'Ballpark mayor' found her dream job on vacation

Three-week visit to family led to long-term professional fulfillment with Double-A Pensacola

September 4th, 2023
Donna Kirby, part of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos front office since Day 1, has done it all.

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- One of the most enduring clichés associated with working in Minor League Baseball is the "wearing of many hats." Donna Kirby, longtime member of the Double-A Pensacola front office, embodies this jack-of-all-trades mentality.

Kirby has pretty much done it all over the course of her Blue Wahoos tenure, dating back to the Marlins affiliate's inaugural 2012 season. Merchandise manager? Check. Promotions and community relations director? Check. VP of Operations? Check. VP of Game Experience? Check. Her vast institutional knowledge combined with an upbeat, outgoing personality has led to a variety of unofficial honorifics as well. When this writer visited Blue Wahoos Stadium in June, several of her co-workers said a conversation with her was a must. Why? Because she's the "ballpark mayor" who "knows everything about this place."

So how did Kirby come to make such an impact with the Blue Wahoos? The story dates back to 2009, when she was living in Southern California and out of a job.

"I came here [to Pensacola] on a three-week vacation, and I never left," she said. "I really didn't leave. I'm from California, came out here to visit my parents for three weeks, and it was when that big recession was going on. And so no jobs were out there to be found. ... I ended up staying. It's beautiful here. So then it was four weeks and then it was two months, and now here I am. I finally went back [to California] like five years later and got all my furniture out of storage."

Blue Wahoos Stadium, home of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, and Donna Kirby, since 2012.

Kirby's a lifelong baseball fan, but had never pursued a career within the game. Minor League Baseball is an entertainment business at its core, however, and she did have experience with that. From 1998-2004, Kirby worked for Disney Parks and Resorts as a merchandise planner, a position that translated well to the Blue Wahoos front office.

"I was trying to figure out what's the next step, right?" said Kirby. "And one day I got a phone call, 'You know that baseball team that's coming to Pensacola? They're interviewing for a merchandise manager, would you be interested?' ... I interviewed for it and it worked out. It was a love affair from the very beginning."

Merchandise manager -- a job Kirby unofficially stepped back into in 2023 in order to fill a staffing void -- was just the beginning.

"I went from merchandise to community relations and on-field promotions, and then was involved in executing corporate sponsorships," she said. "And then I went into stadium operations, all with the caveat of overseeing the guest experience at the same time. So when I dug in deep into stadium operations and was overseeing the ushers and security and cleaning crew, I really took over surveying and getting in touch with our fans."

At Blue Wahoos Stadium, getting feedback from the fans is of paramount concern.

Surveys are a key operational component for the Blue Wahoos, who are owned by health care executive and entrepreneur Quint Studer. The team sends them out during the game via email to all fans who purchased a ticket.

"It's about understanding the fan experience. What are we doing right and what do we need to improve," said Kirby. "We've got it down to a science right now. ... We find that the faster you respond to the surveys, the more likely you're going to be able to turn a detractor of the Blue Wahoos into a superfan, if it's done right. And that's also why we send it out so early. We don't wait until the end of the game, and that's because we start seeing results come in. And then if we have a disgruntled fan, for whatever reason, we can go out to that fan and walk through what the issue was and try to do in-person service recovery at the same time."

Regarding the surveys, Kirby remarked that it's been "a passion, understanding the metrics behind everything." That passion seems to extend to just about anything she does at the ballpark, utilizing her wide-ranging skill set. Who could have guessed that a period of unemployment and uncertainty would lead to a permanent vacation in Pensacola, where she gets to do a job that she loves?

"I've thought about that 100 times, like if this had happened or this hadn't happened, I would never have landed a job in baseball," she said. "It's a 'When one door closes, another door opens' kind of thing. ... It's a dream come true. It really is. I love what I do."