With a little more than three months before the the first pitch is thrown at Toyota Field in Madison, the voice of the Rocket City Trash Pandas, Josh Caray, is already talking baseball.
Caray is the son of the late Skip Caray, the long-time lead radio voice of the Atlanta Braves, and half brother of Chip Caray, the TV voice of the Braves. He is also the grandson of the late Harry Caray, the legendary Hall of Fame broadcaster who was a staple in Major League radio and TV booths for 50 years.
Last spring, Josh Caray was named the play-by-play announcer for the Trash Pandas, whose opening game is April 15 against the Mississippi Braves. Caray, who moved to the area in October, spoke Friday to members of Athens Rotary Club.
Caray said Trash Pandas CEO Ralph Nelson, a longtime Major League Baseball executive, came out of retirement to run a minor league team. Nelson found his place in North Alabama — a place Caray said is deserving of a minor league team.
Caray said it's hard to believe that in little more than a year and a half, ground was broken at the site of Toyota Stadium.
“We were expecting about 200 to 300 people to show up for the groundbreaking. We had 2,000,” Caray said. “Part of the reason why is … when the (Huntsville) Stars left here in 2012, there was really a big void left in this community, and not just in Huntsville either, but really throughout North Alabama.”
Caray said the next step was finding a team name.
“The great part about minor league baseball is we don't take ourselves so seriously,” he said.
There was more than 30,000 submissions to name the team, Caray said. Fans voted for Trash Pandas.
The next big unveiling was the team logo, which features team mascot Sprocket shooting through a trash can. Other logos were also created for merchandise, Caray said. The logos have made their way to hats, shirts, hoodies, dog leashes and more.
The Rocket City Trash Pandas team store — Trash Panda Emporium — opened in the Bridge Street Town Centre. Caray said two weeks ago — after little more than a year on the market — the store passed the $2-million mark in merchandise sales.
“The previous record holder for merchandise sales for a new team was a team in Connecticut called the Hartford Yard Goats,” Caray said. “They drew $1.4 million in the exact same amount of time. So, we beat them by about $600,000, and they had a team. They were already playing baseball. We didn't have a stadium. We didn't even throw a pitch.”
Caray said minor league baseball is about having fun.
“These guys playing for the Trash Pandas, ultimately their goal is to play for the Los Angeles Angels,” Caray said. “We want them to enjoy their time here. We want them to be successful, but we want to see them move up.”
The Trash Pandas are a Double-A affiliate of the Angels. The Trash Pandas were previously the Mobile Bay Bears and will move from the Southern Division to the Northern Division this season. The Montgomery Biscuits will move to the Southern Division.
Caray said there is a lot of talent in the minor league, making it fun to watch.
“Not only are you going to see the best prospects the Angels have to offer, you're going to see the Birmingham Barons and what the White Sox have,” Caray said. “You will see the Mississippi Braves and what Atlanta Braves have in their farm system. You will see the Biscuits and Tampa Bay Rays and what they can bring to the table. You're going to get to see the best Minor League Baseball players out there come through here. Then, hopefully in two or three years, you will see them on TV playing Major League Baseball and you will say, 'I remember when....'”
The Trash Pandas recently announced Jay Bell will be the team manager. Bell is an 18-year MLB veteran infielder and two-time National League All-Star.
When it comes to the state-of-the-art ballpark, Caray said Toyota Field has 7,500 fixed seats with additional room for crowds. The ballpark also includes 360-degree accessibility with parking for more than 2,000 cars, Carey said.
“It's about the experience,” Caray said, adding there's plenty to do at the ballpark, with restaurants, clubs, play areas for the kids and more. “If you want to get up and move around, there are a lot of opportunities available.”
The stadium will be ready by opening day, but the park will continue to grow over the next two or three years. All games will be on The UMP — WUMP 103.9 FM.
Visit www.trashpandabaseball.com for more information.