11th of Jun | Story

A taste of Tulsa


TULSA, Oklahoma | Mike Melega watched as chili was poured into an open bag of FRITOS. A green Staten Island, New York, kid, he hadn’t seen the combination before. “I was fearful of FRITOS pies at first because they just looked so foul,” he says.

Then he scooped the chili and corn chip crust out of the FRITOS bag, sweet and crunchy to the taste and feel, the bag warm and still in tact. It all made sense.

Melega was a food and beverage intern for the Drillers in 1994 and, to him, Tex-Mex cuisine – fajitas, nachos, taco salads and everything else – was a novel idea for ballpark food. Again, it all made sense, especially in Tulsa. “That was the thing that made us seem like you didn’t just have to get a hot dog or bag of peanuts.”

Melega earned a marketing degree from Syracuse University and never thought about food and beverage operations when he was trying to work his way into minor league baseball. Then teams at the Winter Meetings noticed he listed “catering experience” on his resume. “I got several job offers and had my choice, and Tulsa was just coming off winning an organizational award and they were really well respected in the industry,” he says. “Everybody told me, ‘You should go there.’”

"There were people out there smoking and throwing their cigarette butts all over the field, and they left empty beer cans. It was like going to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert." Drillers general manager Mike Melega.

Much to his girlfriend’s chagrin, he moved to Tulsa.

By the time Melega arrived in Tulsa, the team was known for handing out free tickets at all of its sponsor locations. Some nights, plenty of people showed up. Other nights, whole sections remained empty. On his first opening night with the team, the clock ticked closer to 7 p.m. and the park was already three-quarters full. He walked down to the picnic area behind the centerfield wall and could see the intersection blocked and cars packed bumper to bumper in every direction. He had spent the previous summer working as an intern with the old Erie Sailors in Pennsylvania. This crowd looked like more people in a night than that team had drawn in a season.

There were no seats left and the lines still formed outside of the stadium. The general manager, Joe Preseren, and the umpires decided to seat overflow fans on the field. They carved out a section from the rightfield foul line toward centerfield and then about 30 feet in from the wall. “They must have put 2,500 people, 3,500 people on the field, at least,” Melega says. Yes, the ground rules were adjusted for the game.

Melega and his boss watched the fans pack the field. “I’ll never forget it because my boss and I were like, ‘Oh, my god, we have all these people down there, we need to get some food service down to them.’ So we got the vendors together, we sent beer vendors down there, Pepsi vendors and popcorn and peanuts,” he says. “It was before the days of no smoking, so there were people out there smoking and throwing their cigarette butts all over the field, and they left empty beer cans. It was like going to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.”

About 16,000 fans passed through the gates, 3,000 more were turned away and another 2,500 walked in, searched for a seat, found none and left. Melega lost eight pounds and worked until 2 a.m.

“I learned so much on the run that night,” he says.

That was 19 seasons ago and Melega has moved from food and beverage to promotions, on and on up the ladder, all the way to general manager – and he did it all in Tulsa. What has kept him and his girlfriend – and yes, Theresa moved with him and they have been married since 1997 – in Tulsa? “The challenges that have been presented to me, the increased opportunities, the responsibilities, the fans and my sense of loyalty to the ownership,” he says.

"The importance food and beverage play on the baseball experience will never be lost on me." - Melega

He helped open ONEOK Field three seasons ago in the Greenwood District of downtown and the windows that line two sides of his corner office look out over the cranes that continue to clutter the skyline and the neighborhood growth planned with, and spurred by, the new stadium.

The Drillers were the most recent of seven teams in the Texas League to open a new stadium – all but San Antonio have moved to a new park since 2002. After going to the 2002 league all-star game at the Dell Diamond, home to the then-Double-A Round Rock Express, the Drillers were motivated to build a new stadium. “It was like they rolled a Yahtzee,” Melega says. “It was awesome.”

Drillers Stadium opened in 1981 and the team wanted to provide fans with a new experience. “For a market that has had baseball for more than 100 years, fans are pretty set in the way they experience baseball,” Melega says. “You can’t reinvent the wheel, but what you can do is change the experience and have the fans evolve and grow with you as baseball fans.”

Positioned on the north side of downtown, ONEOK Field provided an urban connection and updated amenities. The new concepts used on the concourse level included a water garden for children to play behind the batter’s eye and a series of food carts and kiosks to give the park a more open feel.

“I’d put our food and beverage operation up against any ballpark in minor league baseball,” Melega says. “I’m sure there are some that are better, I just haven’t seen them yet.” He still remembers when he rolled kegs, wrapped hot dogs and oversaw one of the bigger budgets for the operation. When the Drillers moved to ONEOK Field, they started to work with Professional Sports Catering to brand, support and improve their food operations. Now they serve everything from specialty hot dogs and gourmet burgers to, of course, Tex-Mex.

“The importance food and beverage play on the baseball experience,” Melega says, “will never be lost on me.”

Carolyn@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @CarolynLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason 

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