- Doug Williams
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This season, the West Michigan Whitecaps will be serving the Baco, a taco with a shell made of bacon.
Back east, the Aberdeen IronBirds in Maryland have offered the Funnel Cake Baconator that comes with maple syrup, bacon and chocolate sauce.
In the heartland, the Gateway Grizzlies of Illinois serve Baseball’s Best Burger, a cheeseburger with bacon between slices of a Krispy Kreme doughnut.
Down south, the Charleston RiverDogs sell the Pig on a Stick, a deep-fried, bacon-wrapped corn dog.
And out west in Tucson, fans can chow on a Sonoran Dog, a bacon-wrapped hot dog smothered in cheese, salsa, onions and beans.
Sense a theme? At minor league ballparks from rookie ball to Triple-A, it’s bacon, bacon, bacon, bacon, bacon and more bacon, a revved-up game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (hold the Kevin, but never the Bacon).
In the quest to lure fans to ballparks where players come and go and atmosphere and ambiance are more important than winning and losing, minor league teams have tapped into the power of pork.
“We’re in the entertainment business,” said Noel Blaha, the director of promotions for the Class A RiverDogs. “Especially our level of minor league ball. Every year -- more like month to month -- our roster is fluctuating. So we’re not selling tickets based on who’s on our team, we’re selling an outing, an evening at the ballpark, and a huge part of that experience is the smells and tastes and the food.”
And what food packs more of a sensory punch than bacon?
“Everything has its peaks and valleys, but as far as people turning their backs on the flavor of bacon, that’s never going to happen,” said John Schumacher, the RiverDogs’ food and beverage director. “I think there’s enough creative minds out there that there’s always going to be something new and different with bacon, from a minor league standpoint and a restaurant [standpoint]. There’s entirely too many ingenious people to stop, you know.”
This season, for instance, Schumacher has come up with a peanut butter and pepper jelly jalapeno bacon burger, inspired by an offseason of scouting at restaurants, state fairs and circuses.
“I’m a huge fan of state fairs because they’ll try anything once,” said Schumacher, who calls the food innovators at fairs “a creative bunch.”
This season, though, the new burger has been overshadowed by another debut item that, shockingly, doesn’t contain bacon: a beer milkshake. But wait 'til next year. A bacon milkshake could be coming to a park near you.
“There’s a restaurant here in Charleston that makes its own ice cream and I’ve had a coffee-based ice cream with chunks of bacon in it, and it was delicious,” Blaha said. “Never say never.”
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It’s no wonder bacon has wrapped itself around baseball. Americans in recent years seem to have an obsession with all things bacon.
St. Louis hosts a Baconfest in March, where this year a chef concocted a 50-foot Hog Log consisting of 100 pounds of bacon around 300 pounds of Italian sausage stuffed with another 100 pounds of bacon.
There also are annual Baconfests in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
The Travel Channel’s “Food Paradise” focused on bacon last season, and restaurants across the nation have not only named themselves after the meat -- from The Baconery in New York to the simply-named Bacon in Austin, Texas -- but have pushed the bacon envelope with new dishes, such as bacon brownies, bacon pecan pie and red velvet cake with bacon. According to the Travel Channel, Americans eat 1.7 billion pounds of bacon at restaurants each year.
A company called Bacon Salt sells bacon lip balm, bacon-scented candles and, for $2,999.99, a bacon-design coffin -- which might come in handy for anyone eating bacon 24/7.
So of course baseball’s marketing gurus have jumped aboard the bacon train.
Mickey Graham, director of marketing and media relations for the Whitecaps in Comstock Park, Mich., says when people go to a ballgame they’re much more open to trying something a little off base from their usual diet. A big dose of bacon in the Whitecaps' Baco -- or anything else -- is a treat and part of the attraction.
“It’s something special. It’s your night out,” he said.
The Baco was the winner among 10 items on the team’s annual list of proposed menu additions submitted to fans. Graham said at least five of the items included bacon, including the No. 2 vote-getter, The Bad Joke (a corn dog covered in cheese with two strips of duck bacon on a bun) and No. 3, Rascal Chow (a mixture of popcorn, Reese’s and bacon). Somehow, Canadian Cotton Candy (maple-bacon-flavored) couldn’t crack the top three.
Fans may say they want healthy items at the ballpark, but when it comes to paying for them, bacon beats veggies. In 2011, Chicks with Sticks -- carrot and celery sticks with hummus (made from chickpeas, thus the “Chicks”) -- won the balloting and made the menu, but was a bust.
“It smoked everything else,” Graham said of the voting. “But we put it out here and it didn’t sell very well, so it tells me that people want to do one thing but when they go out, they want something different, they want a hot dog. They want a hamburger. They want something different that they can’t get at home.”
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Bacon is celebrated not just on the menu, but also with special nights around the minors.
The Fort Myers Miracle, Richmond Flying Squirrels and Toledo Mud Hens are among the teams that have had promotions celebrating bacon.
On the Flying Squirrels’ Tribute to Bacon night in 2011, Kevin Bacon -- a local police officer, not the actor -- threw out the first pitch and fans could add bacon to any menu item for $1. The team also gave away a year’s supply of bacon.
“The whole ballpark smelled like bacon,” said Kellye Semonich, the Flying Squirrels’ director of promotions and in-game entertainment. “It was awesome.”
At every game, Richmond has a rally pig that comes onto the field and trots along the warning track in the middle of the fifth inning.
“Everyone was relieved when we brought him out during his rally inning,” she said of Tribute to Bacon night. “That he was still kicking.”
As it turns out, Richmond’s Tribute to Bacon was a much bigger hit than last season’s Tribute to Sausage -- which was rained out.
Last season at Fort Myers’ Salute to Bacon, another local Kevin Bacon threw the first pitch -- a bacon-wrapped baseball -- and the team offered a pigs-only petting zoo and bacon bracelets.
The RiverDogs, too, did a bacon night in 2012 that included a bacon rope contest in which fans competed to tie raw strips together to make the longest rope possible in 30 seconds. The ropes weren’t very long.
“Raw bacon’s pretty slippery,” Blaha said. “You’ve got to be delicate.”
So what new frontiers are left for bacon in baseball?
“I guess you could make a bacon bobblehead, or a bacon baseball,” said the Whitecaps’ Graham. And, to date, no one has made bacon-chip nachos, bacon-flavored soft drinks or scratch-and-sniff bacon-scented baseball caps.
The frontiers are vast, when it comes to the marriage of the minor leagues and bacon. And, Blaha says, infusing bacon into baseball will continue because it’s a money-maker.
“When you look at the bottom line, minor league teams aren’t making their money off of $5, $7 and $10 tickets,” he said. “The real profit margin is on the food, so the more creative, the more excitement you can create with your food, the better your profit margin is.”
Nobody knows how the RiverDogs will do this season, but the menu is a lock.
“We have no idea who’s going to play first base for us on April 11, our home opener,” Blaha said. “But I can tell you we’re going to have beer shakes and jalapeno peanut butter and jelly bacon burgers.”