Ballpark Bites: Pat O’Conner

It is often said that only a small percentage of fans go to minor league games because of the action on the field.

While certainly the average Baseball America reader is an exception to that rule, even passionate fans can break away from the game long enough for something good to eat. And as teams invest more in the ballpark experience, the quality of fare being dished out at diamonds around the sport has risen well beyond your basic hot dog and peanuts.

So rather than offer you my opinion on what's good to eat— to be honest, when I go to games with the family, I'm usually shuttling chicken fingers and fries to my kids—I'm going to enlist folks who regularly get to a variety ballparks around the country to help you find the best selections from menus across the country.

This running feature will be known as "Ballpark Bites." Kicking off the first installment is a man who spends around 200 nights a year on the road and visits about 75 minor league ballparks every season.

Here are a few of the offerings Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner recommends at ballparks around the minors: (Editor's Note: This is not a strict ranking of O'Conner's top concession items, but rather a list of a few of his favorites.)

I knew I had gone to the right source when O'Conner kicked off the conversation with this tidbit: "One look at me and it's clear that I do know ballpark food. I'm carrying an extra fifth-grader around my waist."

Perfect.

• One must-have for O'Conner is a bratwurst at Principal Park, home of the Iowa Cubs (Pacific Coast): "(Iowa president) Sam Bernabe has the best bratwurst in Des Moines. When I get there, it's two brats with mustard and a Diet Coke before I even look for Sam. He has a brat that's killer."

• This one took me a bit by surprise: O'Conner raved about the barbecue at San Jose (California).

California barbecue?

But O'Conner insists the barbecue chicken in San Jose is one of the best delicacies in all of minor league baseball. "It's great. Get some barbecue chicken and sit out in the picnic area down the left-field line. You've got to get the barbecue."

After living in North Carolina now for five years and regularly eating at the Q-Shack (the best barbecue in Durham, conveniently located around the corner from Durham Bulls Athletic Park), it seems hard to fathom that health-conscious Northern California knows its 'cue. So I gave a call to San Jose Giants president Jim Weyermann–who happens to be a North Carolina native–to see if what O'Conner said is so. 

"That's what everybody does when they come here," Weyermann said of O'Conner's eating experience, before issuing a challenge to his minor league brethren. "There is no better barbecue than what's at a San Jose Giants game. I'll put it to a taste test to anyone in baseball . . . As far as baseball goes, I think it's the best."

It turns out that barbecue at Municipal Stadium has some history to it. In 1988, the team was sold to a group of local investors, headed by restaurateur Steve Boysol, who quickly concocted a few dry rubs and set up a barbecue pit at the ballpark. The recipe, cooked over seasoned wood in an open pit, has remained the same over the years—in fact, Weyermann says only four people have ever seen the recipe. "That's one of the reasons why it has never been duplicated," he said.

Evidence of the barbecue's popularity in San Jose: Weyermann said the team sold nearly $500,000 worth of chicken and ribs alone last season.

• Two very simple, but very good items: If you're at a Tulsa Drillers (Texas) game, get a burger at ONEOK Field. If you're in Troy, N.Y., try the Tri-City ValleyCats (New York-Penn) broiled potatoes. O'Conner promises you won't be disappointed by either.

• Finally, this one falls under the "you first" category. During his last visit to the Missoula Osprey (Pioneer), O'Conner saw on the menu an offering called Bats and Balls. "It's Mountain Oysters and french fries," he explained.

We'll let you Google to find out about Mountain Oysters if you aren't already familiar with that delicacy. O'Conner passed, but swears the next time he's in Missoula, he'll give them a nibble. 

"Want to talk about something unique? That's it," O'Conner said. "This is one where you can have your readers report if it's good."

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