After over a year of growing anticipation, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos make their season debut April 5 at home against the Montgomery Biscuits in the newly-opened downtown Community Maritime Park. Before the season gets underway, Blue Wahoos manager Jim Riggleman detailed what fans can expect in the upcoming season, which players fans should keep an eye out for, and discussed the differences between coaching at the Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Double-A levels.
“We’ve got a hard-working group of guys here. They’ve all been impressive, fine-tuning their skills,” says Riggleman, 59, during a phone interview from the Cincinnati Reds’ Spring Training camp in Arizona. “It’s going to be a good showing.”
While the 24-man roster won’t be set for the affiliate until the Reds make their final roster cuts, Riggleman said that the team would be a mix of players with MLB experience and those coming from the Triple-A and Class A levels. He cited such young players as 22-year-old shortstop Didi Gregorius, 22-year-old second basemen Henry Rodriguez, and 23-year-old outfielder Ryan LaMarre as players with MLB experience that he expects big things from in the upcoming season. Shortstop Brodie Greene, a 24-year-old without MLB experience, was another player cited as one to look out for by Riggleman.
“We’ve got an athletic bunch of guys,” he said. “Early in the season that agility and speed may show up on defense before it shows up on offense.”
Riggleman has had a long baseball career, managing 1,486 games in a career highlighted by stints as the manager of four MLB clubs, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners and, most recently, Washington Nationals, which he coached from 2009-2011. Riggleman, who also had a lengthy career coaching in the minor leagues, acknowledged the differences between coaching in the major and minor league levels and discussed how being a manager of a minor league team requires the need to juggle on-field success with the development of promising prospects.
“There’s a big difference,” he insisted. “MLB is the finished product. In the minors, we have to get them ready for the next level. The bottom-line is that all the players won’t make it to the major leagues. If we can identify players with potential, we have to make sure they’re developed. If a guy is really good, we know that he’s going to probably leave us at some point in the season.”
Despite the challenges of managing an ever-fluctuating roster of guys moving up or down in the Reds’ organization and the inevitability of the Blue Wahoos’ best players leaving during the season, Riggleman said that when the umpire announces it’s time to “play ball,” the competitive juices start to flow.
“Our roster is a little like dominos falling into place with guys coming down from Triple-A or the Reds or guys leaving and moving up to the next level,” he said, “but everyone here wants to play hard and wants to go out and win.”
Arguably Double-A baseball is the best in the minor league level, featuring a mix of future All-Stars and up-and-coming prospects eager to impress their MLB home club. The ten-team Southern League, in existence since 1964, is split into North and South divisions. The Blue Wahoos will compete in the South division with the Jacksonville Suns, Mississippi Braves, Mobile BayBears and the Montgomery Biscuits.
“It’s a great level for fans to watch,” says Riggleman. “It’s energetic, competitive baseball.”
Riggleman says he looks forward to coaching in Pensacola and has been impressed with the city’s reception of the team. Anticipation for the upcoming season has reached a fever pitch with the team announcing that 3,000 season tickets sold before the season even began. Overall, 230,000 tickets have been sold for the 2012 season.
The Blue Wahoos have been in existence since 1959 under a variety of different cities and nicknames, including the Charleston White Sox, the Columbus Astros, and, most recently, the Carolina Mudcats. The team rekindles Pensacola’s long love affair with MLB that began in the 1920s with the Pensacola Fliers, who once played the Babe Ruth-led New York Yankees in an exhibition game.
The last MLB-affiliated team was the Pensacola Senators of the Alabama-Florida League, which were part of the Washington Senators’ system. Most recently, Pensacola was home to the independent Pensacola Pelicans, who moved in 2011 to Amarillo after the owners Quint and Rishy Studer purchased the Carolina Mudcats.
Long a baseball city, Pensacola has quickly embraced the Blue Wahoos. Riggleman sees the marriage of Pensacola and the Blue Wahoos as a match made in baseball heaven.
“I’m excited to coach here. I’m excited about the team. I’ve heard great things about the park, and hear that everyone is really excited about the team,” says Riggleman. “I’m encouraged that the city has embraced the team, and we’re proud to represent Pensacola and proud to be the Blue Wahoos.”
Team website: bluewahoos.com