The Nats Free Food Tour
It was impossible to count the media members at today's Nats Park Free Food Tour. Suffice it to say, the mob was large enough to make the mayor's introductory remarks nearly inaudible for latecomers. There were, I suppose, two minds as to whether mounds of free ballpark food had drawn a larger contingent of media members than, say, the planting of cherry blossoms.
"I could be cynical," said team president and tour guide Stan Kasten, "and I know you'd like that, but we have done a series of these events--showing the scoreboard, planting trees--and whatever we do, we have an army of media show up. It's unbelievable."
Yeah, ok, but was this army bigger for the Free Food--sorry, the "Strike Zone and Concessions"--Tour?
"Oh my God, yes," countered a TV cameraman. "It's ridiculous."
Before the media members were led toward that rare nirvana of take-what-you-want ballpark concessions, there were several requisite stops in the interactive Kids Area. We saw the Sony PlayStation Pavilion--"We have Gran Turismo 5, which is not even available to the public yet," boasted Kasten, a noted video game freak. We saw the SingStar Stage karaoke station, where team owner Mark Lerner declined to sing. "You kidding me?" he asked, "my voice, what's left of it after the past few weeks?"
We saw the "Batters Up" batting cage, where Adrian Fenty, still in trenchcoat, donned a helmet and hacked away with all the success of the 2005-vintage Cristian Guzman. "It's harder than it looks, right?" Kasten said. We saw two Giant Racing Presidents play Guitar Hero. And we stopped at the Build-a-Bear Workshop, where one young tyke built his own Screech and then began crying when the media horde insisted on taking his picture with the little stuffed bird.
At which point Chris Benevento, the general manager of Centerplate's Nationals Park concessions operation, took over the tour and the media horde began to go to work. There were free hot dogs, free french fries, free pretzels and free soft drinks and free crab-filled pretzels, all joyfully offered by smiling concession workers still unsullied from the horrors of the second inning on Opening Day. The lead pack, led by Benevento, began to dwindle as the lure of happy workers shouting out "Popcorns, Pretzels and Peanuts!!!" proved stronger than an explanation of the park's employment philosophy.
But I shouldn't suggest that the media members weren't working. There were lots and lots of images taken of sizzling food. Some especially enterprising camera types even climbed behind the counter to get the money shots of free food; "ready?" one asked a french fry fryer, before the basket of fries was lifted out of the popping oil.
"Popcorns, Pretzels and Peanuts!!!" one worker said to the mayor.
"How you doing?" Fenty asked her.
"Popcorns, Pretzels and Peanuts!!!!?" she responded.
"Can I get a hot dog with peppers and onions on it, a well-done hot dog?" Kasten requested.
"Enjoy the game, sir," said the employee, staying on message despite the stark lack of baseball players in evidence.
"Awwww man, that's great," Kasten said, taking a bite. "I don't mean in a PR way. I mean, that's REALLY great."
Fenty held out until he got to the Ben's Chili Bowl stand.
"Am I the first?" he asked as he ordered his dog. "Tell Bill Cosby that I beat him here. Tell Bill Cosby that I ate a half-smoke here before he did."
The crowd wandered its way back nearly to where we had begun, when a construction worker, Tony Richmond, stopped Fenty for a chat.
"Tell 'em to lower the price so we can eat a hot dog," Richmond requested. Fenty promised he would.
"He said he's going to have them lower the price for a hot dog for people who work here; what about for the people who live in the neighborhood?" Richmond said after the mayor departed. "I've got two kids. If I get four tickets, that's already $80. I make $14 an hour. How can I afford to take my family to a ballgame? Once we get here, we can't afford to eat. It's just too expensive for the average Joe, and I thought that's who this was supposed to be for: The People."
On this day, though, The People could afford whatever they wanted, for once the media had moved on, the mounds and mounds of food were given away to employees inside the stadium. And at least some of them managed to display considerably less subtlety than the now-satiated media horde.
"Free food, free food!" screeched three young Centerplate employees as they ran toward a hot dog stand.
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