In each of the past eight seasons, the Jacksonville Suns have been the Southern League's lone Floridian entrant. That all changes in 2012, as the Pensacola Blue Wahoos
are poised to enter the fold.
The Blue Wahoos, so designated after a colorfully named fish indigenous to their Florida panhandle environs, formerly played in Zebulon, N.C. as the Carolina Mudcats (the Mudcats live on
in a modified form, however, as they replaced the Kinston Indians in the Carolina League). The team will be taking the field in waterfront Maritime Park, the only new facility to open in Minor League Baseball in 2012.
With all of this being the case, it's clear that Pensacola's inaugural season is the biggest story in the Southern League. While the city has hosted an independent league team in recent years, this marks the first time that an affiliated club has competed there in more than 50 years (the Blue Wahoos are the Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds).
"[T]o step forward into organized ball opens up another dynamic," Blue Wahoos president Bruce Baldwin told MiLB.com this past November. "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."
Not that Pensacola hasn't seen its share of big-name athletes through the years. The city boasts a remarkably strong professional sports pedigree, as the likes of Don Sutton and Travis Fryman, as well as Emmitt Smith and Roy Jones Jr., have all grown up in the area. Baldwin believes this fact is indicative of the region's strong sporting intelligence. But as the team name implies, fans will still get a strong dose of irreverent Minor League-style entertainment when they visit Maritime Park.
"If Minor League Baseball has room for Flying Squirrels and IronPigs, then why not Blue Wahoos?" asked Baldwin.
"The ideal night, for us, is when fans go home and talk to their neighbors about what a good time they had," he continued. "And when the neighbor asks whether the team won or lost, the response is 'I'm not sure.'"
Not everyone will take such a laissez-faire approach to the win-loss record, and chief among them is Blue Wahoos manager Jim Riggleman. The veteran skipper is arguably the most compelling field general in the Southern League, given the circumstances that brought him to Pensacola. Riggleman began the 2011 season at the helm of the Washington Nationals, but resigned abruptly in June over uncertainty regarding his long-term future. His new position with the Blue Wahoos marks the first time since 1992 that he has managed at the Minor League level.
"I'm rejuvenated to be back in uniform. But the game is rejuvenating in itself. Wherever you're at, there's always challenges, and you're looking forward to facing those challenges and making progress with your team wherever you're at," Riggleman told the Pensacola News Journal in December.
"Rejuvenation" may as well be the buzzword for the Blue Wahoos as the team gears up for Opening Day. The team has sold more than 230,000 tickets prior to the first pitch, including 3,000 full-season plans. Such a robust response bodes well for the club, for 2012 and beyond.
"[We're] creating a culture and a whole format here that we're not looking at just this year. We're looking at the next 10 years," Blue Wahoos executive vice president Jonathan Griffith told MiLB.com earlier this month.
Missing Mincher -- 2012 will be a season of transition for the Southern League as a whole, due to the passing of president emeritus, Don Mincher on March 4. The Huntsville native had served as league president since 2000, stepping down from that position in October due to illness.
The league presidency had been the last in a long line of baseball jobs, dating back to a Major League career (1960-72) during which he bashed 200 home runs. Upon hanging up his cleats, he returned to Huntsville and in 1985 became the first general manager of the fledgling Huntsville Stars. In 1994 Mincher and a group of local investors bought the club to ensure that it would remain in Huntsville, and he served the Stars in this capacity until assuming the Southern League presidency in 2000.
"Don was bigger than life in this town. ... If you wanted to make a movie about the prototypical local hero, he'd be the guy," said current Huntsville Stars general manager Buck Rogers. "He really ran the gamut -- playing, owning and operating -- and you don't get that very often."
The Southern League has yet to name Mincher's replacement; vice president Steve DeSalvo has served as interim president since October and will continue to do so until a decision is made.
Stocked -- The Seattle Mariners have suffered through some lean times as of late, but help is on the way. Seattle's SL affiliate, the Jackson Generals, will likely boast one of the most talented rosters in all of Minor League Baseball, on both sides of the player equation.
Especially intriguing is the possibility of a "Big 3" rotation, featuring three MLB.com Top 100 Prospects in teenage phenom Taijuan Walker, 2011 first-round pick Danny Hultzen and dominating southpaw James Paxton. Shortstop Nick Franklin, the M's first-round draft pick in 2009, anchors the infield, while 21-year-old Venezuelan Francisco Martinez is poised to make an impression at third.
Coming Soon -- 2012 will mark the Birmingham Barons' 25th and final season in Regions Park, an outsized facility located in the nearby suburb of Hoover, Ala. In February, ground was broken on the similarly named "Regions Field," the centerpiece of an extensive downtown renewal project. Slated to open in time for Opening Day 2013, Regions Field will feature design elements paying homage to Birmingham's industrial past, as well as a Negro Leagues museum on the premises.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Barons will still compete in the annual Rickwood Classic, held in the ballpark they called home from 1910-86. This year's version takes place May 30 against the Chattanooga Lookouts, with Atlanta Braves great Dale Murphy serving as VIP guest.
Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the Southern League.
- Last season's championship: Mobile defeated Tennessee three games to one. MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last back-to-back champion: Jacksonville defeated Tennessee, three games to one, in both 2009 and 2010. (Yes, Tennessee has lost in the finals in each of the past three seasons.)
- Last perfect game: Chad Gaudin, Orlando vs. Jacksonville, July 15, 2003.
- Last no-hitter: Matt Moore, Montgomery vs. Mobile, June 16, 2011. MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last 200-strikeout pitcher: Brian Barnes, Jacksonville (213, 1990).
- Last cycle: Alfredo Silverio, Chattanooga vs. Carolina, Aug. 18, 2011. MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last three-homer game: Mark Saccomanno, Jacksonville vs. Carolina, June 4, 2010. MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last 30-homer hitter: Paul Goldschmidt (30, Mobile) and Neftali Soto (30, Carolina), 2011.