Interview with a Ballpark Celiac
Around here we live and breath minor league baseball. Back in the old days, when Jeff was making his way through the White Sox farm system, I reveled in the adventure that took us from town to town, exploring minor league cities, tasting all of the unique ballpark food. “Dragon Tails” in Charlotte (fried pickles), boiled peanuts in Mobile (yuck), and soft serve “Ice Dream” in Chattanooga (yum).
Now that we aren’t traveling as much as we used to, I like to live vicariously through the tales told by Benjamin Hill, blogger for MiLB.com. He brings a unique and hilarious perspective to the minor league baseball experience, showing us around the ballparks, tasting the food, and interacting with fans. Last year (on my birthday actually) I saw Ben tweet a post that really caught my eye. Ben had been diagnosed with celiac disease. I immediately felt bad for the guy (no more Dragon Tails, no more beer!), but then I became curious. How would this change his life? And how might this affect baseball fans who have celiac disease. Would he become an advocate for our cause?
It is now one year later, so I caught up with Ben and asked him these questions and more. And now I give you, an interview with a ballpark celiac.
What exactly is your job? How did you get involved with minor league baseball?
I’m still not quite sure what, exactly, my job is! It has been a largely improvised and somewhat accidental career path, and I’m making it up as I go along. But, in a nutshell, I write about Minor League Baseball business and promotions for MiLB.com and its MLBlogs offshoot Ben’s Biz Blog. My focus isn’t on top prospects and game results; what I’m concerned with is the culture of Minor League Baseball (the ballparks, the food, the promotions, the fans, etc). My operating statement: Each Minor League team is a reflection of the community in which it operates, and, therefore, these 160 teams taken together are a reflection of America. And what better way to explore America than through baseball?
I got involved with all of this in 2005, when a friend of mine got me a part-time job on the night shift writing game recaps for MiLB.com. I didn’t have a plan then to do what I’m doing now, it’s just something that evolved through the years. (If anyone’s interested, I explain my career path in further detail HERE.)
Do you have a favorite minor league team? Major league team? Organization?
It’s hard to pick favorites! There is so much diversity throughout the industry, and comparing one team to another is often an “apples and oranges” scenario. A few standouts, from all regions and levels of play, would be Daytona Cubs, Vancouver Canadians, Lehigh Valley IronPigs, and Arkansas Travelers. But ask me tomorrow and I’ll probably give a different answer.
Favorite team and organization is the Phillies, no question. I grew up outside of Philadelphia as a fanatical Phils fan, and now, on a professional level, it has been gratifying to see that their farm system is comprised of tremendously-run Minor League teams.
What is your favorite mascot?
Boomer of the Williamsport Crosscutters. He’s just a fun-loving weirdo who stumbled out of the woods and into the ballpark.
What is the weirdest thing you’ve seen at a minor league game?
Oh, boy. I could go on and on and on. Dressing up as a mascot race pork roll at 12:30 a.m. during a rain-delayed game in Lakewood was pretty weird (my opponents were egg and cheese, naturally). I was also at the Altoona Curve’s “Awful Night” promo in 2007 when they gave away sporks at the gate, though this paled in comparison to the year that the team’s GM tried to give away his recently-removed gall bladder.
Who is your favorite minor league entertainment?
I’m a fan of the hard-working Zooperstars crew for sure, though my favorite performers are the stuntmen. The “Human Cannonball” has been making the rounds this season, but I’m particularly partial to Ted “Man on Fire” Batchelor. His act is to get lit on fire and then run around the bases. Post-game entertainment at its finest!
How did your life change when you were diagnosed with celiac disease?
Well, it certainly made it so I couldn’t eat ballpark food the way I used to! It was funny in that I had to publicly declare that I had celiac disease, because I had to make it clear to teams (and my readers) that I would no longer be able to try most of the food. (That “coming out” post is HERE). But it’s actually been a good thing, professionally, as I now recruit “designated eaters” at each ballpark I visit. They eat the food that I cannot, and I take pictures and write about their culinary impressions on Ben’s Biz Blog. It’s a unique twist to an already unique niche.
Did you have warning signs? Would you be willing to share your symptoms that led to a diagnosis?
I found out about my celiac disease in a round-about way, as I didn’t have overt symptoms. What happened was that I was repeatedly rejected from giving blood due to low iron levels, and after the third time that happened the woman at the blood center told me that I should really see a doctor as anemia in a man my age was quite uncommon. That led to a series of appointments and referrals until, finally, an endoscopy resulted in a celiac disease diagnosis. The low iron levels were because the gluten had been damaging the cell linings, making it so that I wasn’t absorbing the iron. Or something like that (I have a hard time understanding doctor-speak).
Have you had a hard time finding safe gluten-free food while traveling or at ballparks?
Yeah, definitely. Most teams I’ve visited, post-diagnosis, haven’t had many options (in some cases because the concession facilities are inadequate, in others because they just haven’t been motivated to do so). But even worse than the stadiums is being on the road in general – I’ve always loved hole in the wall local joints, but now it’s difficult to do that kind of thing on a whim. These day I’m big on steak and eggs at diners, and pretty much anything Mexican. But every once in a while there are pleasant surprises, like the fantastically good “jazz-style” (no bun) burger at Gabby’s Burgers in Nashville.
I want to be a healthy person, overall, but on the road the irony is that I’m kept from eating as unhealthily as I would like to!
Who have you found to do gluten-free the best? The worst?
As in, which Minor League teams? I’m looking forward to visiting the West Michigan Whitecaps later this month, as they are the only team I’m aware of that has a specifically gluten-free menu on their web site. The Rochester Red Wings have a ton of options as well, though I haven’t been there yet. As for worse – take your pick. If a team is in a stadium that’s over 20 years old, then chances are you won’t find much that’s gluten-free beyond peanuts, popcorn and Cracker Jacks.
How strict are you with your diet? Do you ever cheat?
I am pretty strict about it on a day-to-day basis, especially since here in NYC it’s relatively easy to find gluten-free offerings. I don’t break down and binge on pizza, donuts, and beer or anything like that, but because I don’t have overt symptoms it takes a lot of self-discipline not to cheat. (In a way, I wish that cheating had more consequences so that the temptation would be less.) I’d say that my most common form of “cheating” is that I sometimes take a lazy “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” approach, especially when eating out. I pretend that terms such as “cross contamination” and “dedicated fryers” don’t exist, and assume that something “must” be gluten-free even if I don’t know for certain.
How do you feel since going gluten-free? (many of us struggle with how hard it is to live with celiac disease, especially since doctors make it sound like it should be easy)
I feel fine, but not all that different than I did before. People always ask me if I’ve lost weight since the diagnosis, thinking that would be the natural result after eliminating so many breaded and fried items from my diet. But I’ve actually gained about 15 pounds, and I think the reasons for this are two-fold. I’ve been shopping and cooking for myself a lot more, as opposed to eating on the fly and often (inadvertently) skipping meals. Also, I suppose that I’m now absorbing a lot more nutrients than I did before. Does that result in weight gain? I’ll just assume it does, as I don’t see any doctors in my immediate vicinity.
I struggle the most in social situations, parties or whatnot, that sad realization that even though there’s a full spread of food I can barely eat any of it (nor have a beer). I was at a sports bar recently, with beer specials and $.50 wings, and just felt so helpless. But I fight against self-pitying tendencies, because in the scheme of things this isn’t that big a deal. I live in an amazing city in an amazing country and have a job I love, so to get all “woe is me” about this would display an embarrassing lack of perspective.
When was the last time you were “glutened”? What symptoms do you have when that happens?
“Glutened” in verb form doesn’t really happen to me. Although, I was at a Tulsa Drillers game last season just after the diagnosis but before adjusting my diet (I gave myself about two weeks to say goodbye). I had a “Firecracker” hot dog and a wheat beer, and then participated in an on-field “human bobblehead” contest (in which one must move as much as possible in the span of one minute, with a pedometer strapped to the head). Afterwards I threw up in a windowless prison of a bathroom adjacent to the home dugout, thinking to myself that certainly this must be a career highlight.
What advice do you have for me and other celiacs when we visit a minor league ballpark?
Like I said before, it really depends on which ballpark! Unfortunately, I wouldn’t plan to have a meal at the average Minor League stadium. Eat beforehand or bring your own, and then supplement with snacks while looking longingly at the food that people are enjoying all around you.
But Minor League Baseball is a customer service-driven industry, one that really does try to be all things to all people. I’d recommend asking the team beforehand what their options are, while also letting it be known that you would appreciate an increased attention to gluten-free cuisine. When fans speak, teams listen. They want your money.
Your Twitter bio says “ballpark celiac”. Do you consider yourself a celiac advocate?
To an extent, yes, but I don’t want advocacy to be confused with expertise. I’m about one year into my gluten-free life, making mistakes and learning as I go along. But by doing this in a more public forum than most, I do hope to bring attention to just what celiac disease is and what living with it entails. And, having dedicated the last eight years of my life to writing about the Minors, I hope teams might realize that my issues do not occur in a vacuum. By catering to me they can then cater to so many others.
But as for direct advocacy: Going forward, I demand that all teams open up a Nacho Bar on their concourse. Everything fresh, everything gluten-free, everyone wins.
Anything else you would like to add?
Support your local Minor League Baseball team! Oh, and I’m a bachelor. Single ladies of NYC (gluten-free or otherwise) are advised to get in touch.
Benjamin Hill started writing for MiLB.com in 2005, and quickly became enamored with the quirky, anything-goes world of Minor League Baseball operations. His weekly “Promotion Preview” column — a humorous look at upcoming theme nights, giveaways, and celebrity appearances — has been a popular fixture on the site since 2006. Ben’s Biz Blog debuted the following year, a massively informative round-up of Minor League Baseball innovation written in a breezy, pun-obsessed style that has connected with industry titans and the average fan alike. Over the last four seasons he has taken his show on the road, doing his best to document just what it is that makes each Minor League ballpark unique. In the course of doing so, he’s participated in on-field mascot races as a hot sauce packet, pork roll, molar, hot dog, ribs, wasabi, chicken and many, many more. As far as he knows, such endeavors do not conflict with his otherwise gluten-free diet.
Email Ben at Benjamin.Hill@mlb.com