Pensacola's Newest Attraction: Minor League Baseball's Blue Wahoos

The Blue Angels fly over Pensacola Bayfront Stadium on Opening Day, April 5, 2012.

Late Saturday afternoon in Pensacola. A spirited crowd has gathered along the waterfront. There is a pleasant breeze at what has become a popular vantage point for sailboats and gold-streaked summer skies.

But at this time, all that prettiness is background scenery to the city's newest attraction: a grass-and-dirt diamond that is home to minor-league baseball's Pensacola Blue Wahoos.

Playing their inaugural season, the Blue Wahoos are the Cincinnati Reds' Double-A affiliate. Under manager Jim Riggleman, a 12-year major league veteran, the team competes in the Southern League, which counts Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez as alumni.

Pensacola had been without professional baseball since 2010, when the Pensacola Pelicans moved to Amarillo, Texas.

When the new team needed a name, team owners took suggestions from the public and narrowed them to six, then asked fans to vote for their favorite.

"Other names considered were the Mullets, Aviators, Red Bones, Salty Dogs and Loggerheads," said Tommy Thrall, spokesman for the Blue Wahoos. "There were over 1,400 entries, and about 5,000 people voted on the final six."

Efforts to engage the potential fan base created a buzz that by all indications has not waned.

Steve and Linda Sorrell of Pensacola purchased Wahoos season tickets, a decision they say they would make again. "It is fun family entertainment and supports the community," says Linda.

Steve says he previously attended Pelicans games and Cincinnati Reds games, but prefers watching the Wahoos. "There is more action than in the big leagues," he said. "It keeps fans engaged."

The Wahoos' home field is clean and modern Pensacola Bayfront Stadium, which anchors Community Maritime Park, a multi-use facility that opened in 2012. With a capacity of just more than 5,000, the stadium is an intimate setting for watching professional baseball.

Among Southern League teams, the Wahoos have the smallest park but have recorded the best attendance for the first half of the 2012 season. They sold out 23 of their first 35 home games, including a May 11 contest against the Birmingham Barons that featured a special guest.

Local native Bubba Watson, who won golf's 2012 Masters, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Many fans wore green to honor Watson, but typical Wahoos crowds are a sea of blue, with a striking logo of a large, sharp-toothed fish visible on T-shirts, hats and other gear.

"We already had to re-order many of the staple items in our team store," said Thrall in early June. "We sold through our entire hat inventory during the first month of the season."

Businesses in the vicinity of Community Maritime Park stand to thrive from Wahoos crowds, too. Palafox Street, a major artery through downtown with shops, restaurants and entertainment options, is a two-block walk from the stadium. Shuttles and pedicabs transport fans before and after the game.

Local officials hope to turn visitors into Wahoos fans, or at least lure them to Community Maritime Park, which also includes an amphitheater and retail storefronts.

Valeria Lento, spokeswoman for Visit Pensacola, does not have data on how many tourists attend Wahoos games, but she said: "Community Maritime Park as a whole and the presence of minor league baseball in the Pensacola Bay Area has certainly provided us with an opportunity to share Pensacola's story in a new way."

Lento said her organization gave away Blue Wahoos opening weekend tickets at a promotional event it hosted in Cincinnati. According to Thrall, the Wahoos provide game schedules and event lists to Pensacola-area hotels in hopes of drawing tourists to the park.

Tickets cost $5 for general admission access to open spaces like the Berm, a grassy area where picnic blankets are welcome. Fans purchasing $4 buckets of popcorn receive free refills for the entire season. Soft drink refills are $2 for fans presenting a pre-purchased $5 souvenir cup.

On Sundays, children can take part in Family Day activities. Saturday night games conclude with fireworks lighting up the sky over Pensacola Bay.

It's a nice view.

Pensacola Blue Wahoos

What: Minor League Baseball affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
Where: Pensacola Bayfront Stadium, 301 W Main St., Pensacola
When: Season runs April to September. 70 home games each season.

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