Thirteen years ago the roots of the food marathon were laid forth. Conceived in the San Fernando Valley, a trip spawned from the minds of two adventurers. One pilot and one navigator took to twenty two hundred miles of California highway like truckers on meth. We barreled through Rancho Cucamonga, Visalia, Lake Elsinore and Lancaster, each a shining California version of Podunk.
These any-towns have many things in common; their populations hovering around 100,000 ethnically diverse people, their forty five minute traffic-less commute to downtown LA (double that with traffic) and their stripmall-lined landscapes. In neo-Vegas architecture they embody suburban America, offering young families safe (read: soulless), fast-food-laden environments in which to raise their kids. They have many Denny’s and TGIFridays. They also share the reason for our journey, minor league baseball.
Why travel thousands of miles for single-A baseball? Because it’s America. It’s the red states, just outside the sprawling metropolitan LA basin. It’s a different life, a different pace than the one in which we were brought up. It’s a place where entertainment isn’t endlessly offered in the form of cinematic brilliance, culinary excellence and musical showmanship. The rehabilitory breeding ground where hopeful athletes earn their stripes is also the place where locals find a beer at the end of their work week. And so during spring of our senior year of high school, before we even knew we would need food marathons, we went on the California League Tour.
Today, there’s no doubt that the trip would be called BBQ and Baseball (which we’ll get back to shortly) if we were to do it today. Having spent eighteen years in LA, we took for granted the taco trucks, In-n-Outs and chili fries. We didn’t know that in states without car culture, driving forty minutes to the Claimjumper to wait forty minutes for a table wasn’t a common activity. We took for granted Dodger Stadium, with its picturesque views and nitrate-filled Dodger dogs. We didn’t realize that some people choose the Epicenter as their Friday night outing- laughing at canned sound effect of foul balls breaking parked cars’ windows. We didn’t realize until we got to Rancho Cucamonga.
The name itself makes Rancho Cucamonga the perfect example of a minor league baseball city. It sounds like an idyllic island- a tropical respite away from the hustle of the city. In reality it’s just a small town on the side of a freeway. Missing the culture and class of their patron metropolises, these minor league baseball cities require gimmicks to draw fans to the city’s highest level of team competition (besides high school football and rodeos). The San Jose Giant’s gimmick was BBQ and Baseball. Turkey Mike’s supplies the ribs, chicken, sandwiches and sides to fans that sit at picnic tables along the baseline. It was one of the highlights of the Cal League Tour.
A lot has changed in the last ten years. Sub-divisions stretch north and south off the freeway in Agrestic-like mazes. Gigantic city/malls provide shopping “experiences” for tract housing inhabitants. These consumption complexes mimic cities in their
layout, with parks, sidewalks, streetlamps and pedestrian malls. The only difference is that every third store is a skate shop or adventure sport store. And the pedestrians all have tattoos. The thirty-something moms, the fifty-something dads, and possibly the six year old kids all have inked legs and backs. I swear I saw a three year old with a tribal band around his two inch bi-cep.
Said Rancho residents inevitably end up at Lucille’s BBQ at some time or another. The giant restaurant serves surfboard-sized plates of smoked pork ribs, beans, greens, hush puppies, cole slaw, potato salad and anything else that belongs at a southern bar-b-que. We recently tried it and cleared through baby back and pork ribs, sipping mason jars of lemonade before sickeningly spooning banana pudding into our grossly overfilled guts. Waddling towards the car we swore off food for a month.
Revisiting the Epicenter a decade later we longed for the pre-marathon days when we would arrive at a stadium in a less-then food comatose state. We noticed that most minor leaguers are considerably shorter than your average pro. Genetics plays a larger role than you might think, so load those kids up with chemicals and horomones if you want them to stand a steroid-less chance of major league success (read: home run records).
Rancho Cucamonga’s Quakes don’t have BBQ like San Jose. I guess the proximity to Lucilles renders it useless. They do have Aftershock and Tremor, team dinosaur mascots… The legions of tattoed suburbanites fill the stands, toddlers in toe. Their homes sit similarly side by side. Their bellies are full of bbq. And once in a while I join them because it’s a nice getaway, and really, I just love BBQ and baseball. The only difference is now, there’s a six-stop food marathon between here and the stadium.