Blue Wahoos Set For The 2016 Season
Last season, Ray Chang of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos had a game where he played every position on the field. Now he’s played another one, pitchman. The Wahoos were filming a commercial for the Blue Wahoos credit card before taking the field for a practice session.
The Blue Wahoos start their season Thursday night in Mississippi with Chang and some other familiar faces…including second year manager Pat Kelly. "It's always great to come to a city for the second year, you know what to expect. And especially coming to a city like Pensacola because they welcome us so well. the fans are great. There isn't anywhere in the city you go where someone doesn't have something with a Blue Wahoo on it."
Kelly will have a new pitching coach this year with 21 year major league veteran Danny Darwin. "Danny and I played against each other a long time ago in double A. I've always followed his career. Obviously. pitched 20 years in the big leagues. I think he's going to be really good for your young pitchers. A little bit 'old school' but also able to adjust to the modern player".
"This level here (of baseball) separates the men from the boys. I've told them that if you can pitch here, you can pitch in the big leagues." said Coach Danny Darwin, who played for 8 different major league teams in his career and is no stranger to the Southern League. "I've been in this league a couple of times. Once in Chattanooga and once in Jacksonville. So coming here and seeing this (beautiful ballpark) and seeing what these kids get to play in these days, it makes you think about what we used to play in years ago."
And fans will see some changes in the ball park on opening day. The most obvious is the new netting that extends to the end of the both dugouts. Team President Jonathan Griffith says it was installed to comply with new safety rules. "Minor League Baseball put in the ruling that we need to have netting down at least 70 feet from home plate, which is basically the end of the dugout. We went ahead and did it from dugout to dugout, as high as we could."
Griffith says that when the team announced they were putting up the additional netting, season ticket holders expressed concern that there would be blind spots behind the nets. "After we had out season ticket holders come out and get their tickets and get to sit in their seats (there has been) great positive feedback, especially those folks that were (afraid of being hit by foul balls) but didn't want to talk about it. A ball coming 100 miles an hour at you is a bit intimidating." He says the netting will save some fans bumps and bruises during the season.
Another change fans might notice is the foul poles are now colored pink…an homage to minority owner Bubba Watson. There is a change fans might not notice. Principle owner of the Blue Wahoos Quint Studer says the outfield walls had to be moved back to accommodate UWF Football which is coming to the ball park in the fall. "You won't even notice it, but some of the players will notice it. You won't get any cheap home runs to left field here."
Studer says this year the field at Blue Wahoos Stadium will be named in honor of the late Admiral Jack Fetterman, who along with Vince Whibbs Sr. was instrumental in getting the park built. "I think there's a lot of pride in the community, just watching when people bring visitors by. If you go over (past) right field you see the Rotary playground active all the time. You know, what Jack Fetterman envisioned and dreamed about was really creating a community neighborhood downtown and i think that's what we've tried to do is really live up to Jack Fetterman's vision when he started this thing."
And while the game is being played on Fetterman Field, what’s good to eat? "We are looking at a gourmet burger cart called 'Buds and Brews'. It's our fifth year and we're trying to step it up a notch, so we're going to do some hand patty burgers with a bunch of crazy toppings. You know, baseball, beer and burgers!" Travis Wilson has been with the Wahoos since day one and is beginning his second year as Executive Chef. Last year he started coming up with a special menu item for each home stand and one of those delicacies is returning after being named the best new menu item from Venues Magazine. "We're bringing back the Cracker Jack Chicken and Waffles and keeping it at (the first base concession stand) all year long."
There’s another part of last season the Wahoos would like to see return, a trip to the Southern League playoffs. While wins and losses usually take a back seat to player development in double A baseball, Blue Wahoos Manager Pat Kelly admits that last season’s playoff run was fun. "You can say all you want (about player development), we play this game as competitors and we want to win. And to finish strong like that and get into the playoffs really makes it a lot more fun."
The Pensacola Blue Wahoos begin their 2016 season Thursday night in Mississippi. Opening night in Pensacola is Tuesday April 12 vs Jacksonville. Game time at Blue Wahoo Stadium is 6:30.