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At the top of his game Buy me some . . .: For Howard Hart -- and other people who make their living at Camden Yards -- yesterday's Opening Day was New Year's. And if it's a very good year, Mr. Hart will again be the top-earning vendor.

Friends keep asking Howard Hart "What are you going to do, what are you going to do?" As if life won't unfold in endless baseball seasons, as if something better waits beyond the ballpark and the beer. Mr. Hart, who has been the top-earning vendor at Camden Yards since the place opened, says "I'm going to do what I'm going to do. I don't think about the long term. I never have."

In the world of Howard Hart there is only Opening Day of his 15th season as an Oriole vendor. Some people who work here are inclined to greet each other with "Happy New Year." He says "They have the right idea, 'Happy New Year.' "

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The year begins here, he says, when he comes to work for the first time, says hello to the ushers at the gates, the cops, the guy he calls Big Dog at his grill stand outside the park, the people in the laundry room and his fellow vendors. The other vendors are social workers and bankers, teachers and students, artists, house painters, laboratory technicians. Most have something else going full-time or part-time. Howard Hart has made no other arrangements.

Look on the right-field side for a 43-year-old man with longish brown hair and a mustache schlepping three cases of beer at a time up and down the field-level aisles, barking his pitch in a voice that sounds like he scooped a fistful of dirt from the batter's box and gargled with it. Maybe the rasp is from vending, maybe from talking. And talking. Starting a conversation with Mr. Hart is like getting on a train that might or might not stop.

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He's been reading a little Buddhism and might talk about that. He might tell about his place in the mountainous western corner of North Carolina where you can sit out front and hear nothing but "the creek and the wind and the leaves." Of course he'll talk about baseball, the ballpark and "the greatest job in the world."

Yes, he means being a beer guy.

"I've been blessed, because of the job and the association that I have with baseball, that when people see me they associate me with a pleasant experience. And it's wonderful."

People stop him on the street. They think maybe he'll remember them and that game and that great play at shortstop and the good time that it was. Once on the boardwalk in Ocean City, N.J., Mr. Hart says, a guy stopped him, said, " 'You sold me and some buddies beer. You remember me?' 'I'm sorry buddy,' I say, 'but I sold a lot of things to a lot of people. I don't really remember specifically. Maybe you can help me out.'

"And he was like telling me about this game, 'Oh, it was a great game.' And he's describing details of it. And I realize I triggered this memory bank."

When he puts on the Camden green apron and matching cap and goes to work, all of a sudden he's not just peddling beer, he's part of the scene. He's part of Baltimore baseball.

"He's not just a vendor, he's a baseball fanatic, he is very knowledgeable," says Robert Wancowicz, a Forest Hill accountant and season ticket holder to whom Mr. Hart sells the first Budweiser of 1996. He's referring to Mr. Hart's practice of playing baseball trivia with fans. Used to give away beers for a correct answer. That was before beer went to $3.50 a can.

Part-time job at first

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Mr. Hart has been on the scene since May 1982, two weeks before Cal Ripken Jr. started his consecutive games streak. It was a part- time job then and barely paid at all. His first day selling sodas in the upper deck of Memorial Stadium he brought home $16.22.

He left Catonsville Community College a few credits shy of graduation and moved from job to job before he discovered the ballpark work and stayed with it. Making a career of being a vendor, he says, "never really was a conscious decision. It sort of worked out that I could make it if I hustled, if I work college games and Redskins games and Maryland games."

He spends the season staying with friends and in-laws in Baltimore and driving nine hours down to see his wife, Patricia at their place in Bakersville, N.C. He makes the trip in a Buick with 152,000 miles on it that he inherited from his grandfather. The car is strewn with clothes, newspapers, copies of the New Yorker. On the back seat is a collection of three John Updike novels in one volume. "Got it for a quarter at a Goodwill," he says.

He lives lean and has to, he says. Being a beer man is a labor of love for Mr. Hart, another American man whose romantic notions about baseball have devolved into a love-hate relationship. The strikes have soured him, and he doesn't like the way the players jump from team to team. The hype bothers him and so does the booming music between innings and during pitching changes. He's not the fan he once was, but still.

Listen to him talk about the first time he saw the field at Memorial Stadium, lighted on a night in June 1961: "It's so cliched but it's true . . . I remember seeing that baseball field lit up at night and oh my God it was so beautiful. So surreal. It was sort of like when you see an aquarium."

There in spirit

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Eight-year-old Howard was there with his father, also named Howard, a bus driver and truck driver who raised his family in Glen Burnie. His father never lived to see Cal break Lou Gehrig's record, but his son was there in the ballpark that night last September, carrying in his pocket rosary beads his father had givenhim. As Cal trotted around the warning track reaching for hand after hand, Mr. Hart reached into his pocket to hold the beads.

"I thought of my father, I really did," says Mr. Hart, who has three grown children from two marriages. "He was a great guy. He was a hard worker and he was friendly and he loved baseball."

His blue eyes well up. And they do again when he tells about how Mr. Wancowicz's 7-year-old son, Andy, once gave him five baseball cards. And when he tells about "Pop" Reid, the old vendor who was still trying to scratch together a few dollars that last season at Memorial Stadium, dragging up and down the aisles. He was probably in his 60s, perhaps older.

"It was really sad to see that," says Mr. Hart.

He'll be 44 when this season ends, not the oldest vendor in the park nor the one with the most experience, but close. He has been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease. A doctor says he should have it checked with an arthroscopic exam, but that's not likely. He has no health insurance. Stand next to him when he bends to set his beer racks on the ballpark steps and if it's very quiet you can hear his knees go crackle-pop.

He's No. 1 in sales in the park and has been since the last season at Memorial Stadium. He can pull in more than $300 on a good night, selling more than 20 cases of beer. But for how much longer?

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"I don't know, I've been No. 1 a long time. I don't feel like fighting it," he says. "I mean, I haven't felt like fighting it for years but every time the bell rings I go out and slug it out. There's always a challenge and there always will be a challenge and I can't stay No. 1 forever. . . . It's an athletic endeavor. I'm wearing out some. I really have."

He's not complaining. He's trying not to worry too much about his knees, his ankles or the competition from younger vendors. He doesn't know what's to come in a year or two. He knows this: It's Opening Day. The sun is shining. Life is good.

Pub Date: 4/03/96



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