I remember seeing Eddie Murray in person," Rockies fan and North Carolina native Steve Carpenter tells me of his fondest childhood baseball memories at Asheville's McCormick Field. "He was a badass. You were virtually guaranteed a home run."
Carpenter grew up a baseball fan in western North Carolina, watching Asheville Tourists games back in the mid-1970s. Long before Jerry McMorris, Don Baylor and the Colorado Rockies ever came together at Mile High Stadium, Carpenter was being raised on Double-A Southern League games at McCormick Field, which was by then—as it certainly is now—a historic site for baseball in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Carpenter's memories of Murray would have been from 1975, when Asheville was a Baltimore Orioles' affiliate, and the future Hall of Famer hit 17 dingers and another 13 doubles in 124 games as a 19-year-old. Both Carpenter and Murray were a ways from their primes in '75—the latter slashed .264/.347/.433 while the former was just 12 years old—but as those two and thousands of other people who played, coached, worked, and watched games at McCormick Field moved on with time, the ballpark stands now nearly as it did when it opened 92 years ago.
History, it goes, is what McCormick Field has in spades.
★ ★ ★
Opened on April 3, 1924, McCormick Field is the oldest minor league ballpark in regular use today. Pro baseball in Asheville goes back even further, as I learn from Doug Maurer, the Tourists' broadcaster entering his seventh year with the team.
More on McCormick Field
More on McCormick Field
"The city has held professional baseball since 1896," Maurer says.
"The list of legendary baseball players and Hall of Famers who have played at this facility is pages long, and the history of McCormick Field is a major factor when it comes to the luster of baseball in the city of Asheville."
Far more than just Murray have graced the diamond at McCormick; from Babe Ruth to Todd Helton, talented ballplayers spanning generations have all laced up their spikes to play at the historic site built into the side of a mountain. Despite significant renovations in 1959 and 1992, the stadium has been able to maintain its throwback feel and sense of long-standing baseball tradition, too.
"The best thing about the ballpark is that history," Adam Peterson of Rockies Zingers, tells me. "Because it seems that so little of the stadium has changed over the years it's not difficult to imagine mustachioed barnstormers running across the field in their flannel uniforms, even when you're watching two teams in bright, modern uniforms square off."
"One of McCormick's great strengths is it's easy to sort of get swept away into thinking that you're in a different time," Peterson continues, noting his well-documented experience at that ballpark. "The single level grandstand behind home plate and the large, plain outfield walls with the hills behind make it a bucolic, pastoral experience, beautiful in simplicity, like you're experiencing the roots of baseball."
Getting swept away in a down-home, nostalgic atmosphere seems to be a common theme when people describe the Tourists' historic field.
"I think the best way to experience McCormick is to allow yourself to get immersed in that," Peterson explains. "For example, it was a 10 minute downhill walk from downtown to the ballpark which really helped us to take in the surroundings. There's only one entrance, but it makes even waiting in line a sort of communal experience."
And Peterson has maybe the single most specific piece of advice for those watching a game in a legendary setting like Asheville's historic ballpark.
"Resist the temptation to text and tweet, if you can," he cautions. "It helps maintain the anachronistic feel of seeing a game in such an old park."
Now, most minor league ballparks—especially those nearly a century old—have their quirks, but McCormick Field goes beyond the run-of-the-mill idiosyncrasies in one very big way: the right field wall.
"The wall in right field is certainly one of the many defining characteristics of our ballpark," Maurer admits about Asheville's answer to Fenway Park's Green Monster. "It tops out at 36-feet high down the right field line and 42-feet high in right-center, making it the tallest wall in all of professional baseball."
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It's a short porch in right, too. Like, really short. The wall sits just 297 feet from home plate, making it a dream situation for lefties digging into the box—or, perhaps, a nightmare.
"McCormick is a great place to hit, and pitchers are less likely to get away with a mistake pitch," John Calvagno of Notes From The Sally tells me. "And I'm sure that gets in a pitcher's head."
"I've seen instances in batting practice and games where the ball didn't seem to be very well struck and still managed to get off the right field wall or over it," Calvagno continues, but adds a warning. "A hitter's line in Asheville can fool you, particularly a college hitter. For a young player, the wall can be a detriment. They'll often abandon their approach and try to drive a ball to right to take advantage of the wall."
Maurer, who has seen nearly 500 games at McCormick Field as a broadcaster, concurs with that sentiment about what is the most unique feature of Asheville's ballpark.
"The short porch will yield a few home runs throughout the course of a season," Maurer says. "However, it takes away far more extra-base hits. It has many teaching effects crucial to player development. It teaches hitters to hustle right out of the box on contact. It gives right fielders extra opportunities for outfield assists. It teaches centerfielders to provide help on the carom. It forces pitchers to be more precise with their location."
Wait a second: Park factors including a home run-friendly situation that significantly affects the game and forces pitchers to be more precise with their location?
That sounds familiar.
In fact, maybe it's perfect that the Tourists have been an affiliate of Major League Baseball's Colorado Rockies for more than 20 years. A match made in home run heaven, as it were.
In 2015, the Rockies shuffled their minor league affiliates and welcomed three new clubs into the fold. Another one will debut for the organization at the Double-A level in 2016. All this organizational change isn't unique in pro baseball, of course. What's unique is that longer than any other affiliation in their organizational history, the Rockies have stuck with Asheville; from the first day Colorado was granted a Low-A affiliate, the club has had a home in the western North Carolina city.
Now, going on 23 years of partnership, the Rockies have never known anything else at that minor league level. But when pro baseball has been in town for 120 years, and the ball club plays in a park built just after World War I, maybe being loyal to one Major League affiliate for a quarter century is to be expected in Asheville.
★ ★ ★
The 1994 Asheville Tourists weren't very good. They finished 13 games under .500, second-to-last in the South Atlantic League's Northern Division, and only five men who suited up for that team—the Rockies' first in Asheville—ever made the Major Leagues. One of those five, Darren Holmes, was an Asheville native, but he was also a big leaguer for several years before '94. That summer, he was only back in town to make a pair of rehab appearances totaling just three innings of work—a cool story for the hometown kid, but not exactly a product of that Tourists team.
Aside from Holmes' brief stint, an outfielder and three young pitchers would make the first mark for the Rockies from Asheville. Edgard Clemente, an 18-year-old fresh out of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, mashed 22 doubles and 11 homers in 119 games that summer in the mountains of western North Carolina, but he only hit .237 with an on-base percentage below .280. He went on to appear in 114 Major League games with the Rockies and Angels between 1998 and 2000 and played in independent and foreign leagues as recently as 2013.
More From The Rockies' Minor Leagues
More From The Rockies' Minor Leagues
John Thomson, just 20 years old at the time, went 6-6 with a 2.85 ERA in 19 games (15 starts) for the '94 Tourists. The Louisiana native went on to pitch parts of ten seasons in the majors.
A Colorado native who the Rockies selected in the first round of the 1992 MLB Draft, John Burke would've loved ten years in the big leagues. He started four games for the Tourists in '94 before being promoted, but despite a first-round pedigree, Burke only ever threw 74 innings in the big leagues.
There was also a tall, lanky 19-year-old starter who pitched 28 games that summer. In the second of what would end up being a 22-year career in professional baseball, the Oklahoma native didn't exactly have stats to write home about—he was 7-14 with a 5.97 ERA, and allowed nearly 200 hits and 59 walks in just 143 innings—but then again, nothing much that summer was memorable for Jamey Wright or the Tourists, anyways.
But the next year, in 1995, a 21-year-old first baseman showed up at McCormick Field. He had just been beaten out for the quarterback job at the University of Tennessee, and he was ready to give baseball a shot. He only hit .254, but he also mashed the first home run of his career and helped lead the Tourists to a 76-63 season. With that future star quickly on his way to Denver, the prospect pipeline from the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains was set.
The rest, as they say about McCormick Field, is history.
★ ★ ★
"The Tourists affiliation with the Rockies," Maurer tells me, noting the pride Asheville has for the big league club, "is the longest of any team in the South Atlantic League with their respective Major League club. With the city of Asheville located in the mountains and McCormick Field being known for its hitter-friendly tendencies, we are able to provide some important similarities to Coors Field."
"The players who come to Asheville year in and year out have done a magnificent job establishing a relationship with our fan base. This not only helps increase our involvement with the community, but it keeps our fans interested in those individuals who go on to one day dawn a Colorado uniform."
Asheville resident Parker Utter is exactly one of those fans to which Maurer refers. Since moving to Asheville in 2001 as a seven-year-old, Utter estimates he's been to about 25 Tourists games a season. Because of it, he's become a fan of the big league club over time.
"Without a doubt growing up in North Carolina and going to Tourists games and seeing players develop has contributed largely to me being a Rockies fan," Utter tells me. "Getting Rockies gear at McCormick and eating Dippin' Dots out of plastic Rockies helmets helped, too."
Of course, fate has a way of playing a role in fandom sometimes, too.
"Around the time I was seven, the Little League team I played on was the Rockies and I vowed they were my favorite team," Utter remembers. "Going to Tourists games validated that vow and helped it stick. But I wouldn't say that's true of most Tourists fans."
Tourists fans as a whole may not follow the Rockies, of course, but they do seem to be good baseball fans. All six people I spoke with confirm those at McCormick Field are knowledgeable about the game, which is sometimes a rare thing to see amidst the goofiness Minor League Baseball encourages.
"It's clear that the long history the franchise has in that town has led to a loving relationship between the citizens and their team," Peterson observes. "There are also a lot of people in Tourists gear, people engaged with the game itself. There were at least two other people within just our section who were keeping score. One of those fans also seemed to have a notebook or binder with information about the team."
It's not just the fans and observers who note the strong relationship between team and town, either; former players pick up on what happens at the ballpark, too.
"The fans at McCormick Field are absolutely into the game," Sam Howard, a pitcher for the '15 Tourists, tells me. "It's a really cool atmosphere on the field there. Asheville for my first full season was awesome. It was a lot of fun."
A lot of fun is certainly one sticking point for the team, the park, and the affiliation with the Rockies—and it's a large part of what has made baseball so successful in western North Carolina.
"McCormick field is absolutely a fun place to see a game," Utter says. "The mountains are beautiful, during the fall the foliage is fantastic, and the layout of the park is unique and makes things interesting. Asheville's weather is gorgeous during the late summer months so attending a game in late August at night will make for comfy temperatures, too."
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More From The Minors
Even Carpenter, whose time in Asheville long predates the Rockies, remembers the town as a historically good city for baseball.
"Yeah, for sure they are good fans," he says. "I think the really long history lends itself to that. It's sort of a coup [the Rockies] pulled off that city as an expansion franchise [in 1994]."
Now two decades into the affiliate partnership, the Rockies don't seem to be inching away from Asheville any time soon, and the Tourists are enjoying their long relationship with the big league club.
"The Rockies have done a phenomenal job providing us quality players and staff members so the product will no doubt be competitive," Maurer tells me. "The Braves have a following in this part of the country, but our fans are very knowledgeable and interested in the Rockies."
That knowledge and interest is certainly helped by a good product on the field, too. The Asheville Tourists have won two of the last four SAL Championship Series—2012 and 2014—and after a furious finish to the 2015 season nearly pulled off a third, losing in the final stand to the Hickory Crawdads.
"It was a lot of fun chasing a championship in the second half and playoffs," Howard says of the 2015 team's runner-up rally.
And it seems like the man who threw six shutout innings in that Championship Series will always carry good vibes from last summer.
"My first full season last year in Asheville was a lot of fun," he says.
But it's not just Howard who feels that way about the Rockies' recent prospects in Asheville.
"These two past seasons have been some of the most fun, winning-wise," Utter tells me. "2014 was a great and fun year for the Tourists and fans, too, and really displayed some serious Rockies talent."
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The talent isn't the only thing that works for Asheville, though. A top-notch and memorable ballpark experience doesn't hurt.
Peterson can put it into context: "I've been to about 15 major league parks and about six minor league parks, and I enjoyed watching a baseball game at McCormick Field more than almost all of them," Peterson says. "Other stadiums have more amenities or better screens or more history or offer better views of the field, of course. But for the pure and simple joy of watching a baseball game, McCormick is top notch."
There are "right" ways to see a Tourists game, too. After all, if you're visiting North Carolina's tourist-friendly mountain destination, you might as well have the best baseball experience possible.
"Almost every Ashevillian would recommend you attend a Thirsty Thursday ballgame with domestic beers at $1 and craft brews at $2," Utter explains. "Asheville has been named Beer City USA in the recent past and boasts many breweries around town with quality beer, so Thirsty Thursday is a good opportunity to try some of those local beers while taking in Tourist baseball."
Peterson's experience is similar.
"Almost all the beer and food sold in the stadium is from local restaurants and you only pay a slight in-park premium, compared to the 100% mark-up you get at other professional events, so it's worth partaking," he notes. "We got a BBQ sandwich and some ice cream that was delightful. "
"Also," Peterson adds, giving a special tip for those interested in autograph seeking, "don't rush out after the final out is recorded. Some of the players hung around outside the dugout after the game ostensibly to see friends and family, but they still talked with some fans, especially the younger ones."
To be fair, the old-time feel and highly communal experience isn't for everybody. Calvagno admits that while he loves watching games at McCormick Field, it's a tug of war to get his wife to see the same thing.
"She is more of a casual baseball fan, and she prefers the newer stadium in Greenville," Calvagno admits. "There's more to do, she says. There's a player sitting in a booth signing autographs, there's a magician doing card tricks, and they sing Sweet Caroline. To her, it's more fun. Me, I see these things too, but they're all secondary to baseball."
There's no right or wrong way to take in a baseball game, of course, and there's something to be said for newer stadiums and innovative between-innings promotions—or, depending on your perspective, diversions. But while there aren't as many of those in Asheville, the fans may not need them.
"Fans were involved in all the right points in the game and aloof in all the acceptable points," Peterson tells me of his time at McCormick Field. "And it really did feel like a baseball town to me."
★ ★ ★
A baseball town is what the Tourists are banking on—quite literally, in one case. A rejuvenated logo and branding scheme recently brought Mr. Moon to the forefront, and new Tourists uniforms and apparel over the last several years have taken hold around Asheville and well outside the region.
For Peterson, the prevalence of Mr. Moon around the city was a surprise—especially in a city that just has a Low-A team, and not, say, a Triple-A club or one in the Majors.
"We saw a lot of Tourists gear around town, or at least more than you might expect," he notes. "We live in Memphis and you almost never see people wearing [Triple-A Memphis] Redbirds gear unless they're going to a game."
And there's a reason the gear is being worn; the merchandise is cool, as Peterson knows. Maurer backs up that claim, noting that Mr. Moon has generally been a hit in Asheville.
"A majority of the response from our fans has been positive," Maurer explains. "When I am out in the community I see people sporting merchandise with the new logo and design all the time. Merchandise sales have increased since the inception of the new brand."
At least for some, however, Mr. Moon's arrival wasn't as welcome, perhaps if only since in this instance, Asheville—the city so appreciative of their long tradition—gave up on a their historic brand and mascot to go modern.
"To be completely honest, I wasn't and still am not the biggest fan of Mr. Moon and the new color scheme," Utter admits of his experience with the Tourists' new duds. "It's growing on me slightly the more I see it, but I really liked Ted E. Tourist as the main mascot, with him on the cap and jersey."
Peterson, who isn't a native like Utter, understands the hesitance of some locals to adapt to change, at least in this case.
"When I was a little kid I tried to keep track of the minor league affiliations, so I knew about Teddy," he says. "Apparently he was so popular that they not only kept him around as a regular mascot, but they even sell some old Teddy logo stuff in the gift shop. That being said, there was plenty of new logo gear around town, so if people were upset I figure they've grown to accept the new stuff by now."
Taking time to accept change might be a good way to describe baseball in Asheville—and there's nothing wrong with honoring tradition. After all, this is a city that's put on baseball in the same ballpark for nearly 100 straight seasons; it must be tough to let go of a significant part of the team's history, even if it's just a mascot like Ted E. Tourist.
★ ★ ★
To conclude our conversation, I ask Utter to name a few of the most memorable recent Rockies to come through Asheville. Predictably, he gives me a laundry list of who's who among Colorado's top prospects, from Ryan McMahon, David Dahl, and Raimel Tapia, to Jesus Tinoco, Antonio Senzatela, Matt Carasiti, Alex Balog, and even Howard.
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More On The Tourists
But when the conversation turns to Utter's favorite Tourist of all time, the list gets very short and, for me, a little unexpected.
"If I had to pick one, it would have to be Jayson Nix," Utter tells me. "He was there in 2002, so I was eight years old, and I played middle infield like him. My dad and I would go to games and only watch what Jayson Nix did."
"I probably had 12 things signed by Nix because after every game I would only want his autograph. And of course on the Little League Field, I pretended to make plays in the hole that I saw Nix make, and I tried to look like him at the plate."
Nix wasn't particularly special in Asheville that summer; he hit just .246 with 14 home runs across nearly 600 plate appearances. And even though his big league career persists—he played in Triple-A for the Orioles and Philles in 2015—he's only ever hit .212 in the Major Leagues with a .282 on-base percentage.
Ruth, Murray, Helton—far more talented players than Nix have come through Asheville and made memories. But that matters very little when you're eight years old and the ballplayers seem larger than life.
Perhaps the close-knit community aspect of the ballpark, team, and town are what make such specific players special in the memories of fans like Utter. Whether Nix in 2002 or Howard in 2015, Rockies prospects aren't very far removed from fans on or off the field in Asheville, and for Maurer, that's by design.
"One thing the players who the Rockies send to Asheville are excellent at is establishing relationships with the fans and the community," Maurer says. "They visit schools and hospitals, attend community events, hold baseball clinics, and interact with fans on a daily basis. Because of this, many Tourists fans continue to follow these players not only in Denver, but as they continue their journey through the minor leagues."
Suddenly, Utter's memories of Nix make a bit more sense, don't they? After all, when the spectrum of Asheville's baseball history goes from Babe Ruth to Sam Howard, with literally thousands of names in between, it only seems normal that different fans will hold different memories of the men who have called the city home.
Eddie Murray and Jayson Nix may not have much in common, but there is one bond tying them—and thousands of other players and countless fans—together in history: They've all had a significant part in maintaining the tradition of professional baseball in Asheville.
That a certain big league club has now continued their own tradition with the Tourists for 23 years, too, only seems to make perfect sense when you consider the history of baseball in Asheville. If McCormick Field's storied past is any indication, then, the Colorado Rockies have a long future ahead of them developing prospects and memories in the mountains of western North Carolina.