Ty Cobb played in the very first game at Asheville’s McCormick Field in 1924. Two years later, Babe Ruth, in town for a Yankees exhibition game, praised the ballpark: “My, my, what a beautiful place to play. Delightful. Damned delightful place!”
But unless the City of Asheville, Buncombe County, and the Tourism Development Authority commit by April 1 to pay an estimated $30 million in renovations for the historic downtown ballpark, there won’t be a 100th anniversary season for the Asheville Tourists in 2024, the team’s president, Brian DeWine, told the Citizen Times last week.
And April 1 is a no-fooling deadline, DeWine told The Watchdog. If local officials don’t agree by then on a plan to pay for top-to-bottom renovations to the stadium — part of a new Major League Baseball requirement for minor league teams to upgrade their facilities, including new locker rooms for female umpires, coaches, and players — “It’s game over,” DeWine said. “There will be no professional baseball here in 2024.”
Will taxpayers balk at spending $30 million to keep a private, for-profit business from leaving town, especially when there are desperate needs to address issues including affordable housing, homelessness, public safety, and education spending?
Or will they rally to preserve a historic facility that has been a “damned delightful place” for generations of family entertainment? The ballpark where Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis homered his way into baseball immortality in the film Bull Durham?
McCormick Field is owned and maintained by the City of Asheville, which leases it for $1 a year to the Asheville Tourists Baseball Club — essentially providing free rent and public assistance for a multimillion-dollar, for-profit private business that is the sole tenant.
The Asheville Tourists Baseball Club is owned by the family of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and DeWine Seeds Silver Dollar Baseball. 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.”
Because the city owns the stadium, it’s the city’s responsibility to pay to bring McCormick Field into compliance with new Minor League Baseball (MiLB) Facility Regulations, issued in December 2020, DeWine said.
DeWine is playing hardball with the city. He registered a website, www.mccormickfield.com, which went live Nov. 21 urging citizens and the City Council to “Save Minor League Baseball in Asheville,” or else it will be “gone forever.” The website includes a countdown clock showing the dwindling number of days until the April 1 deadline, and email addresses for local government officials.
The city, the county, and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority have all issued vague and dollar-free statements of theoretical support for the team. But as of Thanksgiving, with 128 days remaining on the clock, the Asheville City Council had not even scheduled a discussion of the issue, and there are zero dollars set aside for McCormick Field renovations in the current budget.
“It’s not like I’m going to take my ball and go home” if local authorities don’t agree to spend millions of tax dollars to modernize the historic ballpark, DeWine told Asheville Watchdog.
Rather, he said, the decision will be made by Major League Baseball (MLB), which enforces MiLB regulations and which has already informed city and county officials that if McCormick Field isn’t modernized, it will look for a new home for the Houston Astros farm club in 2024.
MLB keeps a scorecard for each minor league facility, but unlike baseball, where the highest score wins, the league assigns points for each deficiency it finds — the higher the score, the worse. Under the new facility rules, a team must have a total score under 30 to be approved to start the season next April, and under 10 points by 2024.
The Tourists currently score 177, DeWine said.
There is no way the 98-year-old ballpark can achieve under-30 status by MLB’s April 1, 2023 deadline. But, DeWine said, the team can appeal for more time if — and this is a big if — it gets commitments from the community to get the stadium rebuilt in time for the 2024 season.
The team was already behind in the count. The Tourists narrowly escaped the MLB-mandated minor league “contraction” last year that eliminated more than 40 under-performing minor league teams.
Of the 120 minor league teams that remain — four farm teams each for the 30 Major League clubs — the Tourists “probably ranked about 115” because of McCormick Field’s aging facilities, DeWine said.
The Tourists play in one of the oldest active minor league baseball stadiums in the United States. Only two, both in Florida, are older.
McCormick Field is the smallest ballpark in the High-A South Atlantic (Sally) League, comprising a dozen teams. McCormick Field’s capacity is 4,000 fans; in 2022, attendance averaged 2,742.
By contrast, the league rival Greenville (SC) Drive drew an average of 4,879 fans a night to a ballpark that holds 6,700, according to Ballpark Digest. The Drive, a farm club of the Boston Red Sox, play at Fluor Field at the West End, built in 2005-2006 as a replica of Boston’s Fenway Park at a reported cost of $15 million. The team privately financed a $1.5 million renovation in 2017.
Another rival, the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers, a farm club of the Chicago White Sox, opened a newly constructed, 4,900-seat stadium last year. The $52 million stadium — construction was paid by the city of Kannapolis, with the Cannon Ballers paying the city $450,000 rent each year for the next 30 years — includes eight luxury suites, a party deck, berm seating, premium dugout box seats, a picnic terrace, an outfield bar, and 6,000 square feet of banquet and meeting space that can be rented for conferences, meetings, and special events throughout the year.
McCormick Field, because of its unique topography — cut into a hillside, ringed by steep slopes, with no obvious place for sufficient parking or additional structures — can’t be expanded easily or cheaply to meet the MiLB requirements, let alone to become the kind of anchor for a massive downtown revitalization project, as the new Kannapolis stadium is intended to be.
So the questions are: How much is cheap, seasonal family entertainment worth to the city? How much economic value does a Class A baseball team, which in 2022 sold 172,000 tickets, bring to the city?
DeWine says a study that his company commissioned calculates the economic benefit his team brings to the community at more than $9.8 million a year, in terms of taxes paid, jobs created, and by attracting free-spending visitors who shop, eat, drink, and rent rooms in town. The club also donates $630,000 a year to local causes, according to mccormickfield.com.
The Money, Part 1
In order to get the stadium rehabbed by Opening Day 2024, the City of Asheville — owner of the stadium — has to come up with all the money. Since it’s not pocket change, the city will have to take out a loan.
But, DeWine suggests in his plan, the City should first ask the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority (T.D.A.) to commit $15 million to the project.
The T.D.A. collects taxes on local hotel and lodging revenues, so if it agrees to the plan, those tax dollars would fund half the projected cost.
That leaves $15 million, which the city would have to borrow. The debt service on the loan, DeWine calculates, including interest, will be $1.2 million a year for the next 15 years.
DeWine said DeWine Seeds Silver Dollar Baseball is willing to contribute $300,000 a year toward helping the city pay off the debt. That’s comparable to what other MiLB teams contribute to their own ballpark renovations, he said.
Barring some unexpected act of generosity from wealthy private donors or the state legislature, however, Buncombe and Asheville taxpayers would be on the hook to pay the balance, $900,000 a year for 15 years.
What about the Houston Astros, the 2022 World Series Champions and parent club of the Tourists? The Astros are owned by a billionaire Texas businessman, Jim Crane. Could they pitch in a few million?
DeWine smiled ruefully. The arrangement with the Astros, he said, makes it clear that it’s up to Asheville to provide a good home for its prized young players.
Can the stadium renovations be completed for less than $30 million?
Probably. Meeting the baseline MiLB facility requirements will account for an estimated 75 percent of the $30 million expected cost, DeWine said, with the rest set aside for “no-brainer” features not included in the MLB requirements: a picnic area, an outfield bar, a pedestrian concourse that wraps around the left-field wall under a new scoreboard, and big video display.
Or at least maybe. The $30 million estimate for improvements to McCormick Field was made in 2021, before construction costs, inflation, interest rates, and supply chain issues knocked building costs out of the park. But, DeWine said, the 2021 estimate also included generous “contingency” estimates. In other words, there’s some padding.
What about building a new, modern, multipurpose baseball park outside of town, where land might be cheaper?
Again, maybe, but construction costs are still a wildcard, and going far afield would forfeit the attraction of having a baseball stadium that people can walk to from downtown. It’s possible, but uncertain, that private developers would rush in to spend additional tens of millions to develop restaurants and bars, hotels, retail stores, and other attractions around the new stadium.
Anyway, it’s hard to imagine that a new, modern ballpark could be built for less than $30 million these days. The Tennessee Smokies, Knoxville’s Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, is building a brand-new downtown stadium that’s projected to cost $80.1 million. Of that, $74.5 million is expected to come from public tax dollars. The city and county are picking up most of the cost, but the state chipped in $13.5 million.
DeWine said he hopes the General Assembly will chip in $2.5 million to help the Tourists pay for the upgrades.
But the legislature is out of session until January and time is running out. It’s also hard to imagine the assembly putting Tourists baseball ahead of announced priorities like Medicaid expansion, voter ID, abortion, school funding, tax cuts, and redistricting.
In public comments, Victoria “Vic” Isley, head of the T.D.A., has strongly hinted at support for the spending.
The T.D.A. has the money. According to Ashley Greenstein, public information manager for Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, the total occupancy tax paid by visitors who stay in Buncombe County hotels, vacation rentals and B&Bs is projected to be $40.8 million in the current fiscal year.
Current state law requires the T.D.A. to spend two-thirds of its budget on marketing and advertising — like the $1.37 million the T.D.A. spent to advertise Asheville at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York City this summer — but that leaves $13,588,398 to spend on projects next year alone.
In a statement last week, the T.D.A. said “If the City approaches the tourism development authority for capital investment, the Product Development Fund Committee will strongly consider the important role the place and team has had in helping shape our sense of place, contributing to our local economy, and entertaining generations of local families before making a recommendation to the authority board.”
The Product Development Fund Committee, appointed by the T.D.A., is composed of nine members — a majority of them from the local lodging industry. They make recommendations for funding projects that will entice visitors to book hotel rooms, vacation rentals, and bed-and-breakfast stays in Buncombe County, as mandated by state legislation.
Asheville Watchdog was unable to verify how many of the 172,000 tickets sold to Tourists games this season were actually bought by tourists, the kind who would rent hotel rooms and B&Bs.
DeWine, on the mccormickfield.com website, asserts that only half of the fans attending games in 2022 were from Asheville or Buncombe County. The other half — 86,000 ticket buyers — were legit out-of-town tourists, the team says.
The City of Asheville last week issued a statement saying, in effect, that it is thinking about studying the issue. However, back in February, Chris Corl, Community Regional Entertainment and Facilities Director for the City of Asheville, told WLOS: “The city’s role with McCormick Field is to help with capital improvements, to stay in line with requirements for Major League Baseball, so that the minor league team can continue operating in the stadium.”
Buncombe County, which used to own McCormick Field before the City took over, expressed a general fondness for McCormick Field, the Tourists, and baseball in general but stopped short of committing funds.
DeWine has been urging the city to renovate the stadium since at least 2015, and started throwing heat after Minor League Baseball (MiLB) issued its new facility rules in 2020.
Why hasn’t the city acted sooner? Perhaps it’s because politicians, especially in an election year, don’t want to be the ones who vote to kill the beloved local baseball team.
But perhaps it’s also because they also don’t want to be the ones who vote to spend $30 million on entertainment, instead of $30 million to pay a living wage to teachers and police officers, or to pay for reparations to the people whose houses and businesses in the historically Black East End were razed to build the ballpark in the first place.
There were no female umpires, coaches, or players at the time of the last major renovation of McCormick Field in 1992, no energy efficient LED stadium lights, no high-speed digital networks, no metal detectors and heightened security, no video rooms, and no state-of-the-art training and locker room amenities for players and coaches of varying genders.
But all those are mandated now. “Our players deserve to play in facilities that are up to grade,” MLB Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. said in announcing the new requirements for MiLB ballparks. He said it was “unreasonable” for municipalities that benefit from having a local baseball team to refuse to pay for the newly mandated facility upgrades.
Manfred said “95 percent” of all MiLB ballparks are publicly financed.
Fans also expect more. The $30 million Asheville proposal includes money to upgrade the fan experience, DeWine said, with an added luxury box behind home plate, bigger women’s bathrooms, and a park-like picnic area.
It also includes a bigger press box even though the local newspaper “hasn’t covered the team in years,” DeWine said. More seats are needed, for example, for the person who has to operate the newly mandated pitch clock, intended to speed up games.
The budget also includes improved food preparation and concessions facilities (“Dollar Dog Night” and “Thirsty Thursday” are among the most popular promotions besides Fireworks Night), a fan concourse that wraps around the left field wall (beyond which bears and goats sometimes frolic), an improved scoreboard, better sanitation, and other fan-facing amenities.
New construction is complicated by geography.
One of the oldest active minor league baseball stadiums in the country — only two, both in Florida, are older — McCormick Field was carved into a downtown hillside in 1924 and was named after Asheville city bacteriologist Lewis McCormick. Since then, it has been home to the various incarnations of the Asheville Tourists team, and also served as home field for the Asheville Blues of the Negro Southern League during the 1940s. The ballpark, at 30 Buchanan Place, was rebuilt in 1959, and last had a major renovation in 1992.
Asheville Watchdog confirmed in a recent visit beneath the grandstands that the facilities — locker rooms, lighting, sanitation, playing field, and even electronic systems — fall somewhat short of modern standards for professional sports. Okay, a lot short.
Female umpires and coaches, while not common, have been increasingly employed in South Atlantic League games in recent years. Male and female umpires and coaches currently must share, or take turns, using cramped changing rooms and bathrooms at McCormick Field. A flimsy curtain in the umpire’s room can be partially drawn to separate the dressing area from a tiny shower and toilet closet.
Locker rooms for home and visiting players and coaches are also decrepit by modern standards, with food prep and commissary areas only steps away from open urinals, toilets, and showers. In the visiting team’s locker room, holes in the ceiling are covered by tarps.
The Money, Part 2
DeWine Seeds Silver Dollar Baseball bought the Tourists franchise from Palace Sports and Entertainment in 2010. DeWine declined to tell Asheville Watchdog how much his family paid for the team, but four years earlier Palace Sports bought the Tourists for a reported $6 million.
The club makes money from ticket sales, sponsorships, concessions, and merchandising, among other sources. Its obligations include paying for staff salaries, insurance, and other operational aspects of the team.
The parent club — in the case of the Tourists, it’s the Astros — picks up the player costs that analysts say are typically $10 million to $15 million a season for scouting, salaries, accommodations, meals, and signing bonuses.
MLB controls everything else that happens on the playing field. In return it takes a cut of ticket sales and royalty payments on merchandise sales.
A decade ago, Forbes magazine reported the average franchise value of the 20 most popular minor league baseball teams to be about $20 million. By 2021, despite the pandemic, the average value of those top 20 teams had soared to $37.5 million, according to the valuation firm Sportico. We’re talking about Triple-A teams like the Charlotte Knights and the Durham Bulls.
The Tourists are not among the 20 most valuable MiLB clubs, most of which draw thousands of fans a night and play in bigger, newer stadiums with greater revenue opportunities, like parking and luxury boxes.
They are not even in the top half of teams in the Sally League, based on the total population base within a 30-minute drive of the stadium, the average household income in the area, and average annual attendance.
They are most likely in the bottom 20 most valuable teams in the league.
But if the Tourists were worth $6 million 15 years ago, and if the value of the franchise increased since then at a comparable rate to other MiLB teams, how much are they worth today?
DeWine appeared to anticipate the question and waved it away before it was finished. Who would even buy a franchise with such an uncertain future? he asked.
And if MLB rules that the Tourists cannot play at McCormick Field after 2023, where are they going to find another town with a stadium that meets the Minor League facilities requirements? What is a baseball franchise worth if it can’t put a team on the playing field?
“There is no Plan B,” DeWine said.
[This article has been corrected to remove a reference to DeWine Seeds of Ohio, a defunct business whose name was adopted by DeWine Seeds Silver Dollar Baseball in honor of Brian DeWine’s grandfather. DeWine Seeds Silver Dollar Baseball was registered in North Carolina and is a local business. It also restates the amount of money the Tourism Development Authority can spend on local projects in the current fiscal year. The Watchdog regrets the errors.]
[Editor’s Note: This story originally included immature and unnecessarily derogatory comments about certain MLB teams. After review, the comments, ruled to be detrimental to the integrity of journalism, have been removed, and the writer has been ejected.]
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Peter H. Lewis is a former senior writer and editor at The New York Times. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.