The ecosystem of Minor League Baseball is remarkably adaptable, capable of supporting everything from LumberKings to RiverDogs to Biscuits to Isotopes.
In 2012, Blue Wahoos enter the mix.
These colorful aquatic creatures will be competing in Pensacola -- the Florida Panhandle's western-most metropolis -- as Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. The franchise is just the second Floridian entrant in the venerable Southern League (after the Jacksonville Suns) and will take the field at brand new Maritime Park.
The announcement that Pensacola would be getting a Minor League team was made last December, after local businessman Quint Studer bought the Zebulon, N.C.-based Carolina Mudcats. Since then, a small (but growing) front-office staff has been taking on the formidable task of creating a professional baseball entity from scratch.
Something out of nothing
At the head of this fledgling operation is Blue Wahoos president Bruce Baldwin, who has experience with this sort of thing. The veteran baseball executive served as general manager of the Triple-A Richmond Braves from 1987 to 2008, and he oversaw that team's transition to a new facility in Gwinnett County, Ga., for the 2009 campaign.
"I don't know if this is my niche, but it's fun for me and exciting," said Baldwin on working for a brand-new franchise. "It's a really exhilarating time, being given this piece of clay and molding it."
Exhilarating, yes, but also overwhelming.
"If I knew what the first order of business was, I'd let you know," said Baldwin. "There's just so much that needs to be done."
This includes everything from staffing to establishing a marketing plan to figuring out stadium seating to dealing with local government officials and construction companies. And, of course, this was a ballclub that needed a name. "Blue Wahoos" references a fish indigenous to the area and was chosen after an extensive "Name the Team" contest. The logo, designed by Plan B Branding, will be unveiled Nov. 18.
"If Minor League Baseball has room for Flying Squirrels and IronPigs, then why not Blue Wahoos?" asked Baldwin, referencing a pair of similarly eye-catching Plan B clients.
But Blue Wahoos certainly aren't the only thing indigenous to the Pensacola region. Baldwin enthusiastically extols the region's high sporting intelligence, as well as the remarkable number of sports luminaries that hail from the Pensacola region. This includes baseball stars such as Don Sutton and Travis Fryman as well as Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and boxer Roy Jones Jr.
The chance to see the stars of tomorrow is, of course, one of the Blue Wahoos' primary selling points. While Pensacola hosted the independent league Pelicans over the past decade, this marks the region's first brush with affiliated ball. (The Pelicans were also owned by Studer, who sold the club to an Amarillo, Texas-based ownership group to make way for the entity that became known as the Blue Wahoos).
"The Pelicans were an integral part of the community, but to step forward into organized ball opens up another dynamic," said Baldwin. "You never know when you're going to see the next Ken Griffey Jr. or Chipper Jones or Randy Johnson, and that's the exciting part."
But perhaps even more important to the Minor League experience is simply the opportunity to enjoy an all-encompassing evening of affordable family-friendly entertainment.
"The ideal night, for us, is when fans go home and talk to their neighbors about what a good time they had," said Baldwin. "And when the neighbor asks whether the team won or lost the response is 'I'm not sure.'"
And why not? Minor League teams can't control the product on the field, but they can always control the game day experience. And in Pensacola, this experience should be enhanced by a factor all teams wish they could control -- the weather.
"How can you go wrong with white sandy beaches and sunny weather 363-and-a-quarter days per year?" asked Baldwin.
The star attraction
As its name would imply, Maritime Park is designed to take full advantage of these oft-idyllic environs. The 5,000-capacity ballpark, scheduled to be completed by the end of January, will boast one of the most striking views in Minor League Baseball: Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. These surroundings will be maximized by design elements now common in the industry, including an open concourse and intimate seating areas just 14 rows deep.
Baldwin boasts of the "unique buzz" surrounding the opening of the ballpark, as 2,100 multiyear season ticket plans have been sold, as well as all of the outdoor advertising space. But while the Blue Wahoos will be Maritime Park's premier tenant, they certainly won't be the only occupants. Maritime Park is an ambitious $52 million project meant to revitalize and stimulate the Pensacola economy, and as part of this mission, the facility will host other sporting events as well as concerts. An amphitheater is being built in conjunction with the ballpark, and the long-term plan is for the area to be home to retail establishments, hotels and residential units. Baldwin refers to this as "the ultimate live, work and play situation."
Maritime Park certainly won't be going anywhere anytime soon. One of the challenges of building a ballpark in this region is that all structures must be able to withstand a hurricane. This means that design elements meant to be open, intimate and fan-friendly also must be built sturdy enough to withstand winds as strong as 150 miles an hour. The scoreboard, for example, is built on pillars that burrow a full 84 feet into the ground.
Opening Day is still five months away, but this is the homestretch for the Blue Wahoos. Soon affiliated baseball in Pensacola will become a reality.
"We're going to be as prepared as we possibly can to provide the community with something they've never seen before," said Baldwin.