Are we really ready to say, “Yer out!” to the Asheville Tourists?

I highly doubt it, but the near-total silence regarding our local minor league team’s predicament, at least from the city of Asheville and Buncombe County, suggests at the very least a potentially deadly apathy. That could indeed result in a vacant McCormick Field.

If you’re not up to speed, take a few minutes to read Asheville Watchdog’s story about the issues surrounding the Asheville Tourists, McCormick Field, and the need for a $30 million overhaul the stadium facilities. In a nutshell, Major League Baseball, which oversees minor league teams, is requiring significant upgrades to minor league facilities by April 1, 2023.

Mr. Moon

Tourists owner/president Brian DeWine knows there’s no way the physical work can be done by that date, even if they issued jackhammers to Ted E. Tourist and Mr. Moon and required 80-hour work weeks. Don’t get me wrong — Ted E. Tourist is a hoss, but even he can’t work that fast.

Ted E. Tourist

DeWine just wants the city, which owns the stadium, and Buncombe County, where a lot of fans come from, and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, which funds a lot of brick and mortar projects locally that benefit tourists and locals, to commit to and formally approve a financial package the Tourists can show MLB. But so far, the subject hasn’t made it to a city or county agenda.

Election a factor?

My theory is that no local politician in their right mind wanted to touch this issue during the recently concluded election season. Really, would you want to be the county commissioner or city council member fighting for $30 million for the local ballpark while no one under age 50 can afford a house around here, and homeless tent villages keep popping up like mushrooms after a heavy rain?

Hey, it’s not like baseball is some elitist activity — just about everybody in this area takes their kids to the ballpark or swills a few cheap beers on Thirsty Thursdays — but it might not look great to give an impassioned speech for a gigantic subsidy for the Tourists when homeless people are relieving themselves in the doorways of downtown businesses.

In short, it would take some real political courage to fight the athletic fight.

I will say Buncombe County Board of Commissioners member Amanda Edwards did speak to me on the record in support of the renovations before election day. She’s clearly in her right mind but had a big lead over her opponent.

But otherwise, it’s been political crickets.

Maybe folks just take professional baseball here for granted.

Built in 1924 and last renovated in 1992, McCormick Field has been home to Asheville’s professional baseball club for most of the last century. The upgrade in 1992 was significant, but that was 30 years ago, and a lot has changed in the interim, including the advent of female umpires and coaches.

It ain’t plush: Shower, toilet, locker shared by male and female umps. // Watchdog photo by Peter H. Lewis

Among improvements MLB is requiring are separate changing rooms for female umps. McCormick field currently divides the one changing room with a curtain.

Other needs include an overhaul of the front gate, which is woefully tight, an upgrade of the visitors’ locker room, a better outfield fence, a new press box and more.

Sure, DeWine also wants some nice, non-MLB-mandated niceties like a luxury box, picnic area, an outfield bar, a pedestrian concourse around the left-field wall and a new video display. These are features DeWine says are common at a lot of ballparks, and ones fans have come to expect.

But in all, DeWine says, MLB requirements comprise about 75 percent of the $30 million price tag. The remainder would fund the extras, which he contends would make the park at least somewhat comparable to minor league teams in the Southeast with either new or significantly upgraded ballparks.

The stadium’s superstructure is fine, the seats are relatively new and the Tourists take good care of the field. But take a tour of the innards of McCormick Field, and you won’t come away impressed.

It ain’t plush.

Who should pay?

The question here — and it’s always the eternal question in every city with any kind of professional sports team — is who should pay for these upgrades, and should taxpayers be the major funders?

The Asheville Tourists Baseball Club is owned by the family of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and DeWine Seeds Silver Dollar Baseball. Our story said: “Gov. DeWine personally owns 32 percent of the team, according to records, but has no management role in the team. Brian DeWine, his son and an Asheville resident since 2010, is the president of the team, and he calls the Tourists ‘a local, family-owned business.’”

Brian DeWine, president of the Asheville Tourists Baseball Club, which is owned by the family of former U.S. Senator and current Gov. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). Brian DeWine and his family have lived in Asheville since 2010. // Watchdog photo by Peter H. Lewis

Clearly, it would take a loan to get this project done, so the city likely would have to issue bonds to pay for it. DeWine projects that if they can get a $15 million commitment from the TDA, and $2.5 million from the state, that would leave Buncombe and Asheville taxpayers splitting the loan balance, with payments coming out to $900,000, a year for 15 years.

So maybe the city pays $500,000, the county $400,000, annually. Or $600,000-$300,000. That can be worked out.

Brian DeWine said the Tourists will contribute $300,000 annually to the repayment, which he maintains is comparable to what other minor league clubs have committed to renovation projects.

On the one hand, the DeWine family is reportedly worth millions of dollars, and critics say they should cough up more than $300,000 annually, especially as Asheville leases the stadium to the Tourists for $1 a year. 

On the other hand, McCormick Field lacks amenities that allow teams to make more money on concessions. DeWine also told Asheville Watchdog the economic benefit his team brings to the community is over $9.8 million a year.

Time to put a crowbar in your wallet

Here’s my take on this: Everybody involved needs to put crowbars in their wallets and pony up.

Can the DeWines and their company afford a little more? Sure. 

Family fun with Mr. Moon. On special nights, the Tourists rebrand themselves as the Hippies, a promotion that arose years ago from a bet with the rival Greenville (South Carolina) Drive (a/k/a the “Rednecks”) // photo used with permission from Benjamin Hill of MLB.com

Can local governments and the TDA afford this? Yes.

And they should get in gear.

As Edwards told me when I was still working at the Citizen Times for an article on this issue, “For me it’s about enhancing the quality of life, and looking at what are ways that we can enhance the quality of life. There are a lot of people who love the Tourists and taking their young families to the baseball games. That’s a quality of life (issue).”

That hits the nail on the head. To me, it’s like parks or pickleball courts or greenways or other public amenities that benefit local residents — you’ve got to pay to play. And people expect recreation for their tax dollars.

I know my family has fond memories of taking our two boys to ball games at McCormick Field, watching Ted E. Tourist race kids around the bases (how does he manage to lose every race? That needs an investigation!), oohing and ahhing at fireworks shows and meeting a few Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders during a special promotion.

Seriously, you cannot put a dollar figure on the memory of your 12-year-old son blushing like a tomato when he’s squeezed between two Cowboys’ cheerleaders.

But I digress.

Back to my hot take: Get it in gear, Asheville, Buncombe and the TDA. Put the issue on your agendas, get a real plan together and keep baseball in Asheville.

It’s one of the few venues left in town that truly caters mostly to locals.

You don’t want to be the politicians who killed baseball in Asheville.

What McCormick Field would look like empty // Watchdog photo illustration

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at jboyle@avlwatchdog.org.

Join the Conversation

33 Comments

  1. Agree wholly with you John. My gut tells me that the current bright blue AVL/BUNK political climate views baseball as a relic of unwoke boomers. How do we revive the sport’s culture of inclusion pioneered by Jackie Robinson?

  2. Great article John, you are 100 percent correct on this . I’ve been to games since the 60s, baseball is a great family tradition. We definitely need to keep it in Avl. Thanks for the story.
    Doug

  3. While I have only attended the accessional game at McCormick Field, I do believe it is a part of Asheville that should be preserved.
    Just like the Asheville Motor Speedway….. Oh, Wait…..
    That is another story.

  4. Tourists’ games are a fantastic family facility for Asheville. Concessions prices are very reasonable so you don’t have to explain to your kids why they can’t have a $15 hotdog or make the choice between paying the power bill or having a second beer. To what other entertainment can you take your kids without having someone shush them when they talk all the time? (OK – I did once move away from a kid who yelled “Batterbatterbatter” continuously for an hour.)
    We’ve already lost the Health Adventure and I can imagine few people in Asheville regularly driving to Atlanta to watch a $100 game there. You want me to shove my hand in my pocket to keep the Tourists going? Fine. I will, of course, expect the teams owners to do the same – they can make their contributions prorated according to our respective annual incomes.

  5. Glad you mentioned ‘quality of life’ in this article. It’s the same reason many locals oppose developments that ruin our neighborhoods. ‘Quality Of Life’ should be prioritized more in this town when making decisions. As for baseball…unless they change the name of the team, I think the TDA should foot most of the bill…

  6. Well said, John Boyle
    Surely with a 15 year repayment schedule, the City and County Councils should be able to work out an equitable arrangement.
    A reminder that the Tourists soon celebrate their 100th anniversary as a continuously running minor league ball tea with a remarkable history of great players spending time here including MLB Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken.
    Of course this City Council sold Mission Hospital to HCA on a virtually no-bid deal…

    1. For the record, the City Council had no role in the sale of Mission Health to HCA Healthcare. The sale was arranged by Mission leadership and unanimously approved by the Mission Board of Directors, surprising both city and county officials.

  7. While a disgrace that our leadership has shown no “leadership” on this issue, it is also a disgrace that the team is putting the onus on the government to find their for profit enterprise.

    One thing to note is that the MLB is requiring the stadium owners..not the teams…to make the improvements.

    The NFL did the same with Miami saying no more Superbowls unless the stadium was covered. The city, county and state gave the NFL the finger…and amazing the owner found the money to do it himself. Amazing how he came up with the funds.

    The Tourists need to pony up a lot more than 300k/year on a $1 lease and show their commitment.

    The City and County need to come to the table with a plan as well.

    But suffice it to say Asheville will survive with or without the Tourists, similar to how it moved on from the racetrack that was there before.

  8. Memory Lane — A friend from college (Purdue ’62) was a pitcher for the Wilson, NC team in the 60s and he pitched against the Tourists in McCormick Field. I forwarded Watchdog’s previous article to him and here is his (edited) reply: “I have two memories of that park and I can still visualize them like they were yesterday. Bob Robertson hit the longest home run off me that I ever saw. It might still be in orbit. He played for Pittsburgh Pirates the next year after that in 1967 and stayed until 1979 with different teams – I believe. Also, the only time I ever threw a pitch to hit someone was Dock Ellis a pitcher who ended up a pretty good career in the major leagues also with Pittsburgh. Sometime I will tell you the whole story.” — sounds like they were mixing it up a bit, as opposing pitchers were sometimes known to do.

      1. Supposedly Ellis was known for throwing “beanballs” and sometimes opposing pitchers retaliated when he came up to bat. My friend used the term “beanball contest” when describing the event. Wikipedia mentions Ellis throwing at opposing teams’ batters when he was in the majors.

  9. This is sports blackmail. Rich team owners all over the country extort brick and mortar out of taxpayers under threat of leaving. You want to enhance life in Asheville? Pay teachers more, pay cops and firemen more, fix sidewalks and other infrastructure. And say goodbye to the Dewine family.

  10. Amen to you John Boyle
    Someone can fork up the money to keep it going
    One of the small pleasures of this park and their presence in our small town
    Please let’s not destroy another small time treasure!
    Julie Hettiger
    Ex Houston Austin toooo much growth

  11. First of all, plenty of “bright blue” voters (including politicians) love baseball. Taxpayers have enough on their hands right now, and don’t need to pay up for a baseball stadium. Asheville and Buncombe county need realistically affordable housing for the people who actually live and here. We’re paying for the years of bowing to the needs of tourists, and we now need to step back and focus on lower- and middle-income residents. If we can do that and also keep the Tourists, fine, but if not…residents’ needs are more important than a baseball stadium.

  12. Too bad some of the millions ponied up by the county and state to bring $20B Pratt & Whitney here isn’t available for this endeavor, which, unlike Pratt & Whitney’s product, does not contribute to war and climate change.

  13. Why not sell the stadium to the DeWine family? Or sell it to Major League Baseball?
    MLB has many individual player contracts in the hundreds of millions of dollars; they should easily afford $30 million to follow their dictates for minor league facilities.

  14. Maybe the non profit Board handling the MILLIONS in hotel taxes would consider this a marketing expense and fund it. As opposed to you know, roads and other public infrastructure items that are affected by the mass increase in tourists.
    A former 22 year resident of Asheville that could no longer afford to live there and would never be able to afford a house in my lifetime

  15. We should absolutely find a way to keep Tourists Baseball in Asheville!!
    I don’t know exactly what the best way is to do that but all I can say is it’s a wholesome family type thing to do! I grew up with baseball. My Dad played with the minor league team for the Brooklyn Dodgers…which Babe Ruth coached for a season. I love baseball!
    We don’t have season tickets but we go every year to a several games.
    Baseball is like Apple Pie….it’s part of our American culture.
    Sure hope we can figure it out how to keep it here.
    Trish Howey

  16. I am at a loss to understand why the City & County should subsidize a company’s profit even more than it already does (by leasing the facility for $1 a year). I love going to a baseball game—at a reasonable price.

    Are you okay with your taxes going up to pay for someone else to profit from a baseball team? Would you be willing for your baseball tickets to reflect the true “cost” of the team to ensure the owner’s profit? Say, $24 apiece instead of $8?

    Every dollar that goes from taxpayers’ money to subsidize baseball is tax revenue that can’t be spent on the vital needs of city residents. Are you okay with that?

    Or, maybe, profit-making enterprises should pay their own way?

    I’d like to see a true cost/benefit analysis of the use & maintenance of the City-owned stadium, the revenues and taxes (if any) generated by ticket sales, the number of local residents who attend games, and the profits accruing to the team’s owners. I’m deeply skeptical that the current arrangement is a net-win for the City.

    I enjoy a ballgame as much as the next person, and McCormick field provides a delightful, low-key venue that isn’t hopelessly hyped up and commercialized. That small-town feel is already anachronistic, and pumping $30M into “upgrades” isn’t going to preserve it.

    I say: call the DeWines’ bluff.

  17. John,
    When you pay Buncombe and Asheville taxes rather than Fletcher and Henderson rates your willingness to fund the upgrades might be less enthusiastic.

  18. I’m not from Missouri, but “show me”.
    1) Owner says 75% of improvements are MLB mandated. OK, list them all out and put a price tag on each and tell us which ones are MLB mandated. Call me skeptical.
    2) Owner needs to provide at least 3 years of audited but simplified financial statements of Tourist operation. You know, expenses, revenue, profits. Call me skeptical about what the Owner can pay versus what he wants to pay.

    Having stated all above, I would support continuing the team BUT only with our beloved TDA paying a BIG chunk (that is NOT taxpayer money but $$’s laundered from the tourists that come to town). The remainder could be split between Asheville, Buncombe County and the Owner, but the “proposed” split needs a lot more information for taxpayers to conclude it is fair and transparent.

  19. When Ron McKee ran the Tourists he knew how to promote the club and advocate for improvements to the stadium by working outside of the spotlight in meetings with local elected officials. Ron was also skilled at getting the word out through local media, but he also knew how to get down in the trenches with the people who need to make it happen. His efforts came at a time with the county was running the ballpark because of the former “water agreement” which placed facilities like McCormick Field and the Municipal Golf Course under oversight of Buncombe County. It was a slow and sometimes messy task, but improvements were done then (1992) and can be done now. It’s a big task, but Tourists ownership needs to get down in the trenches with local officials and work something out. It’s going to take more than promoting deadlines and threats and relying on fans to lobby for improvements. Also, city voters approved a bond for recreation improvements in recent years. Why wasn’t McCormick Field modernization included in that bond? It doesn’t appear all parties are on the same page when it comes to this matter. I know there is tremendous economic impact to having a minor league baseball team here. I worked game days for the Tourists for 23 years. I spoke with fans constantly. Local people enjoy the games here and visitors also flock here to visit the small, ballpark with the giant wall in right field carved out of a hillside just below downtown Asheville. They all spend money here. This community came together to bring back the Southern Conference Basketball Tournament by making improvements to Civic Center. The economic benefits from those efforts have been tremendous. This project can be completed too!

  20. The local and state elected officials need to work together to better harness the TDA cash cow. I believe 90+% of the $30M should come from TDA. The current math only wants $15M from TDA. Asheville has 12M visitors PER YEAR. That’s barely $1.25 per visitor for a single year. Buncombe county (which includes AVL) has 271K residents. Coming up with $900K (AVL & BC combined) for 15 years is $13.5M. That’s saddling all BC residents for $46.13.
    Once again our locals are asked to pay extremely high rates for the “privilege” to support the TDA industry.

  21. The Tourists owner makes an assertion about the net economic impact of having the Tourists play here, but I’d like to see the data, especially when it comes to “net”. Would that figure hold up if it were studied by a third-party? Or would visitors and residents find something else to spend money on, without the Tourists, resulting in no “net” loss? You would want data like this before allocating another public dime, and even then, you should debate whether the $X sum would have a greater public benefit if spent in other ways. Pretend for a minute that we don’t have a facility and never had a minor league franchise. Would we support paying that $X to bring one to Asheville? Let’s not make doing so a foregone conclusion.

  22. Seemingly how many developers are secretly hoping the McCormick Field funding fails and the land becomes a hotel or condo complex? I’m not suggesting that is good or bad but at this point if the area wants a top notch facility, and we deserve one, a location has to be found thats more level, offers WAY BETTER parking, and has a location that can be expanded for future growth. At the time it opened in 1924 it was probably fine. But we are in 2022 and that area doesn’t afford the modern and capable complex this area desperately needs and deserves.

  23. Minor league baseball can be a wonderful asset for a city. However, if you tour some of the other parks in the Carolinas, you’ll understand that Asheville’s park clearly ranks near the bottom.

    MLB has shown over the last two years that they won’t allow this to continue (nor should they)-they have plenty of communities that would be excited to pick up the team.

    Two questions for us-do we want baseball as a part of Asheville’s quality of life? And if we do, do we help fund these relatively short-term (15-20 year) updates?

    As the original article author or John said, the funding idea presented by the team owners is a start of a negotiation. I’m one taxpayer that would support getting a rep from each appropriate organization in a room to work out a funding proposal for their respective organizations to consider for adoption that would satisfy MLB while also helping to make the nightly experience better for game attendees. Sounds like there’s about three months to make it happen if we want baseball here.

  24. Professional sports profits and salaries are artificially inflated due to this continuous blackmail. If more cities were willing to say no to blackmail, the financial bubble might pop.

  25. And there used to be a ballpark
    Where the field was warm and green.
    And the people played their crazy game
    With a joy I’d never seen.
    And the air was such a wonder
    From the hot-dogs and the beer.
    Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here.

    And there used to be rock candy,
    And a great big 4th of July
    With the fireworks exploding
    All across the summer sky.
    And the people watched in wonder
    How they’d laugh and how they’d cheer!
    And there used to be a ballpark right here.

    Frank Sinatra sang these lyrics in 1973, capturing the sadness following the loss of a baseball team and its ballpark, which once gave its city joy and symbolized the continuity of the generations. Asheville is lucky. We have one of the oldest teams in minor league baseball along with one of the most historic and beautiful stadiums. The likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and no less than one of our own famous hometown bears have graced its field.

    I am a proud seasonal employee of the Asheville Tourists, and I have travelled all over the country visiting current and former minor league baseball stadiums. I can attest that the ballpark atmosphere, the zealousness of the fans and the strong connection between the team, the stadium and Asheville is second to none. I had the pleasure of handing out hundreds of buttons to new, young fans memorializing their first visit to McCormick Field. I loved witnessing the children’s expressions of wonder, amazement and happiness at seeing their very first professional ballpark and baseball game. It always brought back my most vivid memory of childhood, the Wednesday in August, 1972 when my grandfather took me to my first professional baseball game. I will never forget the emotions of my first time seeing the amazing green grass peeking through the walkway portal into the seating bowl.

    Typically we root for our home team, the team that represents our original or current geographic area. This solidifies the positive feelings and pride in our hometowns. The new, young fans I met all summer certainly will discover the sense of pride and connection that the Tourists give to Asheville and instill in them a lifelong bond with Asheville. We must do what it takes to keep professional baseball alive and well in Asheville and keep a big piece of the city’s heart.

    Not only do the Tourists have a great fan base, they have great management and staff. Everyone from the owner to the ground crew works long, hard hours all summer to make sure that all of us have a great time at the ballpark. I have been to many towns to visit a “former” professional baseball stadium, and nothing is sadder than witnessing a lonely abandoned ballpark. The despair and emptiness in the towns which abandoned our national pastime is palpable.

    Conversely I have seen the best of what a minor league baseball team can bring to a town. I have been to many towns with thriving teams that were a part of a dramatic, noticeable increase in economic growth and civic pride. It is obvious how the new stadium in Greenville energized the downtown area. Beautiful new facilities have already been successful in Charlotte and Durham, where downtown ballparks have spurred waves of new development and draw hundreds of thousands of visitors.[1] The City of Gastonia also enjoys the fruits of its investment in a new ballpark.

    I am confident that the City Council has researched, and will continue to debate whether the investment to keep the Tourists in town is “worth it.” I am not privvy to the economic research, but the analysis of the benefits for a city to have a professional baseball team is not a zero sum game. Yes, the Tourists are asking for what seems to the shortsighted as a lot of money, but in return Asheville certainly will attract more visitors, encourage visitors to stay in town longer, and benefit from the dollars spent in hotels, restaurants, breweries and retail stores. In short, teams and cities that lose their affiliated franchises have negative impacts economically, socially, and politically in the cities and communities that host them.[2]

    However, the consideration of whether to help fund required ballpark improvements should not solely be economic. The consideration must include the positive effects on everyone in the community, Asheville pride, the benefit of a fantastic cost-friendly summer family excursion, self-esteem, history and tradition. Having the Tourists, the only professional anything in Asheville, provides a great opportunity for our next generation to experience firsthand what having an incredible skill looks like. Where else would you be able to see Russell Wilson before he got famous? Where else can you walk down a ramp near the home bullpen and watch a human being throw a baseball 90+ miles an hour only steps away? That sight and the sound of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt is far more valuable than money and will be ingrained in our children and spur them to strive for greatness.

    We are privileged to have a professional team in town, a team instilled in the national consciousness after being featured in the great baseball movie, Bull Durham. Let’s find a way to renovate the gem of a ballpark in Asheville of which we can all be proud.

    Please do not let historic McCormick Field become just another place where “there used to be a ballpark”.

  26. The demand for $30 million dollars in local tax revenue by the owner of the Asheville Tourists (DeWine Seeds-Silver Dollar Baseball) is nothing but sports blackmail. You see it happen again and again, owners say they will leave a community if they don’t get this and that. Personally, I like baseball and enjoy Tourist games but this whole $30 million “or else” demand is a BIG NO. It’s nothing but “smoke and mirrors” blackmail.

    The Asheville Tourists need to provide a detailed list of the MLB required improvements and associated costs. They need to be 100% transparent with exact costs for every single line item. The DeWine group also needs to provide specific details on all of the “economic impact” details they are providing. I’m pretty sure that the MLB required improvements don’t add up to $30 million. If the DeWine group requires $ for additional non-MLB required enhancements, then they should foot the bill for those non-MLB requirements.

    And “IF” the local community agrees to the $30 million blackmail demand, does the community receive some type of contractual guarantee that the DeWine group or MLB will continue in Asheville in the future? Or will they suddenly depart the area in a few years for a new ballpark in some other community?

    I voted YES on the recent bond issues for affordable housing and conservation but not for a cash grab by a private group trying to blackmail a community. I would rather continue spending taxpayer funds to maintain the field and let local HS teams or an adult club baseball league play there before caving to a $30 million dollar blackmail demand.

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