For as long as there have been the Tri-City Dust Devils, there has been Erik the Peanut Guy.
Erik, as you could probably guess, sells peanuts. He's served in that capacity ever since he began working for the Northwest League franchise during its inaugural 2001 campaign. But Erik -- last name Mertens -- isn't just working for peanuts. He also doubles as the Dust Devils' on-field emcee.
Whether slinging the sport's most iconic nut or refereeing a dizzying bat race, Erik is always decked out in a bow tie and personalized apron. He's one of Gesa Stadium's most well-known and well-liked denizens, featured on a schedule magnet in 2005 and immortalized in bobblehead form seven years later.
Erik loves baseball, loves the Dust Devils, loves Gesa Stadium, loves the fans and loves Washington's Tri-Cities community. And his enthusiasm is contagious.
"I grew up loving baseball, and the Tri-Cities is like the baseball mecca of Washington state," Erik said after the conclusion of Aug. 11's game against the Spokane Indians. "It's in the desert and we have over 300 days of sunshine a year. When people think of Washington they think 'gray and rainy' but here you can play most of the year."
Erik hails from Kennewick; the other two cities referenced in the "Tri-City" name are Richland and Pasco. Gesa Stadium, located in Pasco, opened in 1995 as the home of the independent league Tri-City Posse. The Dust Devils, currently the Class A Short Season affiliate of the San Diego Padres, took up occupancy in 2001.
"When it was announced that we were going to have an affiliated Minor League club, I was freaking out. 'We've finally got a Minor League team here!'" said Erik. "And that was the same summer my dad said, 'You've got to get a summer job.' So my buddy signed up as the peanut guy here and they needed a second peanut guy. So I worked with Johnny the Peanut Guy for two seasons. He has since moved on and I've remained. So this is my 16th season here, which is the 16th season for the Dust Devils to be around."
Johnny and Erik were more than just peanut guys that first season.
"We led the cheers, we were on the dugouts dancing. He and I both juggled so we would juggle at the front gates. He would bring his guitar. We were kind of like the de facto mascots. Like, 'This is what you get.'"
When actually selling peanuts, Erik worked to further cement his rapport with the fans.
"I'm not one of those [vendors] who can go behind the back and hit people 25 rows up," he said. "I tried that. Failed miserably. Hit a few people in the face. Spilled beers. So I tried to come up with really cheesy one-liners that will get people laughing. Because if you can get someone to laugh, they'll pay attention."
All of this made Erik a natural fit to transition to the on-field emcee position, a role he's filled for the past 14 seasons. But he's stayed true to his roots throughout, hawking peanuts over the last third of the ballgame.
"[Erik the Peanut Guy] is kind of this persona I've created over the years," he said. "And it is me, but it's like this amped-up, caffeinated, super-fan version of me."
He continued, "And I really do love Minor League Baseball, how it brings the whole community together. Because in one section you'll have a principal, a janitor, one of the mayors of the three cities, someone who just got laid off and someone's 89-year-old great-grandmother. Everyone's here! Rooting for the hometown team. So I love that. I will genuinely come talk to people, and if that moves to a sale, then it does. But my main job, really, is to do the on-field promos and then wander around the stands and chat with people."
Now in his mid-30s, Erik currently lives in Spokane and works as an alumni and young adult minister at Gonzaga University. But he has his summers off, allowing him to be back in the Tri-Cities throughout the Dust Devils' season (the team begins play in mid-June and ends in early September). But regardless of the circumstances, he's intent on maintaining his 'Peanut Guy' persona for as long as possible.
"My plan is to be here until I need a walker to sell peanuts," he said. "And even then I will be here. Yeah, I will be here."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter