If you missed the beginning of the Worcester Bravehearts’ 2019 season last week, that might be because — like a lot of people — you didn’t know the Worcester Bravehearts exist.
For the record, they do. For six seasons now, the Bravehearts have represented New England’s second-largest city, playing at 3,000-seat Hanover Insurance Park (also home to Holy Cross’s baseball squad) and winning the Futures Collegiate Baseball League title in 2014, 2015 and 2018.
All of which made last year’s announcement that the triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox are relocating to Worcester — where they’ll play in a brand-new, taxpayer-funded stadium — a bit tough to take for Bravehearts owner John Creedon Jr.
“It was a… It was an interesting day for me to get through,” Creedon said.
After the Red Sox and the city of Worcester made things official, Creedon wrote a remarkably candid open letter, saying the news “knocks the wind out of us and pauses the magical momentum we have generated over the last five years.” Creedon also said competing with the Red Sox brand would be difficult, and suggested the Bravehearts might not be able to survive once the WooSox start operating in 2021.
But recently, as fans filed into the stadium on a cloudy weeknight for the Bravehearts’ home opener, Creedon struck a more upbeat note.
“I feel like what we’ve built up is too good and too strong on too many levels not to keep doing,” he said.
“We’re not rigid baseball,” he added. “Summer collegiate [baseball] is supposed to be a little whimsical. It’s supposed to be fun."
For the Bravehearts, that means, among other things: an extremely enthusiastic mascot, Jake the Lion; promotions that can seem incomprehensible if you’re not from Central Mass. (like a bobblehead night honoring Anthony A. “Spag” Borgatti Jr., a beloved local retailer); and a remarkably high level of access to the field and the players.
“Their baseball is always going to be better than ours,” Dave Peterson, the Bravehearts’ general manager, said of the WooSox. “Their stadium’s always going to be better than ours. But … as far as autographs, and letting every single kid in this ballpark run across the outfield in the sixth inning, those are things the Bravehearts can do that the Sox can’t do.”
Peterson said he’s relishing the prospect of competing against the Red Sox, and argues that the David-and-Goliath nature of the contest could actually work in the Bravehearts’ favor long term.
“This is a city where you have to earn it,” Peterson said of Worcester. “You can’t just waltz in here thinking people are just going to open up their checkbooks and start buying from your business and promoting you to their friends.
“This is blue collar city,” he added. “If you’re not one of them, they don’t want to talk to you.”
The idea of Worcester giving the Red Sox the cold shoulder because they’re newcomers is probably a bit far fetched. Still, there’s reason to take seriously the idea that the Bravehearts have built up a reservoir of goodwill they’ll be able to leverage down the road.
Case in point: Lori Oliver, a youth baseball coach who regularly visits Bravehearts games with her players.
“Two of my kids tonight are going to be in the pie-eating contest,” Oliver said on opening night. “One of them’s going to be running the bases.
“I have kids who can’t afford to come — [the Bravehearts] always make sure they have tickets. They’ll give them hats; they’ll give them shirts,” she said.
Oliver said she believes the WooSox will ultimately be good for Worcester, citing new jobs and increasing home values, including her own, as likely benefits of the team’s arrival.
But Oliver also said that in a few years, if she has a choice between going to a WooSox game and a Bravehearts game, it won’t really be a choice at all.
“I’ll be here,” she said. “Without doubt, I’ll be here.”
If enough other fans feel the same way, the Bravehearts just might be able to make a go of it.
“Two years from now, we’re going to be the underdog team in an underdog city,” Creedon said. “And that drives me pretty well.”