One of the simplest joys of being a baseball fan is attending a game in person. Watching the hometown nine take the field, with all the sound and fury unfolding before your eyes rather than through a lens, is what connects us to the game and keeps us coming back for more.
But, if you’re like me, you find yourself separated from your team of choice by timezones, with no major league alternatives nearby. This has been a bit of a blessing and a curse. While I’ve missed the major league product, there is still live baseball available. The Triple-A Memphis Redbirds play but a couple miles from my residence, but there are also roughly two dozen teams between Class-A and Triple-A within an 8-hour drive, including Rockies South Atlantic League affiliate since 1994, the Asheville Tourists. This past Labor Day weekend, it was time for a road trip.
Asheville, home to about 87,000 people, is nestled into the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, giving it a nice, small-mountain-town feel. Nationally renowned for its restaurants, microbreweries, and outdoor culture, it’s become a haven for those hip, hippie, foodie, beer-snobby, and green. Think of it this way: take Boulder, Colorado, and remove the Pottery Barns, the Apple Stores, the Ann Taylors, and anything else particularly bourgeois, and you have Asheville. Depending on who you are, that might be a very good thing or a not so good thing.
Or at least Bolder 😉 RT @playerTBNL: Asheville may be even more Boulder than Boulder.
— Asheville Life (@AshevilleLife) September 5, 2015
My wife (and adventuresome traveling partner) and I arrived in Asheville late Friday night and spent the day Saturday exploring what the city has to offer before heading down to historic McCormick Field to catch a game. The guy at the ticket tent recognized my Modesto Nuts hat, proving that RoxFam is more than just a hashtag. One hour before first pitch we were able to snag 2 seats right behind home plate for $25–total; the joys of minor league baseball. I was ready to see the place where the original player to be named later hit his record home run.
McCormick Field has hosted minor league baseball in Asheville since 1924, making it one of the oldest stadiums in the minors in use. It hardly shows its age, thanks in part to two renovations, the most recent back in 1992. As one approaches the stadium, the iconic McCORMICK FIELD gate welcomes you, as well as the pennants from their South Atlantic League titles from 1984, 2012 and 2014, waving from the top of the stadium edifice.
The Tourists had a lot to celebrate this year. Not only did they win that SAL title last year behind top prospects David Dahl, Raimel Tapia and Ryan McMahon, but they also hosted the 2015 South Atlantic League All-Star Game back on June 23rd (the North All-Stars defeated the host South All-Stars, 7-5). And, to cap it off, the team was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Tourists nickname. The Tourists have moved around between many leagues and classifications over their history, which dates back to 1897. They came to be known as the Tourists in 1915 and, save for a brief stretch as the Asheville Orioles from 1972 to 1975, have held the moniker ever since. Needless to say there are few teams in the majors or minors with the history of the Asheville Tourists.
Of course, the gift shop was filled with special memorabilia commemorating each of these special events. I’m thankful my wife was with me to prevent me from overspending.
Visitors can make their way to the stands from here or wrap around behind the field to explore the concourse. The high arches supporting the grandstand roof and lend a sense of awe to the stadium. Complete with your standard ballpark food as well as several specialty beer carts, each featuring one of Asheville’s many microbreweries, it’s easy to find something for everyone. We walked around to the third base entrance, up the stairs to the field, greeted as perfect a setting for baseball as Asheville could possibly give.
The sky blue walls, high and decked with advertisements local and national, held back the encroaching trees mounting an assault from high upon the Asheville hills. The one in right field, nearly as tall as the Green Monster in Boston, had the minimally digital scoreboard, with one big screen used for player intros and between innings promotions. Though only 373 feet to center, it may as well be 473 for these young hitters, who average a scant 21.5 years of age. The presence of only two umpires reminds you just how far this is from the big crowds and bigger spotlight of the Show. The field was in pristine condition, no small feat considering this was the last series of the regular season, the end of the grind and, hopefully, the beginning of the next step towards that dream of playing for the big club. It was beautiful and pristine in its simplicity.
The Asheville faithful turned out for the Saturday night game. Even after accounting for Jersey Giveaway Night, there were a lot people in the stands wearing Tourists gear and they were vocal and attentive; throughout the game people cheered throughout with little (if any) prompting from the scoreboard. We found our seats and I set out to start keeping score with my trusty Halfliner. Before long I noticed two other people in my section participating in the lost art, as well. I smiled, delighted to find myself enjoying a game in a baseball town.
The between-innings promotions were in the grand tradition of minor league baseball, including a “Guess the Speed” contest, where one lucky fan had the opportunity to guess the speed of one of the first three pitches of the next inning to win Bojangles for everybody (he was off by 1mph). Then there was a race between kids dressed in tooth-related costumes (the toothbrush won), and the Krispy Kreme 7th-Inning donut giveaway (donuts for all!), each of which reminded me of the parent club in some way. The promotions were interesting enough to keep me and my wife, two people who tend to ignore such in-game distractions, intrigued and attentive.
The game itself brought plenty of drama. The Tourists were clinging to a 1/2 game lead over the Greenville Drive for the South Division Wild Card spot, with the Drive having won the first game of their double header earlier in the day. The visiting Greensboro Grasshoppers (49-87) were playing out the string and sending out Gabriel Castellanos and his not-so-sparkling 5.65 ERA to the McCormick Field mound. It seemed like a mismatch.
The Tourists got on the board in the bottom of the second, thanks to a two-out walk from DH Max White and a double off the high right field wall by Josh Fuentes. White, trying to score from first on the play, ran through the stop sign thrown up by the third base coach and scored on the wide throw. Meanwhile, Tourists starter Sam Howard managed to keep the ‘Hoppers off the board in the first four innings, flashing a low-90’s fastball and breaking off a couple devastating breaking balls. In the fifth, with two outs and a man on second, he gave up back to back hits to give Greensboro the lead. From there, the Tourists couldn’t really get anything going, emulating their parent club by getting caught stealing on all 4 attempts. In the seventh, a leadoff single by all-South Atlantic League third baseman Shane Hoelscher, followed by a pair of wild pitches put the Tourists in position to tie. Fellow all-SAL outfielder (and number 27 PuRP) Omar Carrizales drove in Hoelscher with a sac fly to left to knot the game at 2-2.
Again, in true 2015 Rockies fashion, the bullpen couldn’t hold it. Right hander Shane Halley, who stuck retired the side in order in the 7th, gave up a leadoff walk. Three batters later it was 3-2 Grasshoppers when a bouncing ball to the right side was barely snagged by Forrest Wall, but he made an ill-advised throw which allowed the trail runner to advance to third and the batter to advance to second (the number 8 PuRP had a tough 0-for-4 at the plate; he struck out twice and grounded into a double play). That ended the night for Halley and, after giving up one more (unearned) run, the Tourists trailed 5-2. Another hit from Hoelscher followed by a two-out walk from catcher Dom Nunez (number 17 PuRP) brought the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, but Greensboro reliever Jose Velez got Carrizales to strike out to end the game.
The Tourists went on to win the next night and clinch their 3rd trip to the playoffs in 4 years on Monday thanks to a Greenville loss. They defeated the South Division champion Savannah Sand Gnats (soon to be the Columbia Fireflies) in a best-of-three set two games to one, winning the deciding game in Savannah on Saturday night. They’ll get to try to defend their 2014 title against the Hickory Crawdads in the best-of-five South Atlantic League Championship beginning Monday.
Overall, the Tourist experience was one to cherish and remember, from the gear in the Tourist Trap, to the fans all over town sporting their glow-in-the-dark Mr. Moon caps. What will stay with me most, though, is the experience of McCormick Field itself. As the darkness grew and the mist fell and the lights came on, I couldn’t help but be taken back to games immemorial, with teams outfitted with local boys and barnstorming ringers. For nearly a century the great game has been played at the base of these hills and the ghosts of those great competitors whisper to you with each fizzing fastball and every whistling line drive. It’s an experience that will surely continue to attract Tourists and fans for years to come.