MADISON, Ala. (AP) - The leader of a north Alabama minor league baseball team announced Wednesday that he is leaving, less than two weeks before the team’s first game and while the team may still owe money to its stadium landlord.
Ralph Nelson, the longtime baseball executive who led the purchase and relocation of what are now the Rocket City Trash Pandas to the Huntsville suburb of Madison, said he was leaving to pursue a new baseball business opportunity that he said he put on hold to steer the Trash Pandas through the coronavirus pandemic, according to a letter obtained by news outlets.
“I made a commitment to pursue this new opportunity, and with the Trash Pandas’ inaugural season about to begin, my desire is to go back to the work that I love the most: building a new team and a new stadium,” Nelson wrote.
Nelson leaves as the team and the city of Madison await an audit saying how much the club owes to the city, which built the $46 million Toyota Stadium to host the team. The club’s payments are supposed to help the city repay the money it borrowed.
The Trash Pandas paid the city of Madison about $750,000 as part of its lease in 2020. The team says it owes nothing because the lease had a clause letting it off the hook when the minor league season was canceled last year because of the pandemic. The team is supposed to pay Madison at least $1 million in rent each year, plus pay for most of utility costs.
“When I realized that we were not going to be able to meet the $1 million dollar guarantee, I sought legal advice and was given legal advice that gave me a great, great amount of comfort,” Nelson told WHNT-TV.
Trash Pandas Vice President Lindsey Knupp said that the club is working with the city and auditors to determine any amount due for 2020.
“We maintain a strong partnership with the City of Madison and will be making our obligated payment, in full, upon completion of the audit,” she said in a statement.
City officials say they have “every confidence we will receive full payment once the audit is complete,” but say they plan to expand the audit.
Nelson told the Madison City Council in January that the club lost $17.8 million in 2020 and had expected to pay Madison $1.4 to $1.5 million. Nelson said the club used the stadium for 175 other events, generating $1.79 million. Nelson also said the club has sold $4 million in merchandise since it was rebranded. The team formerly played in Mobile as the Bay Bears.
Nelson said he used available revenue to pay employees and avoid layoffs.
The executive has also voiced displeasure over the delay in opening an exit ramp from Interstate 565 into the development that hosts Toyota Field. The eastbound side of the ramp is complete, but the Alabama Department of Transportation has been demanding that Town Madison developer Louis Breland start construction on the westbound ramp. The ramp is supposed to open before the team’s first home game on May 11.
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