Sometimes, having celiac disease can be a good thing.
I was diagnosed with this particular auto-immune disorder in 2012, and upon receiving this diagnosis the doctor's orders were simple: avoid gluten. Avoiding gluten means avoiding the ingredients that contain gluten, so wheat, rye and barley are officially off-limits. Therefore, when attending a Hickory Crawdads' game on Sunday, I had a medically viable excuse for abstaining from eating the team's signature concession item: the "CLAWlossal."
It consists of a foot-long chili-cheese dog, pub chips, a half-pound burger, a pulled pork sandwich, a corn dog, five onion rings, two jalapeño poppers and two pickle spears. In a sane world, it would not exist, but we do not exist in a sane world.
This absurd concessions creation retails for $40, but iron-stomached fans can purchase it for the reduced price of $25 so long as they agree to take "the CLAWlossal challenge." Per a 2010 Crawdads press release, the challenge goes a little something like this: "If you can finish this monster of a meal in an inning or less, you will get a CLAWlossal T-shirt, your photo on the CLAWlossal Wall of Fame and your money back."
On Sunday, one fan was foolhardy enough to give it a go.
That fan was a local high school teacher by the name of Alex Ward, who had volunteered to be my "designated eater" for the evening. In other words, he was the individual recruited to take a gluten-filled ballpark bullet on my behalf. Alex, originally from Cincinnati and a rabid fan of the Reds, originally got to know the Crawdads staff through a partnership with the team in which his students helped design magnet schedules and posters. He has become a ballpark regular over the past several seasons, attending upwards of 25 games a year, and at one point he "failed in a head-to-head barbecue sandwich eating contest." But he had never before attempted the CLAWlossal Challenge.
If Alex was successful, he'd earn enshrinement on the Wall of Fame, inspiring future generations via his feat of gastronomic agility. If not, he'd be humiliated while seated behind a folding table situated on the concourse of a Minor League Baseball stadium.
To some, this is a fate worse than death, but Alex was confident.
"I've watched enough Man vs. Food. I know I need to break up the tastes," he said. "But when I told my mom about this, she said, 'You're an idiot.' Those were her exact words."
Ward's CLAWlossal Challenge attempt began in the bottom of the second inning, as the Crawdads came to bat against the West Virginia Power. During the preceding inning break, Crawdads promotions assistant Brice Ballentine had introduced Alex to the crowd and exhorted them to cheer the face-stuffing efforts that would occur during the following six outs of South Atlantic League Baseball. This mid-inning announcement immediately attracted a gaggle of uniformed youth baseball players, who descended upon Alex like bees on honey. Audible gasps were heard as the CLAWlossal was placed on the table in front of him, with Alex looking at me and yelling "That's a real convenient disease you have, Ben!"
As the challenge began, Alex's hope was that the following six outs would be slow in coming. There is no clock in baseball, after all, and theoretically a game could last for eternity with no outs recorded at all. However, Crawdads director of community relations Megan Meade did not think that the inning would last an eternity or anything even close to it.
"I would have done this mid-fifth, you can bet on there being some pitching changes then," she said. "But right now? They're going to fly through this."
"I have faith in the Crawdads," countered Alex. "They are going to score at least four runs, and maybe there will be a pitching change."
Alex's faith was well-placed. The first four Crawdad batters reached base in the bottom of the second inning, and eight came to the plate overall. This not only gave the Crawdads a 2-0 lead, it gave Alex plenty of time to eat. Using his "break up the tastes" philosophy, Alex methodically transitioned from one item to the next en route to eating the vast majority of the CLAWlossal over the course of just one (long) half-inning. By the time the Power came to bat in the top of the third, all that remained was a portion of the hot dog and corn dog as well as a smattering of pub chips.
Alex looked nauseated by this point, his confident smile having turned into an anguished grimace. When I asked him how he felt he replied "Just hope. Hope! I need it."
Unfortunately, what he really needed was a trash can. With just a couple of bites to go, Alex suffered what those in the world of competitive eating call a "reversal of fortune." (What goes down, must come up.) It was the eating equivalent of losing a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning.
"I was getting ready to brag to my friends that I did it, getting ready for the picture and the t-shirt, and then I ended up hugging the trash can," said Alex, in an exclusive post-challenge interview. "I was just trying to not make myself look bad, and make a respectable showing. I survived until the end; I'm impressed with myself."
Better you than me, Alex. Thank God for celiac disease.