Former Red Sox boss Lucchino heads to the minors with WooSox

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WORCESTER, Mass. — Concrete is curing, saws are buzzing, and Larry Lucchino is at home again, in a ballpark.

At an age when many ease into retirement, the 75-year-old three-time cancer survivor instead headed to the minor leagues for one more chance to run a baseball team and build it a new home.

“I don’t think (retirement) is the way I’m wired,” Lucchino said this spring during an interview in the upper deck at the $118 million Polar Park. “I want to keep doing and being and making and contributing.”

Now chairman and part-owner of the Worcester Red Sox, Lucchino ushered the Triple-A franchise from its longtime home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to this Massachusetts city an hour west of Boston. Polar Park, which will be unveiled for the WooSox home opener Tuesday, has brought new life to the city's Canal District.

And perhaps even to Lucchino himself.

“I think it’s revitalizing and rejuvenating for him,” said WooSox President Charles Steinberg, who also worked with Lucchino in Baltimore, San Diego and Boston.

“For those holding out hope that he’ll sit on a chaise lounge and retire. I’ve got news for you: I think it’s hopeless," Steinberg said. "He’s going to continue to tackle projects, it’s in his nature. He can’t do otherwise.”

A Pittsburgh native who was Princeton teammates with Bill Bradley, the basketball Hall of Famer turned U.S. senator, and a Yale Law School classmate of Hillary Clinton, Lucchino found his way into sports when he took a job with Washington lawyer and NFL team owner Edward Bennett Williams. Williams added the Orioles to his portfolio, and so did Lucchino.

When the team needed a new ballpark, Lucchino worked with architect Janet Marie Smith to create Camden Yards, a project that returned baseball to the urban neighbourhoods of its roots.

“We didn’t know that we were going to ignite a revolution in ballpark architecture. We just wanted to build a nice little ballpark,” Lucchino said. “And the same is true here: We’re just building a nice little ballpark -- one that has character and personality and a local flavour .”

That formula is one Lucchino carried with him to San Diego, where he presided over the construction of Petco Park, and then to Boston, reuniting with Smith — this time spending more than $250 million to renovate Fenway Park, rather than replace it. (The Red Sox built a new spring training facility in Fort Myers, Florida, making Polar Park Lucchino’s fifth ballpark project.)

“Larry loves baseball. But right there with baseball, Larry loves cities,” Steinberg said. “And I think that’s why he’s had such a passion for building ballparks or refurbishing ballparks that improve the life of a city.”

In Boston, Lucchino was the face of the front office who stoked the rivalry with the New York Yankees to a furor, and a hands-on boss who approved everything from player trades to signage fonts. The team won three World Series, including the 2004 title that ended an 86-year championship drought.

One of his moves was to put together a group led by Providence lawyer Jim Skeffington that bought the PawSox in 2015. Lucchino described himself as “ceremonial appendage” to the deal, there to support Skeffington’s management.

But when Skeffington died a few months later, Lucchino filled the gap.

“We had to call an audible, and that audible called for me as the experienced member of the group to step up," he said.

After attempts in Rhode Island to replace the 75-year-old McCoy Stadium fell through, the PawSox became the WooSox. (Worcester, for reasons that make sense only in England or New England, is pronounced “WOO-ster” -- or “WOO-stah,” if you really want to get into the local dialect.)

And Lucchino was once again donning a hard hat and yellow safety vest, clomping around a construction site.

“Larry’s interest is in how ballparks can resonate with communities,” Smith said, adding that Worcester was no different in that way than Baltimore, San Diego and Boston. "The idea of jumpstarting the development of downtown ... really got Larry’s juices flowing.”

Though overshadowed by Boston -- and often even smaller cities like Providence, Portland or Hartford -- Worcester is the second-largest city in New England, one that had a 19th Century heyday as a wire and textile industry hub. There have been sports, too: It was the birthplace of the Ryder Cup, candlepin bowling and Ernest Lawrence Thayer, the author of “Casey at the Bat.”

It even had major league baseball.

A National League team played here from 1880-82; on June 20, 1880, Worcester left-hander Lee Richmond threw the first perfect game in major league history.

Polar Park is undeniably the minors.

And that’s not a bad thing.

In addition to the lure of future stars — Pawtucket fans would have had the chance to see Hall of Famers like Carlton Fisk, Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter — Polar Park has a total capacity of 9,508 and ticket prices from $8 to $32.

“Whatever you might say about how cool and great the Red Sox are, you probably wouldn’t apply ‘affordable family entertainment’ to it," Lucchino said. "So we have a different product. It doesn’t have the win-at-any-cost kind of dimension that Major League Baseball has. But in terms of what it can do for a city — at this age and stage, that interests me a lot.”

Just as Baltimore has “Camden Green,” Polar Park has it’s own colour scheme: “Woo Blue.” The home of the WooSox also has half the foul territory of Fenway — bringing fans closer to the players and eliminating many rally-killing foul popups.

And every detail needed Lucchino's blessing.

“He’s certainly every bit as intense as he was in every other project I’ve worked with him on,” Smith said. “Since it’s Larry, he still insists to see every sign, every paint sample. ... There’s no detail that he doesn’t get excited about.”

Smith raved about the different ways fans can watch the game, from the seats atop the 22-foot Worcester Wall — modeled after Fenway’s Green Monster, but in right field — to a grassy berm out in left. As a nod to the city that calls itself the “Heart of the Commonwealth,” heart shapes pop up everywhere from the team logo to the arrangement of the outfield lights.

“Every ballpark is different. Every one reflects the city in which it exists,” Lucchino said. “This thing will look and smell and taste and feel like Worcester.”

Nothing makes that point better than the train tracks running behind the left field wall, making their way from Boston to Worcester’s Union Station. (Houston's Minute Maid Park has a steam engine replica that chugs down a track to celebrate home runs, and Lucchino couldn't resist a dig: “Some places pay a lot of money for a fake train,” he said. “We’ve got a real one.”)

The new ballpark also features local foods and local beer, spacious clubhouses for the teams and even a designated changing room for the new mascot, Smiley Ball, named after the iconic smiley face image created by Worcester artist Harvey Ball in 1963.

The PawSox mascot had no such luxury, team spokesman Bill Wanless noted.

“He used our bathroom in the office,” he said. “So thank God for that.”

Jimmy Golen, The Associated Press