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Thursday April 24th 2014

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New Skipper, Same Buzz?


By Brett Hutchins

The inaugural season for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos brought unimaginable excitement to the entire area. Season tickets sold out. Downtown businesses flourished. Fans saw a once-in-a-lifetime talent in record-breaking base-stealer Billy Hamilton. All this is not lost on new Blue Wahoos manager and former major leaguer Delino DeShields.

“Last year was something you just can’t duplicate. Those moments are frozen in time,” a grounded DeShields said. “For me to come in expecting to repeat that magic is unrealistic. What we can do is come in and play quality baseball.”

DeShields played for five different teams throughout his 13 years in the major leagues. He knows the promised land and the grueling amount of work it takes to get there. Even so, he’s reticent to compare the jobs.

“Of course I can draw from my experiences as a player,” he said, “but I’m dealing with a bunch of different kids and personalities here. The gigs are entirely different.”

Managing the minor leagues presents unique challenges for coaches. The team’s sole baseball purpose is to develop players to move on to bigger and better things. Players are called up to the next level at the drop of a hat. Teams are in a constant state of transition.

There are also the obstacles of the never-ending road. Teams in the Blue Wahoos’ Southern League travel such far distances that there’s a name for the way players are forced to sleep. The Southern League Neck is a real thing, folks.

All this said, it’s not what DeShields has struggled with most in his two-year coaching career. “The hardest thing for me is being a disciplinarian. I have no problems with it as a parent, but when it comes to players, it’s taken some getting used to. I know what it’s like to be smothered by a coach and that’s the last thing I want to do.”

When asked if he’s added any pressure on himself being the new guy in town, DeShields answered in typically subdued fashion. “This is minor league ball we are talking about here. As coaches, we want to win, but it’s not about us. Our main job here is to develop our players,” he said.

After finishing last season one game under .500 and four back of the division winning Montgomery Biscuits, the Blue Wahoos look to pitching to make the difference.

“We’re going to be a very well-rounded club,” DeShields said. “Things change fast at this level. Injuries happen, guys get called up. As happens a lot in baseball, it’s going to depend on the pitching.” The uncertainty stems from the team’s seventh place finish in overall pitching last year.

DeShields is playing it close to the vest when naming specifics, but promised “a lot of players are making a ton of noise” during the team’s spring training. The Wahoos return the Southern League’s second highest batting average in left fielder Josh Fellhauer and the team’s two leading home run hitters in third baseman David Vidal and first baseman Beau Mills.

It’s hard to imagine a team headed by one of the Top 50 major league base stealers of all time to be conservative on the base paths. Sure, Hamilton has moved on, but speed still remains. Outfielder Ryan LaMarre is back after stealing bases in more than a quarter of his games last year, fifth in the league.

From its inception the Blue Wahoos organization has made a point to involve the community as much as possible. DeShields knows firsthand how important a professional baseball team can be to a city. “It’s bigger than the game. You take Fenway Park out of Boston or Wrigley Field out of Chicago and those cities are not the same. That same significance can be had on a smaller scale here,” DeShields said. “You’d be amazed how much money flows into bars, restaurants, and other businesses as a result of the team’s presence.”

To bolster the Wahoos’ community presence, Owners Quint and Rushy Studer and Mayor Ashton Hayward have teamed with Pensacola State College and WSRE to unveil its new “Learning Lab” and “Imagination Station” at Pensacola Bayfront Stadium. The interactive public venue will feature a historical baseball exhibit, a hands-on children’s area, and a classroom with college hosted lectures and courses.

With new additions like these and a self-aware and focused manager at the helm, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos are poised to make even more waves in their sophomore year.

BLUE WAHOOS OPENING DAY
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, April 4
WHERE: Pensacola Bayfront Stadium, 351 W. Cedar St.
COST: Sold out, weekend tickets still available but going fast
DETAILS: bluewahoos.com