By day, Matt Jackson works for the Reading Phillies as the team's director of graphic arts and game entertainment. But when game time rolls around, he morphs into something else entirely.
In the second inning of each and every home game, Jackson dons a wig, white paper hat, black-framed glasses, and a vertically-striped red and white shirt. He then slings a bag of hot dogs over his arm, jumps atop his loyal ostrich Rodrigo, and enters the playing field amidst sheer pandemonium at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Matt Jackson is gone now. In his place is the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor (CHDV from here on out, for brevity's sake).
Over the last six seasons, the CHDV has evolved from a bizarre curiosity into a bona fide ballpark phenomenon. Young ostrich-riding acolytes show up at the stadium in full CHDV regalia, often in order to obtain one of the now-common giveaways that are distributed in his honor. Recent seasons have seen CHDV bobbleheads, pillowcases, lunchboxes and much more.
But all of this paled in comparison to what occurred on Sunday, as the R-Phils staged a blowout tribute to the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor. The team took the field wearing what were certainly the most ridiculous theme jerseys of the year -- featuring the signature red and white stripes and bow tie - and front-office employees were decked out in black glasses and white paper hats. The evening's giveaway item was, not surprisingly, CHDV t-shirts.
"I love it!" said Jackson when asked about the CHDV mania that has overtaken Reading. "The fans are the best, because it's not always easy to put that costume on and go out there during a seven-game homestand in the middle of the summer. But once I hit the field and hear the screaming, it's worth it."
And there was plenty of screaming on Sunday. The Crazy Hot Dog Vendor's day began at 4:30 (90 minutes before game time) when more than 100 members of the team's "Kid's Club" assembled behind home plate for a question and answer session with the man himself. The kids asked everything from "How old is Rodrigo?" to "How many hot dogs have you thrown into the crowd?" while learning that, at his core, the CHDV is simply a man who "likes adventuring, traveling to different lands and looking for new animals to ride."
Each Kid's Club member tossed a gummy hot dog to their parents while standing alongside the CHDV. Twelve especially enthusiastic young fans, sporting homemade costumes and improvised ostriches (a pool noodle, in one case), then joined him for an on-field pregame performance. I tagged along during this portion of the afternoon, riding a spare ostrich while wearing a hot dog-shaped tie (All I can say is that throwing hot dogs into the crowd is hard work, especially when riding a flightless bird).
Next up was the CHDV's regularly-scheduled second-inning appearance, which was followed by an autograph and photo session in the midway area located beneath and behind the first-base line. The extended celebrity treatment continued until the seventh-inning stretch, during which the CHDV briefly eschewed the ostrich in order to pedal a singing usher around the perimeter of the playing field.
It's not a coincidence that the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor has reached such dizzying heights in Reading, as the team's front office goes out of its way to create and promote ballpark characters. The net effect is that each game seems like an episode of a warped sitcom, populated by likeable yet deeply idiosyncratic characters. Joining the CHDV is dancing superfan (and rising ballpark star) Disco Briscoe, a quartet of vegetable racers, the Mascot Band (all of whom actually play instruments), the aforementioned singing usher, and many, many more.
But, for now, the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor reigns supreme in the R-Phils universe. Oftentimes, the attainment of celebrity status can result in a jaded attitude and resentment over being pigeon-holed, but that certainly isn't the case here.
"I still can't believe it," said Jackson, of the still-growing CHDV phenomenon. "Everywhere I go I see kids with [Crazy Hot Dog Vendor] t-shirts...Why wouldn't you love it?"