Marek Warszawski

Fresno baseball club can’t talk out of both sides of its mouth in taco-choking death

It’s all fun and games until one of your fans chokes to death.

Go ahead and assume the Fresno Grizzlies won’t be staging any more competitions where the winner is determined by how many tacos they devour. Anything else would be disrespectful to Dana Hutchings and his family.

“We won’t have food-eating promotions like this in the future,” Grizzlies President Derek Franks said Friday. “We’ve made that decision.”

Hutchings, a 41-year-old father, would still be alive if he hadn’t taken part in Tuesday night’s taco eating contest at Chukchansi Park. Attendees noticed Hutchings because he was inhaling tacos faster than the other two contestants, perhaps swallowing without chewing, before he collapsed and eventually died.

Can we finally agree that contests, besides being completely gross, are pretty darn dangerous?

Hutchings was the fourth person this year to die while taking part in an eating competition, according to reports compiled by The other three were in Japan (rice balls), Russia (pancakes) and New Zealand (pies). The website lists more than three dozen related fatalities since 2002.

In addition, choking is the fourth-leading cause of unintentional death, according to the National Safety Council.

What other “sport” puts its participants’ lives at such risk?

Grizzlies delete contest tweet, flier

Like many of those who have died, Hutchings was no Joey Chestnut. He was not a professional eater. In fact, his family says it was the first time he took part in an eating competition.

It also seems likely Hutchings and the other two contestants believed a victory in Tuesday’s amateur contest would gain him entry to Saturday’s taco eating championships.

While issuing public denials of this fact, the Grizzlies appear to be talking out of both sides of their mouth.

In a news release emailed Wednesday to Fresno-area media, the team used bright red letters to refute any link between Tuesday’s competition and Saturday’s.

“Tuesday’s amateur taco-eating contest was NOT a Major League Eating sanctioned event,” the news release said. “Nor was it a qualifier for a MLE sanctioned event.”

Unfortunately, that claim doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Someone sent me a PDF of a flier that clearly indicates Tuesday’s contest was a qualifier for Saturday’s. also posted a screenshot of a tweet from the @FresnoTacos account saying the same thing.


Both the flier and tweet have been deleted from Twitter. As if someone in the organization intentionally and deliberately tried to scrub the truth.

“We knew there was misinformation out there and felt like we needed to make that correction,” Franks said. “We know some of the misinformation came from us.”

The Grizzlies did the right thing by canceling Saturday night’s championship eating contest out of respect for Hutchings and his family. Even better would be for the organization to own up to its own inconsistencies.

A 2019 season to forget

For Fresno’s Triple-A baseball club, the entire 2019 season will be one to forget. Besides the spiffy upgrades to the stadium, it has been one landmine after another.

Things got off to an odd start when the Grizzlies and Washington Nationals wound up together, a 2,700-mile shotgun wedding that makes no sense to either party. You can bet the Nats will look for other arrangements after next season.

After that came the Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez video fiasco on Memorial Day, a colossally stupid mistake that had the Grizzlies ducking shrapnel from all sides of the political spectrum.

Now this pointless death, which is way worse and will cast a pall over one of Fresno’s signature events, the Taco Truck Throwdown.

And to top it off, attendance for Grizzlies games is down (again) and the team is 12 games below .500 in the Pacific Coast League standings.

“Everything that happened this year, the good and bad, will impact our approach to this offseason and our preparation for next year,” Franks said.

“We want people to think of fun and entertainment and what the Grizzlies bring to the community as a whole. You never want to be in the headlines for the wrong reasons.”

On the whole, the Grizzlies have been a positive asset for Fresno and I appreciate their promotional risk-taking. But sometimes when an organization pushes the envelope too far, it ends up crossing the line.

That was clearly the case here. Nothing the Grizzlies do or say can bring Hutchings back, but they can ensure nothing like this ever happens again.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.