Cheeseburgers in baseball paradise

When I stick my foot in my mouth, let me be the first to spit it out and admit I was wrong.

When they first started tossing around the idea of bringing minor league baseball to Gwinnett, I loved the idea. But I was scared that it would be turned into some suburban businessman's version of the game, that all the things that make the minors special - the player access, the theme nights, the silly contests - would be removed. I concluded I was ready for minor league baseball, but maybe not Gwinnett's version of it.

I know now that I had nothing to fear because there is nothing wrong with Gwinnett's brand of baseball. In fact, it's everything I wanted. I took my stepson Dalton and his friend Charles on Wednesday to a day game against the Durham Bulls. I paid $18 total for three tickets on the berm.

Try taking two teenagers to the movies or a concert for that.

As soon as we walked in, two people with clipboards stopped us. Here we go, I thought. Let the suburban mall-style marketing begin. I expected something like "Would you like to sign up for a credit card?" or "Can you please take our brief consumer survey?"

Instead, the woman asked the boys if they would like to participate in an on-field contest between innings. Dalton and Charles looked at me. I didn't give them time to think about it.

"Hell, yeah, they would," I answered.

Then I read the part of the waiver that said there was risk of injury or death and wondered "what sort of contest is this?" Go-Kart race, paintball war, knife fight - who knew what sort of madness I'd volunteered them for?

Turns out, building a giant cheeseburger, with the boys being the buns. I couldn't sign quick enough.

They told us where to be at what time, and we headed for the concession stand and then found a place in the sun on the berm. An usher welcomed us and told us if we needed anything to come see him. That's class.

As we ate, the boys got nervous about having to go on the field in hamburger bun costumes. I told them to just go with it, that it would be fun. I told them to think about the story they'd have to tell - not to mention the one I'd get to tell.

For a few innings, we admired the beautiful facility and watched the game. The boys chased an errant T-shirt shot up into the stands by Chopper about halfway around the stadium, but someone beat them to it. I lay on the grass, thinking there were lots of worse ways to spend an afternoon.

At the bottom of the fourth, we met the staff members who took us into a tunnel underneath the stadium, where Dalton, Charles and their two opponents - who were older and had a few ounces of liquid courage in them - put on their bun costumes and where I started laughing.

The buns and I then were led to the visitors' dugout, where the joking was ramped up. One of the boys' opponents was a trash talker - not to Dalton and Charles, but to the Bulls. At one point, I made the boys step back because I was pretty sure I was about to see a fight between a minor league ball player and a mouthy hamburger bun with a buzz on.

But the bun changed tack and decided to invite the Bulls' third baseman, Ray Olmedo, to go out partying after the game instead. Olmedo said there wouldn't be time. The bun asked, "Why, what time is your flight?" at which point Olmedo had a hearty laugh and pointed out in not-so-newspaper-friendly language that this was the minors, and there were no flights, just long bus rides.

Then he said "Here, go home happy," and gave each bun a game-used ball. It wasn't quite Mean Joe Greene and a jersey, but it was pretty cool nonetheless.

When the inning was over they led us onto the field. They put down a giant plate, and Dalton lay down, making the bottom of the burger, while the quieter of their opponents did the same. Then Charles and the talkative bun raced each other to build the burger. It was close for a minute, but then Charles pulled ahead and finished in style, complete with a big splash-dive on top to finish the burger and win two $25 gift cards to Wendy's. There was much applause and laughter. What I wouldn't have given for a camera.

Their 15 minutes of fame over, we turned in the costumes and collected the prizes. After the game, we waited by the Bulls' team bus, and when Olmedo came out he autographed the baseballs he'd given the boys.

Even though the home team lost, we all left having had a day so fun you couldn't put a price on it, and to me, that makes G-Braves baseball a phenomenal success.

I may not always be right, but I'm right about that.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.