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FARE FOR THE COMMON FAN

In the mid-Eighties, stadiums began upgrading the food service at sporting events. It changed my life.

Before that, baseball games were something to be tolerated. During the give-and-take years of dating, my presence at a game usually came as a tradeoff for an evening at an art-gallery opening. And on Opening Day, baseball was a reason to skip school and start drinking beer at 10 a.m. until I threw up and had an excuse not to go to the game. That point came sooner if I forced myself to think about the food that awaited: flaccid hot dogs made of ground pig toenails and served in steamed buns that solidified when they hit the air, accompanied by a watery Pepsi or more cheap, warm beer.

But no more. The companies that run concessions for sports arenas woke up one day to find that the public was chowing down on gourmet pizzas covered with crawfish and blueberries and swilling expensive imported brews--and they were doing this before the game so they didn't have to eat something that looked like a piece of bicycle tire during the game. Faced by the unappetizing prospect of losing out on a money-making opportunity, concessionaires responded by applying the most advanced technology in the hospitality industry to improving the quality of their products. Coors Field is proof that they've succeeded.

Now, don't get me wrong: I still wouldn't cancel a date with my laundry to go to a game, but at least at Coors Field there's enough food to keep me occupied. And since we were determined to try as much of it as we could consume in nine innings, I forced myself to sacrifice watching the game in order to act as gofer. And I did it without spilling beer on anyone's head--a bad idea in any section, but a potentially deadly one when you're sitting in the Rockpile.

This nosebleed territory (although, really, there are no bad seats at Coors Field) contained one of the most interesting cross-sections of baseball-loving humanity you're likely to find. Since this was another sellout, every $4 seat was occupied, often by a person eager to share his erudite play-by-play. "At least he swang," a gentleman behind us said after one of the Rockies whiffed in his first at-bat. Ooh, time to get some food.

After a not-so-quick walk around to look at all the options--this is a big place, friends--it became obvious that there was some overlap among the 57 permanent concessions. Some are called Fanfare, some Esta Fiesta, some GrilleWorks, and some were a combination of the three, with an Itza Pizza thrown in here and there. The basic idea is that Fanfare serves your quintessential ballpark stuff: hot dogs, peanuts, pretzels and Cracker Jack; Esta Fiesta does nachos and other pseudo-Mexican grub; GrilleWorks does (surprise!) the grilled items; and Itza Pizza, well, that should be fairly obvious. They're all owned by Aramark Corp., a Philadelphia-based food service that's one of the largest in the country. These folks have been doing stadiums for thirty years; they've been in Mile High Stadium and McNichols Arena from the beginning, and they count among their other conquests Three Rivers Stadium, Dodger Stadium, Soldier Field, Atlanta Fulton County Stadium and the Houston Astrodome.

When sports fans with a modicum of taste learned that Aramark's contract extended into Coors Field, the complaints were loud and heartburn-felt. But Aramark, like other concessionaires across the country, says that it's changed its ways to accommodate the public's changing tastes--and the offerings at Coors Field back up that claim. "In the old days the theory was, `Hey, we've got a captive audience. Who cares what we give 'em?'" says Richard Hesse, Aramark's food-and-beverage director in Denver. "Nowadays, that's unacceptable. People want more than a lousy hot dog."

But they still want lots of dogs, if the 15,000 (during the day) to 18,000 (at night) sold at each game are any indication. These puppies come in the form of regular mutts as well as bratwursts, sausages and red hots, and they far outsell anything else offered at Coors Field with the exception of, you guessed it, beer. I got one of each--a standard-sized Oscar Meyer weiner ($2) and a 24-ounce cold one ($4)--for our first course. The dog was warm and came on a decently fluffy, fresh bun, in direct contrast to your average Mile High woofer of old. And the beer was...Coors. Whaddya expect? To be fair, though, other beers are available, just not at the regular food booths (this is Coors Field, after all). You can find these renegades, even Bud, in ice chests sprinkled throughout the walkways behind the stands. We got excited when we saw the Beer World concession, but it's a small beer world, after all, because only six bottles were offered, and half of those were British.

So we settled for another Coors draft and took on a Polish dog ($3) that I'd call kielbasa. The spicy sausage grew increasingly fiery with every bite and came on a thick, soak-up-the-grilled-peppers bun. Each concession area had a nice, clean condiment island floating near it, supplied with the usual ketchup and mustard but also offering the welcome additions of grilled onions, red and green peppers and sauerkraut, all of which were fresh. We were worried that our bag of peanuts ($3) would be anything but fresh--we'd never bought plastic-wrapped goober peas before and joked that the package must be stamped with a 1986 expiration date--but the unshelled nuts were winners.

The salted pretzel ($1.75) was not--dry and tough, it had spent too much time under the heat lamp. But that's also where we found the bratwurst ($3.75) and the Italian sausage ($3.75) made by Johnsonville and Fontini's, respectively--and they earned glowing reports. The brat was especially flavorful and filling, and the sausage, while a little on the fatty side, had a spiciness that went perfectly with the onions, which were so sweet they were almost caramelized. Even more amazing, they made it to the Rockpile still moist inside soft, unsoggy rolls--and we'd stopped off on the way back at Itza Pizza to pick up a hand-tossed, personal-sized pie ($3) and at The Deli for a sandwich ($4) and potato salad ($1.75). The pizza was a victim of rushed assembly: plenty of cheese on three slices and none on the fourth, and four slips of pepperoni that looked like they had been thrown on from seven feet away. The potato salad was the second-biggest surprise (after the peanuts); it was creamy, studded with pickles and packed with flavor, and it tasted like it had been made five minutes before we bought it. The sandwich, on the other hand, would have been rejected from any grade-school cafeteria. Cheap processed-cheese-food cheese, cheap doughy roll, cheap turkey. The only thing they weren't cheap about was the shredded lettuce, provided in enough quantity to feed all the rabbits in Denver.

After that disappointment, it was again time to go to the dogs. The monstrous "Chicago works" ($3.75) came buried under a mound of every condiment the stadium offers. Who knows? The thing was so big a few Cubs could have been hiding in there. Fortunately, burps were a given in the Rockpile, which actually managed to get a wave going after several pathetic attempts.

I wasn't about to tell our buddy--a sports editor visiting from Florida and the reason we were at this game in the first place--what was in the order ($5.25) from the Rocky Mountain Oyster Co., one of six concessions not owned by Aramark that are all hidden away on the upper level. "What is this?" my friend asked. "Just eat it," I said. He did. "It tastes like chewy liver," he said. Sorry, this organ's a little lower. The four thin, lightly breaded slices of bulls' testicles actually weren't bad; the side of crunchy, curly fries coated with Cajun seasoning was even better.

The Denver Buffalo Company is another subcontractor at the ballpark; Aramark chose most of the half-dozen because of longstanding relationships at Mile High. Something must have been lost in the move over to Coors Field, though, because the Buffalo Company could hardly scrape together enough meat for the buffalo burger ($4) and the BBQ buffalo sandwich ($4). Their stinginess spilled over into the world's smallest bag of potato chips--one that sells for $1.50 here but would bring maybe a quarter at most bars. Also on the upper level is a Dreyer's Ice Cream (which serves espresso, too) and a Gretel's Cookies; customers were snatching up Gretel's silly sundaes-in-a-helmet ($2.75) and ignoring the incredible cookies (two for $1.50), which were soft and chewy, coated with sugar and stuffed with chocolate chips and brown sugar. They went perfectly with the ice cream from Madeline's, another Aramark shop on the main level, which makes a good chocolate, a great, supersweet vanilla and a yucky imitation Rocky Road that had huge pieces of funky-textured marshmallows and no nuts.

Although Coors Field doesn't have the sushi rumored to be served in San Fran, or the knishes of Miami, or any real gourmet adventures outside of its sit-down restaurants (see Mouthing Off for an assessment of those), I found more than enough to occupy me through a whole game.

According to reliable sources, the Rockies lost to the Phillies 5-7 that night.

Who knew?

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