Twins Winter Caravan A Big Hit With Pensacola Fans

500+ Wahoos fans come out to meet the Minnesota Twins in inaugural event

Twins prospect Devin Smeltzer signs autographs for fans at the Twins Winter Caravan Pensacola held Thursday, January 31st at the Studer Community Institute.

By Bill Vilona / Pensacola Blue Wahoos | February 1, 2019 1:47 PM

The brief respite from historic arctic temperatures in Minneapolis wasn't the only warmth felt by the Minnesota Twins in their introduction to Pensacola and Blue Wahoos fans.

It met the Blue Wahoos' quest to present a lasting first impression as the Twins' new Double-A affiliate in the Southern League. Yes, even the weather cooperated with a a postcard perfect, blue sky and near-60 degree temperatures.

"You can see how entrenched this team has been in this community and how it has impacted so many people's lives beyond baseball," said Twins general manager Thad Levine, who traveled from Minneapolis with Jeremy Zoll, the Twins director of minor league operations.

The Twins Winter Caravan-Pensacola began with a luncheon with sponsors at 5eleven Palafox. A media interview session followed.

During a short afternoon break between events, Twins pitching prospects Tyler Wells and Devin Smeltzer, both of whom likely will be part of the Blue Wahoos opening day roster, traveled to Pensacola Beach with new Blue Wahoos manager Ramon Borrego.

The schedule concluded with a two-hour, open-to-public reception at the new Studer Community Institute on Garden Street.

It was all part of the Blue Wahoos transition into partnership with the Twins after spending the first seven years in franchise history as the Cincinnati Reds affiliate.

"This is something we always wanted to do and we've always been frustrated in a way -- and it's not the Reds, it's all the teams -- but they tend to stick around their major league city because that's where they can sell tickets," said Blue Wahoos majority owner Quint Studer.

"Part of our conversation with the Twins about this partnership is we want to have some (Twins) people here, this kind of caravan. And they have been really good to work with," he said.

"I know it was not easy bringing the manager (Borrego), because he was in Venezuela, so we really appreciate that."

Good thing, too.

Of all the favorable impressions, none were bigger than Borrego's, who captivated at a question-answer session Thursday night, showing both his passion and his humor.

As he explained his career rise, Borrego mentioned the difficulty he experienced moving away from his family for the next opportunity.

"I get a call one day, 'Hey Ramon.. we need a manager back in the Dominican (Republic). And I was like… 'Oohhh!' (feigning disappointment). That was my expression for sure. I got my wife right next to me," said Borrego, as the audience began reacting. "I said, 'Can I call you later?'

"I told my wife, I gotta do it. I like a challenge. But that was tough. It was difficult culture, different food… so I got sick right away. That was bad."

Over fan laughter, Ramon turned a simple question into a 15-minute adventure. It was instant connection. One gentleman in the back of the room raised his hand and said, "I've only been here listening to you for 15 minutes, but I know I would want to play for you."

In addition to the autographs, photos, and video highlights provided by the Twins, fans at the reception sampled signature food items presented by the re-vamped Wahoos Concessions.

"I think first of all, multiple wins," Studer said at the end of the event. "We got to try out the building… and the building was spectacular. And the food was great."

Levine and Zoll spoke about the Twins' highly-touted farm system, which led to the Fort Myers Miracle winning the Florida State League championship at the Class A-Advanced level last season.

Three of the Twins' top-rated prospects, outfielder Alex Kirilloff, shortstop Royce Lewis, and pitcher Brusadar Graterol are expected to either start the season in Pensacola or join during the season.

"The beauty of where you guys (Blue Wahoos organization) are in the cyclical nature of our development is that some of our best players in the minor league system are either ready to come to Double-A on opening day or they will be here at some point," Levine said.

During the luncheon event at 5-Eleven Palafox, Levine told the gathering the temperature was 29-below zero in Minneapolis prior to the trip.

"There's no sweater ever sewn that protects you from weather like that. It's shocking," he said

The event completed a busy January for the Wahoos and Twins. Eight members of the Blue Wahoos front office staff traveled to Minneapolis for TwinsFest on January 25-27. They brought material including inflatable beach balls from Visit Pensacola.com and spent the weekend greeting Twins fans and introducing them to the city of Pensacola.

"So there's now about 11,000 beach balls with Pensacola on them bouncing around Minnesota right now," Studer said, laughing. "So a big part of this was continued to expand our brand.

"With a big organization like the Twins, you have expertise that we may not have so you want to learn from them."

Beyond the players' performance, the Blue Wahoos have sought to make connections with fans and players in the most simplistic way.

"We only asked them to do one thing and that's sign autographs," Studer said. "That's the thing that makes a memory for a child for the rest of their life."

The two players who met with fans Thursday have made community service a priority. Smeltzer and Wells both overcame hardship in their youth to become professional baseball players.

"We want them to be in community relations. I'd be disappointed if I heard all they were doing is signing autographs," Levine said. "I want them to become part of the fabric of what (Blue Wahoos) are trying to accomplish here."

The Twins were affiliated with the Chattanooga Lookouts for the past four years. The Reds return to Chattanooga this season as the affiliate.

After the 2018 season, the Blue Wahoos announced they were going to consider a new affiliation. The Twins and San Diego Padres both made a strong pitch to be in Pensacola.

"We enjoyed our time in Chattanooga. We won a lot of baseball games there," Levine said. "But when the opportunity came to join with Quint, it was something we didn't want to miss.

"We very much pursued them. The reason is that the organization has done such a tremendous job since opening eight years ago. The stadium has won countless awards.

"I believe our players will weave into the fabric of this community. I think they will be better men for having that experience. That was something important to us as we were making this decision to change affiliations."

With Spring Training just around the corner, events like TwinsFest and the caravan visit to Pensacola connect fans with the team at a time when baseball is not on everyone's mind.

Studer remembers as a youth experiencing the Hot Stove League as a Chicago Cubs fan and what it meant to communities to experience the traveling caravan.

"I think that's what this does. It gets everybody back together and excited about the year," he said, following Thursday's event. "I think (Blue Wahoos fans) loved hearing from the Twins and I thought Thad was excellent talking about that. 

"And they get a little taste of what we expect. The more professional we are, they understand how serious we are about fan experience."

 

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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