As bars and restaurants reopen despite the coronavirus pandemic, Americans across the country are breathing in their first hints of summer after having spent more than three months under stay-at-home orders.
But stadiums and arenas — which draw tens of thousands of screaming, cheering fans — remain unlikely to reopen to large crowds in the near future, leaving peanut, beer, ice cream and other vendors wondering when they can return to work and to the teams that shape so much of their lives.
This is the first Los Angeles Dodgers baseball season Roger Owens has missed in 63 years. Owens, a stadium vendor now in his late 70s, is a beloved and familiar sight at Dodger Stadium, where he has been slinging peanuts since he was 15 years old. His moniker says it all: Owens is the Peanut Man.
“It’s the flick of the wrist,” Owens said.
He first developed his signature pitch in 1962 when a hard-to-reach customer yelled at him to toss a bag of peanuts. Instinct told Owens to reach around his back and throw it underhanded to the man sitting in the second level behind home plate. Fans cheered as the peanuts soared through the air, and a star was born.
“I’m the only pitcher in the MLB making less than $1 million,” he joked. “We’re like a family out there.”
Like thousands of vendors throughout the country, Owens is forced to spend this baseball season at home. He continues to exercise and practice his pitch, but tossing a beanbag in the backyard isn’t the same as connecting with fans.
“People don’t realize how much joy and happiness I get when they have their young son or daughter and I can back-shot right into their hand,” he said.
Since the pandemic forced the abrupt suspension of professional sports, Owens has received countless calls and emails from other vendors and his regular customers wondering how the usually smiling Peanut Man is weathering the storm. He’s getting by, he said, but it’s anyone’s guess when he’ll sling peanuts again.
At a time when coronavirus continues to claim lives and the nation is reeling from civil unrest after George Floyd’s death, spectator sports would have been a welcome, if not necessary, distraction from the anxiety and pain that have characterized much of 2020. But instead of celebrating a return to normal, millions of people are left to wonder whether their old lives will ever resume.
“This pandemic has caused so much misery that nothing is certain anymore,” Owens said. “It’s difficult to comprehend what’s going to happen next.”
Professional sports have been on hiatus since early in the pandemic. The NBA suspended its 2019-20 season on March 12 after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. He apologized for endangering other players, officials and even fans by touching a microphone before realizing he was a carrier of the virus.
Vendor Nick Mamalis, 39, was working an MLB spring training game in Florida when he heard the news.
“I was crushed,” he said. “Essentially we lost all of our income within a minute’s time.”
Mamalis tried to apply for unemployment in Florida, but the system was backlogged, and he never made it through the application system. Instead, Mamalis took a job in an Amazon warehouse working 10-hour shifts. While it might help to pay the bills, Mamalis would rather be outdoors watching his favorite teams and selling drinks to fans.
His first big event was the 2007 Super Bowl in Miami, when the Indiana Colts beat the Chicago Bears. Since then, he has watched the Washington Nationals go to the World Series for the first time and visited stadiums up and down both coasts. Mamalis estimates that in 13 years of vending, he has attended more than 2,000 games.
“I consider baseball to be a staple,” he said. “I love spring training the best. It’s so much fun seeing people who are cooped up inside all winter and getting close to the players.”
During his first year vending, Mamalis was assigned to the top section of Tropicana Field, where the Tampa Bay Rays play. The Rays made it to the World Series in 2008 against the Philadelphia Phillies, and he still remembers shouting, cheering and celebrating with fans.
It was also in this top area, in Section 309, where Mamalis met his future wife and father-in-law.
“They used to call [my father-in-law] the Mayor of Section 309,” Mamalis said. “I celebrated with them so many times over the years.”
Vendors live not just for their favorite teams, but also for the fans who become friends even just for a game. The money is also good, and its loss is another punch to the gut as the coronavirus continues to batter the economy.
Dallas-based vendor David Hernandez Jr. had planned to retire this year after more than a decade of carrying 100-pound loads of beer up and down stadium steps. He hoped a Cowboys game would be his last, he said. It would be a fitting end to his career.
“I’ve been a part of everything,” said Hernandez, 43. “I love what I do.”
In 2015 he watched as the Ohio State Buckeyes won the college football national championship by beating the Oregon Ducks at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. He has sold beer at multiple Super Bowls and WrestleMania events and at more than a few country music concerts.
But his entire life changed with the coronavirus pandemic hit. Not only did Hernandez lose his vending gig, but he also lost three relatives.
“My aunt Dianne died on March 26, my grandmother died on April 24, and my aunt Rosie died two days later,” he said. “I had to watch their services on FaceTime. I couldn’t touch them one last time or get near them.”
Vending at Texas Rangers games helped Hernandez cope with the pain of losing his father in 2011. It distracted him momentarily from the grief and gave him a reason to smile even if it was just for a few hours. The fresh air, the exercise and the cheering fans were a much-needed tonic. But none of that is available this time around. Instead, Hernandez is living off unemployment and working as an Uber Eats driver on the side.
Even with the potential for baseball to return later this year if MLB and the players’ association reach a deal, Hernandez isn’t sure he can go back to vending right away.
“I don’t see going back until next year,” he said. “The risk we’re going to take — I’ve had people sneeze on me at games.”
Hernandez continues to have anxiety about catching COVID-19 as Texas reopens its economy. His wife is asthmatic, and they have a 4-year-old child. Recently, he went to the grocery store and saw it filled with people who weren’t wearing masks. He couldn’t bring himself to go inside.
“I just put my head on the steering wheel and cried,” Hernandez said.
Owens is also hesitant about vending during the pandemic. His age puts him in a high-risk group, and he can’t imagine yelling his signature peanut call while wearing a mask. Still, he remembers getting goose bumps while watching Sandy Koufax pitch a perfect game at Dodger Stadium in 1965 and experiencing “Fernandomania” as it swept Los Angeles when Mexican pitcher Fernando Valenzuela was in his prime.
These memories are more than just sports highlights to Owens. They are a way of life.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel if baseball were to open this year,” he said. “Next year, I just hope they have a vaccine.”