A recent December weekend provided team owners Quint and Rishy Studer an opportunity to stop by Blue Wahoos Stadium and take in the scenery.
In Community Maritime Park, with the ballpark overlooking, people were jogging. Riding bikes along Pensacola Bay. Exercising in the grass.
Footballs were being tossed. Others played catch with baseballs.
People walked by with fishing polls. Young couples pushed infants in strollers. Families had spread out blankets to enjoy ocean-side picnics.
As they overlooked the scene, they couldn't help but think back in amazement to how the park looked prior to the construction of Blue Wahoos Stadium, when the entire property was a fenced-off waste site.
"It was really incredible. And my gosh, there were kids all over the park,” Rishy Studer said. “I think right now, with all we’re going through with the coronavirus and concerns to be anywhere, the park itself has become more valuable as a safe place for people to get out.
“We always wanted it to be multi-use, but now it’s like multi-use on steroids," Quint Studer added.
Over the past year, despite the baseball season being canceled, over 200 events have been hosted at Blue Wahoos Stadium and the surrounding Community Maritime Park, giving local families a safe place to enjoy outside of the house during the pandemic.
Ten years ago, the idea of a multi-use community stadium and park was still under construction.
On December 16, 2010, a decade ago to the day, the Studers completed a true hot-stove-season baseball deal that made the stadium, the park, and the economic revitalization of downtown Pensacola possible.
The complicated, arduous, and risky deal included six teams, five cities, and three different professional levels and resulted in affiliated Minor League Baseball and the Pensacola Blue Wahoos coming to the city of Pensacola.
The capstone of the transactions was the Studers' purchase of the Carolina Mudcats, a Double-A team team near Raleigh, N.C. and their movement to the city of Pensacola, bringing with them the prestige and opportunity of Major League affiliation.
That investment has since become a transcendental moment for Pensacola, spurring downtown growth in retail, restaurants, and residential developments near Blue Wahoos Stadium.
“They don’t come any bigger,” said Mort O’Sullivan, founder of the Pensacola accounting firm of Warren Averett O’Sullivan and Creel, and a long-time business adviser for Quint and Rishy Studer. “For our community, I can’t think of another transaction that has made as much of a difference in such positive ways for our community.”
While the acquisition of the Mudcats was the biggest move, it was hardly the only transaction the Studers had to make to bring affiliated baseball to Pensacola.
Alongside the deal to purchase the Mudcats, given rules that prohibited a Minor League owner from operating an affiliated and an independent team simultaneously, the Studers had to sell the Pensacola Pelicans, an independent league team that they had owned in Pensacola since 2002. The couple struck a deal with an ownership group in Amarillo to transfer the Pelicans to Texas where they became the Amarillo Sox before being re-named the Amarillo Thunderheads. As part of the deal, the couple paid a sum of $300,000 to the American Association, the league the Pelicans played in, to transfer their rights.
Replacing the Pelicans, the Studers purchased the Mudcats Double-A franchise for $14.4 million. To ensure Carolina did not lose Minor League Baseball, the Studers invested $2 million to join with the Mudcats owner to purchase the Class-A Kinston Indians and move them to Carolina. The Indians were immediately re-named the Mudcats, allowing the Carolina franchise to continue playing without interruption while changing their classification to A-ball.
Because of the proximity of the Mobile BayBears up the road from Pensacola in Mobile, Ala., the Studers finished the complicated deal by paying $550,000 to the BayBears in exchange for them waiving an exclusivity contract that prevented another Minor League team from coming into their territory.
“Nobody else would have done what Quint did,” said Jonathan Griffith, the president of the Blue Wahoos. “It didn’t make financial sense to do what he did. Everything he did was with the sole purpose of making the community better.”
On the 10-year anniversary of the deal, the impact the Studers' commitment to building Blue Wahoos Stadium and securing an affiliated franchise to the city of Pensacola can be easily seen.
The Blue Wahoos recently completed a historic feat, becoming the first team in Minor League history to win the Baseball America Bob Freitas Organization of the Year, the Ballpark Digest Ballpark of the Year, and the Minor League Baseball Best Overall Golden Bobblehead in a single calendar year. Those awards add to a long, long list of accolades given to the team over the past decade, including numerous Southern League Community Service Awards, multiple awards for best ballpark food, and a bevy of awards honoring Blue Wahoos Stadium as one of the best ballparks in the nation.
The awards are testament to the team's impact on the local community and how the Studers have run the team.
“This stadium has meant so much to this community," Griffith said. "When I first got here, there may have been two places to eat downtown and that was it. Now, we have a bustling downtown and it is amazing what this ballpark has done, how many lives it has changed, how many memories it has made for families.
“I think for the entire community, this stadium and park has really met the vision of Quint and Rishy as far as being a community space for everyone. It's hosted concerts, college football, weddings, Rotary Club meetings, and everything in between."
The success the team has had over the past decade may make it easy to forget how complicated the transactions were that brought the Blue Wahoos to Pensacola or the arduous path that led to the construction of Blue Wahoos Stadium.
To truly understand the team's journey, one must go father back than the December 2010 purchase of the Mudcats.
Studer’s involvement in professional baseball, a move coinciding with his business transition from health care, occurred in an improbable way.
He moved, with Rishy, to Pensacola in 1996 to become president of Baptist Hospital. That led into founding the Studer Group in Gulf Breeze and his involvement as motivational speaker in healthcare.
In 2002, the couple opted one night to take in a Pensacola Pelicans during the team’s first season when they played at Pensacola State College.
Just days later, they noticed in the local newspaper that the team was for sale. Recognizing that the team was likely to leave Pensacola if it was sold or simply fold if not sold, they made a near-impulse decision to buy the team.
Over the next few years, they spent night after night at the ballpark, setting up chairs themselves for fans before each game, and dreaming of a time when the team would have a true stadium in the heart of downtown.
Soon, they began talking about making their stadium dream a reality. The ambitious vision came during a time when Pensacola was struggling to find its niche, following the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan in 2005 and all the destruction it wrought.
A fierce fight soon played out across the community. While many liked the idea of building a stadium for the Pelicans downtown, just as many opposed it, deriding the Studers' plan to build the stadium on a garbage-covered waste parcel that had been deemed toxic by other developers. Many questioned the investment in an independent baseball team when the city itself was struggling to reverse a long-developing economic downturn.
But, the Studers stayed resilient in their decision to build the stadium and their prediction that it would help revitalize the city's downtown.
“We had come to a fork in the road…that period from 2005 to 2010,” O’Sullivan said. “We are so lucky Quint lived here and wanted to do this. It changed the attitude and face of Pensacola. You can say, ‘Oh well, it’s only a few downtown blocks.’ Well, it’s the core of our community and the whole feeling about our community has completely changed as the result of all of this.”
Studer praised the Pensacola City Council members at the time for sticking with him and tuning out naysayers. Their support would lead to the Community Maritime Park Project being approved in 2006 and groundbreaking in 2010 for the stadium.
Even when the Community Maritime Park Project was given approval by voters in the city, included within it the construction of a new baseball stadium, the Studers had difficult decisions to make regarding the team.
“I liked independent ball, but I was concerned about our location,” Studer said. “Our location was such that we were an outlier for independent baseball. Most of the teams we had played against as the Pelicans like Montgomery and Jackson had now gotten affiliations.
“Our team was traveling to places like El Paso, Lincoln, St. Paul, and Sioux Falls just to find teams to play against. My worry was the owners of independent league teams would say, ‘Quint, we like you, we like what you are doing, but we just can’t get on a bus this long, it’s too expensive.’
As opposing teams and sometimes entire leagues folded, the Pelicans bounced from the Southeastern League (2002-03), the Central Baseball League (2004-05), and the American Association (2006-2010). Even with the new stadium coming, independent baseball lacked the continuity and job security that being affiliated with a Major League team could offer.
"We were vulnerable," Studer said. "Once we knew there was an available affiliated team with the Mudcats, that helped.”
As he targeted the purchase of the Mudcats, he knew he would still need to get approval from the teams in the Southern League for Pensacola to get an affiliated team.
“I think getting the team here was more difficult than anyone could have imagined. I talked to every owner in the Southern League to make sure they would approve us. The owners were great. The Southern League owners in general are phenomenal. They are focused on what’s best for the community, versus what is the franchise value.
“The key thing was Mobile. Most of the time you get a one-county buffer for territorial rights in baseball. But for some reason Minor League Baseball had given Mobile a two-county buffer. So, Mobile owned the territorial rights to Pensacola. It really came down to money. What we paid, the $550,000, I think it still might be the highest price ever paid for territorial rights. Once we knew we could get a team, then it came down making it happen.”
With the approval of the Southern League and the Mobile situation resolved, the Studers pulled the trigger on the full series of transactions. The Pelicans headed to Amarillo. The Mudcats to Pensacola. The Kinston Indians replaced the Mudcats.
Looking back on the whirlwind series of deals, Studer can't help but be amazed at the time passed.
“You know, it seems like just yesterday when we were in New York City in 2010 with our attorney to tie everything together,” Studer said. “We didn’t know what to expect. We had never been through anything like this.
“It’s gone by real fast and it’s been much more successful than we had thought. It wasn’t just baseball on the field, it was being successful in helping the community gain confidence to move forward. I feel good about baseball and I still feel the same way about the Community Maritime Park.”
Today, the stadium has more than accomplished their goals. In 2020, over 200 community events have been held at the ballpark, filling the canceled baseball season with other affordable family-friendly options for the community. The team's staff has contributed over 1,000 hours of community service over the course of the year, including a two-week period following Hurricane Sally where the full staff was devoted to helping the community recover from the storm.
“What other community our size has the things we have?” Griffith said. “It really comes from this ballpark. Over the next 10 years, it will be just great for the community to build even more, especially with all the property around the stadium. They have a plan that should help throughout the city, with the economy, with the school systems. I see nothing but great things coming."