Out to the Ballgame: A Cultural Tour of Baseball for the Non-Fan

“How long have you guys been sitting down here,” the drunken heckler asked me and my buddy Stephen, around the seventh inning of a Mobile BayBears game at Hank Aaron Stadium. “All game,” I replied.

“So have I said any curse words?” he asked, knowing that he hadn’t, his point being that if some fans didn’t like his good-natured heckling, they could sit somewhere else–and lighten up. This was minor league baseball, he insisted, and it’s all about having a good time. On that point, I agreed.

This summer, I’ve been going to baseball games anywhere I can, from the boring green bleacher seats of Progressive Field in Cleveland to the second row of Grayson Stadium in Savannah, home of the Single-A Sand Gnats. I’ve ticked off five professional games and a handful of minor league engagements. I still haven’t caught a foul ball, but one came pretty close to my section at the BayBears game. At the velocity it was moving, I’m glad it wasn’t any closer.

During the World Cup, it’s a commonly discussed theory that teams take on the stereotypical personality of their nations. The British side is stoic even in defeat, the Germans are elegantly physical and precise, the Korean team plays as an impossibly unified squad, the Argentines and their hair flop around the field. But the same can’t be said for baseball: Is there anything particularly Baltimorean about the way Nick Markakis strokes home runs into Eutaw Street at Camden Yards? What precisely about the bizarre stance of Kevin Youkilis screams Boston? We don’t call Chicago the Ivy City; it just happens that vines cover the outfield wall of Wrigley Field.

Sitting in the stands is nevertheless an opportunity to rub against the culture of a place. Before a game at Fenway Park, a tour guide ruthlessly teased the Yankees, Boston’s arch rivals in much more than simply baseball. Unlike their neighbors in the Five Boroughs, fans don’t have to choose between two ball teams or two hockey squads. All is for the glory of Boston, whether its a win for the Sox or a parade for the Bruins.

Minor league games offer a more intimate experience with a place. In Savannah, a local cheer camp had a monopoly on entertainment between innings. Cheer Savannah‘s program revealed plenty about Georgia, including that dozens of girls’ families signed them up for cheerleading training “run like football camps,” with a mind to “Christian values.” In Montgomery, game-day eats included chicken and biscuits, a Southern specialty made all the more meaningful because the local Double-A club is called the Biscuits. The name was picked from submissions from the public.

I happened to be wearing a Biscuits hat when the heckler in Mobile introduced himself and his friend at the BayBears game. We took a photo together, after I warned him that I probably shouldn’t be seen with him wearing some other team’s colors. “Still Alabama, though,” he reminded me as he threw a thick arm around my shoulders. Evidence of the one baseball constant, no matter the park: Fans love to cheer for the home team, even when they don’t.

Seattle’s Safeco Field gets food concession with local ingredients, menus by award-winning chefs

Buh-bye, limp hot dogs in soggy buns. Baseball season starts April 1st, and Seattle’s Safeco Field–go, Mariners–is celebrating its first home game on the 8th with some serious food.
Centerplate, the leading hospitality provider to North America’s premier sports stadiums, has developed a partnership with award-winning Seattle chef Ethan Stowell, as well as chefs Roberto Santibañez, owner of Brooklyn’s Fonda/culinary director of Hoboken’s The Taco Truck, and Bill Pustari, chef-owner of New Haven’s Modern Apizza.

The revamped Bullpen Market at Safeco Field will feature fresh, local ingredients and easy-on-the-budget prices. In addition to an Apizza outlet, there is chef Stowell’s Hamburg + Frites, and La Crêperie, and Flying Turtle Cantina/Tortugas Voladoras from Santibañez.

Says John Sergi, Chief Design Officer of Centerplate, “Our mission was to create a restaurant-style experience–the anti-fast food–in a concession environment. We (brought in) Ethan as our consulting chef…in order to help us make the food ‘restaurant-real.’

Stowell is the executive chef and owner of Ethan Stowell Restaurants, which includes Tavolàta, Anchovies & Olives, and How to Cook a Wolf. He is the acting chef at eight-month-old Staple & Fancy Mercantile, in Seattle’s gorgeously revamped Kolstrand Building in the Ballard neighborhood.

Best-known for his use of local ingredients and simple, seasonal food, Stowell was named one of the 2008 Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine and has been honored with multiple James Beard Award nominations for “Best Chef Northwest.” Santibañez and Pustari were added to the line-up to create programs featuring the signature concepts for which they are both nationally acclaimed–Mexican food and pizza. I might get into sports if this is the future of stadium food.