ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Babe Ruth, legendary batsman and trencherman, took sick at the depot here one day in 1925 during the Yankees' spring barnstorming train ride to New York with what became known as "the bellyache heard round the world."
An apocryphal dispatch had him eating 25 hot dogs at the local ball yard. In fact, he never got to the park. Ruth had been overindulging his well-honed appetite for food, drink and entertainment all during spring training and was suffering the consequences.
If today, Babe Ruth were alive and constitutionally able to trek from the railroad station up the hill to Historic McCormick Field, he still would be tempted to overindulge. Now, however, reports would undoubtedly say that he had had too much pizza, too many nachos and much too many hickory smoked ribs. Minor league baseball parks, even in Asheville, don't serve just hot dogs anymore.
The United States has changed since Babe Ruth's time. Major league teams ride airplanes home from Florida; they don't barnstorm north by rail playing the minor-league Tourists today, the Lookouts tomorrow. Yet, much is the same: Americans still love baseball, they still love to eat and they've never lost their lust for going from here to there.
Asheville Tourists baseball is typical of a game virtually unknown to fans mesmerized by watching the Cubs on WGN or the Braves on WTBS, the Orioles on HTS or ESPN's kaleidoscope of teams. Surprising to TV fanatics would be the fact that the escalation in minor league attendance is no less astounding than the rise in major league salaries.
Washington-area fans in increasing numbers eschew the traffic snarl in Baltimore and the cramped parking at Memorial Stadium for the ambiance of minor-league baseball in Prince William, Frederick and Hagerstown. A very important lure is the food.
Whereas major-league attendance correlates positively with winning and losing, minor league success is more often determined by burritos and bratwurst. The Durham Bulls are the only team that has been in the Carolina League throughout the '80s not to win the championship. Yet, the Bulls are far and away the attendance leader. Durham general manager Rob Dlugozima says that "the number one draw is the whole event, which takes place off the field," and that "concessions is the top thing going on."
Bill Davidson, general manager of the Chattanooga Lookouts, flits about the stands during games. "If we serve a fan a cold hot dog, he comes to see me," says Davidson. But, a fan who gets a cold hot dog in Baltimore, he says, "won't even find Roland Hemond," Davidson's Oriole counterpart. (Actually, Memorial Stadium food is not bad; see story on local ballpark food in box at right.)
And don't forget the baseball. "Our worst seat is better than 99 percent of the seats at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium," claims Ron McKee, the Asheville general manager. McKee claims also to have called the Tourists "The Greatest Show on Dirt" years before Crash Davis met Annie Savoy, and there's no question that the baseball in Asheville is more inspiring than the baseball four hours away in Atlanta.
Asheville is where Davis crushed his career-record home run in the movie "Bull Durham" and it's not far from Lake Junaluska, where Baby learned "Dirty Dancing." (You just thought those were the Catskills.) Asheville is vintage Americana, one of the more endearing of almost three dozen minor-league franchises located in a swath south and west of Washington in the Virginias and Carolinas and into Tennessee.
The Richmond Braves, Durham Bulls, Greensboro Hornets, Asheville Tourists, Chattanooga Lookouts and Nashville Sounds are among the best-run minor-league franchises in this great country. They are neighbors to some of this nation's most cherished historical sites and connected by some of its most beautiful scenery. And, they serve good food.
So, what could be more patriotic than to unite with America's love of highway (the car radio tuned to oldies rock 'n' roll) and eat one's way around the bases?
Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, is less than 100 miles down I-95 from the Beltway, the dullest stretch of such a road trip, but all good things have to start somehow. The Braves' stadium, The Diamond, is a model structure, however, perhaps a little too modern for the sentimentalist, but tradition is preserved in the double-decked ring of advertisements ubiquitous to minor-league outfield fences.
Though the International League is classified AAA, a step below "the show," as the players call the majors, the concessions are big league. Everybody offers hot dogs and french fries, pizza and nachos; not everybody has a stadium restaurant, open to all, or a beer cart (Moosehead, Molson Golden, St. Pauli Girl, Sol, Samuel Adams) on the broad concourse that sweeps around from left field to right above and behind the seats.
The restaurant, beyond first base, opens 1 1/2 hours before night games and 2 1/2 hours before Sunday afternoon games for brunch, and the better tables have an excellent view as the game progresses. Attractions include a buffet, bar, tasteful decor and, honest, table settings with two forks and linen napkins.
Durham, on the other hand, is as real as the movies. An easy 150-mile drive from Richmond on I-95 and I-85, Durham Athletic Park could have been designed by Disney, all orange and blue, with nooks, crannies, a turret and the familiar snorting bull. The only touch missed by the set designer is the Marlboro Man who seems to tower above the outfield wall in every other minor-league park. "We're in Durham -- Liggett & Myers," notes Dlugozima.
The Bulls attracted more fans last year than half of the 26 AAA teams, all but one of 26 Class AA teams and all 57 remaining full-season Class A teams. (They also outdrew the 60 short-season and rookie-league teams lower on the evolutionary chain.) The Bulls are the envy of all minor-league operators with 10 concession stands (including the El Toro Grill) for a park that holds 6,000 maximum, plus a drink dispenser out under the scoreboard in left where fans seated on the grassy bank are reminiscent of old black-and-white photos of early 1900s World Series crowds.
And, the menu: hamburger, cheeseburger, hot dog, chili dog, steak sandwich, french fries, popcorn, peanuts, pretzels, caramel corn, nachos, chicken nuggets, Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, Sprite, coffee, hot chocolate, ice tea, lemonade, draft beer, Carta Blanca, Corona, Eagle snacks, Nutty Buddy, Mickey Mouse Bar, Push-Ups, Frozen Fruit, Haagen Dazs (all minor-league teams serve ice cream in little plastic up-side-down major-league hats; only the Bulls serve theirs in their own replica hats), Ballpark Burrito (beef, refried beans, cheese and salsa), World Famous Flying Burrito (add lettuce and sour cream), Raging Bull Burrito (plus tomato and hot green chilies), The Original Bull City Burrito (with Polish sausage? Polish sausage!), pizza (Domino's parks a semitrailer with a half dozen ovens outside the fence). Even Copenhagen, Skoal and Redman (Bull Durham chew is only a memory).
It's only an hour on the interstate from Durham to Greensboro, hardly time to tune out "Maybelline" on 100.7 FM/Durham and punch in "the home of the good-time oldies, 93 MIX" in Greensboro. The Class A, South Atlantic League Hornets play in World War Memorial Stadium, which opened in 1926, long before Chuck Berry and not too long after the World War. It must have been a very impressive structure then and even now the triple-arched entrance and concrete stands that sweep from behind first base around to the left-field line evoke glimmers of a mini-Yankee Stadium.
The atmosphere is much more homey, however, and who would dare to set up picnic tables and umbrellas for New York fans? The Hornets have 21 such tables running down the left-field line behind the fence and in front of the raised stands. But, best of all, through the tunnel and behind the stands is a mini-food court. There, a local upscale Mexican restaurant serves enchiladas, tacos, burritos. Cal Ripken Jr. is going to make an error before you find a better burrito.
Greensboro hopes to build a new ballpark and the Hornets, like all franchises, hope to increase attendance. "I think food will have a lot to do with growth," says general manager John Dittrich. There are five colleges in Greensboro and on Friday nights the left-field stands are full, he says, with young students and yuppies who have come out not only for baseball, but for the Mexican food and, not incidentally, the imported beer (Dos Equus and Corona as well as Heineken, Molson's, Moosehead and Beck's Dark).
It's a 175-mile Sally League bus hop from Greensboro to Asheville and the first part of the trip along I-40 offers a generous portion of 1970s-'80s salad-bar architecture, a little of this, some of that. West of Hickory, about an hour from Asheville, the viewing improves dramatically -- mountain vistas, the eastern continental divide, Pisgah National Forest, Beaucatcher tunnel -- and the radio turns to God.
"Remember, you're not just in the bible belt, you're at the buckle," says McKee, in explaining why the Tourists have small Wednesday night crowds. It's church night. On Thirsty Thursdays, however, a lot of Asheville fans let out their buckles for the 24-ounce cup of beer for a dollar.
Asheville is a paradox. Here is George Vanderbilt's Biltmore House, said to be the largest home in the United States. It has 35 guest rooms (when is a home not a house?) and at least four hours are recommended for touring the estate. For natives, however, "the idea of a night out," says McKee, "is to eat supper at home and get a free ticket to something."
So, like a lot of minor-league operators, he tries the personal touch. Whereas, major-league hot dogs are cooked by the hundreds and wrapped in foil (the roll to become soggy and matted), here hot dogs are cooked a few at a time and the roll is served still fluffy. And, the slaw is spooned onto the barbecue sandwich as you wait.
If Greensboro is Yankee Stadium, Asheville is Ebbets Field. Historic McCormick Field was built in 1924 and is the oldest wooden ballpark in professional baseball. The stands are intimate, there may be a post partially blocking the view and the umpires are close enough to be aware of suggestions. Babe Ruth is said, apparently on another visit, to have called it the most beautiful park anywhere. His aesthetic sense was valid; the view above the outfield fence is of nothing but a mountain of trees and the nighttime sky.
Asheville to Chattanooga is a 200-mile adventure on Route 74, sometimes four lanes, sometimes two, 25 miles an hour through the Nantahala Gorge, where the kayak slalom course is less tortuous than the road. The FM scanner on the radio just keeps going around and around.
Lookout Mountain dominates Chattanooga and is a prominence in U.S. history, too. Lookouts baseball (now of the Class AA Southern League) and Engel Stadium are likewise historical. To walk up to Engel Stadium, which recently had a multi-million-dollar restoration, is to approach Fenway Park on dedication day in 1912 -- a brick structure all around, black iron work, a live organist (no taped bugle charges), the cozy roof, wires strung between Erector Set-like light standards (they would have come later), a slope (now behind a chain-link fence) in front of the wall in center field. Beyond the right-field wall is a railroad yard waiting for a Ruthian home run.
Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew played here and Joe Engel, known with reason as "The Barnum of the Bushes," was team president. In 1931, Engel traded shortstop Johnny Jones to the Charlotte Hornets for a 25-pound turkey; the turkey, said Engel, "had a better year." While the turkey may or may not have been named Tom, Jones is remembered in the stadium restaurant with the "The Johnny Jones Turkey" sandwich.
Nachos are not always just nachos, as proven by the restaurant's "Southern League Super Nachos." The Southern League is Class AA; the nachos big league. Real Usinger's bratwurst is another attraction. "I would be surprised," says Davidson, "if you could find bratwurst anywhere else in Chattanooga."
Chattanooga to Nashville is a 135-mile drive (the radio plays country, country, country) up I-24 and over Monteagle Mountain. Test your brakes; if the long descent doesn't take your breath away, the enormous fireworks stores will. The pyrotechnics they sell couldn't be as dazzling as their enormous neon signs.
Nashville is in the Class AAA American Association and is contesting with Washington and others to become major league. The Sounds' operation itself already is. The stadium is immaculate, the organ music, as in Chattanooga, is provided live, the menu is extensive and the stadium restaurant view is in a league with that of New York's Windows on the World, at least to a baseball fan. Behind home plate and close to 60 feet above the diamond, the restaurant has floor-length windows, a buffet with roast beef and ham, salad bar, sandwiches, crudite's and more.
Minor-league operators, says general manager Larry Schmittou, "are more concerned with quality" than major leaguers. "Concessions are 30 to 50 percent of the gross; in the majors it might be 10 to 15 percent. The game doesn't take on the importance of the majors," says Schmittou. "It has to be fun."
Even food aside, it is fun, watching players on the way up, before anyone else knows who they are -- and, sadly, a lot more kids on the way out. Willie Stargell was an Asheville Tourist in 1961, passing through on his way to Pittsburgh a year later.
This was before the Tourists sold those hickory smoked ribs -- and Stargell "was a skinny center fielder," says McKee, whose little wooden office building is near the imposing slope behind the outfield fence. Stargell hit 22 home runs for Asheville and "they called him," notes McKee, "On the Hill Will."
Later, he hit 475 dingers for the Pirates and now Willie Stargell is in the Hall of Fame.
The product for sale in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium is baseball. At Prince William's County Stadium the product is charcoal-grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, which is not to say that the Cannons don't play baseball. They do; they won the Carolina League championship last season.
However, while this year's Cannons have struggled, their attendance has nevertheless gone up. Attendance is up too for the Frederick Keys (also of the Class A Carolina League) and the Hagerstown Suns (Class AA Eastern League). All three have good concessions (including the many traditional items) that play a part in attracting fans to minor-league games.
At Prince William, the large charcoal grills are set up beyond first and third bases behind the stands. The drawback is that the lines can lengthen as the burgers are flipped and individually taken off the fire, which is a backhanded way of saying that everybody knows a good burger from a bad one.
At Frederick, the stadium is still being built and the full array of concession stands has not been completed, so some mobile lunch wagons have been called in, including one that sells an excellent griddle-fried Italian sausage with onions. There's also a cart selling Jim Bouton's Big League Ice Cream Bars.
At Hagerstown, the highlight is another charcoal grill, this one offering Italian sausage, chicken, barbecued rib or pit beef sandwiches or hamburgers at most games. Another stand sells deep-fried-but-airy Pennsylvania Dutch Funnel Cakes with powdered sugar or cinnamon.
If you insist on major-league baseball, the Baltimore Orioles' concessions are good, too. In addition to everything one expects at a ball game, the Orioles serve such delicacies as Italian sausage sandwiches (in an excellent roll) and very good crab cakes (small cake, big price, however). -- Bob Kelleter