Commentary

No better way to get season tickets

What's it like to be a vendor at Fenway Park? Just watch out for diapers and no-hitters

Originally Published: July 28, 2009
By Jack McCluskey | Special to Page 2

Jon Lester no-hit the Kansas City Royals last season.

It was chilly, and maybe the Royals' bats just never warmed up; or maybe Lester's stuff was so hot it cooled off the K.C. swingers. Either way, the Royals didn't get a hit that night, and I was there for every out.

But I didn't see every out. In fact, I didn't even know Lester had a no-hitter going until the top of the eighth inning.

Before you scream bloody murder, I have an excuse. I was covered in chocolate. At least my apron was. My shirt had spots, my hat had splashes and I'm pretty sure I swiped some of the sticky stuff across my forehead when I brushed back the beads of sweat that were threatening to drip down my cheeks like tears.

See, I've been a food vendor at Fenway Park since 2002, and on that Monday night last May, I was selling hot chocolate. The announced temperature at first pitch was 57 degrees, and there was a 17 mph wind gusting toward right field. Hot chocolate was a hot product, and we vendors work on commission.

So while Lester was busy busting through one of the worst-hitting teams in baseball, I was busy selling.

The nuts and bolts of it

Vending is a pretty simple process: pick food, carry food into the seats, sell food, repeat. The repeat part is important, since vendors get paid by commission. At the start of a season, we make 14 percent of each sale. As total sales for the season start to pile up, the percentage goes up, maxing out at 16.5 percent.

Hot dogs are $4.75 apiece. That means for every hot dog a vendor sells, he (or she, since there are a handful of women selling stuff in the lyric little bandbox's cramped seats) collects roughly 60 cents. Bottom line: You gotta move some serious merchandise to make any serious scratch.

The night of Lester's no-no, I made a pretty penny. In the seven years I've been hawking at Fenway, I've made close to $40,000 in commissions -- which maybe sounds impressive, but since it's spread out over roughly 60 games a season it averages out to about $95 a night.

I'm not the top seller for Aramark. In fact, I'm nowhere near the top of the charts. I'm not a hot dog hustler -- I prefer to sell peanuts -- and, to be honest, I'm probably not a great quote. I'm mostly quiet by nature, which goes against what we vendors do: Clad in yellow and blue, we run up stairs and yell -- no, bellow. "Peanuts!" "Hot dogs!" "Beer!" "Getcha popcorn heah!"

Product choice is key. You only want to sell something you're sure people will want. You might love fruit cups, but no one wants to buy them at the ballpark for $4.75. Pick the wrong item, and you're in for a long night.

Picking products goes by seniority, from first hire to most recent hire, meaning the guys that have been hawking at Fenway the longest get the best stuff. If it's 100 degrees in August, they get water. Forty degrees in October? They're choosing hot chocolate.

[+] EnlargeFenway Vendors
Julianne Varacchi/ESPN.comVendors line up underneath the Fenway stands to collect their items before the game.

This selection process goes down an hour and a half before first pitch. At the designated time, there will be 50 or 60 vendors huddled loosely around a metal table in the bowels of the bleachers, trying to sneak a look at a few sheets of paper.

There are four "stations" for vending at Fenway: one each in left field, right field, by home plate and in the bleachers. Each station will have a certain number of vendors selling each product (two on peanuts, two on Coke, etc.).

Vendors nudge, elbow and muscle their way to the front of the pack to steal a look at the list, and which products will be available, around the time their number comes up. Based on several factors -- the weather, the opponent, game time, day of the week and performance of the team all affect sales; and the price of the product makes a difference, i.e. a $4.50 bag of peanuts is more attractive than a $6 personal pizza -- vendors evaluate what's available and make a pick.

"Gimme beer," one man says. "Dogs, outta home," says another. "Nuts in right," adds a third.

The seniority-based system means there's a bit of a dues-paying process to becoming a vendor at Fenway. My first game, Opening Day 2002, was a chilly, breezy 52 degrees at game time, and the best product I could manage was ice cream. I didn't sell a whole lot that day.

I was discouraged at times that season, but my older brother, Sean, gave me a tip: When you're selling Cracker Jack in August, there's nowhere to go but up.

No walk in the park

When you're paid to go to Fenway for every home game, concert or special event, it's hard to complain.

You have to go see the Sox play the Yanks, huh? That's a shame. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go bag groceries for eight hours.

But that doesn't mean there's no downside to dealin' dogs, slingin' suds or pitching peanuts. Baseball is (mostly) a summer game. That means many games are played in the intense heat and humidity of June, July and August in Boston. Even sitting in the stands and watching a game on a 90-degree day in August takes a toll. Now imagine you're the one running up and down the stairs.

Take hot dogs.

Hot dogs are by far the most taxing and involved item a vendor can sell at Fenway. In some places, the hot dogs come preassembled, wrapped in foil. Not here. The Fenway Frank is delivered to your seat in a big, awkward metal bin, heated by a Sterno wick, accompanied by three or four 12-packs of buns, myriad packets of ketchup and mustard (sorry, no relish, sauerkraut or onions on this mobile meat-stick stand), a box of bakery tissue and a pair of metal tongs.

Oh, and don't forget the hot dogs -- which come in loads of 30 -- and the water they simmer in inside the tin.

All told, the hot dog bin probably weighs close to 30 pounds. Now lift that bin above your head -- be careful not to tip it to one side or the other, front or back, because nothing on it is battened down -- and start weaving through the living, breathing mass of humanity that is Red Sox Nation.

Made it to the seats yet? You almost banged a corner of the bin off that balding guy's head, didn't you? Don't deny it; we all saw it. He would have spilled those two beers he was carrying -- you know, the ones inside the empties -- all over his two little kids! And why? Because your elbows were buckling under the weight. Because you had to take a sudden two-step left to avoid the woman, baby strapped to her chest, obliviously charging forward with a cardboard tray piled high with sausages, chicken fingers and fries. (Thanks for not buying hot dogs, lady, appreciate the business!)

Whew, you're in the seats now. Hey, what's the score anyway?

There's a guy waving two fingers. He must want two hot dogs. OK, easy now. Let's put this bin down; don't hit these two women shoving past you up the stairs. Boy, they were in a hurry -- almost knocked you over as you were lowering the bin off your head -- and here they are again; guess they went up the wrong aisle.

OK, the bin's on the ground; now you're officially blocking traffic. "How many, buddy? One?" Why'd you hold up two fingers if you only wanted one hot dog? Here you go, grabbing baking tissue, taking a bun -- whoops, forgot to rip open the plastic bag holding the buns -- careful not to touch it with your hand, don't want the board of health to complain, ha-ha-ha, here are the tongs, grab a dog … oh, these things are slippery. How are you supposed to grab 'em, anyhow?

Think you've got i … -- oh, man, it just broke in half! Try it again. OK, got one. Now how do you get it into the bun without touching it or the bread? Just try to force it in with the tongs … well, it's kind of in the bun, kind of sitting on top of it. But you didn't touch it, so call it a victory and wrap it up real tight.

[+] EnlargeFenway Hot Dog Vendor
Julianne Varacchi/ESPN.comRemember: Don't touch the dogs with your hands!

"Mustard? Ketchup?" "Got any relish?" "No, only mustard and ketchup." Probably why you didn't say relish. "I'm good, then." Sorry to ruin your day. "That'll be $4.75." "$4.75! How do you sleep at night?!"

On a pile of money that smells like hot dogs, obviously.

If you think that was good, just you wait. If you're lucky you'll do that 209 more times this game. That would be 210 hot dogs sold, seven loads in all, and it'd get you around $150 in commission.

Sound like fun?

Yeah, sounds like no walk in the park.

Hey, down in front!

Maybe some of you are thinking: "Ha! Vendors, who needs 'em? I always get up to get my food. All you're good for is blockin' my view!"

To that, I say this: I'm sorry. Because Fenway was built almost 100 years ago, quarters are cramped today. No matter what we do, our hot dog bins, racks of Coke, packs of water bottles and bags of peanuts are going to be in someone's line of sight. You might miss a pitch here or there, and you might not get to see the grounds crew sweep the entire infield between innings.

Jonathan Gilula, Red Sox senior vice president for business affairs, has heard all about vendors -- good and bad -- from fans, and he calls us "a huge convenience for our fans."

"Our fans are so die-hard, so into the game, that they don't want to get up," he says. "Experienced vendors selling a variety of foods, in a timely and polite way, don't detract from the game. Our vendors do a great job of that."

Kevin Haggerty, general manager of Aramark at Fenway Park, agrees.

[+] EnlargeCoke Vendor
Julianne Varacchi/ESPN.comOn a hot, sweaty day at Fenway you want to be selling Coke, not Cracker Jack.

"I've worked different places," Haggerty says, "and I'd have to say Fenway is among the top venues. Second would be Soldier Field in Chicago."

Haggerty says part of it is the atmosphere of working at Fenway -- it's much easier to sell in a packed house for a winning team than it is to sell in, say, San Diego -- and part of it is tradition. "I think that the hawking is an integral part of vending at Fenway and in baseball," he says. "It's been around so long fans are used to it, expect it, trust the product. These things make it work."

Despite its age and the physical restrictions of its infrastructure, Fenway is one of Aramark's top earners. Haggerty won't reveal how much the company makes off the Red Sox faithful, but he does say Fenway manages to lead the league in something called "hawking per capita" -- total sales divided by attendance to give a rate.

"[Other Aramark GMs] say 'Well, why do you have such a high number?' and we say 'We have great hawkers,'" Haggerty says.

Best seat in the house

Let's answer one of the questions vendors get asked the most: Do you get to watch the games?

No, not really. We're underneath the stands, getting products or change; we're running in the seats -- up the stairs away from the field, down the stairs toward the field, back up the stairs to the next aisle -- scanning to the left, to the right, looking for hands, nods, smiles, listening to calls, shouts, heckles and whistles. We're taking money, making change, passing food down aisles.

(Quick aside to you hecklers: We've heard it before. No, I don't have any rum for the Coke; there's no beer in my pretzel bin; yes, the nuts are salted; and yes, I'm carrying them in a sack. If you're gonna bring it, bring something better than that.)

When something big happens on the field, you'll know because everyone will stop caring about what they're eating, ordering or thinking about ordering. Hear a roar? Turn around; you might just see what happened. Mostly you'll either miss the action, have to piece it together afterward and make money, or you'll see the action, be able to tell it afterward and make no money.

We're all baseball fans, so every once in a while we're tempted to buy tickets (like you, we don't get freebies) to a game or to stay home and watch one on TV. There's one problem with that, though: When you're used to vending when the Sox are playing, it's hard to keep your eyes on the field at Fenway and not on the seats.

Who's that in yellow? What's he selling? What would I be selling?

It's enough to make you yell "Nuts!"

In the end, we can't complain. As another vendor once told me, there's really no better way to get season tickets. We can watch after the seventh inning, which is quittin' time for vendors and concession-stand workers, and with our Aramark IDs we can get into a lot of cool places, like the Monster seats.

So can we watch the games? In the die-hard sense of the word -- do we see every pitch? -- no, but that doesn't mean we still don't get to see some pretty cool things.

Oh, the things you'll see

I've seen a grown man dressed all in red, white and blue Red Sox paraphernalia, with his bulging, protruding beach-ball-shaped gut painted as a baseball. I've seen an older woman always wearing a hat with a miniature replica of Fenway on it, and young women wearing tight, form-fitting T-shirts that claim "Real women don't date Yankees fans" or "I do it with my Sox on!"

I've seen people reading the A&E, real estate and business sections of the newspaper; I've seen people toting books, Kindles and BlackBerrys.

Sure, there's some downtime in baseball. People today have short attention spans. I get it.

But really, this was going too far: A mother, hearing my peanut-sales-pitch ("Peanuts! Getchya pea-nuts!"), looked up. The motion caught my eye, and I saw that next to her sat a young child, holding a portable DVD player, watching an animated movie.

The thinking there? Must have been something along the lines of, "Movies are always better with 36,000 friends -- er, screaming strangers."

Then there are the personal hygiene violations. The worst? A man changing his infant's diaper in the bleachers. The kid had to go, the man didn't want to miss a pitch, and his neighbors in the stands got more than they'd bargained for.

[+] EnlargeJack McCluskey
Julianne Varacchi/ESPN.comOur writer hauls his lemonade through the crowd ... and maybe catches a quick glimpse of the action.

Then there's the baseball. I've seen three no-hitters, two World Series and the start of the biggest collapse in baseball history (take that, 2004 Yankees!). I've seen old stars blink out (Curt Schilling) and new stars explode into being (Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon). I've seen beanballs, brawls ("Did Pedro really just throw Zim to the ground?") and banner-raising ceremonies.

In short, I've seen more at a ballpark than most ever will, and for that I'm grateful.

Every end's a beginning

It was the top of the eighth inning, and I was counting my money. I'd sold enough hot chocolate to fill a kiddie pool; I was dirty and dog-tired. Then I heard someone ask "Does he still have it?" and immediately get shouted down.

The guy behind me paused his count and nodded a quick confirmation. After all, you just don't talk about that kind of thing.

I settled up as quickly as I could -- no, that wad of cash you see us carrying doesn't come home with us -- tore off my chocolate-covered shirt, threw on a sweatshirt and headed for the seats. When I poked my head out of the tunnel Lester was warming up for the ninth; I glanced at the scoreboard on the Monster and saw the string of zeroes that had everyone on edge.

Normally I'd scamper up the stairs and find a spot in standing room, but since everyone was on their feet already no one gave me guff for being in the aisle. Looking back, I think that's one of the things I'll miss the most when I stop working at Fenway -- that feeling you get when it seems 36,000 people are acting as one.

Standing, hats in hands over hearts, as the national anthem plays. Giving an old hero a standing ovation for a return long overdue. Jeering a villain. Cheering a new hero for a walk-off home run, a save or a complete-game shutout. Pleading for last-minute heroics.

On this night, it felt like every single soul in those seats was willing Lester's no-hitter to happen.

We groaned when Esteban German walked to open the inning; applauded when Tony Pena Jr. grounded out to third, advancing German to second; clapped so hard our hands hurt when David DeJesus grounded out to first, advancing German to third. Then Lester struck out Alberto Callaspo to end it.

Fenway flew into a frenzy.

And in the wake of the celebration, of strangers hugging and high-fiving like they'd all just won the lottery, I had a thought: Man, I love my job.

When he's not working as a vendor at Fenway Park, Jack McCluskey is a copy editor at ESPN.com.