For most folks, the words “ballpark food” evoke a familiar and comforting experience. In fact, just like players’ salaries, field fare has come up considerably in the world since Cracker Jacks debuted in 1893. The new Yankee Stadium has its own butcher shop, Lobel’s Prime Meats, and offers VIP buffets catered by the likes of Nobu Matsuhisa and François Payard. Ted Turner uses bison from his own ranch in burgers and hot dogs at Atlanta’s Turner Field. At Fenway, fans can scoop up knishes, have a crêpe made to order or chow down on a Cuban sandwich crafted by former Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant.
Burlington may not have major leagues or celebrity boxes, but it does have die-hard ball fans — and where there are fans and a field, there’s food. Not gourmet food, but not cheap food, either. Standing at The Hot Corner, Centennial Field’s premium vendor, it’s impossible not to hear a chorus of gripes from tightwads, reluctantly lining up for a meal. At $4.25, an à la carte ballpark hamburger may seem a tad pricey — until you try it. Ditto for the crispy hand-cut, skin-on fries.
Burgers, dogs, popcorn chicken — it’s hard to go wrong with classic ballpark food, but The Hot Corner gets it right. “It’s very greasy, and everybody loves that taste,” says 21-year-old manager Ben Kogut.
Judd Colby, Centennial Field’s director of concessions, has a more genteel take: “The key is to give people top-notch service with top-notch ballpark food — it’s not necessarily top-notch food, but in our category, top-notch — and ensure quality there,” he says.
Has Vermont’s localvore mania made it all the way to the ballpark? But of course. “Our big focus is to keep things local,” says Colby, 36, then reveals his quasi-religious fervor for Vermont-distributed McKenzie products: “If I can’t bring in McKenzie, then I don’t serve hot dogs. They’re phenomenal.”
Damn right — the Pale Ale Brats that Colby uses for his sausage and peppers are juicy on the inside and strongly redolent of the Harpoon suds within. The grilled skin shatters like bacon with each bite. Other Vermont suppliers of The Hot Corner include Ben & Jerry’s and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters; the pizza is prepped at Pizza Putt. Though Colby admits that the Pepsi products and prepared foods arrive from afar, he emphasizes that he gets them through nearby suppliers like Burlington Foods.
A longtime employee of the Gobeille Hospitality Group, which owns Breakwaters, Shanty on the Shore and Burlington Bay Market & Café, Colby helped establish the company’s Burlington Bay Catering. “I loved doing the catering,” he says. “I did clam bakes out of the back of my pickup truck. You can bust your butt for five days, then take a break. Then do it all over again. That’s fun for me.”
This summer is Colby’s first with the Lake Monsters; it also marks his return to the Gobeille Group after an extended break from food service. Fresh from several years of maintaining the grounds at the Links at Lang Farm, he kids as he gazes down on the green expanse,“If I needed to, I can lay sod or rake the infield.”
Joking aside, Colby prides himself on attaining his goals of “shortening lines and expanding variety.” He says he prefers the “event-type food” he makes at Centennial to “the everyday grind” of a career in restaurants.
Not that his job is a walk in the ballpark. In addition to The Hot Corner, two full-service food stands, a grill for corporate barbecues, and booths selling beer and desserts help spread the greasy goodness at Lake Monsters games. “Ultimately, I’m overseeing six small businesses at a time,” says Colby. And rush hour is intense: “We serve 3000 people in about a two-hour period every day.”
With all the rain this summer, Colby says last-minute cancellations have further complicated the always-thorny process of balancing the right quantities of product and staff. Nothing bums him out more than sending workers home, he says with a shake of his head.
Many of those employees don’t qualify as adults yet; few are older than college age. “Kids grow up working here,” says Colby. “We’re a piece of their learning curve. We teach kids life skills.” Many employees, he says, have been on staff for four or five years running. Luckily for them, rain cancellations result in double headers, where sales are well above average.
Colby makes sure staff stay on their feet. Until this year, ball fans had to trek to The Hot Corner for grilled products such as burgers and sausage. Now Colby employs a full-time runner to deliver food from the grill to locations at the park’s entrance and near first base.
The Hot Corner is still the only spot to buy fried foods. But what plaque-building wonders they are! Perfectly seasoned with a hint of spice, the Chicken Bites have a flavor similar to KFC’s breading, but with a perfectly moist white-meat interior. Even more impressive for a high-volume source like The Hot Corner, the fries reach customers perfectly crisp.
Colby has added new dishes since this season’s Memorial Day opener. Most popular is the cotton-candy-flavored SpongeBob SquarePants ice cream bar, which he calls “a signature ice cream for the kids.” It’s easy to see why. When the show’s theme song plays after a successful hit, high-pitched hysteria breaks out in the bleachers as thousands of tiny voices chant along.
Colby plans other “themed” surprises for this year’s games. Expect a “Turnbuckle Sandwich” when wrestler George Steele appears in September — perhaps with pulled pork, Colby’s next proposed menu addition.
One menu item he has no plans to change is a decidedly nonlocal delight: Dippin’ Dots’ magical ice cream treats. Food snobs are always talking about mouthfeel, and Dippin’ Dots provide a seriously unique experience. The tiny spheres of ice cream could have been invented by molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne, had some guy in Kentucky not thought of them first. They’re created by flash-freezing ice cream with liquid nitrogen, a process that will solidify even alcohol.
The molecular miracles are available in one spot in Vermont, and that’s Centennial Field. Dippin’ Dots does the “cookie dough” flavor proud with hard pellets of vanilla that melt into a luscious, creamy mass, dotted with smooth, pin-sized blobs of cookie dough. The Moose Tracks flavor features surprisingly complex peanut butter cups the size of a pinkie nail.
When the Lake Monsters’ season ends in September, Colby hopes “some [similar] off-season work will be available to me.” Worst-case scenario? “I could be back at Shanty cooking.”
And what about mumblings that this will be the final season for Centennial Field? The usually garrulous Colby lowers his eyes. “I’ll be here as long as I’m allowed. If we take every opportunity to do well this year...” he trails off, then goes on, “Good things happen for a reason. Good things happen to good people, and things will happen in the future.”
For now, the guy who supervises the feeding of thousands of hungry Lake Monsters fans is focusing on the positive — and using an appropriate metaphor. “It’s extremely important that we’re on our A-game, batting 100 percent every night,” Colby says. “You can’t miss one opportunity to be good, just like baseball.”
The grass is greener at Centennial Field — really. And as the sun sets on the oldest U.S. ballpark, it bathes Burlington’s urban playground in a golden glow. That moment — between day and night — is magical when you’re at a Vermont Lake Monsters game on a warm, dry summer night. The home team, in white, glows in the dusky light. The bats crack louder. And the smells that waft up through the stands — of sausages, poppers and fries — only get more enticing as darkness descends.
The crowd is a slice of Vermont life: infants, toddlers, grandparents, old-timers, flatlanders, hipsters, rednecks. At $7 per adult, no one is excluded from the game that plays out, sans remote control, in however many innings it takes. A collective cheer erupts when one of our boys hits a bomb, or finesses a double play. The shared experience is a throwback — a slow, sweet “time out” in the digital age.
Still, baseball in Vermont appears to be endangered, because Major League Baseball is demanding upgrades to Centennial Field that would bring it into compliance with current standards. And as beloved as the old ballpark is, many fans wouldn’t mind a shiny new stadium in Burlington, one with all the amenities. That just might include franchise owner Ray Pecor. “It’s a wonderful ballpark, but it’s a 1920s park,” he says. “We’re in a different century now.”
Pecor has been in discussions — for years, actually — with community members, legislators, UVM officials and the city about just what to do with Centennial Field. He says he’s surprised at the recent spate of media attention on the subject — even in the New York Times. “It’s interesting that there’s a great deal of publicity right now and there wasn’t seven years ago,” says Pecor. “But it’s pretty sad — the government doesn’t have any money, the state doesn’t have any money, and we don’t know what the community will want.”
And then there’s the fact that, no matter what Pecor or others might do to improve Centennial Field, it will still belong to UVM. Does the university’s recent discontinuation of its own varsity baseball program suggest a disinterest in the field? UVM President Dan Fogel has gone on record saying the university has no plans to raze, develop or sell the property … anytime soon.
Meanwhile, Preservation Trust of Vermont has offered to help the community raise an estimated $7 million to “rescue” Centennial. Next? We’ll see who steps up to the plate.
— Paula Routly & Pamela Polston
This is just one story from our 2009 Baseball Issue. For more sports stories, click here.