15-TIME CHAMP

How 63 hot dogs & 1 unexpected guest were no match for Joey Chestnut

Chestnut finished with 63 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Photo by Ken Hoffman.

You were impressed by Tiger Woods playing 18 playoff holes on a broken leg to win the 2008 U.S. Open?

How about Muhammad Ali fighting 11 rounds with a broken jaw against Ken Norton in 1973?

Kirk Gibson limping around the bases on an injured leg after belting a game-winning homer in the 1988 World Series?

Or Cosmo Kramer taking over the wheel of a runaway bus, fighting off a mugger and continuing to make all the stops?

Sure there have been legendary displays of courage under pressure, but nothing will compare to the raw guts and intestinal magnificence that Joey “Jaws” Chestnut displayed Sunday while winning his 15th title in the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island.

Chestnut entered the event at a disadvantage with his foot in a boot due to a ruptured tendon. Competitors were salivating at the chance to face a hobbled champion. Or perhaps it was the aroma of freshly grilled hot dogs that got their digestive juices flowing.

Then, as Chestnut was grabbing for his 11th HD&B (hot dog and bun), a protestor wearing a Darth Vader mask and carrying a sign reading “Expose Smithfield’s Deathstar” rushed the stage and bumped into Chestnut.

Smithfield is the biggest producer of pork products in America and has been accused of less than humane conditions on its pig farms in Utah. Chestnut reacted swiftly, grabbing the protestor in a rear naked choke that would make UFC champ Charles Oliveira envious.

The incident took only seconds, Chestnut barely broke his stride, and finished with 63 hot dogs in 10 minutes. His total was far below the record 76 franks he consumed last year, but still 20 dogs ahead of his nearest rival. It was Chestnut’s 15th title overall in Coney Island, a record that is unrivaled in major sports. Only Rafael Nadal’s 14 championships at the French Open tennis tournament is close.

Point of clarification and confusion. While the protestor referenced Smithfield’s pork production facility, Nathan’s hot dogs are 100-percent beef. Also, the Nathan’s skinless hot dogs you buy in supermarkets are not the same natural casing dogs you get at Nathan’s restaurant on the corner of Surf and Stillwell in Coney Island. Nathan’s brand does produce natural casing dogs for supermarkets, but they’re expensive and difficult to find. I settle for Boar’s Head.

I’ve had several up close and personal experiences with the mighty Chestnut. I was his official “judge” and hot dog counter at five of his Coney Island victories. Plus I was his assistant at the 2009 World Kolache Eating Contest at Minute Maid Park. I carried his jug of Kool-Aid to the field and made sure his contractual needs were met. Chestnut won the kolache clash, downing 45 sausage kolaches in eight minutes. It was a tighter finish than expected as Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti threatened Chestnut right to the bitter end by inhaling 42 of the bready breakfast pastries.

The day before, I conducted an exhaustive 2-hour interview with Chestnut on radio. I didn’t hold back with my questions. Yes, I went there. His answer was … around 3 or 4 a.m. and it ain’t pretty.

This year’s event wasn’t the first time there was civil disobedience at the Nathan’s Famous July 4 Hot Dog Contest.

In 2009, legendary Japanese competitor Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobyashi attempted to disrupt the event, considered the World Series of competitive eating, by challenging Chestnut to a showdown. Kobyashi had been barred from entering that year’s contest because he refused to sign an exclusive contract with the sponsoring Major League Eating group. With the crowd chanting “let him eat” Kobyashi went all Clubber Lang on Chestnut, yelling and screaming, questioning the champion’s courage and appetite for competition among other things.

Was it a publicity stunt? Did contest organizers know about Kobyashi’s plan? Nobody knows now and New York City police didn’t know then. They arrested Kobyashi for trespassing, resisting arrest and “obstructing government administration.” Police hauled his inexplicably skinny butt away kicking and flailing.

Before they could stuff Koby in the back of a paddy wagon, one of Kobyashi’s stray kicks struck my son who was watching in the VIP section. Prior to this, his favorite brush with celebrity was getting his hero Jeff Bagwell’s autograph at Minute Maid Park. Getting booted by Kobyashi was 10x cooler.

In 2017, animal rights protestors attempted to rush the stage. Thwarted by security, they threw red paint on spectators. I was on the stage during the disturbance. Later I learned that one of my entourage, wearing a souvenir Coney Island T-shirt, was splattered by the paint. He was not happy. I said, “Are you kidding? That shirt is a piece of history now. It belongs in the Smithsonian. Or in a Tide commercial.”

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Mattress Mack and the Astros host Pearland Little League at Wednesday night's game. Photo by LittleLeague.org

Sure, it’s impressive that the Astros have made four World Series appearances in recent years, but they’re not alone. There’s another baseball team around here that’s also headed to its fourth World Series since 2010.

Pearland defeated Oklahoma, 9-4, on Tuesday to win the Southwest Regional and qualify for the Little League World Series starting Aug. 17 in South Williamsport, PA.

Most fans and media say the Little League World Series is held in Williamsport, but it’s South Williamsport, just a 5-minute stroll across a bridge over the Susquehanna River in north central Pennsylvania.

Pearland is on a torrid 13-game winning streak that swept through district, sectional, state and regional tournaments to earn the Little League World Series bid.

Here’s how difficult the road to the Little League World Series is. There are 15 teams in MLB’s American League. If the Astros finish with one of the two best records, they’ll have to win two playoff series to play in the World Series.

Little League is a little bigger than MLB. Little League is the largest youth sports organization in the world, with 2.5 million kids playing for 180,000 teams in more than 100 countries on six continents.

Pearland, representing East Texas, had to defeat All-Star teams from West Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arkansas and Colorado to win the Southwest Regional. The Little League World Series will host 20 teams - 10 from the U.S. and 10 from international regions.

If you have children that play Little League, or you’re just a fan, attending the Little League World Series should be high on your baseball bucket list.

I covered the Little League World Series in 2010 when Pearland made its first appearance and made it all the way to the U.S. championship game. It may have been my most fun assignment ever.

The Little League World Series is played by 11 and 12-year-olds in Little League’s major division. When ESPN and ABC air these games, they’ll present the players as innocent little kids, like Beaver and Wally or Tom and Huck. They’ll show the kids playing Simon Says with the Little League mascot called Dugout. They’ll ask the kids who’s their favorite big leaguer.

I was a Little League coach. I followed Little League All-Stars across Texas all the way to South Williamsport. These kids are absolute baseball maniacs with $400 gloves, $500 bats and Oakley sunglasses. I thought the Astros might call and ask where they got their super neat equipment.

Especially in Texas, these kids are built tough with long ball power and play year-round travel baseball with high-priced private coaches. This isn’t a choose-up game in the park where kids play in their school clothes, one kid brings a baseball and the players share bats. I looked at some of the Little Leaguers and wondered if they drove to the stadium.

I half-expected, when ABC asked who their baseball idol was, they’d answer “me!”

Here’s how seriously good these kids can play the game. Justin Verlander throws a 97-mph fastball. That’s pretty fast. It’s not rare anymore for a Little League pitcher to reach 70-mph on a fastball. The Little League mound is 46 feet from home plate. A 70-mph pitch in Little League gets to home plate in the same time as a 91-mph pitch from 60 feet 6 inches in MLB.

In 2015, a pitcher named Alex Edmonson fired an 83-mph heater at the Little League World Series. The reaction time a Little League batter had against Alex’s pitch was equal to a Major Leaguer trying to hit a 108-mph fastball. Good luck with that. Alex pitched a no-hitter and struck out 15 batters in six innings at the Little League World Series. Now 20, Alex is a relief pitcher for Clemson.

The Little League World Series is a trip. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Philadelphia and drive to South Williamsport. I sat next to CC Sebathia’s mother on the plane.

Admission to all Little League World Series games is free and snack bar prices are reasonable. A hot dog is $3. Alcohol and smoking are prohibited.

The first Little League World Series was held in 1947. Only 58 players have played in the Little League World Series and later played in MLB. The most famous are Cody Bellinger and Jason Varitek. Only two players from the Houston area made the leap: Brady Rodgers and Randal Grichuk both played on the 2003 team from Richmond, about 30 miles from Houston in Fort Bend County.

While you’re in South Williamsport, you should visit the Little League museum and Hall of Excellence. Among the inductees: Presidents Joe Biden and George W. Bush, Astros manager Dusty Baker, Kevin Costner, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dick Vitale, Rob Manfred and someone who’d later play stadiums in a different way, Bruce Springsteen.

Speaking of Springsteen, I shattered a record at the 2010 Little League World Series. The record was Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. I was talking to a Little League executive while teams were warming up on the field. Born in the U.S.A. came over the stadium loudspeakers.

I told the executive, I’m a big fan but maybe this isn’t the best song you should be playing. The executive asked why not? Well, you might want to listen to the words. Born in the U.S.A. is a depressing song about a U.S. soldier who is sent to Vietnam and can’t find a job when he gets back home. It’s not exactly Yankee Doodle Dandy. You have teams from Asia here (Japan won the tournament that year). The executive said, please tell me you’re kidding. Here’s one verse:

Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the (what is considered a slur for Asians).

Later I got an email from the president of Little League International.

“Quite honestly, I've never listened closely to the words of Born in the USA. I see clearly how it is offensive to our Little League friends from Asian nations. I have directed our folks who coordinate the stadium music to discontinue playing it in the future.”

Play Centerfield by John Fogerty instead. The message of that song is, “put me in coach.” Little League couldn’t say it any better.

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