On Friday Night at Ripken Stadium, typical concourse smells such as grilled hot dogs and popcorn were subsumed by an aroma more specific to Maryland cuisine: Old Bay seasoning.
The Aberdeen IronBirds changed their name to the "Steamed Crabs" on this evening, marking the second season in which the Class A Short-Season Baltimore Orioles affiliate paid homage to Maryland's most celebrated seafood. An all-you-can-eat crab feast was part of the festivities, featuring locally caught blue crab seasoned and steamed at the ballpark.
"We put a lot of smart minds in a room -- a lot of minds smarter than me -- and Cal and Bill [Ripken], our owners, they were two of them," said IronBirds general manager Matt Slatus. "We saw how successful all these team food rebrands were and we said, 'What's more local to Maryland than steamed crabs?' It was a natural. We launched the brand last year, it was a huge hit and you see it here [at the ballpark] tonight with a sold-out building and [Steamed Crabs] merchandise flying off the shelves."
Friday's game featured the season's only appearance by a crab mascot named Kalvin, who, per Slatus, "only comes out of the Chesapeake once a year." But for the most part, Steamed Crabs Night simply added an exclamation mark to what is a nightly commitment to the crustacean.
"Any time fans come out to the ballpark, if we serve it you can pretty much top it with crab," said Slatus. "Hot dogs, burgers, grilled chicken. Tonight we're serving an Old Bay sausage, and we've got crab cakes on the menu every night. Tonight we've got a 12-ounce jumbo crab cake. We're filling our burritos with lump crab tonight. So, again, if you can put a crab on top of it, we'll do it."
Aberdeen's crab-influenced concessions include Old Bay Sausage, Crab Pretzel, Crab Flatbread and Crab Balls.
But the star of the show are the steamed crabs themselves. The team sources their Maryland blue crabs from Conrad's Crabs, a local seafood restaurant and market that catches and seasons them before steaming them on-site at the park. They are only available as part of the team's "Crab Feast" special, which includes a game ticket, team logo crab mallet and a two-hour all-you-can-eat steamed crab and barbecue buffet. Friday was the team's ninth and final Crab Feast of the season.
"A night like tonight, we've got 26 bushels [of steamed crabs] in-house," said IronBirds concessions manager Tim Graham. "Over the course of the season I'd say conservatively we will order about 400 bushels of crabs from [Conrad's]. ... Usually you'll get between four and five dozen crabs per bushel. End to end, I wonder how long the distance would be if we laid them all out. They're four and a half inches or so."
2018 Road Trip
Graham, a Maryland native, is prone to such crab-specific ruminations.
"I'm from Westminster, which is 45 minutes west of [Aberdeen], and grew up here. Crab's in my blood. We'd go out on Easter and Mother's Day and holidays like that and pick crabs. We used to get up and take rotten chicken necks down to the other side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and go crabbing in the morning. Catch our own and take them home."
And while he may be biased, Graham claims that Maryland has the best crabs "by far."
"I think it's the seasoning, and the fact that we eat them hot," he said. "There's a sweet succulence to the meat that I really like. ... I don't know, just getting that Old Bay seasoning on your fingers and pulling that sweet meat out little by little, there's nothing like it. It's a great way to spend a few innings. We do it for two hours, and [fans] usually eat every bit of what I order. We've got it measured to about eight and a half people per bushel of crabs."
Playing under their Steamed Crabs alter-ego on Friday, the IronBirds lost to the visiting Staten Island Yankees by a 4-1 score. The Steamed Crabs are now 0-2 all-time, but they'll return for a shot at victory in 2019.
"I think after two years it's time for a refresh," said Slatus. "So the Steamed Crabs will be back, but I think we've got a new look in the works. ... Just as crabby as we can get."