What's really in a hot dog? OK, that's probably a question you don't want the answer to, and neither do I, since Opening Day is inching ever closer and I can practically taste the salty nitrate treat going down smoothly with a warm beer. (Yes, Father, I know the game's on Good Friday, but since baseball is God's sport, there's a special dispensation for that, right? I just won't eat nacho cheese. Deal?)
We can talk without inducing nausea about who is in the hot dog at the baseball game. That tubed-meat mascot dash from left field to first base during the bottom of the fifth inning has become quite the fan favorite at Progressive Field, sending children cheering and men sprinting to the nearest concession stand. And as the Indians get set to hire a new seasonal crew to proudly take on the roles of hot-dog racers for the 2009 season, perhaps it'd be useful to us, and them, to look back at the brave men and women who wore the uniform before them. With all the success of recent years, they certainly have big buns to fill.
While I'm certain that Mustard and Onion are just super people, at least as far as fake encased pork and beef products go, there is only one dog to talk to when you're talking Cleveland hot-dog racing. He's the Steve's Lunch compared to any other hot-dog dive in the city. He's the Polish Boy to the regular wiener. He's the badass, and he even has the Ricky Vaughn skull-and-crossbone glasses to prove it. And yes, everyone thinks he cheats.
Although the suits have been worn by numerous Indians staffers since the race's inception, for the past few years, Ketchup has been primarily played by Ryan Lantz, whose full-time gig with the Tribe involves handling the operations in Goodyear, Arizona, the Wahoos' spring home. After earning a degree in marketing at Ohio State, this is exactly where Ryan and his parents envisioned his professional life going, right? Not exactly, although I suppose condiment-specific dreams are beyond the grasp of most mite-sized hot-dog hopefuls. "This was the furthest thing from what I was looking to achieve," says the 29-year-old now-semi-retired racer. "My parents are still proud though. My mom lets all her friends know who Ketchup is."
She's probably happier now that he's heading up the organization's Arizona operation, but only a little: Her boy was actually out there winning races. The spectacle is all about entertainment, but the races aren't scripted. There's no plan for who's going to trip where, who's going to catch a second wind or what sort of hijinks will play out around the track. There's a gentleman's agreement that everyone will take it easy until they round home plate. But after that, all bets are off and it's a mad dash to the finish.
Well, that is, if you actually follow the rules and go around home plate like you're supposed to. Ketchup, as anyone who's caught a race in the last year knows, doesn't always do that. Ryan is the Roger Clemens of hot dogs, and I'm sure his briny brethrenÊ- the brats in Milwaukee, the mascot presidents in D.C. - wouldn't be surprised if Major League Baseball were ever to investigate and name him in something called the Sinclair Report. "Yeah, if I was getting whipped early on, I'd make a break for it, just to make it interesting." Sure, just like they don't tell us what's in hot dogs, just to make it interesting.
When fans caught on to Ketchup's little ruse, which included such subtle moves as sprinting across the diamond and shoving Onion, a legend was born. "Ketchup Cheats!" came the cries, and then a website, KetchupCheats.com, where you can purchase your very own T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase. And, yes, Ryan owns one. "Some of the girls in the office purchased one for me for Christmas," he says. Perhaps they were just jealous. Ketchup is king, after all. Maybe as they wandered the concourse before games and scaled the bleachers after the race they didn't like the attention the fans gave the cased charlatan. "There's a little bit of pride in who gets to be Ketchup," says Ryan. "Ketchup is the sex symbol of the three. He obviously has the most following."
It's not all fun and games though. The suit weighs only about 20 pounds and is well ventilated, but it inevitably causes the wearer to melt into a soggy mess during the summer. And there are the players. In 2003 in Milwaukee, the Italian sausage in the Brewers' version of the race was belted upside the head with a bat by former Pirates player Randall Simon. While nothing quite that infamous has ever occurred at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, the players are known to watch the race and very occasionally get involved in the action themselves.
"One game, Victor Martinez was in the dugout," Ryan recalls. "He wasn't playing that day. He actually came out on the warning track and impeded Ketchup's racing ability by throwing bats and balls in the middle of the track because he thought I was running as Ketchup. It wasn't me. It was actually a girl, and she was totally freaked out and panicked and almost tripped. She was OK, though. But Victor thought it was me."
Avoiding projectiles from Victor Martinez and imitating Carl Lewis in costume form are now duties for the next generation of meat. Ryan has been permanently moved to Arizona, and save the rare appearance back in Cleveland, will finally hang up his frankfurter footgear with a few final words of wisdom: "I'd tell them to keep the legacy going. It's an everyday workout. You can't just jump in the suit and expect to do well. Gotta carry the torch and keep a good daily regimen and eat good food."
That does include hot dogs, right?