McCormick Field, Asheville, North Carolina

McCormick Field, Asheville, NORTH CAROLINA

Number of states:  11
States to go:  39

Number of games:  2
First game:  April 15, 2005 (Kannapolis Intimidators 1, Asheville Tourists 0)
Most recent game:  July 21, 2006 (Columbus Catfish 11, Asheville Tourists 10)

(Click any image to see a larger version.)

I have to say that one of my favorite aspects of the quest to attend a minor league ballpark in every state is the sheer fact that I get to go to cities I’ve never been before, and likely would never have made it to were it not for my quest.  I had next-to-no knowledge of Asheville before I finished my 2005 Spring Break baseball trip there.  A buddy of mine went to high school there, but beyond that, Asheville was a spot on the map and nothing else.  What a pleasure it was to find this

place…a granola college town (like Eugene or Boulder, two spots I’m more familiar with) dropped in among beautiful foothills.

How granola was it, you ask?  Well, I started my evening at the Raven Grill downtown.  There, I was greeted by Jill, a sweetheart waitress in standard granola-issue bandana and piercings.  She gave me a big smile, sat me by the window, and handed me a menu.  I took a look and…uh-oh…I had landed in a vegan restaurant.  I thought I was in big trouble.  I’m allergic to soy, and vegan food, at least to my knowledge, is exclusively

made of soy.  But I didn’t want to find another place to eat, and I was curious.  Plus, they had The Ultimate Nachos on the menu.  Vegan nachos?  What’s the cheese? Probably soy. I asked Jill.  “It’s not soy-based.  It’s our Raven Cheese.  It’s made from cashews.”  Cashew cheese? Whoa!  Could go either way.  So I went ahead and had myself some vegan nachos.  They arrived, and I looked at the faux-cheese, and I dipped in…

They were delicious!  I want to go back to Asheville just for the vegan nachos!  I even thought of returning after the game for the live music…but when I heard that the headliner was somethingorother-the-fiddler, I decided to take a pass. Not a big fan of the fiddle music. But if you’re in Asheville, this is a fine place to go.  Treat yourself to the vegan nachos, try to catch some music, and say hi to Jill.

The ballpark is just down the hill from downtown–the lights are visible from Biltmore street, the main downtown drag.  McCormick Field is quite literally carved out of the side of a hill, which I found quite striking.  The concourse along the

third base side looks straight out at the carved-away hill, which I found lovely.  The top of the hill features Veterans Memorial Stadium, the home of soccer and women’s pro football.  I didn’t make the trip up, but I bet that the bleachers up there afford an excellent bird’s-eye view of McCormick Field.  The views are therefore enough to lead the ballpark to pass the is-there-any-question-where-you-are test.

The Tourists, additionally, know how to put on a show.  I firmly believe that they manage to walk the balance-beam and provide an excellent night out for both casual fans and purists.  For the casual fan, there’s plenty of action on the first-base side of the park as far as promotions and places for kids to jump around and play.  The gift shop features more hats than any minor league gift shop I’ve ever seen–hats for the entire South Atlantic League, the entire Rockies’ system, a few other minor league clubs, and a good chunk of the majors.  There are frequent wacky promotions on the field, and many opportunities for the fine residents of Asheville to win (unless I’m in town…but more on that later).  If you’re a purist, however, Asheville has you covered too.  Lineups are prominently displayed in the pavilion.  Additionally, each section (at least where I was sitting) has an usher who will go get you food or drink and bring it to your seat.  There’s no need to take your eyes off the field at any time.

Me?  Well, I’m a purist, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy some of the same things the casual fan does.  And tonight…man, did I ever.  It started before the game.  They were selling tennis balls for the toss-the-tennis-balls-into-the-hula-hoops-on-the-field competition.  I

bought four balls to toss after the game.  Then I entered the trivia contest.  The question:  Which former Tourist hit the game-winning home run for the Rockies against the Padres on opening day 2005?  It was multiple choice.  Two of the choices, Jason Jennings and Todd Helton, I eliminated immediately:  I’d remember if it was a pitcher, and I’d remember if it was Helton. That left me to randomly choose between Clint Barmes and Garrett Atkins, neither of whom I’d quite heard of yet.  I picked Barmes–he sounded vaguely familiar–and sat down for the game.  I only wish that they had asked for our address as part of the contest…that way, I would have heard “Our winner in the trivia competition tonight is Paul Hamann from…[pause]…Redmond, Washington?”  But that’s okay.  They said my name. I WON!

I waited several innings for a suitable break (tough to do when you’re at a game alone and are scoring it) and ran out for my prize.  They were closing down the prize shack by then–so they sent me to the gift shop.  They didn’t have it either.  They promised me that I could come back after the game.  I didn’t tell them this, but I didn’t need a prize.  In the trivia competition, it’s all about the glory of competition.

So I waited through to the end of the game.  It was a barnburner–a real pitchers’ duel.  Quite tense.  Afterwards, I headed to the side of the field to play the tennis ball throw game.  Now, I assumed that the rules were the

same as they are at my home minor league park in Everett, and that getting the ball into a more-distant hula hoop would merit a larger prize.  I knew I didn’t have the arm to win a year’s worth of free gas (the hoop in center field), so I didn’t even try–in part because the gas was from a local gas station.  Quite inconvenient for me.  So I aimed for the second-closest hoop…and on my last try…what do you know!  I won again! They announced my name again! I showed I was superior in both mind and body!  I was a real celebrity!

Now it was time to claim my multiple prizes.  I headed out to the gift shop and gave them my name.  They knew it.  “Oh yeah!  You’re the guy who won twice!”  And what did I win?  For the trivia contest…a twelve-pack of Sierra Mist.  For the hula-hoop competition…in my view, much more difficult to win…well, I won my choice of prizes from a box of cheap crap.  (I selected a computer mouse in the shape and color of Jeff Gordon’s car.)

Immediately, I was faced with a problem.  What the hell was I going to do with a twelve-pack of Sierra Mist?  I was literally 12 hours from flying back home to Seattle.  I wasn’t going to make it a carry-on, and I wasn’t going to pack it and have it explode all over my stuff.  This left me with the following choices:  1.  Drink the 12-pack overnight, and get up every 30 minutes to pee.  2.  Give it away.

I chose option #2…but who was deserving?  I thought of giving it to my usher, who had so wonderfully served me all night, but couldn’t find her.  I knew nobody in town.  But a solution was walking by me right through the concourse.

The Kannapolis Intimidators were on their way to their bus.  They had just finished their hard-fought victory.  Surely they were thirsty!  I caught one of the stragglers and said:  “Hey, I just won this, but I’m not going to take it back to Seattle with me.  Do you think you and the team might like this?”  He said it was a wonderful gesture and that they would love it.  I asked for his name.  He told me he was hitting coach Ryan Long, thanked me, and went on his way.

I admit to being a nerd, but what followed gave me a cheap thrill.  Because McCormick Field is set up on the side of a hill, the concourse

looks out directly into the bus.  Therefore, I was able to watch while my twelve-pack was passed back from row to row and the Intimidators took them out.  I then thought I would try to take a picture of the guy in the last row enjoying his Sierra Mist.  He caught me trying to take his picture–he must have thought I was a complete freak–and started mugging for the camera.  I mimed to him to raise his can of soda.  He did.  I took the picture.  Of course, it was a stupid idea…trying to take a picture at night through a tinted bus window…but if you look closely here, although you cannot see the player, you can see the gift I gave him…the green can of refreshing celebration, his victory Sierra Mist.

Of course, what good is a gift if the person doesn’t know it’s a gift?  I mean, if my loved ones just suddenly got things they wanted at Christmas but didn’t know I gave them, that wouldn’t exactly be the spirit of giving, would it?  So I wanted to let this guy know that I had given him his can of Sierra Mist.  Miming that is extremely difficult.  The conversation went like this:

ME:  [points at player] [mimes drinking motion] [rapidly repeats pointing at player and miming drinking motion] [points elaborately at myself]

PLAYER: [shrugs with palms up]

ME:  [repeats the points-at-player drinking-motion points-at-myself combination, all the while mouthing the words “THE DRINK.  IT’S FROM ME.”]

PLAYER:  [extends fist with thumb and pinkie extended out and shakes it…the sign for “hang loose.”]

So either he got the message or totally didn’t.

But hey!  Kannapolis Intimidators!  If EVER any of you read this, and remembers this night and that delicious can of lemon-lime goodness, remember…it was from me!  And if any of you happen to find your way to a lucrative major-league contract, and want to repay me, I’ll accept anything from an email to a thank you to game tickets.

It was one of those nights where the stories piled one on top of another, and the folks at beautiful McCormick Field are responsible for the lion’s share of those memories.  They understood that a ballgame can be simultaneous experiences–first and foremost about the game, but also about wackiness accompanying the game.  I got wonderful doses of each on this night, and did it all in a gorgeous small city.  If I can help it, I’ll be back to McCormick Field, and if you have a chance, you should go there yourself.  It was one of the best minor league ballparks I’ve ever seen, and I suspect it will remain that way for good.

UPDATE 2006: It’s still marvelous.  I went back with my wife, and the place is still wonderful.  They no longer sell affiliate hats in the gift shop, but the guy who sells programs asked us where we were going.  The game was one of the worst I’ve ever seen (unlike the wonderful 2005 game), but this ballpark remains a hit.

The saddest part of that trip:  it appeared the Raven Grill had closed.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  9/10
Beautifully settled into the Great Smokies.  It fits perfectly into the Mountain South.

Charm:  5/5
Loads.  Both within the ballpark and without…this is everything a minor league ballpark should be.

Spectacle: 5/5
Ideal combination of cool promotions–of which I was the king–but deference to the game.  Again, the standard by which all else should be measured.

Team mascot/name:  4/5

Ted E. Tourist and me.  The mascot is better on the hat than in person…I prefer Ted E. dressed as a tourist than as this generic bear.

Aesthetics:  5/5


As gorgeous as they come, especially from within the pavilion.  Seriously–carved out of a hillside?  That’s lovely.

Pavilion area:  5/5
Active and fun on the first-base side; lovely on the third-base side.

Scoreability:  3/5


Kannapolis had hit a home run to lead off the second inning, but the scorekeeper didn’t have the run up as late as the end of that inning.  Otherwise, fine.

Fans:  1/5
The only real negative were the guys near me, who heckled every batter in the nearby on-deck circle by name–the entire game long.  It got old in a big hurry.  Surely they could cheer a little bit for their own team.  Surely they could take an inning–or even a batter–off.  Nope.  They had anger issues that only the Kannapolis Intimidators could solve, I guess. Nothing significant happened in my second visit to change this first impression, which was deep and negative.

Intangibles:  5/5
I simply loved this place–and it loved me back.  Seriously…two promotion wins and a chance to give a congratulations gift to the winning team?  How cool is that?

TOTAL:  42/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

High-quality pitchers’ duel.  Ray Liotta (no, not that Ray Liotta) pitched for Kannapolis, and beat Asheville’s Ching Lo.  Both (and a handful of late relievers) were incredible on this night…Liotta struck out nine and gave up four hits in seven innings, Lo gave up three hits and struck out seven in seven innings.  I’ll keep an eye out.

Josh Hansen homered.

I returned for a ballgame with the wife on the massive 2006 tri-point/baseball stadium tour.  The game was the polar opposite of the original.  We couldn’t even make it to the end, due to our need to move on…we left after 2.5 hours, and only in the fifth inning. The last thing we saw was Columbus’ Lucas May hitting a grand slam that tied the score at 8.  Columbus eventually won–but by then, we were relaxing in the mountains near the Elicott Rock Tri-point.  34 hits, 13 walks, and 4 hours and 10 minutes.


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