When baseballs fly, hot dogs will be eaten. This seems to me to be a basic fact of Baltimore life.
I don't devour many hot dogs at home, but as soon as I enter a baseball stadium and see the players on the greensward cavorting in what former player and manager Alvin Dark called "God's own sunshine," I get a craving for a red hot.
Normally, one dog will do. Yet recently, I took stock of this year's offerings by eating a total of 12 hot dogs during three visits to Camden Yards. I sampled the selection that the Camden Yards concessionaire Aramark had to offer. Then I bought hot dogs from the vendors who set up carts on game days on the sidewalks outside the stadium. I carried a notebook, an instant-read thermometer and an appetite.
I ate dogs plain, with hots, with sweet peppers, with onions, with sauerkraut, with relish, with mustard and with spicy Jamaican ketchup. I paid as little a $1 for a dog and as much as $5. I ate hot dogs in the cold, on Opening Day, when temperatures dropped into the low 40s. I ate them on a sunny, 85-degree afternoon and during balmy spring sunsets. I ate them in victory, when the Orioles beat the Tigers and the Blue Jays, and in defeat, when they lost to the Athletics.
Two top dogs emerged. My favorite inside dog, sold within Camden Yards, was the one from the Hot Dogs Plus stand on the Eutaw Street promenade. This big, $4.50 number weighed a quarter of a pound. It was grilled, had good texture and a pleasing spicy finish. It wasn't especially hot, hitting a modest 109 degrees on the thermometer, but it provided warm comfort on a cold Opening Day.
"It is among the best hot dogs in baseball," said Kevin Kenney, Aramark district manager, and self-described hot-dog aficionado. It is made by Berks Packing Co. in Reading, Pa.
My favorite outside dog was the one sold at Tony U's Original Big Dog Grill, a stand on the sidewalk near the juncture of Howard and Camden streets, next to the Baltimore Convention Center.
This quarter-pound dog, all-beef sausage, was grilled to perfection, with crisp, almost-burned skin. It registered 127 on the thermometer. The bun was solid, if unremarkable, but the extras - in this case, sweet peppers and onions - were exceptionally fresh and expertly julienned. This $2.75 dog had aroma, heft and flavor and was delivered with a smile by the stand's worker, Alison Franklin.
Tony Uleckis, the proprietor, ferries the stand downtown from his Arbutus home for Orioles and Ravens games. His big hot dogs, he said, are Kunzlers, from Lancaster, Pa. While much of the prep work is done before he arrives outside the ballpark, his dogs, he said, are cooked only on the stand's propane grill, which he fires up several hours before game time.
Hot-dog stands have a peripatetic life. During the last football season, his stand was located at a couple of spots east of the Hamburg Street bridge, he said.
In recent baseball seasons, the stand was at two different locations on Camden Street. It now resides on the east side of Howard Street near the stoplight at Camden Street, unless the gal selling T-shirts shows up at that spot, in which case he sets up further south on Howard.
His hot dogs have a following. One fan is Barbara McClinton, who spoke to me as she was squirting a dog with ketchup and mustard, or as she called them, "red and yellow." "I have followed this stand from one location to another. It is the best dog around," she said. A key factor in her evaluation, McClinton said, is the way the dog is cooked. "It is grilled, and has that crisp skin. I can't stand the steamed stuff."
McClinton, a retired landscape architect, said the stand has become a routine stop when she and her husband walk to Orioles games from their South Baltimore home.
In addition to my favorites, my eating odyssey revealed some other dogs of note.
Three of them were located west of the ballpark on a triangle of concrete I dubbed the "isle of sausage." Here, in a patch of open space in front of Pickles Pub, I found a $3.25 kosher dog with good snap at Henry's Hot Dogs; a foot-long $3 Jamaican dog (a frankfurter flavored with spicy ketchup sold at the Jamaican Lady's stand at the southern tip of the isle); and in the middle of the isle at Wild Bill's Grill, a savory $3.25 all-beef dog dressed with tangy homemade chili sauce. The isle is also home to an adequate $1 dog sold at John's Stand on the northern tip.
The best $1 dog I found came from the All American Dog stand on Conway Street on the south side of the Baltimore Convention Center.
The dog was steamed and bland, but warm - pretty much what a kid wants in a hot dog. (On Opening Day, I had trouble finding the inexpensive Kiddie Dogs in Camden Yards. By the middle innings, workers at concession stands behind home plate and in the upper deck in left told me they were sold out of the dogs. Aramark officials told me later that this was a mistake, that inventory records indicated supplies were adequate.)
The juiciest hot dog I found in my travels was the $5.50 Jumbo Chili Cheese dog, sold on the ballpark's club level. This Esskay dog had good bite; the blend of Monterey Jack cheese added a new flavor. Eating it was a messy delight.
Best inside the park
Hot Dogs Plus, Eutaw Street promenade. $4.50 for an all-beef quarter-pound dog. Grilled, good texture, spicy finish.
Best outside the park
Tony U's Original Big Dog Grill, usually located on the east side of Howard Street near the Camden Street crosswalk, next to the Baltimore Convention Center. $2.75 for an all-beef quarter-pound dog. With fresh onions and peppers, it had heft, aroma and flavor.