A Wrigley Field beer vendor’s day starts where few other great journeys begin: the ground floor of a parking structure behind a Taco Bell. But it was there, in a mostly-empty garage on Eddy Street, that approximately 180 vendors—myself included—received their work assignments for the most anticipated baseball game in this city’s modern history.
It was three hours before the first pitch of Game 3 of the 2016 World Series. We lined up based on seniority, then chose what item to sell and where in the ballpark to sell it. After that, some vendors ran into the stadium, hoping to increase their sales as much as possible before cutoff time.
The World Series was new to me, but the jitters of a big game were not. I chose instead to soak in the once-in-a-lifetime scene in a neighborhood that had been, at least for the majority of home baseball games, my workplace for over a decade.
I started as a Wrigley Field vendor the week I turned 16, in 2003, selling items like hot dogs and frozen lemonade. After turning 21, I moved on to beer for the most part. I’ve worked close to a thousand games, seen heartbreak and amazing success, and dealt with fans from every team in the majors. There was the young man who once handed me an ID that had Arizona spelled with an "s" instead of a "z" (no, he didn’t get any beer). Once an Astros fan refused to buy Old Style from me because he was waiting for the vendor carrying Lone Star Ale to come around. I assume he left the game disappointed and thirsty.
So on that October evening, I walked up Clark, past the marquee and through the throngs of picture-takers, and over on Waveland, where scalpers outside the fire station were trying to sell last-second tickets and parking passes. I saw the scores of people lining up outside bars for hours and the row of a police horses along Addison. Several colleagues and I reached Sheffield, where dozens of officers blocked the street, funneling people toward the narrow sidewalk to make room for political motorcades and baseball VIPs. And us.
“Beer vendors are allowed, come on through. Thank you all for your service,” the cops said as they waved us through. “The game couldn’t start without you guys."
Inside, fans were a mixture of ecstatic and nail-biting nervous about the first World Series game at Wrigley in more than seven decades, but despite the expensive ticket costs and increased beer prices from the regular season, they were not shy with their cash. I couldn’t watch every at-bat, so I paid attention to the game through the volume of cheers or groans, or when the entire crowd rose for big pitches. After starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks escaped a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning with a double play, an elderly fan nearby just shook his head in disbelief. As I started to walk by him, looking for the next customer who needed a Bud Light, the old man extended his hand for a high-five and took a deep breath. It was that kind of game.
It wasn’t long ago that smiling faces and eager beer-drinkers were hard to find in the Friendly Confines. In 2012, when the team went 61-101, Wrigley Field was filled to an average of 86.5 percent capacity, per ESPN, but even that feels generous. Entire rows of empty green chairs were not hard to spot, and the fans who did walk through the turnstiles weren’t always enthusiastic about forking over more money for beer. That year, the best events for vendors were not Cubs games, but instead a pair of Bruce Springsteen concerts in early September. As we walked out of Wrigley Field following the second of those shows, I remember another vendor saying to me, “I wish we had 81 concerts and only two baseball games.”
In 2016, the team went 103-58 during the 2016 season, and according to ESPN attendance figures, the Cubs averaged nearly 40,000 fans per home game this year, roughly 97 percent of Wrigley’s capacity. Every day the stadium was filled before the national anthem was sung, and instead of leaving their seats to walk for food and drinks—or even worse, leave the game in the 6th inning because they had something better to do—fans stayed put this year, allowing us vendors to thrive. During the 2016 regular season, I averaged 169 cans sold per game. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, my per-game average jumped to 229 cans. For the three World Series games, I averaged 240 cans sold, meaning I earned between $500 and $600 each night—other vendors saw their sales skyrocket even more. Some of my coworkers have been working in the stadium since the 1960s, starting out as teens when hot dogs cost a quarter and beer was served in a paper cup. They were there in the '70s, when fan interest in the Cubs was at rock bottom and you’d be lucky to sell a full case of beer during a game. Now they were older men, vending on the biggest stage of them all.
Before the first game of each season, our bosses at Wrigley Field gather all the vendors in that parking garage behind Taco Bell and give us a speech. Much of it is the same each and every year. It’s part motivational, telling us to do a great job. But the speech’s other purpose is to be informational. Usually within that talk is an overview of what has changed in the park, the updated concession prices for the year and any new rules.
Next April, I’m guessing the speech will be brand new. When we all gather prior to Opening Night, the updates will be about a championship ring and banner ceremony. The excitement of the World Series will still be there, but without the nervous energy in the air. Fans can take a deep breath and enjoy a championship. They’ll be in the mood to celebrate, and us vendors will be happy to help them.