Saying goodbye to ballpark dogs

HAPPY EATER

October 02, 1991|By ROB KASPER

It was impulsive. It was irresponsible. It was a lark. It was lunch at the ballpark.

One minute I was standing in the office behaving like a responsible adult, saying I was much too busy to go to a baseball game. Half an hour later, I was sitting behind home plate wolfing my last Memorial Stadium hot dog.

The truth is that until the other day I had rarely had anything decent to eat at the stadium, which will close down after this Sunday as the Orioles move to their new downtown park.

My dominant memory of Memorial Stadium hot dogs is the eerie, orange glow they exuded as they "warmed" under the concession stand heating lamps.

They were always orange, but rarely hot. Mostly they were "tepid dogs."

The popcorn was regularly stale. And the ice cream cones were actually yogurt and, by the time I got to the concession stand, were no longer available in vanilla.

The pizza, the pretzels and the peanuts were at best average and were priced far above what you'd pay for them in a grocery store.

Every time I bought a "beer of the world" at $3.75 each, I told myself that for the price of two such brews, I could buy a six-pack in a liquor store. But of course I wasn't at a liquor store, I was at a ballgame. Beer prices are like real-estate prices -- location is all.

I ended up buying a second beer anyway.

One of my favorite Memorial Stadium memories happened a few years ago when a fan in the upper deck held up a sign reading, "The food here costs too much." The sign was wildly applauded.

Still, it seems almost unpatriotic to complain about the "cuisine" at the ballpark. Who can argue with the estimated 48.5 million hot dogs, 7.1 million pounds of peanuts and 12.5 million gallons of beer and soda Memorial Stadium eaters have polished off over the years?

As for high prices, that too seems to be part of an American tradition. When I go to a ballpark, or a movie, or a carnival, I expect the eats to be pricey. Eating at a ballpark is not about wisely seeking good values, or scrupulously searching for good nutrition. It is about letting go.

Everybody knew that if you wanted something special to eat at Memorial Stadium, you did what the owners in their boxes and the players in their clubhouse did. Namely, you took food in from outside the stadium. The VIPS and players used caterers. The rest of us got deli.

The sandwiches from the delis on Baltimore's Corned Beef Row have always been leagues above anything served at the stadium, even in the press box, which, judging by my one visit, had the best crab cake in the ball park. It was free.

Which gets me back to my good-bye lunch at Memorial Stadium.

It was noon on a workday, and I had not planned to go to the game. But the sun was unusually warm, the air remarkably crisp. And I got a free ticket.

As I sped toward the stadium along my once-secret route (now it can be told: Greenmount to North to Homewood to Kirk), I was tempted to stop at the Pollock Johnny's stand at 27th and Kirk and buy a serious sausage, with peppers, to take to the park.

I fought off the temptation. Since this was going to be my lunch at the stadium, it would only seem proper to eat stadium food.

Shortly after I got to my seat in the upper deck, a vendor came by selling hot dogs. This struck me as close to miraculous. In the 13 years I had been going to games at Memorial Stadium, this was the first time I remembered getting a hot-dog vendor when I needed one. Usually I would have to give up on vendors and troop down to the concession stands, where I would buy the orange dogs.

But this day was different. The hot-dog vendor was there when I needed him. And not only was the hot-dog steaming, it also wasn't mushy. It behaved like a good hot dog should, it had some bite in it.

My lucky streak continued as another vendor, this one selling one of the "beers of the world" came by. Usually when I have been parched at the park, all I could find were guys selling light beers.

For my money, souffles and pancakes should be light. Beers should be heavy.

Lunch was going well. The sun was warm, the dog was hot, the beer was cold. The game, the first of doubleheader between the Orioles and Red Sox, was tense. Boston's Roger Clemens, one the best pitchers in the American League, was squared off against Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr., one of the game's best hitters. Ripken seemed to get a hold of one of Clemen's pitches, but the shot died in the wind and was caught. Clemens and the Red Sox prevailed in the tight 2-1 win.

Feeling like a kid playing hookey, I stretched out in the sunshine, and bought dessert, a box of Cracker Jacks.

By the time the second game started, I was full. But then Jerry

Beecher, the flinging peanut vendor, walked by.

I wasn't really hungry. And I knew that the fresh roasted peanuts at Konstant's stand in the Lexington Market are much better and much cheaper than Beecher's $2.75 stadium nuts.

But Beecher wasn't a mere purveyor of peanuts, he was a performer as well. He didn't merely hand you the bag of peanuts, he tossed it to you with flourish and from a pretty good distance. This helped capture the I-am-on-vacation mood most of us feel when we go to a ball game.

I gave him my money, then he scampered down about 15 rows and fired the bag of peanuts right into my hands.

It is the only thing I have ever caught at Memorial Stadium. A few innings later I left the stadium for the last time.

Now I have a lot of memories. And I have a memorial peanut.

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