Calories Count On Minor League Menus

Countdown to Opening Day is now in single-digits and minor league teams are getting ready by putting the finishing touches on their lineups--at concession stands, that is. Starting rotations and batting orders can wait until next week when spring training breaks. However, the time is now to unveil the latest in burgers, beer shakes, buffalo sauce and other unique combinations coming to minor league ballparks.

The West Michigan Whitecaps (Midwest) have turned menu watching into a rite of spring, inviting fans to create and then vote on new dishes to be added to the Fifth Third Ballpark menu. The tradition began in 2009 with the introduction of the Fifth Third Burger--a 4,800-calorie monstrosity that remains on the menu and previously gained the team national attention on the Travel Channel's hit show "Man vs. Food"--and in recent years led to such culinary curiosities as the Cudighi Yooper Sandwich in 2012 (a spicy sausage covered in cheese, pizza sauce, peppers and onions), the Baco in 2013 (a taco within a shell made of bacon that also remains on the menu), and the Augger Dogger in 2014 (a deep-fried hot dog on a stick encircled by potato chips).

This year's winner is equally unconventional. The Hot-To-Tot, a buffalo chicken and bleu cheese covered tater-tot dish, finished in first place by receiving 17 percent of the fan vote. It edged the French Fry Pizza Pie--a pepperoni pizza served on french fries in place of dough--and Cheesy Does It--a burger with cheese replacing a bun.

"Varying our menu is an important aspect of coming to a Whitecaps game," West Michigan director of marketing Mickey Graham said in a release. "We’ll continue to tinker with new items to give fans a fun, unique experience.”

That experience is coming in other forms as well. Other items coming to the Whitecaps' menu this season include (descriptions provided by the team):
• Nutella Poppers--Nutella stuffed sweet dough fried to a golden brown and rolled in sugar.

• Oreo Churros--Oreo cookie pieces made into a churro served with oreo frosting for dipping.

• Pretzel-Breaded Italian Sausage--Italian Sausage covered with a pretzel breading on a sub bun.

• Beer-A-Misu--Tiramisu gelato with local stout beer.

The Dogs Are Cooking

The Charleston RiverDogs (South Atlantic) have largely managed to stay on the cutting edge of ballpark fare without going overboard during the artery-clogging craze in minor league baseball.

Last season, Joseph R. Riley Ballpark became a barbeque destination when the team added an industrial smoker and brought in local "celebrity chefs" each Sunday to cook up a specialty. The team also typically has healthy alternatives to their more outrageous items--locally grown vegetables can be found at the same taco stand that offers "kitchen sink nachos" (which includes everything in the concession stand).

They even introduced a "carrot dog" to their hot dog stand in 2014. The RiverDogs are at it again this season. Fans looking to live on the edge can indulge in chocolate-covered pepper bacon or deep-fried cheesecake on a stick--both of which can be found at the appropriately named RiverDogs' State Fair stand.

Also new this season is a Lowcountry Taco (pulled pork, slow cooked collard greens and mac n’ cheese topped with a Memphis-style barbeque sauce), a Brisket Ramen Bowl (Ramen noodles sautéed in an orange teriyaki glaze topped with smoked beef brisket, snow peas, carrots, green onions and a hardboiled egg) and a Smoked Turkey Wing Basket (two half-pound turkey wings slow-smoked and served with blackberry sage barbeque sauce over a basket of in-house cooked pork rinds).

New healthy items are available in Charleston as well, including the debut of a Summer Harvest Salad--which, according to the team, "feeds two-to-three adults and includes an entire head of hydroponically-grown butter leaf lettuce stuffed with grape tomatoes, edamame, and an herb and carrot quinoa mixture. It is topped with sprouts, sunflower seeds and a creamy avocado dressing, all served in a replica baseball batting helmet."

More Than Tacos In Fresno

The highlight of the eating season for the Fresno Grizzlies (Pacific Coast) comes during the one-night only Taco Truck Throwdown, in which the team opens up its courtyard to roughly a dozen local taco trucks for a friendly eat-off competition--a record 27,000 tacos were sold last year.

The team will host its fifth installment of the promotion on Aug. 6 this season, but before then will have plenty to offer at their concession stands. The Grizzlies unveiled their menu today, which includes a belly-busting monstrosity called The Schwab (a third-pound burger combined with a hot dog and topped with pepper jack cheese, jalapeno nacho cheese, bacon, fried pickles and onion straws).

Other highlights include: Chinatown Nachos--Crispy wonton chips with Mongolian barbeque chicken, spicy pico de gallo and sweet sriracha aioli. Downtown Street Tacos--Corn tortillas with a choice of carne asada, pollo asada, or crispy pescado frito. The Veggie Stack--Grilled Italian and yellow squash, portabella mushrooms with romaine lettuce, tomatoes, with pesto hummus and a balsamic drizzle on a ciabatta roll.

New Eats In Akron

The Akron RubberDucks (Eastern) have improved fan experience at Canal Park during the two years since Ken Babby purchased team. They've added a packed promotional schedule--which last year included a series of bobblehead giveaways in honor of local celebrities--and fixed up the ballpark with a $3.5 million renovation.

The menu is getting an overhaul as well. Included among the highlights unveiled on the team's Twitter feed and to local media is a new craft beer stand--creatively, called Jobu's Craft Brews--which will feature at least two dozen offerings.

According to the Akron Beacon Journal, the RubberDucks' expanded menu will feature such highlights as The Don Corleone (two pounds of cold cuts on a sub roll), the Not Your Routine Poutine (a spin-off of the popular Canadian snack of french fries covered with brown gravy and cheese curds that will include barbeque pulled pork bacon bits and green onion), and a wedge salad made with a full head of iceberg lettuce served in a baseball helmet. A Heart-Stopping Addition

Lastly, the Kane County Cougars (Midwest) unveiled an offering that accurately sums up the minor league food craze: the Heart Attack Burger. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are combined on a half-pound beef patty "topped with grilled onions, a fried egg, slice of melted cheddar cheese, chipotle bacon mayo, two strips of bacon with a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches serving as its bun," the team reports.

Happy (and safe) eating, everyone.