Opening night for the Indianapolis Indians' baseball season at Victory Field was beautiful, if a bit chilly. Evening sunlight electrified the sleek blue skin on the new Marriot hotel, a looming presence that, juxtaposed with the green, on-field sounds of slapping leather and batted balls, made the city seem almost like an act of nature.
In theory, we go to the ballpark in order to see which team will win a given day's game. But you don't have to be there long to figure out that rooting for the home team is just part of what constitutes the ballpark experience, especially in the minor leagues, where the players come and go so frequently you really do a need a scorecard to tell who's who.
Food may not be why we go to a ballgame, but it's a big part of the deal. There's a kind of alchemical perfume that, for some of us, is created when yellow mustard, beer and warm concrete are blended. Suddenly you just have to get yourself a hot dog.
Maybe it's the fresh air. And maybe, I'm sorry to say, it's because so many of the games are, frankly, kind of boring. In any event, the people who run ballparks have come to provide us with an ever-widening array of stuff to eat. Victory Field is no exception.
Here's a tip: When you arrive at the park, make a point of walking the length of the concourse. This is easy to do at Victory, where the walkway is broad and relatively uncrowded. You'll be amazed at all the eats to choose from.
You'll find the staples for sale at walk-up counters managed by Aramark, labeled "Ballpark Favorites," like a Jumbo Dog ($3.50), Popcorn ($3.75) and Cracker Jack ($3.25). But walk a little further and you'll be at the "Backstop Grille," where you can choose a Rowdie Rib Sandwich ($4.50), a Cheeseburger ($3.25) or that Hoosier standby, the Breaded Tenderloin ($5.00). At the "Bullpen Pizzeria," you can get a slice of cheese, sausage or pepperoni ($3.75) or an Italian Sausage Sub ($5.00). And the Corona Light Cantina purveys Steak and Chicken Burritos ($6.25), Quesadillas ($6.00) a Burrito Bowl ($6.25) and a better grade of Nachos than at the "Ballpark Favorites" counter, albeit for two dollars more ($6.25).
This is just scratching the surface. There are independently-run, freestanding carts, where you can get deli-style sandwiches neatly packed in plastic containers, imported and even craft-style local beers and, my favorite, "Diamond Dogs," which offers the best dogs in the house, including Bratwurst ($4.50), Italian Sausage ($4.50) and a Footlong Dog ($6.25).
Now let me be clear: This is not San Diego, you'll find no sushi at Victory Field. The food service here knows that a large part of their trade will be pre-obese little Hoosiers and so the target palate seems to lie somewhere between those pizza joints that cater to sugar-buzzed kids and airport food.
The Breaded Tenderloin fit in the palm of my hand and consisted of a dismayingly rubbery patty covered with a rather granular "breading." The sauce adorning the cheese version of pizza was wan. And a conversation overhead at the "Corona Light Cantina" said it all: Asked how the "hot" sauce differed from the mild, a refreshingly honest counter person replied, "It's mild, too."
The long line at "Diamond Dogs" was a good omen. Sure, the dogs are a bit pricier, but they're skin-splittingly seared and served on poppy seed buns. Better still, they fry up onions and peppers for the Italian Sausage on the griddle and, when I asked, they obligingly slathered those on my Brat. Add an order of Fries ($3.75) – admirably free of grease – from the "Backstop Grille," plus a bottle of Upland or Bells Oberon ($5.50 ea.) from the Guinness beer stand and you'll be ready to root, root, root for the Indians, whoever they happen to be.
501 W. Maryland St.
Phone: 269-3542, 269-3545
FOOD: 2 stars
SERVICE: 3 stars
ATMOSPHERE: 5 stars