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Ben's Biz: An evening with the Trash Pandas

A propulsive experience from start to finish in Rocket City
July 6, 2024

This is an excerpt from the latest edition of the Ben's Biz Beat Newsletter, bringing Minor League Baseball business and culture news to your inbox each and every Thursday. Check out the full newsletter HERE. The following ballpark road trip recap is presented by Wyndham, proud sponsor of Minor League

This is an excerpt from the latest edition of the Ben's Biz Beat Newsletter, bringing Minor League Baseball business and culture news to your inbox each and every Thursday. Check out the full newsletter HERE.

The following ballpark road trip recap is presented by Wyndham, proud sponsor of Minor League Ballpark Guides. Plan your road trip today, and check out the Rocket City Trash Pandas Ballpark Guide HERE.

The Rocket City Trash Pandas, based in Madison, Ala., and representing the greater Huntsville area, were a late addition to my June road trip itinerary. It had only been three years since my first visit to their home of Toyota Field, during the Angels' Double-A affiliate’s inaugural season in 2021, and three years in Ben’s Biz road trip time is a veritable blink of an eye.

But when in Rome (I had been there the night before, visiting the Emperors) you may as well go to Rocket City.

Rocket City is not, technically, a real place. It’s an honorific of sorts, paying tribute to the region’s deep ties to NASA and the aerospace industry. This is why Huntsville’s previous Minor League team, the Stars, also had a space-themed moniker. The Stars, who relocated to Biloxi following the 2014 season and became the Shuckers, played at Joe Davis Stadium. That formerly decrepit ballpark has since been renovated into a professional soccer facility, and now serves as the home of Huntsville City FC.

Prior to arriving at Toyota Field, I stopped at Joe Davis Stadium to see what it now looks like.

I didn’t see anyone inside who might allow entry to a disheveled but kind-eyed Minor League Baseball writer, so like any good journalist I just took photos through holes in the fencing. A raccoon, who are also known as trash pandas, would have been able to shimmy right in.

Fortunately, I didn’t have any issues gaining entry to Toyota Field, located right off I-565 within a rapidly developing area of the Huntsville suburb of Madison. The main entrance, adjacent to The Junkyard team store, is located down the right-field line.

For those of you who, like me, pay close attention to the front office rosters of Minor League teams, the Trash Pandas are an interesting case. Their “Executive Leadership” team -- GM/EVP Garrett Fahrmann, EVP Lindsey Knupp and VP of production and entertainment Rob Sternberg -- all previously worked for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. After saying hello to this Alabama-by-way-of-Pennsylvania trio, I proceeded to field level for an interview with Trash Pandas pitcher/team barber Victor Mederos.

Taking on the role of team barber is just a small part of Mederos’ story. He’s a native of Cuba and spoke at length about the (literally) long and winding journey that he and his family took to get to America. An open and friendly guy, easy to root for. Story coming soon.

Speaking of Trash Panda hairstylists, when I visited Toyota Field in 2021, a guy named “Kevin Da Barber” gave haircuts out of his “mobile barber unit” located in the outfield concourse. He’s not there anymore, sadly, but that area is now home to Slim Chickens Bullpen Bar and Grill.

Another new addition to the ballpark is Cosmo the Space Chimp, an inflatable mascot who impassively stared at fans as they entered the ballpark, unable or perhaps just unwilling to tell them about the wondrous horrors he witnessed in his former life as a cosmic explorer.

From Cosmo to the Gravity Grille concession stand to a nightly between-inning astronaut race, outer space is Toyota Field’s most dominant motif. The upper-level SportsMed Stadium Club is currently home to an actual astronaut suit on loan from NASA. It was hard for me to get a good photo of that, given the glare, but I did capture this nearby portion of team-name signage.

Within the Stadium Club I spoke to Donald Rizzardi, Madison County District Court judge and one of two official scorers for the Trash Pandas. Issuing rulings by day and by night, in other words.

On the concourse, I met ballpark regular and longtime Huntsville-area baseball supporter Don Gardner Jr., who contacted me before the game saying to keep an eye out for the guy on the mobility scooter.

I also spent some time with dedicated fan John Tatum, who keeps score at every game and has a prodigious collection of Huntsville Stars memorabilia.

It was a beautiful evening for baseball, with the Trash Pandas hosting the Biloxi Shuckers. Yes, those same Biloxi Shuckers who, in their previous incarnation, played in Huntsville as the Stars. It’s kind of like when the Cleveland Browns play the Baltimore Ravens.

I don’t plan on withdrawing from the race, but nonetheless here’s a concession speech: When it comes to food offerings, the Trash Pandas are in the upper echelon of Minor League Baseball teams. There are new specials every homestand, some inspired by the location of the opposing team and others because, hey, why not? It was time to give them a try; assisting me in this endeavor was my Designated Eater for the evening, Sofie Ballgame.

Sofie, native of the Pacific Northwest and a fixture of what is still known as “Baseball Twitter,” once famously had a pizza delivered to then-Mariners outfielder Jesse Winker after he was ejected from a ballgame. But her claims to fame are many. For instance: This was her first Trash Pandas game and yet, she already had a Trash Pandas tattoo!

Sofie said, “Minor League Baseball is my passion and I love space, and this place embodies it.” But that’s not quite the reason why she had the tattoo. Specifically, it was because Trash Pandas fan Virgil Brooks dared her to get one, via Twitter. (Or X, if you must). “And me being completely unserious with what I put on my body, I just went up and got it,” she explained.

First up for Sofie was the Rocket City Hot Chicken Fries, a Garbage Plate-like amalgam of spicy breaded tenders, fried pickles, french fries and macaroni and cheese.

Sofie, not one for spicy foods or pickles, was diplomatic about this concoction overall and most enthusiastic about the mac and cheese. She then moved on to … well, try to guess what this is:

If you guessed S’mores Fries, then congratulations, you are a ballpark food savant. This dessert concoction consists of, per the signage, “Sweet potato fries topped with toasted marshmallows, creamy fudge sauce and finished with maple graham cracker crumble.”

Sofie, remarking that the portion could have stood to be a bit larger, astutely observed that the sweet potato fries were akin to the role the tortilla plays in the taco: “The fries help keep it together, but you’re really there for the filling.”

Finally, we headed to Sprockets Grill in left field, named for the Trash Pandas' racoon mascot. There, a friendly and loquacious grill master named Jesse led us through the creation of that homestand’s “Eat Your Opponent Dog,” the Unkle Reuben. This was, and is, a grilled Polish sausage on a honey wheat roll topped with thousand island dressing, caramelized onion kraut, Swiss cheese and crispy pickles.

After some initial challenges attempting to wrangle these various flavors into one bite, Sofie declared this to be a “balance of tangy and sweet.”

This was a solid description of the remainder of my evening, as I wandered around Toyota Field underneath a slowly darkening sky.

The Shuckers won the game, 5-0, but it was still a great night to be at the ballpark. When things weren’t going well on the field, there was always a nice Waxing Gibbous to contemplate. Space is the place.

And, as always, thank you for reading. Get in touch anytime. My upcoming road trip itineraries can be found HERE.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.