Blue Wahoos sparkle under All-Star spotlight

Pensacola reveling in chance to host Southern League festivities

The Blue Wahoos have turned what was once a toxic waste site into a premier Minor League destination. (Barrett McClean Photography)

By Brian Lester / Special to MiLB.com | June 20, 2017 1:12 PM ET

PENSACOLA, Florida -- Rain pounds the Panhandle of Florida -- not exactly the words anyone wants to hear the day of the 41st Southern League All-Star Game.

If there's a silver lining amid the gloomy weather, however, it's the fact that there was even a chance that an All-Star Game could take place there on the third Tuesday in June.

There was a time, after all, where the idea of Pensacola having a team playing in a stadium considered one of the best in the country at the Minor League level was a pipe dream.

The site Blue Wahoos Stadium sits on was once a toxic piece of land surrounded by signs that warned people not to walk on it because it was too dangerous.

More than six years later, it's one of the league's gems.

"I have pictures of what the park looked like before and now, and it's easy to forget that it was a toxic dump," Blue Wahoos owner Quint Studer said. "It's great having this event here. It's great exposure for the city and a great thing for the fans."

The Blue Wahoos, first-half champions of the South Division, began playing here in 2012. 

This is the first time the Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds has hosted the All-Star game.

Getting to this point was not easy.

Studer first brought an independent league team to town in 2002, and it played on a couple of the local college campuses. At the time, it didn't look like it would get any better.

"No. 1, we didn't have a stadium. No. 2, it was costly. And No. 3, Mobile owned the territorial rights to Escambia County. Major League Baseball gave them a bigger territory because the feeling was that Pensacola would never have a team anyway."

Studer ended up purchasing the territorial rights for $550,000, then bought the Carolina Mudcats before moving the team to Pensacola.

Despite strong opposition to the stadium -- 7,000 voted against it -- the referendum passed.

Studer figures many of those who voted against it have probably changed their mind since then, considering the success of the franchise and that the stadium has taken center stage for the midseason classic.

Monday's Fan Fest was a hit, with many in the crowd having cards, baseballs and jerseys autographed by the top players in the league.

The players sported actual North and South Jerseys because Studer wanted to give the players as much of a Major League experience as he could, and as the 6:35 p.m. first pitch drew closer, hope was still alive that they would get to wear those jerseys in an actual game.

Studer said earlier in the week his hope for the All-Star experience is that the fans enjoy the moment.

"We want fans to feel good about their community and themselves during this experience," Studer said. "The fans get to see some future stars in this game. At least one will be in the Hall of Fame and a bunch of the other players will be stars in the Majors."

Hometown Hero: Pensacola outfielder Gabriel Guerrero needed three rounds and a few one-minute overtimes to hold off Mississippi Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna in a thrilling home run derby Monday night.

Guerrero belted out 29 homers in all on a windy night. He didn't wear batting gloves until the last overtime, and even then he only wore one. His South Division teammates showered him with ice water after he won.

"It was special and it feels good to do it in front of these fans," Guerrero said. "I wanted to put on a show."

He was exhausted afterward, taking a moment to catch his breath before talking with the media.

"I'm tired right now and have some blisters on my hands, but the fans kept me going," Guerrero said.

In his first season in Pensacola, Guerrero is batting .274 but didn't hit a home run the entire first half. He has 54 in his minor league career. He has 69 hits in 65 games after tallying 77 in 92 games in Mobile last year.

"I just try to hit the ball hard and not worry about home runs," Guerrero said. "I'm happy with the opportunity I have here. I'm having fun."

Brian Lester is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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