WooSox host Fidrych Foundation, Challenger players take the field

On August 21, 2021, Challenger League players had the chance to live in the shoes of a WooSox player as they took the field at Polar Park as part of a Mark Fidrych Foundation event.

This was an awesome opportunity for the players, who were kids of a variety of ages with special needs. It’s all thanks to the WooSox partnership with the Fidrych Foundation.

A longtime partnership

Even back in Pawtucket, the Red Sox AAA affiliate has always given back to the community around them and made their ballpark accessible to all audiences. As part of this, they have longtime partnerships with both the Challenger League, a baseball league for those with physical and developmental disabilities, and the Mark Fidrych Foundation, an organization that enhances the lives of those with special needs through sports and sports education. The Fidrych Foundation was started by the family of Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych after he died in a tractor accident back in 2009. Fidrych, a former MLB pitcher who spent time with the AAA Red Sox, was highly involved in the community of his hometown of Northborough, MA prior to his death and his family wanted to continue his legacy.

When the team moved to Worcester and became the WooSox, it was the perfect opportunity to bring their Fidrych Foundation and Challenger partnerships together, as the Foundation supports Challenger teams in many nearby towns.

I caught up with Ann and Jessica Fidrych from the Foundation as well as Joe Bradlee, the WooSox Vice President of Baseball Operations and Community Relations, who spoke about the partnership.

Challenger League comes to bat

To begin the day, Challenger League players and their buddies were welcomed onto the field and each player got the chance to bat and run the bases.

As players came up to bat, their names were announced, just like the real WooSox players.

Bradlee pitched to the players and multiple coaches and WooSox staff members, including former Red Sox catcher and current WooSox hitting coach Rich Gedman, played the field.

I caught up with Gedman after the game. Gedman is a Worcester native and is proud to be involved not only with the WooSox but also in giving back to the Worcester community.

I also spoke with several long time Challenger League players: Krish from Shrewsbury, Tobin from Southborough, and Jay from Framingham. All three of them had nice hits off of Bradlee, and Krish had one of the biggest hits of the day as he drilled the ball down the third base line. Krish said it was a result of him continuing to work on his swing.

Parents were able to watch their kids from the berm. I spoke with the parents of Ryan Love, a longtime Shrewsbury Challenger League player. They were ecstatic about Ryan having the opportunity to take an at bat at Polar Park.

Outstanding volunteers honored

After the players finished batting and running, the Fidrych Foundation announced the honorees of their annual Citizenship Award. The award was given to four individuals who have volunteered as buddies in Fidrych Foundation programs. According to the Foundation’s website, the Citizenship Award is for “young men and women who have actively participated in and advocated for special needs athletic involvement within their surrounding communities.” This year’s winners were Kyle Daunais, Gianni Colonero, Michael Warwick, and Chase Collins.

Kyle and Gianni, both longtime Challenger League buddies, were in attendance. I had the chance to speak with both of them after they received their awards. They were glad the Foundation was so appreciative of their volunteer efforts and were happy to take part in this welcoming community.

Ken’s Foods welcomes Challenger League back

Thanks to Ken’s Foods, all the Challenger League players, buddies, and their families were welcomed back to Polar Park later that day for the game against the Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, the AAA affiliate of the New York Yankees. The Fidrych Foundation was honored as part of the pregame ceremony. This topped off a fun day for everyone involved in this evolving partnership.

The Fidrych Foundation not only improves the lives of the players, but also gives teenagers in the area a chance to make a difference in their community. I have several friends who have gotten involved either as players or volunteers, and when I played in the Northborough Challenger League for its first five years, I truly saw how much the Foundation did to make the Challenger players feel special.

The WooSox have continued to welcome people from all backgrounds to the ballpark with open arms, and I think it’s amazing that they’re supporting an organization like the Fidrych Foundation.

Sale leads to first Polar Park sellout, WooSox win on Autism Acceptance Day

It was Autism Acceptance Day at Polar Park and it was a beautiful day for some baseball. The WooSox faced the Toronto Blue Jays AAA affiliates, the Buffalo Bisons. Before the game, the WooSox honored many organizations that support people affected by autism. The New England Center for Children (NECC), a leader in autism education and training (and the school that taught me to talk) was honored during the pregame ceremony. Many NECC students, teachers, and family members also received tickets to the game.

Autism Acceptance Day was also the first 100% capacity sellout at Polar Park (9,508 fans) as Chris Sale took the mound for a rehab start after undergoing Tommy John surgery back in March 2020.

While Sale’s rehab start made this game even more exciting, large crowds can be a challenge for individuals with autism. As a result, the WooSox added an additional sensory-friendly space in the DCU Club. The Unum Sensory Friendly Room was also open, as it is for every game, along the first base line adjacent to fan services.

I covered the game and events of the day on behalf of the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism. I was focusing not only on the game but also on the inclusive environment Polar Park had created.

I caught up with Jared Bouzan, NECC’s Chief Development Officer, before he was honored on the field. I also spoke with Jeff Arnold, a member of the NECC marketing team. Both Jared and Jeff were excited for the events of the day and very appreciative of the WooSox.

Marie Roy, an autistic WooSox employee, was working at the nacho stand. I met Marie last month during the Polar Park open house and caught up with her again at this game at the nacho stand where she works:

Joe Bradlee, WooSox VP of Baseball Operations & Community Relations invited me to come to the park at 1 p.m., three hours before the game, to catch batting practice (BP). It was a pretty incredible experience to be welcomed on the field to cover BP along with several other press members. Many extra media members came to Polar Park for Chris Sale. Red Sox utility player Marwin Gonzalez, like Sale, was also on a rehab assignment and took BP with the team. After BP, I had the chance to interview WooSox first baseman and designated hitter Josh Ockimey as well as WooSox coach Bruce Crabbe.

I also had the chance to speak with reporters like Joe McDonald of the Worcester Telegram (who I had originally met in 2015 during my first press box experience with the Bruins), and Alex Speier, a Boston Globe baseball writer and researcher who is frequently on NESN during Red Sox games to provide unique insight on the players. I was surprised to learn that despite the wealth of information that Alex shares during a game, like the percentage of change-ups a pitcher has thrown all season, that he is a one-man research team. He noted that he comes up with the good questions and then finds the data on the internet.

After covering BP and the pregame ceremony, I found a spot behind home plate next to the press box to watch the game. I was able to see Sale’s warm-up in right field in front of the Worcester Wall, and the game began shortly afterwards.

In the top of the first, the crowd roared as Sale took the mound. Even though he let a couple of baserunners on in the first, he kept the Bisons scoreless. Marwin Gonzalez, who I saw smash a few balls to right field during BP, gave the WooSox an early lead by crushing a solo homer over the Worcester Wall in the bottom of the first.

Over the first three innings, Chris Sale struck out six batters and he looked very sharp in the third inning when hitters Christian Colon, Corey Dickerson, and Tyler White all went down swinging for strike three. I performed some play-by-play from the stands during the top half of the second inning.

The fourth inning wasn’t as easy for Sale as he struggled with his fastball command. Sale gave up his first run in this inning on a pair of doubles. However, if it weren’t for center fielder Tate Matheny leaping up against the wall to rob Kevin Smith of a home run, the Bisons would have taken the lead. Matheny also had a running catch for out #2, with the third out coming on Sale’s seventh strikeout.

In the bottom of the inning, Matheny showed how great defense can lead to offense by hitting a two-run shot over the wall and onto the left field berm. Michael Gettys, who had reached base in all four of his at bats, scored on the HR blast.

Sale left the game with the score 3-1, after throwing 81 pitches, striking out seven, and giving up one run in five innings. Shortly after Sale was done, several media members exited the press box and a few of them asked me if I wanted to go see Chris Sale, so I followed them out of the ballpark.

The WooSox set up a temporary press tent just outside the ballpark specifically for the Chris Sale post game interview. He spoke to the media during the bottom of the 6th inning. I was told that I could observe, as Joe McDonald and Alex Speier asked the bulk of the questions, but I was encouraged to take a spot up close on the side of the tent just before Sale came out to speak.

Sale said he was very encouraged by the results and that this was different than the previous rehab outings. He said he “felt normal” for the first time in a long while during this game. He knows what the Red Sox are doing is special and that he needs to be ready to help them when he rejoins the club.

While Sale was speaking, the WooSox continued to build on their lead as #2 Red Sox prospect (according to MLB.com) Jeter Downs, hit a huge solo shot into deep left field and well past the berm seats.

Buffalo made the game closer in the seventh inning. Nash Knight who had already knocked in the first Bisons run, tripled for his third hit before scoring on a Rodrigo Vigil groundout.

However, Durbin Feltman came in to pitch the last two innings, and prevented the Bisons from scoring any more as the WooSox secured a 4-2 victory. Sale was the winning pitcher with his first official win since August 2019.

After the win, fans headed onto the field for the Sunset Catch. Fans are invited to play catch after every Saturday WooSox game at Polar Park.

I had a thrilling day at Polar Park as I had the opportunity to enjoy all the events of the day as a press member, a fan, and a member of the autism community. I’ll be back at Polar Park again on Friday August 13 to see the game and watch fireworks afterwards, something Polar Park does for every Friday night game. If you haven’t had the chance to go to a game yet, I highly recommend it.