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Dan Hoyle is a San Francisco-based ballpark vendor who is documenting his summer adventures for SI.com. Previous installments of the Vendor Chronicles can be found here.
The first ballgame I ever vended was on a foggy San Francisco evening in April. The year, 1998. The venue, that paean to utilitarianism, Candlestick Park. The paid crowd was 14,000, with actual attendance about half that. My vending buddy Martin and I were at the bottom of the seniority list, so we were handed pretzels and red ropes. Our prospects for making a reasonable profit were as slim as the Giants' playoff hopes that season. Two skinny 18-year-olds, we needed haircuts and girlfriends like the Giants needed a new ballpark.
Two years later, our prayers were answered. I got a girlfriend, Martin got a haircut, and the Giants opened Pac Bell (now SBC) Park to much fanfare. And for a while, Pac Bell delivered. The economy was still as juiced as CIA intelligence, the park was the new must-see stop on the San Francisco tourist circuit, and my hot dogs were moving faster than I could think of new, lewd innuendos with which to promote them. For dot-commers, Giants baseball, and vendors alike, it was a Golden Era.
Of course, there were the nay-sayers: "There still aren't any kids at the games." "There will be tons of corporate no-shows." "After everyone comes once, they won't be back -- it's too expensive."
But San Francisco had more optimism than a Bill Clinton thumbs-up. People wanted to talk about their new e-commerce site selling custom-made pencil erasers, not that we were all floating in a bubble of self-delusion.
Come 2004, it appears the nay-sayers got it right. SBC Park is beautiful, but it's filled with the "Brads" of corporate America, who aren't the big spenders at ballgames. Kids are. And "Brads" -- local shorthand for 30-somethings in Polo shirts getting loose on a couple of brews while reeling off the latest company figures and looking over their buddy's shoulder to scope the flesh on a potential Miss Brad -- don't have kids.
Corporate no-shows? Aisles' worth. And even when they do come, they arrive in the third inning, and are gone by the seventh. If they manage to take a photo by the Coca-Cola bottle and sample the garlic fries in one visit, they don't feel much compelled to come back.
Meanwhile, the economy continues to sputter, while sodas cost a quarter more almost every season. The fall from grace for vendors at SBC has been swift and painful.
"Isn't it horrible? It's horrible," a 20-year vending vet grumbled, giving up his tray of peanuts for the night after barely selling two loads.
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We still lumber up and down the stairs, but the grin after a 25-cent tip fades quickly as we pass each other in the aisle, muttering our condolences -- "It's the pits, man, the pits." "It's bad for me too, man, it's not you, it's this park."
And it's always on the worst vending days that Brads break out the snide comments. During the fifth inning of a particularly brutal evening of soda peddling last week, I took a knee in the aisle of the front row behind third base. It's 55 degrees, I'm trying to move cold sodas, and I'm sweating like a middle-relief pitcher who can't get his curveball over for a strike.
"No, no, no, go sell your sodas, that's not what you're here for," the guy in the aisle seat snipped.
I had half a mind to pour a Diet Coke on his designer sweater, or at least ask him how much he thought my tray weighed, and when the last time was that he lifted anything heavy besides his suitcase for Europe. But at SBC these days, he's not the rare, obnoxious fan. He's increasingly the norm. It's not me, I reminded myself, it's the park.
"Just wanted to see if my knees still work," I said instead, tossing my head to the side as I hitched up my tray in hopes that a bead of sweat might fly off and hit him in the eye.
Flash to Oakland, a week later. The pre-game vendor chatter is noticeably more upbeat and cocky.
"Man, your Giants is phony," a smooth talking African-American vendor said to me. "Only reason they starting to win is 'cause the brothers is starting to hit. And your cousin Alfonzo startin' to rope, too," he continued, chuckling and pointing at a sleepy-eyed Latino vendor.
At SBC, more than 100 vendors cruise the aisles on any given day. At the Coliseum, there's only about 30 of us. And whereas at SBC it's a mix of union, non-union and teen-employment program placements, in Oakland, it's all union. It's the elite vending core, or at least the hardcore.
Not that there's anything rough about the Coliseum. Even though the A's draw about half as many fans as the Giants, we make more money. Why? There are more kids in Oakland. And they have money to spend, because ticket prices are cheaper. But best of all, the fans in Oakland are down to earth. Their Raiders garb may be nearing antique status. They may pay with quarters, and tip in dimes. But they aren't afraid to buy cotton candy while they're still plowing though their ice cream between sips of soda. For vendors, they're the best fans in the world.
As a Giants fan -- one who used to act out their radio broadcasts in his little-league uniform -- this is hard to admit. But the Giants crowd of today is a far cry from the burly faithful who used to bundle up for cold summer nights at Candlestick. Back then, you were guaranteed at least one bleacher bum fist-fight per game. I'd learn at least three new combinations of four-letter words every evening. At SBC these days, it's a constant chorus of "greats." "Great seats," "great catch," "great fries," "great game," "that was great."
As a citizen of San Francisco, as a proud Giants fan, and as a veteran ballpark vendor, I think I deserve more than this. Do I use the same tone to describe my product all game? No. I use a variety of accents and intonations, catch phrases and off-color comments. Do I talk to my customers like wealthy potential investors? No. I give them the dirt on why soda is a dying product and how sunflower seeds might save them. Do I come loaded and leave loaded? No. I ride my dad's bicycle, and eat a free hot dog for dinner.
SBC -- a pretty park, but pretty enough to warrant paying $4.25 for a Coke inside?
My point is that a vendor has a lot of good to give to this world -- not just a slick sales pitch. Franchises should realize that vendors are the soul of any good ballpark.
Take the A's. With half the attendance figures and half the payroll, they're perennial playoff contenders. Their fan base is solid, and the Coliseum experience is what it should be: relaxing. Why? Because their vendors are content, and happy vendors make for a happy crowd. It is the vendors, after all, who interact with the fans more than anyone else at the ballpark. Fans don't get to talk to the players anymore. Ushers are basically aisle cops. It's the vendors who are there, all afternoon long, walking up and down the aisles, filling the air with our sweet melodic cries, ducking for crucial plays, providing witty one-liners during lulls. And in this era of free agents and fast money, a ballpark's hardcore vendors are often the only people who keep coming back, year after year.
I'm not against SBC. It's a pretty enough building. I just wish they'd lower ticket prices, so the rest of San Francisco can afford a game or two a month. Lower product prices, too. I hate having to tell people it's $4.25 for a soda they can buy for a buck-fifty outside the park. No building is that pretty.
I'm a Giants fan, and a Giants vendor, but these days I'd rather be selling to a family in Oakland than a squadron of Brads closing business deals behind home plate in San Francisco. A new ballpark is fun, but the proof is in the price of the malt, and the crustiness of the vendor who sells it to you.
Dan Hoyle is a ballpark vendor, freelance writer and actor. His one-man play, Circumnavigator, is currently running in San Francisco.