Tourists returning to Asheville is a pretty routine experience for this city so accustomed to visitors enjoying the many benefits of Western North Carolina.
But Asheville Tourists’ baseball players coming back to play another season at McCormick Field is not a common sight, except for this season.
An unusually high number of returnees is one of the features of the 2018 team as the city’s Class A squad readies for the 2018 season.
Eight players, nearly a third of the 25-man roster, have played here before as the South Atlantic League season begins Thursday with Asheville playing at Delmarva (Md.).
After a seven-game road trip that includes three games in Kannapolis, the Tourists’ home opener is April 12, the season’s first Thirsty Thursday at McCormick Field.
The 2018 team has just arrived in Asheville after spring training in Arizona and spent Monday and Tuesday securing lodging for the five-months plus season of 140 games, in between workouts at a lush, green McCormick Field that appears in midseason shape.
While several players know their way around, manager Robinson Cancel may be asking for directions.
After a 20-year playing career that included major-league stints with the New York Mets and Houston Astros, Cancel is getting his first shot at running a team in his second year in the parent club Colorado Rockies’ organization.
Cancel said having so many returning players is not common but can be an advantage.
“Sometimes it’s just about the reps, maybe they weren’t going to get enough at the next level so we bring them back here for more reps, sometimes it’s just performance,” Cancel said in explaining why eight players are back.
“Those guys know the league and what to expect, and that can help. And they can help the new guys get prepared.”
Catcher Robbie Perkins hit .243 in 29 games in Asheville last seasons, and said his second stint with the Tourists is partly based on continuing to work with four pitchers who combined for 83 starts last year with the team – 2016 first-round pick Riley Pint (2-11, 5.42 ERA ), Erick Julio (7-11, 4.98) Antonio Santos (9-10, 5.39) and Breiling Santos (3-3, .468).
“It’s a good opportunity for me,” said Perkins, one of the team’s older players at age 23. “The gist of what they told me about coming back was to work with the younger pitchers. I’m happy about being back.”
Pint, a 6-5, 225-pount righthander, got 22 starts last season as a 19-year-old and thinks that experience will help immensely this year.
“I felt like I had to come back here and continue to develop,” Pint said. “I’m eager to get back and prove myself a little more than I did last year.
“I think it will be beneficial for our team because we know what to do and how to handle ourselves. We know the league.”
Among the 17 new players, left-handed sluggers Bret Boswell and Chad Spanberger were impressed with their first look at the inviting right field at McCormick, just 297 feet down the line but with an imposing 36-foot high wall.
“My first thought was, ‘that’s huge.’ But then you see the 297-foot sign and you think you want to pull everything,’ said Spanberger. “But you can’t think like that. You have to stick with your plan, even though that wall is right there staring at you every day.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Boswell. “It looks like it’s going to take away some doubles because it’s so close, but that 297 is kinda nice.”