Monday, April 9, 2012
To say I am excited about the return of affiliate baseball to Pensacola is an understatement. Many people didn't think this would be possible due to the Pensacola market being one of the smaller Double-A markets. This always seemed odd to me because Pensacola had an independent-league team, the Pelicans, who played at Pelican Park, that some nights placed more butts in the seats than the Mobile Baybears. The relocation of the Carolina Mudcats and the opening of Maritime Park allowed for professional baseball to return to Pensacola for the first since 1962, when the Pensacola Senators played their final season in the Alabama-Florida League. The team is named the Blue Wahoos from a "name-the-team" contest and a Blue Wahoo is a prize game fish. The Blue Wahoos are the Double A affiliate for the Cincinnati Reds and this is their inaugural season in the Southern League. I heard all kind of numbers on the total number of seats from various sources but for now we will go with the total of 5,200 and that is being generous in my opinion.
Random Fact: The Senator's played in Admiral Mason Park which was nicknamed "Stinko Stadium" because it was built across the street from a sewage plant.
White sand beaches, chartering a boat for a fishing expedition, or a couple of hours in the National Naval Aviation Museum might be what originally attracted visitors to Pensacola, Florida. Visitors to the Emerald Coast should now add a Blue Wahoos baseball game to to their itinerary. With just 5.200 seats, Maritime Ballpark is simple like the Pioneer League stadiums I loved out West but features all of the amenities I expect from a Double A Stadium.
One of the first things that you will notice as you approach Maritime Park is how nicely it fits into its surroundings. The stadium site was basically a hub for transients and the homeless while being a environmental nightmare for the city. While I was out in Salt Lake City, I was skeptical of how this would work due to the location site. It was hard for me to visualize where the stadium would be if it was downtown and I remained skeptical up until my in-laws sent me pictures of my seat from the season ticket seat selection event. The developers did a great job of maximizing the space. I am especially impressed how the stadium parallels Pensacola Bay.
Maritime Park's exterior is beautifully landscaped with a surplus of palm trees and features a brick-paved promenade that runs across the perimeter of the ballpark. The exterior of the park is comprised of red brick on the lower portions, upper portions feature a little bit of steel painted green with the rest of the facade painted a sandstone taupe color. Even the molding around the stadium sticks out and looks classy. The stadium on the outside feels like a mixture of a traveling circus and a shopping plaza. UPS is dropping off packages, food vendors are loading dollies, trollies are unloading people, performers are twirling batons, and people are jogging around the stadium. It does not feel like you're about to watch a baseball game. When you enter the main gate, you go up two sets of stairs or an elevator to get to the main concourse. I wish there was more to tell you about the entrance but in one word it was uneventful. This stadium really needs a local company to buy the naming rights to the stadium and plaster their logo all over it.
Seating in the grandstand lower areas are dark blue fold down chairs that stretch from first base to third base. They did a good job cosmetically going with the dark blue seats. As you go down the baselines, the seating turns into aluminum benches with numbered backs in the upper sections and box seating in the lower sections. However, depending on when you visit, these bleacher sections may be gone. The Wahoos decided that they were an eyesore and didn't look right once installed. Box seats come with an arm rest, seat back and cup holder. The farthest seat is only fourteen feet from the field which makes it very easy for players to respond to your comments. At times, you can even hear the players and umpires chatting among themselves. Towards the end of the game, I was shocked at how much I enjoyed watching the game from the berm. I normally avoid berm seating but the layout of the berm is very relaxing and will offer one of the few places open to the average ticket holder to hide from the wheel in the sky. This stadium offers very little shade and the Wahoos were smart in avoiding early day games. Netting for the most part is non existent and doesn't hinder your view of the field in anyway.
I would be lying to you if this stadium didn't have a bad seat. It has more than one. The last seating sections down both baselines don't face the infield but centerfield. You have to stretch your neck to watch the infield action. With a new ballpark, there is no reason for this. Also, the first row behind home plate has zero leg room while along the baselines the first row is too far away to prop your feet up. If the first row was intended for people with disabilities, why are the cup holders so far away from the actual seat to make them useful ?
The concourse features multiple televisions that are setup to stream the game live at each concession stand while you are waiting to indulge a hotdog or a cold one. Lines can form around vendor windows without clogging up the aisle even on sold out nights. One thing that really stood out to everyone that attended the game with me was how easy it was to purchase concession items without really having to leave your seating section. Easily one of the more convenient concourses I have experienced. With future visits, I will probably stand at the tabletops behind home plate along the concourse.They are in a perfect location - right behind the last row behind home plate - offering a great view of the field.
I have a couple of complaints about the stadium. Its not a true wraparound concourse. One feature that I thought would really stand out was the restrooms being accessible from both inside and outside the ballpark. This feature quickly became annoying because you do not have to really have a ticket to experience the lower outfield concourse. They check tickets as you enter and exit to the elevated outfield concourse and also place a huge X on your hand in black sharpie. A simple visit to the bathroom becomes too much of a hassle due to a line forming for people having their ticket checked for re-entry. I am sure that there will be a day that I will lose my ticket stub somewhere along the outfield concourse while making a dash to the lower concourse to use the bathroom. What happens when I can not present my ticket stub to the attendant for re-entry back into the stadium? I was hoping the stadium would incorporate the Wahoos team name into the ballpark design a little bit more. You will find some poorly displayed banners out in the outfield and there is hardly any recognition of the teams' MLB affiliate. A visit to Maritime Park should only get better once other attractions are up and running outside the stadium grounds and the city comes up with a more efficient way of getting people in and out of the stadium safely. Traffic does not stop coming into the game and only stops after the game due to the heavy police presence. A pedestrian bridge or some stop lights would be a good fix (albeit, an expensive fix).
I expected some hiccups with a new stadium. The few that I noticed so far, are minor and I am sure they will be corrected on future visits. Due to space constraints, the park has a unique design that makes it "quirky". Some may feel there is more going on outside the stadium. Ten years from now the stadium should have a history and I will be able to write about the players I watched inside when the stadium was new. Right now the stadium needs character and that is going to take some time.
Baseball Atmosphere: 4
This is the part of the review that I try to be objective but lets tell the truth when we need to tell the truth: $10.00 to park near the stadium is absurd. Sure, I probably need to walk more than I currently do, but it shouldn't come from being motivated to save $7 bucks or better yet parking for free. I understand the lack of parking space near the stadium but how do you price the closest parking to the stadium at $10.00? Furthermore, (and this really irks my wife) all of the handicap parking in front of the stadium is blocked off by cones. Someone purchased these spaces for a whopping $700, making the handicapped pay the $10.00 to park anywhere near the stadium, but still not in a designated handicap space! While we do not know the purchaser of these spaces, we do know that they get used- because after leaving the stadium and beginning our journey to our own parking spot, we noticed large luxury vehicles, without handicap stickers, in those once-coned off spaces.
If you had any doubts about the original stadium design being constructed for Independent Baseball then just spend a couple of hours graphing the stadium before the game. Both teams enter their locker rooms from street level at the front of the ballpark. You will bump into players everywhere along the promenade outside the stadium. They arrive by car, trolley, and some walked to the stadium. Both teams enter the dugouts from underneath the concourse. The walk way to the dugout for the players is also close to the media pass area so you may be asked to leave but its still worth the twenty minutes of graphing until they ask you to leave. Once you are asked to leave, you just go to the other side of the dugout near the lower porch area. Both bullpens are located along their respective teams' dugout. After the game, its a guessing game as to where the visiting team bus will park and what the Wahoo players will do. I wish there was more to say but overall graphing this stadium is both easy and rewarding. I expect major changes as we get deeper into the season and will update this part of the review to the reflect the changes.
For the most part, everything of interest to me was up and running for a review on Opening Weekend. It was nice to finally see Pensacolians able to start their own tradition and history. It being Opening Weekend, I couldn't get the pictures I wanted of the stadium due to it being crowded but got enough to show you the highlights of the stadium. Expect them to change weekly. With its view of the Gulf, Maritime Park is one of the more relaxing Double A Minor League Ballparks I have visited and probably will become my second home this baseball season.