My night with the Asheville Tourists – May 19, 2016

After a Wednesday night game in Kodak (read about it here), Katie and I headed for Asheville, N.C., to watch the Tourists.

The benefit of driving from Kodak to Asheville was getting to travel US-441 through Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  While I have explored the Smokies multiple times, Katie had never visited.  Unfortunately, the weather was overcast and we encountered a bit of rain during our drive.

Eventually as we arrived in Asheville, the rain cleared out as we made a stop at New Belgium Brewing’s new East Coast facility.  After checking into our hotel, Katie and I hit a few breweries en route to McCormick Field, but we will detail our brewery stops in a later stand-alone post.

So onto the stadium…

Main entrance.

McCormick Field sits on the southern edge of downtown Asheville, which can be a positive or negative depending upon your perspective.  The negative: a downtown ballpark almost always means there is limited parking.  That is definitely the case in Asheville.  The positive: the stadium may be walkable from nearby hotels and residential areas.  That is definitely the case in Asheville.  Katie and I stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton Asheville Downtown, which is about one mile – approximately a 20-minute walk.

After immediately walking into the ballpark, I found the two things I always try to photograph early in the night: the starting lineup and the league standings.

Starting lineups for the Kannapolis Intimidators and the Asheville Tourists.
South Atlantic League standings entering play on Thursday, May 19.

After stumbling upon the lineups and standings, Katie and I spotted the Tourists’ mascot, Mr. Moon walking by.  So I hailed down a nearby employee and asked him to take our picture with the mascot.

Katie and I with Mr. Moon.

I won’t go into detail about the history of McCormick Field (read it here), but because of its age and its location it is a smaller ballpark.  So it’s easy to check out all the concession stands and portable stations along the concourse.  Katie and I did that before taking our seats.

Concourse with games, concession stands, and portable stations.
Portable food and beverage stations along the concourse.

One of the best named concession stands was Crash’s Kitchen, which most baseball fans should know is named after the character Crash Davis from the movie “Bull Durham.”  For those unfamiliar with the 1988 cinematic classic, I can only suggest you watch it or read about it here.  I’ll come back to the movie later.

As it was a Thursday, the Tourists, like many other Minor League Baseball teams, was having its usual Thirsty Thursday promotion on soft drinks and beers.  The unique part about being in Asheville on a Thirsty Thursday is that the Tourists were the first team to use that phrase, and the team owns the federal trademark on it.  I tried to track down the plaque commemorating the trademark, but unfortunately it is in the press box so an average fan like myself is not able to see it.  If you want to read more about the history of the promotion, you can read Ben Hill’s piece on about it here.

After checking out a few stands to explore our food and beer options, we each got a fantastic local craft beer for $2 and took to our seats to watch the start of the game.  I got a Catawba Brewing Co.‘s White Zombie, which is a witbier.  I find that a witbiers is one of the best styles to have during the warmer months plus how does someone turn down a beer with such a great name?

I could drone on about the beer choices at the stadium, but will do my best to be concise.  Asheville has a lot of great local craft breweries and some regional craft breweries that have opened East Coast facilities nearby (like New Belgium, Oskar Blues, and Sierra Nevada).  So Thirsty Thursday at a Tourists game is like heaven because it’s cheap, but quality beer.

With beers in hand, we took our seats to watch the start of the game between the Kannapolis Intimidators and the Tourists.  What I didn’t know at the time was that I got to watch the Colorado Rockies‘ 13th rated prospect, Peter Lambert, start for the Tourists (see list here) along with shortstop Carlos Herrera (22nd), second baseman Jonathan Piron (24th), and first baseman Brian Mundell (30th).

Tourists starting pitcher Peter Lambert preparing for the first pitch against Intimidators center fielder Tyler Sullivan.
Intimidators starting pitcher Johnathan Frebis facing Tourists third baseman Mylz Jones.

While I didn’t take action photos of all the top-rated prospects for the two teams, I got to see the White Sox‘s 10th rated prospect (first baseman Corey Zangari) and 16th rated prospect (shortstop Johan Cruz).

After watching a few innings of play, we started exploring the ballpark, which allowed me to get a few different perspectives on the stadium.

The scoreboard in right field.
View of the grandstand from the third base line, which highlights the Bojangles Dugout Suite along the first base line.

Perhaps the most interesting sight at the stadium is a mural featured in “Bull Durham.”  If you watch the clip (see it here, thanks to Ben Hill for posting it), you will see the mural at about the 30-second mark.  Due to ballpark renovations the mural was relocated next to the concession stand along the third base line.

Mural featured during the waning minutes of “Bull Durham” that is preserved along the third base line.

After walking to one end of the stadium, we walked around to the other end and I watched Tourists reliever Drasen Johnson warming up.

The home team bullpen down the right field line allows fans to watch closely as pitchers warm up.

So after wandering around the stadium and debating the food choices, I finally settled on having the Bacon Mac and Cheese Dog.

The Bacon Mac and Cheese Dog.

The Tourists cover the basics when it comes to food at the ballpark, and have a few unique items like Roots organic hummus with chips, which may not appeal to most baseball fans, but would definitely appeal to the hipster/hippie/millennial demographic in Asheville.  However, the Tourists do not really have a “signature” food item that you just “have to have,” so I opted for what I considered to be the most unique item.

The mac and cheese was good.  Bacon, of course, is always good.  The dog itself was fine, but I it could be better if the bacon was cooked into the mac and cheese instead of simply being sprinkled on top.

Attending a Tourists game on a Thirsty Thursday was dumb luck on my part, but I’m thrilled that Katie and I got to experience it.  The beer selection is great, and you truly cannot beat the $2 price.  The food choices are good, but didn’t blow me out of the water.  Although I might feel differently if I had eaten the fried Oreos for dessert.

Most importantly, the ballpark setting is great.  The trees provide a great backdrop, and allow fans to forget that they are in the midst of a mid-sized city.  Despite its opening in 1924, McCormick Field has been updated on multiple facets and does not give off the vibe of an “older” ballpark, except for fans being close to the action no matter where they sit.

Final Score: Lexington 10, Asheville 7 (10 innings)
Box Score

My night with the Tennessee Smokies – May 18, 2016

There are some advantages and disadvantages to having attended baseball games over the past 30 years.  The biggest disadvantage for me is that while I’ve visited many over the years, I have not always written about my visits to ballparks.  So my ballpark count is significantly higher than the number of stadiums I’ve written about visiting.

The biggest advantage is that I get to re-visit stadiums and share a new experience with the people who read my blog.  So after first watching the Tennessee Smokies play a home game in 2002 and 2005, I am finally writing about the stadium after attending a game in May 2016.  Like those other games, I was also travelling with someone.  This time my finacée Katie, who I wrote about my post previewing this trip (read it here).

Those who are familiar with the Smokies’ history know that the franchise used to play in downtown Knoxville, and moved to exurban Sevierville in 2000.  The stadium is immediately off Interstate 40 at Exit 407, which makes it easily accessible to Knoxville and Sevierville residents (plus visitors to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg) and those passing through like myself.

So what do fans see when they turn to enter the stadium parking lot…

There is a lot going on at Smokies Stadium in addition to baseball.

If fans drive up or walk over to the main gate, they get a very different welcome.

Flagpoles with a Tennessee Smokies topiary logo welcomes fans to the main entrance.

As much as I enjoy a good photo of flags, I also enjoy directional signs showing where other Minor League affiliates are located.  So when I saw that the Smokies had a sign, I had to take a picture of it.

The main office with a post showing directions to other Cubs affiliates from top to bottom:
Cubs (568 miles), Iowa (854 miles), Myrtle Beach (391 miles), South Bend (512 miles),
Eugene (2,559 miles), and AZL (1,821 miles).

After gawking outside and taking a few pictures, Katie and I finally headed inside the stadium.  We initially checked out the gift shop, but did not explore the concourse because we had arrived about 20 minutes before first pitch.  So we settled into our seats for the national anthem and watched a few innings of action.

Tennessee Smokies starting pitcher Brad Markey delivering the first pitch to Birmingham Barons shortstop Eddy Alvarez.

After watching a few innings of action, we wandered around the concourse to check out the beer and food options.  While walking around the stadium pondering our options, I took a few photos of the concourse, amenities in the outfield, and the game action.

A pair of specialty concession stands along the first base line.
Beyond the first base concourse is a kid’s play area.
By guest services, the Smokies have TV screens with the lineups and standings.
A view of the first base grandstand and suites from the third base line.

Perhaps the coolest place along the concourse was the Smoky Mountain Brewery Bullpen, which is a full-service restaurant that serves locally brewed craft beers.  Smoky Mountain Brewery is part of a larger restaurant group, and has multiple locations throughout eastern Tennessee.  There is a bar that opens onto the concourse, so fans can order a drink without entering the restaurant.  The coolest part of the restaurant is the wall that details the Smokies history, complete with photos of former players who made it to the Majors and logos of the Smokies’ former Major League parents.

Wall featuring the Smokies history inside the Smoky Mountain Brewery Bullpen.

Beyond taking some photos of the concourse, I also took pictures of the amenities in the outfield.  Like many Minor League ballparks, Smokies Stadium has a pair of patios/porches designed to accommodate larger groups.

In right field, there is Pioneer Porch, which is sponsored by a local heating and air conditioning company.

The Pioneer Porch in right field.

In left field, there is Calhoun’s at the Yard, which is sponsored by a local restaurant chain that first made its name in BBQ ribs.  Calhoun’s is part of the same restaurant group as Smoky Mountain Brewery, the Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants.

Calhoun’s at the Yard in left field, which hosts the all-you-can-eat seats.

Besides the two eating areas in the outfield, of course, there is a scoreboard.

Scoreboard in left field, which stands over the seating at Calhoun’s at the Yard.

One of the biggest changes from my last visit to the stadium, besides the tweaking of its name from Smokies Park to Smokies Stadium, is the departure of the KOA campground that sat beyond right field.  I never ventured up there, but it was fun seeing people watching the game from beyond the fences.  With the campground closed the vegetation has taken over, and appears to be overgrown and in need of maintenance.

So what game action did I see while exploring the concourse and pondering food and beer choices?  I saw a few top prospects for the Cubs (see list here) and White Sox (see list here).

Smokies shortstop Carlos Penalver at the plate.
Barons designated hitter Courtney Hawkins, ninth rated prospect in the White Sox organization.
Smokies starting pitcher Brad Markey, 29th rated prospect in the Cubs organization.

After walking around and getting multiple photos of the stadium, what did I finally decided to eat and drink at the game?  At the time Katie and I attended the game, was promoting its annual “Food Fight.”  The Smokies’ entry this year was the Homer’s Grand Slam, which is a foot long hot dog with Calhoun’s BBQ pork, mac and cheese, fried onions, and drizzled with Calhoun’s BBQ sauce.

For my beer, I opted to “drink local” and had a Smoky Mountain Brewery Helles Lager.  It was a solid lager, which is always a good style on a warm spring evening.  You can find my review of it on Untappd (profile here), which is an awesome app that allows people to record the beers they have drank and interact with other beer drinkers.

Homer’s Grand Slam topped off with nacho cheese.

If you don’t want a foot long dog with a lot of items piled on it, but you still wanted a unique food item at the game you could have the Chicago Dog available at the A Taste of Chicago concession stand.  However, you are not able to have an Old Style beer and sit in the bleachers while enjoying that hot dog.

Speaking of Homer, he is the newest Smokies’ mascot, joining the crew before the 2015 season.  As the game was almost over, Katie and I were able to get our picture taken with him as he passed by ours seats.

Katie and I with Homer the Hound.

Shortly after this picture, the game ended as the Smokies were unable to mount a rally.  The pros and cons of visiting previously ballpark shone through for me this trip.  I didn’t feel in awe of the experience because the ballpark had not changed much since my previous visits.  The best parts were subtle changes like the specialty concession stands down the first base line, accentuating the team’s affiliation with the Chicago Cubs.  The other great improvement was the Smoky Mountain Brewery Bullpen.  I love craft beer, and it was great to try some locally brewed beers at the ballpark, although it was disappointing that I was not able to find any beers from the nearby breweries in Knoxville.

Overall, the Smokies put on a great experience, offer a variety of unique food items plus the staples, and have some good local beers to drink.

Final Score: Birmingham 5, Tennessee 0
Box Score