The Pensacola Blue Wahoos open up their 2018 home season Wednesday evening. "It seems like (the team) just started, but really, when you look back, it's hard to believe that the Wahoos haven't been here forever" said team owner Quint Studer, talking about the seventh season of Double A baseball in Pensacola
The team began their season on the road in Mobile last Thursday with a loss to the Bay Bears as they begin their defense of the first championship in team history. They’ll do it this year with a new field manager, former major league catcher Jody Davis. "It's exciting. I've been a hitting coach for the last four years, and I've managed for five years before that. I think the managing really is a lot more fun. It's a lot more challenging to me. Being a catcher, I was always in control of the game and I know what's going on out there. [Now, it's time to] try and help these kids achieve their goals and get to the major leagues. That's why we're here".
One of the young players that Davis will be watching is Shed Long, who is ranked as the seventh best prospect in the Cincinnati Reds system and the Wahoos starting second baseman. He excelled last year in the Florida State League before being promoted to Pensacola in the second half and struggling with some injuries. "You try not to think of [the setback last season] in a negative way. The most positive way to put it is it was a learning experience, you know. It helped me to sit and think about how much I missed the game. Now when I go out and play [I know] I can't take anything for granted, because it can be taken away from you with the snap of a finger."
Long played several sports in school including football while growing up in Jacksonville, Alabama. But after becoming a starter on his high school baseball team as a freshman, alongside 8 seniors, he concentrated on baseball. While that was fine with his family, some others in Alabama football country took exception. "People in the community were mad! they were mad I was quitting (football), they were mad at my dad for letting me quit. He got some pretty strong words [because I quit] football. But now, it pays off and everybody's like 'you made the right decision, you made the right decision'."
Shed Long is hoping for an injury free season, and helping him along the way will be the Blue Wahoos new Strength and Conditioning Coach Joseph Miranda. He says the Reds organization monitors a player’s training at all levels. "They are definitely in a routine. The way the Reds do it, and I think the way a lot of the teams do it is the entire minor leagues from triple A to single A has a strength and conditioning program that's pretty similar. So if I get a guy during the season, I'm in communication with the strength coach either below or above me so I know what he's been doing and try to keep him on the routine as much as possible." Miranda says the routine not only protects the players, but also the team’s investment. "These first round picks aren't cheap, so we have to make sure that we're on point with taking care of those guys and their routines and really just put them in the best position possible to succeed on the field."
There will be some other news faces at Bayfront Park this season. Former major league player Mike Devereaux is the team’s new hitting coach, and Lenny Harris, who owns the major league record for most lifetime pinch hits by a player, is the new bench coach. He said in his big league career even though he wasn't starting, he felt like every day at the ballpark he could do something big. "And that [thought] process was helping me so much I just stuck with it for the rest of my career. For 17 years in the big leagues I just felt that something big was going to happen to me every day I came to the ballpark. So I'm trying to get these guys to feel that same way."
One more new face will be making an impact on fans this season. Executive Chef Jason Perry has left the kitchen at Jackson’s Steakhouse to take over the creating the menus at the stadium. "I think my specialty is going to be just lighter, non-traditional ballpark fare."
Last year, the Blue Wahoos were declared co-champions on the Southern League after their playoff series with Chattanooga was canceled due to Hurricane Irma. This year, they open their home season the Bayfront Wednesday evening against those same Chattanooga Lookouts. Game time is 6:30.