Blue Wahoos celebrate 10 years in Pensacola
The Pensacola Blue Wahoos began the 2022 season at Bayfront Stadium last Friday night, against the Biloxi Shuckers. It’s the Wahoos’ 10th season.
We go back to April 5, 2012 — opening night at the new Bayfront Stadium.
“And we are ready for opening day — at least we are — are you guys ready for some opening day baseball or what?” intoned the public address announcer. “How ‘bout Double-A baseball in Pensacola?”
The Wahoos began their 140-game inaugural season with a 3-1 win over the Montgomery Biscuits before a full house of 5,038 including team co-owner Quint Studer, who was asked what was going through his mind.
“How great this is for the community; what a community melting pot,” he answered that night. “You see people talking, haven’t see each other. We don’t really have a melting pot, a community place to hang out. So, this park is going to be the city’s neighborhood.”
“We didn’t think we could ever get an affiliated team, because Mobile, Alabama, owned the rights to this [Pensacola] area, which was sort of unusual,” Studer said. “But truly, the reason they got those rights is that no one thought that Pensacola would ever build a ballpark.”
Bringing the old Carolina Mudcats to Pensacola began with a meeting with Mobile Bay Bears officials, who agreed to relinquish the rights to Pensacola — for $550,000 — a record for territorial rights. The Mudcats cost $14.4 million dollars, plus a piece of another team that eventually replaced the Mudcats in Zebulon, North Carolina. Studer then paid Amarillo, Texas to take the independent Pensacola Pelicans.
“It was one of the more complex deals that ever was worked out, and I think pretty miraculous, that somebody would have said 15 years ago that Pensacola would have a Double-A, affiliated baseball team,” said Studer. “I don’t think many people would have believed it…with all the people that said ‘It will never work, never work.’ Well, it seems it worked quite well.”
In fact, it was his ownership of the Independent League Pensacola Pelicans, that convinced Studer that bringing a minor league team in “organized” baseball was doable.
“We had one player in nine years that ever made it to the majors; so you know your goal,” Studer said. “People aren’t coming out to see future major-leaguers, so our focus with the Pelicans was constantly upgrading great fan experience. And I think when we moved into the new stadium with an affiliated team, we kept that same focus.”
Building a stadium proved to be the biggest flaming hoop for the fledgling organization. The old Trillium property on the waterfront was targeted for a ballpark and a number of other projects. Opponents gathered enough petitions to force a referendum on the property in 2006. Fifty-six percent of voters approved the Community Maritime Park project. It was, said Studer, a painful time.
“My wife and I would look at each other some nights when somebody blasted us on the radio, or accused us of something anonymously on Facebook, or outright lies, and [say] ‘Why are we doing this?’ In our hearts, we were slaying, ‘We’re doing it because we think it will make Pensacola – and the whole entire area ‘a better place to live.’ Yeah, very, very difficult.”
Another obstacle that delayed the work, says Studer, was that the overall economy was suffering through the Great Recession.
“Early on in 2006, 07 and 08, we had a lot of people wanting to be involved. And then sadly, it started right when the financial meltdown came,” he said. “And a lot of the outside developers just sort of exited. And of course we’re doing well in getting them back now, but, yeah it was extremely difficult.”
Bayfront Stadium opened for the 2012 season and Quint Studer, who owns the team with his wife Rishy and pro golfer Bubba Watson, says Pensacolians and others have come to love the Blue Wahoos.
“I was at a ‘Dancing With the Stars’ to raise money for FavorHouse, and one of the dancers was [Blue Wahoos President] Jonathan Griffith,” said Studer. “When they mentioned he was from the Blue Wahoos, the entire Saenger Theater lit up. So it’s sort of like you’re in a big city and people get really, ‘That’s our team.’ I think the Blue Wahoos in many, many ways have become this area’s team. That’s the excitement about it — that people have really bonded with this team.”
Bayfront Stadium has earned numerous awards for one of the best minor league venues in baseball, and the Wahoos have had a share of on-field success. They have won two first-half titles and a pair of second-half titles, and were co-champions in 2017 with the Chattanooga Lookouts after the championship series was cancelled due to the threat of Hurricane Irma.
Some things have changed over the last decade. Major League Baseball took over the minors a couple of years ago, and the name “Southern League” was dropped in favor of “AA South.”
The Blue Wahoos began as a Cincinnati Reds farm club. That changed in 2018 when the Minnesota Twins took over, and again last year with the current big club, the Miami Marlins.