Baseball and the city of Asheville, North Carolina have gone hand-in-hand for a long time, back to the late 1800's as a matter-of-fact. Baseball branded under the name 'Tourists' have gone together for much of that time, with the earliest usage of the Tourists name appearing in 1915. Over the years the leagues and classification levels which have called Asheville home have changed, but the constant of quality professional baseball being played in this jewel of a mountain city has not wavered. Constructed at a cost of just $200,000, and named in honor of a local biologist, McCormick Field would open to baseball in 1924 and be lit for night play just a few years later, in 1930.
Since 1976 the Tourists have made their home in the revered Class-A South Atlantic League. The team has been affiliated with the Colorado Rockies since 1994, with many former and current Rockies players having jogged up the vaunted McCormick Field steps during that time. Undoubtedly, future Colorado stars currently find themselves in the enviable position of spending the summer of 2011 in the cozy hillside confines of 4,000-seat McCormick. Those players are enjoying the chance to hone their skills in the crisp mountain air so common at this elevation, while their South Atlantic League brethren "suffer" through the often oppressive southern summer heat down the mountain.
In 2010 baseball in Asheville entered a new era as the team was purchased by former United States Senator, and current Ohio Attorney General, Mike DeWine. It only takes one visit to McCormick Field to see the commitment the DeWine family has made to this community, not just in regards to baseball, but also the commitment to being a responsible civic citizen. It is quickly evident that this is a town that loves their Tourists, and this is in-turn, an organization, that loves their town. With supportive owners, excellent front-office leadership, a strong relationship with the parent Major League organization, passionate fans, a venue of historical proportions, and history on their side, baseball's future in Asheville appears extremely secure.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
When it comes to visiting a stadium at the Class-A level your expectations of extensive food & beverage offerings is usually somewhat tempered. You expect to find all the "classics", from hot dogs and hamburgers, to fries and cracker jacks. You expect to find ice cold soda and a few favorite brews on tap. At McCormick Field all the classics are there, but it doesn't stop at peanuts and popcorn. I was somewhat surprised to find a few concession offerings that I didn't expect in a park this size and I also discovered a couple concession marketing ideas being employed that I haven't witnessed before in a Class-A park.
Asheville is nothing if not locally eclectic. I'm not positive but I believe I might have just created a new piece of terminology. To understand what is meant when saying "locally eclectic" is to understand the character of this city, and unfortunately that is not something that can be fully discussed in this review. For a quick summary let's just say that Asheville is a unique city, full of varied people with varied backgrounds and cultures. For every thing that makes them different the same thing unites: the love they share for their city and the unique offerings that set this Blue Ridge community apart from countless other cities similar in size.
The food offerings here at the ballpark echo those sentiments. Not many stadiums are to be found where I could purchase a classic Carolina staple like a pulled pork barbeque sandwich ($5.50) or go with a Boca vegan burger ($6) if so inclined. One could choose another southern favorite, the chili & cheeseburger ($6), wash it down with a local brew from the Asheville-based French Broad Brewing Co., and top it all off with a tasty sweet treat like a banana split, funnel cake, or the new fair food classic, the deep fried Moon Pie. If you decide to go with a classic hot dog, or any of the other entree items, you can add an order of fries or carrots (yes, carrots), and a 16oz. soda, to create your own combo for only $2 more. Concession stands are located all the way around the concourse and kiosks are also available in the "plaza" area. Given the quaint size of this park and the prevalence of stands, I doubt one would experience much of a wait time, even on the busiest of evenings.
Atmosphere is often the one thing that can really make a good stadium visit great or a bad stadium visit even worse. The atmosphere at a ballpark is created by many things, often numerous intangibles which are sometimes difficult to put a finger on. Those intangibles are either present, or they are just not to be found.
Those of you who enjoy the ballpark experience frequently will know the exact feeling of which I speak. Asheville's McCormick Field is such a place. As soon as you step through the main entrance gate, and there is only one (with multiple lines), you are immediately overwhelmed with a feeling of history. As soon as you step inside you are greeted by large banners on the grandstand's brick faĂ§ade letting you know that you are now inside a park which was home to such greats as Willie Stargell, Eddie Murray, and all three Ripkens. These are the base paths in which the Great Bambino, Babe Ruth, rounded. Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson have sat in its dugouts. Ty Cobb put wood to ball in the first home run to ever sail over the outfield fence. Current University of North Carolina head men's basketball coach, Roy Williams, even held court as a bat boy here in the summer of 1961. Even the legendary Crash Davis, err, Kevin Costner, of Bull Durham fame, got his final career homer on this field as a member of the Tourists. Character oozes from this place.
You quickly find that you are putting aside some of your expectations for ballparks, many of the modern amenities that the newer parks can claim no longer mean as much. It's back to basics. It's about the game. It's about the memories, the legacy, and the tradition. All of that is not to say that McCormick Field is short on amenities. This is a stadium that I like to describe as "modernly-vintage". Grammatically correct? Probably not. Accurate description of a stadium like this? Absolutely. I sometimes use the term "modernly-retro" when discussing newer stadiums that have been designed to capture aspects of a by-gone era but with McCormick retro does not apply because this stadium is the real deal, which makes it vintage. And in Asheville, vintage might mean more than any other city in which Minor League baseball is played.
McCormick is a source of great pride and a large part of the reason that any discussion of replacing McCormick, if it ever should arise, should be nipped in the bud at first thought. This park is still viable and has a long future ahead of it. McCormick's demise would be an idea of sheer baseball sacrilege and as a baseball fan, as a fan of stadia; I take great comfort in knowing that this franchise is in the hands of individuals who see the incredible benefits of playing the game in such a historic park.
Nestled compactly into a hillside, sandwiched just on the fringe of downtown Asheville and a great older residential neighborhood, McCormick Field would never be built here, unfortunately, if this park was being constructed today. Again, it all comes back to character.
The neighborhood around McCormick is fantastic. It might require some effort and is probably not a park, a downtown for that matter, best suited for a pair of high heels. Do yourself a favor: wear a pair of comfortable shoes, bring along a camera, and make an evening, or day, or weekend of it here in downtown Asheville. A visit to a Asheville Tourists game should not include the phrase, "we are heading to Asheville tonight for the game", rather, it should be worded more to something of the following effect: "we are heading to Asheville for the weekend and plan to take in a Tourists game, or two, while there".
The restaurant options are endless and the variety incredible. I would be remiss if I didn't make special mention of Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria just up the street, the slices at Barley's are an absolute must when in Asheville.
Another common moniker given to Asheville is "Beer City USA" so you may definitely want to schedule some time hopping around the lively brew scene found at places like Asheville Brewing Co, many just a brief walk from the park.
Love live music? Asheville is definitely the place for you. Also just up the street from McCormick Field is one of the best intimate spots for live music in the entire country. It is called The Orange Peel, and is known locally as simply "The Peel". Upon leaving the ballpark many evenings you might even be treated to the musical styling's of well-known local street musician Bobby Sax, playing just outside on the sidewalk across from the main gate. Bobby takes requests so try and think of an obscure song and see if you can fool him, or better yet, think of a great standard and listen to the beautiful notes that follow.
Maybe you are more into the Arts scene? Galleries and museums abound in downtown Asheville. Shopping of all types, from small upscale boutiques, to booth malls displaying the wares of many, to down-home mountain classic general stores, such as the famed Mast General Store, can be found here. Simply put, Asheville is a city that feels much larger than it really is. If I could give higher marks for the neighborhood(s) in and around McCormick Field I would, it is that impressive.
Fans in Asheville know their baseball. That is what happens when you are spectator of the game in a town that is now into their third century of enjoying live professional baseball. The crowd of just under 3,000 that showed up for the game I witnessed, to see the Tourists take on the visiting Rome Braves, was steady arriving, many undoubtedly strolling into the park after a nice dinner up the street or relaxing at the ballpark after a long work-week. The great thing is that they were here largely for the baseball, and not "the show" which is the case in so many instances of sporting event attendance today.
The night I chose to attend just happened to be the evening of the birthday celebration for Asheville's most loved mascot, Ted E the Tourist. Ted E's friends (other mascots from around Western North Carolina) came out to help him celebrate. The children in attendance loved getting their pictures taken, or a ball signed, from the many mascots on hand. The crowd participation was on par with most other Minor League stadiums I've visited, as was the various in-game, between innings contests. A fast-pitch area is located on the main concourse for those wanting to try their hand at throwing some hard stuff against the gun. Short of that, and a few kiosks offering games and prizes, McCormick does not offer a children's play area. This is mainly due to the space confines and Tourists management is said to be evaluating options to construct something of a play area for children in the future.
The parks short outfield porch behooves high scoring affairs and it was quickly evident that Tourists fans expect lots of offensive firepower when coming out to McCormick and this evening did not disappoint. The right field fence at McCormick is just 300 feet from home plate, yet the in-play wall above it, encompassing the scoreboard & video board, measures 42 feet at its tallest point, taller than the famed "Green Monster" at Fenway Park in Boston. A fun tidbit about the scoreboard here is the amusing scoreline which reads: Visitors & Tourists.
At the end of the game, with the outcome still in doubt, and the Tourists attempting to rally, the crowd really came alive in support of their team. Unfortunately for the home team, the score did not result in a win as the Braves came away victorious on this evening. The Tourists have only one South Atlantic League Championship to their credit, in 1984. Regardless of that fact, this is a town, and a group of fans who will support their team for the long haul. I can also promise, because it happened to me, that when you make a trip to McCormick the folks here will welcome you with a hearty hello and leave you with a cheerful "thanks for coming and come back again, anytime" even if the score doesn't reflect a mark in the win column that evening.
Some would say that parking is a challenge. Poor means of ingress and regress. Not enough room for wide concourses, entry portals, or wide aisles. Not enough room for spacious restroom facilities, a large souvenir store, or large children's play area so common in many newer parks. All of these things might be true, at least to an extent, but they are largely irrelevant in this park, in this space.
The old phrase, "you make do with what you are given" rings true. I, and evidently thousands of others, feel this stadium is making do within its limitations is exactly how it should be. We have enough cookie-cutter parks across the land, what we need is creative folks like those in Asheville who are willing to take the time and effort to think outside the box and see the possibilities. For example: McCormick Field is home to the closest-to-the-batter-box seats in professional baseball. Called the "Bojangles Dugout Suites", a seat here can be had for $30 and includes an on-the-field seat, just to the inside of the dugouts, in front of the existing backstop. Don't worry though; you are protected by netting completely surrounding the boxes. Each box seats 16 and includes a combo meal delivered from the nearby Bojangles, assorted snacks, unlimited Pepsi beverages, reserved parking, and a personal seat server. Do yourself a favor and splurge on these seats one time.
Another creative seating option is called the Clubhouse and is located down the right-field line, directly above the Tourists bullpen. A seat in the Clubhouse will also cost $30 and offers access to a climate controlled area which affords private restrooms, a cash bar; upscale buffet catered each evening by a local restaurant, unlimited Pepsi beverages, televisions, and reserved parking. The Clubhouse also offers two rows of pub style outdoor seating facing the field where you can take your food and drink and relax under a large awning, with fans swirling overhead no less, and enjoy the Asheville evening.
General admission (bench style) tickets are priced at $6/$7 and are quite well protected from Mother Nature's elements by a large cantilevered awning. Box seats are chairback (but are a somewhat tight fit so you might want to limit purse/bag size) with cup-holders and will run you $8/$10. All seats are $1 higher if purchased on day-of-game. Parking is somewhat scattered for those without reserved parking. It is however free but I will advise that the earlier you arrive the more likely you are to be closer to the front gate. McCormick Field has allotted plenty of handicap parking so if you are, or are arriving with, a person needing handicap accessible parking, that will not be a problem. Private paid lots do exist if you prefer to possibly have a bit quicker exit upon the games conclusion.
Minor League baseball is all about what you put into it. Return on Investment is not as dependant on wins & losses at this level than it is at the Major League level. In that same vain, unlike their Major League counterparts, you don't expect to go to a Class-A level ballpark and shell out hundreds of dollars for a family of four to attend the ballgame. Granted you have some higher priced seating options at McCormick Field, and many of today's Minor League parks, but they come with a level of service befitting those higher prices. I'm not sure that I have personally experienced a Minor League ballpark in which I would rather return to more that the one in Asheville. If you factor in the lure of a weekend in a great city, bookended by a great baseball game featuring tomorrow's stars, the bang for your buck is obvious when considering attending a Tourists game.
One of the more unusual features of McCormick Field, and one that I haven't seen before at a professional level ballpark, is the concrete rows down each baseline, beyond the general admission seats and located above the box seating, where you are allowed to bring in blankets or pop-up/camping type chairs. According to staffers the idea has been floated to "finish out" these sections with bench seating, as is seen in the rest of the stadium's general admission seating, but these open areas have proven so popular the need to convert has not been realized. When looking at this seating area my mind wandered to a much chillier night, bundled up in a pop-up chair, a la a high school football game.
Yet another feature that added to the small-town charming feeling of McCormick Field was the pavilions at the extreme ends of each baseline. The Ingles Picnic Area is located down the right field line and can accommodate groups up to 100 while the Pepsi Party Pavilion is located down the left field line, adjacent to the visiting team's bullpen, and can accommodate parties of over 200. The restrooms at McCormick have recently been spruced up, freshly painted in anticipation of this season. Family style restroom space can also be located on the main concourse.
This season saw the introduction of a new logo and color scheme for the Tourists, evident throughout the ballpark, from the vast new selection of merchandise in the team's souvenir store, to the new mascot friend of Ted E Tourist roaming the grounds, to the new uniforms being worn by long-time skipper Joe Mikulik (currently in his 12th season as Asheville's manager, the longest coaching stint with a single team in the long history of the South Atlantic League) and his team. The new logo has proved very successful and the color scheme is definitely unique, fitting in with the mountains-inspired, laid back cultural vibe of Asheville very well.
I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the stands that are visible over the left-center field wall. Those stands are bleachers located at the adjacent Asheville Memorial Stadium, which is accessible from the upper parking lot at McCormick Field. During the course of my evening in Asheville I saw numerous people, mostly children, climbing those stands to the top row to get a birds-eye view of McCormick Stadium from high above the outfield. I would imagine that one would find an excellent photo opportunity of McCormick Field awaiting them should they wish to walk up the hill and climb the ensuing stairs to the top of those bleachers. I plan on doing this the next time I am in Asheville.
As a fan of the game, I can not wait until I am able to yet again visit with the fine people of Asheville and witness another evening of Tourists baseball at historic McCormick Field. I would strongly encourage anyone else with the opportunity to partake to include the Tourists whenever your travel plans bring you near Asheville. I promise you will not forget it and you will leave with a renewed appreciation of modern baseball, in its truest form.
McCormick Field is the perfect small town ballpark in a big time city. I was amazed how quickly I felt that I was transported back to baseball's modern roots of the 1970s as soon as I walked into the park.
While you are there make sure you don't expect much in the ways of 21st style and entertainment. This is baseball for baseball sake. Grab yourself some good food, a local beer, and a great friend or two, and enjoy baseball in the mountains.
42 Biltmore Ave
Asheville, NC 28801
1 Skyland Inn Dr
Arden, NC 28704