It didn't even start as a contest. It all began because Dmitri Young simply wanted some food.
"It wasn't even a dare," Young told me in a recent call. "I was just hungry."
But after eating 11 cheesesteaks over a three-game series in Philadelphia some time in the early 2000s, the Detroit Tigers All-Star unknowingly launched a competition that would continue on for two decades: An underground, cheesesteak-devouring contest in the bowels of Citizens Bank Park -- beyond the cheering crowds and behind the double doors of the visitors' clubhouse. Players, coaches and, most notably, bullpen catchers, have come into town raring to set a new sandwich-eating high.
Mets bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello took down 14 in 2011. A second Mets bullpen catcher, Eric Langill, topped that with 17 in 2013. Two years later, Brewers bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel ate 18, and, just this year, a new champion has risen from the beef and onion ashes: Rockies strength coach Mike Jasperson inhaled 21 1/2 in three days.
“I went up 9 [pounds],” Jasperson told MLB.com's Thomas Harding.
Over the years, new categories have been created: One-day records have been chased by former first baseman Corey Hart and closer Bobby Thigpen. Chris Sale, a man known for his voracious appetite despite his slenderman frame, has talked about going for a title. There's also a four-game series individual record that pitcher Mat Latos once held and a team one-day total that needs to be chased.
So, what exactly are the rules? How did each cheesesteak hero go about gorging themselves until they could gorge no more? What exactly are these cheesesteaks? Are they regulation size? What is regulation size? Is there such a thing as regulation size? Here's a breakdown of one of the most fun -- and disgusting -- eating competitions you've probably never heard of.
This is a cheesesteak-eating contest, so the rules are not as stringent as they might be for say the Olympics or golf. But Phillies beat reporter Todd Zolecki laid out some guidelines in a recent story for MLB.com:
Everything must be consumed in the clubhouse.
Some form of meat must be on the roll.
The bun must be filled.
Hanel, the Brewers' bullpen catcher, stretched the in-clubhouse-only eating rule so as not to shirk his gameday duties.
"I actually had my fourth one while I was shagging fly balls," Hanel said in a phone call. "As a ball would come, I'd put the cheesesteak in my hand, catch it with my glove, transfer, throw the ball back into the bucket and then take some bites. I tried to be efficient."
The sandwiches are all made in the visitors' clubhouse. Since 2014, they've been cooked by clubhouse attendant Eric Michaels and his team.
“We make them as they come in,” Michaels told Zolecki. “We don’t just make a bunch of cheesesteaks and then players come in and say, ‘Can I get one?’ And say, ‘Yeah, here you go.’ If you come into the clubhouse and say, ‘Can I get a cheesesteak with mushrooms, provolone and onions,’ we’re hand-picking the mushrooms and onions out of a little jar and taking the provolone out of the fridge and we’re making that sandwich specifically for you."
The size seems to be at a standard 10-12 inches, and most of the time, the bun is loaded up.
And by everyone's account, they are delicious.
"I was a Geno's guy myself, although I did cheat on Geno a couple of times with Pat," Young told me. "But at the clubhouse, they made a phenomenal, PHENOMENAL Philly cheesesteak. When you go to certain cities that provide delicious lunches, like why am I gonna go running around town when I can get three or four [cheesesteaks] right here?"
"They're better than Geno's, they're better than Pat's," Hanel said. "I went to like three different [restaurants], the clubhouse ones are the best. They're the best. They do a great job."
"The clubhouse in Philly is it," Chad Chop, a former Giants replay review analyst and one-day champ, said over the phone. "It's unbelievable. They care, they're dialed in. Really good ingredients."
The three-game series, three-day record is how the cheesesteak-eating contest started, so that's the gold standard. But there is a four-game series mark, a one-day crown and a team one-day title. The Phillies' official cheesesteak record books were unfortunately lost during COVID, but here is a rough list of current and past champions in each category.
The One-Day Wonders
"I joke about it, but I think for a good six months I wasn't necessarily great," Chop, an aptly named eater said about his cheese-filled encounter in 2017.
Chop was a replay review analyst for the Giants from 2014-18 and, in 2016, he attempted to break the one-day, seven cheesesteak record. But after 7 1/2 sandwiches, everything came back up again and he was disqualified. He returned in '17 not really wanting to try it again. He had gotten himself into great shape and taken up yoga. But Brandon Belt coaxed the team to put an offer on the table of more than 10 grand. Almost immediately, even after all that self-care and hard work on his body, Chop was in.
The then 37-year-old got to Citizens Bank Park early on the day in question and got four sandwiches down in a quick two hours. He then did a workout to burn off some of the protein and got another two in before game time. And then, the final two in during the game.
"One of the perks of being a replay guy," Chop said. "You can crush sandwiches during a game."
So, he had the record ... but Giants players made him a second offer he couldn't turn down: An extra cash bonus if he got to 10. Chop then did the unthinkable. The unimaginable. The most despicable thing you've maybe ever heard in your life.
"I Vitamixed the last two with hot water," Chop laughed. "Yeah, I had three 24-ounce cups of Philly cheese soup. It was gross."
With Jake Peavy laughing in his face, Chop somehow kept the cheese shake down. Ten sandwiches eaten in 12 hours. And then, to top things off -- for another $1,000 from Matt Cain -- he had a breakfast cheesesteak the next morning.
Although it took a lot out of him, Chop, now retired from the game and hosting a podcast, told me he might return to Philly to go after the vaunted three-game record. Maybe for money, but maybe also just for pride and glory.
"I may do it just for fun," he said. "I'll report back to you."
At six feet, 197 pounds, Nationals Minor Leaguer Adrián Sanchez might not seem like a big eater. But in 2021, he went after Chop's mark and surpassed it with 10 1/2. You can hear most of his strategy in the full play-by-play video below, but Sanchez did something very interesting in order to get the subs down.
"He pulled the steak out of the bun and ate it slowly with his fingers as he was playing dominoes with teammates in the clubhouse. He saved the buns for afterwards."
The infielder had three before the game, three around the first or second inning, three more in the fourth to fifth innings and then, after some rest and fortuitous delays, he waited to eat his final one-and-a-half to a cheering clubhouse postgame. Luckily, he never got put into the game.
As the Nats' broadcast rightly said, "A true baseball feat."
The Original 3-Day Record-Holder
Back in his playing days, Dmitri Young, also known as Da Meat Hook, was a bit heftier than the average ballplayer. He'll even admit it himself.
"I was a fat-a**," he told me while he was driving his car in Southern California.
Young has famously slimmed down since he retired from the game in 2008, but during his 12 years in the league, he enjoyed trying all the different foods in all the different big league cities. He would, as he said, "eat as the locals eat," and in Philly, that meant eating cheesesteaks.
The two-time All-Star doesn't recall the exact year or game, but he puts his total at 11 over a three-game series. And again: Young just wanted to eat cheesesteaks. There was no competition at this point. There was nobody cheering him on. He did it all on his own. If there was a contest, he said he would've taken it on and probably "busted a jersey open."
Young ate some when he got in early to the clubhouse, after BP and even during games. He did have an advantage one of the days -- the manager gave him the night off.
"Yeah, I mean, they're tasty," Young said. "And when you get the nod that you got the day off, you take full advantage. I may need to pinch-hit later, so hopefully I don't eat too much and you see something sliding down my leg while I'm trying to run the bases."
Young said the large number of sandwiches in a few days didn't affect his stomach too much -- like White Castle might -- but he did eat some lighter foods like chicken the next week or so. He also believes there should be separate records for players and staff, since players have to, you know, play in a Major League Baseball game.
"Yeah, the Rockies coach probably got there around 12 o'clock," Young said. "The strength guys are usually the first ones down and the last ones to leave. So, he probably made it a point to break whatever the record was. It's freakin' incredible."
The Mets Are Cheesesteak Monsters
You may remember this Mets-Phillies game back in 2011. Word got around in the top of the ninth inning that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, and Mets and Phillies fans -- fanbases that would never normally join together for anything -- joined together to celebrate the news.
But something else momentous also happened that weekend: Mets bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello broke Young's cheesesteak eating record by taking down 14 in three days. The feat was, for some reason, celebrated the same way as Bin Laden's death. More from former ESPN writer Adam Rubin's story at the time:
"The chants of "U-S-A" in the visitors' clubhouse after the game were partially reflecting the international news. But they also were celebrating an American tradition -- gorging oneself."
Racaniello's record would only stand for two years, when another Mets bullpen catcher -- Eric Langill -- chowed down on 17 in 2013. According to NJ.com, when the series was over, Langill's pants barely fit.
Langill was going strong after his first couple sandwiches and then began slowing down as he got to his fifth. But the former Montreal Expos Draft pick fought on, determined to beat his friend and rise to the pantheon of Mets bullpen catcher cheesesteak eaters. He quit eating breakfast every day, arrived to the park on the early bus and just focused on the task at hand. He even swapped out steak a few times for chicken (this is allowed under the rules), and by the end of Day 3, he had reached 17.
“It’s torture,” Langill said at the time. “It’s not fun. But at least you’re on [the list].”
And then, in 2014, the entire Mets team totally outdid themselves: During a rain delay, the roster banded together to eat 103 cheesesteaks in one day. Yes, 103 cheesesteaks in 10 hours. It's hard to pin down what the previous team record was or which team did it, but most articles have it at some number in the 80s.
If you look at the Mets personnel that year, it's hardly surprising they were able to do that many. Noted junk eater Jacob deGrom was on the team along with larger veterans like Bobby Abreu, Jose Valverde and, well, Bartolo Colon.
The Brewers Dare
In 2015, Brewers bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel had no plans for breaking Racaniello's three-day record.
"I had no intentions of doing anything," Hanel told me. "Ed Sedar, at the time, was the third-base coach. He was doing an interview a couple of days before we were going to Philadelphia and they asked him, like, what are you gonna do in Philadelphia? Are you gonna do some sightseeing? On a whim, he goes, 'Well, I'm gonna watch my boy Marcus destroy some cheesesteaks and go for this record.'"
So, whether Hanel liked it or not, it was on.
After throwing BP, while shagging flies and before catching bullpens, Hanel took down six sandwiches on his first day in Philly. All beef, all fully loaded. It was rough.
"Yeah, the first day was the worst," Hanel remembered. "Going to catch bullpen, you're like, 'God, I just crushed four cheesesteaks.' I really didn't want to move at all. The guys would kind of laugh."
Even though he was putting down about six steaks per day, Hanel would still eat something light in the morning before heading to the ballpark. He would also shock his team by ending the day with an ice cream sandwich on the team bus back to the hotel. Sure, he was kind of peer-pressured into the contest, but Hanel admitted he was a prime candidate for the contest from the start.
"Yeah, you put something I like in front of me, I'll just keep going," he laughed.
After that first hard day, Hanel's body just got used to filling up on steak and cheese and it became, as he said, "easy." Once he finished his 18th, writers Adam McCalvy and Tom Haudricourt got him a cheesesteak hat from a special themed night held by the Phillies' Triple-A Lehigh Valley affiliate.
Still feeling pretty good considering all the meat and cheese he'd stuffed down his gullet, and with the Brewers in town for a four-game series, Hanel decided he might as well pass Mat Latos' four-day mark of 18. And he did -- gorging 23 total cheesesteaks. The 19th was captured by the team Twitter account:
"To be honest, I think I could've done more if I didn't have to throw batting practice or catch bullpens during the game," Hanel told me.
The Rocky Mountain Champ
Mike Jasperson is a strength coach for the Rockies. Which means, yes, he's in fantastic shape. It also means he knows how to prepare his body for, say, a cheesesteak-eating competition. He actually sat down with Rockies chef Tyler Hines to map out a strategy before going after Hanel's mark during a series against Philly this May. He had a daily regimen he followed.
“I was on my normal lifting program,” Jasperson, 38, told MLB.com's Thomas Harding. “But before I’d get to the park -- obviously, digestion is key at this point -- I walked to Starbucks, get a Venti iced coffee, chugged that, walked around town a little bit, came back to the hotel. Then I did a little warmup in the hotel gym, walked for 30 minutes, took a cold shower, then it was off to the park."
Like all of the contenders before him, Jasperson said Day 1 was the toughest. He ate 6 1/2 chicken steaks, but felt stuffed after his first four. The next day, his goal was seven -- but after adding tabasco sauce to change up the flavor -- he realized he could do more. He put down eight.
"I figured out that I could handle it and I wasn’t going to puke, so I just went for it,” he said.
On Day 3, Jasperson surpassed Hanel's record by devouring seven more for a three-game series total of 21 1/2. He said he got "a little chesty," but, that doesn't matter now, because he is the Phillies visitors' clubhouse cheesesteak-eating champion of the world.
Jasperson's Rockies also had a four-game series, so, of course, he proceeded to blow past Hanel's 4-day mark by inhaling 25. Joyous music and high-fives encircled the visiting clubhouse.
"Boys threw in a little prize money for me," Jasperson said. "That was cool, that was awesome. Excitement in the clubhouse. It was fun."
Sure, the Phillies' cheesesteak competition has brought a lot of excess cheese, meat, onions and weight to big leaguers over the years, but it's also brought some other things along with it: It's bonded staff with players, it's created a friendly camaraderie among teammates and even non-teammates, and during a long season, it creates a fun distraction from a slump or a losing streak or just the intensity of playing 162 games per year.
"The allure of it," Young told me. "How it's traveled over the years and stuff, I just find it very entertaining. It's finding the light side of Major League Baseball and how hard it is to be up there and play."
"That's the fun thing," Chop said. "You're in that clubhouse and those guys love their staff. That Giants clubhouse was a really special group of guys."
Although clubhouses are getting healthier foods nowadays, the recent 2022 winner shows that guys are still going for it. Most believe the next three or four-game winner will be a staff member, rather than a player, because of the time commitments. Jasperson said a few assistant strength coaches, including one from the Angels, has been "all over him" about the record, asking him how he went about attacking his 25 in hopes of beating it.
The Angels face off against the Phillies in a three-game set from June 3-5. So, stay tuned.
Let's just hope the worthy challenger remembers to pack his Vitamix.
Special thanks to Todd Zolecki, Thomas Harding and Adam McCalvy for their help with this story
Matt Monagan is a writer for MLB.com. In his spare time, he travels and searches Twitter for Wily Mo Peña news.