In the summer of 1999, I had a plan to watch the Brewers for free. Better than that, I was going to get paid for it. All I had to do was get a job at Milwaukee County Stadium, sell a few hot dogs, and see Jeromy Burnitz belt homers in the sunshine. Turns out that being a vendor is primarily carrying heavy items up and down stairs. There’s not much time to look up. And even when I did sneak in glances, the performance on the field was middling at best. But when I was lucky enough to get peanuts duty with the Cubs in town, working the lower decks was a fine way to earn a three-figure income.
The Big Blue crane collapse was months away. The damp corridors of County Stadium were doomed, but no one knew the park’s expiration date would be pushed out another year. I pulled up in my ’87 Nissan Sentra dubbed “Little Gray” and met with a Human Resources rep for my interview and paperwork. I was fidgety during the meeting. It’s not that I was nervous—after all, I was almost 19 years old and I knew the drill. But my friends were waiting for me to head to Six Flags Great America. I wanted out of there as soon as possible. This left a bad impression when the conversation shifted to the mandatory drug test. I asked if there was any way to delay it, which raised eyebrows. Delaware North Companies Sportservice, Inc. cannot have impaired brains calculating the change for sodas. I gave in and got lab work afterwards. The Whizzer would have to wait.
There was much to learn. A baseball vendor works purely on commission. You buy your inventory at low prices, sell to customers at a markup, and keep the difference. Thankfully, they reimburse you for unsold food because orphaned bratwursts are a sad sight. You are assigned your product when you walk in before the game. Cotton candy is coveted since it’s so lightweight, but it typically went to the scrawniest and youngest of the crew. Peanuts were my favorite. They’re portable and easy to chuck across packed seats. Bottled water is the worst and will tire you out quickly. The beer guys were the elders and the highest caste. They made the real money and did not mingle with us. They also had the evolutionary advantage of round bellies upon which to balance trays of beer.
Weeknight games in May were cruel, with sparse attendance and foul weather. Even if the upper decks were mostly empty, you still had to march up and down, hoping that someone in the cheap seats was feeling not-so-cheap that day. I remember being mildly chastised one rainy afternoon for sitting down on the job. I had exhausted my entire customer base, a couple hundred diehards in my section. “I’m pretty sure these people do not want Cracker Jack every fifteen minutes,” I said under my breath.
Another game I had the impossible task of selling Icees in 50-degree weather. I made two sales that day—one to my mom who happened to be in attendance. But prosperity came in the form of $1 hot dog day. I barely had to walk into the stands before being cleaned out. On my best day, I made over 100 bucks for three hours of work.
Sometimes I’d see friends in the crowd, and they’d ask for free food. I agreed to be their inside man and liked being sneaky about it. I didn’t reveal that I was actually paying for their meals myself. Luckily, I had a more profitable relationship with a large woman about 20 rows behind home plate. I just had to remember to bring her a pretzel and a cheese cup every two or three innings, and I’d be rewarded with a hefty tip. I had gone from suspected drug addict to drug pusher.
Some of the beer vendors were admirably loud and charismatic. I knew I was in the farm leagues compared to those guys, but I hatched a project to raise my profile. I memorized how to say “hot dogs” in many languages. Here’s how it played out in my head: First, fans would be confused. Did that guy just yell something in Japanese? And now he’s speaking French? And then their curiosity would spread like the wave. Oh, how interesting, what language is he going to say next?!? I need to buy all of his hot dogs! And then I would be featured on ESPN SportsCenter, which I recorded every Sunday night on VHS and never rewatched. In reality, I nervously tried it out once. I yelled out “perro caliente” during a particularly boring inning and no one looked up. It was back to my mother tongue after that.
Of course, I didn’t sign up to be a baseball vendor for fame and fortune. I mostly wanted to see what happened behind the scenes at a place that I loved. I didn’t care that County Stadium had aging bones and a dark underbelly. It felt cool to wear a uniform and walk into employee entrances. Plus I thought my dad would have been proud of me. My father went to every Brewers home opener from the first season in 1970 through 1994, when he got sick with cancer. He died in April 1995, and we buried him on Opening Day with a ticket in the casket. Although I still have my old blue SportsService hat, I don’t plan to wear it for my own funeral. But the home of the Brewers is still a special place for me. It’s where I hope to one day watch the World Series, chomping peanuts and tipping my baseball vendors heavily.