Ryan McGee has been to 129 minor league baseball stadiums and countless other sports venues, so it means something when he labels Asheville’s McCormick Field “the perfect ballpark” in his new memoir.
“I understand that McCormick Field lacks the amenities of a Triple-A ballpark or some of the brand-new Single-A ballparks,” says McGee, senior writer for ESPN and co-host of Marty & McGee on ESPN Radio. “But what it lacks in fancy stuff, it has never lacked in character.”
McGee first visited McCormick as a child, when it still had the wooden grandstand that dated to the park’s opening in 1924. The grandstand and the rest of the ballpark were torn down and replaced with a concrete structure following the 1991 Asheville Tourists season.
“I grew up in the Carolinas, and we didn’t have Major League Baseball,” he explains. “And so, my family collected minor league ballparks, and McCormick Field was my favorite. My father loved it because it reminded him of the textile-mill ballparks that he grew up playing in as a kid in Eastern North Carolina.”
In 1994, McGee got a chance to see the stadium up close when he worked as an intern for the Tourists. The job didn’t pay much, but it provided him with countless stories that he has been telling for decades and now has compiled in Welcome to the Circus of Baseball: A Story of the Perfect Summer at the Perfect Ballpark at the Perfect Time, published last month by Doubleday.
McGee spoke with Xpress about his internship with the Tourists, why he wrote the book and his memories of Asheville.
This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.
Xpress: How did you end up working as an intern for the Tourists in 1994?
McGee: I graduated college the fall of 1993 and landed right in the middle of a recession. There certainly weren’t a lot of jobs in what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a radio play-by-play guy. My dream was to be the voice of the Durham Bulls. I did some high school football games on the radio and took my cassette tape to the baseball winter meetings in Atlanta in December 1993 and found out very quickly that no teams wanted a guy with a Southern accent calling their games. The Asheville Tourists did not offer me a radio job, but they did offer me a $100-a-week internship. They did not have a radio network but were looking into the possibility of it. And they were like, “We know you love Asheville. We know you’re from North Carolina. There is a chance we might talk about doing radio, and if we do, we want you to be involved.” And I love McCormick Field, so despite my best financial sense, I took the job.
What were your basic responsibilities as an intern?
We had three interns, and we rotated jobs on a monthly basis. You had the ticket intern [whose job] was to run the ticket office during the day. And then you would jump into the stadium during the game and help with promotions: Throwing a baseball through a swinging tire to win a set of tires; the dizzy-bat race — all the stuff that we love about going to minor league baseball games. Then there was the office intern. That was doing the paperwork, going into local businesses and trying to help sell ads with the actual full-time staff members, running the press box. The press box is like a World War II pillbox. It’s tiny, and it’s concrete, and there’s no air circulation. Your job was to take care of the very tiny group of media members who were there to cover the game. And then there was the concessions intern. Cooking hot dogs and freezing ice for the snow cones. You had to fill the Dairy Queen machine with soft-serve mix. I literally almost drowned myself trying to do that. You had to change kegs during Thirsty Thursday. At the Baptist Student Union at the University of Tennessee, they didn’t teach us how to tap kegs, so I was not very good at it.
Why did you decide to write a book about your experiences with the Tourists?
Well, bless my wife’s heart. I’ve been married 25 years, and she has heard these stories over and over and over again. And I’ve got a lot of friends that I work with at ESPN, and we all started in minor league baseball. And I realized anyone who has worked in minor league baseball could write a book. I’ve got a pretty good memory and I throw nothing away, so I had a box full of stuff from the summer of ’94. I remember consciously thinking about halfway through that summer, “Man, this feels like a movie.” There was James the Mountain Man, [who was] the guy in the overalls that collected the foul balls, and Grady Gardner, the groundskeeper who disappeared every Tuesday night to go line dancing. There were so many characters, and I didn’t even hit all of them in the book. Every minor league ballpark has that cast of characters. I dedicated the book to the people who are grinding it out every night at all these minor league ballparks because I was only in their world for a summer.
McCormick Field has been in the news recently because the Tourists ownership group set an April 1 deadline to get about $30 million from local governments to pay for renovations. It looks now like the team will stay, but were you concerned about that?
One year ago, I’m turning in a manuscript, and we’re like, “All right, April 4, 2023, sounds good” [for a release date]. And then the book is done, edited. It’s headed to the printers, and all of a sudden, the news is coming out of Asheville that literally the same week that the book is coming out, the Asheville Tourists might go away after a century. I’m like, “Is that good publicity? Is it bad publicity?” I don’t know. Major League Baseball took over operations of Minor League Baseball post-pandemic and immediately started telling teams, “You have to do this to your stadium, or we’ll take your team and move it somewhere else.” On top of that, Major League Baseball wiped 40 teams off the map. Much like the summer of ’94, when I worked for the Tourists, I feel like minor league baseball is certainly at a crossroads now.
Do you have memories of Asheville and the people here?
They call it Beer City USA now. But when I lived there in ’94, if you had offered someone a craft beer, they’d have thought it was beer with cheese in it, like Kraft with a K. We had Bud Light, Budweiser, Coors Light, Miller Lite [at McCormick Field]. If you really wanted to get fancy, you could get a Killian’s Irish Red. And honestly, we could have just sold Budweiser, and it would’ve been fine. Nobody really bought anything else. And so that’s what Asheville was then versus Asheville now. But the spirit is still the same. Asheville has always been very eclectic; it’s always been this really odd but delightful mix of artsy folks that have moved there and locals. There’s always been this underlying independent free spirit about Asheville, and that’s what I experienced.
Why is minor league baseball important to communities like Asheville?
I think it’s part of your identity. That might sound hyperbolic, but it’s the truth. The Tourists have been right there on that same hillside for almost 100 years. That’s crazy. I see the impact that [minor league baseball] has on these towns, and I see the pride. I’ve been to 129 minor league ballparks, and no matter whether they’re brand-new or they’re a hundred years old, as soon as you sit down, you get a sense of the city that you’re in and the people that are there and the families there. To me, it’s not just about baseball. It’s about part of the fabric of what makes the residents of a town the residents of that town. Yankee Stadium is a great place, but it feels like I’m a hundred miles away from the players. Minor league baseball just has something that I think most of the rest of the sports world has lost.