This week, as FatTuesday feasting yields to Ash Wednesday fasting, let us pause for a moment indefense of gluttony, because sports and unhealthy ingestibles are nearlyinseparable. (Literally so, if you ever tried to peel that pink rectangle ofgum from a baseball card.)

As the Mardi Grasof baseball's off-season makes way for the Lent of spring training, Barry Bondsis calling himself "fat." When Curt Schilling showed up at Red Soxcamp, teammate Mike Timlin told the Boston Herald, "He's a big fatguy." Bonds and Schilling are future Hall of Famers whose Cooperstown bustsmight best be captured by butter sculptors.

After he reportedfor spring training 17 1/2 pounds overweight, pitcher Josh Hancock was releasedby the Reds--punishment for a glutton--but he quickly signed with a betterteam, the Cardinals, who'll let him fly his french-fried freak flag.

Real Madrid'ssuperstar striker, Ronaldo, lamented last week that the club's abusive fansmight yet drive him out of Spain ("They call me fat," he said), and thetoast of Super Bowl week--the garlic toast of Super Bowl week--was JeromeBettis, a Bus whose single air bag long ago deployed above his beltline.

Since these areworld-class athletes, it's time the rest of us embraced gluttony. (It will takevery long arms.) No fan should have to choose between a cheeseburger and abratwurst. And now no fan has to: The Bradley Burger (named for the MilwaukeeBucks' arena) has a hamburger patty beneath a bratwurst patty beneath Americancheese and caramelized onions.

Every day newballpark foods are invented by culinary mad scientists, Dr. Frankensteins ofthe frankfurter. The Class A West Michigan Whitecaps last week held theirannual "TestKitchen," in which mad scientists tried to sell the team onnew snack items. (The longtime fan favorite at Whitecaps games is the Swimmin'Pig, a sauce-smothered pork chop on a bun that inspired the team's mascot: apig in a life preserver.) At their test kitchen in Grand Rapids team executivesweighed in, as it were, on sundry new delicacies. "Turns out you candeep-fry just about anything," says Whitecaps spokesman Brian Oropallo."We ate deep-fried brownies, deep-fried chocolate-chip cookie dough, plusgyros and lots of fried-chicken-flavored things. A stadium is one place you caneat this stuff and it's O.K." The other place is the movie theater, whereit remains socially acceptable to eat a grocery sack of popcorn under cover ofdarkness, a 64-ounce Mountain Dew holstered in the armrest.

Jason (Crazy Legs)Conti is a self-described "gustatory gladiator" who puts the eat inathlete as a superstar of competitive eating. Conti, who was a three-sportletterman at Johns Hopkins, once buried himself inside an eight-foot-tallplexiglass sarcophagus beneath 60 cubic feet of popcorn and endeavored to eathis way out. An EMT stood at the ready, which is why Conti wore one redwristband ("To signal 'Danger,'" he says) and one yellow wristband("To signal 'More Butter'"). When at last he emerged, buttered butunbowed, Conti had earned his other nickname, the Houdini of Cuisini.

"When it comesto food," says Conti, who is 6'3" and lean, "there's a thin linebetween joy and disgust." He once ate a different Shea Stadium offeringevery inning for nine innings, closing out his perfect game with a knish in theseventh, an Italian sausage in the eighth and a box of Cracker Jacks in theninth. "If eating a hot dog is bad for you but makes you feel good,"says Conti, "imagine how good you'll feel after eating 20 of them."

Paradoxically, thebest eaters are the leanest and most athletic. World No. 1 Takeru Kobayashi,who ate 67 hamburgers in eight terrible minutes in November, is 132 pounds ofchiseled muscle. He dominates dinosaurs like Ed (Cookie) Jarvis, who weighs 419pounds, or more than one pound for each degree of a Lazy Susan.

Eating has neverbeen more lucrative. Last July there was $40,000 in prize money on the table atthe Alka-Seltzer U.S. Open of Competitive Eating, where nothing stays on thetable for long. (Kobayashi ate 13 pounds of spaghetti in 14 minutes to win.)There are two forthcoming books on competitive eating--Ryan Nerz's Eat ThisBook and Jason Fagone's Horsemen of the Esophagus--that will no doubt appeal tovoracious readers.

Conti figures inboth books, and why wouldn't he? On a bet, he once subsisted for an entire weekon nothing but Guinness, perfect preparation for this St. Patrick's Day, whenhe'll be in Boston for a corned-beef-and-cabbage-eating contest. On that mostIrish of days, in that most Irish of American cities, Conti might finally meetthe Irish soul mate for whom he appears destined: Angie O'Plasty.

• If you have acomment for Steve Rushin, send it to rushin@siletters.com.

Eating has never been more lucrative. Last July therewas $40,000 in prize money on the table at the Alka-Seltzer Open, where nothingstays on the table for long.

PHOTOSIMON BRUTY
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)