D200412 Toyota Field

The scoreboard of Toyota Field in Madison, home of the Trash Pandas, displays a thank you message on Wednesday. [JERONIMO NISA/DECATUR DAILY]

Garrett Fahrmann isn’t sure what he will be doing Wednesday evening, but he knows what he would like to be doing.

The executive vice president and general manager of the Rocket City Trash Pandas would like to be welcoming fans to Toyota Field in Madison for the team’s first-ever home game.

That won’t be happening. Professional baseball around the country is on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“So many people have put their heart and soul into this franchise with everything pointed toward opening night,” Fahrmann said. “Then something unforeseen like this happens. It’s like being in a twilight zone.”

Josh Caray planned to be in his seat in the press box broadcasting the Trash Pandas’ home opener with the Mississippi Braves. Those who couldn’t make the special occasion would be hanging on to his every word on the broadcast over 730-AM, 103.9-FM or the internet.

“A lot of people everywhere are suffering right now,” Caray said. “We’re all in this together. We just have to sit tight. We know opening day is coming. We just don’t know when.”

The grass at Toyota Field is a lush green. It’s been ready for baseball for several weeks. The stadium’s last-minute construction details were to be completed Friday.

Several college and high schools games were scheduled to test the facility starting last month. Decatur was supposed to play Grissom there March 28. The ribbon cutting was set for last Monday, with a doubleheader featuring Hartselle vs. Bob Jones and Austin vs. James Clemens.

When colleges and high schools shut down early for the school year due to the pandemic, the seasons ended for those baseball teams and the games were canceled. If and when the pro baseball season gets going, the Trash Pandas will play in the new stadium’s first game.

“If you had asked me last week if we would get to play this season, I would not have been sure,” Caray said. “This week I feel pretty good about it. Major League baseball seems to be moving in the direction of playing. If they do, they have to have AAA and AA teams playing just to have guys ready in the minors to be ready to move up in case of injuries.”

Last week, MLB floated the idea of all the teams heading to Arizona to start the season with games played at spring training facilities in front of no fans. Another plan that came out Friday had teams playing at spring training facilities in Arizona and Florida. That plan had the teams that train in Arizona in one league and the teams that train in Florida playing in another league just for this season.

The Trash Pandas are the AA affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels. They play in the Southern League, which was the home of the former Huntsville Stars. The Stars existed from 1985-2014 before moving to Biloxi, Mississippi.

Opening day for the Trash Pandas would be the culmination of five years of dreaming, planning and hard work by the team’s President and Chief Executive Officer Ralph Nelson. After 25 years in pro baseball, Nelson had retired to Vermont in 2010. In 2015, he decided to get back in the game.

His group, BallCorps LLC, focused in 2017 on bringing minor league baseball to Madison. In the fall of 2017, the group purchased the Mobile Bay Bears with the intent to move the franchise to Madison for the 2020 season.

“The person I feel the worst for is Ralph,” Fahrmann said. “He’s put everything into this team. We get this close to the finish line, and all this happens.”

Since Nelson arrived in Madison with his baseball idea, he’s been all about marketing. The site for the $46-million multi-use stadium is part of a multi-use facility right next to Interstate 565. Since the groundbreaking in June 2018, it’s been like a giant billboard passed by thousands of vehicles each day.

Toyota Field’s capacity for baseball is 7,500. There are just 4,000 stadium seats in the facility.

“We want coming to Toyota Field to be an experience,” Fahrmann said. “We want people up moving around experiencing everything we have for them. We don’t want it to be where you come sit down for three hours watching a game and then up and go home.”

The contest to name the team was held in 2018. Residents of north Alabama were invited to submit entries. The list was narrowed to 10 and then five thanks to over 30,000 votes from the public.

The winning entry of Rocket City Trash Pandas was announced on Sept. 5, 2018. The slang term for a raccoon was nominated by Matthew Higley of Lacey’s Spring.

“Our community is known for engineering, and no creature in our galaxy is as smart, creative, determined and ingenious a problem solver — dedicated to the challenge at hand — as our local raccoons,” Higley said.

The unique name along with immediate availability of Trash Panda apparel has been a huge boost for the franchise. The original team store at Bridgestreet couldn’t handle the steady stream of customers. The team then moved into a larger facility at Bridgestreet. A second team store opened at Toyota Field.

Right now both stores are closed, but online sales of Trash Panda items continue at a high rate. Trash Panda gear has been sold to fans all across the country and around the world.

The 18 months of sales has been huge for marketing the brand, but also huge for the team financially. According to a story last month on milb.com, the team had over $500,000 in sales in the first six months. Heading into February, the figure was approaching $3 million. That has come in handy through the current financial downturn. The team has not furloughed any of its 30 full-time employees or 10 interns.

“A lot of work went into putting this team together,” Fahrmann said. “It’s important to Ralph to keep this group together. We have people who have moved here from all across the country to be part of this.”

Fahrmann came from California. He joined the team in May. He has experience working with AAA franchises in Fresno, California, and Allentown, Pennsylvania.

“My family just fell in love with the place,” Fahrmann said. “We didn’t know what to expect and we were really surprised with what we found. My daughters go to school in Madison and we couldn’t be happier with the school system.

“What really amazed us was how much cheaper everything is here compared to California. It’s like everything is half price. Our home in Madison would easily go for twice the price in California.”

Joining the Trash Pandas allows Caray to get closer to home in Atlanta. He was the radio voice for Stony Brook University in Long Island, N.Y. He’s the son of the late Atlanta Braves announcer Skip Caray, the grandson of the late Harry Caray and the half-brother of current Braves TV play-by-play voice Chip Caray.

“I had been to Huntsville twice before when I was on the track team in college (Oglethorpe University),” Caray said. “When I got the opportunity with the Trash Pandas, I told my friends there’s Alabama and then there’s north Alabama. I mean that in a good way.”

Fahrmann, Caray and the rest of the Trash Pandas organization along with thousands of fans have their fingers cross that there will be a season.

“I sure hope so. We have a boatload of merchandise that says ‘Inaugural season 2020’ that we need to sell,” Fahrmann said.

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