Bases loaded with gourmet cuisine

Would Babe Ruth have filled up on crab cakes before a big game?

Legend has it that back in the 1920s, The Bambino downed four foot-long hot dogs in the dugout - and still managed to ding one out of Yankee Stadium.

But crab cakes?

If Ruth were playing at 3Com Park in San Francisco this summer, he could certainly feast on these crustaceans along with a side order of Garlic-Chili French Fries, and could wash them down with a strawberry-banana smoothie.

Indeed, today's ball parks are going gourmet. You can, of course, still find the traditional fare - hot dogs and Cracker Jack everywhere. But now ballparks across the country also offer such gourmet delights as Spicy Pork Stir-fry, Chicken Fajita, Citrus-Marinated Turkey, Salmon Roulade, and Toasted Cheese Ravioli.

And for dessert? How about, New York-Style Blueberry Cheesecake, Spanish Flan, or Mango Pound Cake?

"Since the [1994-95] strike, ballparks have gone all out to become more fan-friendly," says baseball guru Evan Gomes, who last summer took an epicurean tour of a third of major league ballparks. "Good food attracts the casual fans who may not be all that interested in watching the game - even though they like to spend a day at the ballpark."

In Kansas City, famous for its mouth-watering barbecue, fans can munch on Baby-Back Ribs and Pulled-Pork Sandwiches. At Jack Murphy Field in San Diego, Fish Tacos are a hot item. Busch Stadium in St. Louis boasts some of the best Toasted Cheese Ravioli outside Naples, Italy. And at a minor league park in Idaho, adventurous fans can savor all the buffalo and ostrich burgers they can stomach.

"Most stadiums now think of themselves as 60,000-seat restaurants, not just a place where baseball is played," says David Haines, concessions manager at Camden Yards in Baltimore. "And they know that people like more than hot dogs and soggy nachos - they like variety."

Speaking of nachos, Mr. Gomes says that Camden Yards, home to the Baltimore Orioles, has the best of any ballpark he's been to - "hands down!"

The worst? The dubious honor goes to Yankee Stadium - "way too much grease," he says.

The most surprising thing about stadium gourmet foods are the prices. It's astonishing, but they're not astronomical.

A smoothie at a Tampa Bay Devil Rays game will set you back $4. A barbecue sandwich in Kansas City, $6. Steak or Chicken Fajita in 3-Com Park, $6.50. And hot-dog prices around the league range from $2 to $5.50.

Although this gourmet renaissance has most fans happy, not all major league ballparks are elbowing in on the action.

The phenomenon which began in ballpark kitchens on the East and West coasts, is slowly catching on in the Midwest, especially at Chicago's Comisky Park and Cleveland's Jacob's Field.

One exception, however, is Chicago's Wrigley Field where the closest thing to gourmet food is a soft pretzel with spicy mustard.

Meanwhile, all this talk about haute cuisine has some people wondering if they'll still be able to bite the dog.

"When I go to the ballpark, I look forward to a hot dog loaded with the works," says Donald Alderman, who's has been going to Boston's Fenway Park since Ted Williams's days of thunder. "I don't want any of this expensive restaurant-style stuff ... ballpark food should be basic."

Not to worry Mr. Alderman.

If specialty foods do eventually displace the hot dog, it would be the baseball equivalent of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers breaking the New York Yankees' stronghold on the World Series.

The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says that Americans will eat at least 26 million hot dogs in Major League ballparks this year. That's enough tube steaks to feed every person in New York and Michigan combined.

But who will eat the most hot dogs this year? Dodger fans. Dodger Stadium leads the hot dog race with its ever-popular Dodger Dog, which will sell a whopping 2 million hot dogs. Jacobs Field in Cleveland expects to sell just under 2 million dogs.

"The hot dog is still king!" says Brian Underwood, who has a concession at Busch Stadium. "There's just something about hot dogs at the ballpark - they evoke nostalgia."

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