THE FEAR struck as I crossed the McAfee Coliseum parking lot to the ball yard for the big challenge.
My shirt was untucked in the familiar (and unsuccessful) slimming stunt large men have used for years.
But the panic lodged deep as the A's people escorted us — Eric Louie, a slender young man who is a competitive eater, columnist Tony Hicks, who has a pronounced appetite for life, Dan Honda, a photographer, who seemed to be psychically willing nacho cheese drippings onto my baby blue eating shirt, and me, the big fella who had suggested going for a test gorge in the new Oakland A's third deck all-you-can-eat section.
It all started when I ran across an ad for the section that opened this season, and mentioned it to colleague Tony Hicks, and we agreed it would be an excellent journalistic activity.
"Free food and baseball, on company time," Hicks said, summing up my own thoughts perfectly. "Yesssss."
Normally, it would have ended there, as do most of our schemes to spend work hours having fun, but the editor agreed, provided we took Eric along to offer some expert commentary, and Dan, to record the event for both the paper and the Bay Area News Group's Web site.
And that's what brought us to the Coliseum on this perfect spring day.
We climbed the stairs to the ballpark's sections 316-318, where all the hot dogs, sodas, ice cream sandwiches, nachos, peanuts and popcorn you can eat were available to anyone wearing the wristband du jour. This, I soon realized, was a place for serious trenchermen (or women) — charging up the steps to get ahead of us was a man wearing a Samoa Cookhouse sweatshirt, mute testimony to his eating abilities to those who know the Samoa is a Northern California loggers' mess hall that serves meals to the kind of people who can cut down a whole forest by lunchtime.
Memory of my curse came back as the gatekeeper taped the band on my right wrist, I again heard the words than had taunted me at buffets from here to Atlantic City.
"Damn," they would say, "you sure don't eat much for a big boy."
For some reason, I always heard the words in the sort of Southern accent used in the movies by guys who play sheriffs and chain-gang wardens. And that short phrase stung like a billy club to the solar plexus.
But I soldiered on, and stepped up to the snack bar window, where I ordered two dogs, nachos and a diet Pepsi.
"Jeez," said the woman behind the counter, "diet."
"I like diet better, too," said Eric, who is a nice guy, unlike Tony, who, I believe, had stopped for breakfast to tide himself over on the walk in from the parking lot.
The all-you-can-eat section idea started last year with the L.A. Dodgers, and spread like mayonnaise through professional baseball and over to hockey, where the Philadelphia Flyers launched an all-you-can-eat plan.
"All you need is a section that can be devoted exclusively to the all-you-can-eat fans," said Steve Fanelli, A's senior director of ticket operations. "Since we don't use the third deck, it's perfect."
The game had just started when we took our seats, high up in the third deck, but right behind home plate — an excellent place to watch the game unfold below and be soothed by the sounds of chewing and peanut shells being cracked.
"It's the best idea ever," said Anthony Martinez of Turlock, who was there with his pal, Serasin Guitierrez. Each had two scorecards, one for the game and one for their personal stats on food consumption. "I'm thinking we'll average about 2 dogs per inning."
I quickly devoured my first hot dog, allowing the mustard and ketchup to drip into the convenient cardboard tray I was holding.
Next, I sampled a nacho, sodden with cheesy goodness that dropped from the corn chip, caromed off my lower lip, skied down my chin and plopped onto my shirt. Dan was on me like processed cheese product on nachos, taking still and video pictures that felt like bullets of embarrassment piercing my tender sensibilities.
And that's how the day went.
I was as pathetic with my eating as the A's were that afternoon against the Red Sox.
My final total was a paltry four dogs, one order of nachos, a bag of peanuts, an ice cream sandwich and a bag of popcorn. Much less than the totals of Eric "Dozen Dog" Louie, and Tony "Seven dogs, but a lot of other stuff" Hicks.
They stop serving in the seventh inning, and frankly I was pleased we'd hit the seventh inning stretch.
See, I don't eat much for a big fella, and it's always been embarrassing to me.
Reach Pat Craig at 925-945-4736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.