His parents were careful to keep a surprise when Charlie Faoro traveled to Pensacola this week with former teammates from their Illinois youth travel ball team.
The group rented a large house. The plan was for the boys and families to escape the winter of Chicago for a few days.
Maybe walk the beach. Have fun in Pensacola. Play some baseball. Share past memories. Enjoy the holiday break from school together.
Plus, one more treat.
“My parents said, ‘You guys are going to spend a night at the stadium.’ And I was like, Huh? How exactly is that working?” Faoro said.
As it turned out, better than he ever imagined.
Faoro was unaware the Pensacola Blue Wahoos had created a year-round Airbnb experience with both clubhouses at Blue Wahoos Stadium.
Now only did it become a reunion of the 2017 Illinois Axis travel team, the players returned with their dads to play on the same field where they had competed as a team that year.
“It’s like we were all 12 again,” said Faora, now 16 and a high school junior. “It has been really fun. I have never seen anything like this (Airbnb at stadium) before. I haven’t seen some of these guys in a while since our baseball team back then, so it was great seeing them again.”
That was part of the reason John List, a friend of Blue Wahoos owner Quint Studer, wanted to help arrange the group holiday trip to Pensacola. They arrived after Christmas and spent this week in town.
“The Blue Wahoos have brought Christmas to Chicago in a special and unique way,” said List, laughing, who is chairman of the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago. He wrote the foreword for Studer’s best-selling book, “Building A Vibrant Community,” published in 2018.
He is also a co-investor in the Blue Wahoos.
His son, Mason, now a high school freshman, was part of that team. He was among the former teammates gathered on the field Tuesday at Blue Wahoos Stadium, amid crystal blue sky, the sparkling backdrop of Pensacola Bay, and balmy (for December 29) temperatures during a final turn in batting practice.
“One of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received, for sure,” said Mason List. “It was crazy being in that locker room and knowing that guys who could be future major league baseball players were here and used that locker room every day.
“And now we got to hang out and sleep in there.”
The group became the 66th and final guests’ stay for 2020 at Blue Wahoos Stadium. The Blue Wahoos launched the Airbnb on in late-May. So far, there have been 23 different states represented, including one from California, another from Colorado, another from New Hampshire and various states in between.
John List and his group were the first from Illinois. The New Year will begin with a group Jan. 3 coming from Valdosta, Georgia as a gift from their store manager.
The Blue Wahoos are the first sports venue in the U.S. to offer an Airbnb experience.
“The way this has taken off, and the way it has continued to take off has been so great,” said Bailie Tate, the Blue Wahoos group sales manager, who has managed the stadium Airbnb since it launched and has booked all of the stays.
“Right now we have bookings scheduled for January and February,” she said. “It is amazing to me that our Airbnb is just as popular now as it was when we started.
“I think the ability to get on the field, the ability to play baseball, have batting practice on the field, stay in the clubhouse, really connects the visitors with why they love the sport. It gives them an inside glimpse of what it would be like to be a professional baseball player while they are here. And I just think that’s really special.”
That is exactly the allure the players’ fathers shared in describing the overnight stay and two days on the field.
The group enjoyed pizza at night, while watching the NFL Monday Night Football game on the Blue Wahoos video screen. The dads slept in the visitors’ clubhouse, giving the boys the larger home team clubhouse to enjoy.
“It is hard to put into words,” said Ryan Pitcock, one of the team’s former coaches, whose son, Trey, played on the team. “It feels special. It is a unique experience. It is something you might not get to see again.
“You walk in and you have the (Blue Wahoos) jerseys hanging up, the hats on the shelf, the players’ names on the locker, the ping pong table, the embroidered furniture. It is all first class.”
He then laughed and added, “I think after about five minutes of all that, our kids felt they deserved all that and belonged.”
Some of the group drove from the Chicago area or the northern Indiana suburbs. Others took flights to Pensacola. It was a vacation they planned for months.
“It is so special to come down here,” John List said. “We love the community and Quint is an angel. You try to give kids a special memory. It was a nice Christmas treat for them. And every time I come to Pensacola, I see something that has been made better.
“And think about this, we’re at the end of December and playing baseball on a field that is as nice as major league fields. You can’t do this in most places.”
The former travel ball players have moved on to different high schools and have continued playing baseball. But winters and early spring in Chicago provide few opportunities to get outside and practice.
“During the winter, I usually only get some swings in (batting) cages and everything is indoors,” said Mason List. “And this time, we get to come out here and in this great weather get some swings in on a real field.”
The team has kept its bond as the youth players went from grade school to middle school age and now most are in high school. Their parents have remained in touch. That added to the enjoyment.
“Obviously the passion is baseball and everyone wants to continue playing baseball, so being here at a professional stadium, these are the guys you look up to,” said Rick Waterman, one of the former coaches, who lives in Homewood Flossmoor, Ill.. “This is a kids’ dream.
“But even as adults, you realize playing pro ball is rare air. And just to be able to experience it in a way like this is very special.”