What Ever Happened to Tailgating?

Photo by Randy Stern
Photo by Randy Stern

Let me take you back out to the ballgame.

In the past, I discussed tailgating, an All-American ritual (and Canadian, too) that ties the automobile and professional spectator sports. It is a simple thing to do, though sometimes complicated by sophistication and some crazy idea found on the Food Network.

Not that I have anything against the Food Network, though I found Vice's Munchies YouTube channel more entertaining…

I get it. There are two approaches to tailgating. One is a simple approach. It involves a quick trip to the store or a nearby fast food joint, a cooler, some beverages and a few folding chairs. When you get to the parking lot, you open up the rear of the vehicle, the cooler and a few beverages. The food comes shortly afterwards…

Then, there are those who are adventurous about their tailgating. It may involve a small grill…or, something much larger from the back of the house. It may also involve the lawn furniture and a few other things – including a portable audio system with an iPhone dock. For the grill, you go to a good supermarket to get the best cuts of meat, better franks, brats…you name it. It could be the local butcher that may benefit from your parking lot culinary adventure. Plus, a simple raid of the deli counter, snack row, cheese display and soft drink aisle. The next stop is the liquor store, where standard American beers will not cut it. A case of Stella and a few bottles of the best wines around will do!

It is all because the classic stadium hot dog climbed to six dollars apiece.

The spring-to-fall season is ripe for tailgating. With basketball and hockey starting their playoffs, baseball and soccer just began their long march through the summer. It means parking lots will be full of grillmasters and families on a budget enjoying a pre-game meal. Dichotomies of socio-economic groups will enter the same games, but sit in entirely different surroundings. All in the name of sports.

A tailgate usually starts with a vehicle. If I recall in my youth, a tailgate meant bring a station wagon and opening up the…tailgate. There was enough room for a family, their cooler and their food. In a pinch, they made sandwiches. If there was a small grill, that would call for hot dogs that tasted better than the overpriced ones inside the ballpark.

Since then, we saw the proliferation of minivans, SUVs, crossovers and pickup trucks replacing the old venerable station wagon. Gone are the images of four buddies from college in a Country Squire with enough beer and sausages to celebrate the summer at the parking lot of a ballpark.

Also gone are some of the older ballparks with open parking lots. Most places where baseball and soccer teams play are more urban within reach of good public transportation. Restaurants are more prevalent – especially ones with huge bars. Ballparks also stepped up their game by offering fancier food, chef-driven specialties and craft beers. Not to mention the arrival of food trucks on the scene.

It is certainly not the good ol' days…

I still love professional spectator sports. Though not as much as I used to. The appeal of it has waned. Though, I still have some remnants of my ties to these games in my wardrobe. Lately, it is now down to 1-2 events per year. I have yet to look at any for this year. Though I am afraid it will not include any tailgating.

This love of pro sports does include motorsports. They tailgate there, too. They do so on a much higher level thanks to the economy of scale at the top rung of each series. I'm sure the scale would be more palatable when you get to a regional NASCAR series, a SCCA Pro event or a some other race.

Why am I lamenting all of this? In the Twin Cities, tailgating opportunities have diminished with the proliferation of new venues. The St. Paul Saints, an independent baseball club and member of the American Association, will begin a new era inside CHS Field. This is a ballpark built in the Lowertown section of downtown St. Paul with access to a light rail line. Though there are open parking lots, I fear that tailgating would be discouraged by the owners of these lots.

With the Twins anchored at Target Field in the Warehouse District, the Vikings will move into their new stadium by 2016 on an extended plot of land that use to house the old Metrodome. Old tailgating spots will be replaced by new buildings, parking ramps and a park. Meanwhile, Minnesota United FC will become part of Major League Soccer in a couple of years, along with a new pitch west of Target Field. Though it will border on the Minneapolis Farmer's Market, do not expect any tailgating to happen in that area.

You can still tailgate at the United FC's old venue – the National Sports Center in Blaine. There is still a lot of free parking outside the pitch to fire up grills and hang with the Dark Clouds. Of course, with the promotion to MLS coming up with a new Minneapolis venue, you better enjoy the tailgating opportunities while you can.

Perhaps I am lamenting the loss of tailgating in the Twin Cities among pro spectator sports teams is because I remember what it used to be. Yet, my history reaches back to my youth in Los Angeles, where Dodger Stadium had a vast parking lot for 17,000 vehicles – enough room to tailgate with the downtown skyline in the background. There was Angels Stadium in Anaheim with great tailgates at the time when the Rams played there…before they moved to St. Louis. Even at the Rose Bowl when parking is at a premium, you could tailgate at the edge of the adjacent gold course before UCLA football games.

As long as I recall from afar, Minnesotans have a long tradition of tailgating. With the vast parking lot around old Metropolitan Stadium, Vikings and Twins fans enjoyed this luxury until both teams moved to downtown Minneapolis and the Metrodome. Even with diminishing spaces, tailgaters made use of adjacent lots near the Metrodome to uphold this tradition. The Metrodome tradition was also shared by fans of the University of Minnesota’s football team.

If you lament the loss of tailgating, there are still places that do so across North America. Yet, there are those who will improvise, even when the space to tailgate have been restricted by governments and private property owners. Bless those who improvise!

For those who still tailgate – celebrate it! Crack open a beer, fire up the grill and enjoy the moments before the first pitch or kickoff. And, don’t forget to sober up before leaving.

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