In a normal, non-pandemic summer, from Thursday through Sunday, Hal Gordon (aka Hal the Hot Dog Guy) hits the stairs during A’s games at the Oakland Coliseum. The 32-year-old San Francisco resident does it toting an extra 53 pounds: Strapped to his neck is a full hot dog buffet, loaded up with 36 weenies, metal canisters with a variety of mustards and ketchup, and an array of standard toppings (relish, onion, kraut). Fans love him almost as much as they love the rest of the game. “I started making baseball cards of myself last year," he says. "If somebody goes, ‘You’re my favorite hot dog vendor,’ I’ll [give them one]. With little kids, it’ll make their day.”
But then, there was summer 2020. And the Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been vending hot dogs for major league baseball for 15 years, lost not only contact with fans, the excitement of the ballpark, and his means of staying in shape. He, like so many others, lost his summer source of income.
His big concern, however, wasn't really any of that. It was the other vendors at the ballpark. "Vendors have definitely been some of the hardest hit workers by COVID," he says. "It's seasonal work, so vendors who depend on baseball—by far the most lucrative vending sport—are used to making a large amount of money during the summer and then using that to get by on the lean times from October to March. Vendors who are used to making a thousand dollars or more a week at the ball game are now living off a fraction of that." Some people who have jobs in addition to vending weren't eligible for unemployment benefits.
Gordon had other work through the University this summer but wasn't content with that. He missed baseball. Missed vending. And apparently fans missed him too—perhaps never more than this October as the A’s steamed into the post-season with their stadium still empty. Well, it was not entirely vacant: This year, the team allowed people to buy cardboard cutouts of themselves that got placed around the stadium with the proceeds benefiting local charities, including a community food bank. The A’s even added their own stand-up of Hal the Hot Dog Guy to keep things feeling authentic. "One thing that has been heartening is the amount of fans reaching out on social media telling me how much they miss buying hot dogs from me or their own favorite vendors," Gordon says.
A winning play
Hearing the roar of those fans over social media gave Gordon an idea. "I was able to do some fundraising using my Twitter account when the season was first cancelled. I offered to send Hal the Hot Dog Guy baseball cards to anyone who donated to my GoFundMe campaign for out-of-work vendors," he says. "I raised more than $9,000 and was able to send each union vendor in the Bay Area a check for $285. It's not much, but hopefully it let people know that they are missed and appreciated."
Fans aren't the only ones who get how essential to baseball the vendors are. In addition to adding Hal the Hot Dog Guy and the sea of faux fans in Oakland Coliseum stand ups, the A’s tapped Tom Hanks, who worked as a vendor at there while in high school to record get-yer-hot-dog! calls that they mix into the game audio on TV. At least one Hot Dog Guy mockup even earned prime real estate: The team put a cutout of Tom Hanks as a vendor right behind home plate to be seen during each pitch.
It's not just about the game
Gordon says he can't wait to eventually get back to the Coliseum for so many reasons, including the physicality of the job. In between running up and down concourses (he estimates he would take 8,340 steps in a regular game-day shift at the Oakland Coliseum), he’d bend down to pass dogs to seated patrons. That’s a lot of squats. “You have to lift with your legs,” he says. “Sometimes I’ve worn a back brace to remind myself to not jerk when I’m pulling stuff up.” He’d also sport kneepads to safely take a knee when needed. “You have to take care of yourself,” he says.
To that end, he’s learned to stay hydrated and take inventive rest breaks. “I’ll drink two or three liters of water during a game. Between every load of hot dogs, I’ll walk into the freezer where they keep the ice cream and just stand there for five minutes to recover.”
Staying fit without access to a Major League stadium has been difficult this season: "I won't lie, it has been a bit of a struggle with my annual routine completely uprooted and gyms closed," he says. "I always viewed the 'enforced' exercise of my vending job as a feature of that job, and so losing that also resulted in losing the way I kept in shape every year. That being said, I have been replacing it with lots of cardio—when the skies aren't filled with forest fire smoke.”
When he is able to run outdoors, he aims to maximize the elevation changes of San Francisco’s hills to simulate his endless game-day stair climbs. “I mix in some lunges and some heel raises each week to keep the legs strong," he says. (MH tip: You can build your own hip mobility and quad strength at home with the kneel-to-stand. Kneel on your shins, core and glutes tight. Lift your right leg and put your right foot on the ground. Shift your weight to the right leg and place your left foot on the ground. Stand. Reverse the moves to the start. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 8 to 10.)
For Gordon, there’s no substitute for the ballpark experience. "I can't wait to get back to sweating and hollering in the seats," he says. "But I am also worried vendors may be the last part that comes back to stadiums. People walking in between fans who are trying to socially distance, serving them food without being able to wash hands between each transaction, and maybe most importantly, yelling and projecting our voices all seems like some of the riskiest post-COVID activities." With his donation drive at least, he still managed to serve up a way for people to help each other and keep hope.
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