Just south of downtown sits McCormick Field, Asheville's very own "field of dreams," where Babe Ruth and many other baseball legends have left their footprints. Home to the minor-league Asheville Tourists, it's our Wrigley Field or Fenway Park.
So when it was announced Jan. 5 that Palace Sports Entertainment had sold the ball club to the DeWine family of Ohio, some may have wondered if this city's long-running minor league treasure would be uprooted. Over the past 112 years, Asheville's Class A South Atlantic League team has played 89 seasons here, and the DeWine family has chosen to move here rather than take the ball club elsewhere.
"This is a dream come true," declared Brian DeWine, who is poised to take over as club president later this year. "I was looking for a city to raise a family and own a team, and this was the perfect place." The closing is tentatively scheduled for March, pending approvals by the Sally League, Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball.
Joe Kremer, longtime general manager of the AA Carolina Mudcats, gave the new owners a strong vote of confidence, saying, "Asheville's team is in very good hands." Brian previously worked for the Mudcats for four years.
Mike DeWine — Brian's father — is a former two-term U.S. senator from Ohio. Brian and his wife, Kali, are in the process of moving to Asheville.
"This is such a perfect match for us," DeWine told Xpress. "We wanted a team with not only a rich baseball tradition, but also one located in a community where my wife and I could raise a family — a place that fits our values and that views baseball as an integral part of the community, just as we do. We found all those qualities with the Asheville Tourists. We are honored to be a part of the strong baseball tradition that exists in Asheville."
DeWine, who's spent the last 10 years working on the business side of professional and collegiate sports, attended his first Tourists game last May. Soon after, discussions concerning a transfer of ownership began. Palace Sports & Entertainment wasn't looking to sell the ball club, he says; from the beginning, the courtship was driven by the DeWine family.
Longtime owner Woody Kern sold the team to Palace Sports in 2005, and under their ownership, the Tourists have posted four of the highest attendance figures in franchise history.
For his part, DeWine sees the organization only getting better in the future. "We will not make any major changes this year," he said, adding, "I want to feel a full season and go from there."
As the Colorado Rockies' Class A team, the Tourists shine. "The Rockies have enjoyed the support of the Asheville community for 16 seasons, and we look forward to a continued partnership with the DeWine family for years to come," opined Marc Gustafson, the Rockies' director of player development.
The sale agreement allows current employees — including head honcho Mike Bauer — to retain their jobs, if they choose, through Oct. 1. General Manager Larry Hawkins and assistant GM Chris Smith have long-standing local ties and have been with the Tourists for more than 10 years. Further, the team signed a 10-year lease with the city in 2005 to continue playing at McCormick Field, and that same year the Colorado Rockies signed a four-year extension to keep the team in Asheville through 2012.
The Tourists will welcome back four familiar faces to the 2010 coaching staff, headed by Manager Joe Mikulik, who's returning for the 11th consecutive season. The Candler resident — the most successful skipper in team history with 712 victories — was a South Atlantic League all-star while playing for Asheville in 1985. Mikulik is a three-time Manager of the Year (2001, 2007 and 2008), and 49 of his former players having reached the major leagues.
He'll be joined by hitting coach Kevin Riggs, pitching coach Dave Schuler and trainer Billy Whitehead.
"It's really a big advantage going into a season knowing the men you'll be working with," Mikulik noted. "As with anything in life, whenever you're working with someone for the first time, it takes a while to learn one another. We won't have that challenge this season, which should really help the staff get the most out of the players the Colorado Rockies send to Asheville."
The Tourists open their 2010 season Thursday, April 8, at home.