Hungry? You will be after reading this article.
During the 2021 season I visited eight Minor League ballparks, bringing my career total to 182. At each one I recruited a Designated Eater: an individual who consumes the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits. (I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012.) With enthusiasm and, at times, an admirable willingness to be embarrassed, these Designated Eater sampled each ballpark's most unique and high-quality items.
What follows is a roundup of their experiences at ballparks across the land, encompassing everything from specialty hot dogs to overloaded nachos to stuffed potatoes to corn dogs to, well, a whole bunch of other stuff. Dig in!
July 9, 2021
Team: Chattanooga Lookouts
Ballpark: AT&T Field (Ballpark Guide)
Designated Eater: Katie Holloway
AT&T Field's concession offerings are mostly clustered within a cramped concourse closed off from the field. By design, the Lookouts stick to the basics. That's fine with Designated Eater Katie Holloway, a Chattanooga native who has been attending Lookouts games since she "was still in diapers." Her evening began with a cheeseburger, which she said "genuinely looks like a high school cafeteria patty, but let's be serious: I was genuinely excited about lunch in high school so it can't be that bad."
Katie also praised the Lookouts' Philly Cheesesteak -- "I couldn't have been happier about the jalapeños" -- but saved the kindest words of all for the chicken fingers: "They're delicious. Crispy, well-seasoned and salty. You know how some places brag about their hand-breaded 'proprietary spices'? Sometimes you don't need that, because these get the job done. I feel like that should be the Lookouts' slogan: 'We get the job done.'"
July 10, 2021
Team: Rocket City Trash Pandas
Ballpark: Toyota Field (Ballpark Guide)
Designated Eater: Bri Moore
Toyota Field was one of six Minor League ballparks to debut in 2021, and the first of four I was able to visit. This facility, located in the Huntsville suburb of Madison, hosts the inimitably named Rocket City Trash Pandas. While trash is not a word often associated with appetizing food, the team leans into this unlikely association via items such as the Dumpster Wrap. Designated Eater Bri Moore and her husband, Jacob, made the trip from Athens, Georgia to try this and other items concocted by executive chef Ryan Curry.
Bri's culinary odyssey began with the Eat Your Opponent Dog, a rotating offering that on this occasion was dedicated to the Montgomery Biscuits and was, as such, biscuit-based. The Stadium Stuffie, a one-pound potato stuffed with pulled pork from Lawler's (a local establishment) was another highlight. But, inevitably, the biggest highlight of all was the Dumpster Wrap. Described by Curry as "everything you'd find in a dumpster," it consists of two quesadillas stuffed with hot dogs, fries, chili, fried jalapeño caps and chipotle sauce.
"It feels wrong to come to a game and not get a hot dog, but the Dumpster Wrap is everything in one," said Bri. "[Toyota Field] has the most variety of anywhere I've seen, and it's delicious."
July 13, 2021
Team: Tennessee Smokies
Ballpark: Smokies Stadium (Ballpark Guide)
Designated Eater: Mark Aubrey
Mark Aubrey describes himself as the "unofficial official historian" of the Tennessee Smokies. As such, he knows a lot about the team as well as Knoxville-area professional baseball in general. Mark's expertise, however vast, didn't extend to the Smokies' more unorthodox concession offerings. His journey began at a right field concession stand dedicated to items incorporating Bush's Beans. (The company's headquarters are located nearby.) After a heaping portion of the loaded " Bush's Best Rocky Tots," he moved on to a concourse cart behind home plate. Here lurks the Boomstick, a foot-long Swaggerty's sausage topped with beer cheese, peppers and onions.
As for the Boomstick, Mark found the cheese to be "mellow," the peppers "over-sautéed" and the item, as a whole, "impractical." In his view, a simpler and better offering was the Krispy Kreme slider. This item also incorporates Swaggerty's sausage, in this case a breakfast-style patty.
"This is so good, and filling," said Mark, savoring each bite. "The donut melts in your mouth."
July 14, 2021
Team: Hickory Crawdads
Ballpark: L.P. Frans Stadium (Ballpark Guide)
Designated Eaters: Hank Ward and his son, Henry
Hank Ward and his six-year-old son, Henry, live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and love exploring the region's abundant professional baseball offerings. This includes L.P. Frans Stadium, home of the Hickory Crawdads. Hank and Henry's Designated Eater experience was simple and low-key, especially because the team's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink CLAWlossal is currently off the menu. A burger obtained at the third-base side Crawdads Café was tasty but deeply unphotogenic; as Hank put it, "The bun is basically welded to the burger." The BBQ Pork Nachos proved to be the evening's highlight, with Hank praising the pork as "tender and juicy." Henry had his mind on other things, however, imploring his dad to buy him some Dippin' Dots at the earliest opportunity (his favorite flavor is Rainbow).
July 15, 2021
Team: Kannapolis Cannon Ballers
Ballpark: Atrium Health Ballpark (Ballpark Guide)
Designated Eaters: Toby Srebnik and his son, Bailey
Toby and Bailey Srebnik live in Coral Springs, Florida, but the lure of Minor League Baseball brings this father-son duo to locales well beyond their Sunshine State environs. Their July ballpark road trip included a stop at Kannapolis's Atrium Health Ballpark, which opened this season as the home of the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers. The Cannon Ballers' aim to provide a kitschy, carnival-esque experience, and this extends to state fair-style offerings such as corn dogs and roasted corn on a stick. (These, and all items, can be washed down with the team's Baller Beer.)
Both Srebniks had high praise for the taco salad, which consisted of shredded steak, lettuce, cheese, sour cream, queso, salsa and chipotle ranch served inside of a 12-inch taco shell. Another highlight was the "Rick's Special" footlong sausage. Rick himself was behind the grill; he makes it special by topping half the sausage with onions and peppers and the other half with sauerkraut.
When all was said and done, Bailey chose the corn on the cob as his favorite item. Toby was partial to the taco salad. They were in agreement that their expectations had been surpassed and then some. "Everything," said Bailey, "was delicious."
July 31, 2021
Team: Fredericksburg Nationals
Ballpark: FredNats Ballpark (Ballpark Guide)
Designated Eater: Ian O'Keefe
Ian O'Keefe is originally from Bainbridge Island, Washington, which he proudly notes is "where pickleball was invented." His life journey has taken him from Washington state to Washington, D.C., where he currently works as a congressional aide. On July 31 he visited the Fredericksburg Nationals, a Washington affiliate, in order to serve as the Designated Eater at brand-new FredNats Ballpark. Ian had a hot dog-centric evening, obtaining a Crabby Dog, Buffalo Dog and BBQ Dog from the first-base side George's Dogs concession stand. The Crabby Dog, topped with shredded cheese, crab queso and Old Bay seasoning, was the standout. Ian washed it all down with Sluggin' Gus blackberry blonde ale, named after the team's mascot.
Ian was accompanied on this very special evening by his friend Joe Tutino, who served as Designated Eater at a Richmond Flying Squirrels game in 2019. Joe was enamored by the pickle-topped BBQ Dog, calling it a "picnic in a bun."
August 13, 2021
Team: Worcester Red Sox
Ballpark: Polar Park (Ballpark Guide)
Designated Eaters: Dave Hart and his son, Finn
In creating the concessions menu for Worcester's Polar Park, WooSox director of hospitality Cody Malone said "the directive was to look, taste and feel like Worcester." Regional specialties abound, with George's Coney Island Dogs being the most popular item in the ballpark. (The original location of George's is located a short walk away.)
Visitors to Polar Park can also obtain regional fare in the form of Wonderbar Pizza, barbecue from BT's Smokehouse, Wormtown Brewery beers and Table Talk pies. Other highlights include nachos in a helmet from the Nacho, Nacho Man stand and specialty hot dogs such as a BBQ Dog topped with pulled pork, nacho cheese and fried onion strips. High rollers, meanwhile, can obtain a lobster roll piled high with fresh knuckle claw meat.
Designated Eater Dave Hart ate all this and more during a whirlwind culinary tour, assisted throughout by his son Finn. (Full disclosure: Dave is my cousin.)
"[The WooSox] care about what they are serving, and I appreciate how they pulled in established restaurants and brought them to the ballpark," said Dave, who resides in Rhode Island. "Getting the local flavors is great, especially for someone like me who had never been to Worcester."
September 10, 2021
Team: Somerset Patriots
Ballpark: TD Bank Ballpark (Ballpark Guide)
Designated Eater: Anthony Armando
2021 marked the Patriots' first season as an affiliate of the New York Yankees, following two decades in the independent Atlantic League. The team is a Central New Jersey stalwart, and their signature item is an homage to the Garden State: the Super Jersey Burger, a half-pound burger topped with bacon, lettuce, tomato, pickles and, most crucially, the regional specialty that is pork roll.
Designated Eater Anthony Armando, a resident of Bloomfield, New Jersey, prefers to call pork roll by its other name, Taylor Ham. (Roughly speaking, people in southern New Jersey call it pork roll and those in the north call it Taylor Ham.) Terminology quibbles aside, Anthony was a big fan of the Super Jersey Burger.
Other highlights included brisket sliders from Oink and Moo (a local barbecue establishment) and Italian sausages from New Jersey-based Premio.
"Premio is the standard," said Anthony. "This reminds me of a sausage you'd get at Yankee Stadium, but at half the price."
Thank you to the Designated Eaters of 2021, who all proved adept at consuming Minor League ballpark food with skill, grace and aplomb. Here's to more culinary adventures in 2022!
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.