McCormick Field in picturesque Asheville, North Carolina has been a hidden gem of the baseball world for many years. It provides a cameo at the end of the classic film Bull Durham and has been home to many legends of the diamond over the years. More recently, as the Class A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, it has been the career launching pad for every player in the system.
This past week, I was fortunate enough to visit Asheville for myself and witness not only the future of Rockies baseball, but to experience minor league baseball in a very unique (and historic) setting.
Built in 1924, McCormick Field is easily the oldest ballpark setting I have ever visited. Though the park was renovated in the 1990's, it still carries a historic feel as it sits in the French Broad River valley, surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains. The park itself sits at the base of a mountain; within city limits but isolated from the surprisingly metropolitan downtown of Asheville. The ballpark breathes history. During one game, I had the privilege of conversing with an older fan who had seen Dizzy Dean and Jackie Robinson play in McCormick Field.
The park itself is very compact. A simple concourse with concessions runs below the bleachers that seat 4,000 or so Tourist fans. There is a simple press box with a scout's table below it, complete with outlets for laptops and radar guns. One concessions vendor is all that's needed, as he sells water and soda to people in the stands.
Minor League baseball may be for developing future talent, but it's really designed for the fans. Giveaways and promotions are all accomplished with a circus-like atmosphere and plenty of local flair. Local banks sponsor a Monday Envelope giveaway, where the first 750 fans receive an envelope at the gate containing between $1-$100. Shirts and jerseys are given away every couple of innings, along with credit in the team's pro shop. The mascot, Ted E. Tourist (a large teddy bear), walks up and down the concourse hugging children and taking pictures. My personal favorite, the Frozen T-Shirt contest, proves a thrill. Three contestants stand on the home dugout and race to unpack and wear a frozen, folded t-shirt.
The real highlight, however, was the opportunity to see two of the most promising players in the Rockies system, left-handed pitcher Tyler Matzek and third baseman Nolan Arenado. Both were drafted early in the 2009 draft, and it can be argued that they represent the most promising arm and bat in the entire minor league system.
Tyler Matzek started the first game of a doubleheader and made his presence known immediately by striking out the first three Hickory Crawdad players he faced, dominating them with a 94 mph fastball. (The stadium radar gun clocked him upwards of 97 mph, but every single scout gun had him sitting between 92-94 mph) It's incredibly rare for a left handed pitcher to display a combination of velocity and command like Matzek, especially at such a young age. The Rockies' organization hasn't seen a left handed prospect with this velocity since Franklin Morales, another young fireballer who is still struggling to maintain his command at a major league level. Tyler Matzek shares these same struggles, walking 62 while only pitching 89 innings, but the man is essentially unhittable in the lower minors. In fact, during his August 31 start, Matzek only gave up one earned run. The other three runs allowed that day are due entirely to an error by the next man on my list...
...third baseman Nolan Arenado. Arenado was also drafted in 2009 (second round) directly out of a California high school and is the proud owner of my favorite scouting report ever. "Duck-footed and lumbers" was the word on Arenado heading into the draft and, boy, is it ever accurate. The 19-year old infielder has limited range, has a below average arm and makes even the most routine play at third base appear difficult. As I wrote in my notebook after watching Arenado field a bunt, "moves like he needs a walker". It remains to be seen if the club decides to move him to another position or allows him more time to attempt to figure out the hot corner. Current Rockies third baseman and former Asheville Tourist Ian Stewart also carried a reputation as a defensive butcher throughout the minor leagues, but has flashed some spectacular leather at times. Arenado may deserve the same chance.
It's safe to say Nolan Arenado was not drafted for his glove. No matter how severe his defensive gaffes, Arenado will make you forget them as soon as he makes contact with his bat. He displays jaw-dropping power, especially for a young player in his first full professional season. He's also a developed contact hitter for his age, striking out only 14 percent of his at bats in a league where 25 percent is common. He doesn't walk very much, and certainly won't steal bases, but listen to the crack of his bat just once and it's easy to see the sheer potential.
Arenado provided the highlight of the trip, with Asheville fighting for it's playoff lives in the bottom of the tenth inning. With runners on first and second, one swing of the bat and the game was over. He crushed a pitch 30 feet over the fence in left field, a major league caliber walk off home run. (Fast forward to 0:55 of this video and see for yourself!)
With Matzek on the mound and Arenado's bat in the lineup, the Colorado Rockies have drafted themselves a couple of gems, players that will hopefully make their presence known at Coors Field within the next couple of seasons. Even if these prospects don't reach their full potential, at least I have the memories of a special trip into the mountains of North Carolina.
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