenure of any Triple-A hitting coach in franchise history. Last season, Worcester batters were 15th in the league with a .246 average and seventh with 181 homeruns.
Gedman has been a hitting coach in the Red Sox minor league system since 2011 when he worked for the Lowell Spinners (short-season A). In 2012 he served in that same role for the Salem Red Sox (high-A), and in 2013 and 2014 he was Portland’s hitting coach. His coaching career began as bench coach for the North Shore Spirit of the Can-Am Independent League before he became manager of the Worcester Tornadoes in that same league from 2005-2010.
Gedman played for Boston for 11 seasons from 1980-1990. In 906 career games with the Red Sox, he hit .259 with 83 HR & 356 RBI. His best years came in 1985 (.295/18/80) and 1986 (.258/16/65), although he did hit a career-best 24 homeruns in 1984. He was selected twice as an American League All Star (1985-86).
WHAT’S NEW AROUND POLAR PARK
The WooSox announced several new fan-inspired improvements this season. “We want Opening Day to be like Christmas Morning,” said Larry Lucchino, Chairman and Principal Owner of the WooSox. “We seek to unwrap these new gifts and show our fans that we continue to listen to their ideas and add innovations to this beautiful ballpark … In 2021, we debuted the Berm in mid-season. In 2022, we activated Summit Street, and now in 2023, we are adding the Fan Deck. The ballpark continues to grow and evolve.”
The improvements are as follows:
- There is a new, large Fan Deck on Plymouth Street that provides “family-friendly” entertainment with three cornhole games, a stage for live music, and new menu items.
- Four canopies were added to provide shelter from rain, shade from sun, and warmth on cool evenings.
- The area, just beyond the Simply Orthodontics Berm, includes 36 tables and 175 seats in left-center field. The area will be accessible to anyone in the ballpark and is intended as an amenity for those with $9 WooSox Loop tickets or $8 Yaz tickets.
- To add comfort to some cool springtime games, the club added heaters throughout the concourse. New England clam chowder and authentic lobster rolls will now be available throughout the ballpark, and tacos will make their debut on “Taco & Tequila Tuesdays,” presented by Tequila Herradura, when fans can enjoy three tacos and a margarita for $12.
- In addition, Polar Park will now add ticket booths at Gates B and C. Fans will now be able to pick up Will Call tickets or purchase tickets at all four gates (A, B, C, and D).
- Adding comfort to standing room, new drink rails at Craft Corner and on Summit Street will allow fans to set down their food and beverages while enjoying the game. Both areas are open to all fans and are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Five “Blue Woo Shuttles,” up from two, will provide free transportation from the many city lots and parking areas throughout downtown. The additions will help ensure regular and frequent pickups.
- For kids, a new swing set will add fun and activity to the 8th Hill behind the videoboard.
- To help ensure that fans do not miss a pitch, 42-inch televisions will be added to the main restrooms.
- Heeding multiple requests from fans, Polar Park’s in-seat service menu will expand to include chicken tenders and French fries.
A Star Emerges for the Mass Pirates Despite Recent Struggles
The loss of starting quarterback Alejandro Bennifield has hurt the Massachusetts Pirates early this season. Bennifield was placed on short-term injury reserve with an undisclosed injury after week one. The Pirates started strong with two victories over the Green Bay Blizzard (55-41) and the Bay Area Panthers (59-52), however, the loss of Bennifield helped lead to defeates to the Frisco Fighters (56-39) and the Quad City Steamwheelers (49-44).
Despite the team’s struggles, running back Jimmie Robinson has proven to be a standout for the Pirates this season. The budding star has rushed for 184 yards on 38 carries, an average of 4.8 yards a rush, and eight touchdowns. He has also become a threat in the kicking game with 308 yards on only 14 kickoff returns and two touchdowns.
The Pirates were fourth in the IFL Eastern Conference after four weeks.