Warm memories for Pat Kelly in return to Blue Wahoos Stadium

Chattanooga manager led Pensacola to franchise-best success

Former Blue Wahoos manager Pat Kelly, now with Chattanooga Lookouts, hits ground balls to his players Tuesday prior to the start of the series at Blue Wahoos Stadium. (Bill Vilona)

By Bill Vilona, Senior Writer / Pensacola Blue Wahoos | August 13, 2019 6:40 PM

The teams' prior meeting in mid-May in Chattanooga presented Pat Kelly with a surreal experience.

He knows this week will evoke even more emotion.

Like old times, Kelly walked through a dugout tunnel Tuesday and into the open expanse of Blue Wahoos Stadium with the beauty of Pensacola Bay as the backdrop.

And the memories flowed. Three years as Pensacola Blue Wahoos manager, three playoff trips. One Southern League co-championship in 2017. Nearly a roster full of players who advanced into the major leagues.

"I've been to stadiums where I either played in, or managed, but I don't think there is anywhere I've been where I have the affection for coming back to a place like this," said Kelly, now the Chattanooga Lookouts manager, as he sat in the visitors' dugout with area media members four hours before Tuesday night's series-opener against the Blue Wahoos.

"It's going to be very unique and I'm really excited about it," said Kelly during the interview session. "It was a fun place to come every night and it was probably the funnest three years I've had in minor league baseball."

Kelly led the Blue Wahoos to their greatest franchise success from 2015-17 as a Cincinnati Reds affiliate.

During that tenure, Kelly became a popular connection with Blue Wahoos fans. He was always accommodating for autographs and conversations before games. He managed many of the players, like current Reds' sensation Aristides Aquino, who played here during that time.

"This is my 47th year in pro baseball. I think Pensacola is one of two cities I spent more than two years in, so I think you get affection for it," said Kelly, a California native, now living in Sarasota, who will turn 64 on Aug. 27. "The way we were treated here, it was a place you look fondly at."

The two teams, who swapped affiliations after the 2018 season, played in Chattanooga on May 11-15 in a series the Blue Wahoos won 3-2 as part of their franchise-best start. Three of those games were decided by one run. Another was a 3-0 win by the Blue Wahoos.

The Lookouts were the Minnesota Twins affiliate from 2015-18. They shared the 2017 Southern League championship with Pensacola after a dominant season in the league.

The looming threat of a hurricane that year in the Gulf of Mexico caused both teams to agree not to play a championship series. After last season, the affiliation change reunited the Reds in Chattanooga where they were located for 21 seasons.

"I thought I made a wrong decision when I told them I'd rather go to Double-A to Triple-A," said Kelly, jokingly, referring to his choice of managerial stops after the affiliation change. "At that time, I thought it would be Pensacola.

"But those things happen and it's the way PDCs (Player Development Contracts with cities) work out. Chattanooga has been good to us. It's Reds country. They have a real good year attendance wise. But I definitely miss coming to this ballpark every night."

Both teams have different rosters from their May series in the natural transition during a minor league season. Only three Blue Wahoos players, infielder Jordan Gore, pitchers Jorge Alcala and Brusdar Graterol, have remained with the Blue Wahoos all season. Graterol recently came off a lengthy absence on the injured list.

The Lookouts have struggled in the second half of the season, losing 14 consecutive games at one point in July. It prompted Kelly to jokingly say, "Do I have to?" when a local media member asked Tuesday if he could reflect on his team's season.

The Lookouts feature two of the Reds' top 10 prospects in catcher Tyler Stephenson (2015) and infielder Jonathan India (2018), a former Florida Gators star, and both first-round draft picks in the last four years.

Former Blue Wahoos players Jose Siri and T.J. Friedl are part of the Lookouts roster, which is buoyed by strong hitting all season.

"We're interesting," Kelly said. "We are first in the(Southern) league in hitting and last in the league in pitching. The complete opposite of what we used to do in Pensacola. It's all (pitching coach) Danny's (Darwin) fault… No. we had a tough year pitching-wise whether it's been injuries or players advancing."

The series runs through Saturday as is part of the final 10 home games in the 2019 season. The Blue Wahoos will be on the road, beginning Sunday at the Mississippi Braves, before returning Aug. 22 to begin their final homestand against the Jackson (Tenn.) Generals.

"This is a complete different angle," said Kelly as he looked out from the visitors' dugouts. "But It's nice to be back. I always loved coming to this stadium and I'm looking forward to the next five days."

Blue Wahoos majority owner Quint Studer planned a visit with Kelly during the week.

"He has just become a good friend. I think he's been one of my biggest supporters. At this point in my career, it's very important to have someone like you," said Kelly, laughing.

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

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