Ken Holtzman walked into Riley Park before the 1997 baseball season for a job interview with the Charleston RiverDogs.
By the numbers
3: Beer men who serve customers at The Joe on a Friday night
9: Bottles of wine sold on a typical night
50: Kegs consumed on a “Thirsty Thursday”
98: Cups of beer in a keg
500: Cans of 24-ounce beers sold on a Fireworks Friday
Josh Shea, food and beverage manager for the RiverDogs
He told the RiverDogs’ food and beverage manager, “I’m Ken Holtzman. I’m from New Jersey and I’ve got a big mouth. I want to be your beer man.”
The RiverDogs’ official said, “You’re hired.”
Sixteen years later, “Ken the Beer Man” is still serving up cold ones at the Joe. The affable 54-year-old native of the Garden State carries his tub that weighs 35 pounds when loaded with ice and 24-ounce cold beers.
“Ice cold beer here,” he bellows. “Get your ice cold beer here.”
He’s become a walking fixture at the Joe. He works the crowd, stopping to chat with fans he’s known for more than a decade.
“He not only brings beer to the fans, he brings a baseball experience to them,” said RiverDogs food and beverage manager Josh Shea. “He’s loud and gets people excited. To Ken, it’s all about customer service. And he’s a team player. He just doesn’t try to sell beer. If we have a special on food, he pitches it too.”
He’s a part of the RiverDogs’ family and was even featured on ESPN when the sports network did a feature on one of the RiverDogs’ wacky promotions, “Nobody Night,” in 2002.
Only employees, scouts and media representatives were allowed to enter the stadium on “Nobody Night,” a promotion designed to set the record for professional baseball’s lowest attendance.
“I served phantom beers to phantom customers,” Holtzman recalls. “That’s something I won’t forget.”
There’s been plenty to remember. Like the night he had his closest encounter with a foul ball.
“I’ve seen fans have their teeth knocked out, their skulls busted,” Holtzman said. “But I’ve never been hit. One night I poured a beer into a cup and was handing it to the fan. That’s when it happened. The foul ball knocked the beer from my hand just as I was giving it to the customer.”
Times are changing
When Ken Holtzman first started hawking suds at the Joe, he got a 10 percent commission, plus tips. Today, he’s on the clock.
And that’s not the only change he’s seen. Today there’s plenty of competition from inside the stadium — the RiverDogs sell $2 pints at one of the concession stands.
“That puts a hurt on me because I’m charging $6 for 24 ounces,” Holtzman said. “And then there’s Thirsty Thursday. The whole College of Charleston comes here and they have a DJ. The kids stand in line for a dollar beer, get tired of standing in line and end up buying one from me. That makes my job a little better.”
Thirsty Thursdays have provided Holtzman some humorous memories. One included a halter-top-clad woman who had one cold one too many and ended up dancing on the dugout roof.
A RiverDogs’ executive, dressed in a suit, asked Holtzman to go down to the dugout and ask the woman to get off the roof.
“She obliged,” Holtzman said.
He then gave her $20. “See that man wearing the suit up there?” he said he told her. “Go up and pull your halter top up.”
Not all of the memories are humorous. He didn’t quit his day job to be a beer man. He was fired.
“I worked as a delivery man for a linen service in Myrtle Beach for three years,” Holtzman said. “One year they came down for Opening Night and fired me the next day. They said they needed me to work past 7 o’clock. My wife said I was crazy, but I told her she didn’t understand. I have my wife, my kids and the RiverDogs family. Nothing comes between them.”
One final season
Two years ago, Holtzman’s wife, Julia, suffered a major stroke. The medical bills took their toll. The couple lost their house and the $100,000 in their bank account because they didn’t have insurance.
Holtzman spent his days caring for his wife, and said it took a toll on him.
“It aged me,” he said. “I had no idea how hard it was to care for someone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But I love her.”
Last October, Holtzman’s daughter and son-in-law built an addition to their house and asked the Holtzmans to move in.
He moved nearly five hours from Charleston, but couldn’t fathom giving up his job as the beer man. He makes the commutes when the RiverDogs have a home stand.
“Red Roof Inn gave me a real good deal,” Holtzman said. “That’s where I stay. I couldn’t do it without them.”
Like the minor league players, Holtzman dreamed of reaching the big leagues. It’s a dream that will go unfulfilled.
RiverDogs executive Mike Veeck tried to arrange for Holtzman to go to Yankee Stadium for a one-night stand as a beer man, but the organization couldn’t work it out because of insurance issues.
He’s decided this will be his last season serving suds to the fans.
“I can’t even think about not being here,” Holtzman said as he wiped a tear from his eye. “It upsets me.”