Losing a link to sports history
By Rick Chandler
“Hello. Can you hear me? How are you feeling?”
The Italian sausage reached out to grasp my hand. He smiled, then began coughing. He reached for a notepad beside the bed, but in doing so accidentally unplugged some delicate hospital equipment and fell into a deep coma.
“I’m going to leave now,” I said, taking the dessert from his dinner tray as a nurse rushed to his side. But he was too sick. The tubes and tape stuck to his withered body were too much. It was too late.
I turned the TV to Emeril Live and left.
Five days after my visit to the greatest racing mascot in the history of Milwaukee, the Italian sausage died alone. The legend who brushed every corner of the city with greatness and a delicious, tangy deli mustard, passed away in a sterile hospital room the size of a closet, with no one to mourn but me.
In happier times he had been the pride of the Miller Park racing circuit, an all-star cast that also included a bratwurst, a Polish sausage and a hot dog. Their races around the stadium’s warning track during the seventh-inning stretch were flights of whimsy at first, a merry diversion for the younger fans. But the races quickly caught on, and the “Mixed Grill”, as the fans began calling them, became instant celebrities.
And the Italian sausage was the biggest star of them all. In addition to winning 75 percent of the races, the stately meat product with the handlebar mustache and jaunty jalopy cap was a hit with children and adults alike. The sausage became a local fixture at supermarket openings and Ocktoberfest celebrations – the biggest celebrity in town.
“Without exception, the best racing food item to come out of Milwaukee,” said Legendary Brewers radio voice Bob Uecker.
Uecker recalled the time that the Italian Sausage won his race by the largest margin ever — a full 22 links – and then later that evening led the sausages to a 10-point win in a charity game over a team of basketball-playing pork chops.
Then, cruel fate stepped in. It was on July 9, 2003, in a game against Pittsburgh, that the Pirates’ Randall Simon did the unthinkable. The four sausages were nearing the finish line during their traditional race, when Simon, seated in the Pirates’ dugout, suddenly produced a bat and took a whack at the Italian sausage. In the carnage that ensued, the Italian sausage crumpled to the ground, and the hot dog was also grazed. The Polish sausage and the brat somehow managed to escape unscathed.
In the hospital for months, despondent, the Italian sausage recovered just enough to struggle into a wheelchair and entertain patients in the pediatric ward. But rehabilitation was long and difficult and he soon took to drinking. He became an alcoholic but also had a bad memory — sometimes forgetting to drink for days at a time. Then someone would remind him of his condition and he would start up again.
It took less than a year for the sausage to hit bottom.
“It was sad to see,” said the hot dog, who recovered from his injuries and is now the Brewers’ Director of Community Relations. “A promising career was ended by one swing of the bat.”
It was a life full of tragedy and misfortune. While taking a walk in a local park in October, the Italian sausage was caught in the crossfire between a Dominican drug gang and the cast of West Side Story, which was playing at a local theater. Bleeding and near death, he suffered further injuries when hungry onlookers began taking bites out of him while waiting for the ambulance.
The bratwurst, now a senior account executive for the Hertz Rental Car Sales Division, said that the Italian sausage had also turned to gambling.
“More often than not, he would end up playing poker at his favorite haunt, the penguin enclosure at the Milwaukee Zoo,” the bratwurst said. “Those penguins took him for every dime, every penny. Never trust those flightless bastards.”
Today, only the Polish sausage continues to race.
“In my mind’s eye, I can still see him out there, running at full tilt, the sun gleaming off of his casing,” he said. “So many people loved the Italian sausage. He was a magnificent showman and also delicious.”
The Italian sausage met his end at 10:21 a.m. Sunday at Milwaukee General Hospital, of complications from mold. But some say he really died of a broken heart.
So when you go to the ballpark this season and the guy in front of you is buying the Italian sausage, pull out your wallet and say, “This one’s on me.” Italian sausage, we will never forget you. As with most spicy foods, you are gone but not soon forgotten.
– Contact Rick Chandler at RickChand@earthlink.net