It's late March, and the Boston Red Sox are in Fort Myers, Florida, running through their usual spring-training drills. Outfielders work the winter's rust out of their arms with field-length tosses, sluggers swing and connect with the loud crack of a hard leather ball hitting an ash-wood bat. On this day, though, there's a guest on the diamond. Todd English, the Boston chef, has been invited to join in the action by two of his fans on the team, All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and catcher Scott Hatteberg. To the surprise of the Sox, the new kid's not too bad. Covering home plate, he makes the 130-foot throw to Hatteberg at second base look as easy as chopping onions.
"I think Scott was shocked," English later recalls. "He just had this funny look on his face. Although I didn't throw anything like that again for the rest of the game."
Long before Todd was a name chef--like Nomar, he's earned first-name status in Boston--he was a baseball fanatic and a promising catcher. As a kid, he spent his time playing Little League, collecting baseball cards by the thousands (he still has his set, Hank Aaron and Nolan Ryan rookies included) and sitting alone in his room moving the cards around in a game of baseball solitaire he invented. Twice a high school All-State catcher, he went to Guilford College in North Carolina on a baseball scholarship, but the majors weren't in the cards. After his freshman year, English dropped out to attend cooking school.
"I always thought at some point I'd get back to baseball, but the kitchen gave me the same rush," English says. After working as the chef at Michela's in Boston, where his freewheeling, full-flavored brand of Mediterranean food began to win national recognition (F&W named him one of the Best New Chefs in America in 1990), English opened Olives across the Charles River in Charlestown. Today he has six restaurants in the Boston area and seven others--in Las Vegas; Washington, D.C.; New York City; Aspen, Colorado; and elsewhere--most of them clones of Olives or of his less expensive café, Figs. Still, he makes time for games at Fenway Park, the legendary home of the Sox, where he has season tickets.
Just as going to Fenway is a serious pastime for English, dining out is a kind of hobby among the Sox, particularly for Garciaparra and Hatteberg, regulars at Olives. Garciaparra rarely grants interviews these days, but when asked to speak about Todd English, he talks for almost 20 minutes. The shortstop explains that there's a foodie legacy among the Sox, handed down by veterans like pitcher Bret Saberhagen: "Bret would say to me 'Hey, you know what you should try with this steak?' and he'd pour me a glass of wine. Then you get hooked. Now people ask me for wine tips.
"People think baseball players only eat sandwiches," he goes on. "But we enjoy a good restaurant as much as anything. I eat at Olives and just think, How good is that! Spring training was our chance to pay Todd back."
English's return to baseball began at about 9 a.m., when he met up with Garciaparra and Hatteberg, already in their starched white uniforms. Aside from playing his old position, relieving Hatteberg from the catcher's crouch for a spell, English watched the rest of the team drill the fundamentals and took in a preseason game against the Minnesota Twins later in the day.
Then, in a best-of-both-worlds turn of events, English treated his hosts to a menu inspired by his ball-playing days, a collection of dishes based on American classics old and new. English says his franks and beans owe equal debts to Fenway franks, Boston baked beans and Toulousian cassoulet. His version of Cobb salad, with marinated beef tenderloin, is an homage to the great hitter Ty Cobb; his spicy baked corn on the cob is a tribute to an ingredient that's as much of a summer classic as an afternoon doubleheader. The meal concludes with chocolate-marshmallow sandwiches based on the Moon Pies English used to love when he was a Little Leaguer.
A few weeks later, after both he and the Red Sox had returned to Boston, English looked back on his day at spring training: "Being there made me miss baseball like crazy. The rhythm of the game. The pop of the ball in the mitt. The smell of fresh-cut grass. All these things are just timeless."
Rob McKeown is a freelance writer and Red Sox fan living in Boston.