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Fish Out of Water: A Look at Baseball and Life in the new Double-A South

Fish Out of Water is weekly column covering both baseball and the communities that make up the Double-A South
Blue Wahoos broadcaster Chris Garagiola (L) and ESPN Pensacola program director Davis Allen at Blue Wahoos Stadium.
April 20, 2021

Today marks the 592nd day since the Pensacola Blue Wahoos opened their gates and welcomed fans for a Blue Wahoos baseball game. The last time the Blue Wahoos played here, Pensacola was hosting the Biloxi Shuckers in a must-win game three of the Southern League South Division Championship series. The

Today marks the 592nd day since the Pensacola Blue Wahoos opened their gates and welcomed fans for a Blue Wahoos baseball game. The last time the Blue Wahoos played here, Pensacola was hosting the Biloxi Shuckers in a must-win game three of the Southern League South Division Championship series. The almost-4,000 fans in attendance were treated to a thriller, as top pitching prospects Jordan Balazovic and Dakota Chalmers made their Double-A debuts, and the Wahoos held on for a nerve-wracking, yet deeply satisfying 3-2 win. The win injected new life into the Wahoos waning postseason chances. Pensacola throttled the Shuckers in Biloxi, setting up a winner-take-all in Game 5.

Try as they might, the team fell just shy of a historic comeback, and their season concluded one win shy of their first-ever trip to the Southern League Championship Series.

It takes two hours on I-10 East to drive from Biloxi back home to Pensacola. The first 30 minutes of the ensuing bus ride were spent in somber silence.

But soon after, the solemn attitude evolved into something more cheerful, the way people’s mourning evolves into fond reminiscence of the year that was. Little did we know that when the bus returned to Blue Wahoos Stadium in the middle of the night, and the players and coaches emptied their lockers, we’d be saying goodbye to Blue Wahoos baseball for 613 days. Five hundred nine-two days, plus the three weeks until Pensacola’s home opener on May 11th, 2021.

Obviously much has changed between now and then. The coronavirus, a once seemingly distant problem on the other side of the world, soon ripped through the US like a hurricane. The season was canceled. Businesses were forced to closed. Families were impacted everywhere. For many, the last 12 months were an endurance test that pushed us to our physical and emotional limits.

Though this storm has not fully passed, it is passing. While businesses haven’t fully recovered, they are recovering. People may not be fully healed, but we are healing.

Baseball, too, is healing.

2020 was the first year without any minor league baseball since the introduction of the minors in 1901. Major League Baseball and the Players Association negotiated for a shortened 60 game season before returning to the field in the end of July. Fans were kept out of stadiums for nearly the entire season due to health and safety protocols instituted by MLB.

Arguably the biggest change in the baseball landscape occurred not at the Major League level; but rather, the restructuring of the MiLB. While some teams were reclassified to condense travel, others were removed from affiliated baseball.

Even the Blue Wahoos felt this change. Pensacola’s affiliation changed from Minnesota to Miami, in what will be the Wahoos third different parent club in as many seasons. After spending eight seasons initially with the Cincinnati Reds and one with the Twins, the Wahoos now begin a new chapter with the Miami Marlins.

The Southern League, which was established in 1964, has been renamed to the Double-A South and now has two fewer teams. The divisions have also been realigned with the Montgomery Biscuits (Rays) joining the South Division alongside the Mississippi Braves (Atlanta), the Biloxi Shuckers (Brewers), and the Blue Wahoos.

Between the lines, baseball experts who cover prospects and farm systems project the Marlins to field competitive minor league teams with the wealth of talent they’ve groomed over the past half decade. Though there will be no playoffs in the 2021 season, Pensacola has a chance to field one of the most competitive teams in the Southern League.

But the most important thing returning to Blue Wahoos Stadium is not players, or coaches; but rather, the fans.

Ask any Major League player what they missed most when trying to navigate through the 2020 season. Having fans in the stands, booing or cheering, would be the near-universal response. Baseball without fans is Pensacola Beach without water.

The fans represent more than just the community. They are the literal coming together of people who celebrate what this city is and what the team represents. If there is one thing the Blue Wahoos organization showed during the pandemic, it is that their commitment to community would not waver. That commitment was demonstrated through the hundreds of meals the Wahoos provided to the city, through the hundreds of hours of community service that was offered after Hurricane Sally flooded downtown, or the 200-plus community events held at the ballpark when affordable, family-friendly events weren’t otherwise available.

In three weeks, Blue Wahoos baseball will commence its ninth season in history, and arguably its most important. After spending so much time apart, we will finally come together again to celebrate not just a sport, but rather a community. May 11th represents not just Opening Day, but the belief that we have made the through the darkest part of this pandemic.

Regardless of where the Wahoos finish in the standings, baseball returning to the bayfront is worthy of celebration. Pensacola is not the same vibrant community without its hometown team.

So while there will be no playoffs or champion crowned, the 2021 campaign is a toast to the franchise, the community, and the people that had to endure one of the most challenging years we’ve ever faced.

Baseball is back. For that, and so much more, we celebrate.