ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Appropriately, my minor league tour ends where Crash Davis' did, at Asheville's sublime McCormick Field.
It was here that Crash slammed a pitch over the left-field fence to break the fictional minor league home run record, quietly retired and drove back to Annie. And it's a good place to end a career, though players with higher aspirations than Class A-ball probably disagree. There is so much history here -- this is where Babe Ruth collapsed in 1924 with his infamous "Bellyache Heard 'Round the World" -- that even the batboys are notable. Thomas Wolfe, the acclaimed author of "Look Homeward, Angel," was the Asheville Tourists' batboy in 1914-15. North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams performed the duty in 1961. And in the early '70s, the son of a manager in the Orioles system could be found carrying bats from the field.
There's a local legend surrounding that batboy that Asheville assistant GM Chris Smith believes is true. One night gunfire was heard from the hillside that climbs up behind the outfield fence, prompting one of the players to step in front of the batboy -- shielding young Cal Ripken Jr. from harm. Cal's father, Cal Sr., was a great baseball man, and he likely would approve of the current Asheville manager. Joe Mikulik has spent his entire career in the minors, 11 as a player and a dozen as a coach. This is his seventh year managing Asheville, a long time to be in one place in the minors.
"It's been good. I've been fortunate, believe it or not," he says. "Not getting rich and not getting famous." Well, he got a little famous a couple weeks ago. Thanks to the modern world of 24/7 sports highlights and YouTube, everyone saw Mikulik erupt into a combination of Lou Piniella, Earl Weaver and Yosemite Sam over a pickoff call at second base against his team. We've seen managers kick dirt and throw caps and fling resin bags and bury home plate and toss bats and pull up bases and hurl them into the outfield but what made Mikulik's tirade so special is he combined them into the Mother of All Nut-Outs. And what really separated his from all the others before it -- where he showed he is a true artist -- is when he dove headfirst into second base.
"I was like going to re-enact the play but I wasn't creative enough to tag myself," he says. "People say I was out of control but I don't think I was. Seventy-five percent of it was for the fans. Heck, it ended up being for the country. For the world! I enlightened a lot of people about minor league baseball."
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ESPN's SportsTravel section recently put together 10 sample Baseball Road Trips across the country which visit some of the best ballparks in both the majors and the minors.
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Yes, yes. It was spectacularly entertaining. The only thing missing was The Chicken. But take us through the meltdown.
"I'm arguing the pickoff call at second. And then boom, I dive into second. Then I decide to get the base. Because I've never gotten the base. So let me get this base. And I didn't throw it right away, I used it as a visual tool. And then you'll notice I found where nobody was close. I looked -- calmly, if you can believe it -- for a spot where no one was there and I fired the base.
Not a lot of distance on the toss but definitely good placement.
"And then you notice where my hat winds up after the cap toss -- perfect toss, by the way -- it winds up right on the mound next to the resin bag. If the cap ends up on the grass on either side of the mound, I never throw the resin bag. People don't understand that. They think I went to the mound purposely to throw the resin bag but no, I went there to get my cap. And the resin bag was right there." It was asking to be tossed. It was begging to be tossed. "Yep, You put 10 marketing guys in a room and they couldn't script it that way. And none of it was planned."
Mikulik is laughing about it now but he wasn't when the league fined him $1,000 -- a big punishment for a minor league manager -- and suspended him for seven days. Easily outraged columnists and talk show hosts blasted Mikulik for somehow embarrassing the game, as if a manager could embarrass a sport where sumo wrestling and Beat the Mascot races are regular promotions. But at least there was a happy ending. The Tourists auctioned off the base Mikulik threw and raised more than $4,000 for a local charity that distributes shoes to needy children.
In case you missed it: Joe Mikulik goes off.
"They're now saying they were able to get a 100 pairs of shoes for kids in need," Mikulik says. "I'm not saying I'd do it again, but I never was financially wealthy enough to help children like that but finally something in my career went to help someone in need. And if that's what happened, then it was well worth it."
By the way, it was the first ejection of the year for Mikulik. He usually averages a couple a year but obviously he let the pressure cooker build well into the red zone this time.
"There is a time when you have to defend your team," he says. "Once a year, maybe twice, you have to really be adamant about it and let the club know you're behind them. Because if you don't, the players will start doing it and you don't want any player to get involved in anything like that.
"You try to do some things to help the club and break the monotony, keep them loose, make it fun. Because no matter how much of a disciplinarian you want to be, you can't forget how grueling this time of the year is as a player."
It is. I'm tired after just nine days and 1,200 miles. And the players have been going since spring training with hardly a day off, many of them away from their families.
Consider Tourists pitcher Brett Strickland. He has a 4-year-old son, Dylan, living near Atlanta with his mother. Strickland played so far away last season in Wyoming that visiting his son was pretty much an impossibility. Playing in Asheville, he's been able to drive home many times. "But it's almost worse in a way," he says. "Last year I only had to say goodbye to him twice. This year I've said goodbye to him 10 times. Four-year-olds don't understand goodbyes."
Goodbyes are part of baseball though, which is why I've always liked the Tourists name. When you get right down to it, that's what everyone in baseball is. A tourist saying hello one day and goodbye the next, constantly moving from town to town, league to league and team to team.
Of course, some people take this to an extreme. Cass Sapir is visiting the stadium of every major league and minor league affiliate this summer -- 189 ballparks in all -- to raise money for the Jimmy Fund. I ran across him at the Hickory Crawdads' L.P. Frans Stadium. That was his 110th park of the season -- his favorites are both in Alabama, the 96-year-old Rickwood Field in Birmingham and the one-year-old Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery -- giving him a broad perspective on where baseball is going.
"I think the minor leagues are in transition period," Sapir says. "You can still go anywhere and get a ticket for $5 but I think within 10 years, the tickets will be $10 and $15."
Actually, they'll probably be higher. The minor leagues are changing and those low minors aren't quite as low as they once were. There are still a few of the old ballparks like Savannah's Grayson Stadium but they are steadily giving way to sleek, modern ballparks with luxury suites that are miniature versions of major league parks. And in the case of Greenville's West End Field, a literal version.
|What to do in Asheville|
I might just move to Asheville.|
All week, people kept telling me how great a town this is, and unlike the woman who gave me directions to Greenville, they weren't wrong. What a delightful, picturesque town. Set amid green hills, this is a vibrant, funky city with great old buildings and so vibrant that there were street musicians performing at 12:30 on a Wednesday night. The Biltmore mansion is stunning and very expensive -- any house tour that charges $42 ought to include a roller coaster. The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches just a couple miles away. And the Asheville Tourists' ballpark is among the very prettiest in all the minors, my favorite of the parks I visited.
If you're a little tired of all that southern fried cooking, here are two great spots for a break. Doc Chey's on Biltmore Avenue serves an inexpensive and innovative Thai menu while Salsa's on Patton Avenue offers big portions and a tasty blend of Caribbean and Mexican cooking.
And as I sit behind home plate on my final night watching the fans file out of the stadium while a recording of John Denver's "Country Roads" plays, I don't want to leave. The setting is too comforting, the evening too enjoyable and there are so many ballparks I haven't seen.
But I must. This isn't really my world. I might be an Asheville tourist but I'm not an Asheville Tourist. I haven't earned it. Minor league baseball might be fun and games for us but it's a demanding job filled with very long days and endless travel for the players and staff. You don't just drop in and out when you want. You have to commit yourself. "This is tough," Mikulik says. "Tough. A-ball. Ain't nobody pampering us." No, they aren't. But there are payoffs. As Strickland says, you get to sleep in and you get to play baseball. And as the Bulls' staff tells Crash when he threatens to retire in "Bull Durham," it beats hell out of selling Lady Kenmores at Sears.