A section where the food touches all bases

Just when you thought Pirates fans had had all they could stomach, the baseball team with a near-record streak of losing seasons last night introduced its latest promotion: all-you-can-eat seats.

It could give a whole new meaning to ballpark figures.

For $35 in advance -- $40 on game day -- fans can purchase seats in Section 147, up in the right-field corner of PNC Park, where they can enjoy unlimited amounts of hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos, popcorn, peanuts and soda pop.

You can even have a tossed salad and an ice cream sandwich.

"The initial reaction has been good," said Brian Chiera, senior director of marketing and sales for the Pirates. "The buzz is that it's going to be good for the season."

All-you-can-eat seats were introduced a couple of seasons back by the Los Angeles Dodgers as a way to put fans in seats that weren't being sold.

The promotion caught on and is available in more than a dozen Major League Baseball parks, as well as a number of National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and NASCAR venues. (The National Football League, so far, is taking a pass.)

Mr. Chiera said the Pirates discussed the idea with their concession operator, Aramark, which also serves the Atlanta Braves and the Baltimore Orioles, two teams that have had success with the seats. But while other teams limit the menu to hot dogs, popcorn and soda, the Pirates decided expansion was good.

"We wanted to go the extra mile because we have the best ballpark in America and we wanted to extend the value as far as we could," Mr. Chiera said.

The target demographics, he said, are young people and families. If the promotion is a success, the Pirates will extend it from the 164 seats in Section 147 to more of the right-field seats. The menu does not include beer or specialty foods -- just ballpark fare, as they say. The salads, however, are a nice touch.

"When we talked to the Pirates, we agreed that we wanted to hit all the clientele that we could," said Steve Musciano, general manager for Aramark at PNC Park. "A lot of people today don't want to eat the heavier products, they might want a nice light salad. And this offers a different food item. It gives you almost everything you could offer from an all-you-can-eat stand."

The food is the same as what you'd find anywhere else in PNC Park, with the exception of the ice cream sandwiches, which are unique to the seats. The team buys it in bulk and it's easy to prepare.

Fans get a wristband and then they can go hog-wild.

Justin Heddinger, 33, a teacher from Greensburg, and his girlfriend, Terri Mawhinney, 36, a finance controller from the North Hills, teamed up to see how much damage they could do for their combined $70. Before the game had started, they had consumed two hamburgers, a hot dog, two orders of nachos, two bags of peanuts, a bag of popcorn, an ice cream sandwich and four soft drinks. Don't tell anyone, but Mr. Heddinger was even eating a salad at a baseball game.

"I figured I'd wash it down with something healthy," he said. "It's good. It's crispy and fresh."

Mr. Heddinger, who at 6-foot-2 and 170 pounds looks like he could afford a hearty meal or two, admitted that he was eating more last night than he otherwise would consume at a ball game.

"But if it was a picnic, I'd probably have eaten more," he said.

The cost of what he and his girlfriend ate last night -- at normal ball game prices -- would have almost paid for their tickets. And they went back for more peanuts and soda later in the game.

"You've already made your money back if you have a hamburger, a hot dog, and a soda," said Tadd DeLuca, 27, a firefighter from Wheeling, W.Va., who sat in the section with four friends. "You're already at the game. The line is shorter. You don't have to pull your money out to pay for it. It's convenient."

Nikki Bowser, 26, an engineer from Vandergrift, admitted she was eating more food than she normally would. But she wasn't having any of that salad.

"There's no room for salad at all-you-can-eat," said Ms. Bowser, who suggested that the team add cotton candy and soft pretzels to the menu.

Sallie Hall, 29, a sales manager from Cranberry, praised the service at the section's private concession counter.

"They're being very accommodating," she said. "They're making it seem like it's still a food service and not a free-for-all thing. You have the feeling that they're glad that you're here. They still ask if there's anything you need and answer any questions you have."

They even put a dollop of nacho cheese onto her husband's hamburger.

"It gives you the freedom to come and not have to watch the pocketbooks," she said. "Of course, it's overindulging. But it's definitely worth it."

Allegheny County Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole said no one from PNC Park or the Pirates consulted the department about the promotion. But he didn't anticipate any problem.

"A hot dog is fine, peanuts are fine, but in moderation," he said, "and that's what we, as a health department, would want to encourage. Moderation.

"Given what they're promoting, maybe they should use the [left-field] bleachers rather than the seats. Because people who are going to gravitate to this section may have wider ends. They might not fit into the seats."

Asked if fans should limit the number of hot dogs they consume, Mr. Cole kept his audience in mind.

"One is fine, and two are OK," he said.

"But I would say three strikes and you're out."

Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456. First Published April 10, 2008 4:30 AM


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