My younger brother and I used to joke about becoming "peanut men." It was our standard answer to that often asked question, "So, what do you want to do when you grow up?" Our response was always, "Sell peanuts at Memorial Stadium." Of course everyone laughed, and we laughed too, knowing that we would probably become lawyers or bankers, as we were expected to.
Or an instructor of ship handling and naval tactics at the U.S. Naval Academy, the job I was to start in the fall of 1989, right after getting married.
Still, my brother and I, two Baltimore Oriole fans from Springfield, Va., had meant what we said: We wanted someday to be peanut vendors at Memorial Stadium. Now, with my freedom clock ticking down, I knew this was my last chance. When I called Memorial Stadium and was told that vendors were needed, I felt I had to seize the moment. I donned the orange and brown of an Oriole vendor.
Seniority is the rule in the vending business. Vendors who have been at it the longest sell the beer, hot dogs and Cokes. The next folks on the totem pole get the hot pretzels and peanuts, and rookies get the Cracker Jack. As number 72 of 77 vendors (five signed on after me), I was a "Cracker Jack man."
September 8, 1991
Walking out into the stands with my first crate of Cracker Jack, I felt a wave of self-consciousness wash over me. Suddenly I couldn't remember why I had thought this would be fun. "What am I doing, wearing this stupid orange-and-brown apron?" I thought. With the shouts of the other vendors echoing through the partly filled stands—"Hey, get your red hots!" and "Ice-cold bea heah!"—I looked at my Cracker Jack and felt even worse. After 15 minutes without a sale, I was close to packing it in. At a buck and a quarter a box, I didn't think I would ever sell one of these things.
My malaise peaked when a wizened usher, who looked as though he needed someone to escort him to a seat rather than vice versa, said, "Hey, Sonny, ya gotta hold them babies up high so people can see what you're sellin'."
I had thoughts of giving the Cracker Jack away. Then the game began, and the buzz of the suddenly large crowd filled the stadium. The magical presence of baseball wiped away my doubts. Who cares if I never sell a box? I got into the game free, and I can sit anywhere I want.
But I hardly had time to sit. Even before the O's came up in the bottom of the first inning, my Cracker Jack became, amazingly enough, a hot item. Soon I was hustling to get my second crate of boxes and loving my work. I felt as though my selling Cracker Jack was critical to the fans' enjoyment of the game and that my now monstrous bellows of "Get your Cracker Jack right heah!" added to the ballpark's atmosphere. I was having fun.
That first night I sold 191 boxes for a total of $238.75, of which I got to keep $36. I got a "Good job, buddy" from the Budweiser man.
During the next few home stands, the stadium hired more vendors, including my brother Mikey. He had just graduated from college and was in the painful process of job interviewing. When I told him about my experience, he couldn't wait to try it—especially when he learned that he would be hired on the spot, wouldn't have to show anyone his resume and wouldn't have to answer questions like, "What qualities do you have that will make you excel as a vendor at Memorial Stadium?"
I moved up on the seniority list, and that allowed me to realize my dream—to sell peanuts. The thing about peanut bags is, you can throw them. After misfiring on my first few attempts, I found the range and became pretty good.
While hawking my peanuts, I was also on the lookout for foul balls. My fantasy was to make a spectacular one-handed grab while holding a bag of peanuts in my other hand and then to hear Rex Barney, the O's stadium announcer, say, "Give that vendor a contract!"
But in mid-July, with my wedding day fast approaching and the responsibilities of my impending "real" job looming, I had to hang up my vendor's apron. Sadly, my brother did, too: He had found a job with a bank in Washington, D.C.
Soon the two of us were back to attending games as regular fans, not "players." Even though we loved being in Memorial, and will sorely miss it after it closes next month, the feeling was different. With our shouts of "Peanuts" and "Cracker Jack," we had felt like contributors to the special atmosphere that surrounds a baseball game.
Rob Newell is deputy public affairs officer at the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.