Literally and figuratively, the Rocket City Trash Pandas boast the hottest ticket in north Alabama. On a steamy weekend night, thousands of fans crowd into Toyota Stadium to watch the Trash Pandas take the field against the Birmingham Barons.
Temperature at the start of the game was 90 degrees and hazy skies could be seen in the distance as the wind currents from wildfires nearly a continent away had traveled across the Tennessee Valley in the days leading up to a Saturday night game.
But none of those elements dampened the enthusiasm of the approximate 6,000 Trash Panda fans in attendance that night. Minor league baseball had returned to north Alabama and the excitement of the fans was obvious as they watched the team on the field and were entertained by the special activities between innings scheduled by the Rocket City staff.
It had been seven years since the Rocket City had a Double-A baseball team. The Huntsville Stars had a 29-year run before the energy of the organization faded and the team was relocated to Biloxi, Miss.
Minor league baseball would return to the area. This time it would find a home in the fast-growing suburb of Madison. When the Huntsville Stars played its first season in the Southern League, Madison’s population was approximately 10,000. Today, Madison boasts a population of more than 50,000.
The journey of Madison’s flirtation began in 2017 when BallCorps LLC purchased the Mobile Baybears, another Double-A team in the Southern League. The ownership group involves roughly 80 investors, according to Garrett Fahrmann, executive vice president and general manager, who joined the organization in June 2019.
“The owners began the search for a city to locate a minor league team. They did research on cities that had baseball, lost the team and then came back with a team that was successful,” he said. “That research along with the fact that this area is booming led to the decision to relocate to Madison.”
The team rapidly gained attention as the owners sought an identity and a brand. Solicitations were sought from the region and a winning name was selected – the Rocket City Trash Pandas. The team was following the minor league baseball trend of unusual names to capture the public’s attention. Others around the nation include the Lansing Lugnuts, Albuquerque Isotopes, Binghamton Rumble Ponies, the Montgomery Biscuits and the Columbia Fireflies.
The plan obviously worked. In December 2019, Rocket City announced that it had more than $2 million in merchandise sales in just over 13 months since announcing the Trash Panda brand.
Since that time the minor league baseball world has undergone a transformation. Major League Baseball has been restructured this year and is now calling the shots among minor leagues. The Southern League is gone. The Trash Pandas in Madison have been assigned to an eight-team organization called the Double-A South, along with Birmingham, Chattanooga, Knoxville (Kodak, TN), Montgomery, Pensacola, Biloxi and Jackson (Pearl, Miss.)
It was then that the Trash Pandas would face an unexpected and unprecedented hurdle – the COVID 19 pandemic.
“We moved into the ballpark in February of 2020,” Fahrmann said. “We had heard about COVID, but we had our head in the sand because we were so busy getting ready for the upcoming season. We got a call from the Southern League president in the second week of March, essentially shutting us down. We were still working at the park when we were told we were probably the only minor league team in the country that was working from a ballpark.”
Fahrmann said they sent everyone home. He said it wasn’t simple as that. “We had employees from all over the country that moved to the area. So, we asked everyone what could we do?” They began “spit balling” and came up with ideas and strategies to remain relevant. The ideas began rolling off the lips of the employees. Movie nights at the stadium. Christmas light show. “That drew 27,000 cars in 52 nights.”
Then there was a wine and beer festival. And baseball was an option. Not minor league baseball but Toyota Field hosted travel ball, American Legion, and old men’s leagues. More than 70 games Fahrmann said. He said those games didn’t make a lot of money but it allowed the team to tread water and more importantly it helped connect the team to the community.
Meanwhile, the organization’s status remained uncertain for 2021. Fahrmann said he wasn’t sure the team would be playing this year. “We got the schedule in March.”
Today, things are filling in nicely, Fahrmann added. “We’re averaging 5,800 fans for each game. That’s pretty good considering we’ve had several rainouts and we had a stretch where we had 12 games in 13 days. We’re leading the nation among Double-A teams across the country. Our success is everything we had hoped.”
It would be challenging to argue with Fahrmann. One way to define success is providing an entertaining evening while sitting outside for hours during a sweltering August evening in Alabama. Six thousand Trash Panda fans can’t be wrong.
Ray Garner is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News