(Photo by Associated Press)
Who would ever think that a guy selling peanuts would wedge his way so deeply into our hearts?
Then again, who would ever think that a guy hawking beer, or a guy playing a tuba on the sidewalk, would become such a vital part of the baseball landscape, their full impact not quite realized until they were gone. Or, for that matter, that a guy talking about baseball on the radio would become such a local treasure that his death last November caused an outpouring of grief normally reserved for family members. Which is exactly what Dave Niehaus had become, of course.
And now Rick Kaminski — Rick the Peanut Man — is invoking a similar reaction upon his death Tuesday night at age 67. Just like Dave, the Seattle baseball experience was immeasurably enhanced by his presence. And just like Dave, you thought he might go on forever. But life — and death — doesn’t work that way. And now we will never again see his goober acrobatics — the trademark behind-the-back throw that a Mariner scout once timed on his radar gun at 72 mph. Rick worked for peanuts; his salary was estimated at less than $10,000 a year in an outstanding profile of Kaminski by Ellis Conklin in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1997.
Maybe he got a raise in the ensuing years — Rick’s celebrated “holdout” when Safeco Field opened in 1999 became a local cause celebre until the Mariners finally capitulated and brought him to the new ballpark on his terms — but the sense I always got was that it was a mutual love affair. The interaction, not the money, was Rick’s primary motivation, I’d wager. I go back to the Kingdome days, and had lately introduced my own kids to the wonders of Kaminski’s throwing arm, and it always struck me how much fun he seemed to be having. And, of course, it was infectuous. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would postpone his peanut purchase until Rick the Peanut Man came down the aisle. He was the undisputed master of the art of flipping a bag of peanuts, doing so with uncanny accuracy — 98 percent of them on target, he would estimate, up from 75 percent in the early years.
“I have people’s heads and (eye) glasses and their drinks at stake when I throw, so I must be accurate,” Kaminski said in that P-I article.
Turns out that to Rick, it was both an art and a science. Listen to Kaminski’s description, from the same article, of the physics of his job: “You have competing visual angles. You have the horizontal curvature of the dome, the vertical concaves of the roof and the slanting stands.”
I’ll take his word for it. All I know is that my kids’ eyes lit up and their mouths dropped the first time they saw Rick fire one from a section away and land it right in the lap of the intended target. Every time. Not even Jamie Moyer could throw with that kind of consistent accuracy. Turns out Kaminski was once a pitcher himself, a righty at King’s Garden High School. He served in Vietnam, telling Conklin, when asked to describe his greatest moment: “While on guard duty in Vietnam, I spotted a Viet Cong soldier getting through the last strand of barbed wire. By spotting him, I was able to wake up and warn the rest of the guards – and everyone lived.”
He worked 15 years as a real estate agent before finding his niche in the aisles of the Kingdome and Safeco Field, along with numerous other sundry sporting venues. When you saw Rick — and you always saw Rick — you knew you were going to get a flawless performance, executed with good humor. You couldn’t be so sure about the Mariners, but the $1 or $2 or $3 or $4 or $5 to nab a bag of peanuts from the Peanut Man (depending on whether we’re talking about the early Kingdome days or the late Safeco days) was always money well spent.
These are sad times. So many Seattle icons are leaving us — Bill, Ed, Dave and now Rick. He’ll be missed, having transcended his job as a vendor to become, well, a friend. I think of the Tuba Man every time I walk past his corner. I think of Dave every time I turn on the radio to catch an M’s game. I’ll remember Rick every time I buy a bag of peanuts. And smile.
Not a bad legacy.