Blood, Sweat and Beers

The first triple play ever at Coors Field happened during the bottom of the fifth inning of a night game on June 14.

With runners at first and second base, Colorado Rockies batter Edgard Clemente hit a sharp ground ball to San Francisco Giants third baseman Bill Mueller. Mueller quickly stomped on the bag and threw the ball to second baseman Jeff Kent, who, it appeared, simply used the back of his glove to ricochet the speeding white dot toward first baseman J.T. Snow.

As Clemente crossed first base, umpire Brian Gorman hesitated as if momentarily deceived by the sheer novelty of the play--and then, almost reluctantly, raised a clenched fist to signal Clemente out.

Nearly 40,000 Rockies fans booed Gorman's call. But pure baseball fans--regardless of whom they were rooting for--valued what they had witnessed: an around-the-horn triple play. Inside Coors Field. On Flag Day.

It was a good night for celebrating.
Out in the left-field bleachers, the scruffy Captain Earthman hauled his bucket of Budweiser and served up two cold brews to a pair of Hispanic customers. "Dos cervezas, por favor!" joked Captain Earthman.

Up in the third deck, Shellie Marino, a vendor whose badge reads "Beer Goddess," had politely yet efficiently sold three cases of Coors before the end of the evening.

And in the aisles behind home plate, where the cash-rich season-ticket holders sit, Bob the Beerman, beer vendor of beer vendors, shouted, "Bob the Beerman is here, the Sultan of Suds, the Baron of Brew, cold beer here! Bob the Beerman is here, the Sultan of Suds, the Baron of Brew, cold beer here!"

Beer fans everywhere are familiar with the chant, thanks in part to a string of television commercials that use similar phrases to promote Coors Light beer. They also recognize Bob's green baseball jersey and the large buttons pinned to his chest that announce his products--beer, peanuts, Cracker Jacks--as well as one homemade laminated blue badge that reads: "Bob the Beerman."

At a game the next night, a man sitting with a woman ten rows behind home plate raised a finger to order a beer.

"Is that a beer finger I see?" Bob the Beerman called out.
"It is," the man replied, delighted to do business with Bob the Beerman.
Bob dropped to a knee in the aisle with his back turned to the field and asked if the couple had seen the triple play the night before.

"No, we didn't," the woman said, as if she didn't care one way or the other.
Bob the Beerman teased the man about his expensive-looking sweater. In the next breath, he asked, "You need any Cracker Jacks or peanuts to help wash down the beer?"

The woman took a second look at Bob and wagged a finger. "You're...Bob," she said.

Bob the Beerman smiled, poured a beer, then turned an ear to the sound of a baseball leaving the bat. "Ground ball to the left side of the infield?"

The woman checked the field, then looked at Bob, amazed.
"That's right!" she said.
"I can call the entire game without even seeing it," he boasted.
Of course, Bob was making a little joke. It wasn't really true.

In one Coors Light Beer Man commercial, titled "Beer Mime," the beer vendor wears a white face, black tights and a beret. The beer vendor mimes to a customer--a baseball fan--that he wants to sell a beer. The customer grows impatient with the lengthy routine. Just give me the damn beer, man. Finally, the mime drops the frosty beer and begins, slowly and painfully, acting out remorse. The message is that beer vendors will go to great lengths to sell a beer.

Coors Brewing Company has spent more than $100 million in two years on its beer-vendor ad campaign, which, with the exception of the mime spot, portrays vendors as rambling, ha-ha, poorly educated geeks who are eager to make the fans' experience at the ballpark entirely unique. In most of the commercials, the beer vendor is overweight and balding, a rumpled blue-collar guy who has a charming, albeit annoying, knack for gibberish.

But among the real-life beer vendors at Coors Field are teachers, a high school principal, a jeweler, a lawyer.

For the majority, the job is a part-time excuse to get inside the ballpark, work for two hours and walk with $125 on a good day. Good days are hot day games, when the stadium is full of customers who are thirsty and generous. On cold, drizzly weeknight games when the Rockies are playing, say, the Milwaukee Brewers, vendors hope for $50 to $70. For each $4.25 beer he sells, the vendor makes 72 cents in commission, but as a rule, beer vendors don't share how much they take home, so even these figures are ballpark. But unlike in the mime commercial, beer vendors rarely spend more than three seconds trying to convince a fan to buy a beer.  

There are full-time vendors, however, who work year-round, at Avalanche and Broncos games, and travel as far as Phoenix, Houston and Seattle. Those dedicated vendors are known by their peers as "vending machines."

"Vending" Vince DiLorenzo is a vending machine. His business card reads, "Vending Vince: Will vend any event--no event is beneath me."

Captain Earthman is also a vending machine. During spring training in Arizona, Earthman worked 34 games in 24 days. He rented an apartment with two other vendors. "It was vending nirvana," he says.

But vending machines are the exception. Selling beer from a bucket may be simple in theory, but in practice, a Rockies starting pitcher will last longer on the mound than a new hire in the aisles.

Full beer trays packed with ice weigh up to sixty pounds; on top of that, vendors carry satchels full of peanuts, Cracker Jacks or ropes of red licorice. The longest aisles in Coors Field have forty rows of steps. "Keep in mind, you can't see your own feet because of your tray," says Dan O'Brien, who has been vending part-time since he was in college in the late Sixties. But unlike the jagged steps at, say, the Coliseum, the Coors Field steps were designed equal spaces apart--most vendors can effortlessly float down backward. A vendor's true pain is loading up a tray--which happens about five or six times a game--and not making any sales walking up the first aisle. "Those legs are just on fire when you trudge all the way up to the top."

Most grueling of all, however, is the competition among vendors. Before each home game, seventy vendors (including those who don't sell beer) meet in a small room located beneath the outfield pavilion, where a list taped to the wall ranks their total sales. They work for Aramark Corporation, one of the country's concession giants. Aramark won't divulge how much beer is sold at Coors Field, but in 1997 Financial World Magazine estimated that the Rockies (through Aramark) made $23.9 million per year in concession sales (though that figure also included suite rentals, parking and in-stadium advertising revenue).

On average, each of the 35 to 45 beer vendors should sell 100 beers per game. During the vendor meeting, vendors stand in a single-file line, in order of seniority, and choose what sections of the stadium they want to work; the door is locked when the meeting starts, and tardy vendors are left with the scraps. Beer sells best in the first deck; that's also where the tips are most generous. The outfield is a gold mine in terms of volume, but not for tips. The third deck, reserved mostly for groups, giveaway tickets and fans on a budget, is no-man's land.

Shellie Marino, one of four female vendors, started selling in 1997 and has yet to get out of the third deck. As one vendor says, "You have to wait for someone to die before you can get in the first deck."

On Marino's first day on the job, she arrived to pick up her goods at one of the four commissaries located behind the rows of concession stands at Coors Field. (Two commissaries on each deck each store about 3,000 beers; this is where vendors buy their stock from a cashier and reload during the game.) While lounging male vendors waited for their orders to be filled, they eyed Marino and predicted she would last two games. One was more generous; he predicted three games.

"They were betting on how long I would last right in front of my face," Marino recalls. "You have to prove yourself, show them you can hang."

Once they have their assignments, vendor etiquette frowns on aisle-crossing. But when times are hard, etiquette takes a seat on the bench. When a vendor--take Bob the Beerman, for instance--carries a full tray of beer down to the bottom of an aisle and begins selling his way up, he has just whet the palates of thirty rows of fans. A "snake," an opportunist, will take advantage of this and make a few quick sales at the top of the aisle while Bob is mired in beer sales at the bottom.

This season, attendance is down due to the Rockies' bumbling play, which started with Larry Walker's early-season visit to the disabled list. Add unexpected cancellations due to high school massacres and snow-outs, and the fans have had fewer reasons to go to Coors Field.  

"The honeymoon is over," says vendor supervisor Tim Champagne. And when honeymoons end, the bickering and snaking begins. So much so that Captain Earthman chooses to work the outfield despite his seniority, which would otherwise guarantee him aisles in the first deck behind the plate.

"I stay out there," says Earthman, pointing to his vast domain. "It's just me and 5,000 people." Then he turns and points to the seats behind home plate. "Over there, that's where all that vendor stuff goes on."

A few highlights: Last year a vendor named Marvin put down his tray only long enough to punch out his ex-girlfriend when he spotted her in the stands. Marvin was fired.

One vendor, Doug Hiller, was hand-picked by Rockies owners to be the only vendor for their section, despite a union contract that prohibits special treatment.

Each year, vendors have been fired for showing up drunk, late or both.

The Coors Beer Man commercials are so popular that vendors at Coors Field now hear twelve-year-old boys shouting, "Hey, Beer Man!"

And vendors have learned that one way to fill up the tip jar is to act like the vendors in the commercials.

One young Coors Field vendor, Jesse Buhrer, briefly considered a "Jesse the Kid" theme that would have cashed in on his youth and good looks. Shellie Marino has written catchy slogans in her head but ultimately decided otherwise once she realized that being a ham in the stands takes guts.

"If you've got the sack to do it, do it," Marino suggests.
Bob the Beerman has the sack. But despite his current popularity with the fans down in the first deck, the Beerman's pissed in a few beer cups inside and outside of Coors Field.

As Bob the Beerman tells it, he created the Beerman character and pitched the idea to Coors in January 1996. Coors executives offered him a small gig doing promotional work at local sports bars, but Bob balked.

When the commercials started running at the start of the 1997 baseball season, Bob the Beerman did what any other red-blooded American would do: He sued Coors for stealing his shtick.

"Plaintiff has worked determinedly to provide vendor and entertainment services under THE BEERMAN mark and to develop THE BEERMAN character having a distinct identity, appearance and style," reads his lawsuit. "Fans additionally recognize the costume used by Plaintiff in providing vending and entertainment services, said costume being adorned by a characteristic array of buttons, and his banter, which features sales pitches such as, 'my favorite word in the English language. Beer. Two favorite words. Cold Beer. Three favorite words. Cold Beer, Man!'"

Coors spokesman Jon Goldman says the Coors slogan differs--it's "Hey. Beer. Man."--and says there's no way the company cribbed from Bob's banter. "What Coors did trademark was "hey" period, "beer" period, "man" period. And that's entirely proper to register an advertising slogan. We did not try to trademark the beer-man character."

After the January 1996 meeting in which Bob the Beerman made his pitch, Goldman says, Coors executives also offered Bob a deal to sell Coors-only products in the stands. But a Colorado state law prohibits exclusive agreements, and the offer was pulled before Bob could accept.

According to court documents, the Coors Beer Man campaign was created in the Chicago offices of the advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding in December 1996, eleven months after Bob met with Coors execs in Colorado.

"'Beer man' is a generic term," argues Goldman. "It's not something you can attain a trademark for. It's equivalent to claiming my name is Jack the Cowboy and then saying no one can use the term 'cowboy.'"

Goldman won't divulge anything about the creative process that resulted in the Beer Man, claiming the ongoing litigation makes such description inappropriate. He insists that Coors executives at Bob's meeting didn't turn around and toss the idea into the open gloves of the advertising agency. "We never had any interest in using [him] in our advertising campaign," Goldman says.

Bob the Beerman, ne Robert Donchez of Boulder, has a diploma from Lehigh University and an MBA from Fordham University, and he was once a senior analyst at the Solomon Brothers brokerage firm in New York City.

1992: Robert Donchez packs his bags (and his portfolio) and moves to Colorado.

1993: Donchez receives badge number 0001, claiming it makes him the "first licensed beer vendor in Colorado Rockies' history." Donchez registers the name "Bob the Beerman."

1994: Bob the Beerman writes a book about himself titled A View From the Stands: A Season With Bob the Beerman.

1995: Bob the Beerman co-directs and stars in a video about himself titled Ultimate Bob: Vendors: A Profile in Courage.  

1996: The Denver Business Journal names Bob the Beerman one of Denver's "50 Finest Singles."

1997: Bob the Beerman throws out the first pitch before a game at Coors Field.

1998: Bob the Beerman creates and dedicates a Web page to himself,

1999: Robert Donchez sues Coors Brewing Co.
Ambitious, perhaps. Original, no.
In 1982, the Metrodome opened in Minneapolis and the Minnesota Twins took to the carpet in the new ballpark for the first time. A 48-year-old vendor named Walter McNeil worked the stands and used the nickname "Wally the Beerman."

Wally the Beerman dressed himself in buttons and colorful attire, bantered and gave the fans a little show.

So beloved was Wally the Beerman that a minor-league baseball team from Clear Lake, Iowa, honored him with "Wally the Beerman Day" in October 1983. During the pre-game ceremony, loyal customers presented Wally the Beerman with a trophy that read, "No thanks. We'll wait for Wally."

Wally, it turned out, carried more than Cracker Jacks in his bag. Eager to sell his personality to make more money, he began distributing Wally the Beerman business cards in 1983. In 1985 he handed out Wally the Beerman matchbooks, and in 1986 he sold autographed Wally the Beerman baseball cards. He also sold Wally the Beerman T-shirts, which, he noted in a 1987 Associated Press article, were his "walking billboards." By July 1987, Wally the Beerman was the subject of a profile in Sports Illustrated, which brought national attention to his fan-friendly vending persona.

By 1991, Wally the Beerman was as famous as any beer vendor could hope to be. He appeared in commercials for liquor stores, and his baseball card was worth $1 at trading shops. Even Wally's tennis shoes were provided by beer companies.

The fact that Wally the Beerman existed and widely marketed himself at least ten years before Bob the Beerman sold his first beer has not gone unnoticed by Coors attorneys.

In 1992, the same year Robert Donchez moved to Colorado, Coors hired Wally the Beerman to promote its new product, Coors Extra Gold. Wally the Beerman didn't hesitate to make promotional appearances in sports bars throughout the Twin Cities region.

But as Wally the Beerman's personal and financial ascent toward fame and fortune reached its zenith, so came the spite and jealousy from fellow vendors.

Grant Bakker, a former vendor who had worked with Wally the Beerman, complained to the press, "He promotes himself more than the beer. That's why he sells."

Such bad feelings are getting an instant replay among the vendors at Coors Field.

One vendor describes Bob the Beerman's personality as being "too good for everyone" and adds that when Captain Earthman held his annual Memorial Day barbecue for the brethren of brew, there was "zero chance" that Bob would show. Bob didn't show.

"I'm crossing the street, and someone yells out, 'Hey Beerman!'" Captain Earthman says. "To them, I'm the Beerman." Earthman rolls his eyes when he thinks of Bob's lawsuit. "If he gets away with it and it works out in his favor, then more power to him," Earthman says dryly.

And there's plenty in Bob's lawsuit to get anger brewing among his fellow vendors. For example, Bob's lawsuit claims that badge number 0001 makes him the first-ever licensed vendor in Colorado Rockies history. On the cover of his book, the badge is displayed prominently and proudly. He refers to other vendors by their names, followed by their badge numbers in parentheses--as if that's how vendors identify one another. But Robert Donchez works for Aramark, not the Rockies. His badge number has no connection to the baseball franchise; it's simply an Aramark employee identification number distributed at random. The badge has no significance in terms of seniority and holds no special privileges.

If there were a true "first" vendor for the Colorado Rockies, it would be a well-respected vendor named Willie Wirick. Wirick has been a vending machine in Denver since the late Seventies and has worked for Aramark for thirteen years. Wirick's badge number is 157, but he's first in Aramark seniority at Coors Field.

"If I wanted that number," Wirick says, "I could take that number. But I won't. It means nothing to me."

One vendor says Bob shamelessly jumped in line to get the first employee ID badge. Another says he specifically requested the number. While it isn't clear how Bob the Beerman snagged badge number 0001, it provided Donchez with significant marketing value: He has written "Bob #1" on the bill of his baseball cap.

While he's in character, Bob the Beerman has enjoyed a warm relationship with members of the media. He's appeared on ESPN's Sports Night, ABC's Good Morning America, HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumble and just about every other local media outlet in the greater Rocky Mountain region. (In 1995, Bob the Beerman received Westword's Best Foam Delivery award.)  

Now, he's as cold as a Bud on ice. Donchez refused to speak to Westword for this story, citing the fact that he was "involved in a little litigation." Bob's attorneys did not return Westword's phone calls.

In the first inning of the June 14 game against the San Francisco Giants, a grown man wearing a purple T-shirt and blue jeans stands up in his seat. He holds out his arms as if he were being crucified and shouts--really shouts--"EARTHMAAANN!!!!"

From thirty feet away, Captain Earthman looks over. The man in the purple T-shirt, still hanging from the cross, holds up three limp fingers. Captain Earthman completes his sale and wiggles his way to his friend who is dying, clearly, from lack of beer. When Captain Earthman finally reaches him, the man in the purple T-shirt is able to release one hand from the cross and exchange a friendly high-five. Then Captain Earthman pours three beers for the man and his two buddies.

Earthman wears dark, tinted, Johnny Fever-style glasses. Three empty Budweiser cans stick out of his baseball cap, and he clips empty peanut shells to fit as earrings. He wears black, fingerless gloves and carries his red licorice ropes on his back like Robin Hood carries arrows.

He's been known to squirt fans with water guns, but Aramark managers banned the props last summer, citing safety reasons. He used to wear a large, green, styrofoam Budweiser toad on his head, but management prohibited the hat, too, claiming it was blocking the view of the fans/customers.

Still, the thought of entertaining people makes Captain Earthman get out of bed in the morning. "I don't care if the kids have been kidnapped, the world has ended and the wife runs away with the butler. When I get out here, it puts a smile on my face. It's like being on stage."

Earthman gained his nickname one stony night 22 years ago when he announced, "If it's from the earth, man, I'll smoke it." Vending is something he picked up part-time in 1984 after working construction jobs and managing a record store in North Dakota. Earthman estimates he now vends between 340 and 350 events a year. "I make more money than a plumber, and I don't have to show crack."

Despite his colorful ways, Earthman has never been approached for promotional gigs and he doesn't plan to seek out a deal anytime soon. "I think it would be real cool if it happens, of course. But my philosophy is, 'If it happens, it happens--cool.' I won't go chasing it."

Vendor supervisor Tim Champagne says that even on rainy days, Earthman chooses to work in the outfield bleachers instead of the partially covered first deck. "He's not here just for his sales," Champagne says. "He's here for the fans as well, which makes him unique."

Earthman could have been called the Susan Lucci of vendors, but Lucci finally received an Emmy this year.

Besides competing for beer sales, vendors compete for a chance to win a free trip to the annual All-Star game. Aramark has vending contracts with ten baseball stadia across the country, and when Aramark ballparks host the All-Star game, as is the case this year, the company selects two vendors from each stadium to represent its team. On Tuesday, red-white-and-blue buntings will line the infield at Boston's Fenway Park. Two vendors from Coors Field will be there.

"That's what everyone wants to go to," says Earthman, who, despite being adored by fans and respected by his peers, has yet to win the honor.

Hopeful All-Star vendors must write an essay, receive votes from their peers and receive the approval of Aramark management. Bob the Beerman was selected for the All-Star game in Pittsburgh in 1994. But this year, for the fifth year in a row, Earthman was overlooked for the All-Star game. "I know I'll go to an All-Star game one day--even if I have to send myself," he says.

"It's not that Earthman didn't meet the criteria," Champagne says. "It's that others exceeded the criteria."

In her winning essay, Shellie Marino told the story of overcoming the verbal harassment from the male vendors, how she increased her sales and how she earned the respect of her co-workers.

"Winning the respect of some of the veterans was not easy," she wrote. "I was determined to prove that I was just as good as any of them. After a whole season of hauling Coke and not making very much money, I returned to the surprise of many. That season I became the 'Beer Goddess' and consistently maintained a competitive status in sales for the whole season. Some of them claim it is because I'm young and female and with the right anatomy. But I believe it's my enthusiasm, character and the little bit of attitude I give that win me the loyalty of fans and customers game after game."  

And Marino didn't just vend. She also worked with Aramark to set up concession stand #157 to raise money for the school where she teaches.

"What set Shellie apart was also her work with a nonprofit concession stand," says Carl Mittleman, Aramark division manager for concessions. "That's very unique."

But vendors grumbled that Marino was chosen. The other selection, Vince the Vendor, had been widely approved by the veteran vendors, but they said that Marino was too new; she'd worked at the stadium for just three seasons and was still in the third deck. Others complained that she hadn't worked enough games this season to earn the honor.

Marino says the sniping didn't get back to her--except the one about women selling more than men, which has long busted the peanuts of male vendors.

Except for Bob.
According to his lawsuit, Bob's trademarked character has "somewhat of a sex appeal and a definite celebrity appeal; a number of Coors Lights spots likewise play upon the Beer Man's sex appeal and notoriety."

In his book, Bob tells a few hey-dude stories and gives advice on how vendors score at the ballpark.

First, Bob writes that fellow vendors who are married do the "pre-screening" of the "prospective victims" in the seats.

"People of the opposite sex are rated on a four-level scale," Bob writes. "A one--go by the seat, look, and ogle discretely [sic]. Usually mirrored Ray Ban sunglasses help. Drool a little, but don't slobber, it makes a mess of your uniform. Then pour a beer for a person two rows in front of the prospective victim so you can prolong the gaze. Then keep moving. But make sure to pass by every inning. A two--go by the seat, look, smile warmly, then let the old charm take over. From there, it's wherever fate lands. A three does not need fate. It's go by the seat, look, ask what the person does for a living, and set a dinner date for the first Friday evening there's no scheduled home game. Never suggest to a three to meet her at Brooklyn's after the game."

Bob concludes: "A four--it's go by the seat, look, and ask if she prefers home or away games."

In another episode, a female fan leaves a rose, a short poem and a lipstick-written invitation for dinner on the windshield of Bob's car. (How the woman knows where to find Bob the Beerman's car goes unexplained.) But Bob chucks the invite, partly because the admirer has left no photograph of herself. "I'm a firm believer in the adage 'a picture is worth a thousand words.'"

In the chapter titled "What About Bob?" Bob the Beerman writes, "Fame wasn't something I planned when I took the job as a beer vendor. It just happened. A spirit from above blessed me. Perhaps the same angel that blesses us each summer with baseball."

All alone in the outfield, Earthman is aware of the politics he needs to play to get to an All-Star game. But by his own admission, he's too stubborn to bend. "That's why I'll never be an All-Star vendor."

On June 14, after the San Francisco Giants completed only the second triple play of the 1999 baseball season, there was much for baseball fans to cheer about.

With two outs and the score tied 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Rockies first baseman Todd Helton turned into the hero when he smacked a 3-2 pitch into the gap in left center field, a hit that scored three runs. In the top of the ninth, the Giants came back and nearly tied the game 5-4. But with a runner on third base threatening to score, the Rockies defense held strong to win the game.

As the Coors Field stands emptied into lower downtown, some trotted into sports bars to catch a cold one before going home. They sat, they sipped beer, they talked about the game and watched highlights on ESPN's Sports Center.

Slow motion replays proved Clemente's foot touched first base before the ball reached J.T. Snow's glove.

The triple play never happened.  

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