The Yankees’ loss is our … hey!

Slugger Field
We’re great fans of the Louisville Bats and thoroughly smitten by Slugger Field, but we’ve found ballpark food service consistently disappointing on Centerplate’s watch. Photo by Robin Garr.

LEO’s Eats with

Centerplate Inc., the South Carolina-based arena and ballpark catering company, has been getting a rough ride lately, with the New York Yankees dumping the company as Yankee Stadium concessionaire after a 40-year ride, and its shares plunging on Wall Street in the wake of blows ranging from financial bad news to a discrimination lawsuit by a Yankees’ bartender.

But Centerplate still rides high in the Derby City, where it not only sells us our hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jack in Slugger Field and Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium but is slated to be concessionaire in the controversial downtown sports arena, and also recently emerged as operator of the new Wolfgang Puck Express, an upscale fast-food emporium in downtown’s Kentucky International Convention Center.

Does New York know something that Louisville is missing? We’re great fans of the Louisville Bats and thoroughly smitten by Slugger Field, but I’ve found ballpark food service consistently disappointing on Centerplate’s watch.

Like a never-say-die Cubs fan, I come back every spring with renewed hope in my heart. But after a couple of rounds of Slugger Field’s grill stations and concession stands this year, I don’t find much to alter my impression recorded at the start of last season: “Slugger Field remains one of the most pleasant places in the city to spend a summer evening, but it may help to bear in mind that, frankly, it’s a ball game, not a restaurant. The team is owned by bankers, and it shows: Food service is as functional, and as unimaginative, as a slow-moving teller line.”

It will probably come as no surprise that prices, overall, have gone up a bit this year. My ballpark-food benchmark, the “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” index, reveals that it will now take $6.50 to buy me some peanuts ($3.75) and Cracker Jack ($2.75); they were $3 and $2.50 respectively in 2007.

We settled in for the opening day game with a cheeseburger, a tray of chicken tenders and fries, a small cola and a beer and whoa, $18! Suddenly it becomes apparent how Centerplate was able to amass annual revenues reported at more than $600 million last year.

Still, you’ve got to eat. Unfortunately, management (absurdly invoking fears of 9/11 and the possibility that someone might conceal an exploding ham sandwich) forbids bringing your own food and drink, and subjects bags and purses to random inspection. (One exception: Bottled water in individual bottles is permitted.)

One of my ballpark favorites remains the grilled pork chop ($6, up from $5.75 last year), available from a big black iron smoker in left field. They’re somewhat variable depending on who’s cooking and how long they’ve been sitting around, but they’re usually sizable. At best they’re tender and juicy; at worst, overcooked and leathery but still flavorful. I’ve had less good luck with the grilled rib eye steak ($6), which tends to be thin and leathery.

One Club Level concession stand, inaccessible to general admission fans, offers a fish sandwich ($3.75), which is usually fried only to order (expect a five- or 10-minute wait) and comes in a perfect, unknown-in-nature square resembling the familiar Mickey D’s Filet-O-Fish. Still, it’s one of the better ballpark picks.

Faced with myriad choices, not all of them appealing, I generally stick with ballpark tradition and go with sausages for my evening meal, usually upgrading from the pedestrian hot dog to the more gourmet-style Italian sausage ($4) or the imposing foot-long Big Bratwurst ($5.25).

These are quality products, the Italian nicely spiced with fennel and a whiff of red pepper; the brat more subtly flavored, with an old-fashioned thick skin that bursts with a squirt of tasty juice when you bite down. I generally pass on the very greasy grilled onions and peppers offered with these confections.

Fresh roasted peanuts ($3.25) seem mighty appetizing as they come steaming from the roaster, but after encountering batches of rancid nuts twice last year, I’ve put them on my no-go list. Ditto for some of the more creatively topped nachos, which start off as crunchy guilty pleasures but invariably end up with soggy chips in a pool of fat at the bottom. Nor am I overwhelmed by Papa John’s pizza ($6 for an individual pie).

On a really chilly night, it’s not a bad thing to end your evening with a funnel cake ($5.50), a sweet treat not unlike an abstract doughnut created by Jackson Pollock.