- Rick Paulas
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"I already feel fat," Jason McClain declared as we climbed up to our perch in the top row of the right-field bleachers of Dodger Stadium.
We had targeted the venue's upper section for a specific reason. You see, the right-field bleachers are an exact replica of those in left, except for one slight but significant difference: these are All You Can Eat seats.
The AYCE seats -- which I'll start abbreviating here, even though I could use the calorie burn that comes with typing extra letters -- are a fad that's been taking over major league ballparks for the past half-decade.
The start of the phenomenon can be traced to 2007, when six teams (the Los Angeles Dodgers being one) crunched the financial numbers and decided to try out the AYCE option for at least one game during the year. By 2010 that number had increased dramatically, with 19 of the league's 30 teams dipping their toes in the AYCE pool. This year, there are nine parks that have jumped in completely, offering an AYCE section for every game of the season.
With few exceptions, these sections are located in the difficult-to-fill "cheap seats," where management can take the hit of throwing a few extra hot dogs and sodas in the fan's direction to get more derrieres in the seats. The privilege of consuming everything you can comes with a markup in ticket price of usually about $15 to $20.
Most teams (and this should give you a good picture of the current state of concession prices) see the cost increase as a way for families to actually save money while spending a night at the ballpark.
"It's perfect for families on a budget," said Greg Bader, spokesman for the Baltimore Orioles, who spice up their AYCE section by giving it the swanky moniker of All-Inclusive Picnic Perch. "Fans can know the exact cost of attending a game up front."
Michael Anderson, spokesman for the Cincinnati Reds, agreed, calling the AYCE seats at Great American Ball Park "one of the best values in baseball."
Fans have responded to these claims by -- I swear, I'll punch myself in the face as soon as I finish typing this -- gobbling up tickets. The San Diego Padres actually had to bump up the total of AYCE seats from 490 to 750 after last year's section sold at 85 percent capacity.
"The Padres make it a point to listen to fan feedback," said Jarrod Dillon, vice president of ticket sales and service. And fans were telling them one thing: more hot dogs!
Like every sports park around the country, hot dogs are the staple at Dodger Stadium. Here the Dodger Dog is king. It's a 10-inch blending of beef and pork, wrapped in a 7-inch steamed bun so that some of the meat is exposed on either end. Dodger Dogs have been ingested and indigested by fans of the blue and white since 1958. They cost $5 on the open market of Dodger Stadium ($5.75 for the "Super" variety, which feature 100 percent beef).
But in the AYCE section -- baseball's gated community version of culinary heaven -- one can sample as many Dodger Dogs as possible without paying a penny ... except for, of course, for the price of the seat.
My ticket was comped -- what with me being a hardcore investigative journalist and all -- but my friend McClain had to pay $30 for his seat. Take away $13 for what it would cost for comparable seats in left field, and he was left with $17 to make up in order to get his money's worth through pure gluttony. That's 3.4 Dodger Dogs for those keeping track at home.
If you're not into processed and cased meats, you can go from a red to black budget by eating nachos with your standard liquid cheese ($6 in the rest of the park), popcorn ($4.50), peanuts ($5.50), soda ($3.75) or water ($3.75). (Beer and candy also are available but are not included in the cost of the AYCE ticket.) Of course, the quality of the rest of the stadium food is a bit superior to what's offered in the AYCE section, but the price comparison works for our sake here.
Upon entering the AYCE section via private entrance, you're thrust into the belly of the beast: two buffet-style rows of food stations on either side, stocked with concessions workers filling your plate. For my first round, I piled on two hot dogs (with all the fixings), a bag of peanuts, nachos and a Diet Coke because, you know, you've got to watch that weight. That's a value of $25.25 right out the gate.
From the vantage points in left field you get up-close views of the dents in the yellow metal netting of the foul pole, fossils left behind by just-fair home runs. It's more poetic to think these relics came from Duke Snider and Kirk Gibson rather than, say, the team's current offensively challenged offerings of Jamey Carroll or Casey Blake.
The game we were witnessing -- a mid-April meeting with the St. Louis Cardinals -- was another reminder of the team's past glory, taking place on Jackie Robinson Day. Traditionally on this day all MLB players don a patch with Robinson's retired No. 42 in honor of the man who broke the sport's color barrier. Fittingly, those of us in the AYCE section were preparing to don a new 42, this one in our radically expanding waistlines.
Speaking of that eventuality, it was time for Round 2 at the feeding trough.
The plan going in was to grab a second set of the exact same two-hot-dog/nachos/peanuts/soda combo in the fifth inning or so. Walking down into the provisions bunker, I knew this was not to be. In fact, I didn't know if I'd ever be able to eat again. But that thinking is for losers (i.e. those with dignity), so I came back to the seats with a modest helping of nachos, peanuts and a glass of water to help regulate my salt intake.
Another $15.25, in other words.
Coming back, I scanned the nearby non-AYCE sections for people who might be eyeing and judging us for our blatant debauchery. You do feel a bit corralled from the rest of the ballpark in these seats. The AYCE section has a separate entrance from the rest of the park and you can't leave the area; the furthest you can go is the section's set of bathrooms, an area I never mustered the courage to visit. And sure, this is the way it is in bleacher sections of old parks around the country. But here in the AYCE, it almost feels like you're on display.
(Brief aside here, since this feeling of being on display could very well just be in my head. My first experience with the AYCE seats was a few years back when I was trying to entertain a friend during one of her impromptu visits to L.A. We sat in a section just next to the AYCE area, with the visitor's bullpen acting as a moat between us and them, and killed the inevitable downtime that comes with a ballgame by picking out two AYCEers at random to see how much they'd eat during the game. I don't remember who won the bet, but I do remember being, once again, astonished by the limits of the human body.)
McClain and I spent the rest of the game slowly coming out of our overeating haze, picking through peanuts, watching people do the wave wondering how they had the energy, sucking the sugar off wisely purchased gum, and witnessing the Cardinals thoroughly dismantle the home team. Albert Pujols got back on track after an early-season slump with two home runs in the 11-2 decision.
While AYCE section was understandably upset by the outcome, there were more important things to worry about than dwell on the poor performance on the field ... like wondering if going back for that fourth Dodger Dog was really the best idea. Or how many days without eating would make up for this caloric intake. And, for the love of all that is holy, where was the nearest defibrillator being kept.
Rick Paulas is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. He has written for Wired, The Awl and McSweeney's.
A guide to baseball's all-you-can-eat sections.