Daily Breeze, Sept. 2004

WORKING FOR PEANUTS

Dodger Stadium gig isn't exactly in the bag

 

BY COREY LEVITAN

PHOTOS BY SCOTT VARLEY/DAILY BREEZE

 

      I pause to analyze the wind from Dodger Stadium's left field. It could affect the arc of my next pitch. I launch into my wind-up and try my damnedest not to let the cheering fans down.

      It's not a baseball exiting my right hand but a $5 bag of salted peanuts. I'm in the stands, learning from the Torrance resident known by millions as the Peanut Man.

      To Dodger fans, the name Roger Owens is more familiar than some of those on the backs of uniforms. Owens has tossed more than 2.5 million bags of peanuts since he was hired by the team -- back before Dodger Stadium was built. His image has appeared during nearly every televised Dodgers game since they relocated from Brooklyn in 1958.

      "Where are your black pants?" Owens asks me. "You were told to wear black pants!"

      I forgot. I've got blue jeans on. A white T-shirt was also required. Mine is blue.

      "I'm not letting you work like that," he says. "You're not in the proper uniform."

      I told Owens to treat me not like a journalist, but his lowly apprentice. I had no idea how eager he would be to cooperate.

      After 10 minutes of admonishment, my ban from the field is lifted. Owens leads me to the area where vendors queue before the game to choose what, and where, they will vend. Every one has on black pants and a white T-shirt under his nifty Dodger vendor shirt.

      "See?" Owens scolds me.

      Owens' seniority places him first on line every game. He requests peanuts, and so do all the vendors behind him. The unshelled and salted legume could be considered the Cadillac of vending items, if anyone under 75 and not in the pimping industry still desired a Cadillac.

      Pizza? Hot dogs? Popcorn? Good luck impressing the ladies with any of those.

      "It takes a new man 20 years to get up to peanuts," Owens says.

      If it's a hot day game, some vendors might want to sell bottled water. But even then, it's peanuts for Owens.

      "The Peanut Man must take peanuts," he tells me. (Owens claims to eat a bag every day.)

      Owens also always opts for the orange loge section between third base and home plate. These are box seats occupied by returning fans. Owens has no choice but to sell here; he's the world's only peanut vendor with "season peanut holders."

      No fooling: This pre-season, he collected more than $6,000 in prepaid peanut sales, mailed by check to his house. He keeps track of who ordered what on a list in his wallet.

      "Please mention the book, too," he says.

      Fine. Owens is also the world's only peanut vendor with his own biography. Written by Owens' nephew, "Perfect Pitch" was published by Llumina Press last October.

      "If you read one book about a peanut vendor, make it this one," raves an Amazon.com review.

      "It's available here at Dodger Stadium, too," Owens adds.

      We enter the stadium commissary, where Owens peels $840 off a Tony Soprano roll for seven cases of the salty stuff. (The vending company will reimburse him later with a check, which includes a commission.)

      Owens won't reveal how much he earns a year, only that he doesn't work for peanuts.

      "Peanuts work for ME," he says.

      Peanut sales are especially good lately because the Dodgers are in first place. (So I'm told. I haven't followed baseball since the early '80s.)

      "You get more people here, and their appetite is increased," Owens says. "The only time I don't do really well is when newspaper reporters bother me when I should be out selling."

      Owens opens a taped-tight carton by banging on the side with his fist, like Fonzie. He is such an expert, box-cutters are unnecessary.

      Owens isn't the only peanut vendor in his section. But woe is poor Mort Rose, his competition during tonight's game against the Florida Marlins. Even before we hit the stands, the "Hey Roger's!" begin.

      "Hey Roger!" one fan yells. "It's Johnny!"

      "Hey Roger!" comes another. "Check this guy's bag! He brought his own peanuts! Uh-oh!"

      Usually, the competition's only hope is for Owens to get bogged down by such social calls and autograph requests.

      "We love when he stops to autograph his book," Rose says. "Keep signing those autographs!"

      Rose is ecstatic to learn of my apprenticeship. He hopes to snag as many customers as he can while Owens shows me the ropes.

      Roger straps his cherished basket onto my shoulder and we enter the stadium at 6 p.m. It's emptier than a Night Ranger reunion concert. Owens explains that he wants as many civilians to avoid injury as possible. Once the game starts at 7, my adventure will end.

      "We work from the bottom to the top," Owens says, explaining that we need to face the customers -- and let their peanut-deprived neighbors get a taste of the fun they're missing out on.

      "You're just as much an entertainer as you are a peanut-hawker," Owens says.

      Owens turns his back to his first customer and the bag gently floats in the direction he wills it, like a bird landing in a nest.

  

      "That customer was a child," Owens explains. To an athletic type, the bag would have soared in a straight line.

      I observe Owens' "fast nut," "knuckle bag" and "behind the back" pitches. They all land perfectly. Owens -- a high-school pitcher once scouted by the Pittsburgh Pirates -- deserves the Cy Young Award for snacks.

      One customer misses her bag. Although it's not Owens' fault, he runs over to retrieve it, then returns to his original position to toss it again.

      "Your turn," Owens tells me.  I quickly learn that no instinct I possess about this job is correct.

      "You don't hold the peanuts upside-down!" Owens screams. "How can customers read what's in your hand?"

      A couple of fans laugh. The entertainment factor Owens mentioned has kicked in. Only, it's at my expense.

      "Will you yell out what you're selling?" Owens continues. "How are they gonna know?"

      He corrects my enunciation.

      "It's not peanuts, it's pea-NUTS!" he screams.

      I point out that Owens didn't yell anything so far -- except at me. This provokes a look I haven't seen since I errantly braised the back of Mr. Whelan's head with a paper airplane in 6th grade social studies.

      "I don't have to yell!" Owens snaps. "People yell for ME! But no one knows who YOU are, do they?"

      Owens has a point. He's appeared on "The Tonight Show" and in Mel Brooks' "Robin Hood: Men in Tights." In 1976, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the season -- an honor usually reserved for the President. Speaking of which, Owens was hired a few months later to pitch peanuts to Jimmy Carter during the former peanut farmer's inauguration. (Owens is still hoping for another snack-related White House resident. Insert your own George W. Bush pretzel joke here.)

      But Owens isn't correct about no one knowing who I am. Mary Ballard of Torrance recognizes me from this column and feels bad about the abuse -- as overtly put-on as it is. She purchases a bag from Owens and I make my first perfect toss.

      "I think you make a good peanut guy," Ballard says. "Don't listen to him."

      But it's only a five-foot underhand toss. Owens says this doesn't prove a thing.

      "I want you to throw the next bag up there," he says, pointing up a dozen rows to an elderly couple.

      I begin my wind-up, imagining Ron "Louisiana Lightning" Guidry assessing the plate. (I told you, the last time I followed baseball was the early '80s.)

      "So you don't collect the money first?" Owens yells. "Mort Rose is laughing right now!"

      After I collect the money, I'm instructed to execute a behind-the-back. Before we began, I repeatedly asked Owens for help practicing fancy throws. Disregarding my requests is about to bite Owens in the what-he-sells.

      My bag of nuts collides into a seat back about six rows shy of the target couple.

      "Sorry, folks!" Owens screams. "Rookie peanut vendor!"

      A man seated by the wayward bag commands my attention.

      "We'll take those for half price," he says.

      A young boy's father calls Owens over. They converse for a few seconds before sending the boy down to within 2 feet of me.

      "Come on, Corey!" Owens screams. "That's your range right there! You can do it!"

      I am being emasculated before the crowd that cheered me on in my third-grade baseball fantasies.

      The stadium organ begins piping. The end of my pitching career draws near. Way at the back, I spot a relatively large target of a woman. I'm about 20 rows down.

      "Give it your best shot!" Owens says after taking her money. I wind up again.

      "No, behind the back!" he yells. "These people want behind the back!"

      The bag collides into another seatback, even closer to me. This time, it opens. Innocent peanuts lie scattered at the scene, their shells cracked, their butter soaking the pavement.

      "You're paying for that!" Owens shouts.

      Owens approaches the woman. He gives her a new bag and explains that I'm a newspaper reporter, not really his apprentice; that the Dodgers wouldn't hire anyone this bad.

      Then he runs toward me, scowling.

      "Give me back my basket!" he yells, grabbing at it. "You're through!" I honestly can't tell whether he's kidding.

      "Keep it up!" Mort Rose says while passing us on the stairs, en route to reload at the commissary.

      I plead for one more chance to prove my nut-worthiness. Owens agrees, but only if it's a straight-on throw.

      A guy at the top volunteers.

      "L.A. hat, L.A. hat!" Owens points him out after taking his money. "Pay attention to where you're throwing it!"

      I back-step all the way to the loge railing. If this is my last throw, I need to make a statement.

      "Hey!" Owens screams. "You're out of your range!"

      The crowd -- which has doubled since batting practice begun -- is pumped. I point to the L.A. hat guy like Babe Ruth at the right-field stands. Fans on either side of him shield their faces.

      "You don't know what you're doing!" Owens screams.

      I wind up and ... IT'S GOOD! The L.A. hat guy gives me a thumbs-up as the crowd cheers. Rehearsals commence in my head for my own "Tonight Show" appearance.

      But Owens won't let my third-grade fantasy stand.

      "It was a little bit low," he says. (It wasn't, I promise.)

      He retrieves it from the hat guy, then fires off a perfect, and perfectly humiliating, behind-the-back.

      But I have the last laugh tonight.

      "Oh no!" Owens says, staring into the distance.

      Mort Rose is smiling. He has cleaned up the entire third-base line.

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