From April to September, Asheville Tourists baseball players call McCormick Field home, entertaining spirited fans while pursuing dreams of making their way to the major leagues. But what happens when the season ends?
While the Tourists’ front-office staff remains busy on the local front, planning for the next season and making improvements to the 97-year-old minor league ballpark, the players head off in different directions, focused on staying in shape and improving their skills in hopes of continuing their upward trajectory.
As players count the days until Feb. 14 — the day pitchers and catchers report to spring training — Xpress spoke with two Tourists from the 2021 season about their time in Asheville, their plans for the winter months and how the minor league experience isn’t as glamorous as it may seem.
Stars of tomorrow
Part of the Tourists’ opening day roster, outfielder Alex McKenna was a three-sport athlete at Bishop Alemany High School in Los Angeles but focused on baseball over football and basketball his senior year. At California Polytechnic State University — which has produced a number of major league players, including Seattle Mariners right fielder Mitch Haniger — McKenna says coach Larry Lee taught him “how to play the right way, play the game hard, play to win and be a good teammate,” lessons that he’s carried with him into professional baseball.
The Houston Astros, of which the Tourists are the High-A affiliate, selected McKenna in the fourth round of the 2018 draft. Although he feels he had “a great pro debut” in 2018 with the Tri-City ValleyCats and Quad Cities River Bandits, the following season with Quad Cities found him battling injuries.
“I realized I needed to dedicate more of my time into getting physically stronger and learning more about what that entails with nutrition, and even learning more about the game at this level,” McKenna says. “But I think all that adversity that I went through in ’19 set me up for this season, and then with COVID, and baseball being taken away from us for a year, it gave me lot of time to reflect. And I felt like I reinvented myself going into ’21.”
McKenna’s refocused mindset paid off: In 41 games for the Tourists, he carried a .305 batting average with 13 home runs and 8 stolen bases — numbers that garnered a midseason promotion to the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks.
Fellow California native Shay Whitcomb played shortstop for University of California San Diego. While he says it’s difficult to get drafted as a position player from a Division II school, his 2019 season in the collegiate summer Cape Cod League elevated his baseball standards and impressed major league scouts, resulting in the Astros selecting him in the fifth round of the 2020 draft.
Though Whitcomb says not getting to play in the COVID-canceled 2020 season was “anticlimactic,” he was able to dedicate that time to training and emerged extra motivated at the start of the season with the Low-A Fayetteville Woodpeckers. His performance earned him a midseason promotion to Asheville, where he hit .300 with 16 home runs and Tourists season highs of 22 doubles and 16 stolen bases — especially impressive numbers for only 58 games played.
That type of quick advancement isn’t necessarily the norm across minor league baseball. “Players move a lot more in the Astros’ organization than other orgs,” Whitcomb says. “When people play well, they move them. There’s no point in keeping them at the same level.”
Though they each only spent half a season in Asheville, McKenna and Whitcomb both consider McCormick Field one of the best places they’ve played on their baseball journeys. From unusually strong fan support to a higher elevation that allows the ball to fly a little farther, their time in Western North Carolina made the minor league grind that much easier.
“Sometimes you get on a bus on a Friday, and it’s 14-15 hours to the next destination, then you play the next day. And obviously we don’t make nearly the amount of money that big leaguers make,” McKenna says, noting that he gratefully receives financial support from his parents. “But I try to view it as a positive because it just keeps you hungry to accomplish the next thing and try to get to the ultimate thing, which is the big leagues.”
The current minimum weekly salary for Class-A players is $500 ($12,000 for a six-month season) and $600 for Double-A ($14,400/season); the 2021 minimum salary for major league players is $570,500 per year. Teams have historically not provided housing assistance for players, but with pandemic restrictions limiting the number of roommates and the involvement of host families for the 2021 season, the Astros became the first major league team to pay for furnished apartments for all of their minor league players. The move has since prompted Major League Baseball to require all teams to provide housing for their minor leaguers beginning in the 2022 season.
On the move
When the season ends in September, players pack up their lockers after the final game and usually leave town that night or the following morning.
“It’s been a long season. It’s typically 140 games, so they’re ready to get out and see friends and see family,” says Doug Maurer, director of broadcast and media relations for the Tourists. “They’re basically out of town no more than 48 hours after the season ends, and we typically won’t see them again unless they are reassigned to Asheville the following year. That’s certainly possible, but their goal is to move up.”
Upward of 50 players from across the Astros’ minor league system are then picked for Instructional League at the team’s training complex in Florida, where they work directly with coaches and player development staff for two weeks to improve their skills. Maurer says “Instructs” is a prestigious invitation for players but that the Arizona Fall League is even more noteworthy. There, each major league team selects six or seven players from across their minor league affiliates, who are then combined with prospects from four other teams to form a squad.
“That’s typically going to be your top prospects, or your guys who you have a feeling have an opportunity to be really good in the major leagues,” Maurer says. “It’s another opportunity for guys to be able to play against top competition and have some of the top coaching.”
The remaining players typically return to their hometowns, where it’s their own responsibility to keep up their conditioning. Maurer says some reunite with personal coaches that they’ve worked with since high school; to cover those and other expenses in lieu of an in-season salary, many players get part-time jobs. One popular option is teaching baseball clinics and offering one-on-one lessons to aspiring young players in their hometowns.
Latin American players, which Maurer estimates comprised 40% of the Tourists’ roster in 2021, usually head home as well — often to top-notch facilities built and operated by the organization. He notes that the Astros have a complex in the Dominican Republic where players can train and receive help from team employees.
“It gives them some extra support where they may not necessarily have a gym at every corner that they could go and work out,” Maurer says. “It’s got fields, bullpen mounds, a weight room, a cafeteria — guys can take advantage of that.”
Regroup and refocus
McKenna has been to Instructs multiple times, followed by training at the P3: Sports Science performance facility in Santa Barbara, Calif., but is taking a different route this offseason. After spending a few weeks at home, he and his girlfriend relocated to Scottsdale, Ariz., where he’s training at PUSH Performance, a private gym unaffiliated with Major League Baseball, alongside fellow minor league players. Several big leaguers also use PUSH facilities, including pitchers Logan Webb (San Francisco Giants), Zach Plesac (Cleveland Guardians) and free agent Kevin Gausman, who made the 2021 National League All-Star Team as a member of the Giants.
“It’s awesome to have guys in there that are working toward the same thing that you are, because unless you play minor league baseball, no one really understands the journey and the stuff that we go through on a day-to-day basis,” McKenna says. “And the major league guys have been in our shoes and understand what it takes and the sacrifices you have to make to try and make your dream come true.”
Meanwhile, Whitcomb was invited to Instructs for the second consecutive year. “It was really nice to get a little recap of the season, and they send you on your way to the offseason with some things to work on and keep in mind,” he says. “Then I took about two weeks off and started to get back into my routines of hitting and throwing and lifting every day.”
Whitcomb trains four or five times per week at EXOS Athletic Training in San Diego, fees for which are covered by the sports agency that represents him. Although Whitcomb will work a few baseball camps this offseason, he and McKenna feel fortunate not to have to seek additional employment this winter, allowing them to focus solely on baseball as they await word of where they’ll be in the spring.
Both players hope that will include an invitation to a major league training camp.
“There’s a lot of things that go into that — what you did in the previous season and age as well. I’m 24 now, so I’m definitely not old by any means, but kind of in that middle zone where they want to see what you’ve got and if you can compete at that level,” McKenna says. “It’s all out of my control, and whatever they decide to do is what they decide to do. But I’m going to try to do everything I can to be ready if that opportunity comes.”