In praise of the messy, gut-busting, one-of-a-kind Columbus Clippers tradition

Editor’s note: With the Columbus Clippers hosting the first Dime-a-Dog Night of the year this evening, Columbus Monthly is republishing this July 2006 feature—written by then associate editor (now editor) Dave Ghose—that dug into Columbus baseball's most peculiar phenomenon. 

The first pitch is a half-hour away, but Cooper Stadium already is buzzing. Eager fans crowd the concourse, which is filled with the warm smell of boiled hot dogs. Outside, parking attendants collect $3 fees from a steady stream of cars that’s backing up traffic on nearby I-70. Stadium officials anticipate a good-size crowd, around 8,000, even though it’s a meaningless game in May between a couple of International League also-rans, the hometown Columbus Clippers and the Richmond Braves.

But baseball is secondary on this Monday evening. The game marks the young season’s second Dime-a-Dog—the messy, gut-busting, one-of-a-kind Cooper Stadium tradition. About 20,000 hot dogs stay warm in two massive heated containers in a makeshift kitchen on the concourse's north end. Runners relay the franks from the cooking area to the food stands, where workers stuff them in buns and wait for the masses to buy the hot dogs five at a time, the limit per customer.

Todd Homon, who's in charge of concessions, is asked to name the biggest challenge of a Dime-a-Dog Night, when hot dogs are discounted a whopping 96 percent from their normal $2.50 price and the rules of food consumption tend to break down. “Being tall enough,” he says, struggling to hang a sign above a food stand.

A muffled voice says something on Homon's walkie-talkie, and another last­-minute detail, a busted soda machine, grabs his attention. Homon is oddly calm for someone about to square off against a mob hellbent for hot dogs. Just one thing hints at the situation's urgency—his walk. He semi-sprints, his keys jangling against his khakis. Mid-stride, he revises his answer to the query about his biggest challenge. "Basically, to get a good gauge of the crowd so you don't waste a lot of hot dogs,” he says. “No one wants to see that.”

He's worked nearly 20 Dime-a-Dogs since his company, Sodexho, took over Cooper Stadium's concessions operation about five years ago. Over that time, he's developed a talent for hot-dog handicapping. And tonight's big issue: Will 20,000 hot dogs—more than one ton of boiled tube steak—be enough to satisfy the hungry horde?

It's strange that anyone would ever consider that question. It's even stranger that the answer is no.

***

If you cook it, they will come. About 350,000 people have bought 1.5 million hot dogs during more than 50 Dime-a-Dog Nights. If laid end to end, those dogs would wrap around the 55-mile outerbelt three times. Columbus has moved down in the annual Men’s Health rankings of the fattest cities in America in recent years, but if the magazine ever sent a correspondent to cover Dime-a-Dog, the city surely would vault to the top. Or waddle.

Dime-a-Dog has become the Clippers' signature event. Last year, Cooper Stadium hosted six frankfurter fests, the most ever in one season. Six were slated for this year as well, with two remaining on the calendar—July 24 and Aug. 21. "It just grows better and bigger every year," says Joe Santry, the Clippers' media relations director and historian.

The team has trademarked the phrase Dime-a-Dog, and the souvenir shop sells T-shirts with the event's official logo—a cartoon hot dog in a bun flipping a dime. “It's really kind of amazing," says Ken Schnacke, president and general manager of the club. “It has a cult following, like the old ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ ”

A fitting comparison. Like the movie, Dime-a-Dog is cheesy, theatrical, participatory, slightly frightening and, depending on the gender, homoerotic (that is, if you consider a hot dog a phallic symbol). The event lacks a transsexual vampire, but it does have other unique characters. One regular carries bottles of mustard and ketchup in holsters attached to his belt.

Minor league baseball is not your typical professional sport. Rosters fluctuate too much for most fans to get excited over players. Instead, the experience (food, fun, fresh air) is the main selling point. For instance, the Clippers offer dozens of giveaways, special events and discounts each year and pack every game with between-inning entertainment—chicken dances, putting contests, T-shirts shot into the crowd.

The team is tame compared with other minor-league squads. The St. Paul Saints have set the gold standard for nutty ideas—a trained pig that delivers balls to the umpire, a nun who gives massages in the stands, mimes who reenact big plays. The team's promotional guru—Mike Veeck, the son of the Hall of Fame hustler Bill Veeck, who sent a little person to bat in 1951 for the St. Louis Browns—and other free spirits have created an alternative universe where llamas race, cows tip and men in mullets parade. But some lines remain uncrossed. The Charleston Riverdogs, another of Veeck's minor league teams, wanted to award a vasectomy to a lucky fan during a Father's Day promotion. The team canceled the event, however, when local Catholics protested.

The Clippers won't offer free surgical birth control any time soon, either. Just one level below the majors and part of the conservative Yankees organization, the Clippers avoid most outlandish marketing ideas. Then again, who needs gimmicks when you already have a perfect promotion, one that combines America's pastime with America's most patriotic food with America's love affair with low prices and overindulgence? Dime-a-Dog is a spectacle of gluttonous glory and—no snickering, please—a fascinating social experiment.

Like a military boot camp or a maximum-security prison, Dime-a-Dog can teach you about yourself. Will you stuff your face, consequences be damned, or consume just what you need? Will you share food with friends and strangers or toss unwanted wieners at players and fans? Will you still have a smile on your face after a 40-minute wait or, in a fit of anger, dump a beverage on a concession worker? (Which did happen a few years ago.)

Dime-a-Dog offers lessons in mob behavior and the law of supply and demand. It also exemplifies American know-how and logistical brilliance. An enterprising graduate student could make a name for himself studying Dime-a­-Dog. Really.

***

Tonight's festivities begin with Curtis Marcum. For more than 20 seasons, he has been Dime-a-Dog's main chef. He and his assistants—Nick Roe, 25, and Anthony Held, 23—started their work at 2 p.m. Four and a half hours later, they enjoy a well-deserved rest as the 46-year-old Marcum reminisces about his Dime-a-Dog career. "I was probably cooking hot dogs before they were even born," he says about his aides.

Like lots of Cooper Stadium employees, the three wear many hats. Marcum also cooks for both the Clippers and the visiting team clubhouses and supervises the crew that cleans the stadium. Roe and Held will fill in for batboys on occasion and also are members of Marcum's clean-up team.

The dual Dime-a-Dog responsibilities give the trio a unique perspective. Like condemned men building their own gallows, they cook the hot dogs that will haunt them later. "Somebody buys 10 hot dogs," Marcum says, "they probably will eat six." And those rejects then become the clean-up crew's responsibility—along with other messes. "It's a big puke night,” Roe says.

But the job does provide plenty of nourishment. So far, Held has eaten 10 hot dogs.

"That's a nice perk," a visitor says.

"It's more like a penance,” Held says.

Shortly after 7 p.m., Clippers starter Matt Childers throws the first pitch of the game. But much of the crowd is still in the concourse, where lines back into each other. A man walking with his young son squeezes through the throng. "This is crazy," he says. A young woman behind him is equally perplexed. "I don't know what to do," she says to a friend.

They both seem caught off guard. Perhaps they didn't realize it was Dime­ a-Dog Night. Or perhaps they saw an ad in the Dispatch, thought the promotion amusing and decided to try it on a lark not knowing what to expect. But most in the concourse seem happy. There's lots of laughter and plenty of smiles.

The gathering also reveals Dime-a-Dog's unifying potential. The crowd is black and white, young and old, fat and skinny, hairy and bald. There are hip-hoppers and metrosexuals, Yankee fans and Yankee haters, even a guy in a hammer and sickle T-shirt. Could 10-cent hot dogs be the new opiate of the masses?

Ohio State student Kevin Seabolt and his buddies load up on hot dogs after a 20-minute wait. “I came here a lot when I was younger," Seabolt says. "Once I started getting more into baseball, I was an Indians fan and I stopped paying attention to the Clippers.” But cheap chow brought him back.

College students are well represented. Shawnee State University students Trisha Harvey, Catie O'Neill and Dominique Macioce drove 90 miles to eat 10-cent. hot dogs. High gas prices make the deal less sweet for them, but they don't seem to mind. Meanwhile, OSU students Matthew Hurt and Sarah Viall enjoy their first Dime-a-Dog. "She's a huge baseball fan, so I'm like, 'You're in Columbus. What's better than going to a Columbus Clippers game on Dime-a-Dog Night,’ ” Hurt says.

They each carry a box of five hot dogs. “I’m going to finish hers," Hurt predicts. His girlfriend scoffs. "I'll finish.”

So it's a contest?

"Definitely," Viall says.

"Whoever loses sleeps on the couch," Hurt says.

Competitive eating isn't Vern Feen’s style, however. The 72-year-old retired teacher plans to share his five hot dogs with some coffee klatch buddies at the stadium. "I could eat all the hot dogs, but I shouldn't at my age," he says.

***

Dime-a-Dog wasn't supposed to become a local institution. In fact, its birth was so unmemorable that many participants differ on its details. Schnacke marks May 23, 1977, as its debut; others say it was three years later. Also, former and current Clippers employees disagree about who came up with the idea. Tom Cooper, a Clippers assistant general manager from 1977 to 1983, describes the promotion as “filler”—something he and his colleagues threw on the schedule with little thought.

Still, it was a unique idea. Discounts, of course, are one of minor league baseball's oldest marketing tricks. But no other team, then or now, according to Clippers officials, has dared to cut the price of hot dogs to such a ridiculously low price, essentially giving them away.

With little or no advertising, a good-size crowd showed up for the first Dime-a-Dog Night and blindsided vendors.  “I remember we really scrambled to get them lukewarm before they were sold," says Cooper, the son of former Franklin County Commissioner Harold Cooper, the stadium's namesake. "It was a tough night for our concessions people.” Because there was no limit then, voracious eaters ordered as many hot dogs as they could carry—20 to 30 at a time. "There would be people who would wipe the whole grill out," says Dick "Fitzy" Fitzpatrick, the concessions manager then.

But stadium staffers eventually found a workable system. The next year, they set a 10 hot-dog limit. As Dime-a-Dog's popularity grew, they lowered it to five, even though enforcement of this rule is a little lax. And boiling became the preferred cooking method. (Hot dogs are still grilled during normal games—a tastier but less efficient process.)

Since Dime-a-Dog was launched, hot dog prices have nearly quadrupled. The Clippers acknowledged rising prices on April 13, 1987, with "Two-Bit-Dog Night.” It was a terrible decision. The cost hike outraged Dime-a-Dog loyalists, and 10-cent frankfurters returned the next year.

But don't cry for the Clippers. Dime­ a-Dog is not a profit sinkhole. Yes, the concessions folks lose money on the wieners. "But if you buy a hot dog, you’ve got to get something to go with that," Fitzpatrick says. “Believe me, it does not really hurt the business.”

Still, Sodexho, the food service giant that also runs concessions at Crew Stadium and the Horseshoe had its doubts when it took over the Cooper Stadium food operation. "I would say reluctance is probably a good word," Schnacke says. “We have since won them over.”

***

By the fifth inning, the concourse cluster has thinned, and the hot­ dog wait is down to about five minutes. Concession workers are still friendly, and the dogs are still warm, but the condiment stands have seen better days. One is out of both ketchup and yellow mustard, and someone broke the stem on the brown mustard pump, though it still works if you push just so.

About halfway through the game, Seabolt, the Ohio State student, and his chums get into a hot-dog skirmish with strangers. In the stands, Seabolt passes a dog to a friend, who then tosses it to another friend, who then swats it at a group of fans in front of them. That group doesn't appreciate the friendly fire, and Seabolt and his buddies exit the stadium before a full-on war ignites. But the incident doesn't spoil their appetites. They take their 10-cent hot dogs home with them and eat the rest while watching professional wrestling until 2 in the morning.

Feen's evening goes a little awry as well. When he gets to the third-base-side stands, his coffee buddies aren't there. No matter. Feen runs into other acquaintances, and he makes new friends when he gives his extra dogs to a couple sitting near him. "It was a nice atmosphere," he says.

By the eighth inning, many fans are heading to the parking lot, especially families with children. Probably half of the announced attendance of 7,250 is gone or on their way out the door. With almost no waiting at the food stands now, this writer decides it's time for some participatory journalism and orders two hot dogs. A lingering wise guy slides two dimes across the counter. "It's on me," he says. It might have been the least generous act of charity in Cooper Stadium's history.

Homon, the concessions chief, still prowls the concourse. He puts the total dogs sold at 26,548, an average Dime­ a-Dog Night. "It went real well," says Homon, who two and a half hours earlier wisely had ordered his cooking team to boil a lot more hot dogs. ''The lines got long, but that's to be expected. Most people are OK with that, as long as they see the lines moving.”

Clippers officials promise that the tradition will continue in their new Arena District stadium, Huntington Park, scheduled to open in 2008. In fact, Santry, the team's spokesman, predicts an even better environment. Concession stands are expected to be in the back of Huntington Park's grandstand, unlike at Cooper Stadium, where they're buried in the concourse. "So you can stand in line and watch the game," he says.

Santry says Dime-a-Dog has become synonymous with the team. "You ask people in Columbus to name one thing about Clippers baseball," he says. "They're not going to remember Derek Jeter played here. Or Posada. Or Bernie Williams. I bet you over 50 percent say Dime-a-Dog Night. It's just become a classic.”

***

The wurst is over. Richmond catcher Brayan Peña fields a weak fly ball in foul territory, sealing a 7-3 victory for the Braves and ending another Dime-a-Dog Night. The diehards funnel out of the stands, including OSU students Hurt and Viall.

The petite Viall is the surprise winner in the couple's eating contest, downing five hot dogs to her boyfriend's four and a half. "She got me," Hurt confesses.

Is he embarrassed to lose to someone smaller and without a Y chromosome? "Not really. I was proud. I was like, ‘That's my girl.’ ”

And how does Viall feel about the victory? "I probably won't eat hot dogs for a while.”

The crowd leaves behind a monumental mess—untouched hot dogs in plastic wrappers, hot dog scraps under the seats, four hot dogs squished into a cup holder in the box seats. A bored­-looking Franklin County sheriff's deputy watches the last stragglers exit through the stadium's main gate. It's been a slow night for the police, with only one ejection—a guy who was urinating in public. The cops say Dime-a-Dog crowds are generally well behaved. After all, the consumption of fatty foods tends to act like a sedative.

The deputy spots a woman heading to the gate with the unmistakable bulge of the final stages of pregnancy. Or maybe not. "Is that from hot dogs?" he asks.

On Dime-a-Dog Night, that's a fair question.

This story originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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