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Fenway’s other athletes

For hawkers, a summer job that is no walk in the ballpark

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By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / August 17, 2010

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Any baseball fanatic dreaming about a lazy summer selling peanuts and popcorn at Fenway Park should know this: Lazy won’t schlep that case of bottled water up and back to the nosebleed seats at the top of the bleachers.

Lazy won’t keep your hair from being singed when you hold that portable hot dog oven over your head.

Lazy certainly won’t cut it on “Hot-dog Christmas,’’ that hallowed 11:05 a.m. game on Patriots Day, when crowds arrive ravenous for lunch and hollering for a taste of summer.

And lazy didn’t earn Fenway hawkers such a vaunted reputation in the industry that a team from Boston recently traveled to Toronto to tutor their Canadian counterparts.

“These guys are probably — and we could get some nonsense for this — some of the best hawkers in the country,’’ said Rich Roper, regional vice president of Fenway’s food provider, Aramark. “I can honestly say that, by the numbers.’’

Hawkers at Fenway, back at work today for a nine-game home stand, work straight commission. That means the more Push Pops they push, the more Cracker Jacks they promote, the bigger their take.

“Every once in a while, someone will say, ‘Hey, that’s the coolest job in the world,’ ’’ said Sean Toland, 29. “You see a lot of rookie vendors coming in thinking that it’s just a cush job where they can watch the Sox game. You learn pretty quickly that if you are not here to work, you are not going to last.’’

You sweat through your egg-yolk yellow Aramark shirt. Every second could be a sale, so you work oblivious to the score, the back of your head to the diamond. Those narrow aisles and ancient Fenway seats always find ways to make you bang your knees and elbows, leaving you so beat up after a run of games that you need more braces and Ace bandages than the players, even in this injury-racked season.

It could almost make for unenviable work.

Almost, but not quite.

“There’s not a day I go to work that I’m not excited,’’ said Toland, a nine-season hawker from Stoughton. “Best job in the country.’’

It all starts on a bleak day in March. New hires face a physical agility test, a spring tryout that sends them up and down the bleachers lugging a case of Coca-Cola. That’s up and down 50 steps, six or seven aisles, their voices echoing in a deserted Fenway Park, “Coke HE-AH!’’

“They’re loud at first, but by the third time up it’s softer and softer,’’ said Tracy Martino, Aramark’s concessions director at Fenway. “Some quit that day.’’

Anyone can apply, but most new applicants are referrals: brothers, cousins, best friends.

The ones who make it do not get to start slinging hot dogs behind home plate on Opening Day. Hawkers work in a rigid caste system, in which seniority defines everything: what they sell, where they sell, how much money they make. The roughly 200 hawkers on Aramark’s roster know their seniority numbers as well as their own birthdays, from the guy hired in 1976 to Jake Glasser, a lanky 16-year-old from Newton who ranks 196th and learned early on what happens when a rookie wanders out of his section.

“Some guy was like, ‘Hey, kid, get back to right field,’ ’’ said Glasser, who got stuck selling sports bars there earlier this month.

Ninety minutes before first pitch, hawkers meet in the musty underbelly of the right field grandstands for an auction defined entirely by seniority. Hats flipped backwards, teenagers crowd a table, picking products and sections, hoping for hot dogs and home plate, but often ending up with cotton candy in the bleachers.

For the veterans with first pick, weather dictates everything. Hot but dry? Hawk Fenway Franks. Water only goes when it’s hot and humid. Lemonade sells any time it’s hot, and especially when humid. Clouds or wind can limit thirst, making it a good day for peanuts.

But it’s more complicated than checking the forecast. Humidity sticks behind home plate and in left field like a dense fog, keeping fans in those sections thirsty well after dark. Weather sits differently in the bleachers and sections of right field, which bake during the day but don’t hold humidity, cooling off like an air-conditioned room after sunset.

The bleachers, of course, bring their own environmental hazards. The cheaper seats are packed with rowdy fans and roved by baby-faced vendors at the bottom of the pecking order. Hawker Patrick West, 18, remembers the day two young women reached out and gave him a tickle as he held aloft a tray of steaming clam chowder.

“I almost dropped the whole load of chowder on the ground,’’ said West, who recently graduated from Pembroke High School. “Encounters like this happen a lot to vendors, especially in the bleachers.’’

For older hawkers with day jobs and mortgages, hot dogs are the steady moneymakers. The veterans stuff their hats with napkins, cushioning the weight on their heads, and get out early, selling their initial haul before first pitch, so they can reload during the National Anthem, when all commerce ceases, and trawl aisles again like skilled anglers.

“It’s like fishing,’’ said Chris Plunkett, 29, of Jamaica Plain, a 12-year veteran ranked 29th in seniority. “You just know where the fish are.’’

Part of the bait is a bellowing voice, embellished with an inflection that is as much a part of Fenway as the Green Monster. Pizza HE-AH! Italian ice HE-AH! Popcorn HE-AH!

“People love the Boston accent, just saying, ‘HE-AH,’ ’’ said Gregg Rockwell, 30, of West Roxbury, who ranks 24th in seniority. “You don’t want to be background noise.’’

Aramark officials declined to discuss pay in detail. Hawkers said a vendor with seniority could take home a few hundred dollars on a great night, while a new guy in the bleachers makes far less. The jocular competition for sales — and the race for the biggest payday after the final out — is what pushes vendors through the dog days of August, and those frigid nights in April and October.

“It’s a sport in itself, the way we see it,’’ Plunkett said before a recent shift. “We sit and talk about it at The Baseball Tavern after each game.’’

The comment floated like a weak curve ball, and hawker Jose Magrass, a 31-year-old from West Roxbury ranked 22d in seniority, couldn’t resist taking a swing.

“When I look at you,’’ Magrass said with heavy sarcasm, glancing up and down Plunkett’s physique, “I think athlete.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.

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