ASHEVILLE — The scoreboard at McCormick Field can be confusing to the uninitiated.
It designates the teams as “Visitors” and “Tourists.”
By definition, tourists are almost always visitors. But when it comes to minor league baseball in Asheville, these Tourists are, in fact, the home team.
It’s a name that’s been used by numerous versions of the local nine since 1915 when, under pressure from the authorities, the club dropped the title “Moonshiners” to reflect a more reputable — and legal — staple of the local economy.
Asheville has only grown as a vacation hot spot since then as visitors have become drawn to the opulence of the Biltmore Estate, the city’s avant-garde downtown area, the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and a historic little ballpark whose picturesque sightlines make it a tourist attraction in its own right.
“It’s beautiful,” Jonathan Meisel, an actual tourist from Atlanta attending a recent game against the Winston-Salem Dash with his family, said of McCormick Field. “The setting is awesome, and it’s small and cozy. It’s a great venue to watch a game.”
Cut into the side of a hill and surrounded by lush greenery, the stadium makes up for its lack of high-tech bells and whistles with a rustic, old-school charm. It’s not uncommon to see a herd of goats roaming around in the distance during games, feeding on vegetation.
And while there are no luxury skyboxes as in other, newer minor league parks around the state, it is possible to get a view of both the action and downtown Asheville from the sky — without having to pay for a ticket — atop the bleachers facing the neighboring youth football and soccer facility high above centerfield.
The biggest drawback is that parking is at a premium.
“The joke is that we don’t have an issue with parking because we don’t have any parking,” said Larry Hawkins, the Tourists’ general manager since 1998.
One way around the parking problem is leaving the car downtown after spending the day shopping or eating dinner at one of Asheville’s many eclectic restaurants and walking the few blocks down the hill to the game.
“With any venue, you want to be downtown because you can pull from so many directions,” Hawkins said. “You always have stronger demographics in certain areas of town, but for us being downtown, with tourism being so big here, it gives those folks the ability to walk here and do whatever. So we are very fortunate.”
McCormick Field has been on its current site since 1924, making it the third oldest in minor league baseball after those in Daytona Beach and Bradenton, Florida. The list of legends that have played there includes Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson.
The scene in which Crash Davis broke the career minor league record for home runs in the movie “Bull Durham” was also filmed there.
The stadium’s original wooden grandstand was replaced by the current 4,000-seat concrete, steel and brick structure in 1992. Because of the surrounding topography that includes a sheer rock wall behind part of the concourse, there are more stands on the first base side, where the only entry gate is located, than the third base side.
The playing surface also has its share of quirky dimensions. It includes a right field line only 297 feet from home plate. The 373-foot distance to straightaway center is just as inviting for hitters.
Even with the 36-foot-high wall, which extends to 42 feet where the scoreboard connects to it, McCormick Field is annually the most home run-friendly park in minor league baseball.
Asheville’s hitters were averaging 6.6 runs and 1.57 home runs through their first 47 home games this season, compared to just 4.5 runs and 0.82 homers in their 39 games on the road. Their team batting average of .298 at McCormick Field is a remarkable 83 points higher than it is on the road in the high Class A South Atlantic League.
The good news for pitching prospects working to move their way up the ladder is their inflated earned run averages aren’t weighed as heavily by the Tourists’ parent club, the Houston Astros, as they are by other organizations because of the short porch and high mountain altitude.
“The stadium doesn’t meet a lot of the specifications and the dimensions are weird,” Hawkins said. “But we’re going to do everything in our power to keep it here. It’s a very fun place to watch a game and people enjoy it.”
Apparently, humans aren’t the only ones that like it.
“A few days ago, someone had left the door in centerfield open and one of the goats came down and was just chilling on the field,” said Kendall Thompson, who in addition to her duties as a promotions and ticket associate doubles as the Tourists’ on-field host. “The players formed like a six-person squad around the goat and calmly walked him back up the hill.”
Not all woodland creatures are treated so rudely. A loveable bear named Ted E. Tourist is allowed to freely roam the stands at McCormick Field.
He’s one of two mascots engaging fans, posing for pictures and adding to the atmosphere at every home game.
The other is Mr. Moon, who is exactly what his name suggests — a sunglasses- and baseball cap-wearing man in the moon whose likeness is on everything from the team’s hats and concession stands selling Mr. Moon-shaped containers of lemonade to merchandise at the team’s souvenir shop, the equally aptly named “The Tourists Trap.”
Mr. Moon was introduced in 2011 as a tribute to Asheville’s baseball roots.
“Back in the day we were the Moonshiners, but we knew it would never fly to recreate that,” Hawkins said. “So we came up with a semblance of that and it turned out to be Mr. Moon. We were thinking that the moon is one of the coolest places you can go. Then you have the Moonshiners and it all just kind of came full circle.”
Read NSJ’s 2022 MiLB Across NC features: Carolina Mudcats • Down East Wood Ducks • Winston-Salem Dash • Kannapolis Cannon Ballers • Greensboro Grasshoppers • Fayetteville Woodpeckers • Charlotte Knights • Durham Bulls • Hickory Crawdads