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BASEBALL JOURNAL

June 16, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

Janet Olney has broken the beer barrier. Leslie Woodward is now ensconced in the ranks of soda vendors. And Howard Hart still is Howard Hart, that is, No. 1.

As the local baseball universe watches the American League East, the people who work the grandstands at Camden Yards have been fixed this week on Baltimore's other big-league standings: the just-revised vendor list, another hierarchy of money, pride and occasionally rampant ego.

"It's pretty important to people," says veteran vendor John O'Hara. "Everybody's pretty competitive about it."

He's putting it mildly. Since the season began vendors have been talking about The List. They've been challenging each other, kidding about passing each other, talking trash in the NBA style. They say they higher up you go, the more intense the competition.

The List of 108 vendors -- based on their attendance and total sales -- is the pecking order that determines who sells the most profitable products in the best locations in the ballpark. The top four sell Budweiser in the lower decks around home plate, the bottom dwellers hawk wine, or peanuts in the bleachers.

Rank means money and money means rank.

So Leslie Woodward expects to learn. He jumped from 67 to 58 in the revised list handed out Monday, meaning he is assured of selling soda, rather than hot dogs. That should boost his commissions about $50 a game, he says, especially with the onset of warm weather.

Beyond the economic implications, Woodward observes that The List also seems to influence vendor social habits: "The vendors hang with each other according to what number they are. There's the hot dog group, the soda group. You can tell."

Janet Olney, in only her second season as a vendor, has made the big leap into the most profitable territory, the beer group, the top 40 percent of vendors. She jumped from 55 to 36 by selling hot dogs. Lots of hot dogs, about 200 a night, more than $100 in commission.

"It was cold so long this season, hot dogs were selling real well," says Olney, 25, a 1990 Maryland Institute graduate who paints by day, vends by night. Last fall, she painted a picture of a large hot dog. She has four baseball-card-style paintings hanging in the club level at Camden Yards.

Now, she says, she'll have to learn the art of beer vending, a different business from peddling other products. With soda or hot dogs, you try to cover as much territory as possible. The beer vendor's route tends to be circular, more like a bartender returning to her customers for one refill, then another, winding down to last call in the bottom of the seventh inning.

"You also have to learn how to pour it correctly so you don't lose half the beer," Olney says.

She figures she'll try to get some pointers from the local authority on the subject, Howard Hart, who once again topped the list. Hart, a 13-year Orioles vendor, was the top man off and on at Memorial Stadium and has been No. 1 steadily since Camden Yards opened in 1992.

Watch him for an inning or two and you quickly see why. It seems he is being chased by something through the aisles along the right-field line. As last call approaches, he picks up the pace, barking his pitch, spotting customers, squatting to open cans and pour, spotting more raised hands, smiling seldom but always moving. At 43, Hart is outrunning younger men in the ranks right behind him, determined to stay at the top.

"If he sees another vendor's doing better, he just pushes it that much harder," says Michael Devonis, a vending room manager who has worked with Hart for three years. "He becomes, like, possessed. He's No. 1, and he'll always be No. 1."

Ah, but Hart, who sells about 19 cases of beer a night, a $271 total, does not seem happy about it. This season, he says, he let his ego get the better of him in the face of an Opening Day challenge from another beer vendor in the Top 10.

"I paid a tremendous price to stay No. 1," says Hart, who talks about as fast as he sells beer. His raspy, rapid-fire delivery in interviews calls to mind some pro wrestlers.

To stave off the challenge, Hart says, he sacrificed many of the things on which he built his reputation: his banter and baseball trivia games with the fans, occasional harmonica solos in the stands. Much of that had to go because it ate precious selling time.

"I've lowered myself as a vendor," says Hart, who takes great pride in his profession. Unlike most other vendors, Hart does not have a day job. He vends in spring training and at other arenas, and he is proud that the work has paid for an 8-acre farm in the mountains of North Carolina.

He declines to name the challenger, but says they battled "toe to toe, aisle for aisle."

The upstart was not Jerry Collier, the No. 2 vendor with whom Hart battled for years at Memorial Stadium. Between 1987 and 1989, the two switched the top two positions several times. Collier, 30, who works in a bank securities department by day, seems content to yield the top slot to Hart.

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