Saturday, October 01, 2011

My Ballplayers Food All-Stars by Jake Austen

Who has time to travel the globe and scour the bodegas to experience every ballplayer-related restaurant, candy bar, encased meat product, sexual–performance supplement, etc.? Not I, but I did have enough time to put together a position-by-position All-Star team of the handful of players whose edible accomplishments I’ve sampled (Warning: White Sox-centric).

RF Sammy Sosa cereal—Though I’ve never been a Cubs fan I completely had Sammy Sosa (former White Sock) fever the year he and Big Mac were having their dinger fest. After that season a New York company called Famous Fixins (which seems to no longer exist) released Slammin Sammy’s, a generic-tasting Frosted Flakes-clone “commemorating 66 home runs.” In addition to a photo of Sammy hitting a super homer from inside a bowl of cereal, the box also features two contests (win an autographed bat or a limited edition baseball card), a description of the Sammy Sosa charitable foundation (that works in the “Baseball has been very, very good to me” joke he was rockin’ that year), and an order form for some non-MLB sanctioned Sammy Sosa caps and t-shirts. I ate a dozen boxes of this stuff.

1B Ron Kittle—A few years ago the White Sox stadium gave all their concession stands historical or clever Sox-related names. You get the Winning Ugly is Sweet dessert stand, Sherm Lollar’s Guard the Plate Grill, Shoeless Joe’s All Star Stand, and no less than two Nellie Fox concessions, Nellie’s Pivot Point Pizza and Fox’s Frozen Zone (because Nellie loved his margaritas!). Stands are named after Carlton Fisk, Luke Appling, Tony LaRussa, Jack McDowell, Al Lopez, Moose Skowron, Robin Ventura and many others. Rarely does the food relate to the player, though the only current Sox honored is Alexei Ramirez, as the Cuban Comet stand sells Cuban sandwiches (sliced ham, shredded pork, cheese, pickles, special sauce, something else, on Cuban bread). Of course, most stands just sell hot dogs or variations thereof, so you get Chico Carrasquel’s Dogs and Polish, Luzinski’s Rooftop Dog’s and Polish, and Dick Allen’s Rooftop Dogs and Polish. Oddly, Dick Allen only hit one ball on the roof of old Comiskey, though he did it prior to homeplate being moved 8-feet closer in ’83 (as did this mag’s namesake, Richie Zisk, who hit his lone roofie in ’77). The Bull hit four of ‘em. Oddly, the man who hit the most of anyone, seven, including the last one in 1990, has his stand called merely Kittle’s Brats and Sausage. But, it is actually much closer to the roof, being on the nosebleed upper deck, near the cheap seats where I always sit, giving me full access, so no complaints. Kittle was my fave player growing up and will always be. I went with my son last year to a miserable game and saw Kitty just walking around looking confused and got an awesome picture of him holding my child. For the rest of the game as my friends lamented the shitty play of our team I just kept pulling out my phone and showing them it was actually an awesome game. An awesome game to eat a Ron Kittle bratwurst!

C Josh Gibson—Can’t remember if it was called a Josh Gibson burger, but I definitely sat underneath a painting of the great catcher when I ate at the short-lived Negro League CafĂ©, a D.I.Y. theme restaurant in the Bronzeville section of Chicago’s southside. The restaurant was OK, but not great, and the main thing I remember is not the burger, but hearing the radio in the restaurant play R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet,” the first time I’d heard it. So today when I think of Hall of Famer Gibson I always think of Kelly crouched in a closet clutching a Baretta waiting to shoot his lover’s cuckold.

SS Ozzie Guillen—A few years back Chicago got one of those Brazilian steakhouses, where costumed gauchos roll abundant wagons of meat to your table then cut it to order with giant swords. The poster/billboard/print ad for the place was Ozzie wielding a meat-covered sword, and nothing ever got me into a restaurant faster than that ad. I brought my mom, mother-in-law, kids, wife and my hungry self to that place on Mother’s Day and ate approximately thirteen pounds of delicious meat in honor of Ozzie’s uniform number.

2B Jackie Robinson—Though this isn’t exactly a personal connection, one of my fave things about the great Jackie Robinson is that back in the pre-millionaire ballplayer days when even stars needed offseason work and post-career jobs, Robinson’s gig after his playing days was joining the Chock Full o’ Nuts company in 1957 as Director of Personnel, eventually becoming Vice President. That’s one of the best endorsements ever in my mind, because if I bought coffee, and especially if I bought nut-filled coffee, I would always buy this coffee, because every single time I see a can of it in the store I always think, “That’s Jackie Robinson’s coffee!” Then I sing, “Chock Full o’ Nuts, it’s that heavenly coffee, better coffee a millionaire’s money can’t buy!” Best endorser and best jingle!

LF Carlos Lee—One time when Lee was on the Sox my friend was wearing his Carlos Lee jersey when he was eating at Nuevo Leon, the popular Mexican restaurant in Pilsen (next door to the Thrill Jockey Records office by the way) and Carlos Lee was eating at the next table. That’s an awesome story.

3B Wade Boggs—I suppose I don’t have much personal Boggs experience, besides living in New England for a few years during his reign. Boggs was famed for having to eat chicken before every game, and I seem to recall that when he was caught adulterizing it had something to do with variety—he needed women with varying chicken recipes when he was on the road. I once saw a cheap looking cookbook by Boggs for sale either at or around Fenway called Fowl Tips –My Favorite Chicken Recipes. Did not buy it.

CF Mickey Mantle—I wandered into Mantle’s restaurant one day when, for some forgotten reason, I had to kill time around Central Park West, probably in the early 90s (Mantle was still alive, and I overheard someone say he came in occasionally). I seem to recall it was a pretty bland sports bar/family restaurant hybrid, and I either had a very unmemorable burger or decided to just bail.

P Babe Ruth—I was never a big fan of the Baby Ruth candy bar, even though I probably ate tons of them as a kid. It has all the good stuff but it just seems kinda dry and off-kilter. Like they’re always stale. Another thing off-kilter about it is the claim that the candy was not named after Babe Ruth, but rather after the long-dead child of ex-President Grover Cleveland. The Curtiss Candy Company (of Chicago) named the candy in 1921, when Ruth had become a Yankees superstar, and they probably made up the bogus dead baby story to avoid paying the Sultan of Swat royalties. Or maybe in the 20s dead baby candy was a hot trend, who knows? Though Gummi Lindbergh Babies weren’t popular ‘til the 30s. I have Ruth listed as a pitcher here because of his amazing pitching career in Boston prior to his Yankee-dom. I’ve always felt that even if he wasn’t the all-around ball player that Willie Mays was or the prolific dinger man Aaron proved to be, the fact that he coulda been a Hall of Famer pitcher or batter is a good argument for him as the all-time greatest baseball dude. Another great untrue but awesome candy bar name rumor: The Oh Henry bar was a handshake across the ocean, naming a sweet treat after Japan’s and the U.S.’s home run kings! Of course, Chicago’s Williamson Candy Company created their confection in 1920, twenty years before Sadaharu Oh was born and fourteen years before Henry Aaron was born. But what an unexpected surprise it would be if somehow that crazy story did turn out to be time-defyingly true. If only I could think of an American short story writer who was good at twist endings to write it?

DH Reggie Jackson—So the story goes Reggie Jackson boasted that if he played for the Yankees they’d name a candy bar after him. Apparently in addition to coming to the Bronx, to earn the candy bar he also had to spend a year fist fighting with Billy Martin, get a nickname (Mr. October), and win the World Series with the best single game batting performance ever on October 18, 1977: Reggie swung the bat three times and got 13 total bases (a 4-ball walk, and three first pitch homers! The last off Hawaiian knuckleballer Charlie Hough). Plus he had to survive fans throwing firecrackers at him to honor his greatness. On opening day 1978 (Yanks/White Sox, by the way) they had these bars at Yankee Stadium, and as if these were firecrackers, fans also chocolate rained these down on him. In an orange wrapper with a photo of Reggie swinging on it, these were made by Curtiss (who made Baby Ruth) and were basically round Baby Ruths, minus the nougat. But despite being kinda dry, they were a little more satisfying than BR’s, because something about the shape just worked. I don’t know if these were nationally distributed, maybe it was supposed to just be in New York and we got them in Chicago because they made them here, but I sure dug ‘em. When Reggie left the Yanks they stopped making them rather than produce a confection with a California Angels uniform on them.

B-Ball Bonus All-Stars
F Scottie Pippen—I think the Scottie Bar was something that schools sold as a fundraiser, not an actual buy-it-in-the-store candy. Can’t remember if it was good, but I assume so (it featured caramel and pecans, also known as “A Winning Combination.” Not sure if Scottie was the caramel and Jordan was the nuts, or vise versa…but it woulda make more sense if Jordan was almonds rather than pecans). The back of the candy has a quote from Scottie: “Life is a commitment of hard work and discipline. Set your goals and reach them.” Sales goals no doubt. Made by Morley’s Candy Makers, Villa Park, Illinois.

F Dennis Rodman—Rodman briefly had a bar/restaurant and I got invited for some preview night or opening or something. I remember they had his wedding dress in a glass case and I think they had appetizer-type food, maybe sushi, but I really can’t remember exactly what the food was. The place was not around long.

G Michael Jordan—Michael Jordan’s, a massive restaurant, was around for a few years. It was located near all the novelty restaurants north and west of downtown. The food, American comfort food or some such theme, kinda sucked, but I remember the big selling point was “Juanita’s Macaroni & Cheese.” I guess playing on the idea that Mike’s wife-at-the-time by virtue of her black womanhood must have an amazing, down home, Southern, magical, secret macaroni and cheese recipe they pumped this concept up. It was just regular mac and cheese.

G LeBron James—I definitely chewed a few pieces of LeBron’s Lightning Lemonade Bubblicious gum. Nobody likes LeBron amymore, and I don’t know if anyone ever liked this lemonde flavored gum, but I liked way the cartoon captured his weird face. But despite not being a Cubs guy, I have to say, I’m more of a Wrigley’s man than a Bubblicious boy.

C Shaquille O’Neal—You would think that someone who did the Kazaam movie would have a hard time finding anything in his resume more embarrassing than that genie costume, but sadly the Shaq Bar was not even a legit candy bar – it was a foul tasting “energy bar” sold by the evil Amway pyramid scheme organization to its sucker salesmen. I bought one on a convenience store (where it shouldn’t have been, a clerk must have been in the cult) and it was bad, but I can’t believe I didn’t save the wrapper. Did I think I’d ever buy another one? Shaq also appeared on the wrappers of the Canadian Mr. Big chocolate bars. The internet reveals he also put his name to Nestle’s “Shaq sized” 9.25 pound candy bars.

Mike Ditka
—Where to start! Ditka has his own steakhouses, a line of fine wines, vitamins, a salsa featuring Da Coach in a sombrero on the bottle, a product called “Mike Ditka’s Bear Cheese” and a pill called “Iron Mike Ultimate Virility Enhancer.” Plus he threw his gum at a heckling fan once, which I think qualifies as his own line of one-of-a-kind, custom, designer candy.

Harry Caray
—I’ve never eaten at Harry Caray’s restaurant, though I’ve walked in a few times, but I have eaten his two foot-high plate of fried, grease-soaked potato “chips” at the Taste of Chicago outdoor food festival…and that is some seriously Chicago food! That stuff borders on Wisconsonian!

Walter Payton
(football) Though “Sweetness” would have been a natural for a confection, he went the savory route with his endorsement, appearing in ads for Kentucky Fried Chicken where he sang a soulful jingle about how both KFC and the greatest running back in NFL history (I’d wager that even Emmitt Smith’s mom doesn’t think her son is better than Payton) are “Doin’ it Right.” This was significant because you could get a flexi disc of him singing the song at this chicken joint, which was the late Payton’s only solo record. He, of course, had a million-seller with the “Super Bowl Shuffle,” recorded a single with a Blackhawks/Bears blues band called the Chicago Six, and did a hip hop 12” with the Fridge.

Mr. T (competitive bouncing – as in bouncer at a club, not pogo sticking) Quaker’s Mr. T cereal tasted like Captain Crunch, made a guest appearance on an episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, was shaped like the letter “T” and I ate a Ton of it!. I probably ate 2000% more than my daughter ate Kellogg’s Hannah Montana cereal. I almost dated Mr. T’s daughter, ask me about it sometime.

Stan Mikita (hockey) – Despite what Wayne’s World implies, the Blackhawk great does not own a donut shop in Aurora. To my knowledge.

Jake Austen is editor of Roctober magazine and produces the all-ages children's dance show Chic-A-Go-Go. His latest book Flying Saucers Rock N Roll: Coversations With Unjustly Obscure Rock N Roll Eccentrics was just published by Duke University Press.

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