Major League Baseball teams have been in full swing for two months, but Thursday night was the first game for the Worcester Bravehearts. The team won the home opener against the Pittsfield Suns. The Bravehearts are the city’s replacement to the Tornadoes, which went into debt and folded in 2012. The Bravehearts are looking to make baseball a fixture of the central Massachusetts city.
Bravehearts Head Coach Alex Trezza is back in Worcester, along with summer baseball. He played for the Worcester Tornadoes in their final years, from 2008 to 2012.
The Tornadoes had started out strong in 2005. For several years they were a big, and affordable, draw for people who couldn’t get to Fenway or Yankee Stadium, just like the Pawtucket Red Sox or the New Britain Rock Cats. But those teams are farm clubs for the major leagues. The Tornadoes were in an independent league, which Alex Trezza says was one of their financial challenges.
“They’re not affiliated with any major league club, so there’s no funding that gets trickled down,” says Trezza. “So it’s tough financially in terms of getting fans in the park every night to support the venture you’re trying to do, and that’s minor league baseball in a small city.”
By 2012, the team was in debt. Attendance was down. In a desperate attempt to draw more fans, the Tornadoes signed 47-year old steroid-era major league slugger Jose Canseco. He played just twenty games, and ended up suing the team for unpaid wages. Dave Peterson used to be the Tornadoes’ on-field emcee, and he’s the new general manager of the Bravehearts. The debt got so bad, Peterson says, the Tornadoes literally lost the shirts off their back.
“The uniforms for the actual baseball team were seized. They were taken by the Worcester sheriff’s office, and the Worcester Tornadoes had to play the rest of their games in 2012, probably ten games, and they had to play those games just wearing generic uniforms that didn’t even say Worcester Tornadoes on them,” says Peterson.
Peterson is determined to prove that baseball can be an attraction in Worcester, and there are some key differences with the Bravehearts. For one, they’re in a different league, and unlike the independent leagues, where many tired players are often at the end of their baseball careers, the Bravehearts are all young college players.
“These are not paid professionals like Jose Canseco,” says Peterson. “These are college students who currently play baseball at a collegiate level, and this is their opportunity in the summer to play on an all-star team, and be noticed by major league baseball scouts who will be here at the ballpark.”
That seems to be incentive enough to the thirty players who have come from colleges as far away as California, and as close as the College of the Holy Cross, just up the hill.
Tom Paine goes to Assumption College. He says the lack of pay doesn’t matter to him.
“Honestly, you don’t need to get paid to play baseball, just being on this team for the summer, getting to play all summer with a new group of guys at a high talent level is good enough for me,” says Paine.
Another strength with this team, according to Coach Alex Trezza is how these college kids will approach the game.
“It’s more energetic, I think you’ll hear more voices from the dugout, I think you’ll find young kids that are excited to sign autographs and interact with the community and the fans,” says Trezza.
And he says they’ll hustle and play hard at the park. That’s apparent at a Bravehearts practice. The players have all just met, and though he barely knows their names, Trezza is pushing them on infield drills.
The real test for the Bravehearts won’t come on the field. It will be whether they can get fans in the ballpark, and they might have some more work to do in that area. In Downtown Worcester, Sheila Bulack didn’t even know there was a new baseball team, but she can see the appeal.
“I think it’s good for families, I personally don’t have any children, so it’s probably great for families to have some place to bring their kids for a night out,” says Bulack. “It’s a great idea for Worcester.”
That’s exactly the kind of crowd General Manager Dave Peterson hopes to bring to the ballpark. As far as he’s concerned, winning isn’t the main priority for the Bravehearts. Peterson says fans might not even remember the score after the game.
“But they can tell you that somebody in the second row proposed to his girlfriend that night, that two seven year old kids got doused with blueberries in the pie-eating contest, that there was a great fireworks show that was launched beyond the right field fence,” says Peterson. “Those are the types of things that people remember, and that’s what we want to fill the stadium with.”
The Bravehearts will have 27 more home games this summer to try and do just that.