"One Baseball's Best Slider, please."
The guy working the concession stand gave me a look. It was either pitying or scornful. I couldn't tell which. Did he remember me from a few innings back, when I'd ordered Baseball's Best Burger? More likely, he just recognized my type. Voice halting. Eyes darting all over the place. Not quite steady on my feet. I looked like an extra from The Wire. Man Buying Crack #3.
"Slider," the guy called back to the kitchen, The Look flickering across his face again.
Or maybe I'd imagined The Look. I was projecting my guilt. Baseball's Best Slider is the sort of thing you should order only when drunk or on a dare. I told myself I was trying it out of professional curiosity. But this review was just an excuse. If I died without eating Baseball's Best Slider, my life would be incomplete.
Baseball's Best Slider is a White Castle cheeseburger breaded and deep-fried, served with a side of cheese sauce, for dipping. (At least, I assume it's meant for dipping. I'd hate to think I was committing some sort of Slider faux pas.) It looks more or less like what you'd imagine a breaded and deep-fried White Castle Slyder® would look like: dark brown and crusty, generally burger-shaped — albeit with knobs of gnarled batter that give it the appearance of a fried chicken thigh.
As far as I can tell, you will find Baseball's Best Slider only at GCS Stadium in Sauget, Illinois, home of the Gateway Grizzlies baseball club — and the last stop on my "summer vacation" among the restaurants of the Metro East.
The Grizzlies play in the independent Frontier League. The players are mostly in their early and mid-twenties, playing for the love of the game and with the slim hope that they may catch a scout's eye and sign a minor-league contract. I'd peg the level of play at low-A ball. That means you'll see more than a few easy pop flies turn into run-scoring doubles — but you'll see a lot of hustle, too.
You certainly won't find a better sports bargain in town. I bought four tickets along the first-base line, just a few rows back from the field, for $36. We didn't catch a foul ball or a T-shirt from the babes with the T-shirt catapult. But we did enjoy a ballgame on a lovely early summer evening.
And we stuffed ourselves.
As with most minor-league teams, the gimmicks at a Gateway Grizzlies game are a big part of the fun. You can watch the game from a hot tub along the right-field line, for example. There are audience-participation games between half-innings. My favorite involved spinning a blindfolded woman until she was dizzy and then having her stumble across right field, trying to locate a bottle of Bud based on the crowd's shouts of "Hot!" and "Cold!" She found it.
Dizziness and alcohol: the perfect pairing!
(You can order Bud and assorted other macrobrews, but there is at least one stand that features a few microbrews on tap — a welcome touch. If you plan to drink, you must first acquire a wristband from a kiosk just inside the stadium's main entrance. The wristband provides the name and number of an attorney who specializes in DUI cases.)
At GCS Stadium, the best gimmick might be the food. Oh, sure, you can order a burger, hot dog or soft pretzel. But you can also order the deep-fried White Castle, pulled-pork nachos or the food that first brought the stadium to my attention: Baseball's Best Burger, a bacon cheeseburger served on a Krispy Kreme doughnut.
Though the two Baseball's Best selections were the reason for my journey, I had to work up to them. On my first trip to the main concession stand, behind home plate, I wanted to try the pulled-pork nachos, but the cashier told me, "They're heating the cheese." Who among us would knowingly order nachos with lukewarm or cold cheese? I thanked her and opted for conventional fare: a hot dog and a soft pretzel. Neither was remarkable, though neither was bad.
On my second trip I scored the pulled-pork nachos — and a pulled-pork sandwich and a chili cheese dog. The chili might as well have been straight out of a can, but the pulled pork was pretty good. The sauce was a touch too sweet, but the meat was tender. It was excellent by itself on the sandwich, and its pairing with the nacho cheese wasn't nearly as unholy as I'd feared. In fact, it was damn tasty.
Now I was ready. For the Baseball's Best Burger and/or Slider, you have to go to the concession stand all the way down the left-field line. (Turn left at the funnel-cake stand.) As I walked past the entrance to the kitchen, I saw a stack of empty individual White Castle boxes in a trash can — a sure sign that Baseball's Best Slider wasn't, in fact, an urban legend.
(I feel compelled to add here that there is also Baseball's Best Hot Dog, which seems to be overshadowed by its flashier siblings. Based on the illustration at the concession stand, it involves bacon, so I give it a thumbs-up without trying it — a violation of restaurant-reviewing etiquette, but come on! It's a freakin' hot dog with bacon!)
I ordered Baseball's Best Burger first. The doughnut is sliced in half, and the inside of each half is lightly grilled, to provide texture and to keep the whole thing from falling apart — though, grease-sodden, the doughnut halves start to fall apart pretty much as soon as you pick it up.
Based on my companions' reactions, the process of consuming Baseball's Best Burger comprises four distinct stages:
1) "Whoa! This tastes like a bacon cheeseburger — but sweet!"
2) "Hey! This is pretty good!"
3) "I don't think I can have another bite."
4) "I'll never order this again."
I made it two-thirds of the way through mine before giving up. Besides, inspired by the billboard in left-center field, I'd also ordered some of Mrs. T's pierogies ("The perfect pairing of pasta and potatoes!"), which were blandly pleasant.
And then I went back for Baseball's Best Slider.
According to a Grizzlies press release, the Slider clocks in at about 300 calories and 20 grams of fat. I held mine close to my face and inhaled deeply, hoping for some sign that this was a food I should be excited about eating. I took a bite and chewed slowly, thoughtfully, allowing the flavors to develop, noting that inside the crust was, in fact, an entire White Castle cheeseburger — patty, diced onions and American cheese holding together remarkably well considering how much grease was packed into this thing.
It tasted like ass.
So we took a few innings off before dessert. We shared a tub of chocolate frozen custard from Bobby's Frozen Custard in Maryville, Illinois. Two of us — non-native St. Louisans, so put your pitchforks down — preferred it to Ted Drewes. The native St. Louisan among us shook his head and said a few not-very-nice words.
I also had one of Bobby's frozen bananas, covered in chocolate and salted Spanish peanuts, which sounded kind of gross when I asked for it but actually beat Baseball's Best Slider like a drum.
Maybe next year you'll be able to order that banana deep-fried.
Me, I'm holding out for Baseball's Best Burrito.