If you’ve attended Rochester Red Wings games at Frontier Field, you’ve probably seen and heard Tom Girot in action. Like big-birded baseball mascots Spikes and Mittsy, he’s impossible to miss. Sporting a rubbery, pointy Conehead headpiece inspired by an old Saturday Night Live skit and a No. 88 jersey (for the year he started working Wings games), Girot hawks beers, peanuts, popcorn and Cracker Jack with attention-grabbing flair. While lugging his 65-pound bin of goodies through the stands, he revels in bellowing his catchy guarantee: “Get a warm beer from me, you drink for free.”
Girot peddled his first beers at a Buffalo Braves NBA exhibition game at the old Buffalo Aud in 1972. Six years later, after his wife and friends dressed up as Coneheads at a Halloween party, he decided to don the head gear while selling beer at a Bills home game. The garb helped him stand out in a crowd and his legend took off. In recent years, he’s been celebrated with nights in his honor and even his own brand of brew. This season — if there is one — the Wings plan to fete him with a Conehead bobblehead giveaway.
All fitting tributes to a man who truly is the Sultan of Suds, the Baron of Brewskis, the Colossus of Cold Ones, and the Harbinger of Hops.
“Some people tell me I’m an institution,’’ Girot joked over the phone from his Buffalo home the other day. “I tell them I probably belong in one.”
He loves being around people, loves working the crowd, loves contributing to an arena’s ambience. And that’s what makes this coronavirus pandemic shutdown so difficult for him to handle. The social distancing is driving him batty.
When the National Hockey League recently suspended its season, Girot lost his income from vending Sabres home games at Buffalo’s Key Bank Center. But the loss of money hasn’t been the hardest part, even though the 64-year-old was forced to apply for unemployment for the first time in his life. The toughest part was not being around the fans, many of whom have become friends through the years. “I’m the type of person who will sit down next to a total stranger in a bar, and within five or six minutes, we’re friends,’’ he said. “I love being around people. The more, the merrier. And I love going to games. There’s no substitute for being there, so, this has been a double-whammy. I’m at a loss.”
He’s not alone.
By his estimates, he has poured nearly two million beers during more than 7,000 games in nearly a half century of vending. He was looking forward to the final stretch of the Sabres’ season and next month’s scheduled start of the baseball season — which called for him to log thousands of Thruway miles while working a combined total of 110 Wings and Buffalo Bisons home games. That was to include a handful of doubleheaders in which Girot would work games in Rochester and Buffalo on the same day.
Now everything is up in the air. The Conehead headdresses made famous by comedians Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin in the late 1970s sit on a shelf in the basement of Girot’s home. When they will be worn again is anyone’s guess, as we deal with the rapid spread of COVID-19. “I completely support social distancing,’’ he said. “But it’s tough. I own a few apartments that I work on during the day. Right now, I essentially go there and occasionally to Home Depot for supplies or the grocery store for food. That’s it. Very little human contact.”
He and his wife wile away the hours, babysitting their three grandchildren, binge-watching movies, and drinking some of the wine they’ve accumulated during numerous vineyard tours in the Finger Lakes and Niagara regions. “You can go stir crazy after a while,’’ Girot said. “Like many, I’m experiencing anxiety. I haven’t been sleeping well because I’m worrying about one of my loved ones getting the virus, or me getting it. I’m also taking a hit financially, but I’m going to get by. I worry about the other support people — the ushers, ticket takers, concessionaires — who depend on this as their sole livelihood. There’s so much uncertainty about when the games might resume. God’s the only one who knows.”
In the meantime, Girot tries to stay positive. He reflects on a life that has exceeded his wildest expectations. He never anticipated becoming a sports celebrity. Girot started vending because it was good money and a way to get into the games for free. He long ago discovered the other benefits. The friendships formed in ballparks and arenas have been priceless. “I put on a funny costume, entertain people and bring them beer,’’ he said, chuckling. “That’s been my recipe for success.”
Perseverance also has been part of his recipe. In recent years, Girot has bounced back from two minor strokes, heart surgery and prostate cancer. One of the greatest moments of his life occurred last August 20 when he was told he was cancer-free.
“Needless to say, there was a little more pep in my step when I worked that night’s Wings game at Frontier,’’ he said. “That just so happened to be the game where that Bisons pitcher (T.J. Zeuch) threw a no-hitter that was preserved when their centerfielder made this unbelievable catch on the game’s final pitch. Rochester baseball fans are pretty classy and knowledgeable. Even though their team was no-hit, they gave (Zeuch) a standing ovation as he walked off the field. That was a damn good day for me. Got the cancer-free diagnosis. Got to do what I love doing for a living. And got to witness a no-hitter. A pretty good hat trick if you ask me.”
He’s looking forward to more days like that.
Aren’t we all?
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.