Into The Arena: You Can’t Always Control The Experience—And That’s Okay

October 18th, 2017 | by Rafi Kohan
Into The Arena: You Can’t Always Control The Experience—And That’s Okay
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Arena

As any fan can tell you, going to a game isn’t just about the action on the field. Part of what makes attending live sports so thrilling is the interactions and rituals that take place beyond the walls of the stadium itself. For some fans, this means tailgating. For others, haggling with ticket scalpers or merch vendors. For others still, marching through the crowds and high-fiving every stranger in sight.

“This is an ecosystem,” former Cleveland Indians staffer Andrew Miller (now executive vice president of business operations for the Toronto Blue Jays) told me, while I was reporting The Arena. And why is that important from a team perspective, I wondered? He explained, “Every touch point you have from the time a fan leaves his house or office until the time he gets back home [after the game], whether it’s running into people on the street, people working the parking garage, or ticket takers in the box office—every single one of those touch points is important. But we don’t control every touch point.”

For many team executives, this lack of total control can lead to a measure of anxiety when they think about the world beyond the walls of a stadium—and about some of the characters that comprise that world, in particular. But it would be a mistake for teams to try to stamp out every uncontrolled element. Often, these are the very aspects that elevate the experience for fans, making game days truly memorable. They add texture to the stadium and its environs. They make a stadium district feel like an organic neighborhood instead of some lifeless boardroom creation.

When writing The Arena, I spent time with a wide range of beyond-the-walls characters throughout my year of travel and research. Here, in honor of the MLB playoffs and the Cubs’ pursuit of a World Series defense, I thought I’d share some scenes from the day I spent outside of Wrigley Field with the local ball hawks, those game-day fixtures on the North Side of Chicago.  


Beyond The Ivy: Scenes From A Day With The Wrigley Field Ball Hawks

Dave Davison has been standing outside of Wrigley Field for thirty years. Moe Mullins for nearly twice that long. “Have to waste time somewhere,” Moe says before a mid-summer game against the Chicago White Sox. “Might as well be here.” These men are ball hawks, two of about a dozen on this day. They people the street by the corner of Waveland and Kenmore Avenues, eyes to the sky. Batting practice is underway.

***

At some point, friends started giving Dave crap about spending so much of his life outside of Wrigley. It was a waste of time, they said. So he figured: might as well make a few bucks. He applied for a peddler’s license.

In addition to selling balls through his website (and a ball basket on the street), Dave brings a cooler of Gatorades to every game. He parks it on the corner, where the hawks set up their folding chairs. A humorous sign above the cooler advertises variable pricing, based on the potential customer’s team allegiance (“Cubs Fans $2.00, White Sox Fans $3.00, Cardinals Fans $4.00 Stay Thirsty!!”). Beneath that, written smaller, is a $2 price tag for photos (it comes with a free Gatorade), which of course nobody sees until after a shot has been snapped, and Dave points out the fine print.

Technically, per local ordinance, a vendor like Dave is not allowed to be stationary. He needs to be moving. “I’m moving!” he assures me. “Slowly. Verrrrry slowly. I’ll be right there by the end of the game.”

Part of the reason the Cubs have been so tough on outside vendors, according to Dave—aside from the fact that they want fans to spend their money inside the ballpark—is that they can’t control the experience, which might reflect badly on the club. Dave tells a story about the Cubby Bear—not the bar, but a guy who dressed up in a full-on bear costume, like all those Times Square superheroes, and looked for tips. “I guess he got into a few altercations,” Dave says, “punched a few people.”

***

There is a betting pool going on today among the ball hawks. Five dollars to enter. Whoever guesses the game’s final score closest wins the pot. After batting practice ends, the hawks scrawl their entries on the backside of Dave’s beverage sign. A Wrigley Field vendor who looks remarkably like former Chicago Bulls great Scottie Pippen walks by. Dave yells, “Hey, Pip!”

Pip takes 3-1 Cubs.

A traffic cop sees what’s happening, approaches the board. His face falls as he considers the numbers, the repercussions.

He takes 4-3 Cubs.  

***

ArenaDon’t be offended if the ball hawks don’t talk to you, at least not at first. For Darrell Carter, it was months before most of them learned his name. Then again, he almost got into a fistfight on his first day out here, a year and a half ago.

A ball came sailing out of the park, landed in a yard on Kenmore Avenue. The typical mad rush ensued, as Darrell retrieved the souvenir, Dave right on his heels. Perhaps sensing new blood, a pushover, Dave tried a bully tactic, which really isn’t his style, but he did it anyway. He said, “This is my yard, give me the ball.”

When Darrell refused to fork over his souvenir, Dave squirted a bottle of water in his face. “Now what in the world would you do that for, dude?” Darrell said.

Dave said, “I just thought it was funny,”

Darrell is not a fighter, had no intentions of escalating the confrontation. Still, he said, “Would it be funny if I punched you in the face?

No backing down now, Dave replied, “Go ahead, ruin both of our days.”

No punches were thrown, and they’ve been cool ever since. Ask Dave about the incident and he’ll say, “Why does he bring that up?!”

***

A passerby digs through Dave’s basket of balls. Asks, “What’s the deal with the balls?”

Dave replies, “What balls?”

***

What’s amazing is how often the ball hawks get up and down out of their folding chairs, how many times they prepare for potential homeruns that do not come. And yet, they keep getting up, getting ready. Always ready. It’s like fly-fishing. Meditative, in some ways.

“You always have to be paying attention,” Darrell says of his technique.

“Patience and focus,” says Dave.

Balls have been harder to come by recently, due in part to the renovation of Wrigley Field. The first phase of construction, before the 2015 season, included rebuilt bleachers and the installation of two giant video boards. Dave says he’s seen the video boards block only a handful of balls, like a souvenir-hating flyswatter, while plenty have cleared the wall.

So it’s all good? “No, it’s not all good! It’s hideous,” Dave says of the video board. “It would look great in another ballpark.”

According to Darrell, the new bleachers are the bigger issue. As part of renovations, the bleachers were extended and now eat up former sidewalk space. Those extra yards have kept more balls in the park than the board, he says. Plus, it is harder to pick up a ball in the air. “You have very little time to judge.”

***  

It makes historical sense that ball hawking is a Wrigley Field-specific pastime, and not just because of the intimate way the park is corkscrewed into a neighborhood.

In 1916, Charles Weeghman—who had the ballpark built not for the Cubs, but for his fledgling (and soon failing) Federal League team—allowed spectators to keep batted balls. According to Michael Benson’s Ballparks of North America, this did not become the norm until 1923, when a Philadelphia judge ruled the fans not to be stealing.

***

Inside the park, Wrigley Field tradition dictates that fans take homerun balls hit by the opposing team and toss them back toward the field. But out here, “any ball hit during a game is like gold,” says Darrell. That’s why Dave always has his smartphone video camera rolling (back in the ’90s, in the Sammy Sosa days, he lugged around a full-on camcorder), for proof to potential buyers that his balls are legit. Each ball is like a snowflake, he says—signature, one-of-a-kind. “Once you catch it, get a good picture, that ball is that ball. You could put this ball in a bag of a thousand, and I could pick it out. Each one has its own character, scuff here, scuff there.”

Darrell says Dave would no doubt let a fellow ball hawk throw back one of his old batting-practice balls, from the basket, instead of the real homerun ball. But not without making a big stink. “He would act like he was going to charge you for the ball, but then refuse to take your money.”

***

A woman comes up and inspects Dave’s basket of balls. She’s considering buying one for her husband, a Dodgers fan. “He sat on Tommy Lasorda’s lap as a kid,” she explains.

Dave rolls his eyes. “Everyone sat on Tommy Lasorda’s lap as a kid.”

The woman walks away.

***

One of the old guard, Moe started coming down to Wrigley to ball hawk in 1958. He was eight years old, went to school right down the street, and would come out during lunch hour, listening for the bell to ring. “I’d hear the buzzer, and I’d run,” he says. He was usually late.

Once today’s game starts, Moe puts on his headset, listening to the radio feed, no longer a slave to the buzzing of a school bell. “They start betting on what’s going on—single to left. No, error on the second baseman,” he says of his fellow hawks and the action inside the park. “They all think they know what happened by the sound of the crowd. I give them the facts.”


***

In the early innings, Dave and Moe get up and start playing catch. Dave says he needs to be warm in case he has to toss one back. Wanting more space to throw, he shoves aside a construction gate and posts up near a No Trespassing sign, until a Wrigley employee yells at him for being inside the gate. Dave mock-angrily argues, but to no avail.

Really, the veteran hawk just likes to have a good time out here, whether it’s jawing with staffers, hassling passersby, or hanging a disco ball from the light pole, which he used to do frequently. “What really got us in trouble was the piñata,” Dave says with a smirk.

***

In the year and half Darrell has been coming down to Wrigley, he has secured more than one hundred balls. Dave has almost five thousand, and Moe even more. A man named Zack Hample—not a Wrigley regular—is perhaps the most famous baseball hawk in the country. With more than nine thousand balls to his name, the New York native has written multiple books on the craft and even done the talk-show circuit, having snagged some notable shots, like Alex Rodriguez’s three-thousandth hit. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Not that the Wrigley hawks think much of Hample.

“Hample has been here like three times, and he begs all the balls,” Moe says, meaning that Hample goes inside the park and pleads with players to toss him balls, like a child. “They throw them up. We don’t take throw-ups. Tradition at Wrigley Field is that toss-ups don’t count.”

Even as a Wrigley newbie, Darrell agrees. “For a player to throw me a ball, that doesn’t do anything for me. I want to catch the ball off the bat. I want to be the one to get the ball, not have someone give it to me. So I’m not a big fan.”

Darrell says he didn’t know who Hample was before he showed up at Wrigley the previous season and came away with eight balls in one day. He says that if Hample were ever to come back, he would make it a personal goal to pitch Hample a shutout. “I would stand right beside him, and he might get a ball, but he would have to beat me to it,” says Darrell. “On his website, I looked at it, he says something like he’s been to eight hundred straight games where he got a baseball, so that would be my goal for the day. Break that streak.”

***

To kill time beyond the ivy, Dave will occasionally have a beer (or two). Today, after removing the top and bottom of a Coca-Cola can, he wraps the remaining aluminum skin around a Budweiser. Later, on his second (or third), the beer slips out of its camouflage skin, exploding on the pavement. Dave turns his palms up bashfully.

A passing security guard shouts, “You’re cut off!”

Yesterday, Dave says, when a ball hawk tossed a beer bottle over the Cubs’ construction fence, a security guard tossed it right back.

***

By the seventh inning, it starts to rain, and only a handful of ball hawks remain. Dave tells me a story about a guy who tried to steal one of his balls. Dude didn’t think Dave was looking and pocketed the souvenir. Dave let the thief walk halfway down the street, with a beer in his hand, before winging a second ball at him. He threw it as hard he could. And what a shot! He knocked the beer right out of the criminal’s hand.

Dave shrugs. “I was aiming for the middle of his back.”

***

When today’s game ends, with the crowd letting out, a Cubs fan stops along Waveland. He looks at Dave’s sign, chuckles. He takes out his phone, snaps a photo of the beverage sign, and starts walking off toward the train. Dave gives me a wink before chasing after the man.

“Sir!” Dave hollers, hot on his heels. “Sir! Did you read the whole sign?”

 

Rafi Kohan About Rafi Kohan
Rafi Kohan is the author of The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport. He has written for GQ, Men's Journal, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, L.A. Times, Rolling Stone, Town & Country, and more. Formerly, he served as deputy editor of New York Observer. Currently, he works at The Atlantic as the head of editorial for Re:think, the magazine's branded content studio.

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