There's no start date for the Major League Baseball season, which means I have no idea when I'll walk back through the left field gate of my second home, Oracle Park. As a beat writer, you end up spending about three months of every year at your home park, becoming intimately familiar with everything behind the scenes.
Because of the way the schedule is, though, the same kind of holds true for other parks in the National League. I can tell you the best way to get into Dodger Stadium without having to wait 20 minutes for the elevator, the best place to grab a sandwich in Lower Denver when there's that inevitable rain delay, and the exact hotel rooms that give you the best view of Petco Park. I can also tell you all about the press box dinners in every one of those places, having had them dozens of times over the last decade.
When I was younger, I used to be overwhelmed by some of the press-box dining rooms. You pay a small fee (usually $10) and hit up the buffet spread as you count down that final hour before the game. A lot of the dining rooms having ice cream, many have some sort of nacho situation, a few bring the heat when it comes to chicken strips. What more could you ask for?
When you hit your thirties you realize that maybe it's time to mix in more salads, and last year we changed it up with the Alex Eats series. But I still love walking into a press box dining room and seeing what's on the menu that night. Since we don't have actual baseball teams to rank right now, here's my ranking of National League media meals. I didn't include Oracle Park because I've had hundreds of meals there and would probably be biased in a negative way. There are only so many ways you can eat the same salad, sandwich or fish dish that hopefully didn't originate in McCovey Cove, but I've heard visiting writers put it somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Hope you all enjoy, and let me know on Twitter if there are other behind-the-scenes baseball elements you'd like to know more about:
14. Atlanta -- I used to like the press food in Atlanta, which I frequented only on Sundays when the ballpark's Chick-fil-A was closed. But the new one is the size of a small break room, has barely any food and makes it an easy choice to head to the concourse, where the options aren't necessarily much better.
13. St. Louis -- I'm going to be honest, I don't think I've had the media meal at Busch Stadium in like five years. It's a long way from the press box and there's a pizza place, carving station and salad bar just one level down.
The Cardinals do provide apples and cheddar popcorn in the press box. Guess which one baseball writers gravitate towards?
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12. Cincinnati -- I thought about putting them last because sometimes they try to serve you their own version of Skyline Chili.
11. Denver -- This ranking is a shame, because the Rockies used to be elite. They had a grill with excellent cheeseburgers, a candy station with enough M&Ms to get a guy through a game at Coors Field, and outstanding green chili.
But a few years ago, the Rockies cut their press box in half to make room for a bar and some more expensive seats, and the media dining room is now a place you only visit if you truly have no other options. This is probably the park where you'll most often see writers and team employees walk in with dinner they had purchased on the way.
10. Chicago -- This might be my favorite food city in the country, and with so many day games, that trip is really about as good as it gets for visiting beat writers. But the press box food isn't memorable at all. You're much better off having a small lunch and saving space for the pizza you're having downtown that night.
9. Pittsburgh -- The definition of league average. I can't really tell you anything that stands out about the food here, but at the same time, I know it's decent enough that I generally eat it. They have fancy plates. I remember that.
8. Los Angeles -- I'll give them points for having a big salad bar and generally doing a solid job of offering food that's just appealing enough that you don't have to go into the concourse. Give someone a salad, piece of chicken and some sort of side dish and you're doing okay. They've had wings a few times, which is a nice surprise, and one Sunday they had chicken and waffles. They also have frozen yogurt, popcorn and cookies that are kept warm. If you get there in time to grab a couple of chocolate chips, you're off to a good start.
I take points away because they bring Dodger Dogs out in the late innings and try to harm the very customers they rely on:
7. Arizona -- I can't figure out why they insist on having such bad lettuce in their salad bar. I think it's just chopped up iceberg and it really brings them down a few notches, and the main course is generally not great. But ... the press box in Chase Field has a fridge stocked with Cold Stone ice cream. That'll make up for whatever salty dinner you just ate.
6. New York -- They probably see fewer visiting writers than any dining room in the league because of how good the options in the concourse are. We have Shake Shack in the Bay Area now, but three or four years ago there were trips to New York where I'd probably head out to their concession stand before every game. The media meal is well above average, but the options on the concourse are just too appealing.
5. Miami -- Look, I love the places that shower us in chicken strips or brats, but I also appreciate a place like Miami, where the food is simply tasty and there are different options. They're not reinventing the wheel or anything, but they put a nice and plentiful dinner out there. They're much higher on this list than they would be on an actual baseball list.
4. San Diego -- There's a good salad bar and the main course is generally pretty good, but the real star here is what happens a few innings into the game. The Padres have a nacho bar and they do it right, with the perfect kind of tortilla chip, a big vat of cheese, and plenty of hot sauce options. They also have the best brownies in the league. The food just outside of Petco Park -- hello, Tin Fish! -- is as good as any place in the NL, so it's not uncommon for beat writers to have a huge lunch and then pass on dinner, only to grab a round or two of nachos midway through the game.
3. Milwaukee -- The Brewers have everyone else beat when it comes to snacks that are separate from the main meal. There's an ice cream machine and you can make a milkshake, and they have one of those nacho machines that squirts out that awful/amazing yellow cheese. You know, the kind you see at a little league game. You just put your plate of chips underneath the nozzle and hit the button. It's a good time.
The real prize, though, is the hot dog roller. Miller Park is known for the sausage race and all of those selections are put out on a roller in the media dining room. You can grab a salad and piece of meat for dinner, wash it down with a small plate of nachos, and then grab a brat on the way back to your seat. I like Milwaukee!
2. Washington D.C. -- The main selections are pretty standard, but Nationals Park really separates itself with a grill that's tucked into the corner of the press box dining room. They'll make you a burger or grilled cheese, or you can grab as many chicken strips or tater tots from a tray as you want. One time the guy even handed me a crab sandwich. My only complaint is that it wasn't open when the Giants and Nationals went 18 innings in 2014.
1. Philadelphia -- With apologies to Bryce Harper, the real star of Citizens Bank Park is Frank, the kind gentleman who scoops the Turkey Hill ice cream in the press box dining room. And as you can see, he gives plenty of options:
My favorite part about visiting Philadelphia is that no matter how many chicken strips you've had already (more on this in a bit) and how full you might be, Frank won't let you walk past without grabbing a scoop to take back to your seat. I've tried, but he'll hit you with a "Young man, what flavor do you want today?" and that's that.
The dining room in Philadelphia has an old school cafeteria vibe, complete with plastic trays and little cups filled with fruit and a wide assortment of pie and cake. There's the main course -- they do cheesesteaks on occasion -- and there's always a little station set up at the end with some kind of fried snack.
But where Citizens Bank Park really won my heart is with the chicken strips. They have them waiting every day and often times they leave a tray out in the middle of the game in case you need a quick fix while grabbing another cup of coffee. It's delightful. I miss you, Philadelphia.