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Before Departing, Blue Wahoos' VP Donna Kirby Reflects On Special Memories 

Donna Kirby was in right place, right time when Blue Wahoos were hiring and became staple part of the organization in her 12 years. (Blue Wahoos File Photo)
February 23, 2024

On a whim and some faith, Donna Kirby began an odyssey 15 years ago that led to becoming a signature part of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. Her job with a staffing agency in California had became a casualty of the recession at that time. A severance was provided and Kirby

On a whim and some faith, Donna Kirby began an odyssey 15 years ago that led to becoming a signature part of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.

Her job with a staffing agency in California had became a casualty of the recession at that time. A severance was provided and Kirby thought, “Hey, I’ll go visit my parents in Pensacola, Florida for three weeks. That was the plan.”

With her beloved dog, a Bishon Frise’ pup named Maggie, riding shotgun, Kirby drove from her home in Costa Mesa, California to her parents’ home in Pensacola.

That’s drive as in non-stop across the country. A 32-hour trip. Day and night. Back then, few hotels were keen on allowing pets, even small dogs, so Kirby let adrenaline take charge and kept on trucking.

“We stopped somewhere for rest halfway across Texas,” Kirby said, laughing now at the memory. “I couldn’t fall asleep and I thought, might as well just keep going.”

Donna Kirby and her mother, Kathy, along with Maggie and Kazoo, shown in this June 2021 photo at Pensacola International Airport awaiting arrival of service pup named Watson.Blue Wahoos File Photo

Those three weeks in Pensacola became forever. Kirby fell in love with the community, its people and worked jobs in town until becoming the Blue Wahoos’ merchandise manager for the inaugural 2012 season. Soon, she was elevated to vice president.

A lifetime of wonderful memories has ensued. But now a new journey awaits.

After 11 seasons, three team affiliations, two championships, the endurance of a lost 2020 due to the coronavirus, Kirby has opted to exit the Blue Wahoos and pursue a new opportunity in Pensacola with a consulting business.

“It just feels like the right time,” Kirby said. “I have been approached so many times for positions, just because word gets out about what we do here at the Blue Wahoos with fan experience, customer service and leadership models.

“I have been working my whole career based upon hospitality. So, I had been approached by a few different people… about hey, whenever you get a consulting business, we’d be interested.”

Donna Kirby, center, front row, joined by Blue Wahoos front office and gameday staff, along with friends during a reception Feb. 19 to honor her years with Blue Wahoos.Photo by Erik Bremer/Blue Wahoos

One of her consultants will be the Blue Wahoos, of course. So, fans will see her around.

Kirby has been a mentor the past year for the Blue Wahoos new merchandise manager, Hannah Gardner. She is a native of Fishers, Indiana, a graduate of the University of Miami with a public relations/sports administration degree. The two have worked in tandem in recent weeks to ensure the GoTeez Bait and Tackle Team Store is well-stocked for the upcoming season.

“She will be great. She wants to be in sports. She was part of game day staff last year and I saw a spark in her,” Kirby said. “And merchandising is such a great platform to get into sports business, because you are working with every department with the team on some level.”

Prior to working at the ballpark, Gardner worked at 5-eleven Palafox, a wedding and events hosting space in Pensacola’s downtown and part of the Studer Family of Companies.

“The biggest thing is Donna has always been on my side and always rooting for me,” said Gardner in discussing her transition to the manager role. “From the second I started and told her I wanted to work in professional sports she has been my side, teaching me new stuff and has been my biggest fan, biggest supporter.”

Kirby, meanwhile, leaves her role with so many fond memories. And numerous achievements. She has won multiple awards in her tenure. She has helped develop, organize, monitor and perfected the Blue Wahoos nightly fan surveys from games, which measure satisfaction and led to the Blue Wahoos into Net Promoter Scores that are an envy in Minor League Baseball.

So many great memories.

Let’s begin with the initial one in how she got hired. That itself is unique.

When Blue Wahoos Stadium was still under construction, Kirby was made aware of a job opening.

“I got a phone call one day from someone who said, ‘You know about that new baseball team coming here, right? Well, they are looking for a merchandise manager, isn’t that in you background?’

“That’s what I had done for Warner Brothers, Disney, NBC-Universal Studios. And so being a baseball nut, my first thought was, my friends are joking with me. This can’t be an actual opportunity.”

But it was. In early March 2012, she interviewed with then vice-president Jonathan Griffith. She was hired and began March 19, 2012, less than a month from the inaugural opening day.

The adventures began. The Bait and Tackle Team Store had a “soft opening” on April 2. A week or so before, Kirby began moving boxes of merchandise into the store on a day when a thunderstorm struck.

“I had this red dolly,” said Kirby, laughing, while pointing to one in the storage area that still exists. “It was raining and lightning was flashing all around. It was bananas.”

The next challenge was there were no racks and hangars to put merchandise.

Former executive president Bruce Baldwin arranged through a contact in St. Petersburg to rapidly get those needed equipment pieces delivered.

“It was truly baptism by fire,” said Kirby laughing.

Donna Kirby, holding Maggie, with Blue Wahoos first broadcaster Tommy Thrall, far right, during an event in 2012 in the Blue Wahoos inaugural season.Blue Wahoos File Photo

But the journey was shared by her parents, Kathy and Douglas Kirby, who were Canadian natives and transplanted Pensacola residents since 1989. Her father went from being a member of the Canadian Navy to earning his status in the U.S. Marine Corps and becoming a citizen in 1977.

He served 27 years in the U.S. Marine Corps prior to passing away. Donna and her mother, who maintains her home in Pensacola, as well, are best of friends and often gather for bingo nights out.

In a reflection upon 12 years of pure love for everything Blue Wahoos, here are Kirby’s top 10 moments. These are in no particular order.

DONNA'S DANDIES

  • 1) Hard Hat Opening: Because it was still technically a construction site, Kirby opened the team store wearing a hard hat. Collecting money and ringing up sales in those early days was a challenge.
  • “The system was purchased from a company that works with a lot of area bars, so it was not uncommon for us to do a search in the system and see items in the database like rum & coke” and “gin & tonic,” she said, laughing.
  • 2) Blue Angels Buzz – On opening night on April 5, 2012, the Blue Angels twice did a stadium flyover to usher the inaugural game.
  • “It was wall-to-wall people in the team store that night. But with the big back windows in the store, we had a great view and the crowd went wild!”
  • 3) Battleship Behemoth -- The Blue Wahoos first chef, Chris Vorhees, created a food offering called “The Battleship.”
  • “It was basically every food in the ballpark that chef could throw on it – and there were contests between fans for who could eat the entire Battleship, which could have fed a family of six, in the fastest time.”
  • 4) Home Run For Life – The first one occurred in 2013 and featured a West Florida High baseball player, Tristan Laurent, who was battling brain cancer. He passed away in a short span afterward.
  • “Tristan’s story was played for the fans. He went around the bases assisted by a family member, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. To this day, this was one of the most moving moments in Blue Wahoos history.”
  • 5) Cannonball Man – A stunt man convinced the Blue Wahoos management he could perform after a game by being shot from a cannon.
  • “We (front office staff) were all out in centerfield with Cannonball Man to be on hand in case he needed help. The countdown happened, it was time to launch, and something just didn’t … the cannon didn’t launch him! So, we set him up again, did another countdown and this time he sailed through the air and landed in the home plate netting to the roar of the crowd!”
  • 6) Tornado Impact – In 2016, three tornadoes touched down in Pensacola causing damage. The Blue Wahoos partnered with the United Way to utilize a team bus as a collection point for any donations of food and goods.
  • “Because we live in such a generous and compassionate community, the Blue Wahoos bus was actually completely filled THREE times! That is a lot of donations meant to do good for those in need in our community. I remember being so touched by that, and thinking, “We really live in a remarkable community.”
  • 7) Home Run Derby – In 2017, the Blue Wahoos hosted the Southern League All-Star Game for the only time in club history. Unfortunately, weather from a tropical storm prevented the game from happening. The only ballpark event occurred the night before for the Home Run Derby, which became a special experience. The winner was the Blue Wahoos Gabriel Guerrero, nephew of former MLB star Vladimir Guerrero, who beat out current Atlanta Braves megastar Ronald Acuna Jr.
  • “it went off without a hitch and was more than we could ever have hoped for! Fans loved it, players loved it, we loved it! The Home Run Derby was truly a home run for us.
  • 8) Our Dear Watson: Prior to the 2021 season, former WEAR-TV meteorologist and newscaster Kathryn Daniel contacted Kirby about the Blue Wahoos interest in becoming a part-time host for a service-dog-in-training in a partnership with national organization, Canine Companions. Kirby jumped at the opportunity and the team heeded fans’ vote to name the pup Watson as a nod to two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson, a part-owner of team. Watson became instant hit with fans and social media during the season and part of the 2022 season. Now, a new service-dog-in-training named Bubba is part of the team.
  • 9) Speaking of Bubba -- Kirby remembers the moment Bubba Watson, attired in the Green Jacket after his second Masters win in 2014, tossed out a ceremonial first pitch, then a year later announced he was joining the Blue Wahoos ownership team. “That was a big deal and has meant a lot to us. I will never forget Bubba wearing that Green Jacket, going through the dugout and throwing out the pitch. That was a special memory.”
  • 10) A Christmas Story – In one of the team’s early years, Kirby happened to be in the office on the day after Christmas. She took a call from owner Quint Studer, who said a special group wanted to come to the stadium and gather in the season-ticket member lounge. The group were parents who had lost one of their children to either an illness, accident or violent crime.
  • “These were grieving parents remembering their child at Christmas. They have a unique bond that other people would not understand. It was their way to get to gather on the day after Christmas. And that’s when it really struck me how special our stadium was…. That we can provide that sort of venue for people and it have nothing to do with baseball. That we are a special gathering spot for all types of circumstances.