The Trash Pandas
A whole new baseball experience
by Brian Foreman
What can you say about of city of 50,000 that’s able to attract a minor league baseball team?
Professional baseball returns to the Tennessee Valley next year, with the Rocket City Trash Pandas set to play their first game next Spring.
The excitement is building toward the season opener on April 15, 2020. Media coverage has been extensive, and the grandstand seating is plainly visible soon after you pass the Wall Triana exit heading into Huntsville on I-565.
What’s even more exciting is how the Trash Panda’s complex forms a sort of anchor tenant for a whole entertainment complex known as Town Madison. The game may be the same, but having a Margaritaville hotel and resort next to the field is certainly not what old line baseball fans are used to. Team owner BallCorps, Inc. aims to bring a sports experience the likes of which Alabama, and most other states, has never seen.
It all goes to the heart of what baseball has morphed into over the past twenty years. Rocket City Trash Pandas Director of Community Relations Emo Furfori has a lot to say about that.
In his former role in economic and community development for the City of Madison, Furfori felt Madison had what it takes to be in the running. With planning for Town Madison already well underway in early 2017, he reached out to Minor League Baseball and was lucky enough to get contacted by Ralph Nelson, President and General Manager of newly-formed BallCorps. Nelson came, looked and liked what he saw. Subsequent meetings with the City of Madison and the developers ultimately led to the decision that Madison would be the Mobile Bears new home.
Nelson decided to relocate to the gleaming new sports complex currently under construction near I-565 and Zierdt Road, where they will play their first game in April 2020. But they could have gone to any of dozens of U.S. cities vying for their own professional sports team.
Several other southeastern cities, all of them larger than Madison, were in the running for the team, but Madison had five prime sites available. And in a larger sense, Madison County had so many of the success factors sought for in an exhaustive search of new markets. “We knew the factors of success,” says BallCorps Managing Partner Ralph Nelson, “and they included the willingness to build a new stadium, a city that had a minor league team that got away, and an area of real growth.”
“I’d like to say I kind of swerved into this,” Furfori says. “Several years ago I decided to relocate from Chicago, and knew that wherever I went the town had to have baseball.”
It’s taken some time for fans to get used to the team name, the result of a 2018 “Name The Team” contest that exceeded all expectations. “We expected a good response from the community, maybe a few hundred suggestions, but we were blown away by what happened,” says Furfori. “No one has ever seen the response we got from the naming process.” From literally thousands of suggestions “Trash Pandas” was chosen and then embraced by the community. Nelson attributes part of the excitement to their unusual name.
Not long afterward, the Trash Pandas Emporium opened in Bridge Street Town Centre. From its opening day the Emporium, says Furfori, merchandise and season ticket sales have exceeded all expectations. “We had people lined up to buy season tickets. We had people camping out overnight.” The store has hosted buyers from every U.S. state and more than 20 other nations. “We tell them to wear their Trash Panda’s gear and take a picture, then post it on social media. We’ve gotten pictures from Ireland, Bora Bora, France, and Australia just to name a few.”
Heightening that experience is important to Nelson. “This may be a minor league team, but we intend to give this area a major league sports experience,” he says.
It’s not an idle boast. Nelson learned a lot in his 25 years in major league baseball management about what it takes to make a successful club. When events led to leading an investor group to decide to move the Mobile Bay Bears out of Mobile, he had a clear vision of what he wanted that team to be. “I wanted to build the best minor league team in the U.S. “
That new ball field and stadium under construction forms part of the Trash Pandas’ new look and feel. Up to 7,500 fans per game will be able to choose from eleven types of seating arrangements, from outdoor seating on a grassy berm to luxurious viewing from the Stadium Club. Four premium seating areas will be available primarily to season ticket holders, and Box Seats and Reserved Seats will always be available to fans wanting game-day tickets. Those wanting to bring blankets or lawn chairs can plop down in the berm seating area, while spectators who like to mill around will feel at home viewing from the Rock Porch.
“It’s the closest thing you have to Chicago’s Wrigley field bleachers,” says Furfori, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan.
Another major feature will be the Stadium Club, an enclosed hall seating up to 400 for sit down dinner and similar events. In addition to being the premier area for viewing the games, it’s designed to host parties, balls, graduations and other large events.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the sports complex will be Alabama’s first Margaritaville Hotel and Restaurant, complete with a Lazy River, which will be under construction just beyond the center-field wall. Baseball fans will also be able to watch a Trash Pandas game while lounging in the Center Field Pool. You might actually nab a home run ball while in the pool,” Furfori laughs. “How’s that for an experience?”
Leaning back in his chair, Nelson flashes a big smile. “We’re going to present one huge sports experience. The interest in the team has been like nothing we’ve ever seen before, and we’re just thrilled to be here.”