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Beer is as much a part of baseball as a tug on the crotch. Perhaps the only thing left out of Ken Burns’ eternal documentary on the game was how neglectful “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” really is. How could a song about a day at the ballpark, a song heralded as our national pastime’s unofficial anthem, not contain a single mention of beer? Had Burns sicked his bookish historians on the subject, maybe they could have found proof that the beer parts had been edited out. That would explain why the tune’s protagonist, ostensibly a guy who’d introduced only “peanuts and Cracker Jack” into his system, still declares, “I don’t care if I ever get back!” It’s beer, not the salty or sweet snacks mentioned in the song, that causes bleacher bums to lose all care. And it’s beer the baseball crowd spends its money on.
“You can’t make a living selling peanuts at baseball games,” states Perry Hahn, a thinking man’s beer man and somebody who really does make a living selling suds to sports fans. The 34-year-old Riverdale resident has poured more than a quarter-million cold ones in his Orioles vending career, now in its 14th year. Most have gone to quench an Average Joe’s thirst, but Hahn has also responded to the “I love you, man!” call from luminaries like Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (“He refused to show me his ID,” smirks Hahn), Tip O’Neill (“I never saw him actually drink one”), and Oliver North.
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It was during the 1989 season that Hahn was force-fed the beer/baseball symbiosis. That was the “Why Not?” year, when the O’s disregarded dismal preseason expectations and stayed in the pennant race until the last weekend. The overachieving team drew far larger crowds to Memorial Stadium than management had prepared for. That meant the vending staff—particularly those who sold beer in the stands—had to play short-handed.
“It was so frustrating to have so many fans wanting beer and not being able to serve them,” Hahn recalls. “I literally couldn’t open cans fast enough to accommodate them all that year.”
Before ’89, Hahn had always assumed he was stuck with the standard punch ’n’ pour method of beer dispensing, in which vendors poke two holes in the top of a can using the same triangle-tipped apparatus (a “church key” opener, in vending parlance) that we all have in our houses. “I wasn’t that good with the church key,” says Hahn. “I had to find a better way.”
Hahn, who has a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Maryland, set out to better his serving rate. That quest ended with the awarding of a U.S. Patent 5, 228, 203 for what the feds labeled the “Tandem High-Speed Can Opener.” Hahn’s brainchild extracts the tops of two 12-ounce cans of beer simultaneously. The enlarged opening cuts the can-to-cup transfer time to next to nothing.
Hahn wears the appliance on his wrist and powers it with a six-pack (what else?) of C batteries. He debuted the device on the day of the O’s’ last game at Memorial Stadium, and he hasn’t complained about not being fast enough to serve the thirsty masses since. “I can now open and pour a case of beer in 60 seconds if I have to,” he says without a hint of boastfulness.
And he can earn a decent wage doing it. Along with the steady and lucrative Camden Yards gig, Hahn (dubbed “Robovendor” by those who regularly patronize the stadium’s cheap seats) also sells beer at Redskins, Bowie Baysox, and D.C. United games, major horse-racing events, and “anything else that will fit into my schedule.” Each venue sets its own scheme to pay vendors. At Camden Yards, where the top 30 vendors retail beer, sellers get 15 percent of the take from the first 15 cases, 17 percent of every additional cup o’ foam moved.
“I invariably make the 15-case quota every game,” he says.
Since beers go for $3.50 a pop in the stands…well, do the math. Even without the tips, that’s a damn healthy hourly rate.
When not working the aisles, Hahn spends his time devising ways to make a buck selling the vending device. So far, he’s run into nothing but dead ends. “It would be great to get the opener manufactured,” he shrugs. “But the sad fact is there aren’t enough stadium vendors out there to justify the tooling cost. I’m still trying, though.”
Hahn has designed a less-industrial model of the can opener that he hopes will appeal to tailgaters, frat boys, and others who fancy novelty power-drinking trinkets. The fact that his target market is less highbrow than high-brew—that the chief byproduct of all his engineering studies will hopefully be stocked on the same shelf as the infamous beer bong—seems to be a source of some embarrassment for the inventor. But Hahn is nevertheless trying to “put together” the estimated $100,000 it will take to have the first run of 1,000 can openers manufactured.
Until the assembly line gets rolling, the only vendors able to use the device will be Hahns: Perry’s younger brothers Dan’l and J. Jay, who are also very successful beer men at Camden Yards. One of the brothers actually outsells the elder Hahn—it’s a young person’s racket.
Though the fans at the stadium can’t seem to get enough of Hahn’s contraption, not everybody in the vending crowd there thinks it’s a better mousetrap. For the past several seasons, Howard Hart, who swears he’ll never stray from the church key, has been the most prolific beer man at Camden Yards. Hart pledges he’ll always outsell the technologically advanced Hahn boys by out-hustling them. To Hart’s way of thinking, Hahn’s device, which he derisively refers to as “that thing,” is further proof of the decline of Western civilization, or at least the game of baseball.
“I consider that thing to be in the same league as artificial turf, the aluminum bat, and domed stadiums!” rants Hart. “The simple ‘pop’ of a beer can at a baseball game is a beautiful sound, and the sound you get when you pour a beer is very pretty, too. But you lose those with that thing! It’s like losing the crack of a ball against a wooden bat, and I regard it as an aberration, just like hearing the ‘ping’ of an aluminum bat when you watch a college or high-school ballgame. I hate it!”
Hahn laughs off Hart’s reproach. Even if no market for the invention ever materializes—well, he didn’t design that thing for others in the first place. So, he’ll still be satisfied with the extra income and notoriety he and his brothers have already derived from using the wondrous opener.
“Whatever happens happens, and I’ll be fine with it,” Hahn says. “To tell you the truth, I mostly just wish I had 1989 back.”—Dave McKenna