Friday, April 6, 2018

Baseball and Budweiser

OK, so I'll end the week with another baseball column, this one a reminiscence of sorts.  It's not that there's not fun stuff going on in other parts of the world, but this anecdote came up this week and reminded me to relate it, while I figure out just what an "oligarch" is.

I used to live in northern and northwestern Virginia; most of my life has, in fact, been spent there.  We no longer live there, which given their weather is a happy circumstance, but we were indeed there some years ago when the Montreal Expos were economically evicted from their home city and wretched park (I was there in the '70s and I can assure you it redefined "wretched").

Through the efforts of some, the franchise was determined to be moved to the Washington, DC metropolitan area, where they would play in creaky old RFK Stadium until a suitable new park could be built.  They would be named accordingly, as the final stadium site would be determined before the new team would actually be moving out of Montreal.

I was hoping that the new stadium would actually end up in Loudoun County in northern Virginia, close enough to be accessible to the metro area fans; far enough from downtown to be substantially safer, and in an extremely professional area with many people who could afford the tickets -- not so much wealthy as professionally comfortable.  Nearby Fairfax County, also in Virginia, would provide a huge and comparably "comfortable" ticket base.

Of course, that never happened; for whatever reason the city of Washington was allowed to build a new stadium in a less-than-great area of a less-than-great city, and that's what is there today.  They kept "Washington" and reverted to the "Nationals", the name the American League's erstwhile Senators had had for certain periods of their existence, before they became the Minnesota Twins (the Senators who replaced the departing Senators in 1961 ultimately became the Texas Rangers and never were called the Nationals).

After a short period in RFK, the new Nationals Park opened in 2008, just ten years ago.  I had no specific plans to go to a game that first year, but a visiting brother-in-law from out of state wanted to go that summer, and I was perfectly happy to do so.  We summoned another brother-in-law who lived in Virginia, grabbed my older son (34 at the time), we got four good third-base-side seats and off we went.

The park itself was OK, but just OK.  After Oriole Park at Camden Yards was built and opened in 1992, redefining the charm of the retro baseball-only park, most of the subsequent parks were done not in its image but in its concept, most to positive reviews.  Nationals Park, 15 years later, was just OK, sort of like the bland new Comiskey Park in Chicago, and its location in DC didn't help.

But I slightly digress.

Along about the fourth inning or so, the irresistible pull of the James Earl Jones Memorial "dog and a beer" came along, and I was dispatched, or volunteered, to procure four hot dogs and four cold drafts for the four of us.  I walked back to the nearest stand where I could buy both, and waited in line patiently.

The draft beer was Budweiser, which was OK, and the hot dogs were meat, or likely were meat, of some kind, which were readily able to be olfactorily masked with sufficient mustard to tolerate.  I brought all that back to the waiting hands of my son and brothers-in-law.

It only took two or three slurps from the beers before we all collectively realized something was wrong.  It wasn't that something was in the beer that shouldn't have been there, like cyanide or motor oil; it was just that the beer was -- there's no other way to put it -- really bad.

Now I suppose we choked down the remainder of the beers reluctantly, at least enough to wash down those meat-variable hot dogs.  But we weren't happy.

Now I have a curious relationship with Budweiser.  It is, of course, a beer with a long history in this country, nearly as long as the Anheuser-Busch brewery company that produced it.  My first beer was a Bud; my Dad was a Budweiser drinker -- not that he ever made it seem like it was his only choice, or that it was better, or even that he drank beer very often, it was just what he drank.  And when I was maybe 11 or 12, once in a while if we were having sandwiches and Dad had a beer, I had one too.  His notion was that there was no point beer being a mystery to me or my brother, and truthfully neither of us became especially big beer drinkers.

Back in 1984, my wife and I took a one-week trip to St. Louis, mostly to attend the convention and contests of the Barbershop Harmony Society, of which I was not yet a member.  Back then, the week of the 4th of July in St. Louis was also the week of the Veiled Prophet fair, a wonderful and peculiarly St. Louis institution.  Strung out along the banks of the Mississippi were all manner of fair-like stands and entertainment, and a lot of it was put there by Anheuser-Busch.

We also toured their St. Louis brewery that week, which was certainly interesting given that it was pretty old even 34 years ago, and their goal was to produce essentially identical-tasting beer regardless of where you got it.  And brewery tours are, let's face it, fun.  They end with fresh beer -- how can that be bad?

So while I'll probably never say that I'm a Bud drinker, and don't buy six-packs of it when I'm buying non-craft beer, I do feel positively toward the brand.

I got home the night of the game, and was still pretty steamed about how awful the beer was, when the words that came out of my mouth during one rant echoed back to me.  Anheuser-Busch, I declared, would probably be pretty ticked-off themselves if they tasted that crap that was being poured under their name.

"Under their name ..." I thought.  And then I suppose that it occurred to me that Anheuser-Busch probably was not sending a taste-tester to Nationals Park to make sure the beer was good, and that maybe I ought to alert them.

And I did.  I sat down at my laptop, logged into the 2008 version of their website, found the "customer comment" section and typed away.  They would be embarrassed, I told them.  If they were to go to Nats Park and taste the carbonated turtle urine that passed for Budweiser there, they would be unhappy, and I was writing this to defend the good name of an old and respected company.

I don't know what I thought would happen, but the next afternoon, my phone rang.  "This is ----- from Anheuser-Busch, and I am the director of public affairs [or something like that].  We got your message.  Tell us about it."

I did.  I told them what I thought, and I told them that I cared enough about their brand that it upset me to think that they mightn't know what was being served with their name stamped on it.  No, it was not my main brand of beer, for as much as I even drink, but I had a soft spot for the first brand I ever drank, and had a feeling they would want to know they were being embarrassed.

This piece would be better if I actually knew the outcome; obviously I don't since I never had a draft Bud there at Nationals Park again, but I suspect that the company went back and made bloody well sure that the vendors cleaned out their machinery on a bit more regular basis and did whatever they were supposed to do, but had not been.

I think I did the right thing.  I'm not going to tell you that part of my exacerbated pique on trying the beer was underlying, steaming resentment that I had to go to DC to see a team I had hoped would be playing in Virginia, but it was probably not a big part of it.  I did what I did in part because of the enjoyable time I had had 24 years previously at their brewery, where we were treated very well and the good will remained.

Brands are important; I suppose that you have achieved some measure of brand success when your customers are the ones defending it.

Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
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