R.I.P. Ben Mondor (March 26, 1925 – October 3, 2010)

Ben Mondor, owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox, died Sunday night after a battle with cancer. I’m not sure if people outside of Rhode Island or New England have heard of him, but in the late ’70s-early ’80s, Mr. Mondor singlehandedly saved the Pawtucket Red Sox from bankruptcy, and made minor league baseball in New England relevant.
He made McCoy Stadium family friendly, and very affordable.
I have met him several times, and he was genuinely one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life. How many sports team owners do you see roaming around the stadium among the fans? And he was always more than willing and happy to sign autographs. He had a great sense of humor, and always had a big smile as he enjoyed life immensely. He will be greatly missed.

Here is an article on him from the Providence Journal:

Ben Mondor, rescued PawSox from bankruptcy, dies at 85

By DANIEL BARBARISI

Journal Sports Writer

Ben Mondor, the playful and beloved Pawtucket Red Sox owner who took the franchise off the scrap heap and created a jewel of minor league baseball, has died in his Warwick home. He was 85.

“It’s the end of a great era,” said his trusted friend and PawSox president Mike Tamburro. This guy was an icon. What he accomplished here is just absolutely remarkable. It’s a great loss, not only for us personally, but I think for the entire community. He was a Rhode Island treasure.”

Mondor was known as a one-of-a-kind in the baseball world, a former businessman who bought the team in shambles and transformed it into a model organization. He was friendly and sharp-tongued at the same time, and never took himself too seriously. He saw the value of his baseball team as part of the fabric of his community, and he fervently believed that his purpose to was keep the PawSox fun and inexpensive — and the McCoy Stadium parking free — for the people of Rhode Island.

“Ben was a giant among men who saved baseball for the State of Rhode Island. On both a personal and professional level, I am saddened to hear of his passing,” said Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino. “He was a good friend of many years and was one of the finest people to ever be a part of the game of baseball. When we honored him on ‘Ben Mondor Day’ at Fenway Park in 2004, the sheer number of people who came to join us in the celebrations showed the profound impact that his life had on the game and on the lives of people.”

Mondor died Sunday night after a battle with cancer. Ownership of the team will pass to Mondor’s wife, Madeleine, but the leadership structure of the team — president Tamburro and general manager Lou Schwechheimer — will remain, and no major changes are expected in the near future.

“He told us both — if you guys screw this up, I’m going to come back and haunt you,” Tamburro said.

A celebration Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul, 30 Fenner St., in Providence. The Mass is open to the public. A private burial will follow.

Mondor, born in Quebec in 1925, left Canada as a boy. As an adult, he invested in the New England textile industry, owning several mills. In the 1970s, he sold his interests and retired. In 1977, he bought the-then Rhode Island Red Sox franchise. At the time, the organization was flailing, bankrupt and having lost its membership in professional baseball, drawing only 1,000 fans a game in a run-down McCoy Stadium.

Tamburro recalled the winter day when he and Mondor first walked around McCoy Stadium after the sale. The challenge seemed far too great as they walked around the decrepit old park, pausing in front of a beat-up old chicken stand on the third-base side.

“It was cold,” Tamburro recalled, “sleet, ice, a slushy day, and there were chicken bones frozen in front of that concession stand. And I remember looking around this place, and saying, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ ”

Mondor paused to look around, and as they moved, he lost his footing, slipping on one of the chicken bones and falling flat on his back, Tamburro said.

“And he looked up at me, and said to me, ‘Every businessman makes one mistake. You’d better make sure this isn’t mine.’ ”

It wasn’t.

With his forceful personality at the core, the PawSox rose from an annual attendance of 70,000 when Mondor took over to nearly 700,000 20 years later.

He was known for his wit and willingness to speak his mind, and for treating his employees well — most of his top executives, like current president Tamburro, GM Schwechheimer and VP of public relations Bill Wanless, started with the team in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“If you look around at the people who have been around for not one decade, not two decades, but three decades, this crew is a testament to Ben. The fact that you can look around this building on a given day and see folks who have been together for 30 years is unheard of,” Schwechheimer said.

Mondor considered his longtime employees family, and let them know they were close with playful barbs. Getting needled by Mondor was preferable to the alternative — it meant he liked you.

Over time, his PawSox and their consistent success became known throughout the baseball world.

Former baseball agent and San Diego Padres CEO and now Red Sox senior adviser Jeremy Kapstein, a Rhode Island native, said that wherever he would go in baseball, major and minor league executives would ask about Ben Mondor and his Pawtucket Red Sox.

“They know about Ben Mondor. They know about the team of people he hired — Mike, and Lou, and Bill — Ben was a nationally known and respected baseball figure,” Kapstein said. “He built the PawSox into a true local treasure, and a nationally respected franchise… Ben was one of those very rare people who have a vision, plus the drive and skill to accomplish his goal. The PawSox are proof of his vision accomplished.”

The PawSox routinely lead the minor leagues in attendance or rank in the top 10 despite climate issues and the presence of a major league team less than an hour away. They are an important part of a player development powerhouse that has helped the Red Sox win two World Series in the past decade, as Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein noted.

“He played a significant role in developing hundreds of Major League players many of whom contributed immensely to the success of the Boston Red Sox. He treated the players like his own family and his devotion to their development was absolute. We will miss him,” Epstein said.

Over 33 seasons, Mondor’s PawSox participated in some great moments, including baseball’s longest game in 1981, and the Triple-A All Star game in 2004, and hosted hundreds of major league rehabbers and big-time prospects who came up through the organization’s ranks.

Scores of former players and employees have called to offer condolences, Tamburro said. Among them was Roger Clemens, a former PawSox, paid tribute to Mondor on his Twitter account today: “Lots of prayers and hugs out to Ben Mondor’s family. I am very thankful to have met him,” Clemens wrote.

While he’s no George Steinbrenner — a man Mondor admired — the PawSox owner has lasted through his fair share of managers, 12 in all. Mondor’s final PawSox manager was Torey Lovullo, who took over this past spring and guided the PawSox this past year.

From the moment he arrived, Lovullo was struck by the class and professionalism of the PawSox organization, and fed off the feeling of being part of something big. He and his wife were greeted with flowers, and his children received generous Christmas presents. Right away, he felt at home, and it all started with Mondor, he said.

At the beginning of each homestand, Lovullo would sit down in Mondor’s office, to talk about the previous trip. Mondor loved to win. He hated losing, even though to the Red Sox, the minor leagues are about player development, not wins and losses. Mondor knew that conceptually, but a bad road trip still rankled.

“He cared so much about the wins and losses, but he was in it with me, he knew why we couldn’t quite get there. He knew it was about development. But he felt the wins and losses. And we’d have great baseball discussions,” Lovullo said.

“I’ve managed and played in about every city in the United States of America, and it’s just unmatched, the passion and care for the players, and for the Boston Red Sox and the Pawtucket Red Sox,” Lovullo said.

PawSox broadcaster Dan Hoard first met Mondor in the 1980s — when as an intern, the owner offered Hoard a ride home from the park. When he returned as a radio man several years ago, Hoard was welcomed immediately, but on the road constantly. Mondor tried to soften that blow.

“He would do whatever he could to try to make up for that,” Hoard said. “I joked with my wife Peg today, that I’m going to have to remember to send her flowers at appropriate occasions. Because Ben always did it — it’s amazing.

“Birthday, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, any holiday when it’s appropriate to send your spouse or significant other flowers, he took care of it for me. So now I’m back to having to write these things down,” Hoard laughed.

While Mondor may have been known nationally, his focus was local, and he never stopped trying to promote his adopted home. The Pawtucket Red Sox are one of Rhode Island’s best and most well-known brands, and resonate at a level beyond most minor league baseball teams. The PawSox act as a giant billboard of sorts for Rhode Island, said Robert D. Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.

“He was a character, he was charismatic,” Billington said. “He single-handedly has done more than anyone else to bring the good Pawtucket name across the country.”

“Our brand was nothing,” before Mondor took over the Pawsox, Billington said. “What he did was nothing short of monumental. There are not many people who can do that in their life and he did it.”

Yet the PawSox are anything but a baseball factory. They remain the quintessential baseball experience, an inexpensive, family-friendly option in an age where high ticket prices are the norm. Parking is always free at McCoy Stadium, and it’s possible to get in and out quickly and easily — there is none of the hassle of the modern sporting event.

That starts at the top. John C. Gregory, president of the Northern RI Chamber of Commerce, said Mondor imbued everyone in the organization, from the executives to the ticket-takers, with the idea of customer service.

“A lot of the folks who work there started as interns. They grew up in the PawSox way,” Gregory said. “My guess is if you didn’t buy into it, gave it more than just lip service, you probably didn’t last long.”

He recalled how during the stadium renovation debate in the mid 1990s, Mondor turned down an ornate design that would have completely rebuilt the exterior of the stadium and made it more in line with the Camden Yards ballpark in Baltimore. Mondor held out for a simpler plan that kept much of McCoy’s signature exterior, like the circular stairway, intact.

“There isn’t a single luxury box in the place,” Mondor said when the new plan was unveiled in 1998. “It’s for my people, the little guys … We still have $4 and $3 tickets for everybody. That’s the kind of ballpark it’s going to be.”

“I know it’s overstated, but it’s the passing of a legend,” Gregory said.

Mondor was elected to the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2004. According to the Red Sox Hall of Fame selection committee, “Ben Mondor rescued Triple-A baseball in Pawtucket and…has turned the PawSox into one of the most beloved franchises in Minor League Baseball. Along the way, he has contributed to the development of countless Red Sox prospects on the road to Fenway Park.”

The PawSox are a valuable franchise, and Mondor received offers to sell often. He never listened to one, Tamburro said.

“He got many many offers, and I don’t think he ever paid attention to any offer. This is what he loved. This is where he wanted to be. He retired god-knows how many times, and couldn’t leave the ballpark. And we loved him for it. I still think he’s going to walk through that door, one more time. And we’d be the happiest guys in the world if he did,” Tamburro said.

He will not. No one has touched Mondor’s office since he fell ill and left McCoy for the last time Aug. 22. He did, however, know when to go.

Mondor passed away Sunday afternoon, just as the Red Sox were finishing their final game of the season against the rival New York Yankees. Baseball in Boston was over for the year. That was, in a way, when Tamburro always expected Mondor to go.

“You’ve probably heard me say that I never worry about Ben during the season; it’s when the season ends that I worry about him,” Tamburro said.

“And it’s remarkable that we lost him just about the time when the Red Sox got the last out in [Sunday’s] ballgame against the Yankees. It was almost him saying to us, ‘It’s time for me to go.’ I’ll never forget. It was just a remarkable moment.”

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