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Bad sports: teams get tough protecting their turf



It's been a good spring for Chicago teams, what with the Bulls' success and the Sox and Cubs packing them in. But not all of Chicago gets to share the good fortune. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case: vendors and fans have been complaining of harassment and intimidation on the part of Sox, Cubs, and Chicago Stadium officials.

"What we're seeing is selective harassment," says Mark Weinberg, a north-side lawyer who publishes and peddles unofficial scorecards for Blackhawks and White Sox games. "The teams are cracking down on those vendors they regard as competitors."

And it's not just the vendors who've been harassed: several fans have said security guards (particularly those at Wrigley Field) are abusive and overzealous in their attempt to crack down on scalpers. "They're getting carried away," says Kevin Lamm, a Chicago resident who was detained by abusive Cubs security guards on the mistaken assumption that he was scalping tickets. "I think they're forgetting that we're the public and they're supposed to serve us."

Team officials counter that they're trying to keep the peace and protect the welfare of the ordinary fan. "We don't want to hassle people, but sometimes it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys," says Mark McGuire, vice president of business operations for the Cubs. "Our main role outside the stadium is to keep the crowds moving peacefully; I think we do a pretty good job at that."

Part of the problem stems from the unprecedented popularity of Chicago's teams, which in recent years have drawn not only millions of fans but scores of small-time entrepreneurs. "There's an opportunity for the little guy to make a buck at ball games," says Weinberg. "It's not a bad way to make a living. A peanut vendor can buy a small bag of peanuts for 60 cents and then sell it for a buck. Sell 100 bags and you have made $40."

Such ventures, city planning experts have long argued, justify diverting public money from things like education to the construction of privately operated sports facilities. Many of the peanut vendors who operate outside the Chicago Stadium during Bulls and Blackhawks games live in the poor neighborhoods nearby. "I come to every Bulls game and I don't bother anyone," says one peanut vendor who would not reveal her name. "This is what we get for having the Stadium in our neighborhood."

In the last several months, however, Stadium security guards have attempted to move this vendor and others away from the gates. Weinberg was arrested and jailed last February.

"The peanut vendors have always stood outside the Stadium door; it's the best place to reach the most people," says Weinberg, who's been attending hockey games there since he was a kid. "But on February 14, they were moved across the street. The excuse was that the city needed to keep people away from the Stadium doors and increase security because of the war. But I didn't believe that because the security guards weren't searching anyone who came into the Stadium. And, being realistic, one or two peanut vendors will not clog traffic."

At the time, Weinberg and his partner Mark Finch were launching the Blue Line, a program for Blackhawks games. "At first the police didn't bother us," says Weinberg. "But once we stopped giving the program away and started selling it for a dollar, they would give us a hard time. They would drive by and say, 'Hey, get on the other side of the street. You're not allowed to stand there.' I always asked why, but they never gave me a reason."

Finally, on February 28 the police moved in. "A squad car drives up and this cop says, 'All right, we're going to teach you a lesson.' And then they put me in the car and took me to jail. It was ridiculous. They made me take off my belt and shoelaces so I wouldn't commit suicide."

About 90 minutes later, Weinberg was released on $50 bail. The Sun-Times ran a story about his case, and city officials, perhaps embarrassed by the publicity, dropped all charges. But Weinberg worries about the other vendors, the ones who aren't lawyers and don't have connections to the press. He suspects that Blackhawks officials were behind the harassment, in an effort to drive the Blue Line out of business. "There was no reason to arrest me other than harassment," says Weinberg. "The city says you can peddle on the street so long as you have a vendor's license. Well, I have that license. It's easy enough to get--it only costs $30."

Weinberg has found relations between vendors and security even worse at Comiskey Park, where by mid-June he hopes to launch a baseball program called the Inside Pitch. "When I got arrested one of the police officers told me, 'If you think they're bad at the Stadium, they're even worse at Comiskey,'" says Weinberg. "And he was right." Most of the tensions have to do with T-shirt peddlers, who, Sox officials say, clog the sidewalks.

"I understand that a lot of these vendors are trying to make a dollar like anyone else, but they're an annoyance," says David Schaffer, director of park operations for the White Sox. "A lot of them block the sidewalk to the point where pedestrians have to walk into the street, and for that I have no tolerance."

In addition, says Schaffer, many vendors sell "obscene" T-shirts. "You should see the stuff they sell; it's cheap, shoddy, and vulgar," he says. "I have no empathy for that. It's a disgrace. We don't permit people to wear that in the park."

But vendors complain that the Sox are selective about whom they move from the sidewalks. "They always tell me to keep moving, but they send out their own vendors to operate," says one baseball-cap vendor who asked for anonymity. "Their people clog the sidewalks more than I do."

And salesmen for the National and the Sun-Times operate freely outside the park. "They only bother people who compete with them," says Weinberg. "They don't care about the National, but they make a peanut vendor or an independent T-shirt vendor move. They give us so many excuses. They say we can't operate on Sox property, but I checked the land records and discovered that the sidewalk is public property. Sometimes they pull out the old law that prohibits peddling on Sunday. Well, if the city's going to enforce that one, they'll have to close all the ice cream vendors in every park."

Vendors are no longer a problem outside Wrigley Field; last year the city banned them from operating anywhere in the 44th Ward. (Comiskey Park operators would like to see a similar ban in their ward.) Wrigley Field's bigger problem has to do with the Cubs' private security force. Take the experience of Kevin Lamm at the game on May 24.

"I had two extra tickets to unload because some of the people in my group couldn't make the game," says Lamm. "A guy outside of Wrigley asked me how much I wanted for the tickets and I said, 'Face value.' Suddenly there was this guard in my face saying, 'You can't sell those tickets.'"

That guard radioed for another guard, and together they escorted Lamm away from his friends and into the ballpark. "They took me to their supervisor, who wasn't so bad, although the first guard was sort of a jerk. I had this big bag of peanuts I'd bought from a grocery store because I didn't want to pay Wrigley Field inflated prices and the guard says, 'What are you doing with these peanuts, hawking them?' I suppose it never occurred to him that I might want to eat them.

"Anyway, the supervisor tells me I can't sell the tickets--even for a dollar--so long as I'm on Cubs property. To tell you the truth, I think I was on the sidewalk when all of this happened, but I didn't say that. The supervisor says, 'We'll have to take these tickets.' I said, 'But there are two people waiting outside for these tickets.' So he gave me two tickets and kept the other two. That's when I thought that these security guards might sell these tickets on their own; I was resigned to the fact that I was going to lose the tickets, but I didn't want to be a part of their scam. So I asked him what he was going to do with those tickets and he said, 'Nothing,' so I said, 'Well, rip them up.' And that's what he did--he ripped up my tickets!

"And the thing is that while I was standing there, another guard brought in another fan who looked just like me--confused, lost, and bewildered. They accused him of scalping and the guard said, 'I'm taking him to the detention room.' I suppose they have a big blackboard there and you have to write 100 times, 'I will not sell tickets.'"

Cubs officials acknowledge that in Lamm's case the security guards did not act properly. "They shouldn't have ripped up his tickets," says McGuire. "We're not concerned with the guy who has group tickets and is trying to get rid of one or two. But sometimes it's hard. You'll have people trying to sell tickets to fans who are waiting in line to buy from us."

In Lamm's case, though, the game was sold out. "The more I think about it the more it seems wrong," says Lamm. "The Cubs took my property. They stole my tickets. They made me feel like a criminal, and all I wanted was to go watch a baseball game."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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