The ballpark experience is unique, particularly as a child, and most of us have very specific memories of going to baseball games as a kid and the joy of that experience. There might be a particular game that sticks out, whether due to an unforgettable finish or an astonishing moment, or a routine you had before games. It’s different for everyone.
For me, it was insisting on getting to Turner Field hours before first pitch so I’d be early enough for Chipper Jones’ batting practice, and patiently waiting in the left field bleachers, glove on, for the final rounds of BP when he’d start blasting home runs over the fence. Or getting to see Barry Bonds in person at the peak of his power, and watching him hit one that bounced off the second deck in right field. To this day, I’ve never heard a sound quite like when the ball hit his bat, and definitely never saw another person hit a ball to that part of the park in all the years I went to games at Turner Field.
However, there are broader things that are a shared experience by most everyone. The smell of the grass, the sounds of the game, from the crack of the bat to hawkers selling beer – and often the tastes of traditional ballpark food that trigger all these memories.
There are some foods that just feel right in a stadium. Hot dogs, nachos – not the restaurant kind, but the ones that come in a plastic tray with corn tortilla chips, a cup of yellow cheese, and some pickled jalapenos. Popcorn, soft pretzels, peanuts. As we grow older, our palates change along with our eating habits, but every time I return to a baseball game, those same items call back to me.
There’s no sport tied to Americana quite like baseball. While its popularity may be waning a bit with a younger generation, it remains “America’s pastime,” and so it comes as little surprise that as American life shifts, so does the experience of going to a baseball game.
A visit to most every Major League ballpark will show this change, with a select few remaining true to their original roots. Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston are the two remaining cathedrals of the game, but even those hallowed grounds are not immune to the necessary upgrades and facelifts that modernity demands.
Elsewhere, the ballpark experience has shifted far more dramatically, reflecting the efforts to keep up with the casual sports fan’s desires. In most ballparks, you’ll now find Kid Zones designed to keep families in the ballpark. T Mascot races on the warning track keep fans entertained in the natural lull between innings. Baseball stadiums now must provide much more than just a place to watch a game, they must justify the cost and time commitment of going to a game over staying in the comfort of one’s home.
Today, a game can be watched from anywhere, and there’s only so much a stadium can do to enhance the simple activity of sitting in the stands and watching grown men swinging sticks and running in circles.
In addition to Kid Zones, bobblehead giveaways, and mascot races, many parks have turned to food to enhance the game experience. Traditional ballpark cuisine can still be found, but every stadium now offers various alternatives, from gourmet options, to local restaurants, to what we’ll call “enhanced concessions.” The ballpark experience is now a chance to try the local flavor as much as to check out the local team – and an opportunity to let loose and embrace our more gluttonous side.
The hottest trend in ballpark concessions is to provide fans with strange food concoctions that are often simply the result of smashing together two or more popular items into one monstrosity. The hot dog, the most traditional of all the ballpark foods, is the one most commonly modified around the country.
The Texas Rangers now have a pickle corn dog, because in Texas deep-frying anything is tradition. In Cleveland, you can get a hot dog with peanut butter, Sriracha, and relish. Pittsburgh will serve you a hot dog covered in mac’n’cheese with Cracker Jack and caramel sauce, because nothing is more American right now than a nostalgia bomb that may or may not force you to the hospital.
Hot dogs aren’t alone in getting dressed up in increasingly strange ways –the hamburger also gets this treatment. The best example of this comes from Atlanta, which introduced the “Burgerizza” to the world: a giant beef patty placed between a pair of personal pepperoni pizzas as the buns.
A trip to the ballpark in 2018 will undoubtedly still bring back memories for those that grew up dreaming of catching a foul ball or home run, but it’s also an experience that has changed dramatically, for better or worse.
For many, the dining experience may be the most intriguing part of going to a game, especially given the way the Braves have been playing lately. Going to an out of town stadium is an opportunity to try the local flavor, beyond simply eating the same ballpark food. There are more sit-down restaurants and beer gardens in stadiums, for those more interested in the atmosphere of it all than necessarily parking it in their designated seats for three-plus hours. And, as mentioned, there’s plenty of chances to stuff your face with food you would almost never eat anywhere else. I mean, where else will you get a chance to try the Burgerizza? Hopefully, nowhere.