On the Road: Soaking Up the Scene in Pensacola
Seeing five Florida State League ballparks in five days was a whirlwind, but the concluding event of this latest (and therefore greatest) road trip was yet to come. I left Daytona on Wednesday afternoon (after making a cameo at that morning’s “education day” D-Cubs game), and then embarked on a travel day that ended within the not-so-scenic environs of the DeFuniak Springs Super 8 Motel.
And on Thursday, traveling further west along the Florida panhandle, I reached my final destination: Pensacola, home of the Southern League’s Blue Wahoos. I have a lot of random material from Pensacola to share in the near future, but for the sake of clarity, brevity and my own self-imposed timetables this post shall focus on Thursday’s doubleheader at brand-new Community Maritime Park. (Consider this a companion to Tuesday’s MiLB.com piece. Please).
The parking lot is to the right of this vast expanse of grass, and it’s purposefully small. The idea is that people will bookend their Blue Wahoo experience by drinking, dining, and socializing in downtown Pensacola — located about a 10 minute walk from the ballpark — and on both nights I attended people were indeed streaming in via foot, pedicab, and shuttle bus. (Again, there will be more on all of that in a future post.)
But at this early juncture, I more or less had the stadium to myself.
The man in the full uniform leaning against the cage is former Cincinnati star Eric Davis, now a Reds roving instructor. And on the far right there is Pensacola manager Jim Riggleman, who in 2011 left the Washington Nationals in a cloud of controversy. That’s not something that he’s inclined to elaborate on these days, but I did get the chance to interview Riggleman in the clubhouse the next day.
(Other Blue Wahoos who were subjected to my Flipcam stylings were Donnie Joseph, Ryan LaMarre, and Didi Gregorious. My interviews with the latter two included questions regarding the Cannibal Corpse show that had taken place in Pensacola the night before. A simple search for these players names on MiLB.com will yield the interviews).
But the star of the show at Community Maritime Park is, quite simply, the view of Pensacola Bay (beyond which lies the Gulf of Mexico).
The above picture was taken from the team’s Hancock Bank Club. Admission to the “club” is sold as a season ticket, and food is part of the package. There are no suites at Community Maritime Park, so this is about as “exclusive” as the stadium gets.
I was in the Hancock Bank Club as part of a stadium tour being provided by Blue Wahoos executive VP Johnathan Griffin. At one point I dropped my pen onto the stadium’s lower level, and for that faux pas I blame my earlier consumption of this.
That’s the Blue Wahoo, the only ballpark drink I’ve ever seen that features moonshine as a prominent ingredient. (And the strawberries resting on top had been soaked in the stuff!)
Drinks such as the above are available at Mulroy’s Bar, located on the concourse behind home plate. Nearby, one can also find plenty of beer options:
And the team even has its own beer on draft, called “Ono.”
Another bit of liquified branding is the team’s own bottled water (both the beer and water will soon be sold outside of the ballpark as well).
The people of Pensacola seem to enjoy their drinking, is all that I’m getting at, and this trait is consistent with beach towns nationwide. Hot weather and lots of time on the white sand can result in a powerful thirst. And speaking of the people of Pensacola, at this point they were streaming into the ballpark en masse. (It was a sell-out crowd, and as this post progresses, you’ll see more and more folks in the ballpark.)
The view from the right field concourse, both facing the field…
and away from it.
There are no general admission seats, but $5 gets you into the park and provides access to anywhere on the (approximately 270 degree) concourse as well as the grass berm. The preponderance of open space lends itself to a relaxed atmosphere even when the park is full.
The previous night’s game had been rained out, and along with it a planned “Superhero Night” promotion. The team re-scheduled it for the next day, and this young fan came prepared.
The area behind (and adjacent to) the center field scoreboard is currently unutilized, but Griffith imagines it as a beach-themed party area.
Community Maritime Park is just a portion of a larger “live-work-play” downtown development project. This amphitheater, which includes access to the Blue Wahoos’ outfield concession areas, will be completed in time for a Charlie Daniels concert next month.
I soon took a trip to the press box, to join Tommy Thrall and Andrew Green for an inning on the radio.
My recent moonshine consumption may have led to an even greater propensity for puns than usual, and perhaps the audio will one day surface. Later in the evening I noticed that the broadcast was playing at a fairly substantial volume in the men’s restroom — I can only hope that I said something that made a man laugh as he was urinating, for this is my lone goal in life.
And speaking of the restrooms, they have their own attendants stationed outside.
This is all part of a relentless emphasis on cleanliness and customer service, and a large part of team owner Quint Studer’s business philosophy (more on that in the MiLB.com piece). Even after the novelty wears off, I imagine that Community Maritime Park will remain one of the cleanest and friendliest parks in MiLB.
But the novelty hasn’t worn off yet, of course, and on these trips I’m always looking for novelty — especially in concessions.
Food and beverage director Mark Micallef had handed me a large wad of “employee bucks” prior to the game, and I intended to make use of them. Playing off of the nautical theme, concessions are can be found on both the “Port” and “Starboard” sides of the stadium.
I had spoken with executive chef Chris Voorhees before the game, and was intrigued by both the 1/3rd-pound “Heater Burger” and the much-touted Shrimp Po’ Boy. But I couldn’t pass up the “Sea Dog” — a foot-long breaded cod topped with cole slaw, tartar sauce, and the team’s signature “Wahoo Sauce” (house-made, it’s kick determined by how long it had been left to marinate).
I loved this thing for two — nay, three — reasons:
1. The cole slaw was tart and fresh. It had a bit of a crunch to it, and was far better than the uninspired mush found at diners nationwide.
2. The breading was light and crisp, and the fish within tender and flaky
3. It was seafood. Burgers and hot dogs are all well and good, but I was burned out on them at this point and glad to try something new. And this was my first stop in Florida where seafood had been on the concession menu! Strange, considering that it’s Florida and all.
Dessert was to be found at the shaved ice stand located on down the third base line, which offered dozens of flavors. I went with “Frog in a Blender” simply because it was called “Frog in a Blender,” but amphibious innards were nowhere to be found. Instead it was a mix of lemon-lime and watermelon flavoring.
And while nothing I ordered was in need of additional condiments, let it be known that the Blue Wahoos are well-stocked.
At this point my narrative, which barely existed in the first place, peters out. So let me close with a final array of photos, depicting the nighttime atmosphere of Pensacola baseball on a Thursday night.
The night ended as these nights always do — with Launch-a-Ball! (I must note, however, that Launch-a-Ball and Thirsty Thursday doesn’t necessarily mix. Play had to be stopped on two occasions due to a ball being thrown onto the field, and in the latter instance it was while closer Donnie Joseph was delivering a pitch with two outs and two strikes. To whomever threw it: there is a special circle of hell waiting for you, one in which the flip-flops pinch your toes, the Sublime cd skips, and the Natty Ice is served at room temperature).
This concludes round 1 of Road Trip blog coverage. There is still much more to come over the next week or two, much of it focusing on that which occurred outside of the ballparks. So, please, keep coming back and, even more importantly, if you like this sort of thing then please spread the word.
Ben’s Biz Blog post #800 now terminates.