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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

NC trend: Asheville is spending millions to keep Tourists in town

Part of the allure of a summer night of baseball watching at Asheville’s McCormick Field comes from the Blue Ridge Mountains enveloping the city.

The city-owned stadium, which opened in 1924 and was last renovated in 1992, lacks modern amenities for Asheville Tourist players and fans, to be sure. But the natural beauty and history make it among the most eclectic in the baseball world. 

McCormick Field Opening Day, 1924

The Tourists start their season April 6 at home against the Bowling Green (Kentucky) Hot Rods. It could have been the last Opening Day for minor league baseball in Asheville, if not for a late-inning save. Major League Baseball told the Tourists it would lose its minor league license after this season unless it makes major  improvements at the 4,000-seat downtown stadium.

In mid-March, Asheville City Council voted unanimously to spend $875,000 a year for the next 20 years to pay for a $37.5 million upgrade to McCormick Field. Buncombe County and its tourism authority had previously agreed to kick in a combined  $1.6  million annually for the project. The team, which had been paying $1 a year, will start making annual lease payments averaging about $470,000 over two decades.

“This is the city’s largest investment in any one project since the building of the Civic Center in the 1970s,” says Chris Corl, director of the city’s community and regional entertainment facilities, which includes McCormick Field.

Efforts to keep the team in Asheville stemmed from sentiment and economic factors. Almost 180,000 fans attended 66 home games at McCormick Field last year for the High-A affiliate of the Houston Astros, contributing an impact of nearly $10 million to the county.

Against a deadline 

A decision to invest in a stadium project did not sneak up on the Asheville Tourists or the city. In 2020, Major League Baseball issued a facility standards requirement to its minor league affiliates, along with a deadline for improvements. Under a scoring system for minimum standards, McCormick Field scored in the bottom 10% of more than 100 stadiums across the nation. Major League Baseball warned that not making improvements would cost teams their licenses.

Asheville nearly lost its minor league affiliation in 2020 when Major League Baseball contracted from 160 teams to 120 in an efficiency drive. So the team knew that improvements were required to avoid the team’s departure, says Tourists’ owner Brian DeWine. His family, which includes his father, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, bought the business in 2010 from a company that owned the Detroit Pistons’ NBA team.

The Tourists missed the spring 2023 deadline for completing renovations, but negotiated with Major League Baseball to have financing in place by April 1, Brian DeWine says. With the agreement in place, McCormick Field should be fully renovated by early 2026. It is expected to have a concourse wrapping around the whole field, new video board, better locker rooms and improved facilities for female coaches, umpires and staff. The changes will enable the city to use McCormick Field year-round, Corl says, for events including concerts, Christmas light shows and beer festivals.

Nine other North Carolina cities have minor league baseball teams. Stadium issues are a factor in speculation that another team may move within the state. Zebulon’s Five County Stadium, the home of the Single-A Carolina Mudcats, reportedly needs as much as $15 million in repairs to meet Major League Baseball standards. In February, the Mudcats signed an agreement with Wilson, located about 25 miles east, to explore moving to a potential stadium there. The Mudcats have played in Zebulon since 1991.

Keeping the Tourists in Asheville is important to the city beyond just business, says Corl.

“It’s like that awesome family entertainment that even in 2023 doesn’t gouge you,” he says. “It’s part of the city’s identity. It’s one of those things that’s hard to pinpoint, but it definitely wouldn’t be the same without them.” 

MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL IN NORTH CAROLINA

Asheville Tourists
High-A affiliate of the Houston Astros. More than 30 different beers sold at McCormick Field.

Carolina Mudcats
Single-A affiliate of Milwaukee Brewers. Muddy the Mudcat is one of the most popular mascots and logos in the entire league. Play at Zebulon’s Five County Stadium, 30 miles east of Raleigh. Fried catfish is on the menu.

Charlotte Knights
Triple-A affiliate of Chicago White Sox. Play at Truist Field, which opened in 2014 and is one of the most visited venues in Minor League Baseball. Friday night fireworks light up the Uptown skyline.

Down East Wood Ducks
Single-A affiliate of Texas Rangers. Inaugural season in 2017 brought baseball back to Kinston. Win and Wine Down Wednesdays offers wine at half price and a ticket provides free admission the following Wednesday if the Wood Ducks win.

Durham Bulls
Triple-A affiliate of Tampa Bay Rays. Play at Durham Bulls Athletic Park since 1995. Classic baseball film “Bull Durham” was filmed at the team’s previous ballpark. A giant 20-foot bull invites players to “Hit Bull Win Steak.” Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting has owned the team since 1991. 

Fayetteville Woodpeckers
Single-A affiliate of Houston Astros. Play at Segra Stadium, which opened in 2019. Because of proximity to Fort Bragg military base, the Woodpeckers’ name and colors pay homage to those who serve.

Greensboro Grasshoppers
High-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Play in downtown Greensboro’s First National Bank Field. Willie Mae Mays, a black lab, retrieves bats and takes balls to the umpire between innings.

Hickory Crawdads
High-A affiliate of Texas Rangers. Mascots Conrad and Candy Crawdad married on the field in 2018. Super Saturdays features post-game concerts and celebrity appearances.

Kannapolis Cannon Ballers
Single-A affiliate of Chicago White Sox. Play at the $52 million Atrium Health Park, which opened  in 2021. Team name pays homage to the town’s textile mill heritage.

Winston-Salem Dash
High-A affiliate of Chicago White Sox. Play at downtown Winston-Salem’s Truist Stadium, which opened in 2010. It replaced Ernie Shore Field, which was built in 1956. Offers all-inclusive tickets that include seat, food, beverages and parking. 

OTHER TAR HEEL BASEBALL TEAMS

College summer league baseball
Asheboro Zookeepers, Boone Bigfoots, Burlington Sock Puppets, Forest City Owls, Holly Springs Salamanders, High Point-Thomasville HiToms, Morehead City Marlins, Wilmington Sharks, Wilson Tobs

Unaffiliated Pro Teams
Gastonia Honey Hunters and High Point Rockers

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