As a sports writer for the past 19 years, I’ve witnessed some truly disturbing things. I once interviewed Mariners manager Lou Piniella as he simultaneously smoked a cigarette, ate a ham-and-Swiss hoagie and peed at a urinal. I’ve seen grotesquely twisted ankles, bruises that oozed white-and-red liquid, Wes Helms purposefully passing gas in the face of a reporter, a naked David Wells emerging from the showers.
That stays with you.
Nothing, however, can prepare even the most hardened scribe for FoodFight, Minor League Baseball’s heinous new contest that asks fans to vote for the game’s best overall ballpark concession.
Once upon a time, this wouldn’t have been much of a battle at all. Back in the day, minor league stadiums offered the boilerplate culinary selections of hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, popcorn, peanuts, Cracker Jacks, ice cream, beer and soda. Sure, there’d be some mild variation here and there—Creamsicles instead of Fudgesicles or, say, Kettle Corn Fridays. Overall, however, a hot dog was a hot dog was a hot dog.
Then, somewhere along the way, things went terribly wrong. The natural quirkiness of the minor league baseball experience (small stadiums, faded veterans, hand-sewn mascot costumes) morphed into a marketing bonanza. Wacky names and senseless logos popped up left and right. Authentically oddball stadiums were replaced by new, luxury box-packed, artificially oddball stadiums. In short, minor league baseball became a corporate money-maker, and the naïve sacredness of the endeavor turned into a cash cow.
After several weeks of online voting, we have been presented with a Final Four of nastiness. Well, Final Three (the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, to their credit, reached the title round with a “Roasted Corn,” which appears to be a simple corn on a stick, seasoned with butter and a blend of spices and cheese—a favorite of our own Peter King).
From the Gwinett Braves, the world is presented with “the Knucksie,” a sandwich containing "house-smoked pulled pork covered in two different BBQ sauces, served open-faced on skillet corn bread with pickles, caramelized onions and coleslaw":
On the up side, everyone who orders a Knucksie is entered into a nightly drawing to win a baseball autographed by Phil Niekro, the Hall of Fame pitcher and legendary knuckler. On the down side, three out of four people who eat the Knucksie develop heart disease by the fourth inning.
The Fantastic Freeze Sundae, courtesy of the Toledo Mud Hens, is little better. Served in a full-sized team helmet, the sundae includes 15 scoops of ice cream, topped with whipped cream, hot fudge, rainbow sprinkles, peanuts, cherries (and, if requested, the scattered-like-ashes dandruff flakes of Mud Hens manager Phil Nevin or batting coach Leon Durham). Lastly, there is the Nuke Dog, the Durham Bulls’ brand new Carolina Packers red hot dog with crushed red pepper and spicy relish. By comparison it's relatively tame, in that it has fewer than 12,471 calories and won’t send one running to the dermatologist. And yet, this truly awful looking selection also symbolizes all that is wrong with the modern minor league game.
The Nuke Dog, named in honor of the fictitious Nuke LaLoosh, was introduced to pay tribute (cha-ching!) to the 25th anniversary of “Bull Durham.” That movie represented everything pure and good about the minor league game—small stadiums, die-hard local fans, players who worshiped baseball as a religion. Crash Davis, the veteran catcher played brilliantly by Kevin Costner, would have taken one look at the Nuke Dog and sighed. “This is baseball,” he’d say. “Baseball! What the hell kind of crap food is this?”
Then he’d rip open a bag of peanuts and take extra BP. -Jeff Pearlman