Play Ball

Photo courtesy of the Asheville Tourists

Photo courtesy of the Asheville Tourists

The arrival of spring gladdens the hearts of gardeners and golfers, hikers and horse lovers, fishermen and free spirits. But few rejoice as jubilantly as baseball fans, for whom the words “spring training” are like a prayer answered.

Asheville is particularly blessed with its own minor league team and its own historic shrine to America’s traditional sport, along with a fan base devoted to pure baseball free of the taint of outsized egos and salaries. Such devotion became apparent to Chris Smith, the assistant general manager of McCormick Field, home of the Asheville Tourists, when the stadium’s fancy new sports cafe for season ticket holders first opened. “We had a caterer who served fancy hors d’oeuvres and expensive wine and all the fixings,” Chris remembered the other day while gazing down at the stadium from The Clubhouse. “But all anybody wanted to know was where were the hot dogs and hamburgers?”

McCormick Field will mark the opening of its eighty-fifth year this spring as the Tourists embark on a 140-game season from a stadium that, curiously, is named for someone who had little, if anything, to do with the sport. Dr. Lewis McCormick was a bacteriologist credited with freeing Asheville of its seasonal typhoid epidemics by launching a house fly eradication program in 1905 that eventually reduced the number of annual cases by over ninety-five percent. The city was so grateful that it decided to name its new stadium just south of downtown after him, although McCormick died before it was completed. The wood frame structure stood for sixty-seven years, and served as a location for the film Bull Durham in 1988, before it was replaced in 1991 with the present steel, concrete and brick stadium, capable of holding up to four thousand fans.

Even older than McCormick Field, though, is the team that plays there. Asheville’s hometown team was at first called the Moonshiners when it was formed in 1897 with a short, 21-game season played wherever an open field could be put to use. Flirting briefly with a name change to The Redbirds in 1909, the club finally settled on The Mountaineers, a name that stuck until the mid-1950s. By then, the minor leagues were sophisticated enough to recruit players from all over the country, and Asheville’s fans were soon referring with enough regularity to the strangers in town every spring and summer as “the tourists” that the new name was officially adopted. The team, now part of Minor League Baseball’s Southern Atlantic League, is an A-level affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.

“The club has sent thirty-eight players to the majors since the 1950s,” Chris says, reeling off a list of names familiar to any baseball fan of a certain age. Willie Stargell, Sparky Anderson, and Cal Ripkin (who was a bat boy at the stadium) are among the superstars who once inhabited the field. But McCormick Field’s most famous ghost is Babe Ruth, and its most famous story “The Bellyache Heard ‘Round The World”. Ruth had stopped in Asheville with the Yankees in 1926, as the team traveled north from Florida after spring training. With travel more leisurely back then, major league teams often stopped along the way to their first regular season game to play exhibition games in small-town America’s ballparks. The Yankees were supposed to entertain Asheville with a game against the old Brooklyn Dodgers, but The Bambino arrived with stomach cramps and a fever so severe that he actually fainted when he got off the train to greet fans in Asheville. Put to bed at the old Battery Park Hotel, rumors began flying, and in no time folks came to believe that Ruth had actually died in Asheville, a rumor that persisted for several days and spread around the country until Ruth emerged, weak but very much alive. His ailment was variously put down to indigestion, influenza and an “intestinal abscess” — even, some whispered, venereal disease. (In fact, Ruth underwent abdominal surgery in New York just weeks before the season started, but took the field on schedule for the season’s first game at Yankee Stadium.)

While the adventures and mishaps of such storied baseball figures may be somewhat muted now amid the field’s new brick facade and jutting concrete canopy, the spirit of those days is still very much alive. “You can still talk to the players in between innings,” Chris Smith says. “They’re really good about mingling with the crowd and greeting fans. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, and our top ticket price for a seat in the stands is ten dollars.”

Fans are so close to the action that signs in the bleachers warn spectators to watch out for foul balls and flying bats. Chris says that attendance at Tourist games has been on the rise since he arrived at the club 13 seasons ago, increasing by 11,000 during the 2008 season. The club’s ties to the community extend well beyond the stadium, too. It contributed over $500,000 and 1900 volunteer hours to local charities last year, and the stadium regularly hosts charity fundraisers and makes the field available post-season to high school teams from the area.

But nothing underscores the differences from the majors as the Tourists’ voluntary concession of a possible League championship to the rival Lexington Legends. “We were scheduled to host the third game of a five-game playoff,” Chris remembers, “and the date for the game was September 11, 2001. Lexington was up by two games by then, so we cancelled the rest of the series and gave them the title.” Babe Ruth would have approved.

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