Beer, Peanuts, and everything else about the Stadium Experience. Except the game.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

April 22: Sunny Day

Construction cranes loom over the outfield wall; in the process of building a Hilton that will block the view of downtown -- including the landmark Bromo-Seltzer Tower -- from view of the stadium.
  • Toronto ---- 3
  • Baltimore -- 7

A sunny day has come to Baltimore; blue skies and another home win for the Orioles. A good mood prevailed in the crowd, and my hotdog bucket felt as light as a feather. The elements had come together: perfect weather, a weekend day, and a home team on a recent roll, and a win today. Up and down the rows I went, and everyone seemed to want a dog. 120 of them later, I turned in an empty case and I was skipping across the street to the bar.

There, the vendors were collected around a folding table outside and basking in the sun.

"They were drinking today!" said vendor Clancy with satisfaction. "Everyone had a good day! And on a Sunday, too!"

Every beer seller expects to have a good Saturday night. That's a drinking night. Friday night is a drinking night. Sunday afternoon is for the families, kids' day. It's for maybe one beer and a lemonade for junior, and remembering to mow the lawn afterward. But rolling with beer nonstop on the Sabbath is a gift from God to the beermen. And so, after the seventh inning, they rested. And drank beer with heads tilted to the sky.

April 18: Back to Beerman

A public television crew followed Clarence the beerman around while he sold hotdogs tonight. Here, a boom mike captures the sounds of the pre-game callout.
  • Philadelphia ----- 4
  • Washington ----- 5

Washington wins tonight and so do I: I went back to selling beer. It wasn't the best game but it wasn't the worst -- it was a exactly what you expect during a Wednesday game. This night was a touch warmer than last night, as spring picks up steam. I won't be back until the team returns for the Mets series in a week, which will give the season a chance to ripen a little more.

But the beer rolled better than food has, and I'm not looking back for the rest of the year. Enough of hotdogs and running out of buns. No more stealing packets of relish from the condiments stand, having the sterno flame out on me late in the game. No more rank hotdog water sloshing around on me when I'm balancing the case on my head, or waiting for the kid in the stockroom to heat up the next load. I'm back to beer for the rest of the year at RFK.

Above: Diane closes up for the night while receiving good news: "Really? They voted Sanjaya off! Now the contest can really begin!"

April 17: Poor Choices

60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's entry into Major League Baseball.

  • Atlanta ------- 6
  • Washington --- 4

After last night's relative success with hotdogs, I went at it again tonight. It's still cold, so I'm still in favor of avoiding the cold aluminum to tote around the hot steel box of dogs again. And one of the perennial top vendors, a 37-year veteran named Howard Hart, picked dogs ahead of me, which gave me confidence in the decision. So off I went again, for a loop around the upper deck.

But it is not wise to wish twice for the same thing. The air had warmed slightly, shifting lightly the interests of the audience. The hunger that had steadied sales just last night was no longer there, and I struggled through slow business. It doesn't take much to alter the spirit of a crowd.

On good nights, the product moves fast enough that you never hold onto a full case for very long at all, and it's mostly light going even as sales are heavy. Then, it's easy for the vendor to let the constant flow of activity carry him along in its slipstream and nine innings of sales are over in a flash. Bad games bring everything to a halt, and the irony is that slower sales make for harder work, as a full load is lugged around the deck over and over again. The vendor has to work for his business, through charm or conversation or evoking mere sympathy.

The first two cases went upstairs before I took the third down to the lower deck to compete with the other two dog vendors there. One of them was still on his second load, and the other -- Howard -- was just starting a fourth and not happy about it.

"I made a bad call," Howard said regretfully. "It's warm -- it's a beer night. I shoulda known that! I'm gonna finish this load and I'm out." He shook his head and seemed really disappointed; it might be strange to say that there is vendors' pride but he has it. Howard is competitive and doesn't want to give up the contest to poor judgment. Gambling and losing (on a non-alcoholic product no less) while watching everyone else leave you behind in sales totals, is like watching a party through the front window.

I finally got back to the re-stock room right as the game ended, having finished that third load. The cashiers were not at all impressed.

"About time you got back," one of them growled at me. The other one wouldn't even look at me, and kept counting money. "You are the last vendor in the stadium!"

"That should indicate something about my work ethic," I said, feeling the burn.

They were having none of that. "You're holding us all up, waiting for you to come back. I have to leave for work tomorrow at 5 a.m. for a two hour commute!"

I tried to protest that the people were still buying, and they were there at all, but this was falling on deaf ears. And she had a point; I have sympathy for anyone who has to wake up that early for their real job.

Vending is a 'fun job' -- fun to do in a fun place to be -- but it's not just that. There is money involved, and most vendors below a certain age hold down 'real jobs' -- full time with full commutes and real responsibilities. Being at the stadium is a break from all that, and extra money, and no time left to spare during the season. During a full homestand, a full week's worth of evenings are gone to the ballpark, and the Beerman's cycle runs a constant course: job, vend, job, vend, again and again and again.

This is especially true for the vendors who work full seasons at RFK and in Baltimore, who work as many as 160 games over the six months of the season in an unending mill of sweat and effort. They are painting and plumbing contractors, office workers, a travel agent, a nursing assistant, a tax accountant, sales managers, a travel agent, a couple of college students, and at least one researcher on the staff of a magazine. One vendor routes his schedule as a furniture truckdriver to Atlanta in time for Falcons football games in the fall. They are everyday players, and they are as comfortable with pounding, grinding labor as they are with the money it earns them.

April 16: Conversation

  • Atlanta ------ 1
  • Washington -- 5
Another night of vending hotdogs, just to keep warm. Not a bad call, since everyone's sales were at rock bottom and a couple of loads of dogs were enough to keep up.

"How much?" asked the girl in the outfield seats.

$6.25 per, I said.

She was apalled. "Are you kidding? That's expensive! How big are they?"

Big enough to satisfy, I told her. I held one up with tongs for inspection. This is a good icebreaker for slow times; there's something about a hotdog being held aloft -- nude without its bun -- that the audience finds amusing. Even a large hotdog proves a poor specimen of beef.

But the girl in the cheap seats was impressed enough to buy one. "That's long," she said. Her friends guffawed around her. "No, I mean it's a big hotdog!" Still more chuckling. Hotdogs inspire an adolescent sense of humor in adults, enough to possesses them to ask hey, how big is your weiner? when a guy selling franks comes around.

The girl let go and joined in: "All right, I'll take one of your big hotdogs." The guy next to her smirked through the whole thing, looking straight ahead at the outfield.

Hey, I told her. Don't say that to me right in front of this guy right here!

The guy continued to smile and say nothing. Does it bug you when she engages in such suggestive repartee with a vendor? I asked.

"Nope," he said.

I'm not even a threat?

"Nope," he said.

That's the problem! I called out. No one takes the hotdog guy seriously!

And it's true, the beerman is sort of your buddy the bartender. Food vendors are nothing of the sort. So I served up the dog -- with mustard and relish -- and kept going down the row with my bruised ego and a head full of dreams of it actually being warm enough to get back to vending beer.

Monday, April 16, 2007

April 14: Soccer

  • Kansas City --- 4
  • D.C. United --- 2

When it was first built, RFK stadium was designed to dually serve as homefield for the Redskins football team, and baseball's Senators. Now a dozen times a year, the pitcher's mound at RFK is lowered into the ground, sod is rolled out over the baselines, the lowerdeck that wraps around behind the home dugout is rolled out into the outfield, and the Nationals' home turf becomes a "football" (read: soccer) field home for DC United. Cost for each cycle of transformation: $40,000.

There is beer to be sold here, too, much of it to the rowdy sections of DC United loyalists who comprise the Barra Brava. Most of them have already reached a state of drunkenness by the time the game begins. Initially, soccer was to be a sideline to baseball vending for me. But I've gotten increasingly better at managing the early cutoff time -- the 65th minute, which leaves not more than an hour and a half of vending time -- and the reliable drinkers of the Brava allow for each game to be a minimum of five cases sold. Tips have gotten better, too. I'm still not sure if this is because I'm better at encouraging them, or because the generous habits of baseball fans have transferred to the soccer crowd over the past two years.

At any rate, soccer games -- including this season opening loss -- have recently proven to be better for vendors than baseball, as long as baseball is not yet really in its season. Baseball drinkers want a beer while they luxuriate in the sun, or are enfolded in a balmy night; soccer drinkers seem to approach it as winos do -- as insulation from the cold. My kind of audience.

Monday, April 9, 2007

April 9: Camden Yards

  • Detroit ----- 2
  • Baltimore -- 6

My life as a beer vendor isn't limited to the confines of Washington's RFK Stadium; when the Nationals are away I supplement my vending with ocassional field trips up the BW Parkway to Baltimore's Camden Yards. These are irregular jaunts, usually limited to Orioles' near-packed-house series with the Red Sox and Yankees, an empty weekend or two, and a big one-shot event like Opening Day.

In Baltimore, where the team has had 60 years to establish its relationship with the city, Opening Day sends a ripple through downtown. The Eutaw Street corridor was draped in banners and orange and black balloons, and clusters of people were collecting here and there, chatting excitedly about the game. Maybe it's because RFK is separated from the business core of DC, but that sort of energy doesn't swirl around the Nats quite yet.

After showing up early to fill out some paperwork and receive a vending uniform from Camden's HR department, I had some hours to kill and so spent it on a cold stroll through town. One shopkeeper, taking note of my employee-issue Orioles baseball cap, said: "In town for the game?"

Yes, that's what I'm here for.

"Ready to be disappointed, then," he said.

I've found this sort of fatalism to be common in Baltimore, a city that has reason to resort to the refuge of the disgruntled sports fan: blaming the owner. Peter Angelos -- a money-mad Greek who in an earlier age would have done well to become a despotic shipping tycoon instead of an opportunistic asbestos litigator -- has managed to turn the team into an utter dysfunction zone by consistently spinning sows' ears from silk purses, and creating so controlling an environment that vendors are forbidden from wearing shorts early in the season, no matter the weather. Long black pants only.

When are we allowed to go to shorts? I asked one of the vending managers.

"Whenever Angelos says we can let you," she said glumly from behind the counter, dirisively emphasizing his name. The serfs are unhappy in the Angelos Kingdom.

The energy of Camden's home Opener, though, still percolated. The vendors began to aggregate in the basement room of the old warehouse building that forms the backdrop for right field, and the volume rose with them. Many of these vendors have grown old with the team, having sold beer in Baltimore for 15 years or more, and a grizzled few have histories that extend back to Memorial Stadium. This is another thing that is largely missing from Washington and its third-year baseball club: institutional memory.

I know plenty of these vendors, who come down the pike to double up on vending work at RFK, but as a big-game-only mercenary I'm still somewhat on the outside here: number 56 on a seniority list of 60, which keeps the Beerman out of beer for the foreseeable future. Today I was to be Pretzel Boy, vendor of cooked and buttered dough pebbled with gravel-sized rocks of salt. And only $2.75 per! Crappy for commissions, but priced to appeal to the penny-pinching upperdeck market for whom a $4.50 hot dog is too great an expense.

I grabbed the big metal bucket and started by bound up and down row after row of the upper deck, bellowing, "Superpretzel!" and "It's Pretzel time!" and looking closely for finger-raised signs of sale. Grab the warm pretzel with tongs, shove product into paper sleeve, toss them the mustard squirter if they want something on it.

"No, mustard," they said. "Why is this is in the red ketchup bottle?" Because they were out of yellow bottles and that's what they gave me. Working at RFK has gotten me used to vending supply rooms that were out of the supplies they were built to provide.

I try and continue to appear cheerful when they hold out their hand to recieve the quarter change. People will tip a beerman all day and into the night for lugging the foamy stuff into the bleachers, but they same relationship doesn't typically carry over to the food and soda vendors no matter what kind of sweat you're obviously working up. I looked over at the beer vendors in the next row and felt a sort of longing, like a nine-year-old who knows he could hack sixth grade but is still stuck in third. The beermen were readily establishing relationships with their happy customers, because the beerman is an iconic stadium character, while a grown man selling pretzels is sort of a dunce.

The other problem with a cooked product like pretzels is that you only reload as fast as the kid in the kitchen bothers to heat them up. Every round I take out I'm doing what I can to shave seconds off my sell time, while I come home to an empty oven. Honey, I want to yell, what have you been doing while I was at the office?

By the time the ninth inning is starting and I've peddled my sixth load, it doesn't matter anymore that the supply room is out of pretzels altogether. I split the seventh with the other Pretzel vendor on the upperdeck and sell a few more (bringing the tally to 187 units sold) before the game is over in a win for the home team and 44,000 happy Baltimoreans spill out of the stadium to continue drinking at a row of bars across the street. There I spent a few minutes conferring with a few of the other vendors there, amid piles of beer bottles and the din of hair-band rock blaring out of overcranked speakers, before heading back to the land inside the Beltway. Another honest day of work completed.

April 8: Hot Dogs

  • Arizona ------ 3
  • Washington -- 1

If it's Easter Sunday, the end of the homestand, and if the weather is again unfortunately cold enough to have groups of vendors walking away before the game even begins, then I'm foresaking the title of Beerman for a day and selling Hot Dogs instead. No freezing fingers this day; I'm selling processed meat by-product shoved into a starchy bun.

Hot dogs appeal to everyone in a ballpark; mooky beer drinkers and families with children, couples and loners diligently filling out a scorecard. Not as much repeat business as beer -- the belly can't take more than a dog or two before suffering a belt-loosening distension, but bottle after bottle of the foamy stuff can disappear down the gullet without abdominal distress. But hot dogs are the closest thing to substantial nutrament sold by hawkers in the stands, so there are plenty of people who are willing to consume them in lieu of actual food.

Serving dogs can be a hassle, though. You're toting around a metal case, heated by sterno tucked in a bottom compartment, with containers on the left (for buns) and right (loaded with dogs), and a center tray with napkins, a couple of plastic gloves of the sort worn in by doctors in an examination room, and packets of ketchup, mustard, and relish (stolen from the condiment stand). And tongs to serve the dogs. Forget just one of these components and you're heading back up to the concourse to retrieve it. It's a lot to remember when you're in a hurry, and the hot dog man is always in a hurry. I managed to cover the whole of the sparsely-occupied upper deck, calling out, "Hot dog!" in a Gee Whiz! cadence and "Hot-diggity-dog!"

The place was evidence that plenty of people have other things to be doing on Easter Sunday. The big bunny made an appearance on the lower deck, leading Teddy Roosevelt astray during the "President's Race," and on a chase around the first baseline seats. The kids loved that. But the team lost again, which has quickly become the expectation.

This is supposed to be a blog about everything but the game on the field, but a digression must be indulged. The Nationals are bad, and have a bad record, but the bad record doesn't fully illustrate the awfulness of the team thus far. When they lose, they've done it by an average of more than a 4.5 run differential. They have gotten behind early -- multiple runs given up in the first, before the team has even stepped up to bat -- and often: they have never played with a lead, and the only lead they enjoyed was at the conclusion of their only win, which was a come-from-behind in the ninth that ended the game. And I missed it, having gone home promptly after the seventh to thaw out.

This analysis is vending-related: a bad team draws poorly, and a poor draw creates less of a market, and fewer potential customers means lower sales, less money, and one distressed Beerman. My back may be to the field, but what I don't see affects my view, as I face unhappy customers who have experienced the thirst-sapping disappointment of supporting a losing team. I might like to consider myself apart from the game but I'm really lashed to this team, for better and for worse.

I'll have to dream of sunnier days. Late in the game the sun broke through and the clouds drifted apart like melting ice floes. Half of the upper deck was delivered into warm light and it felt like the season had just begun again, born on a new day.

April 7: Colder

  • Arizona ------ 7
  • Washington -- 1
Spring continues to elude us. The area remains shivering in a near-freeze, keeping the crowds away and making this Saturday night game -- normally the biggest draw of the week -- feel more like a minor league game at a county field. We're not the only ones. Games have been postponed in Detroit, and Cleveland, buried in a foot of April snow, suffers the indignity of playing a home series away in Milwaukee. Those vendors have it rough. You can't earn anything at all if the stadium hosts no game.

One cold night is a novelty, but three in a row saps me and makes my hands freeze as they grip can after cold metal can. Numbness set in, and I was pawing at my money in an ineffectual fumble, unable to pull it apart with my useless fingers. The Diamondback players sported quilted, hooded parkas in warmups, and the right fielder (apparently unacclimated to cold in Phoenix) wore a white facewrap that had hecklers shouting, "Hey, look: it's the Invisible Man! Show us your face, Invisible Man!"

It was another low-performance night. For everybody. I'd confer with vendors and compare totals, and too many people were still toting around their first case during the third inning. Even the bags of edibles weren't catching any interest. Bad weather makes people hold tight to their wallets. Two variables lead a Beerman to wonder which is the cause of this series of poor gate turnouts: the painful weather or the awful home team playing in it? What's to become of this season?

"It'll be bad now," said vendor Rich, who is a 15-year vendor. "But you wait: May, June, July. Those are your months right there. People will show. Weather will be good, kids'll be out of school, interns will blow some steam off at the ballpark."

But the team is so bad -- they could lose 100 games this season! Right now, they look like they could even make a run for the '62 Mets record!

"They could lose 100, but they're not the '62 Mets," Rich assured. "They're terrible, but people come out anyway. Think about it: by May, what else is there going to be? The Wizards are out of the playoffs after the first round guaranteed; Hockey's done for the area. So what else do you have?"

Pro soccer -- D.C. United!

"Right, so nothing," said Rich. "What do you do? Go to RFK, even if the team is bad. People will go to a game, just to be in the atmosphere of the ballpark. They're outside, they're in the sun, they're having a beer at a ball game. Baseball's about the season and the experience. By August, then the Redskins are in preseason and it's gotten too hot. But they'll come out during the nice months."

Saturday, April 7, 2007

April 6: Kegbus

  • Arizona ------ 7
  • Washington -- 1
All sorts of marketing opportunities crop up around stadium events: street vendors serving hotdogs, hawkers selling non-licensed Nationals caps, and scalpers asking, "Anyone need tickets, anyone selling tickets?" Here's one I haven't seen before around RFK: Kegbus. A full-length yellow schoolbus that picks up bar goers at Eastern Market, shuttles them to the game and then back again afterward, so they can drink throughout the night and get completely hammered without having to hassle with driving. Sponsored by Miller Lite, which I often sell in the stadium to these same people, so I felt a close association with the happy-go-lucky people behind this bit of fun.

I also felt an association because I've seen the KegBus before. In February of 2002 I found myself in an RV with some friends in Punxsutawney, PA to witness the Groundhog Day festivities. The night before the rodent's grand prediction, a worn yellow schoolbus pulled up and parked in the space next to ours. Inside this repurposed vehicle were about 10 young sybarites, girls and guys, drinking and watching pornographic videotapes on a built-in audio-video system. They took a more-the-merrier attitude and promptly invited us aboard, and for the rest of the evening we conducted our Groundhog Day preparations in the bus, and atop its roof.

The trip was a minor disaster for us; we stayed up too late, overslept, and missed the groundhog entirely. But the KegBus crew were hardy enough to pull through, and had already left for Gobbler's Knob by the time we roused. Apparently, that vigor and ironclad constitution has maintained long enough for them to have turned that original bus into a fleet, and to have transformed an extended adolescence into a full-time shuttle business.

As for the game, it was another disappointment. RFK was almost as empty as I've ever seen it. And this was a Friday night -- a weekend game. It's as if the season hasn't even started yet.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

April 5: Cold

  • Arizona ------ 4
  • Washington -- 3

Weather in Washington is a tease. A long weekend of 70 degree days lead us to believe that spring is here, then we get suckerpunched with a cold snap.

Three days ago it was sunny and in the 80's, but last night it was if winter had returned. Cold air had moved into the area and swirled around RFK stadium, forcing the crowd to huddle under blankets and parkas, and to offer muted applause from mittened hands. The sport seemed out of season, as if everyone was watching a pickup game, with a less-than-pickup game crowd. The attendance was a record-low for the Nats in DC: 16,017 shivering people suffering through another loss.

Games like this are no good for money. I sold only two cases of beer and about the same in peanuts and Crackerjack. But I've learned to enjoy them for the change of pace; I'm not at all concerned with making every possible sale and ringing up a high total, so I can instead jaw with the people a little bit. Tonight's topic of conversation was: "Aren't you cold?" Everyone was mumbling out this muffled question to me through face wrappings. I hadn't considered weather at all, and was in my summer uniform of black shorts and light, short-sleeved jersey.

"Not at all," I'd say, and ask: "Why are you so cold?"

And I actually wasn't feeling it. They were cold because they were in place, and I wasn't because I kept moving. Blood flow mostly beats clothing for keeping one warm, even when it's below 40 degrees. Sales were what cooled me off: I'd stop running, and have to touch a couple of cold beer cans with bare fingers, which is a reminder that aluminum transmits cold much better than plastic bottles, and is another reason to rue the switch away from bottles.

"Come with me," I said. "Grab a case and join me in vending! You'll warm up in no time!" But I had no takers. They stayed in place, preferring to watch another loss by the home team and freeze their tucchuses off through the night.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

April 4: Church Key

  • Florida ------- 6
  • Washington -- 7

I'm still trying to develop a method for serving up these beer cans. It's not too hard to open yourself one, but if you're going to be doing it several dozen times a game, times 80 games over the season, it's advisable to work on efficiency at every stage of the operation. Today I took a step toward streamlining the process by considering the issue of the can opener.

Some call it a Church Key, an old-timey phrase possibly used in reference to the device's resemblance to the keys to a church or in allustion to it ability to access the bliss contained in a bottle of beer. Whatever the derivation, a beerman has got to have one, which I knew, so I'm using one I picked up last year. Standard model, solid piece of polished metal, made in China. It serves a dual purpose: first, you hook it under the tab to save your finger the distress of the repeat action (a hundred bare-fingered tab-pops and your fingernail's going to fall off), then you hook it under the rim and lever the pointed end into the top of the can to create an air hole opposite the pour hole. This is vital for minimizing foam and speeding up the flow, otherwise you'll be standing there all day waiting for the beer to finish pouring while you watch your sales go to other vendors.

The alternate method for creating airflow holes is simpler and more direct; just use the point to puncture a hole on the side just below the rim. The airhole doesn't need to be big, just big enough. No need to nestle the hook under the rim a turn in a big lever action -- instead, you just pop the thin sidewall of aluminum and get to pouring.

After initial reservations I gave it a try, but my Church Key wasn't capable. It came with a blunt end that couldn't break up a pile of sand, and my first efforts did nothing but dent the side of the can and disturb its contents. What I needed was a sharp point to get this to work. So on my walk to the subway I stopped off at a small gas station and asked Armando the mechanic if he had a tool that could file it down. Most filling stations adhere to a pretty strict policy of keeping customers out of the garage area for liability reasons, but my man Armando was a casual sort. While barely cutting into his cell phone conversation, he walked me in, directed me to a pneumatic tool with a disk attachment, and wandered off again, leaving me to do what I could with it.

So I turned it on and touched it to the metal surface. Orange sparks sprayed out. Then I gave it a run down one side of the triangular point, then the other. Flipped it over and ran it down each side. I tested the point with my finger and almost drew blood. It looked like this:

Now I was ready to pierce some cans. Armando was still on the phone, but I tipped him a couple of bucks in thanks, which is something I do quite liberally now that part of my income comes from tips as well.

My improved church key worked like a charm, and all it took now was minimal pressure to be ready to pour. It couldn't help the big problem today, which was that a cold Wednesday afternoon kept me to three cases in sales, but it's a start.

April 3: Hustle

  • Florida ------- 9
  • Washington -- 3

Attendance dropped by half from the Opening Day game, and it's looking pretty grim. I made round after round of the lower deck, and still sold only 5 and a half cases. And this was just the second game of the year. Isn't the excitement still supposed to be there for the first night game of the season?

I have my back turned away from the field during most of the game, so I miss almost all of it. I'll steal a glance at the board just to check the inning, but most often I have no idea of the score. I'm turned to the people in the seats, scanning hundreds of faces for a taker, or at least a sign of interest. Peanuts? Crackerjack? Ice cold Beer? When I get a sale, I run up to them, set down the case, and drop down to my knees so I don't block the view. Then run the routine of the serve: open, pour, send them down the row, collect the money, make change.

Even though I can't see what's happening, I still get a sense of it; the expectant lean forward and hopefulness of a crowd seeing its team ahead, the scowling, arms folded disapproval of people that are watching a mess on the field. This game it wasn't until the third inning that I took a look at the scoreboard. I was pouring a couple on my knees, and I looked up to see rows of people throwing up their hands in despair.

"What happened?" I asked my customer. "They score?"

Yeah, another one.

So I whipped around to see how bad it was. Five to nothing, Nationals in the hole.

"Five runs! They scored five runs?" My customer nodded sadly. "I didn't know it was that bad. And it's only the third?" He nodded again.

"Geez," I said. "I'm glad I'm facing this way."

And I was. I'm really not a fan of baseball until the playoffs anyway; I love the long season for all those chances to vend, but can't maintain interest in box scores or batting averages or pitch after pitch for 162 games. And I enjoy the view of the people more anyway. So many faces to take in, even if they're scowling.

One season ticketholder in the 100's down the third baseline -- who's there for almost every game, and never buys a single beer from me -- was in shock, and maybe denial.

"They're really not this bad!" she said. "We saw them in Spring Training, and they're so much better than this...." Which I hope is true, or else this young season will be a long one indeed.

Even during a slow night like this, there's still enough to keep me entertained. When the game was almost over I ran up to a group of tourists in the last couple of rows of the 300 section waving peanuts and sold a bag to the kid of the group. I'd already made change and was getting set to toss them over, when the parents are saying, no no he wanted Crackerjack! And here I was, plumb out and I have their six bucks already. So what could I do? I ran all the way down the steps to the aisle, back down the first baseline, around behind home, up the third baseline, back up the steps to the closest restock room, and poked my head in for a one-bag exchange. All out.

So I bolted back down to the 200 level where they could make the exchange but they yelled at me to hurry up because they all wanted to close up and go home. Back down into the stands and around the lower bowl, and I'm getting closer and I see they're cheering the effort. And I'm back up the steps with my arms stretched up, then drop dramatically down to one knee like James Brown mocking exhaustion, then pop up and toss the kid that big fat bag of Jack. And the kid is entertained and the parents are applauding. Who needs a game when you can have so much dumb fun in the stands?

Monday, April 2, 2007

April 2: Opening Day

  • Florida ------- 9
  • Washington -- 2

It was sunny and warm when I woke up, and today’s paper showed the following line for the Washington Nationals:

W 0
L 0
Pct .000
GB 1/2
L10 0-0
Str W-0
Home 0-0
Away 0-0

So far, having not played yet, the Nationals have no hits, no walks, no runs, and no errors. They have no strikes, no balls, no wild pitches. It’s all new, and all the statistical grids begin filling with figures today. Even so, they’re already a half-game behind the Mets, who won yesterday. At the same time, my line for the season stood as follows:

Light Beer 0
Heavy Beer 0
Peanuts 0
Crackerjack 0
Tips 0

By the time the season ends, all this will change considerably. 81 home games are ahead, most of which I’ll attend. The life of the Beerman is pretty busy in-season, with weeklong stretches of a game a day, then a week off for recovery and other events to try and work in: Soccer, Racing, maybe a concert and an occasional game in Baltimore for variety and a bit of extra coin. But Baseball is The Season.

Opening Day is a big deal; most often a sellout and in this case very near to one, a highlight of spring for a Beerman. Today the brass band played the Anthem on the field, and fighter jets swooped overhead. No presidential first pitch this year -- probably from concern that there would be a repeat of the Booing Cheney received last time -- and instead a small squad of former Senators players and descendents took one toss after another. Even Mayor Adrian Fenty -- the guy who vocally opposed the new baseball stadium that is now going up on the Anacostia River, the building that’s going to anchor an entire segment of city growth -- got to throw. I’m still not sure who actually threw the official first pitch.

Then the game began, and people started buying. I was working the Upper deck down the third baseline, with a couple of cases of Miller Lite, a case of Miller Genuine Draft, and a satchel of Peanuts and Cracker Jack. I’d walk down the aisle a way, then look up to see the raised fingers of a customer up in the 500’s, then I’d take a turn and pound up the stairs to serve. Pour two at a time, take the twenty, make the change, express appreciation at the tip. Toss a bag of Crackerjack to a beaming kid a few seats over, make a big deal about what a great catch! Head higher up in the deck for another couple beers to the left, another to the right, four more a couple of rows higher. Open, pour, hand them over, make the change. Over and over again like this for seven innings.

But I don’t tend to get too tired on a day like this; seeing everyone up there reacting to the game and summoning me and my beer throughout an afternoon creates a positive feedback loop for me, and their bright happiness today makes me want to keep going and make Opening Day endless. So I go out again after the alcohol cutoff and pitch some more peanuts around for fun the big shell of RFK empties and another Opening Day is over.

My sales totals were actually pretty disappointing: 8 cases of beer, 4 1/2 loads of Peanuts and Crackerjack, with far less in tips than I expected. Much of this weak performance has to do with adjusting from the simplicity of popping open bottles to the retro technique of opening cans, which I have yet to master. And the team lost while looking ready to live out the most dire predictions with a vengeance. But the game is sort of secondary now. The memory is of an almost packed house circling a green field, RFK draped in colorful bunting, and the sun touching everything with gleaming light.

They won’t all be like this, but we’ll take them where we can. Play ball!

Sunday, April 1, 2007

March 31: Exhibition Game

  • Baltimore ---- 6
  • Washington -- 3
The baseball season hasn't started yet, but the vending season began today. Because if there are people in the stadium, then there is beer to be sold. Even at an exhibition game.

So I -- The Beerman -- roused myself from an early spring slumber and headed to the ballpark, wedging myself onto a subway car loaded with Cherry Blossom tourists who will likely never see the city beyond the Mall, and made my sleepy way crosstown, back to RFK stadium, where something resembling a game of baseball was played. A scattering of customers showed up to watch, only partly filling the lower deck and lightly dotting the upper tier (Official Attendance: 14,940/Capacity: 45,016). Only a skeleton crew of vendors bothered to show up; everyone knew this would be a weak day money and that this game wouldn't count towards sales totals. So we showed up, listened to a few announcements from the boss, and began to work.

I grabbed a bucket, loaded it up with a couple of cases of beer and ice, slung a sack full of crackerjack and peanuts over my shoulder, and headed out into the lower deck. I started all the way at the end of the third base line, and made my way row by row around the horseshoe of the seating. I'd call out and sell one here or there, but no one seemed too interested in buying on a cool, overcast day. Occasionally I'd hit a sale of six or eight at a time, but mostly the vend was a series of lurching starts and stops, a fumble with the bucket and a dropped bag of peanuts. Never fully connecting with the people, and never quite awaking from my winter sleep. I'd look around and think, is Winter really over? Am I really here?

Stadium management has also decided, for reasons unknown by us, to switch from plastic bottles to aluminum cans this year, which creates the extra hassle of pouring into cups and toting around the empties. This is de rigeur at many stadiums, but we had it easy with bottles that could be popped open and handed over. I was just happy I'd brought a can opener, or the even more of the foam would have ended up on the ground. For shame.

But this is exhibition, and the season is as clear as the freshly scrubbed floor of the stadium. Nothing counts, the odometers have rolled back to zero for us -- it's as much a warm up for us as it is for the men on the field. Any day that you can end up with more money in your pocket than you started out with is a good one, and the time to awake is Opening Day.

Dialogue of the game:

The vendor behind me in the check-in line kept loudly announcing, “This is an Exhibition Game. This is an Exhibition Game. This is an Exhibition Game….” He repeated this eight or nine times, his mind caught in a loop.

“Yes, this is just an Exhibition Game,” I told him.

“This is an Exhibition Game,” he said again. “This is an Exhibition Game.”

“That’s right,” I said, trying to get him to skip to the next track. “Just an Exhibition Game.”

He stopped and looked at me. Then he asked, “What’s an Exhibition Game?”

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