Monday, March 23, 2015

Monsters of the Major Leagues

With the Cactus League ratings in the rear view mirror, we are mere weeks from opening day. I am excited. Are you?

With a new season comes a new hot dog challenge. Last year I rated each of the 30 MLB teams using a combined stadium and hot dog system that graded each venue on an overall baseball/hot dog experience. The results are posted and you can read about them in past posts and the book about that summer, “Gone to the Dogs,” will be out in a few weeks. You are buying my book aren’t you?

Previously, the hot dogs were rated on the regular dog. The one you get when you go to the concession stands and say “gimme a dog.” The ordinary dog. The run-of-the-mill dog. The average Joe dog.

This summer, I repeat my odyssey with a different goal in mind: rate each specialty dog at every major league ballpark. I know, it’s a daunting task. Taking in MLB games all over the country and downing the finest hot dogs known to mankind. I do it for science. As always, you can follow along on my blog and share in the excitement. AND….you can help me with the rating system. The one I have devised is strictly for the hot dog that grades six categories, each for category getting a maximum of 10 points for a perfect score of 60; just like last year. Here is what I will be grading the dogs on:

Appeal: How does it sound when presented. An example is I recently had a hot dog with peanut butter on it. Sounds disgusting so the appeal would be low, but it ended up being very tasty.

Ingredients: How many, do they go together well, quality of ingredients, etc.

Uniqueness: Example being the Dodger Dog. It is the specialty hot dog of the Dodgers but is basically a footlong. Low score. But that hot dog with peanut butter, that would be unique.

Monstrosity Factor: Is it collossal? Does if have more meat on it than a fat Chihuahua? Bingo.

Value: Cost versus amount of food. A $20 hot dog is not a bad deal if it feeds 4 people.

Overall Taste: All things considered, did I enjoy it.

Your input on this system is greatly appreciated. I will be on the road the second week after the start of the regular season. First stop Denver. Come have a bad ass dog with me and discuss the finer points of processed meat. And thanks in advance for your feedback on the system.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Secrets of the Sonoran Desert

I have concluded my two weeks of wandering aimlessly in the desert and bring you the fruits of my labor: a retrospective on things I learned from hitting all 10 Cactus League ballparks.

I suppose you know that Phoenix is in the Sonoran Desert. I mention that because with it being in a very warm climate, a spring training trip makes the perfect getaway when most of the nation is still mired in winter with at least a month of cold temps to go. In other words, if you need to convince a family member to go it’s an easy sell.

Cactus or Grapefruit League? For those of you not spring training savvy, of the 30 MLB teams, 15 have spring training in the greater Phoenix area (Cactus League) while the remaining practice all over southern Florida (Grapefruit League). If you must see your favorite team, or have relatives to visit in one of the areas that can be the deciding factor. But if you just want some warm baseball action the Cactus League offers a warmer, drier climate. Also, while still somewhat spread out, all 10 spring training ballparks (some teams share ballparks) in the Cactus League are within less than 50 miles of each other. The Florida teams can be on opposite sides of the state. If you have to choose, the Cactus League is an easy choice.

Other things I learned:
  1. 90% of the games are during the early afternoon. Sunscreen is your friend.
  2. Don’t sweat getting your ticket in advance unless it is a special game or a must see game. Arrive early and keep your options open for other stadiums. There are about 7 games going on at one time in the Phoenix area, sellout crowds are not the norm.
  3. Do try to see all ballparks. Even if you just drive up and walk around. Each has something unique to offer.
  4. Do not underestimate the time needed to get from point A to point B. Phoenix is a huge city and has the traffic that comes with it.
  5. Be prepared to pay for parking. Unlike the regular season MLB parks, there are few options other than the facility parking lot.
  6. Enjoy the cuisine from other areas of the nation. Most ballparks bring their normal hot dog to their spring training parks. That means you can get the Secret Stadium Sauce that you find in Miller Park in Milwaukee in their Maryvale facility as well.
  7. Don’t pay big bucks for tickets. It’s a practice game. Get a lawn seat and get a tan.
  8. Engage the stadium workers. Most are senior volunteers and are friendly, helpful and have great stories to tell.
  9. It is spring time there while it is still winter at home. If you suffer from seasonal allergies prepare yourself.
  10. Don’t forget Phoenix itself. Climb Camelback Mountain early one morning before a game. You will have evenings free, do something.

You can see a game EVERY day you are there. Maybe not your team, but a game nonetheless, and ANY baseball game is worth attending. Not to mention you get to enjoy America’s favorite treat in in its natural habitat: the hot dog

Monday, March 16, 2015

Scottsdale Stadium

What started out to be a frustrating experience ended up being the showcase for the Cactus League’s finest. I typically never get tickets in advance, usually, if you need just one ticket you can scarf one easily. This day was a tad different. In case you were on Mars last year, the Giants won the World Series; and everyone loves a winner. The ballpark was packed and there was really no where to park unless you wanted to pay someone $20 to park in their yard. If you read my blog you know my trips are done on a shoestring budget, so I was able to snag a parking spot for free and get my daily exercise in by parking about ¾ a mile away and hoofing it to the ballpark.

Then where was the ticket issue. No seat available, which was not problem since I was aiming for the less expensive lawn. There were “standing room only” tickets available for $40. Forty bucks? I explained that I only wanted to watch the game, not play in it. That didn’t help. I really didn’t want to miss the last of the ballparks and leave my research incomplete but there was no way in hell I was paying the monthly salary of a sweatshop worker to see what amounts to a scrimmage game. It looked like 9 of 10 ballparks would have to do.
Chef Larry "Love" Manuelito

I had been in contact with the ballpark’s General Manager of all things concession and gave him a call to let him know I would not be able to make it in and interview him and his chef. Eric Babcock was having none of that. He met me at Gate E and escorted me in for a face to face with his chef. Now there is a man that appreciates science. He introduced me to Larry “Love” Manuelito. Larry is a man that appreciates art; food art. He offered up one of his masterpieces for me to try: his version of a Sonoran dog. If you read my blog you know the Sonoran is my favorite regional dog and no life is complete until you eat one. Larry adds his own twist by putting a pineapple pico de gallo on it, and it takes the Sonoran to an entirely different level of deliciousness.

The Scottsdale Stadium Sonoran
Larry got his nickname of “Larry Love” through the fact that his secret ingredient is the love he puts into each of his dishes and creations. A Navajo, Larry spent some time on nation land where he learned to harvest his own sheep and benefit from the experience of helping in his grandmother’s kitchen. Parlaying that background and using only fresh ingredients Larry has been the personal chef of several world renown athletes and added delicious delights to numerous sports venues. His Sonoran belongs in the hot dog hall of fame.

Eric was kind of enough to give me the ballpark tour. It was obvious why he was so helpful getting me in the park. He has a operation to be proud of and anyone that works so hard to get it so right is usually eager to show it off. And they get it very right in Scottdale. The regular dog was also one of the best and the remaining selection of food looked out of this world. Scottsdale Stadium is one of those few ballparks you should come very hungry to. And it shows in their score.

Taste-a plump and juicy Ballpark frank-5
Toppings-a better selection than the majority of Cactus League venues-5
Price-slightly pricier than some other parks-4.5
Portability-placed on top of a paper wrapper inside of a cardboard boat-5
It Factor-the pineapple pico de gallo Sonoran is enough for top score, but there are others as well-5

Location-the only pure downtown ballpark in the league-5
Access-walk, bus, pedicab, they have it all-5
GA Ticket Price-I wrote today off as an outlier and checked on other dates. Most ballparks are between $7-12 but the cheapest in Scottsdale was $20. YIKES!-2
Ambiance-feels like a real baseball park-5
Fans-most fans at any game and the ones that could see the field were actually watching the game-5

DogBallparkTotal Dog/Game
Portability5GA Ticket Price2
It Factor5Fans5

By coincidence, I was saving the best for last. Scottsdale ends up on top by edging out Sloan Park with a score of 56.5 out of 60. The ticket prices are really the only thing that drug down the score significantly.

That puts Scottsdale Stadium on top of the list of Cactus League venues to visit. If you are just coincidentally in Phoenix during spring training with time for one game, this is the ballpark to hit. Plus, Scottsdale is a fun place to visit before or after the game and walkable from the ballpark. And while there, grab one of Chef Larry’s over-the-top creations, it will make your visit even more memorable.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Peoria Sports Complex

Finally, I got to see MY Padres play. I make no excuse for being a shill for the San Diego Padres. I lived there for 12 years and anyone who has been a Padre fan has suffered enough pain to give them the right to boast or brag about the Padres any chance they get...which is rare. I wish I could say the the Peoria Sports Complex was the best of the Cactus League; it’s not. But it is a very nice venue. Located next to enough shopping centers to make Zsa Zsa Gabor swoon, it is a newish, solid, nice ballpark. It reminds me of some of the nicer Florida State League venues.

My visit had a few unique features. It was my one and only night game for the trip, it was cool enough I had to wear a jacket and comedian Will Ferrell came on to pitch to one batter in the latter innings. It was some sort of cancer awareness thing. He got the batter to bounce one back to him, which he fielded and threw the batter out. In reality, the Padres could use him in the bullpen. I also got there just as the game was starting instead of my usual hour or more before game time. This is because it was my second game of the day, and the only day I was able to squeeze in two games in a day. That’s a lot of hot dogs.

Bun-it was squished. This make Tom no happy-3.5
Taste-I like my frank a little greasy. But the Hillshire Farms offering was oily enough to do a lube job on a locomotive-3.5
Toppings-sigh….more of just mustard and relish-2.5
Price-the very reasonable price of $4 made that greasy dog slide down even easier-5
Portability-a nice, large foil wrapper-5
It Factor-there were a few other variations of the dog, but none very creative-3.5

Location-in the middle of a large shopping area. I expected to see an Orange Julius somewhere-4.5
Access-easily walkable from all of that shopping-4
GA Ticket Price-$10 is a little steep-3.5
Cleanliness-another spotless venue-5
Ambiance-nice but not very original-4.5
Fans-it looked sold out and they fans were stoked-5

DogBallparkTotal Dog/Game
Portability5GA Ticket Price4.5
It Factor3.5Fans5

If you love the Padres like I do you, you will visit this ballpark on your Cactus League sojourn. But if you are looking for a great dog at one of the top Cactus League ballparks, this isn’t it. Not to say you wouldn’t have a good time, it does come in high in the ratings, but I’d hit a few others before the Peoria Sports Complex. It also has a enclosed concourse which sort of dates it. Open concourses keep the fans connected to the game.

Camelback Ranch

Large Bobblehead of Tommy Lasorda
I continue to be impressed with Cactus League ballparks. There has been a slew of rebuilds and renovations during the past decade and it makes for baseball in some pretty sweet confines. Camelback Ranch is one of the more unique ballparks in the league. The main buildings, that include both the Dodgers and White Sox offices and the main stadium office, are made of a sort of flagstone. They remind me of the buildings that one sees at the larger national parks. I wasn't really sure if I was at a baseball game or Yellowstone. This is also another ballpark with nicely done landscaping. Perhaps its most unique feature is the rest of the main structures not covered by flagstone. They are made of plate iron that has purposely rusted. Combine stone and rusted metal with the only stadium I have been to with yellow seats and you have a very original venue. Whoever designed it did a great job in ensuring you would not mistake this place for another baseball park, and they did so in a good way.

This was also the first day I caught a break from the intense Arizona sun. It was overcast and I even felt a few sprinkles, although it never really rained. It was pleasant for a change. Did I mention that this was the spring training home of the Los Angeles Dodgers? That means the main ballpark fare is the Dodger Dog. While it is a household name, it doesn’t mean that it is a great meal.

Bun-It was soft but split in two as soon as I opened it-3
Taste-the Farmer John frank taste the same in Phoenix as it does in Los Angeles; funky-3
Toppings-only relish and mustard-3
Price-$5.50 is sort of pricey for a Dodger Dog-4
Portability-nice foil wrapper-5
It Factor-the Dodger Dog is the mainstay of the lineup, but it is very famous-4.5

Location-kind of remote in the Glendale area-4
Access-a drive to venue but free parking-3.5
GA Ticket Price-$12 for a lawn seat is outrageous-3
Fans-far fewer than one would expect, but they were engaged-3.5
Ambiance-for as odd as it is for a baseball park it works really well and is a top of the line venue-5

The Dodger Dog is like Justin Bieber; very famous but also sucks. I know it is a Dodger game must have, but if they tore down Yankee Stadium then not all things in baseball are holy and untouchable. My advice to the Dodgers: strike a deal with Hebrew National for a tasty frank that will catapult your dog to new levels of tastiness. That’s free advice, and they don’t pay me to plug their dogs.
DogBallparkTotal Dog/Game
Portability5GA Ticket Price3
It Factor4.5Fans3.5
Despite the dog scoring poorly with a 46.5, I would put a game at Camelback Ranch near the top of my Cactus League “must see” list. It is such a different and pleasant park you can overlook the negatives. Just eat before you come.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Salt River Ballpark

Salt River at Talking Stick (I know, it’s a mouth full, which is why I’ll just call it Salt River), is a lot like Goodyear in that it is built in the middle of the desert...only nicer desert. This complex is near Scottsdale which, for those of you that don’t know the area, is the nicer part of the greater Phoenix area. The name kind of has an Indian ring to to it doesn’t it? That might be because it is the first MLB facility to be built on Native American land. And for those of you still mired in winter let me give you a quick weather report. It rained really hard just before I arrived in Phoenix and then the sun struck with a vengeance. The result is that EVERYTHING is blooming and giving anyone with seasonal allergies fits. That is why I only lasted 2 innings before I had to get somewhere to recuperate. Still time enough to see the ballpark and eat a dog. Nothing stands between me and the dog.

This ballpark rivals Sloan Ballpark for slickness and beauty. It has the best landscaping job of any ballpark I have ever visited. From the creek that runs in front of it to the tiered batter’s eye in center field that has a row of cactus or native plants in each row. The colors, structure and remaining landscape scream southwest and if you were kidnapped by aliens and then dropped off at the ballpark in the middle of the night, once the sun came up and you regained consciousness you would know you were in Arizona.

Frank-plump, delicious Ballpark frank-5
Toppings-only relish, onion and mustard-4
Price-$5 is not bad for that quality of a dog-4.5
Portability-ahhhhhh! the cardboard boat-3
It Factor-they have the Sonoran and a Salt River Dog to book as well as a few others-5

Location-somewhere remote-3
Access-if you don’t drive, you ain’t comin’-2
GA Ticket Price-slightly more than others 4.5
Ambiance-this ballpark would make a great replacement for either Oakland or Tampa; it is that nice-5
Fans-nice crowd that enjoyed the game-5

DogBallparkTotal Dog/Game
Portability3GA Ticket Price4.5
It Factor5Fans5

An overall score of 51 is not the top of the pack but close. Location hurts this ballpark, but if you don’t mind driving to the middle of nowhere this is a great baseball venue with a tasty dog lineup. I highly recommend a game here. A special note that Salt River is the only ballpark I have noticed that has pump dispensers that dish out free sunscreen; excellent idea.

I was able to spend a few minutes with the General Manager of all things food at Salt River. Rob Brackett is a veteran of food service what starting waiting tables when he was 7 (his parents owned a restaurant). This Maine native runs a tight ship and is proud that there is not foil involved in food prep at Salt River; everything fresh. And the dude puts out a mean dog.

With its exquisite landscaping, Salt River holds the distinction of being the only ballpark I recommend for both baseball fans and horticulturists.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Hot Dog Hot Spot: Short Leash Hot Dogs

If there is one thing I love more than hot dogs, it is real dogs (although, strangely, real dogs seem to love hot dogs more than me). So what better place to hit between spring training games than the coolest, hippest, most dog friendly hot dog joint in Phoenix?

I moseyed (that’s one of them southwest terms) down to 110 E Roosevelt St which happens to be Phoenix’s artsy district. Hot dogs and art? Normally not a mix, but once you see the menu you will think differently.

The Cozy Interior
Short Leash Hot Dogs is the brainchild of Brad and Kat Moore. The two met working at a YMCA in Texas over 20 years ago and in 2010 parlayed Brad’s business acumen and Kat’s interior design skills to form one of the most unique and tasty hot dog eateries in the United States. Brad is the brawn behind Short Leash and is the hands on hot dog dude while Kat is the brains and chief hot dog designer. Kat is responsible for such magnificent monstrosities as the Aiko Dog (mango chutney & and a drizzle of mayo), the Igby (coleslaw, blue cheese and BBQ sauce), the Devil Dog (roasted red peppers, green chilies, sriracha, sauteed onions, cheddar cheese & jalapenos) and other off the chart entries. Now you know why this joint belongs in the art district; each dog is itself a masterpiece.
The Bear

Being a baseball guy I opted for the popular Bear Dog. It was a winner in an Arizona Diamondbacks hot dog contest and sports an all-beef frank, peanut butter, gouda cheese bacon, BBQ sauce and cracker jacks. You know….”buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks.” A baseball-themed hot dog was just what I needed; even if it did have peanut butter on it.

A bit apprehensive, I downed that puppy in no time. Hard to believe but that crazy combo works well together. And thanks to the naan bread bun replacement (as with all dogs at Short Leash) it all held together nicely. I’d eat it again….and intend to the next time I am in Phoenix.

Wall of Dogs
But wait! There’s more! Unlike many wiener waypoints, Short Leash sells beer and wine. PLUS...they have a dog-friendly patio. In fact, you can send your dog’s photo to Brad and Kat on their social media page. If your mutt is featured on their wall of wag your pooch can enjoy a FREE hot dog on the patio. If your dog know this and you do not send its picture to Short Leash Dogs I suspect it will bite you...hard.

Looking to bite a dog that bites back? Try the flaming inferno known as the Devil Dog as Short Leash. Send me a full report and I’ll post it on my blog. I was too scared to try it.
See my video interview with Brad and my table manners below: