Calling His Shot
The scent of fresh cut grass wafts along the breeze. The sun is out and at 67 degrees it’s just about the ideal temperature. It’s the home opener for the Indianapolis Indians, they’re squaring off against the Columbus Clippers at Victory Field. The return of baseball is one of the harbingers of spring, like the return of the swallows to Capistrano, a gentle reminder of the shifting seasons and the passage of time. The game has yet to start, a palpable feeling of excitement fills the air.
Vendors stroll through the aisle hawking their wares. Cotton candy, popcorn and hot dogs slide in and out of view: typical ballpark fixtures. A sturdily built figure cuts through the rows of seats. He carries a tub filled with ice and a panoply of brightly colored cans. His head is covered by a ball cap advertising a local beer. Below that, is perched a pair of sunglasses. And below that, a friendly smile. The return of baseball means the return of Michael Clayton Sholar to Victory Field. Better known to his fans and friends as Beer Mike.
Selling has always come natural for Michael Clayton Sholar. His uncle gave him a sales job after high school. Sholar sold Brooks Brothers suits in Dallas, Texas.
“I was new to the city, new to selling, that’s where I got my start,” said Sholar.
Sholar is a fixture at Arsenal Tech football games. The Titans are still a major part of his life, 31 years later. Sports have always been a major part of his life, and though is football playing days are long over, he still has a passion for golfing. Sholar’s two great loves are golf and racing. Golf was a hobby that Sholar’s mother encouraged him to participate in, a more sophisticated activity that would also keep him out of trouble.
His mother was very supportive of his pursuits. She worked for AT&T, a job that required uprooting Sholar, a native Hoosier, to Texas. Sholar returned to Indianapolis for high school. Sholar was a member of the golf team in addition to playing fullback in high school. Every Sunday, like clockwork, Sholar can be found on the driving range. It’s a source of relaxation, a way of centering himself.
Sholar didn’t plan for a life in sales, it was by circumstance that it came to be his profession. Sholar played fullback at Arsenal Tech High School and showed some promise on the field. An injury robbed him of his entire senior year as well as a chance to show the scouts what he had to offer and perhaps a chance to play at the collegiate level. If there’s any bitterness or regret about it, Sholar doesn’t show it.
Sholar acknowledged that golf and motorsports aren’t typically seen as the purview of African-Americans. He said his mother encouraged golf as a way of expanding his worldview, not just accepting the stereotypes and roles thrust upon him by society. It’s a good fit for Sholar, a solo activity. The crowds, the opponent and even the green are just decorations, a mere formality. What it really comes down to man versus himself. Can a man rise best his shortcomings.
Sholar developed his love for motorsports from his grandfather. His grandfather was the first to attend the Indy 500 and since then, going to the track has become a family tradition. A constant in an ever-changing world. Sholar has, by his reckoning, attended 21 out of 23 possible races.
Motorsports, as a rule tend to attract a white male audience. According to a July 22, 2015 article by Diego Vasquez in Medialife Magazine, the fan base for NASCAR is 94 percent white and 63 percent male. The same article described F1 as having similar demographics to NASCAR.
It’s fitting then that Sholar made inroads into the world of craft beer, a world that is predominantly seen as white and male. That’s what the Brewer’s Association believed, but according to a 2014 report from Bart Watson, Chief Economist for the Brewer’s Association, that’s changing. The report stated that in 2001 the typical consumer of craft beer was around 39 years-old, white, educated and had a high income. As of 2014, the age skewed younger and featured more diverse drinkers, particularly in the case of women. They now make up a larger portion of the consumer base.
Still, there is a diversity problem. According to a December 3, 2015 Thrillist article by Dave Infante, African-Americans drinkers are 11.2% of the population but only 3.7% of them drink craft beer. The same article stated that white Americans drink 80% of craft beer but make up only 60% of the beer-drinking population.
Sholar got into craft beer from his time working as a server at the Ram in downtown Indianapolis. The Ram is restaurant and brewery chain that began in 1971 in Lakewood, Washington. The company didn’t start brewing its own beer until 1995. Brewers at locations across six states have house recipes they brew and are also given leeway to brew their own creations. These brewers sometimes go to found breweries of their own as is the case with Sun King Brewing Company.
It was at the Ram that Sholar met Dave Colt and Clay Robinson, two of the founders of Sun King Brewing Company. Colt and Robinson worked as brewers for the restaurant. They led beer class for staff members during which they’d teach employees the ins and outs of craft beer styles, the characteristics and the brewing process. It was a solid foundation for Sholar’s future work as a beer salesman. It allowed him to speak with knowledge and authority on the topic.
A friend invited Sholar to come down to the RCA Dome and work as a vendor during games. His experience and beer knowledge came in handy for the work.
“I started in 2005 and I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Sholar.
Working Man’s Blues
The process of working an Indians game is simple. He arrives about an hour before the first pitch to prepare for the day. He fills a plastic tub full of ice and cans of beer. Sholar said that on a really good day he sells about 30 cases of beer. Sun King beers come packaged in 4-packs of 16oz cans, six to each case, so that comes out to 720 cans of beer or 11,520 ounces of beer.
The tub full of beer and ice weighs about 25lbs. It’s a test of will and endurance to lug one around during a game. But it can be a lucrative prospect for motivated sellers as with the sale of beer comes tips. It’s physical work and restocking cuts into sales time not to mention being a tedious activity. Though technically against regulation, Sholar sometimes convinces other employees at games to bring him more beer to save time.
Sholar is so good at his job that Aramark, the company that handles concessions at Victory Field and many other sports venues, sends him out of state to sell at games. Sholar has sold at games in Cincinnati, Nashville and Detroit in the last year alone. Sholar also sells beer at Lucas Oil Stadium and at Fuel games at the Indiana Farmers Insurance Coliseum.
Sholar has had great success selling Sun King at Indians games, he’s been selling their wares since 2010. That connection developed from the working relationship Dave Colt and Clay Robinson had while working at brewers at the Ram. The relationship continued after they set out on their own in 2009. The Indians organization wanted to showcase local beer and local products and Sun King was an excellent fit. Sun King brewed a German-style alt-bier called 1887 for the 125th anniversary of baseball in Indianapolis in 2011, a year after that the brewery began producing an official beer for the team: Indians Victory Lager.
“Mike was the most enthusiastic and outgoing of all of the vendors. His positive energy combined with the way he approaches people, as well as his overall hustle really made him stand out. Over the years he has obviously grown and he is also the Sun King hawker at Indy Fuel games. He brings people from games by the brewery in his off time and is overall a great ambassador,” said Colt and Robsinon.
Sholar previously worked in the tasting room at Sun King and went out on delivery runs. During his shifts in the tasting room, Sholar often said, “All right, everybody! Group hug five minutes!” It was a tendency that made an impression on Bryan Suter, who was Sholar’s supervisor at the time. “I’ve never had a man tell me he loves me that much before,” said Suter.
It’s not just bosses that Sholar has impressed. His coworkers are quick to praise him for the kind of person he is and the experience of working with him. What really stands out about Sholar is his integrity, that’s how is coworker Amanda Cranfield felt. Cranfield is in her fourth season working at Victory Field. When she first started working with Sholar, he asked her out a few times. She politely turned him down. A year later, things changed and Sholar kept their relationship strictly professional. Cranfield learned that Sholar had a girlfriend and she found his loyalty admirable. Cranfield expressed similar admiration for Sholar’s kindness and personality.
“Mike is a genuinely great guy. He’s friendly, hard working, and always has a smile on his face. What’s not to like?,” said Colt and Robinson
Hustle & Flow
Selling beer is a side job for Sholar, his main gig is at Opflex Environmental Technologies, a company selling foam products some of which are used to clean up oil spills. Though it seems world’s away from hawking beer in stadiums, there is a connection to the booze industry: Jim LaCrosse.
According to a July 2015 Indianapolis Star article, LaCrosse bought in to National Wine, a liquor distributing company in 1973. LaCrosse’s business acumen led to strong growth for the distributor, which at one point was distributing in three different states. That changed in 2010 when LaCrosse to sold part of his interests to the Atlanta-based Republic National Distributing Company. LaCrosse used the share of the profits to invest in Opflex.
Sholar works shifts that run 7am-7pm for seven days straight, then he has off eight days straight. It’s exhausting work, but it does little to phase the energetic Sholar. It’s a big workload, especially factoring in the days Sholar works as a beer salesman.
Sholar is a regular on The Dan Dakich Show, he typically calls in Fridays around 12:30pm. Sholar comments on current sporting events and it’s also a chance to promote his presence at games. It’s also where Sholar developed a hashtag that he uses on his posts on Instagram: #CanIGetABrotherAtTheTrack?
Dakich thought it was a great catchphrase and encouraged Sholar to use it. It’s a phrase Sholar enjoys, because it brings attention to the lack of diversity in race crowds.
Instagram and selfies are a favorite of Sholar. It’s easy to keep track of the schedule for the minor and professional teams in Indianapolis by following Sholar on social media. He’ll take photos with his regulars, new fans and even members of the organization.
The people are what Sholar loves most about his job, especially the kids. He’s been working in beer sales for more than 10 years and it’s given him a chance to see the children of his customers age before his eyes. Still, it comes as a shock any time he hears a child shout, “Hey Beer Mike!” Sholar fills the role of an extended family member for some regulars. Madison, the daughter of one was insistent about attending a game so she could see her Uncle Mike.
Recently, Sholar has begun maintaining a website, with biographical details, contact information as well as photos of fan interactions. It’s a little barebones at the moment but it’s another step in marketing himself. Sholar has big plans for 2016 and is hopeful that this will be the year where Beer Mike breaks through. He’s hoping for a greater involvement with Sun King Brewing Company and to perhaps be used in a marketing campaign with them somehow.
If the effusiveness of his customers is any indication, Sholar’s bound to knock this one out of the park. It’s a called shot and it’s going, going, gone.
Sidebar: Beer & Baseball
Alcohol: the cause and solution to all of life’s problems, to paraphrase Homer Simpson. Beer and baseball have a complex and lengthy relationship, their shared histories overlapping and intertwining like the serpents on the caduceus. Chris von der Ahe decided to cash in on the relationship between baseball and beer after noting the increase in sales at his bar when the St. Louis Brown Stockings played home games. Von der Ahe bought the Browns in 1881.
The relationship between beer and baseball didn’t always go down smoothly like a well-crafted lager, for instance, the National League banned beer at games in 1881. Seven of the eight teams agreed to the demands of the NL, the lone holdout being the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Cincinnati was expelled and the team found a new home in a new, rival league: the American Association.
The distaste for alcohol in baseball can likely be attributed to two bubbling undercurrents in American culture at the time: nativism and the temperance movement. Cincinnati had a large population of German immigrants and beer plays a vital role in that culture. Germans in particular were distrusted in the United States in that period for keeping the customs of their home country and not assimilating to extent of other immigrant groups.. Drinking culture was viewed by the Temperance movement as the purview of uncouth individuals.
Anheuser-Busch owned the St. Louis Cardinals from 1935–1995, Labatt Brewing Company owned the Toronto Blue Jays from 1976–1991, the namesake of Milwaukee’s Major League Baseball team is the Brewers. Not to mention the gauntlet of advertising for various beers, whether on billboards around the stadium or the endless television commercials during games.
The relationship between beer and baseball also reflects changes in the beer industry, one section that has seen significant growth is the craft beer movement. The producers of macro-brews have taken notice and fired shots across the bow of craft brewers with a series of ads that poke fun at the customer base of micro-brews: snobs who fuss over each sip, not regular, hard-working Americans who can enjoy a cold one without discussing the mouthfeel and bouquet of the beer.
At the same time, companies like Anheuser-Busch are snapping up craft beer companies in an effort to address lagging sales.
According to a June 29, 2015 Forbes article, Budweiser has experienced a 28% decrease in domestic sales volume over the last five years. The same article also mentions a decline in preference for beer in the 18–29 age group. There’s also a shift in that demographic, if they prefer beer, to craft and import brews.
Sports teams face a similar challenge keeping attendance at a desirable level as well as meeting the demands of fans. Sports fans are more discerning with their money in a tough economic climate, if they pay a premium price, they’re hoping for a premium product. One way sports teams have addressed this is by the addition of craft beers to stadiums. It gives fans more options when they attend events and they get a product with more cultural cache.
It’s a trend that also dovetails with the local food movement, purchasing from a hometown business is a way for consumers to feel their dollars are going to help their neighbors and it can arguably be a source off civic pride. Victory Field in Indianapolis, Indiana hosts beer festivals several times a year, beer fans stroll the concourse and can enjoy craft beverages from local brewers as well as craft beer with a national profile. The proximity of the baseball diamond sometimes results in drunken patrons rounding the bases near the end of festivals. That doesn’t fly with a groundskeeping crew that is required to keep the field in a pristine state to meet the exacting demands of Major League Baseball.