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Original Issue

Beer Here!

At Busch Stadium, the house that brews built, the MVPs--most valuable pourers--are the guys who bring thirsty fans their suds

Really, given how beer-soaked we are as a people, you might expect more sporting temples with beer names. Anyway, there are three, all from baseball: Coors Field, Miller Park and the oldest of them, Busch Stadium, where the St. Louis Cardinals will host the San Diego Padres in the playoffs this week. When Busch opened in 1966, a young man named Selong Smith was there selling soda. The following year, when he turned 21, he moved up to Budweiser, less than a buck for a 12-ounce bottle. Last weekend, when the Cards played their final regular-season games at the first of the downtown flying-saucer-style stadiums, Smitty was still a beer guy. These days he sells King Bud--and a variety of other Anheuser-Busch products--in 16-ounce cans poured into paper cups, at $6.25 a pop.

The Busch family, former owners of the Cardinals, got filthy rich off their breweries, but there's a lot of trickle down when it comes to beer. Beerman Smith, 59 and retired from a government job, grew up in a St. Louis project and now lives in an immaculate one-story house with a perfect lawn in a suburb where his wife bought him a curio to display his collection of Cardinals bobblehead dolls. Beer guys everywhere--the term includes the gals, of course--make out all right. And why shouldn't they? They perform a valuable service. Your throat is dry, the night is warm, your team has runners on ... and the beer comes to you. At Busch the standard tip is 75 cents for a can and the vendors' commission is 10%. You can sell $1,000 worth of beer even on a cold rainy night if you hustle, and last weekend was warm and dry in St. Louis. Smith's personal best, financially, was when he sold $4,008 worth of suds on Opening Day 2004.

Beer is generational in St. Louis. Jeannie Brown and her daughter Jeannette were nursing tall ones during Saturday's matinee. Of course 14 bucks for two pops is outrageous, "but when you come to the ballpark, you got to have a beer," Jeannie said. She had her first tiny sips as a young girl with her father during ball games, late in the Stan Musial era. Tradition, tradition.

Tony La Russa knows almost as much about beer consumption patterns as Selong Smith, which is saying something. He's done managing stints in two great Midwestern beer capitals, Chicago and now St. Louis. "Friday nights at the old Comiskey Park were infamous," La Russa said. "They started drinking when they got off work at five, and they were full throttle by seven. They were either real happy--or real upset."

And the beer guys know the game. Last Saturday morning, waiting at a backside stadium entrance for the boss lady to check them in, Smitty and a small group of beermen analyzed the National League wild-card race. The putrid smell of soggy stadium trash fouled the air. "I don't want to play no Philadelphia," one said. Another beer guy was eating a chicken sandwich and offering bites to anyone. Another was dropping fresh chew behind his lower lip. They all had tired eyes. Friday nights will wear you out. "Them Phillies dogged us all year."

Smitty now works a "portable" --a temporary stand--near gate 4. He keeps score by fan reaction. Baseball is his business. When Mark McGwire broke the single-season home run record in '98, it was good for business. Lou Brock's stealing third, back in the day, was more memorable for him. So were the Beatles, when they played Busch. "It was just girls, girls, girls and screaming, screaming, screaming," says Smith, who has a fine baritone. Many of the beer guys are melodic. The vendor working section 260 at Busch last Saturday afternoon in the top of the sixth was tunefully working this call line: icecoldicecoldicecold, ice cold beer, here!

All of them do the beerman workout. It involves a lot of bending over to pick up cases, grabbing two or three or four six-packs with 10 fingers, slicing giant ice bags with one's index finger, with the "walkers" hauling two cases on a plastic tray with no shoulder straps up and down steps. It is all in the name of making money and in the service of us.

At Busch, the beer stops flowing in the middle of the eighth. James Scott, a veteran Busch beerman, made his final sale for the night, returned his extras, cashed out and went home. He's 69, and he'll work one more year so he can have one season, at the even age of 70, at the new Busch Stadium, which is being built a pop fly from the old one. When he left on Saturday evening, counting his take for the day, he was still wearing his apron and he still had a can opener tied to his left wrist on a string. His back was stooped, and his walk was a shuffle. Selong Smith watched him go and said, "That's inspiring." Smith's moving to the new Busch too.

Then he headed out, leaving behind long postgame lines at the men's and women's rooms. As they say on TV, it's all about the beer.

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