Peanuts, Popcorn and Mee Grob

It's difficult to imagine a more important year in baseball annals than 1908.

It was the year of "Merkle's Boner," which isn't what you think it is. In an era when cocks woke people up in the morning, bungholes opened kegs, and dicks patrolled the streets, respectable men and women spoke openly of boners. Anyway, Fred Merkle's prodigious boner allowed the Chicago Cubs into the World Series, where they proceeded to prick everyone's gonfalon bubble and actually beat up on somebody--probably the Yakima Amputees or the Altoona Civil War Vets--for the last time.

Also that momentous year, Jack Norworth and Albert von Tilzer penned "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," the now classic anthem warbled in every ballpark across the country.

The song forever linked baseball and junk food. Indeed, the lyric "buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack" appears before their first reference to the game itself. "People would still come out to the game if we didn't serve food," says Tim Donegan, director for Sportservice at the Ballpark in Arlington, "but the experience wouldn't be the same. Food and baseball is a weird phenomenon." Old stadiums smelled of stale beer and rotting shells. Even today the sweet stench of decomposition or the swirling flight of hot dog wrappers caught in a breeze brings back memories of childhood trips to the ballpark. Yet if the songwriters revised their work today it would reflect a new era of baseball cuisine. Concession stands at the Ballpark in Arlington serve up 15,000 orders of catfish a season, 300 smoked turkey legs each game and a whopping 1.5 million hot dogs each year. They also sell taco salads, pizza, chicken tenders and offer a Thai menu. With so many items to choose from, does anyone eat peanuts and Cracker Jack at the ballpark anymore?

"Peanuts are huge," Donegan confirms. "But nachos and soft pretzels really whittled away at the popcorn and Cracker Jack." In fact, Sportservice discontinued sales of the classic popcorn, caramel, peanut and prize mix several years ago, reinstating it only this year. It doesn't sell well, but he considers it part of a park's ambience. Pizza, nachos and other such items were unknown to fans 20 or 30 years ago. Now, however, they rank in popularity with dogs, peanuts, beer and pretzels. The top-selling frozen item is a sour concoction called the Lemon Chill, with Big Kahunas (not a reference to Fred Merkle, but an ice cream cookie) not far behind.

Donegan attributes the shift to new technologies. Stadiums of yore lacked adequate fryers, grills, delivery systems and such. But newer parks offer everything from 40-clove garlic chicken (3Com Park in San Francisco) to brisket of buffalo sandwiches (Coors Field in Denver) to clam chowder (Fenway Park in Boston) to grilled corn on the cob at the minor-league field in Jackson, Tennessee.

Despite the variety, fans tend to stick to basics. "When it's below 500 degrees I'll have a hot dog; it's just tradition," explains Dan Woodard, who had the misfortune to sit behind the raucous Burning Question crew at the Ballpark and spent much of the game dodging errant peanut shells. "Hot dogs and cold beer," added Rangers fan Allison Jordan, "because that's what you eat at the Ballpark." Donegan concedes that the unique items--the baked potatoes, hand-carved sandwiches and Thai food--rack up only moderate sales figures. They exist more to excite interest and attract a segment of the population otherwise discouraged by stadium menus. "It's the items that are synonymous with baseball that sell," he explains. "Baseball has developed its own culinary identity."

When fans step inside the confines of a baseball stadium they lose track of taste, propriety and frugality. "I always like big pretzels at the game," says casual fan Laura Troy. "They just seem like sporting-event food, something you don't normally eat, and you don't care whether it's good for you or not." Baseball fans will happily shell out $5 for a cheap light beer or chomp down on chips and Cheez Whiz. Aaron Burbach sat in front of us, ripping through several bags of peanuts, his shoes glued to the concrete by beer residue from an accident for which we claim only partial responsibility. "It keeps you busy," he said of the peanuts. Few people would flick peanut shells around their living room or tolerate a puddle of Bud Light on their Berber carpet.

"At the Ballpark your eating habits go astray," Donegan says with a laugh.

The Ballpark in Arlington houses 55 concession stands, up to 30 portable service carts and a small army of vendors. Yet the biggest complaint about food service is the long lines at concession areas. "You get 40,000 people in here and try to serve them in a two-hour period," Donegan says with some frustration. He's been in this business for 22 years and knows the limitations of his service stands.

The food, however, generally receives accolades. No one expects four-star dining, after all. The Burning Question crew loved the jumbo dogs, even though we normally spurn ground-up bits of intestine and leftover beef. One crew member adjudged the pizza "good and greasy," and fan Todd Emmons concurred. "It's pretty good, actually," he said of the pepperoni and hamburger pizza. Scott Webb prefers a concession stand concoction called the bagel dog. "It's the best thing they serve," he said. "It's great, and you can't find it anywhere else." But fans gave nachos only mixed reviews. Heather Whittington always orders a gooey basket of nachos with extra jalapeños, but Terri Jones picked slowly through hers. "I ate them because I had to pay for them," she murmured.

So this week's Burning Question amounts to a split decision. We still eat peanuts, but we've turned our backs on Cracker Jack and the toy surprises therein.

We still sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," too, although nothing about the game of baseball now resembles anything in 1908. Back then, Brooklyn's Tim Jordan cracked 12 home runs to lead the National League (his name appears in the record books with an asterisk, indicating non-creatine homers) and games zipped by in less than two hours. These days, the first inning alone lasts eight hours, the American League plays with 10 men, strike zones no longer exist, and mediocre teams (besides the Rangers) routinely play for the world championship thanks to the wild-card system.

The national pastime rests now on the same amount of pride and tradition as the X Games. Fans no longer care about the game's storied past. We mentioned once-feared names--Harry Heilmann, Pistol Pete Rieser, Sunny Jim Bottomley, Don Gutteridge, Bobo Newsom--to people around us but received only blank stares in return.

But what the hell do we know? We left when the beer man yelled out "last call."

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Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries