It is September 21st, 2022. The Phillies, a bit under two weeks away from Red October and the beginning of an unexpected pennant run, are playing the Blue Jays. The 29,363 fans that enter the stadium on a sedate weeknight leave visible gaps of empty seats in the stands. It is Dollar Dog night, and 47,155 of said dogs will be sold before Matt Vierling singles to center to send the ghost runner home and end the game in the 10th.
It is May 9th, 2023. The Phillies, not yet two months into their season, are playing the Blue Jays. The 44,544 fans that enter the stadium on a sold-out weeknight leave visible gaps of empty seats in the stands and lengthy lines stretching through the concourse. It is Dollar Dog night, and 59,314 of said dogs will be sold before Craig Kimbrel catches Vladimir Guerrero Jr. looking on a fastball low in the zone to end the game.
Before that, though, a silver oblong shape will make a lazy arc from the stands onto the grass. Whit Merrifield, playing right field for Toronto, will turn his head to get a better look at the object that has caught the edge of his peripheral vision. It is a single, foil-wrapped hot dog. If Merrifield lifts his gaze towards the stands, he’ll see the wave rippling around the stadium, with jubilantly tossed sausages standing in as its wake.
On my way into the park that night I saw someone wearing a sweatshirt that had “Dollar Dog Night” written on it in the 80’s Phillies font. This wasn’t just a midweek baseball game, it was an event. Last season, Phillies fans complained that there weren’t enough Dollar Dog Nights on the schedule. This season, fans are complaining that Dollar Dog Nights are too much. The general post-pennant attendance increase combined with the dollar dog boost has resulted in a sort of chaos at games that is either, depending on your disposition, joyous or exasperating. Lines for dogs stretch so far that a quick trip to the concession stand turns into a missed inning or several, and the general speediness introduced by the pitch-clock era only exacerbates the frustration of waiting. Men in hot dog costumes walk through the concourse with pyramids of dogs stacked on trays, soon to be tossed towards someone or perhaps to nobody in particular. Some poor pencil-clutching schmuck trying to keep score might have to get up from his seat in the middle of an at-bat to allow teenagers returning from their third or fourth Dollar Dog expedition to pass, accidentally dropping his hat off the railing of the 200 level as he does so (this schmuck was me).
The dollar dog revelers are not, to be clear, an invasive species. A ballpark is an ecosystem, and an ecosystem must have its diversity of inhabitants. A ballpark in good health has its scorebook-toting diehards, its eager but distracted casual fans clad in new or rarely worn jerseys and caps, its coworkers out on company celebrations, its families with children toting pint-sized gloves or else a parent’s iPad. Ballparks, of course, are not constant, and the balance of these fans tips one way or the other as seasons pass. Much attention is given to ballparks where the change is one of decay, to the parks where mediocrity on the field and disinterest in the front office results in empty seats becoming the dominant species. But change occurs in the opposite direction too, with the crowds growing in number and excitement as the team stretches towards glory. Call it bandwagoning, or if you want to be more charitable (and I do), call it the result of slumbering fans receiving their reminder of how enjoyable their city’s particular rendition of their national pastime can be. Either way, a ballpark environment changes when the threshold from striving to succeeding is crossed.
Dollar Dog Night and other such affairs may be referred to euphemistically as giving back to the fans, but in actuality they are (and are listed on the official website as) promotions. The idea is to sell more tickets, and specifically to attract fans for whom a baseball game alone might not be enough to make the sale. Dollar Dog Nights are meant for times in which a team is still trying to demonstrate to their neighbors that the ballpark is the place to be. But when a team has already done so, when they are riding the crest of their attendance wave, Dollar Dog Night looks different. It’s happened before for the Phillies: take 2007, when the College Night promo of discounted students and dollar dogs combined with the excitement around a surging team lead to food on the field and chaos in the stands. College Nights were quietly retired after that, then brought back in 2017, when the ballpark, having not hosted playoff ball in half a decade, needed a little juice.
Dollar Dog Nights could follow the same pattern, and it would be, while sad for lovers of cheap ballpark eats, justified. A ballpark doesn’t need to be (and shouldn’t be) be tranquil, but attending a game at one ought to be comfortable and easy. Clogged concourses, food falling from the skies, and irritable fans checking their watches as they stand in interminable lines turn a day at the ballpark into an irritation. And while some degree of irritation is inevitable (rain, flying peanut shells, runners stranded in scoring position), the team ought to mitigate its causes where they can. I love Dollar Dog nights. But it may be time to put the hot dog costumes in the closet for a while.