The Sahara of Slugger Field

The Triple-A Louisville Bats began play earlier this month amid the usual hot stove and cold fridge speculation as to whether Louisville Slugger Field finally would join the craft (beer) (food) (bourbon) (dining) (localism) (choose one) revolution currently underway in Louisville, as well as in most other baseball outposts scattered through the remainder of the United States.

If you’ve lived in these parts for any amount of time and possess the patience to read this far, you’ve already guessed the answer.

Nope.

If anything, the craft beer selection within the macro-laden confines of Louisville Slugger Field is even less impressive than during recent years, when there was at least a measure of grudging forward progress. In 2013, we’re being sent back to first base, or maybe to the year 1949 – whichever comes last.

During 2013’s opening homestand, still artfully concealed behind a solitary blemished table tent at the roasted peanut scoop on the concourse near Section 115, there was:

  • BBC APA … brewed in Louisville
  • Kentucky Ale … brewed in Lexington
  • Magic Hat No. 9 … brewed by the Craft Brew Alliance, engorged with AB-InBev placement bucks
  • Leinenkugel Summer Shandy … pet shampoo owned by MillerCoors consortium

As Pete Townshend once observed, “Every year is the same, and I feel it again.”

Since the inception of Louisville Slugger Field, a facility constructed with monies generated by local tax revenue, the Bats have remained slavishly beholden to Anheuser-Busch (now multi-nationalized into AB-InBev), dooming generations of local baseball fans to insipid multinational yellow lager, even as the ballclub insists in every known dialect of marketing-speak that the Bats experience is purely “local” in orientation.

The following 2009 excerpt from my LEO column conveys the perennial disconnect between what Bats management says it will do and what it actually proceeds to do – a state of affairs dating to the last Clinton administration.

According to Gary Ulmer, President of the Louisville Bats, this season a rotating Browning’s beer will be on tap at one of the portable stands along the concourse in the area behind third base. Courtesy of Ulmer, here are the other beers being served at Louisville Slugger Field:

Bud, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Coors Light, Bud Light Lime, Michelob Ultra, Michelob Amber and Light, Amber Bock, Shock Top, Landshark, Red Stripe, Smithwick’s, Rolling Rock, Red Hook IPA, Sam Adams, Sam Adams Brown Ale, Beck’s, New Castle, Harbin, Bass, Stella, Labatt’s Blue, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Tiger, Heineken, Peroni, St. Pauli and Corona.

If you’re keeping score, that’s 30 non-local to 1 local.

The scene is little different in 2013. Why? Let’s review.

The way these matters work in the real world is understood. An entity such as AB-InBev spreads advertising cash through the back alleys of the stadium authority, or the team itself, which is the day-to-day operator of Louisville’s taxpayer-funded baseball venue.

Centerplate, the chosen and avowedly monopolistic concessionaire of the Bats, then miraculously ensures that AB-InBev’s product placement will is done. There is no direct, necessary connection between one and the other, in the same way there is no provable link between anniversary gifts and the state of happiness in your marriage.

Shit just somehow happens, kaka occurs, and a preponderance of mass-market swill remains the rule in Louisville.

While Browning’s still wheezed, its beers indeed made the tortuous 100-yard journey to Section 115, but not aways, and a turning point was required. It came in 2010, when NABC initiated a round of Glasnost with Centerplate, which led to a remarkable, albeit temporary, occurrence: Via River City Distributing, and largely absent indirect payola or onerous advertising terms, two craft draft handles magnanimously were permitted to pour adjacent to the hot roasted nuts.

Naturally, banners and directional signs were not permitted, because Big Daddy AB-InBev would be gravely insulted by genuine choice, but at least it was a step.

NABC Beak’s Best and Alltech’s Kentucky Ale went on tap … and then abruptly were given the hook. Seems NABC and its owner are synonymous, and Roger needed ritualistic vengeful scourging for having the temerity in the past to publicly discuss the naked truth about the Bats and Centerplate’s odious practices.

How drearily ham-fisted of them — but how very, very typical.

With Alltech back on tap in 2013, it’s worth recalling that in 2010, Centerplate – an apostle of foreign-based AB-InBev – informed RCD that Kentucky Ale never would return to Slugger Field because it wasn’t “local” enough, even as Alltech was inking a substantial sponsorship deal for the KFC Yum! Center, itself a Centerplate venue.

They’re just not the sharpest pair of spikes in the clubhouse, are they?

In 2010, Centerplate duly retaliated against NABC and Alltech by putting BBC APA and Cumberland Red next to the peanuts for the remainder of the season and all of 2011, and this was fine by me. As an advocate for all of craft beer, I can contentedly live with losing battles while winning wars. In 2012, Cumberland mostly seemed missing, but BBC, Falls City and Against the Grain made appearances at the unobtrusive craft beer stand.

And this year?

That’s always hard to say, given there is no communication between the governing ballpark entities and the taxpaying public, and there is no real avenue for public input into the process.

The most obvious candidate is Against the Grain, although when the topic came up informally last week*, AtG indicated it wasn’t in a position to vend beer within the turnstiles in 2013, for these reasons …

  • AtG gets along just fine with the Bats, its landlord (i.e., as a tenant, there’s no sense in rocking boats)
  • Anyway, there is insufficient demand for craft beer within the ballpark, which isn’t the ballclub’s problem
  • Even if there were such consumer demand, Centerplate’s discounting needs in the context of the three-tier distribution means a poorer return for AtG than it gets by selling its beer to wholesalers for export outside Louisville
  • Besides, AtG’s beer is better consumed within its own four walls, and the location mere yards away from the game is sufficiently convenient for those seeking better beer

I’m a big fan of AtG, and naturally, I respect the reasoning of my peers. At the same time, I fervently wish for the day when it is feasible for AtG’s beers to be available where I can drink them while viewing the actual baseball action, because sometimes, it’s all about me.

‘Nuff said.

Previously in this space I ventured a scenario wherein AB-InBev eventually would manage the exclusion of locally-brewed craft beer from Louisville Slugger Field by inaugurating concepts like a Goose Island branded concessions area, profusely endowed with AB-InBev ad money. AB-InBev isn’t doling out its Euros for a genuinely free American market, is it?

Fortunately, this hasn’t happened – yet.

However, in 2013 the beer-loving stewards of the stadium are giving us something even worse: Taste the Best of Belgium, a stand-alone beer kiosk featuring Hoegaarden, Stella Artois and that other universally known Belgian masterpiece, Bud Light, as guaranteed to give Centerplate, the Bats front office and AB-InBev’s foreign management the very first sustained tumescence, sans-Viagra, that they’ve welcomed in decades.

The box score doesn’t lie.

In baseball, as in sex, as in beer, it’s always useful to follow the money.

* Twitter conversation on Saturday, April 6, 2013

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