BY CAROLYN LaWELL
SAN JOSE, California | About 10 hours before every San Jose Giants home game, the cooks at Turkey Mike’s begin their day at an open-air restaurant at Municipal Stadium. They light charcoal grills, marinate their tri-tip with garlic and rosemary wine, and set hundreds of pounds of ribs and chicken in tin tubs to cook and soak up the flavors of a sauce so secret only one employee knows its ingredients.
When the gates open and fans enter the stadium, they turn left and head to Turkey Mike’s, tucked behind the third base bleachers. A host dressed every night in a vest hands out menus with seemingly endless options: spare ribs, half-chickens and tri-tip sandwiches, burgers, sausages and salmon, baked beans, potato salad, corn, applesauce, brownies – and that’s not the whole list.
The smell of barbeque and smoke are rich in the air.
"By the time you leave here, you won’t know the name of our rightfielder, but I’m sure you’ll know the quality of the food that is served back there and not only the quality, but the variety that’s there." – Mark Wilson
The San Jose Giants front office opened Turkey Mike’s 24 years ago. Now, whenever California League fans, broadcasters, scouts and front office staffers hear about a visit to San Jose, they don’t mention the Giants’ numerous division and league titles in the last decade. They talk about Turkey Mike’s.
Back in 1988, the team owners worked in restaurants and wanted to put a spin on traditional ballpark food by adding ribs and chicken. “That was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Who is going to eat that at a ballpark? They don’t come for that,’” says Mark Wilson, now the COO and general manager and a team employee for almost 30 years.
The inspiration behind the name was Mike Donlin, a left-handed pitcher and outfielder who had a strutting walk and a red neck that earned him the nickname Turkey during the 12 seasons he played between 1899 and 1914. A power hitter and a career .333 hitter, Donlin was one of the more likeable athletes of his time, though his career ended earlier than it might have had he not loved alcohol as much as he did.
In San Jose, Donlin’s nickname landed on hand-painted signs in the stadium for few reasons other than its ties to baseball – and its ability to turn heads. Its popularity over the years has meant renovating the stand at least a half-dozen times and building satellite areas to keep up with the demand. During sellouts, the stand often closes during the game because it, too, has sold out. On May 15, Turkey Mike’s received 800 gallons of sauce, which should be enough to last the rest of the season.
“The owners actually managed it and were here on the recipes and physically cooking the product so that when we debuted it in 1988, it was something that people would talk about outside of here,” Wilson says. “Now it’s really what we’re known for. By the time you leave here, you won’t know the name of our rightfielder, but I’m sure you’ll know the quality of the food that is served back there and not only the quality, but the variety that’s there.”
The half-chickens, which includes a leg, a thigh and a breast, is covered in a sauce that is sweet, but not tangy. Just when that taste usually disappears, the sauce intensifies. The meat of the 10 spare ribs in the basket is a little tough, but fell almost right off the bone; its rub overshadows the texture. The baked beans are so soft you can tongue them to pieces; their natural flavor stand alone.
“It’s not cooked in a microwave, or frozen and heated up,” Wilson says. “It’s actually cooked in front of you and prepared from scratch. That’s what separates it from the hot dog you had in Albuquerque.”
Time for minor league trivia. The Giants have the California League record for the highest number of league championships over six seasons. How many did they win? (Keep reading for the answer.)
Seth Rosin worked out of a fielding error in the ninth to earn his eighth save and wrap up a 4-3 Giants win over the Modesto Nuts. Rosin and relievers Jose Valdez and Chris Wilson pitched 3 1-3 innings without a hit or a walk. All three outfielders – centerfielder Chris Lofton, leftfielder Jarrett Parker and rightfielder Ryan Lollis – stole a base.
The temperatures dipped for the Giants game, which was probably the coldest game we’ve sat through all year. As Ohioans, we understand cold weather, but we knew we were in trouble when fans showed up to the game with blankets and winter coats. We never checked the exact temperature – San Jose’s average low in May is 52 – but we did pick up some hot chocolate.
Want the answer? The Giants won their most recent California League championships in 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010 – the first team in league history to win four crowns in six seasons. The San Francisco Giants 2010 World Series team had nine players who came up through the organization and played for at least one of those first three championship teams in San Jose: Nate Schierholtz (2005); Travis Ishikawa (2005, 2007); Jonathan Sanchez (2007); Pablo Sandoval (2007); Brian Wilson (2007); Sergio Romo (2007, 2009); Buster Posey (2009); Andres Torres (2009) and Madison Bumgarner (2009).
And in random statistical news, the game started one minute earlier(!) than scheduled, the first ball was a strike and the first batter flied out to center. Julie Cortez sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” in 1 minute and 28.9 seconds and she returned in the seventh to sing “America the Beautiful.” For dinner, well, of course we ate Turkey Mike’s. Matt ordered the ribs with baked beans and mini brownies. Carolyn ate the half chicken with creamy pesto pasta and an ear of corn. All of it was delicious.
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