This is my dream job,” says John Toperzer. Really? Not many people can make that statement. So is Toperzer a golf pro who just won a major tournament? A photographer who travels to exotic destinations? The coach of a Super Bowl winning team? No, he is an usher that is, host for the Pirates at PNC Park.
Although that might not seem as glamorous as some other lines of work, Toperzer, Lavina Avenue, couldn’t be happier. Stationed in Section 214 at PNC Park since 2009 and a member of the Pirates staff for 16 years, he works every game.
Although attendance has increased substantially with the team’s success the past few seasons, Toperzer says his job hasn’t changed at all: “There were more people in the stands during the Wild Card and the playoffs (in 2013), and there are many more season ticket members now,” he agrees, “but I try to treat people the same, whether we’re winning 20-0 or losing 20-0. I try to spend the same amount of time with each one. I want the guests to have a good time.”
With a masters in education from Duquesne University and a degree in business management from Westminster College, Toperzer also works for RotoWire, writing about the Pirates and Penguins; but his job at PNC is what he likes best.
One of the things Toperzer likes best about the job is the chance to meet so many fans. “I love to talk to people who love baseball or to those who don’t love it. That’s the best thing, when you can make someone who doesn’t love the game have a good time. Then you know you’re doing your job.”
Staff members like Toperzer are required to be available to work 75 percent, or approximately 53, of the home games. Toperzer enjoys his job so much, however, that the only day he takes off is his birthday August 25 and then he buys a ticket and goes to the game as a fan. He had a stroke while working at a game in 2008 but was back on the job before the end of the season. Is there anything about it he doesn’t like? “The worst part is when the game ends,” he says.
Toperzer is a “host,” rather than an usher and ticket takers are called “greeters” because, as Matt Bartman, an event supervisor at PNC Park, explains, the Pirates try to treat fans as if they are guests coming to their house. “The Pirates do a phenomenal job in guest training,” says Bartman, Lebanon Hills Drive. “They train you in how to deal with guests, how to thank them. Because fans choose to come here, it’s like having them come to your home.”
Bartman is in charge of security, staff and guest relations and could be working anywhere in the park. “John knows he’ll be in a given section, but my role changes. I rotate, I’m assigned to certain areas of the ballpark and I learn more about the park every game.” You might find him handing out the ticket scanners for greeters, taking care of a broken seat or dealing with an unruly fan. “I’m not here to watch baseball,” he says.”I’m here to watch you watch baseball.”
Bartman grew up in Brookline, where a neighbor was a member of the grounds crew. “I knew I wasn’t good enough to be a ballplayer,” he says, “so I said, ‘I want to do what he does.’ Now I do this on top of a full-time job.” He’s an administrator at Carnegie Mellon University, but has been with the Pirates for nine years. He leaves CMU, takes the bus into town, and then rides the T to PNC Park. During that trip, “I change gears, from working with researchers at CMU to handling guests at the ballpark. It’s definitely more fun a mental health break.”
Whether there are 5,000 or 35,000 fans at a game, Bartman says, “The park has to operate in the same mode. There are the same issues, but just more volume. We’ll often have someone from the 300 level who wants to sit in the 100 level because there are empty seats. So I’ll say to them, ‘How about if I ask the person next to you if he minds?’ My motto is, the guest may not always be right, but do the right thing for the guest.”
And the guests must like the service because they keep coming back in droves.