ESPN senior writer Ryan McGee — author and co-host of Marty & McGee — wrote a memoir about his summer spent as an intern with the Asheville Tourists, a minor league team in western North Carolina. Buy it here!
ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Opening Day for any team at any level of the professional baseball ladder is always an exercise in good vibes. But on April 6, at McCormick Field, home of the Asheville Tourists, the smiles and hugs and shouts of “Play ball!” from the standing room-only crowd of 4,271 featured a little extra emotion. That boost came from a feeling not typically associated with the beginning of baseball season:
“Hell, man, I bought these tickets all the way back in December, you know, just in case,” said Dewayne Johnston, explaining, from beneath the well-worn brim of a baseball cap featuring mascot Ted E. Tourist (a bear with a Hawaiian shirt and a suitcase), that he was born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Honestly, dude, back then, over the holidays, I thought this might be the last season we have this team in Asheville, so that’s why I bought the tickets. And so did a lot of people. In case we had to say goodbye. Thankfully, we don’t.”
The Tourists, the High-A affiliate of the Houston Astros, are staying put — thanks to $37.5 million in updates required by Major League Baseball, which took over operations of the minors in 2020.
In the big leagues, that price tag will get you one year of service from Mike Trout. In the minors, still an American map-covering world of goofy mascots, quirky ballparks and a bottom line that remains totally dependent on the number of people who pass through the turnstiles, that $37.5 million check — or more accurately, a bunch of $1.9 million checks written over 20 years — will protect a town’s little slice of the national pastime.
“I think it is impossible to think of Asheville without this team and this team without this town,” Tourists president Brian DeWine said in the days between the securing of that money and Opening Day, a harrowing span of three weeks. “I am proud of everyone here for recognizing that and doing what they needed to do to keep us all together.”
These days, avoiding that kind of split of team and town is becoming more and more difficult. Shoring up defenses against a massive reshaping and shrinking of minor league baseball — in 2020, MLB eliminated 40 affiliated MiLB teams, reducing the total from 163 to 120 — has become a full-time job for places like Asheville. It scrambles to find the funding to meet the demands of its new landlords located a world away, at Rockefeller Center, the headquarters of Major League Baseball.
Those landlords explain that their decisions are made in the interest of keeping baseball healthy — a new world of round numbers and better environments to both play and watch the game. And they’re not wrong. Few would disagree that the MiLB business model needed upfitting. But the resulting feelings among those with deep roots down on the MLB farm make plenty of sense, too. It’s never comfortable to exist among hints of extinction.
“We’ve never been naïve. We all knew where this was headed, years before it got here,” Carolyn McKee said from her McCormick Field box seat, three rows from the field watching the Tourists host the Bowling Green Hot Rods. She and her late husband Ron ran the Asheville Tourists from 1980 until 2005, when they sold the team to an entertainment group who eventually sold it to DeWine’s family business.
The McKees transformed the ballpark from a dilapidated Bull Durham-era wooden bandbox primarily occupied by local drunks into a family-friendly experience they called their “baseball living room.” Ron invented Thirsty Thursday ($1 beers) and Shirt Off Your Back Night (players handed their game-worn jerseys to fans after the final out). Carolyn hammered away at her postgame adding machine until dawn, counting every snow cone and T-shirt dollar earned and lost.
Ron died three years ago. His funeral was held on the infield grass of McCormick Field.
“Now we need to hope and pray that the people who are in charge now do what they have to do, but also protect the magic of minor league baseball,” said McKee, a member of the South Atlantic League Hall of Fame. “That they protect what makes these teams and towns so special when they make those decisions.”
McCORMICK FIELD HAS been home to professional baseball since it was christened 99 years ago, on April 3, 1924, when Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers came to town to face the Asheville Skylanders, one season before they became known as the Tourists. Asheville, a sleepy mountain village that has grown into an eclectic city, was initially anchored by the Vanderbilt family-constructed Biltmore Estate and now produces so many IPAs that it has earned the title Beer City USA. The ballpark carved into the side of one of those mountains has been a mainstay amid decades of change — including in its MLB affiliation. Since the 1930s, when Branch Rickey handpicked McCormick to be the minor league field for his Cardinals, McCormick has had a variety of partnerships. Rickey brought the Dodgers after World War II. Then the Pittsburgh Pirates inked a deal with Asheville, with all-time Tourists great Willie Stargell at first. They were followed by the Baltimore Orioles (with Cal Ripken Sr. as manager and Cal Jr. as batboy) and then the Astros (Craig Biggio!) and Colorado Rockies (Todd Helton!). Generations of western North Carolinians were raised on the Tourists, no matter who their MLB affiliation might be, no different than kids in the Bronx loving the New York Yankees or those in Motown worshiping the Tigers.
The required makeover that almost stole the Tourists from Asheville came courtesy of a series of MLB facilities audits that started in 2021, after they cut the 43 teams. Those remaining were handed a list of what MiLB front offices started referring to as “or else” changes to their facilities: As in, make these changes, no matter the cost, or else your team will find another city and ballpark that is up to snuff. According to MLB, all teams have been told they must meet the demands of the Facilities Standards Threshold by Opening Day 2025, and, like Asheville, must provide evidence of fiscal and physical progression toward that date.
Did a lot of those ballparks need updating? Absolutely — and most of them knew it. McCormick received a $3 million update in the 1990s and not much since. A sizable percentage of the capital improvements insisted upon by MLB have been understandably aimed at improving working conditions for players, whose treatment in the minor leagues led to a unionization and a new collective bargaining agreement just ahead of the new season. Those included improvements such as expanded clubhouses and designated eating areas, better weight rooms (or any weight room at all) and even increased water pressure in the team showers.
But those lists also include items such as — and these are real — that the tire treads on the grounds crew’s tractor are either too wide or too narrow. Some cities and their teams have also decried the ill-timing of the lists. Just north of Charlotte, Kannapolis, North Carolina, is the home of the Cannon Ballers, Single-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. A few years ago, the city ponied up for a $52 million stadium that was touted as the hub for a plan to reinvigorate a town that had been devastated by the departure of the textile industry in the 1990s. It was supposed to open in 2020, but that season never happened, so the sparkling new ballpark sat empty for a summer. Before they even played a single game, they were handed a list of must-do’s from MLB that totaled another few million dollars. They made the changes, but those alterations started the team and the city in a deeper financial hole than planned.
The Richmond Flying Squirrels, the San Francisco Giants‘ Double-A team, has received a green light for a new ballpark — one which will easily meet all of MLB’s demands — hopes to open in 2025. But back in 2021, MLB handed the team a must-do list that cost the Richmond club a few million bucks to bring the nearly-40-year-old Diamond into compliance. The now-renovated stadium will be torn down two years from now.
“There needs to be a level of common sense, but there should also be a level of decency, respect for those who have tried to do it right,” one MiLB general manager said about the stadium improvement demands. They requested anonymity, citing the ongoing sensitivity of the topic. “One would hope that places who have given their all to baseball for years and years and years might be shown some leniency when it comes to timelines, especially when we’re all negotiating with government agencies, which always takes forever. But none of that appears to mean a damn thing.”
Sources within MLB dispute such Draconian claims. In fact, every team that has filed for an extension around certain upgrades received approval ahead of the 2023 season, a list that MLB describes as “significant.” MLB EVP of baseball operations Morgan Sword, the man charged with helming the future of MLB-run MiLB, said that 92 teams are ahead of schedule, projected to be in compliance by Opening Day 2024.
Said Sword: “We’ve never been more excited about the minor leagues. Attendance is up, revenue is up and the game on the field is the best it has ever been. Since we began a substantial restructuring of baseball’s player development system three years ago, we have made significant improvements every single year and we are working hard to ensure the success of this new structure. We believe that going to a minor league ballpark is one of the most exciting options for families to spend time together and experience professional baseball up close.”
NOW, AS THE April 2025 deadline sits over the horizon, many in minor league baseball are watching to see who will attack it head-on, like the Tourists front office, and who will go old-school, simply bunkering in, betting on loyalty and hoping for the best.
In addition to Richmond, new ballparks are already either under construction or on the books in Hillsboro, Oregon, Salt Lake City and Tennessee neighbors, the Knoxville Smokies and Chattanooga Lookouts. Moves are already being planned for other franchises, such as the Carolina Mudcats, departing the Raleigh suburbs after more than three decades, heading 30 minutes east to Wilson, North Carolina. The Down East Wood Ducks of Kinston, North Carolina, would seem to be in flux, currently playing in 74-year-old Grainger Field and limited construction-wise because of eastern North Carolina’s sandy, water-filled coastal plains soil. Just this week, the town announced an Historic Grainger Stadium Commission to brainstorm ideas to push the ballpark into the future.
Meanwhile, other longtime teams and facilities remain quiet.
“There are entire leagues full of antiquated ballparks, at least by the standards we’ve been handed. Entire leagues!” an MiLB team official said via phone on the eve of Opening Day this season. “Teams with new ballparks coming, and there are a lot, they are OK. And towns with new ballparks that don’t have a team or have an independent [non-MLB-affiliated] team playing there, they are just waiting to scoop up any teams that might have to move. It’s going to be crazy.”
Multiple teams who are currently MLB-affiliated and know they won’t be able to meet the 2025 facilities checklists are quietly looking into baseball futures that they believe would come with fewer perceived corporate shackles. They have watched many of the teams and leagues that were cut loose in 2020 thrive in their disaffiliated lives. Just look at the center of the minor league galaxy that is North Carolina. For every MLB affiliate such as the Charlotte Knights and Durham Bulls, there are neighbors such as the Gastonia Honey Hunters and High Point Rockers, members of the independent Atlantic League, playing in sparkling new ballparks with big name coaches. The Rockers pitching staff is helmed by Frank Viola.
“I tell these guys all the time, the ones we sign to play here, do you realize how good you have it?” Viola said of 4-year-old Truist Point, a 4,500-seat ballpark built for $36 million, featuring spacious clubhouses and workout facilities. “I played my minor league ball in Orlando and Toledo in the early 1980s, and I loved those places, but hot water and electricity were day-to-day. These guys have it better than we did in the Metrodome or Shea Stadium.”
In 2021, when the entire 10-team Appalachian League was demoted from a short-season MiLB league to a collegiate summer “MLB Partner League,” its members, which began in downright despair, ended up basking in a new world of creativity. No longer were they obligated to use the names of their parent clubs and suddenly franchises such as the Danville Braves and Burlington Royals became the Otterbots and Sock Puppets. The league, essentially a string of old-school textile mill ballparks that runs along the North Carolina-Virginia-Tennessee border, has become a must-see for local baseball fans and even the MLB executives during their endless summertime tours of the MiLB affiliates.
“I’m not going to lie, we were pretty pissed,” confessed a longtime Appy League exec. “But now a lot of my fully MLB-affiliated friends are jealous of what we get to do creatively.”
MLB itself points out that of the 43 communities that lost affiliated teams, all but three have either already replaced those teams or will have a new team in place by 2024, via an independent league franchise, a collegiate summer league, or one of those designated MLB Partners, which includes the four largest independent leagues.
Tightening belts is never fun, but sometimes it is necessary. The trick is to realize when to stop tightening — and multiple MiLB executives contacted by ESPN said they believe that another massive reduction of teams is imminent. The current Professional Developmental Licenses agreement between MLB and MiLB runs through 2030 and the just-signed, first (and long overdue) MiLB players CBA is for five years. That might seem like a long way off, but minor league front office lifers openly express concern that the next agreement will further shrink their ranks to 90 or even 60 teams. They point to the fact that MLB itself already tried to cut the number of minor league players during its 2022 CBA talks with the MLB Players Association, but the MLBPA balked. Said one MiLB general manager: “That was a stay of execution. But it was also time to come up with alternative plans.”
MLB sources say that fear is overcooked. The current, still-new MiLB structure provides a tidy four farm teams per big league club that was described by one MLB official as “perfect.” Sword said: “We are firmly committed to 120 teams and our staff works tirelessly to assist each of them in complying with all of our player development standards.” There is one member of the MLB staff who is on the road nearly all season for no reason other than to help teams work through their checklists, and every member of Sword’s office has spent at least some time in those very uncomfortable city and county council meetings to support MiLB teams seeking funding.
“That’s great and we appreciate it,” one MiLB general manager said. “But our parent club was valuated at around $2 billion. No one has offered to write any checks, either.”
DeWINE AND HIS staff in Asheville would love to believe that the charm of McCormick Field and the history of the Tourists helped buy them time as they fought to find funding, but they know that the real reason is much more practical. They are located a short drive from a large cluster of MiLB teams throughout the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee and even Georgia and Kentucky. Survival is about ease of business and size of scale. Charm and history are viewed as bonuses, not necessities.
In the end, the Tourists’ success in gaining funding for the changes MLB required was also aided by an aggressive plan of political attack. DeWine doesn’t enjoy such schemes and activities — that’s why he got into baseball. But they are also in his DNA. His father, Mike, is a longtime roamer of Capitol Hill and current governor of Ohio.
Under the direction of DeWine and general manager Larry Hawkins, the Tourists appealed to the city and county right in their baseball-loving hearts. Tourists fans flooded municipal hearings wearing their caps and jerseys and toting old photos of their families at McCormick Field. An old-school letter-writing campaign flooded the mailboxes and inboxes of everyone with a vote. Though the political ice got thin over winter, the money was approved nearly unanimously in mid-March, proof of which was immediately shown to MLB. The Asheville Tourists were saved. Such alarmist tactics don’t do MLB’s minor league management team any favors image-wise, but they also know that’s the cost of business, especially when it comes to the mudslinging world of local politics.
In the end, most minor league owners are happy to work with MLB to improve the experience for their players and fans. Multiple executives reached by ESPN expressed frustration that many of their minor league colleagues hadn’t done enough to protect themselves, despite having years to devise a plan. Many also sang the praises of big league marketing partnerships, from an increased presence on the MLB Network and MLB’s broadcast partners to high dollar, nationwide MiLB promotions such as the Marvel-themed Defenders of the Diamond uniform redesigns and merchandising.
But the people who have dedicated their lives to putting on 70-plus home games every summer, creating pillars of municipal pride and identity in their communities, would also just like assurances that they aren’t about to be run over. To still have the ability to tap into their inner Ron and Carolyn McKee and conjure up the next Thirsty Thursday or Shirt Off Your Back Night. Under the new agreement, any promotional idea now has to first be pitched to MLB for approval.
They would love to feel a similar sense of relief like that which swept over Asheville on Opening Night: Peace in the knowledge that no matter what minor league baseball might look like next, the spirit of the minors is still flowing freely through their concourses, from Worcester and Lansing to El Paso and Rancho Cucamonga.
“The future is always the future, change is always inevitable and making money is always better than not making money,” Ron McKee said in the summer of 1994 to a $100-a-week intern who would eventually become an ESPN senior writer. The general manager of the Asheville Tourists, whose first job with the team was a preteen batboy, was standing ankle deep in rainwater along the first baseline warning track of McCormick Field, having just come out of his office to help pull the tarp. He reached into the polyester pocket of his too-tight blue coach’s shorts and produced a little yellow rubber duck. He tossed it into the red-clay mud puddle, gave the bird a push with his saturated shoes and let out a loud quack.
“But dammit, minor league baseball should always be fun. It should always be this right here. If we let money and guys in suits ruin this, what the hell are we even doing? This is baseball, after all.”
The beauty — and madness — of Minor League Baseball