BY MATT LaWELL
PENSACOLA, Florida | Community Maritime Park is compact and incredible and so much more than a baseball stadium. Before much longer, the newest attraction in Minor League Baseball will share its prime plot of land off Pensacola Bay with a maritime museum, a conference center, an office building and enough other distractions to fill a full afternoon or night at the game. There are big plans.
No matter what else is there, though, everything at the complex still revolves around the baseball.
And the baseball still revolves around perhaps the most incredible view in the minors.
If you sit in any seat from the leftfield corner down to home plate, or stand at the rail near the berm out in right, or just walk around anywhere on the concourse, you will see water. It transfixes and distracts, and is the biggest reason baseball people all over the South are talking about Pensacola this season. The stadium itself is comfortable and modern, perfect for a baseball fan who wants to watch a game and score every pitch or for the family with kids whose attention spans peter out around the top of the fourth. But the view is spectacular, worth the $10 for a box seat, the $8 for a reserved seat, the $5 for a general admission spot somewhere along the concourse.
“I sit back,” said Tommy Thrall, the media relations coordinator and radio broadcaster, “and I think, ‘I’m the luckiest guy in the world.’”
“I sit back and I think, ‘I’m the luckiest guy in the world.’” — Pensacola radio broadcaster Tommy Thrall
Thrall has worked for the Blue Wahoos for the better part of a year already after stints with the Quad Cities River Bandits of the Low-A Midwest League and the independent Kansas City T-Bones. His views in Iowa and Missouri paled in comparison. Now he wears linen pants for home games and exudes the professionalism that Blue Wahoos president Bruce Baldwin wants from his team employees. And he loves that view.
During the months prior to opening day, Thrall was inundated with media requests. He filled out more than 100 credentials for the first game, and though those numbers have dwindled, the numbers in the seats have not. The Blue Wahoos have a season-ticket base of 3,000, and have sold out seven of their first 10 games — the team announces 5,038 for a sellout, though more people than that are often in the stadium thanks to general admission tickets — with an average of 4,827 per game.
There are amenities like the Hancock Bank Club, which hangs over the left side of the concourse and offers a social setting for businesses, and a bevy of food options, too, including the Heater (read our Random Statistical News for more on that), but all those people are what make the stadium a great place to watch a game. The concourses are always packed, with more folks than not wearing new team gear.
Pensacola last had a professional affiliated team in 1962, when the old Senators played their last game in the Alabama-Florida League. The Pelicans played the last 10 seasons in the independent Southeastern League, Central League and American Association, and that was fun, but all this is so much cooler. The city waited 50 years for the Minors — with a capital M — to return. The people here wanted it all those years. Now that they have it, they are responding in droves.
They want the view. They want baseball. They want it all.
And they love what they have.
Time for minor league trivia. The Blue Wahoos moved to Pensacola from Zebulon, North Carolina, where they played for 21 seasons as the Carolina Mudcats. In what five other (mostly) Southern cities did the team play before it moved to Zebulon? (Keep reading for the answer.)
Jacksonville never trailed on its way to a 4-3 win that dropped Pensacola to its first losing record in the short history of the team. Jacksonville catcher Kyle Skipworth homered in the third and leftfielder Ryan Patterson homered in the fourth to give the Suns a two-run lead. The Blue Wahoos cut the lead to one in the bottom of the fourth after catcher Mark Fleury knocked in first baseman Joel Guzman with a single, but left six on over the last five innings. Pensacola righty J.C. Sulbaran struck out 11 in six innings in a losing effort.
The Blue Wahoos made a bit of a splash when they introduced Jim Riggleman as their manager in December. Riggleman played eight seasons in the minor leagues and managed nine more, though he is more known for his 12 seasons as a manager in Major League dugouts. Over two decades, he managed the San Diego Padres (1992-94), Chicago Cubs (1995-99), Seattle Mariners (2008) and Washington Nationals (2009-11), and famously walked off the Nationals’ team bus last June — gone, he said, because folks in the front office refused to talk about a contract extension. He appeared comfortable back in the minors, though he says he is still getting used to bus travel again.
Want the answer? Before they played in Pensacola and Zebulon, the Blue Wahoos played in Charleston, South Carolina (1959-61); Savannah, Georgia (1962); Lynchburg, Virginia (1963-65); Evansville, Indiana (1966-68); and Columbus, Georgia (1969-1990).
And in random statistical news, the game started four minutes later than the scheduled time, the first pitch was a ball, the first batter was hit by a pitch (which is sort of just sloppy) and a quartet — two men, two women — sang the “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a 1 minute, 16.1 seconds. Also, we ate a couple of Heaters, a Community Maritime Park delicacy that tops a quarter-pound burger with cheese, bacon, onion rings and a spicy mayo that Pensacola fans call “Wahoo Sauce.” Pretty darn good. We might have finished both baskets. In, like, an inning.
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.