Hot Doggin' It: A Peek Inside the Sausage Race Factory
Like most of us, my dreams of setting foot on a major-league baseball field died a painful, inglorious death in youth. In the spring of 1985, my name was left off the call-back list for my high school freshman baseball team. Mistakenly, I'd anticipated a bull market for good-field/no-hit futility infielders with outstanding hustle, decent plate discipline, and a working knowledge of the nascent field of sabermetrics. The coaches of East High's rookie squadron begged to differ, a decision that no doubt haunts them to this day.
Twenty years later, however, I did make it onto a major league baseball field, and in a manner that even some big-leaguers would envy: I ran the Sausage Race at Miller Park. With my wife Andra and an entourage of six others -- including her parents Aaron and Aune, celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary on that very day -- in tow, I made my major league debut as 20,000 cheering fans looked on, shouting my name in encouragement. Thirty-five-years old, two years removed from arthroscopic shoulder surgery, I made The Show at last.
The Sausage Race (officially the Brewers/Klements Racing Sausages) began in the early '90s as a scoreboard gimmick. Back when the Brewers played at County Stadium, three virtual sausages -- the Bratwurst (#1), the Polish Sausage (#2) and the Italian Sausage (#3) -- "ran" an animated race to the accompaniment of the "Chariots of Fire" theme at the end of the sixth inning. By the mid-'90s, the Hot Dog (#4) joined the lineup. But more importantly, the team which brought you the Bernie Brewer mascot sliding from a chalet perched in centerfield into a giant beer stein after a Brewer home run had come up with a new gimmick: for Sunday games, the mascots as we now know them -- over seven feet tall and made of foam -- would conclude the race after the animated portion, emerging from a gate in leftfield. In 2000, the team's final year at County Stadium, the "real" sausages ran every game, and the scoreboard element was consigned to the dustbin of history.
My father-in-law claims that the idea of actual racing "sausages" (instead of their video counterparts) may have come from him. There's the slightest possibility he's onto something. His son Adam, now my brother-in-law, worked for the Brewers in ticket sales in 1993 and 1994, and would have been capable of passing the idea along; years later, with no single person claiming credit for the "eureka" moment, a Brewers employee he met admitted that the idea came from the father of one of his fellow employees. Well, that's Pop Hardt's version of the story, and he's sticking to it.
Like all too many of the good things in life, landing a role in the Sausage Race takes a connection on the inside. Several years ago, when Andra returned to Milwaukee to continue her film career, she became friends with one Mike Zidanic. Last spring on a visit from New York City, she met Mike's brother Joe, the Brewers Controller and Director of Spring Training Operations. Andra told Joe about my website and my writing, and came away from the conversation with a business card and a promise that given two weeks notice, Joe could get me into the race the next time I was in town. As fate would have it, that next time was the weekend of my wedding back in May. Alas, the Brewers were on the road; otherwise our family and friends might have been treated to a rehearsal dinner with me in a seven-foot tall costume. Much to the relief of my mother, things didn't happen that way.
Andra's parents may have differed on that topic, however. Their pride in all things Wisconsin -- from the Badgers to the bratwursts to Summerfest to the spectacular art museum -- is strong, and Andra guessed right when she set the wheels in motion to get me into the race as part of the surprise, action-packed anniversary weekend she and her brothers had planned for her parents. They were truly tickled to have me providing some of the afternoon's entertainment by upholding a local tradition, one that the whole family would be talking about years from now. It's not as though they've never touched mascot greatness, however. Adam once got to bring the Bernie Brewer costume home from work, and photos of the occasion dot the Hardt household. I'm still not sure that doesn't trump my claim to foam-covered fame.
Normally I can't be separated from my scorebook when attending a ballgame. I keep score not only because I want a precise and personal record of what happened and what I saw on any given trip to the ballpark, but also because it keeps me tethered to the action. But knowing what I've signed up for, I've left my scorebook in New York City this time. It's hard enough getting a friend to cover when I take a refreshment break at a ballgame, but asking someone to score while I run the Sausage Race is too much, even of an in-law.
Besides, by the bottom of the first inning, I can tell that everyone in my entourage is just as distracted as I am. After the Brewers put two men on with nobody out against the Padres' Jake Peavy, the heart of the lineup -- Prince Fielder, Carlos Lee, and Geoff Jenkins -- all goes down swinging. Apparently, even the Brewer sluggers can't wait to see me run. A few shakes of the head are all we can muster.
And so we watch with only mild interest as Peavy and the Brewers' Doug Davis settle into a pitchers' duel as the innings fly by. The Padres score the game's first run in the third inning on a handful of singles and a bunt. At this point I realize that breakfast is a distant memory and that salted peanuts alone are not going to be enough to tide me over until my duty is done. Against the admonishments of my mother-in-law, I take my Family Day coupon for a free hot dog and small soda to the nearest concessions stand, load up on Secret Stadium Sauce, mustard and sauerkraut, and down my dog -- an impressively grilled frank that puts the Yankee Stadium fare to shame -- in about two minutes time. Alas, the entire bottom of the third and top of the fourth take scarcely longer (a combined 16 pitchers, I discover later), the hitters swinging early in the count like they've got a plane to catch.
My palms sweat as the bottom of the fourth approaches. Just nine more outs until I have to report for duty, my hot dog and soda now churning in my stomach. The Brewers put something together. Fielder leads off the inning by ripping a double down the rightfield line. Lee lines a single up the middle; Fielder freezes momentarily, and only reaches third base. On a 2-0 count, Jenkins hits a screaming one-hopper right to Xavier Nady, the Padre first baseman, who's close to the bag as he holds Lee on. He steps on first, then, almost with a look of astonishment that I can see from the upper deck, throws home. Fielder tries to score, doing so with a style that suggests Refrigerator Perry smuggling a Thanksgiving Turkey into his bedroom while his relatives load their plates with stuffing. Uh-uh. It's his second baserunning mistake of the inning. Fielder lowers his head and collides with Padre catcher Miguel Olivo, who holds onto the ball. Out. Two pitches later, Lee and Hall advance as Olivo's throw back to the mound eludes Peavy. The powerful Russell Branyan is intentionally walked to load the bases to face weak-hitting Chad Moeller, who promply pops out to end the threat.
The next inning sails by, and soon Andra walks me down to Guest Services, on the first level behind home plate. Joe is there to meet me, and two of my fellow participants are there as well: Kip Elliot, Chief Financial Officer for the Minnesota Twins, and Matt McKenzie, a writer for Street & Smith's Sports Annuals. Joe greets us, then quickly hands us off to Chris Peck, officially the supervisor of the Brew Crew, the in-game hospitality staff which runs the ballpark's between-innings festivities. Later I learn that Chris likes to refer to himself as the VP of Mascot Affairs to impress the ladies.
Joe tells Kip's wife and Andra to stay nearby so that he can get them onto the field to shoot photos when the moment arrives. Chris guides us down into the bowels of Miller Park, along the bare cement industrial concourse that rings the field. Doors to offices, clubhouses and storage rooms open off the concourse; there's even a mini concessions window with what must be employee prices listed on a small plastic sign: "Hot dog, $1.50." Kip, Matt and I make small talk amongst ourselves as we're led down a hallway to the Sausage locker room. Around us, a buzz of ushers, concessionaires, maintenance and ground crews go about their business.
It's not even as glamorous as you'd expect. The four huge costumes lie face up on a concrete floor bare except for a heap of four smaller sausage costumes. It's Sunday, and as Chris has explained, that means this race is actually a relay, with the four big weenies running their appointed routes from partway down the leftfield line, around the dirt behind home plate and to the Brewer dugout on the first base side, where we'll tag our little weenie counterparts, who finish the race by running all of about 20 yards.
Before we do anything, Chris passes around a clipboard. Each of us required to sign a waiver indemnifying the Brewers and their employees should anything happen to us in the race. Nobody gives the waiver a second thought as we sign our disability payments away while sizing each other and our costumes up. We're all rookies at this, and none of us has any real preference as to which sausage we'll represent. I had gone into the weekend thinking Bratwurst, perhaps a simple Pavlovian reaction to the word "Milwaukee," but the thought of lederhosen, fake though they may be, is too much. Thinking of the quality frank I'd ingested a few innings before, the ease of punning around with the title ("Top Dog," "I Wanna Be Your Dog," "Frankly, My Dear"...), and a bit of doggerel my grandfather used to recite ("A loaf of bread, a pound of meat, and all the mustard you can eat..."), I pick the Hot Dog. With an eye towards strategy, I note that it's also the smallest costume, which makes sense as I'm the shortest of the three of us. Matt, who stands about 6'3", takes the Italian, the other short one -- a completely opposite strategy from mine. Kip takes the Bratwurst, leaving the Polish for our mystery guest, who we're told is a TV announcer for the Padres.
We study our costumes, attempting to stand them up and watching them crumple (they're soft at the base) as Chris runs down what to expect: the costumes are hot, but we won't have them on for more than a few minutes; we'll carry them down to the leftfield gate, a good schlep for these contraptions, which appear to weigh about 30 pounds; you can't see much through the mesh screen; you can't lift your arms very far; you don't want to lean too far forward or you'll tip over; please don't tip over, because it costs us about $5,000 to clean a costume; keep running after you tag your little partner, because we have to be off the field in 90 seconds.
It's a lot to digest, and so Chris keeps hitting some of these points as we carry our costumes back down the hallway and onto the concourse. As we do, a vehicle -- a golf cart without its top or a set of clubs, perhaps -- whizzes by. It's Derrick Turnbow, the Brewers' scraggly closer, headed down to the bullpen now that the fifth inning has ended. Turnbow can't even be bothered to turn his head at the sight of us, but then he's probably seen this very sight some 70 times this year.
A few steps along the concourse and Chris has recruited Marty Hagedorn, a younger employee wearing a navy blue t-shirt with the words "Brew Crew" on the back. Marty is to carry the Polish costume down to the gate, and if the mystery guest doesn't show up, to run the race himself. No sweat; Marty tells us he won on Saturday, running as the Hot Dog. In the absence of "celebrities" like us, Brewers employees often get to race themselves.
As we pass the entrance to the visitors clubhouse, a stocky, bald man comes hustling in from the other direction. It's Mark Grant, the Padres color analyst and a former major league pitcher. He's going to change into short and a t-shirt and will meet us at the gate. Meanwhile, Kip, Matt, and I have reached a gentleman's agreement on strategy. Rather than risk injury or embarrassment to ourselves or each other, we're treating our upcoming race less as a competitive affair than as a "Sunday jog." With the kids involved, we've decided to keep things close so that they can decide the final outcome.
Finally, we reach the entrance to the gate, where two big doors swing open to let us in. To the left of us is the paramedic cart, manned by two stern-faced medics, one of whom is reading a newspaper. To the right is the batting-practice cage, where we lean the costumes upside-down. Through the gate is Brewers leftfielder Carlos Lee watching as Doug Davis retires the Padres 1-2-3. I look through the chain-link fence as Chris continues with his advice: the dirt we'll be running on is loose, and it changes in consistency near home plate, so don't be alarmed; watch out for stray bats near the on-deck circles; the costumes are top-heavy, so please don't tip over.
Grant shows up, bursting with energy and enthusiasm. Husky at 42, he certainly looks more athletic than the rest of us, though we're all plausibly in shape. He tells Chris of his plan to mix it up with Padres reserve Robert Fick as he runs by the visitors dugout. Chris turns white as a ghost. "Please don't," he pleads, motioning to Elliot, "Or else I'm going to have to hit up this guy for a job. Don't."
Tangling with the players is no laughing matter, not since the fateful day two summers ago when Pirates first baseman Randall Simon catapulted the the race into the forefront of the sporting nation's consciousness by hitting the Italian Sausage (worn by one Mandy Block, a "Brew Crew" employee) with a bat. The blow caused the Hot Dog (worn by Veronica Piech) to fall as well, causing both young ladies scrapes and bruises. A county sheriff arrested Simon after the ballgame on a charge of disorderly conduct, handcuffing him and booking him at the Milwaukee County jail. Simon was released but fined $432. He paid and apologized, but his career, marginal enough as it was, became a migrant one as well. A month after the incident, he was traded to the Cubs, helping them down the stretch and nearly to the World Series. But he split last season with the Pirates and the Devil Rays, hitting a meager .188 with three homers, and drawing releases from both clubs. After tearing up the Mexican League earlier this year, he's presumably pounding the sausage somewhere else.
As Chris pleads, all I have to say is "Randall Simon" before Grant concedes the point. There will be no tomfoolery, at least no more than usual. The message is clear: mess with this particular sausage party, and you'll be a pariah.
Chris advises us to stretch and our quartet begins to limber up, mindful of our shoulders, backs, hamstrings, calves, and groin muscles. Nobody needs a trip to the DL for this, we remind each other, repeating our "Sunday jog" mantra. The medics watch us, their icy glares reminding that they have little desire to cart anybody off the field, especially a non-player.
As they glare, a ball comes whizzing into leftfield, ricocheting with a loud bang off of the outfield wall as Padres leftfielder Damian Jackson retrieves it. Brewer second baseman Bill Hall has whacked a double, scoring Geoff Jenkins to tie the game. Both hits come off of Chris Hammond, who has relieved Peavy after five innings. The home crowd is getting worked up into a frenzy. From the second deck directly above us, two fans call out, "Which one of you is the Hot Dog?" I raise my hand. "Kick some ass, Hot Dog," he screams, clearly a couple beers ahead of the rest of us. I give the fans a thumbs-up.
Chris has told us not to suit up until there's one out in the home half of the sixth, but with the Brewers mid-rally, who knows when that will be? Brewer manager Ned Yost sends up a pinch-hitter for Russell Branyan in Wes Helms, prompting Padre manager Bruce Bochy to counter with reliever Clay Hensley. As Hensley warms up, I whip out my cell phone to call Andra, relaying the message that I'm the Hot Dog and telling her to spread the word to the family. Helms takes the at-bat to a full count before lofting a fly ball to shallow right, deep enough to score Hall from third base, where he advanced on the previous throw home. It's 2-1 Brewers, and the crowd has reached a fever pitch.
It's also time to suit up, and the four of us turn away from the gate and towards our costumes. I feel like an astronaut about to don my spacesuit, but I'm wrong. There's no way a spacesuit can be less cooperative. I watch as Matt struggles to put his costume on, laughing nervously at his expense. Looking into the costume, I'm reminded of a scene in Home Movie, a Chris Smith documentary Andra and I had watched on my laptop in flight. One couple has bought an abandoned missile silo in Kansas and converted it to an subterranean home; Smith shows several shots down the cylindrical tunnels that remind me what I'm viewing here, the top of my costume seemingly 15 feet away.
It takes me two tries to get into the costume straight enough so that my head goes through the shoulder harness. My arms are pinned to my sides, and I worry about my surgically repaired shoulder as I struggle and twist my way into uniform. Finally, I'm in, but even as I struggle to balance myself standing up, that's the least of my problems. Now I can't see a damn thing.
The costumes each have a circle of mesh just below the characters' necklines. The mesh is colored white, and the holes are very small. In direct sunlight, the effect is literally blinding; it's necessary to create an artificial visor by cupping my hands in front of the mesh, just to get my bearings. To say that I can really see is a stretch; suddenly the danger inherent in this endeavor is much more palpable than before. As Hensley strikes out Moeller and Davis to end the inning, I get that much more of a reminder when the gate swings open, nearly clocking me even as I'm looking straight ahead.
Chris instructs us to head down the foul line to the notch where the warning track inside the field of play ends. My adrenaline surges. The sun beats directly down on us, and it's difficult to see. The crowd is on its feet, trumpets herald our place at the starting line, and the PA announcer introduces each one of us to the cheers of 20,000 fans. I've got the inside position, next to Polish, German, and Italian, hoping that this gives me an advantage.
A gunshot sounds over the PA and we're off. Polish Sausage clearly didn't get the memo about the Sunday jog, and gets about 10 paces ahead of the field before the rest of us know what's hit us -- I'm left wondering if Grant greenied up in the Padre clubhouse.
As we choke on Polish's dust, the other three of us are neck-and neck-until Italian Sausage makes his move. German Sausage responds by giving him a wider berth, stumbling as he does so. Our empty heads collide; we trade paint. I'm not sure if it's my fault, so I bark out a rather sorry "Sorry!" without breaking stride. By the time we've passed the Padre dugout, I've got sole possession of third place, but a good ten paces behind Italian and another ten behind Polish.
As we round the home plate bend, I maintain my lead over German, but by then Polish has already tagged his partner. Lost cause. Italian tags, and his partner, the fastest of us all, nearly closes the gap before the little Polish crosses the tape. By then I've tagged my partner, slapping a hollow-headed little Hot Dog as she runs her way to third-place glory. We've been instructed to keep running through the tag because we have to get off the field ASAP, though Polish and German have stopped. As I tag I see Andra, video camera in hand, but I can't even stop to talk as we're hustled off the field still nipping at the heels of the little weiners. Some people get 15 minutes of fame; our entire race is done under 45 seconds.
Still, it's a hero's welcome we receive at the rightfield gate as we jog off the field and onto the concourse. Struggling out of our costumes, we shake hands with each other, hug our wives, and high-five our relay partners; mine's a cute brunette girl of about eight named Sabrina, who's apparently looking forward to regaining her two front teeth. I've had the costume on for all of five minutes, but I'm drenched with sweat, charged with adrenaline. No, I didn't win, but the important thing was that I competed, and no one will ever be able to take that away.
Yes, I'm afraid so: when you run the Sausage Race, everyone's a weiner.
Jay Jaffe is the creator of the Futility Infielder website, an author of Baseball Prospectus, and a graphic designer who lives in New York City. He'd like to thank Joe Zidanic, Chris Peck and the Brew Crew for making his race day happen, the Hardt family for their love and support, and Nicole Hanson for providing the great race photos.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]