When I read that the Florida Marlins' brain trust (okay, wrong word, but you know what I mean) had changed concessionaires during the off-season, I didn't assume it was solely because of my blistering review last year of their ballpark food. "I'd like to think it was my description of the nachos as gloppy and malodorous' that convinced them to make the switch," I recall telling my wife at the time. "But you can never discount the role of cronyism in these decisions." It's not as though I had bad things to say about all the concession snacks at Pro Player Stadium. I loved Bru's Wings and rated their curly fries the best in the park; I also thought highly of Premo's Subs. Everything else was awful, though, even relative to other ballpark cuisine. Awfully expensive, too. But now that the stadium had revamped the vendors, a revisit was in order.
Like last year, I stopped by the public-relations desk in section 156 to review a location listing of all the foods and beverages. As Yogi Berra would say, "It was like déjà vu all over again." Everything on the list looked the same as before: the names of the stands (Pelican Café, Sunset Café, Seaside Grill); the national chains (Pizza Hut, Carvel, Mrs. Fields); and, most noticeably, the meager menu of dreary snacks. If anything the selections seemed slimmer; arepas, along with black beans and rice, used to be the sole Latino fare, but the rice and beans had been eliminated. I turned to the woman behind the desk and asked if I was mistaken about the replacement of concessionaires.
"Yeah, they changed," she assured me. "Used to be run by Fine Host; now it's Boston Concessions."
"Looks exactly the same," I responded.
"No, it's different," she insisted. "Bru's Wings and Premo's Subs are gone."
Prices, too, remain at pretty much the same inflated level as before, though only roasted peanuts have gone up appreciably (from $2.50 to $3.50). "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack" goes the old "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" refrain -- that'll be seven dollars, thank you (don't be angry, just consider it an investment in Charles Johnson). If you've got a quartet's worth of family or friends, the Marlins' "4 for $44" deal definitely is worth it: Each person receives an upper-deck ticket and a voucher for hot dog, soda, and popcorn.
My strategy, which, granted, was pretty much determined as I went along, had me beginning my daring culinary adventure with the gutsiest choice I could think of: a "veggie dog." I marched toward the Sunset Café in section 145, the only place that served such a thing.
"Do you know what the veggie dog is made of?" I inquired of the girl behind the counter, and I couldn't have elicited a more dumbfounded expression had I asked what her boyfriend's favorite sexual position was.
"Never mind," I said, as I couldn't stand seeing her chin hanging down like that. "I'll just try one." I knew it wasn't a good sign that the dog came out in about twenty seconds; it looked so anemic and uncooked I asked if I could pay the extra dollar and get a footlong kosher frank instead (veggie $4; kosher $5). Countergirl appeared to be losing patience but grudgingly agreed. The real hot dog was cooked but barely heated through; the bun was old and cold. Worse, there was no sauerkraut or relish or anything besides mustard to gussy it up with. I had to bother her one more time:
"Does any vendor around here supply sauerkraut?" I asked.
"Maybe on the club level," she replied, and with quiet satisfaction added, "but you'll have to buy another hot dog to get some."
Wimpy chicken wings, not Bru's, are losers -- so unbrowned and uncrisped that they might as well have been boiled. For the dozen admittedly meaty pieces, with a side of limp curly fries: $9.50. Chicken tenders and "microbrew fries" were, just like last season, flabby nuggets of poultry over ghostly potato sticks, but the Seaside Grill's grilled chicken sandwich was not bad at all: hot, moist, and served on a relatively fresh bun with lettuce, tomato, and herb mayo. I didn't try "pickle-on-a-stick" or the corn dog, nachos, meatball sub, cheese fries, or prepacked chicken caesar or taco salads. It was difficult enough convincing myself to sample the only seafood in the stadium, conch fritters; fortunately, as I now look back on it, the stand that was supposed to have them didn't (you'd think they'd at least serve a grilled marlin sandwich). Sodas cost $3 to $5; beers, mostly Bud and Miller, are $5.25. The High Tides Bar, in section 453 by the H ramp, serves a few other drafts, along with mixed drinks ($6 each, $11 for a double).
At this point I concede that Marlins owner John Henry didn't read my prior Pro Player review, which explains why he hasn't taken me up on the suggestion I had made: Present the people of South Florida with a menu proposal for the concession food at this hypothetical new ballbark before asking us to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars to build it. It is in his own best interests to do so. If the public were impressed with the selections, the Fish might at least be able to attract as many fans as the Cheesecake Factory.
Marlins management blames poor attendance on inherent threats of rain in summer, but it's more likely owing to the mosaic of mistrust and apathy produced by the former billionaire owner's unprecedented 1997 sell-off of the championship team; the sneaky manner in which the current owner is attempting to push through a new stadium at taxpayers' expense; and the boneheaded disloyalty displayed by GM Dave Dombrowski and the multimillionaire players in their graceless coup against classy blue-collar manager John Boles; and, perhaps most important, a sluggish start by the whiny but undeniably talented Marlins. We'll see if their recent surge in play translates to an increased gate.
People don't attend sporting events for the cuisine, but putting out the most putrid concession snacks in the nation certainly isn't helping matters and furthers the lack of respect displayed by management toward the embattled Marlins fans of South Florida. It's also a most curious way to host those from whom you are asking a handout.
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