HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- The T-minus countdown to launch of the 2020 Minor League Baseball season is not raising beads of sweat on the brows of the Rocket City Trash Pandas. Everyone -- from front-office executives to retail merchandise salespeople -- is ready to play ball.In NASA jargon, the franchise's launch
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- The T-minus countdown to launch of the 2020 Minor League Baseball season is not raising beads of sweat on the brows of the Rocket City Trash Pandas. Everyone -- from front-office executives to retail merchandise salespeople -- is ready to play ball.
In NASA jargon, the franchise's launch status check is a go for April 9.
"We're running a Minor League organization at a Major League level," said Emo Furfori, senior account executive of partnerships and groups for the new Double-A affiliate of the Angels. "From that beautiful ballpark to the people that we hire, that's Ralph."
Trash Pandas president and CEO Ralph Nelson has more than 25 years of experience in professional baseball. From the moment the relocation of the Mobile team to Madison, Alabama, became a reality, Nelson has been uncompromising: Do every task right, no matter what it is.
"He's done it," Furfori said of Nelson's track record. "This is his background. He's very, very good at it. We're trying to figure out how to grow this organization."
The Trash Pandas are nearing $3 million in merchandise sales before playing their first game.
One early meeting stands out as the moment Nelson channeled his inner Frank Sinatra and decided to do it his way.
"Ralph came from a Major League background -- Giants, D-backs -- so all he knows is the bigs," Furfori noted. "One day, he just lost it. 'I don't understand why we're doing it this way! It's not the way I want to!' We looked at him and said, 'Why are you fighting it? Run it the way you want to.' Every part of the franchise now reflects that.
"Ralph has always been set on doing things like the big leagues, which is why he has installed lockers in our team, coaches and manager's locker rooms that are just ... only found in the Major Leagues," he said. "And that our players are our affiliates' future stars and should treated as such."
Huntsville's Rocket City nickname nods to the city's identity as the site of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, where the Saturn V moon rocket was developed and which put Huntsville on the map as the center for rocket propulsion research.
The team moniker was chosen Sept. 5, 2018. Trash Pandas, nominated by Matthew Higley of Lacey's Spring, Alabama, was the winner of the name-the-team contest, which involved nearly 30,000 votes in a two-month span. Over the next six months, the franchise eclipsed $500,000 in merchandise sales. Heading into February 2020, two months before the first pitch will be thrown, the figure is approaching $3 million.
"The Rocket City Trash Pandas launch received more engagement and more national attention than any launch in Minor League Baseball history," said Jason Klein of Brandiose, a San Diego-based sports marketing company. He has firsthand experience with engaging fans in brand overhauls, having helped Minor League Baseball's Hartford Yard Goats, Richmond Flying Squirrels, Akron RubberDucks, Biloxi Shuckers and others.
Public relations manager Bud McLaughlin once wore a Trash Pandas T-shirt to an Orioles game in Baltimore. A fan shouted, "Hey, Trash Pandas!" It was a plain gray tee with only the logo.
"There's not a word on the T-shirt," he said, "but fans know it's the Trash Pandas."
There is, however, more to running a successful baseball team than selling swag far and wide. Tickets are the bread-and-butter revenue stream. And Rocket City has another Major League ace up its sleeve with former San Diego Padres associate Nate Leaser as director of ticket operations.
"Tickets is critical," Furfori said. "We could've done it -- you could have put me in a back room and said, 'Figure out the box office.' But we got a guy who was doing it for the Padres. We have been talking to season-ticket holders since November 2018, and they still haven't seen their seats. I can't imagine having done that step without Nate. He knew how to handle them. He knew how to say it, he knew how to do it, run it all. Now the box office is up and running, the PR side is up and running, and the sales team is working their butts off around here."
Furfori noted 1,300 season-ticket holders made a three-year commitment even before their seats were bolted into Toyota Field. Demand was so high the team added another 500 season tickets and is nearing sellout status with those.
The reach of the Rocket City box office, which began as a 60-mile radius, has exceeded expectations. The team has made inroads into Fayetteville, Tennessee, to the north; Florence, Alabama, to the west; and Gadsden, Alabama, to the southeast -- a 90-minute drive from Madison (and closer to Birmingham Barons territory).
"It's been incredible," Furfori said. "The radius has been much bigger than what we originally anticipated. ... If we're just drawing [from] Madison, we've failed. We're very, very proud to be in Madison and we're just a little piece of 600, 700 acres of total development."
Toyota Field in Madison, Alabama, will host its inaugural game on April 15.
Still, fan engagement is crucial -- and with the team awaiting its first game, Nelson keeps everyone focused on the goods.
"Ralph is kind of a 'hitter,'" Furfori said, "and when I used to be camped out at the old store, he'd slap me upside the shoulder and say, 'Hats and shirts, hats and shirts.'"
McLaughlin, who also helps manage the offsite retail store, added, "We can literally dress you in Panda gear from head to toe."
When gates open, the gameday experience will include an executive chef, Ryan Curry, and a sous chef to provide special complements to the familiar fare of hot dogs, burgers and nachos. The ballpark's Stadium Club will double as a unique setting for sit-down dinners, a state-of-the-art event space for graduations, anniversaries, business gatherings, corporate outings and even weddings.
"It's about baseball fans and fun and affordability and, by the way, the baseball game," Furfori said. "Ralph's whole career, he was trained to look at the product in the field. Now, it's a totally different environment. He's spent a good year and a half traveling around -- 'What are they doing over there? What's special over there?'
"Look, a lot of guys can buy a club, but this is special. ... Ralph knows 10 steps ahead of what we're going to do. I'm sitting here talking about April and he's already thinking what we are doing two years from now. Well, we have a lot of fun things planned. ... The fan experience will be Major League. It sounds simple, but it's cultivated. He reminds us at least once a week, 'Don't ever forget, fans come first.'"
That emphasis led Nelson to tab Lindsey Knupp vice president of marketing, promotions and entertainment.
"When researching our business, every time I spoke to a friend in the industry and asked about the best fan experience in the game, I was always directed to [Triple-A] Lehigh Valley and the amazing show that Lindsey produced," Nelson said in a team release announcing the hire. "We have always said we would bring the best of the best to North Alabama and Lindsey Knupp is exactly that."
Last season, Knupp's work with the IronPigs was recognized with the Larry MacPhail Award for the top promotional effort. Lehigh Valley was the first International League team to win the award since 1997.
A higher profile addition to the Rocket City scene was revealed on Jan. 7, when the Angels named 18-year big league veteran Jay Bell the franchise's first manager. The two-time National League All-Star led Scranton/Wilkes Barre, the New York Yankees' Triple-A affiliate, to the 2019 IL North Division title. He also guided Double-A Trenton (2018) and Class A Advanced Tampa (2017) to playoff berths.
The home for Bell and his team -- $46-million Toyota Field -- is nearing completion. Furfori noted the sound system and lighting are designed for the Trash Pandas "to be good neighbors" while giving fans a Major League experience.
"It looks like it all magically happened, but there has been a lot of groundwork laid the last two or three years," Furfori said. "Our season-ticket holders are finally going to get to sit in their seats [soon]. We're going to be announcing individual game tickets. … Ralph's plan is never halfway. You don't settle."
The Trash Pandas begin Southern League play on April 9 with a five-game series at Birmingham. The first home game will be April 15 against Mississippi. Until then, the front office is working around the clock to make sure the franchise will be ready for liftoff.
"Ralph pinged me a few weeks ago," Furfori said "It was about 5:00 in the morning and he was already in the parking lot at Cracker Barrel. And he goes, 'We're actually going back and forth and the waitstaff isn't even at the Cracker Barrel.'
"We're always thinking about if we've got it covered. … I'm confident that we do."
Duane Cross is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DuaneCrossMiLB.