Is it ice cream?

In the upstairs ice cream stand, we sell a small variety of ice cream products. Aside from chocolate, vanilla, and black and tan ice cream, we also sell ice cream sandwiches, chocolate chip cookie sandwiches, popsicles, Choco Tacos, Sour Patch Kids, and Swedish fish.  There is one other item that we sell in the upstairs ice cream stand that causes customers quite a bit of confusion: Dippin’ Dots.

Dippin’ Dots are tiny balls of ice cream that are basically flash frozen using liquid nitrogen and then kept at a much colder temperature than regular ice cream.  The freezer we keep the Dippin’ Dots in is typically kept at -39 degrees.  When they were first created they were marketed as “the ice cream of the future.”  They’ve been around for a few years now and there are still lots of people who get confused by them.

The main thing that confuses people is whether or not they are actually ice cream.  I guess I can understand this confusion.  When you think of ice cream, you don’t imagine tiny, round balls that look more like small pebbles than anything else.  Most people think of scoops of ice cream or a cone of soft serve like what you get at Dairy Queen.  Dipping’ Dots, on the other hand, look nothing like your typical dessert.  The best way I can describe the way they look would be to say they almost look like freeze-dried food; something you would eat in space – only they taste much better.

My favorite part about selling Dippin’ Dots is listening to people try to order them.  I’m not sure which part of Dippin’ Dots is so hard to say, but we have heard a wide range of different pronunciations and all together wrong names over the years.  People have asked for the pebbles, the balls, dots, dip dots, dippy dots, and, my personal favorite, dippity dots.  The final pronunciation was a true test for Ariane and me.  It took everything we had to not start laughing, especially when the customer kept repeating herself.

I’m not exactly sure where the name confusion comes from. The sign for the Dippin’ Dots is on the wall of the stand, directly behind the register. It is a big, blue sign that says Dippin’ Dots in big letters across the top – the kind that’s hard to miss. What’s even more confusing is that most people notice the sign, but instead of reading it they assume it is a list of ice cream flavors. While it is a list of flavors, it is not the ice cream they think it is.

I’ve had the privilege to sell this frozen novelty for the past three years and I still hear new interpretations of the name every now and then. After trying to explain exactly what Dippin’ Dots are for the last few summers, I think I finally landed on the best description: it’s ice cream frozen into dots.

Beware the Right-Handed Hitter

In any major or minor league ballpark there are always signs posted warning fans to watch for foul balls.  At every Fightin’ Phils game they play a short video clip asking fans to keep an eye on the game and always look out for foul balls or even a bat occasionally.  In the upstairs ice cream stand we have another warning: Beware the right-handed hitter.

This warning ties into the typical beware of foul balls warning.  It all comes down to the location of the stand in relation to home plate.  The stand is located behind and to the right of the plate.  When a left-handed batter is in the box, he is on the same side of the plate as the ice cream stand with his back facing the stand and it is very rare for a foul ball to go behind the hitter.  When a right-handed batter is up, he is standing to the left of home plate which faces his body towards the upstairs ice cream stand.

Typically, when a batter hits a foul ball, it flies out towards the outfield or along the third or first baselines.  Depending on the type of pitch thrown and how early or late the bat makes contact, the ball will go up behind the plate, usually in the direction the batter is facing.  This is when we duck and cover in the stand.

The upstairs ice cream stand has taken more hits from foul balls than I can count.  If you look at the front of the stand you can see marks along the bottom where foul balls have chipped the paint.  We’ve had more close calls than anything else, but there have been one or two balls that actually make it through the window and off the back wall of the stand.  The container of plastic spoons that sits on the front of the counter has even taken some hits.

We’ve learned to keep a watchful eye on the field anytime a right-handed batter steps up to the plate.  At least one of us will yell, “heads up” if a ball looks like it is heading in our direction.  On some occasions we become easily spooked – usually after a few balls have already come our way – and we seek safety at every gasp or shriek from the crowd.  We have gotten so accustomed to watching foul balls that are heading our way that sometimes the ball seems to be moving in slow motion.  We stand there watching and thinking that it will never reach us and then at the last minute we find ourselves jumping away from the window or crouching down behind the soda machine.

It can be nerve-wracking trying to keep an eye on the batter during the game.  If we get busy in the middle of the game, it can be difficult to watch what is happening on the field and still help the customers in a timely manner.  We just hope the ball doesn’t come our way and if we hear someone yell heads up, we get out of the way.  I’m sure it’s amusing to watch us whenever a foul ball is hit.  Despite the occasional hazards of foul balls, I wouldn’t want to work in any other stand.

If you ever find yourself at a Fightin’ Phils game sitting in one of the sections around the ice cream stand remember this important message: Keep your eyes on the game and beware of the right-handed hitter!

Ask a silly question…

Working in food service, as with any job, you find that people ask some of the most outrageous questions.  Baseball fans are no exception.  Here are some of my favorite questions that we have been asked at the upstairs ice cream stand.

Question:  Do all the ice cream stands sell the same ice cream?

It amazes me how many people ask this question.  There are three ice cream stands in FirstEnergy Stadium and yes, we all sell the same two flavors of ice cream.  The question usually arises when someone asks for a flavor that we do not sell and they are hoping that one of the other stands has it.

Question:  Do any of the stands sell Coke products?

Every year the Fightin’ Phils season is sponsored by Pepsi – they play a Pepsi commercial before each game explaining this.  If you turn right out of the main parking lot and drive straight, you will pass the Pepsi warehouse.  You could even walk there if you wanted to, one building sits between the two locations.  As a result, all of the concessions stands sell Pepsi products and only Pepsi products.  I prefer Pepsi so this has never been a big deal to me, but, understandably so, we always have a few fans each season who are upset that they can’t have a Coke during the game.

Question:  Are sprinkles a topping?

This question baffles me every time it gets asked and we hear it at least once a season.  I can never figure out what other item customers imagine it might be.  The price tells you right away that it’s not an ice cream flavor – they cost $0.75 where as the cheapest ice cream is $3.50.  There really is no other possibility for sprinkles other than as a topping. We have, however, given kids sprinkles in their hands once or twice – we just hope they don’t tell their parents how they spent their $0.75.  If anyone can figure out another use for sprinkles other than as a topping, please let me know!

Question:  Do you sell hot dogs in this stand?

If you’ve never seen the upstairs ice cream stand, picture this: Take you average shed and cut a large window in the front and a door on the end.  Now add two freezers, a soda machine, a register, and a little bit of counter space.  That is the stand.  When a customer comes to the window they can view the entire interior of the stand with the exception of under the counters.  Trust me, I am not hiding a grill full of hot dogs next to the motor of the soda fountain.  The best detail about this question is that it always comes after the customer has stared at the inside of the stand and at the menu for at least a full minute.

Question:  Can I get another mini batting helmet for my child at home?

The answer to this question is simple: yes you can, for $4.50.  What gets me about this question is that people assume that they can have a helmet for free if there is no ice cream inside it.  That’s not how it works.  You are more than welcome to take a clean, empty helmet home with you, but it will cost the same as a helmet full of chocolate ice cream.

Question: Do you have a fork?

Although it is rarely asked, this question does come up from time to time.  Now, I don’t remember eating ice cream with a fork when I was younger (unless it was an ice cream cake), but maybe times have changed.  If your child wants to sit and stab at each and every Dippin’ Dot in their cup, I say go for it.  Unfortunately we only have spoons available at the ice cream stands.

Question: Do you have a sink that I could use?

This question gets asked quite often during the season.  It always comes from parents who find themselves stuck with a mini batting helmet covered in the remains of chocolate or vanilla ice cream.  Their children have eaten all they can and now want to take the souvenir helmet home with them.  The parents are stuck with the task of finding a way to clean off the helmet before it gets stuffed into a bag.  I understand they want to save time by not having to go downstairs to the bathroom sinks, but we are unable to help them out.  If you refer back to the image described in the hot dog question, you will see that there is no room for a sink in our stand and that it’s pretty obvious we don’t have one when you are at the window.

Question: Are you closing?/Are you closed?

In order to understand the ridiculous nature of this question, there is one more important detail about the stand you must know.  When we want to close for the night, we have to walk out of the stand and pull down the window that runs the entire length of the stand.  it is very similar to a food truck that has a window that opens up instead of sliding side to side.  The question has two forms and comes at two possible times.  Someone will generally ask the first form of the question when Ariane is standing out in front of the stand in the process of lowering the face of the window.  The second form of the question always comes later, after the window is closed and latched and we have started cleaning everything.  Without fail, once a home-stand we will get asked this question and the person who asks always seems surprised when the answer is yes, we are closed.

We get asked a lot of strange questions throughout the summer and these are a few of the ones that I find truly amusing.  I am sure there will be more to add to the list after this summer, but until then, enjoy these tidbits of what life is like on my side of the counter.

Best Seats in the House

At least two or three times during the summer a fan will walk up to the window, turn around and look out at the field, and say, “wow, you’ve got the best seats in the house.”  I have to agree with them 100%.

After working for the Fightin’ Phils for 10 1/2 seasons, I have covered almost every inch of FirstEnergy Stadium.  I’ve logged thousands of steps walking the horseshoe from the deck in left field to the pool in right and back again during my internships.  In concessions, I’ve worked everywhere from the deck in left field to the pizza stand in the main concourse to the grill in the right field plaza.  This year and the past two years I have worked at the top of the main grandstand.  Out of all the locations I have been within the stadium, I have to say my current one has been the best.

The upstairs ice cream stand is located at the top of the main grandstand behind section three.  It is as close to being directly behind home plate as it can be without being situated inside the press box.  The stand is above the last row of seats so there is no concern about people blocking the view – unless it’s raining and everyone crowds under the roof of the grandstand.  The view is perfect for the first few innings of each game.  That’s a slow time for ice cream sales, which means Ariane and I can relax and cheer on the team.  It gets a bit tougher to watch the game starting around the fifth inning because that’s when fans begin to want dessert.

From a working standpoint, being able to see the game has its ups and downs.  It is a major advantage when it comes to keeping track of the time.  Not only can we see the clock in the outfield, but it’s easier to gage the speed of the game and how long we may or may not be selling food.  One downfall to being able to keep track of the time is when the game is moving slowly.  A slow game can make the night seem extremely long; especially if it is a slow night for sales.  The upstairs ice cream stand also supplies a great viewing spot for all the entertainment that takes place before, during, and after each game.  In a minor league park the in-game entertainment is a large part of what draws families to the games and the Fightins do not disappoint.

Our viewpoint also provides the opportunity to get to know a little bit about the team.  When you get to watch the game every night, you eventually learn who all the players are, where they play, and how they are playing throughout the season.  You may never talk to them in person, but you get the sense that you do know them in a way.

All in all, we’ve got a pretty great spot to work and watch the game.  I’m sure that there are some who would say they can find a better seat; they might say that being up behind the seats isn’t as nice as sitting right next to the field or behind the dugout.  In the end, I have watched baseball from every corner of the stadium and I must say, we definitely have the best seats in the house.

Fear of Change

Change (verb)- to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of something different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone; to transform or convert

Change is a topic that most people don’t like to talk about.  It’s also something that is constantly taking place.  Every fall and every spring we change the clocks.  The season changes four times a year.  People change jobs; they may even change where they live because of a new job.  The weather is constantly changing.  No matter how we feel about change, we can’t do anything to prevent it from taking place.

Over the past few months the Reading Fightin’ Phils have made some changes.  The front office has said goodbye to some long-time employees, hired some new staff members, and welcomed back some familiar faces.  There have also been changes made to job positions within the organization.  The biggest change, however, has occurred outside the office.  The red general admission seats in the main grandstand are now green reserved seats.

Now to a lot of people this won’t seem like a big deal, it’s just a different color seat.  To the long-time fans and employees, however, it will take some time to adjust to this change.  There are the fans who race to the grandstand as soon as the seats open to grab what they believe are the best seats in the house.  They will find that they have to run a farther distance now if they want to sit on the third base line, but the first base line will be easily accessible.  There’s the gentleman we dubbed “vanilla cup man” because he would order the same thing every game;  to the point where all he had to do was come to the window and put down his money.  Will another ice cream stand memorize his order this summer?  The running man may find that he has a shorter distance and fewer stairs to cover as he chases after foul balls.  While my sister has gotten to know these fans over the last 7 1/2 years and I have only known them for two, it feels as if we have been friends for some time and in a way we have become a strange, little baseball family.  Who knew that something as simple as the color of a seat could have such a big impact on a group of people.

I’m sure it will take some time to get used to looking out the window of the ice cream stand and seeing green seats; for the last ten years I have looked at the grandstand and have seen blue, yellow, and red seats.  By the end of the summer, however, I know that the green seats will not seem so out-of-place.  Change may not be something that we enjoy, but it’s inevitable and we might as well embrace it.

Star-Spangled Emotion

“I guess no matter how many times you hear that song played in a Major League stadium, on a warm afternoon, it’s still emotionally evocative.” – Danny Hemmerling,  Angels in the Outfield

Angels in the Outfield has always been one of my favorite baseball movies, and this particular quote has come to mind many nights when I’m at work.  After ten summers of working in a baseball stadium, I have heard the national anthem countless times.  I have also heard numerous interpretations of the song.  The words are the same – almost every time – but that is where the similarities end.

There have been fast versions, slow versions, loud versions, and soft versions.  Every season has off-key versions, pop versions, and the occasional version that is sung by young children who give it their all, but somehow it always seems to be missing something.  Each season also brings with it the singers who just blow you away.  No matter how the anthem is performed, there is still something about hearing it in a baseball stadium that makes it special.

I can’t tell you exactly what that feeling is, or what makes that moment so special.  Maybe it’s the fact that for those 2-4 minutes, everyone is standing together and it doesn’t matter which team you’re rooting for or where you might be from.  Maybe it’s the calm that comes over the stadium as everything comes to a standstill just before the game begins.  There is a feeling of anticipation and excitement as the home team takes the field and the players and coaches line up in front of the dugouts right before the game.  It’s almost as if the stadium is holding its breath just waiting for the moment when the umpire, or in the Fightin’ Phils case the chosen fan, yells “Play Ball!”.

Having had the opportunity on a few occasions to perform the national anthem before a Fightin’ Phils game, I can assure you the moment is just as special on the other side of the mic.  It’s a great feeling to look up and see hundreds of fans standing together and know that for the next two hours or so, all those people will be sitting together just enjoying a ballgame and sharing a common interest.

The national anthem is performed at all major sporting events and at college and high school events, but to me it will always have a special feel at a baseball game. After all, baseball is considered to be “America’s Pastime.”

The Singing Usher

This post has taken some time for me to write and has been the hardest one for me to finish. I had the pleasure of getting to know Neale Bechtel during my two summers as a seasonal associate for the Reading Fightin’ Phils.

Known around Baseballtown as the “singing usher”, Neale was the kind of person who was liked by everyone. As a ticket taker he was one of the first people to greet fans at every game and made an instant connection with each and every one of them. Even after years of working as a beer vendor, an usher, and a ticket taker, Neale showed up each day ready to share his love and excitement for baseball with the hundreds of fans who visited Baseballtown every season. Over the years I had always heard Neale perform “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning strecth, but I never got the chance to meet him. As a seasonal associate, it was part of my job to make sure that Neale was ready for his shining moment on the field.

Every game I would walk down to the batting tunnel where the ticket takers were carefully counting each and every ticket stub and tell Neale that it was almost time for him to sing. I would bring around the golf cart and take him to the back of the stadium where we would meet up with the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor who would drive Neale around the field on his special three-wheeled bicycle. After dropping Neale off, I drove the golf cart to the third base side of the ballpark to pick him up after he was finished singing and I would drive him back to the parking lot. On most nights, Neale’s lovely wife would be waiting for us at their car and she would help him out of the golf cart and into the car.

For two full summers I would chauffer Neale to the back of the stadium and then back to his car and I must say it was one of the best parts of my job. It almost felt as if I was driving a celebrity around. Everywhere Neale went in that ballpark there was someone waiting to say hi or shake his hand. There was a group of fans who would stand at the top of the stadium each night and shout “Hi Neale!” down to him as we drove back around to his car and Neale would shout hi back. Neale was always happy and whenever I would show up to tell him it was time to sing, he would say hi and sing my name in a way that is hard to describe, but fit his personality perfectly. He would always ask how I was doing and he shared stories from his many years working in baseball.

This past summer when I learned that Neale has passed away, I felt that I had lost a friend. I did not know Neale well for an extended period of time, but the time that I did know him will always have a place in my heart. Neale was a constant presence at Reading Phillies and Fightin’ Phils games and has made an impact on thousands of fans over the years. He will be remembered every time the seventh inning stretch rolls around and will always hold a special place in the hearts of Baseballtown fans.

Here’s to you Neale,