|Luckiest sausage on earth|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
MILWAUKEE -- How does it feel to don a uniform and run onto a major-league field?
How does it feel to perform in front of thousands upon thousands of fans cheering you? How does it feel to run to the point of exhaustion and then be carried home by the crowd's roar? How does it feel when the equivalent of an entire town cheers so passionately it makes your heart swell larger than the Grinch's on Mount Crumpet?
How does it feel? I'm glad you asked.
Saturday night I felt all those things and more. Saturday night I competed on the same field Barry Bonds has. Saturday night I reached the apex of my athletic career mere yards from where Hank Aaron ended his.
Saturday night I ran in the Milwaukee Brewers' sausage race.
How did it feel? So magical that Randall Simon couldn't have ruined the moment even if he had been armed with a tire iron.
Simon, as everyone with a TV knows -- the replay was on more often than "Law and Order" -- is the Pittsburgh first baseman who clubbed the Italian Sausage with a bat in a sausage race last week. Quicker than you can say Tonya Harding, the Italian Sausage fell to the ground, tripped up the Hot Dog and sent their knees scraping along the dirt. Milwaukee responded instantly to the assault by having Simon arrested after the game, taken from the stadium in handcuffs and charged with misdemeanor assault.
Handcuffs? What, were they passing a Hickory Farms outlet on the way to the police station?
And can you picture Simon had he gone to trial and actually been sentenced to prison?
FELON 1: "Hey, buddy, what are you in for?"
FELON 2: "Armed robbery and aggravated assault. What about you?"
FELON 1: "First-degree murder. How about you, new guy?"
SIMON: "Errr, ummmmmm, well, it's a little embarrassing. ... I beat the sausage."
[Long uncomfortable pause.]
FELON 2: "Didn't the Supreme Court just rule that that wasn't illegal anymore?"
Fortunately, Milwaukee chose not to press charges and let Simon go with a $432 fine. Baseball tacked on a $2,000 fine and three-game suspension, which was an appropriate slap on the wrist. Simon also is supposed to personally apologize to the sausages and give them autographed bats.
And that should end the whole episode. Except, as Seattle Mariners general manager Pat Gillick joked at a SABR convention, Milwaukee police now are demanding that the sausages report back to headquarters. "They want to grill them."
* * * * *
The Brewers began the sausage races at County Stadium in the '90s with an animated race shown on the scoreboard as the "Chariots of Fire" theme played over the p.a. system. It was the best scoreboard race in baseball, but the Brewers made it even better by adding the costumed sausages. Those tall, goofy sausages are baseball's biggest hot dogs outside of Rickey Henderson and are so popular that the club sells sausage bobbleheads, beanie babies and T-shirts. There are more sausage items in the team store than for any individual player. There is even a Sausage 5K.
(I should probably point out here that the Brewers haven't had a winning season in 11 years.)
If sausages were this much of a presence when Rick Majerus coached at Marquette, he never would have left Milwaukee.
"You become an instant celebrity," the Polish Sausage said of competing in the race. "Your parents go to a work meeting and they interrupt it to say, 'I have an important announcement. My son is a wiener.'"
There is a regular stadium crew of about 18, male and female, who rotate the racing responsibilities. While there are no official standings, they all know who the fastest sausages are. And the best is a three-year veteran who appears well on his way to the Sausage Racing Hall of Fame. I asked him which sausage costume he will wear when he enters the Hall.
"I think I'd have to go in wearing No. 4, the Hot Dog," he joked. "It's what I've worn most of my career. It's what the fans most associate me with."
The Hot Dog is dressed as a baseball player, and with the No. 4 on its jersey, a blue baseball cap and blue pinstriping, it always reminds me of former Brewer great Paul Molitor. Some teams honor their former players by enshrining them in a franchise Hall of Fame -- the Brewers enshrine theirs in sausage casing.
In addition to the regular crew of sausages, several players have competed in the race, including Pat Meares, Hideo Nomo and Geoff Jenkins.
"Hideo Nomo is fascinated by it," Brewers executive Laurel Prieb said. "He may be the No. 1 fan of this. He may say running the sausage race is the pinnacle of his career."
Prieb was exagerrating bout Nomo's career pinnacle, but he was not exaggerating Nomo's love for the sausage race. The pitcher loves the sausages. And who can blame him? Everyone loves the sausages.
"I had been watching them do it for years, and I thought it would be fun," said Jenkins, who won his race. "Obviously, I'm faster than they are. I was out front, and they couldn't catch me."
Indeed, the sausage crew assured me that the key to winning is to get the lead early -- apparently it's very difficult to come from behind while wearing a nine-foot-high sausage costume. It's like rallying from behind with a kosher Yao Ming riding on your shoulders.
Like Jenkins and Nomo, I had been watching the sausage race for years and always wanted to participate. Despite the commotion over Simon last week, the Brewers graciously allowed me the chance to compete when I came into town Saturday on Page 2's ballpark summer tour.
They did, however, make me sign a waiver releasing the team from all injuries that might result from wearing the costume. After doing so, I kept my eyes peeled for anyone carrying really big bags of charcoal briquettes.
My competitors Saturday were two regular sausages and an editor from Sports Illustrated, who like me, had long wanted to compete in the race. He chose the Bratwurst costume, and I chose the Italian Sausage. Told that no reporter has ever won the race, I welcomed the challenge. I vowed to give these sausages a race to remember. And I would flat-out smoke that SI bratwurst and show him that ESPN was the ultimate power in the sports universe.
* * * * *
I'm not going to say that wearing the costume made me feel like a sausage, but I do have some issues with the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest.
While I can't give away all the secrets of the sausage costumes, I can tell you this -- it's best to go to the bathroom before putting them on.
With two outs in the bottom of the sixth, it was time to get ready for the race. I wriggled my way awkwardly into the costume, fumbling for the armholes as if I was Shaq slipping into a strait jacket. Somehow, I wound up with the harness wrapped around my neck in such a way that it cut off all oxygen to my lungs and left me gasping for breath.
I've spent the past two decades of my life covering sports, writing about athletes competing in the World Series, the Olympics, the Final Four and the Super Bowl. I've analyzed hundreds of athletes on their performances, ripping them for failing to hit a 95-mph fastball under the pressure of a World Series or for failing to land a quadruple jump in the Olympics. I've pronounced athletes chokers for finishing hundredths of a second behind the winner in an event for which they trained their entire lives.
And moments before I was to finally compete on the same playing field as them, there I was being slowly strangled inside a giant Italian Sausage costume.
Now I know how Bill Buckner felt.
Just before passing out, I signaled for help and hurriedly got myself into the costume properly. By this point, the inning was over, the left-field gate swung open and my moment in the sun was upon me.
As we headed to the starting line, it quickly became clear why Michael Jordan keeps coming out of retirement. The fans were up and shouting and clapping and whistling and stomping their feet. They were so excited to see us that I expected women to throw panties at us.
"We love you sausages!!!" they screamed.
"You guys are the best!!!"
"Go, sausages! Go!!!!"
(I should probably point out here that the Brewers haven't been to the postseason in 21 years.)
We sausages pointed and strutted and postured for the fans until the horse racing fanfare (da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da-da) called us to the starting line. I took my place alongside the other sausages, the music ended and the race started. I didn't hear them go "Beep-beep!," but within two steps I was hopelessly in third place.
I know it doesn't look like it from the stands, but trust me, those sausages are fast -- really fast. The costumes make the sausages look like they're wobbling down the field, but they're actually sprinting as fast as possible from the very start. The sausages are young, athletic kids. They even hold time trials.
For a brief moment, I entertained thoughts of overcoming the Polish Dog on the inside, but as we neared the visitor's dugout, it became clear that I didn't have a chance in hell. I was wearing heavy shoes, I spent the first six innings of the game stuffing myself at the concession stand -- and I'm really feeling guilty about the bratwurst and Italian sausage I ate -- and, let's face it, my competitors were younger, faster and far more experienced than I was.
My only real goal became beating the guy from SI, and because there was no peripheral vision in the costume, I had no idea how far behind me he was. So I kept sprinting toward the finish line behind home plate.
As I rounded the plate, my lungs were burning, I was sweating more than Albert Brooks in "Broadcast News," and I was having difficulty breathing.
And then I realized that the race ends at first base, not home plate. I had another 90 feet to go.
But the crowd gave me a burst of adrenaline, sweeping me to the finish. I finished third behind the Polish Sausage and the Hot Dog. The SI guy in the bratwurst costume was many yards behind me, running like Edgar Martinez to my Ichiro.
The race over, I jogged off the field, slapping hands with fans along the foul line the way Cal Ripken did at Camden Yards when he broke Lou Gehrig's playing streak.
I know the race is just a goofy promotion. I know I'm as far removed from being a professional athlete as Geraldo is from being a real journalist. I know I'm not going to get a contract from Oscar Mayer, let alone the San Francisco Giants.
But I don't care. I ran in the sausage race, I didn't fall down, I absolutely whipped the guy from Sports Illustrated (Nice race ... LOSER!), I finished high enough to medal, and when someone asked how it felt, I replied, "Tonight, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.