Play ball! Asheville Tourists GM Larry Hawkins reflects on 25 years

CATBIRD'S SEAT: Larry Hawkins, general manager of the Asheville Tourists, sits in his favorite summertime seat where the breeze comes out of the stairwell tunnel. Photo courtesy of Hawkins

Larry Hawkins, general manager of the Asheville Tourists, has been a Philadelphia Phillies fan, a Colorado Rockies fan and now roots for the Houston Astros. He’s not fickle. But he is loyal to the MLB parent team with which his team is affiliated.

Growing up in Cashiers, he played all the sports but became focused on baseball in high school. He attended his first professional baseball game on a fifth-grade field trip to an Atlanta Braves game, and like many small towns without a team of its own, he grew up watching the Braves on WTBS and the Cubs on WGN.

Nearing graduation from Western Carolina University, where he majored in sports management, Hawkins interned with the Tourists for the 1996 season. Later, he was director of stadium operations for the Clearwater Phillies in the Florida State League. It was legendary Tourists General Manager Ron McKee, credited with saving minor league baseball in Asheville during his tenure from 1980 to 2005, who in October 1998 lured him back to McCormick Field to run stadium operations and food and beverage. Hawkins has been there ever since, being named general manager in 2005.

During his nearly 25 years, Hawkins has seen scores of baby ballplayers come and go from the traditional launching pad of professional baseball, two league championships (2012 and 2014), fielded hundreds of questions about the film Bull Durham and helped team owner Brian DeWine secure funding commitments for the $37.5 million stadium renovation required of minor league teams to remain affiliated with MLB.  Here are some of his reflections on the history, legacy and future of Asheville Tourists baseball and McCormick Field.

Xpress: McCormick Field — the third-oldest ballpark in minor league baseball — was built in 1924. What renovations have taken place since then?

Hawkins: The original building and bleachers were mostly wood, and I have heard stories from writers about how precarious it was to get to the press box across a very rickety catwalk. At the end of the 1991 season, the park was essentially torn down, rebuilt in concrete and was ready in time for opening day 1992. It’s pretty amazing that they built in seven months what is still here today.

Does anything remain of the original park and field layout?

Home plate is in the exact same location today as it was in 1924. The outfield wall has been raised, but we can’t go further back because you hit rock, and there is a concrete retaining wall from the time the ballpark was used as a racetrack for stock cars. It’s very unusual.

Are there challenges to a ballpark situated as this one is?

Yes! People from MLB will suggest we do this or do that, and then they get here and realize we are carved into the side of a mountain. That changes their perspective. We want to keep that because it’s unique and we are consistently ranked as one of the top ballparks in America to see a game. But it has its challenges.

Has a move outside the city ever been considered?

It’s been suggested but our goal is to stay where we are. It’s a very vibrant downtown, and we want to be a part of that as long as we can. We like and respect our neighbors and try to be good neighbors to them.

What notable Hall of Fame names have come through McCormick Field?

We have a photo here of three Hall of Fame outfielders playing in the first game in 1924 — Ty Cobb, Harry Heilmann and Heinie Manush. Babe Ruth made two stops in Asheville for exhibition games. On one of those visits, he got sick, and there was a rumor he died, but it wasn’t true. Jackie Robinson came to Asheville in 1948.

In your time with the team, are there players you remember?

During the Rockies era, it was Trevor Story, Todd Helton and Nolan Arenado. At this level, everyone is still in their learning curve. You see some guys who are really advanced and dominate but then level off as their career goes deeper. On the flip side, you see guys under the radar who work hard and succeed. One of my favorites was Juan Pierre. He showed up every day the same time as us, 8:30 in the morning, and would go in the cage and hit off the tee. He worked really hard and had a long career in the major leagues.

What is the Bull Durham connection to McCormick Field?

That’s the question we get asked more than any other. I tell everyone we’re in the last 20 minutes of the movie. Crash Davis (the aging minor league catcher played by Kevin Costner) is finishing his career with the Tourists to break the minor league home run record, which he does. The scene where he walks down the steps into the clubhouse, that’s actually the visiting team clubhouse. It is my favorite baseball movie. The dynamics are so real, and there’s so many great lines.

Why do the Tourists have two mascots?

Ron McKee created Ted E. Tourist after the big renovation. He saw how popular the San Diego Chicken and Phillie Phanatic were. So, he introduced Ted E., who of course was a bear and originally had the Hawaiian shirt and suitcase, like a tourist. Mr. Moon was added in 2011 when we had our logo changeover and we wanted something new with that.

Is there any competitive rivalry between Ted E. and Mr. Moon?

Well, we basically rotate them out. Ted E. comes on the field for some promotions and Mr. Moon for others, but they’re typically not on the field at the same time. When they have been, we have had no altercations.

Does Thirsty Thursday provoke any mayhem?

Not at all. Ron McKee actually created it in 1983 and trademarked it in 1995. I think every minor league park has a Thirsty Thursday now, but we started it and have a plaque to commemorate it. It attracts a different demographic like all the promotions. Doggies on the Diamond when people can bring their pets is actually a bigger cleanup, not for what you think, but the dog hair is really hard to get off the seats.

What is the most popular promotion?

Fireworks nights, without question. Everyone loves fireworks. A guy told me a long time ago that whatever your troubles, you can lose yourself watching fireworks. They’re mesmerizing, just magical.

What can players and fans expect to see from the approved funding for the park?

Much of what MLB has required of us like new clubhouses with a minimum square footage, changing facilities for women, new batting cages won’t really be seen by the public. Deferred maintenance issues will be taken care of — it’s a 30-year-old park. There will be some new bells and whistles like a new scoreboard. We’ll enhance the picnic areas and main concourse. It’s a well-rounded approach to requirements and fan amenities. We’re in the planning phase now, and construction will begin after the 2024 season.

What’s the best seat in the house?

I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the park, but I don’t sit much. I like to greet people at the gate when they arrive and thank them for coming when they leave. During the game, I’m often standing beside the press box because I can see how everything on both sides of the stands is going. But if I do sit, there’s a spot in the back row of the premium seats in front of the first base stairwell, where there’s always a breeze coming out of the tunnel. It’s a cool spot on a hot night.


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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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