NEAL CONAN, host:
The Major League Baseball season got underway much, much earlier today when the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics played a game in Tokyo, Japan. The Bo Sox won 6-5 in 10 innings to take a half-game lead in the American League Fareast Division. And while most of us still feel the unseasonal chill of mid-March, well, spring wonders await us. At least 10 Major League parks now offer sitting sections where you can pay in advance to get all-you-can-eat seats. Some are in the upper deck, more are in the distant seats beyond the outfield fences - in the bleachers.
Last season, author Neal Pollack indulged in jars of jalapenos, vats of nacho cheese sauce and buckets of self-served soda in the bleachers at Dodger Stadium and wrote about his experience in the online magazine Slate.com.
Today, we need you to call or write in to tell us about the unique culture of the bleachers and how all-you-can-eat seats might fit in. Our number: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also comment on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Neal Pollack joins us now from Marketplace Productions in Los Angeles. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. NEAL POLLACK (Author, "Alternadad: The True Story of one Family's Struggle to Raise a Cool Kid in America"): Hey, thanks for having me.
CONAN: And tell us a little bit about what you refer to as your gastrointestinal demise?
Mr. POLLACK: Well, I sat in the left field pavilion at Dodger Stadium for a night last year, and, yeah, I bought a ticket that was all-inclusive, which meant I could have as many hotdogs - not bags of nachos - little trays of nachos, cups of soda and bags of peanuts that I could eat. And I ate until I could eat no more. And then, on the way home, I vomited in the parking lot of an ampm mini mart.
CONAN: Which turned out to be somewhat ironic because the sponsor of the all-you-can-eat sections at Dodger Stadium is?
Mr. POLLACK: Ampm. I felt like it was a pretty good payback for what they'd done to me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: On the other hand, did you make your money back? I mean, they charged a lot extra to get you into that all-you-can-eat section.
Mr. POLLACK: I didn't feel like I got my money's worth. I mean, those are not good seats for seeing a game, and I, you know, I got physically ill. So, I mean, for me it wasn't worth it. Maybe if you're a family of five and you're doing it - it'd be worth it. But I would think the team would be better, you know - people would be better served by just having less expensive tickets and less expensive parking for the cheap seats instead of giving them a buffet of garbage to eat, basically.
Mr. POLLACK: And I like ballpark food.
CONAN: And you like ballpark food.
Mr. POLLACK: Sure. Who doesn't? In moderation, you know, I mean. And then again, if you want to gorge on ballpark food, you know, it should be your option to buy six hotdogs if you want to buy six hotdogs. But I don't know, I feel like the team is - the teams are being kind of irresponsible to - in letting people eat all they can. And it's just - I just don't think it's a good idea.
CONAN: "Tonight, I wrote in my notebook," and I'm quoting from your Slate piece here, "represents everything that's wrong with America. Then again, this is one of the most multicultural experiences of my life. All branches of the human family are slowly poisoning themselves happily together. Communally, I'm privileged to be witness to the mass suicide of a species."
Mr. POLLACK: You know, perhaps I was exaggerating a bit.
CONAN: Just a bit.
Mr. POLLACK: But - yes. But I, you know, I did - you know, there was every type of fan out there because I think it's a novelty that people want to try. But I just can't imagine - look, I mean, I can go on "Craig's List" and find a cheaper seat and spend less money on food and still - and sit on the lower section. I think there are ways of getting deals at the ballpark that don't necessarily involve eating lots and lots and lots of nachos.
CONAN: But from your earlier statement, I take it you are not a regular denizen of the bleacher seats.
Mr. POLLACK: No, I sit everywhere in the park. I can sit where I can get tickets. I mean, sure, everyone wants to be close to the field, but you know, sometimes I sit in the upper deck; sometimes, the in-field reserves; sometimes to the low. Occasionally, someone will invite me down to the field boxes, you know? It just kind of depends. But, I mean, no. I don't sit in the bleachers on a regular basis at Dodger Stadium.
It's not - I used to live in Chicago when I went to — sat in the bleachers at Wrigley Field all the time. I'd wait in line to get to those bleachers. But you're much closer to the action, it's much - it's just - you're much more a part of the experience. I feel like at Dodger Stadium, when you're in the bleachers, you're in the parking lot, basically.
CONAN: Yet, there's a whole culture to the bleachers in Wrigley Field.
Mr. POLLACK: In Wrigley Field, sure, but at, you know — different parks have different bleacher cultures. I didn't - I felt like the Dodgers were having trouble filling the left-field pavilion and that's why they went ahead and instituted this gluttonous buffet of crap.
CONAN: We're talking about the debut of all-you-can-eat seats in many of the bleacher seats at Major League ballparks around the country. Our guest is Neal Pollack. He's the author of, among other things, "Alternadad: The True Story of one Family's Struggle to Raise a Cool Kid in America."
If you'd like to join our conversation about bleacher culture and about how All-You-Can-Eat seats might fit in, give us a call: 800-989 8255. E-mail email@example.com. Kathleen(ph) is with us. Kathleen, calling us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.
CONAN: Hi, there.
Mr. POLLACK: Hey.
KATHLEEN: Well, I wanted to talk about what I see as bleacher culture. I love sitting in the bleachers. The part I like best is the camaraderie that develops therewith among total strangers. The first time it happened for me, I was really — I was there with my 10-year-old son and enjoyed the passing on of baseball lore from parents to children, and all the kids with their gloves, absolutely sure they were going to pick off a homerun ball.
CONAN: And they're so far away from the ballpark, the game is pretty much just a rumor from out there.
KATHLEEN: Well, not at Arlington Stadium, it wasn't. Where, I guess it's the ballpark in Arlington.
Mr. POLLACK: Where a little fly ball will go into the bleacher seats.
KATHLEEN: Exactly. Exactly. So it was a wonderful experience, and it's my choice seat whenever I can.
CONAN: And, so the other people or the so-called bleacher creatures, they don't bother you?
KATHLEEN: No, not at all. They don't bother me. I think it's - I'd prefer it to sitting in the straight seats with my little cup holder and waiting, you know, for something to happen.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And all-you-can-eat - if you were bringing the kids out to Dodger Stadium, would you…
KATHLEEN: No, no that would be — that would be something I wouldn't want.
CONAN: Why not?
KATHLEEN: I think for a lot of the reasons your guest said. The sense of overeating, in general, and then what might happen on the way home in a parking lot.
CONAN: Yeah, don't…
KATHLEEN: I don't need that with this thing at all.
CONAN: Don't want to have to clean up the back seat of the car.
CONAN: Yeah. Kathleen, thanks very much.
Mr. POLLACK: Yeah, I mean I think there's a difference between bleacher culture and, you know, the bleacher bums of old Wrigley Field lore and hanging out and talking about the game and waiting for a home run ball. Bit I think that is actually diminished with all-you-can-eat, because all you are doing is waiting in line for more food. And I think it actually takes away from the enjoyment of the game and I think it diminishes the culture that has developed over the decades.
CONAN: And as you ran through the menu in the all-you-can-eat area of the ballpark earlier, people will notice that conspicuous by its absence is beer. Obviously, you don't want to do that necessarily. And in fact, in a lot of places around the country, they're restricting sales of beer even in places like the bleachers, where, again, that was a staple in a lot of places.
Mr. POLLACK: Yeah, I mean, from, you know, from my experience in the bleachers at Wrigley, you know, beer, you know, you want to drink beer out there in the hot sun, I mean, and you're, you know, you're - you want to be part of the, you know, of the festivities. And, you know, getting drunk in the bleachers is a long-standing tradition, so I'm not necessarily averse to that.
CONAN: You confess in your piece, though, that the prices they charge at Dodger Stadium is so prohibitive you'd like to get drunk in the parking lot before the game starts.
Mr. POLLACK: I — drunk, sure. I'd like to get drunk. I mean, I like to intoxicate in the parking lot. If I'm going to, I feel like, you know, I should just bring my own. But that's my own…
CONAN: That's your own…
Mr. POLLACK: …that's my own meshuga, yeah.
CONAN: Let's get Ryan(ph) on the line. Ryan's calling us from Turlock in California.
RYAN (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call, Neal.
RYAN: Hey, I've got a question for you. I'm going to the A's/Giants game this weekend. I'm going to actually AT&T. It's going to be the first time I've been to the Giants' new ballpark. I'm an A's fan. I'm taking my best friend and his wife, who's five months pregnant. And we want to sit in the bleachers, but should we spend a little bit more, maybe get some MVPs or maybe mezzanine or something like that?
CONAN: So this is one of the last exhibition games there before the season opens?
RYAN: Well, I guess the season opened this morning in Japan.
CONAN: But I'd…
RYAN: I don't know what baseball is doing there. It's a little weird, but, yeah, it isn't counting as a regular season.
CONAN: They wouldn't open either league with the A's and the Giants, but anyway. Your advice on that, Neal Pollack.
Mr. POLLACK: Well, I don't see why sitting in the bleachers would be worse for a woman who is five months pregnant than sitting in the mezzanine. I mean, it doesn't really — if you want to spring for a seat closer to the action, that's great. But I don't think that there's going to be something, you know, excessively toxic in the air that's going to hurt her out in the bleachers.
RYAN: What about all the drunks in the bleachers?
Mr. POLLACK: Well, you know, from my experience, you can always find a drunk in a ballpark.
CONAN: It's true enough. And I must say that I was once invited as a Yankee fan to attend a game in the bleachers at Fenway Park with my family and my wife and my two kids. And basically, if you have small children, they'll protect you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RYAN: Well, seeing that you're a Yankee's fan, Neal, I'm going to have to hang up. So thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Okay. All right. Thanks very much.
Mr. POLLACK: You're tapping into age-old grievances here.
CONAN: I think so and this is more to do, maybe about the other part of the broadcast than about this one.
Mr. POLLACK: Right.
CONAN: Lets see if we can get Ted(ph) on the line. Ted's calling us from Denver in Colorado.
TED (Caller): That's right, Denver, Colorado, home of the defending National League champion Colorado Rockies. But I do have to say, in the past 10 or 12 years, maybe more than that, since Coors Field has opened up and I find that's another ballpark that I visit, the quality of food has just really gone down and the prices have just skyrocketed.
I don't care how much or how good the food is. There's no way that Dodger Field or Dodger Stadium - and those are great Dodger Dogs, at least they used to be -can even match what even all the costs are. And I'm finding it harder and harder to even justify taking my family out to a baseball game when it costs me 150 or 200 bucks. Well, that's maybe for football, but for baseball, a family outing's at least 65 or 70 bucks. And the cost of beer? Come on.
Mr. POLLACK: It's the sports fan's lament. I mean, I think the Dodgers are ripping us off with these all-you-can-eat seats, personally. I mean, the food is - they must be making so much money on this you can't even imagine. I mean, how much does a vat of fake cheese sauce cost them to buy, really, you know? I just - I don't know. And he's right. The quality of the food is way down. And I think that, you know, if you're going to charge more, you know, give us something in return. You can't tell me that these clubs aren't making a mint off of the food concessions.
CONAN: Neal Pollack, you also argue that the quality of the touted Dodger dog has declined precipitously over the past couple of years.
Mr. POLLACK: There's — I didn't know - I don't know about the past couple of years, but there is no doubt that they're not as good as they used to be. Well, I mean - the Dodgers are trying to change that up this year by having them cook the dogs fresh in every concession stand. But, yeah, I don't - it isn't what it used to be and - I mean, I sound like an 80-year-old man complaining about the designated hitter or something. But it is true that, you know, the quality of what you get is not worth the money.
CONAN: Ted, thanks very much for the call.
TED: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. We are talking with Neal Pollack about bleacher food and all-you-can-eat sections. You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
I do have to ask also, you went with a friend who you call in the article the rabbi, who said he was a vegetarian. Did this present a problem?
Mr. POLLACK: He's a very creative vegetarian. So he went in to our all-you-can-eat adventure with a specific goal in mind. He wanted to create a new form of food that he called the nacho dog. He went to the concession. He asked them for a hotdog bun, without meat in it, and asked them to put nacho cheese on it. And they did. And then, he went and put a bunch of jalapenos and some salsa on that and he consumed that whole. And it created a — I guess had a heartier stomach than I did, but it definitely, I could see his color change as he took - each successive bite made him look a little paler.
CONAN: Todd's(ph) on the line with us from Louisville, Kentucky.
TODD (Caller): Hey, how are you doing? You know, I work in the buffet business and have for a long time. And, you know, there's a different character that the belly up to the bar and eat all you can eat and that's going to attract a certain element. But I think that the bleachers — you know, I've been at baseball stadiums all over the country, and, you know, those cheap seats, those far back bleachers — yeah, it's the love of the game. And that's why you sit there, there's a certain element that has that love of the game that sits in those seats.
But the buffet thing is going to bring a transient element that's, I think, is going to come in and float back out, not really going to change it overall. I think as far as the comment on the price of the food that they're making, you know, I'm in the buffet business. If we don't sell a beverage, we're kind of break even with what it costs us in these big ballparks. It's all about just huge-volume cooking. And so you're right. There's very, very low food cost on that end and they are making some good bucks if they're charging 10 or 15 bucks a head over. It's just part of the business.
CONAN: Neal Pollack, you had an interesting conversation with one of the vendors or - I guess he's not a vendor if he's not selling there. But one of the people giving out the food in the free food section or all-you-can-eat section, not free food, and he said he liked it.
Mr. POLLACK: Well, I mean.
CONAN: Go ahead, Neal.
Mr. POLLACK: Some people are going to like it. There's no question about it. The idea of unlimited food is appealing to a lot of people. But, you know, I want to go back to what the caller was saying that, you know, the idea of camaraderie and the love of the game being what the bleachers are about, I have never — I've been to hundreds if not thousands of baseball games in my life and I have never felt less interest in a baseball game among the crowd than when I sat in the all-you-can-eat section because, everyone was just looking at their plate of food. And, you know, and part of it was that we were down 8-nothing in the third inning and Jake Peavey was pitching, but still, I found the whole experience to be really dispiriting, and I love baseball.
CONAN: Let's get one last call in. This is Zach(ph), Zach with us from Grand Junction in Colorado.
ZACH (Caller): Yeah. I am a bleacher patron. I am a die-hard Rockies fan. And one of the reasons that I really like being out in the Rock-pile is you can get tickets in the Rock-pile for $4 a ticket. But also I have a 4-year-old little boy, and during the playoffs and that kind of stuff, I really like to go down and spend the extra money and get Club-level seats and have a waitress and -but I can't - I don't feel comfortable taking my son into that kind of situation because it gets a little wily at 4-years-old, sitting through an entire baseball game and tend to get a lot of people getting real judgmental of my son not sitting there quietly on his hands in a professional baseball game.
And that's one of the reasons that I really like is just that he can get out there and scream and have fun and enjoy baseball the way I learned to enjoy baseball.
CONAN: We've got to put a stop to that. Zach, thanks very much for the call. And finally - go ahead.
Mr. POLLACK: Kids should have as much at baseball games as possible. If I take my 5-year-old to a game, I can't - I'm never allowed to stay past the fifth inning, so…
CONAN: Well, you're in LA, that's the habit there.
Mr. POLLACK: Yeah, actually, I'm staying later than usual.
CONAN: Here's a final e-mail from John(ph) in Berkeley, California. Tell the guy taking the pregnant woman to AT&T to upgrade from the bleachers. They are flat benches with no seatbacks. So, that advice, Neal Pollack, thanks very much.
Mr. POLLACK: Hey, thanks for having me.
CONAN: Neal Pollack joined us today from Los Angeles. He was at the Marketplace Production studios. His latest book is "Alternadad: The True Story of One Family's Struggle to Raise a Cool Kid in America." He wrote about his experiences at Dodger Stadiums' all-you-can-eat pavilion for Slate.com.
This is TALK OF THE NATION for NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.