The saga of the Rocket City Trash Pandas’ creation is one of almost eerie coincidences and fortuitous timing.
Maybe it was the same stadium designer that had worked decades earlier on another stadium project with Ralph Nelson, the Trash Pandas’ managing general partner.
Maybe it was the Los Angeles Angels assigning Jay Bell, a veteran former big-league shortstop to be the Trash Pandas’ manager – 22 years after the management team on which Nelson was involved made Bell the first major league player signed by the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks.
“So many great things that have happened, we looked at them and said how we couldn’t believe the timing of it, and how much it seemed like a fate thing,” says Nelson.
“And then this happens,” he adds.
“This” is the COVID-19 pandemic that has so dramatically affected every-day life for all Americans. Among the impact has been the jolting halt and cancellation of sporting events – including the Trash Pandas’ 2020 season.
2020 Season is Cancelled
Trash Panda T-shirts are rolled tightly and bound, roughly the size of a softball, waiting their turn to serve as ammo in an air cannon, to be fired toward eager fans. Boxes are loaded with dolls eager to escape and let their heads go a-bobbling. Weight sets are locked in massive steamer trunks. New bats still sheathed in plastic await their first dabs of pine tar.
The playing surface at Toyota Field is yard-of-the-month immaculate. The kitchen is ready for its first batch of hot dogs. Nets hang in the batting cages, begging for the steady thwack-thwack-thwack of players preparing for a game.
Nelson has been through idle times in baseball before. He was assistant general manager for the San Francisco Giants during a lockout in 1981 (during which he organized front-office softball games against the cross-bay Oakland A’s front office staff). He was with the Giants when an earthquake interrupted the 1989 World Series. He was in the MLB commissioner’s office and living in New York during 9/11.
“But nothing felt like this,” Nelson says, leaning on a dugout railing on a glorious day, on what should have been the morning after a home stand against the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. But an optimist walking alongside Nelson from the clubhouse down to the field could at least note light at the end of that tunnel.
The Trash Pandas’ merchandise stores have remained open. The staff has kept in contact with partners and fans. Josh Caray, the “voice” of the Trash Pandas, has done “virtual broadcasts” of games. Cosmetic work continues outside the stadium, and the parking lot pavement is all but complete.
When baseball starts in 2021, the Trash Pandas will be ready. Certainly there is an eager fan base. The Rocket City are better positioned than many of the other franchises across the country.
But, Nelson says, “This last two months here has not been for the faint of heart.”
Making the Best of a Beautiful Stadium
In an announcement that came as a surprise to absolutely no one, Minor League Baseball acknowledged on June 30 that it was impossible to hold the 2020 season. “An incredibly disappointing day for our fans, staff and partners,” Nelson says.
Though Major League Baseball plans an abbreviated schedule starting in late July, it was not feasible to safely hold preseason training for the more than 3,500 minor league players who fill the rosters of the 140-plus local affiliates scattered across the country.
Because those minor league affiliates must survive on ticket sales and ad revenue rather than the multi-billion-dollar TV contract that helps fuel the majors, the economics of an abbreviated minor league schedule would have been costly.
However, the creativity that has marked the Trash Pandas since the organization was first formed – from the internationally known nickname to promotional ideas – continues in this summer of limbo.
The Trash Pandas will host the area’s largest fireworks show on July 4, part of an extravaganza at Toyota Field that will also feature carnival-style games, food and music. The unique meeting space of the stadium is being rented for events. There have been block parties and movie nights, with baseball themes.
How appropriate, then, is the July 10 movie, “Field of Dreams,” with that memorable phrase: “If you build it, they will come.”