One of my 2-year-old daughter’s favorite words is ballpark.
Caroline is way too young to understand the game, of course, and as much as I’d like to claim it as a testament to her father’s 15 years as a sportswriter, she solely associates her affinity for “ballpark” with the way she feels at our ballpark, Blue Wahoos Stadium. It’s the home of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos baseball team, and the experience she enjoys so much.
She’s hardly alone, and it’s a simple equation. Put one of the best fan experiences in all of baseball (a claim backed up by awards I’ll mention later) with one of the best ballparks in all of baseball, and you create exactly what the Blue Wahoos have: An unrivaled product that makes coming to a game an absolute must while in Pensacola.
The Pensacola Blue Wahoos, the Double-A affiliate for Major League Baseball’s Cincinnati Reds, may just offer the best fan experience in baseball at one of the most beautiful stadiums in baseball, a combination that keeps the stands full and the fans coming back season after season. The 2017 campaign begins April 6. And for the first time in team history, the Wahoos will host the Southern League All-Star Game on June 20 with an All-Star FanFest and autograph session on June 19 preceding the big game.
Our family has become regulars because there’s something for everyone. From entry, after being welcomed with a loud chant of “Wahooooo!!!” the stadium’s extra-wide concourses allow ample space to meander, grab a snack, socialize and take in one of the most beautiful backdrops in sports: picturesque Pensacola Bay.
There’s a grassy hill in centerfield brimming with adventure-seeking toddlers (a personal favorite spot for Caroline) and glove-wearing grade-schoolers looking for that home run souvenir. This season, the team is adding a Kids Zone out there with new inflatable bounce houses and more.
The staff is among baseball’s best when it comes to providing a welcoming atmosphere with warm greeters, helpful ushers and smiling concessionaires, service that takes the experience to a whole new level. The Blue Wahoos ownership takes its customer service seriously: Team co-owners Quint Studer and Bubba Watson (yes, that long-hitting pro golfer and two-time Masters champion) appear on a video during every game, and Studer gives out his personal cell phone number asking to contact with any feedback to help make your ballpark visit the best it can be.
During its five years in Pensacola, the Blue Wahoos’ trophy case backs up the talk. This offseason, Baseball America honored the Blue Wahoos with the prestigious Bob Frietas Award, an honor given to the top organization in each baseball classification. The Wahoos won the award in the minimum time allowed; franchises are not eligible for Frietas Award until after their fifth season. Ballpark Digest voted Blue Wahoos Stadium as the top park in all of Double-A in 2016.
And yes, there’s a quality product on the field, too. For the folks looking to take in the game, these guys have plenty of it as the Southern League is renowned for being a fertile ground for future major league stars. On the 2016 roster alone, more than 20 Blue Wahoos eventually suited up for the Cincinnati Reds later in the year. Eight players on the 2016 World Series-winning Chicago Cubs roster suited up as a Wahoos opponent at Wahoos Stadium during their careers, and that doesn’t even count Cubs shortstop phenomenon Addison Russell, a Pensacola area native.
Start times for Monday through Saturday home games are at 6:35 p.m. while first pitch is 4:05 p.m. on Sundays. (Check BlueWahoos.com for schedule and time updates.) You may even catch Watson, a regular, taking in a game while you’re there.
So we’re ready for another exciting season, and with Caroline, it should be rather predictable. We’ll walk around and find Kazoo, the team mascot. We’ll plop down on the centerfield hill with a helmet full of popcorn. We’ll watch her laugh and jump in the bounce houses. We’ll take in the game, and when it’s time head to the car and she’ll ask when we’re coming back to the ballpark.