The American Way
Is ticket scalping American? At a time when the country is keen to embrace its American identity, an excessive amount of clothing with American flags, or the continuing practice of singing God Bless America during the 7th inning stretch, it seemed an important question.
It was certainly on my mind as I roved around Gate 5 of Comiskey Park before the 74th All-Star game on the South Side of Chicago. The security was thicker than the waistlines of the fat cats who had bought their tickets online for upwards of $2,000 a piece. As with most illicit activity these days, it's okay if you do it online. But outside the stadium? Plainclothes officers were trying to infiltrate deals. Mounted officers were trying to direct their horses and traffic when they were successful in the first task. There were lots of men in black.
As in all things wholly American these days, terrorism was on the minds of the proud and the paranoid, so most people seemed to accept the tight security. Still, it was excessive. A man playing his horn hid behind a wall, and quickly snapped up the change I tossed in his case. "I can't let the cops see," he said, peering out from behind the wall as if he were on a sting operation. "They don't want anyone making any money on this game."
A ticket taker justified the crackdown, saying, "It's the All-Star game, it's a federal thing, it's an international thing, it's bigger than just a ballgame." In other words, it's a national and even international presentation of America to the world. Apparently tight security and strict law enforcement are part of the evolving American identity.
Nevertheless, you can't keep a good scammer down. By the night's end, the ticket takers at Gate 5, one of several gates, reported they had had to turn away a total of 12 fans with counterfeit tickets. The counterfeits were alleged to be some of the best ever, identifiable only by a slightly lighter shade of blue.
Plenty of nefarious entrepreneurs were afoot. One man approached me selling All-Star towels, and then whipped out a few baseball cards from the 1980s. Baffled, I declined, and then wondered if I shouldn't have tried to sell off some of my dusty childhood treasures. A veteran sports journalist later informed me that he was not just trying to leverage the over-hyped atmosphere to unload old baseball cards, but that each card invariably came with an All-Star ticket for free. A marvelous loophole.
Debbie, who had come up from St. Louis and had been milling the grounds with her husband since the morning, had momentarily passed through the gates to All-Star heaven. An usher had approached her and offered her a free pass through the turnstile for $100. In probably her only act of infiltration ever, she related how she waited by a tree for his signal, and then walked through. When she got to the other side, she was told to put $100 in a nearby trash can. She said she had planned on hightailing it to the cheap seats, but a police officer caught her arm. Told either she or her accomplice on the inside would go to jail, she finked.
As game time approached, the number of fans holding up hopeful fingers for the number of tickets they wanted had multiplied. The locals were unimpressed. Benji and Jason, brothers who grew up on the South Side going to Sox games and hating the Cubs (on Wrigley field: "It's a beergarden, and it smells like urine"), disparaged all the hopeful finger wavers. "This isn't a Dead Concert, it's pathetic, this is baseball." He did mention though that "if someone's gonna give me $1,000 for a ticket, I'll take it."
After getting quotes on tickets from between $200 and $2000, I changed my strategy from hopeful contender to hapless pity case, and accordingly modified my sign from "I NEED 1" to "I'D LIKE 1." Stakes were high, and with a lone $40 to spend, I was clearly out of the game.
The longer I watched the rich and shameless file in, bragging about the cost of their tickets, the angrier I got. Was this American? Where was the equal opportunity? If the players on the field were the best in baseball, elected by a democratic vote in accordance with our finest traditions, why weren't the fans similarly selected, based on displays of superior baseball knowledge and passion?
The truth of course, is that America doesn't work that way. It is as a celebration of status and hype (witness All-Star earrings), that the All-Star game is the best representation of the American experience. Many who had shelled out thousands for tickets seemed uninterested in the specifics of the game. A water resource manager from Hollywood, Florida said he had come up "on a last minute thing," and that it was his eighth All-Star game. His main comment was that he was disappointed to hear the stadium didn't serve Miller beer products.
I tried to draw a security guard into a debate about the fact that ticket scalping, at its core, was free enterprise, the ultimate expression of Americanism. He rolled his eyes. I pressed: as long as the tickets weren't counterfeit, a robust scalp market was a fantastic wealth creator. He wasn't listening. My sense of common man injustice was piqued. The thought of so much effort being made to clamp down on one of the few activities in which lower class guys were the middlemen reaping fat profits off the rich guys, instead of the other way around, was too depressing. Most of the scalpers probably didn't qualify for the Bush tax cut, but they could make their $500 in just one transaction!
From outside the stadium, I could hear the announcement of the lineups and then the singing of the national anthem. I was standing next to the turnstile by now, and in order to mollify the ticket takers, I had changed my sign to "FREEBIE?" I explained to one of my fellow ticket seekers that I was just hoping for one of the sponsoring corporations that had been given blocks of tickets to have an extra one for me. "Oh, yeah, corporate largesse," he scoffed sarcastically.
But just as I was ready to call it quits, in bounded an entourage of sports agents. "You want a ticket?" the leader asked. I beamed. "Here, take it. Enjoy the game." I looked around at the dozens of once fellow hopefuls. Jaws dropped. I had scored on a handout. I pushed through the turnstile. I wasn't going to stop to question if it was American or not.
Dan Hoyle vends malts and lives in Chicago.