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Published: Friday, 6/22/2007

Battle of the condiments

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

In 2003, after only a season in their new downtown digs, the Toledo Mud Hens were faced with an excruciating moral crisis - except it wasn't excruciating and hardly qualified as a crisis. A former player, who shall go unnamed, approached the folks in the front office with a proposition. He wanted to fix a game. If he knew the outcome, if he placed bets against unsuspecting fellow players, then he stood to win big. He was very discrete.

But serious.

"If mustard wins," he said, "I could make it worth your while."

So the guys who man the scoreboard convened, and as they do at every home game, when the time arrived for the Hot Dog Race, they took a vote, and the winner that night was decided. But it would not be a hot dog covered in mustard. Nor would it be a hot dog covered in relish. Mike Ramirez, the Hens' director of video board and TV broadcast operations, remembers it was ketchup who hopped along to victory that fair night.

Chili, mustard, and ketchup start the race. Chili, mustard, and ketchup start the race.
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"I looked down to the dugout and there was the player, looking up at us, raising his arms like 'What happened to mustard?' To this day, I play dumb about it."

But he can't forget it.

The Hot Dog Race, run by virtual wieners on a huge digital scoreboard at every Mud Hens home game, has become the most popular attraction at Fifth Third Field - aside from the game itself, and perhaps Muddy the Mud Hen. In short, three hot dogs, each representing a condiment, hop around the base line, and head for home. And that's it.

But apparently, it's enough.

Chili leads as the racers round third base. Chili leads as the racers round third base.
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"In the majors, players are attractions," Ramirez said. "They're the greats you remember you saw on the field once. But at this level, in the minor leagues, it's like there's a party going on with a game in the background. The minors are about promotion. Talk to people and you'll see: They come for the players, the park, and then, it's to see a video of hot dogs racing."

Actually, Mike, you're wrong.

Apparently, we're a nation that has fallen in love with watching inanimate objects run foot races: The Cleveland Indians race hot dogs, too. The Detroit Tigers race a donut, a bagel, and a cup of coffee, sponsored by Dunkin' Donuts (sponsorship being the reason for these races in the first place). In Pittsburgh, they race pierogi, and most famous of all, five kinds of sausage compete at every home stand in Milwaukee.

Mustard slides into home plate. Mustard slides into home plate.
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"I couldn't really tell you why this has taken off," said Chris DeRuyscher, director of entertainment for the Kansas City Royales, "but it's gotten so big we use the race to tell a story over a season - who's ahead? Who's in a slump? We give away T-shirts, plush hot dogs. Everyone has a favorite. My own mother gets mad if relish has a lousy night."

Indeed, in the annuls of goofy ballpark promotion, the hot dog race - or some variation thereof, from crab cakes in Baltimore to milk jugs in Louisville - has reached the level of popularity once enjoyed by Free Helmet Night. Ramirez said he routinely witnesses fans and players betting on the outcome of the hot dog race at Mud Hens games. Generally, it's a friendly bet - a beer or $1. But Scott Jeffer, assistant general manager, said he's seen real money change hands over those nubile franks. Not to be outdone, Ramirez said he's had people in the control room who look over his shoulder, watch him cue up the outcome for that night's race, and still cheer on their favorite hot dog.

Which raises questions:

How is the winner decided?

"Trade secret," Ramirez said.

Then he sort of explained anyway: A vote is taken in the booth high above home plate and one of three outcomes is chosen then cued. "We'll get into big arguments about it," he said. But players and Mud Hens employees lobby for their favorite condiment. And sometimes Ramirez will play a favorite: Last year, for instance, the chili dog won the overall season, but only after ketchup took an early lead and chili floundered. On a whim, Ramirez decided the chili dog should roar back with a nine-game win streak. That sealed it.

What happened to relish?

Ah, relish. The Indians don't serve relish, so for their hot dog race they replaced relish with onion. But Fifth Third serves relish. What gives? "It was a sponsorship driven decision," Ramirez said. Meaning, Netty's, the Toledo fast food stand that sponsors the race, asked for a chili dog, which replaced relish. (Incidentally, Netty's also sponsors a second race, which includes a shake and a root beer float with a mustache.) But few tears are shed: "Relish was no different than a player who wasn't picked up," Jeffer said. "Relish was like a worker bee. He wasn't like Kareen Abdul-Jabbar. Relish didn't receive a farewell tour and a present at each stop."

Where does the race originate?

Columbus actually.

The animation was made by Jamination, an eight-employee production house that supplies video for dozens of sports teams. They have a little competition: the design firm DXD and Keyframe Digital Productions are also known for high-quality hot dog races. So Jamination, which was started 15 years ago by students who ran the scoreboard at Ohio State University, has branched out into planes, trains, and automobiles, chicken wings, roast beef sandwiches, and Jeeps. All race somewhere in the country. But according to co-founder Aaron Buckles, "our bread and butter has become ketchup, mustard, and relish."

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At the moment, the world of computer-animated condiment racing has been nothing but a story of boom times, of fans who relish the opportunity to cheer on ketchup, mustard, relish, chili dogs, kielbasa, sometimes onion - folks, we live in a golden age of animated condiment racing.

But Buckles sees a dark cloud.

Live condiment races.

People in hot dog costumes.

Asked if this variation on condiment racing could spell the end of the animated scoreboard condiment race - whether the condiment-racing bubble has been primed to burst, like so many housing markets - he sighs. When the goofy costumes and live runners come stumbling out, he says, teams stop buying canned racing animation. He hasn't done business with the Milwaukee Brewers in a while, for instance. With reason.

They have the Sausage Race.

The Sausage Race innovated hot dog racing in 1991. Before it, teams relied on chintzy dot-matrix animation. At the old Mud Hens park, for instance, they raced a boat and a car. ("Very Atari, maybe Intellivision," remembers Jeffer.) At first, the Brewers used an animated race, but by 2000, big hot dog costumes were bursting from left field during every home game.

But, of course, with fame comes controversy, and the Milwaukee sausages have been in their share of hot water. In 2002, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the nation's leading animal rights advocacy organization, urged Brewer management to add a veggie-dog alternative to the Sausage Race. The Brewers declined the suggestion, but last July, the team did introduce a waddling link of Chorizo wearing a sombrero and neckerchief - a nod to Wisconsin's burgeoning Hispanic community, a growing demographic at Brewer's games.

Sadly, the fleet-footed Chorizo, also known as El Picante, did not cut the mustard. Not with the big boys in corporate, anyway: who knew but, Major League Baseball has an arcane regulation against introducing new mascots without the expressed written consent of Major League Baseball. El Picante ran just one game last season before getting benched; he was re-introduced this past April, without incident.

And there have been narrowly avoided accidents: there's the Minnesota Twin who stepped in the path of a sausage stampede, only to be yanked away at the last second; and there's the Baltimore Oriole who nearly collided with an eight-foot tall bratwurst in lederhosen. Then, of course, there was the Randall Simon fiasco. In 2003, the Pittsburgh Pirate first baseman conked a defenseless Italian Sausage with his bat, knocking the spicy European to the ground. Simon, a former Mud Hen, was fined $432 by Milwaukee County police and $2,000 by Major League Baseball, which also suspended him for three games.

But otherwise?

"We have not plateaued at all," said Aleta Mercer, senior director of broadcast and entertainment for the Brewers, which recently began adding Sausage Race statistics to its scoreboard. "There are days, yeah, this is what I do, and days when I sit back and shake my head and think I went to college for this." She said it's a rare day that goes by when another envious ball club doesn't call to ask for tips on everything from costume design to liability.

•

Indeed, the Milwaukee sausages have gotten so big they have their own rivals - the Pittsburgh Pierogi, which come in four varieties, including female and bespectacled. Pittsburgh began its nightly Great Pierogi Race not soon after Milwaukee's Sausage Race became popular; but it's been mutually beneficial: annually, the two foods travel with their teams and hold a foot race, to a barrage of the nastiest insults this side of Barry Bonds.

Which one assumes must be the impetus, partly anyway, behind the Presidential Race at Washington Nationals games - anything to draw attention from the slaughter on the diamond.

See, the Nationals are bad.

But their variation on hot-dog racing is clever: During the fourth inning of every home game, enormous-headed, 10-foot tall presidential costumes race from right field to home plate. There's Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, and George Washington - but since the presidents were introduced last summer, Teddy Roosevelt has become the fan favorite. He hasn't won a single race, endearing him to anyone still willing to buy a ticket to a Nationals game.

Meanwhile in Toledo, which is celebrating the second of back-to-back championship seasons, a live action race is being considered, said LaMay Edwards, the Mud Hens' manager of promotion. But there are more pressing concerns - like taking three championships in a row.

It's no coincidence that, at least in the major leagues, the lousiest teams are the most obsessed with these races. For instance, until recently anyway, the Brewers had been perpetual basement dwellers. Tom George, an assistant professor with the Sport Management program at University of Michigan, ties it all back to Bill Veeck, the legendary owner of the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, whose outlandish stunts included putting a midget on the field and Disco Demolition Night in 1979.

"Laugh but I see it as important," George said, "as a way to go beyond passively marketing fans by making them feel like part of the game, of the experience." George himself played in the Philadelphia farm system in the early 1980s. Asked if he remembers any hot dog races, he says no, but he does remember, one time, a Ten-Cent Beer Night.

"Not that was a bad idea."

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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