And here's the pitch: a pea-nutty, split-fingered two-bagger

Peanut vendor Roger Owens is known for his antics and on-targettosses.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The first throw had bounced off his outstretched arm for an error, so when given a second chance, six-year-old Robbie Johnson made like Mike Piazza and presented an enticing target.

The next pitch sailed right into his glove. There were smiles all around, including from the pitcher, right-hander Roger Owens - known as the Peanut Man at Dodger Stadium, where on this night fans were watching the Dodgers play the Giants.

He was about to close a sale on yet another bag of peanuts - No. 2 million and something, he figures, in his 41-year career as a peanut vendor.

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But there's a snag. The kid has no money. He turns to his dad. "Don't you get an allowance?" the Peanut Man asks.

"Yeah, I get $10 a month," Robbie answers back.

"$10 a month! That's pretty good," says the Peanut Man. "I work for peanuts."

Of all the peanut vendors in baseball, Owens may be the pea-nuttiest. He's certainly the most famous, having appeared on national television about a dozen times, including four appearances on "The Tonight Show."

He even has pitched peanuts for Jimmy Carter, another famous peanut man, at the former president's 1977 inauguration party. When the Dodgers are out of town, you can find Owens pitching peanuts at county fairs, minor-league games, conventions, and parties. He claims to hold the single-game record for selling peanuts - 2,400 bags in 1976 at a Dallas Cowboys football game at Texas Stadium.

But Dodger Stadium is and always has been Owens's primary stage. It was here as a teenager that Owens developed a style of tossing peanuts to fans from every direction - including under the legs and around the back. He's even got a one-handed splitter - two bags at once, each sailing into the hands of a different customer.

"It's important when you're pitching peanuts to size up the person you're throwing to," he says, without a smile. "The trick is to not only get it to them, but make sure you get it to them so they can hang onto it."

There are hundreds of copy-cat peanut vendors spread around America today, and some have even gone on to earn the "Peanut Man" moniker.

But there's nothing like the original, and Owens, the oldest of nine children born to a poor Baptist minister in Los Angeles, is an original, laboring with grace and enthusiasm in the shadow of millionaire baseball players.

How many other peanut vendors have prepaid customers, some shelling out as much as $2,000 at the start of the season just to ensure that they'll get a bag of peanuts pitched their way at every game?

Owens, by day a sales representative for a trucking company, works the same section of Dodger Stadium night after night: Loge Level (one level above the lower box seats), third-base side. As the No. 1 vendor on the seniority list, he gets first choice of what to sell and where to sell it.

The vendor badge pinned to his striped cotton shirt reads "Roger No. 3,436." "That's how many events I've worked, but not counting this year," he says proudly. "The rookies look at the number and shudder."

Vendors at Dodger Stadium have their choice among peanuts, soda, cotton candy, pizza, ice cream, and bottled water. Everything else is sold only at the concession stands.

But Owens has never wavered from "peanuts, third-base loge," even though on a hot day he could probably do better selling soda somewhere else.

"Good or bad, I'll never leave my section," he says. "There are so many fans who count on me."

Pity the poor rookie vendor who is 100th, and last, in line.

"He's probably selling bottled water up there in the red seats," Owens says, pointing to a steep fourth tier of seats high above home plate that rarely fills up. "We call that the jailhouse. That's tough work."

Vendors at Dodger Stadium buy their product from a stadium commissary, turn in their sales revenue at the end of the game, and later receive a commission check by mail. Owens buys 10 cases, with 24 bags of 1/2-pound salted peanuts to a case, loads them onto a homemade dolly and wheels them to his section.

No one helps Owens stack or carry his cases of peanuts. He labors alone, and he has competition to worry about - big James Simon, who has shared the third-base loge territory with Owens for 17 years.

It's a warm night, the Dodgers are on a losing streak, big James is working hard, and the crowd may not be in a buying mood.

The Peanut Man breaks out the A material early.

"It's $3 if you catch it, and $5 if you drop it," he hollers up to a fan about 12 rows up. "Don't make me look bad, now."

"You got any money tonight? I need some money," the Peanut Man shouts to Bill Cook of Torrance, Calif., a customer of 23 years - then he hits him in the hands with five bags in a row.

Owens goes around the back to a large man in a Cubs hat who may not be familiar with how money gets collected - and it always does get collected. "Don't get up," he yells over to the large fan. "I'm coming to your office."

And so it goes, into the night.

The splitter is working, and his best lines seem to be, too. By the third inning, he is well on his way to selling his 10 cases.

"You're seeing peanut history being made tonight," he says.

Aside from that, everything else was pretty much status quo. The fans arrived late, the fans left early, the Dodgers lost.

And Roger Owens pitched another perfect game.

*Seventh in a Tuesday series.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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