Now that the Cubs are back in the postseason, I look forward to discussing the playoffs with two Wrigley workers in particular.
If you're headed up to Section 416, the odds are good that you will run into my favorite beer vendor at her stand on the mezzanine level at the top of Aisle 211. She stands out not just for the quick and efficient way she does her job, serving up cold ones and changing empty kegs in five seconds flat. Because of her, Cubs fans who come to watch the major leaguers at Wrigley can get their beer from another world-class athlete; when she's not tending to thirsty customers at the Friendly Confines, my pal is better known as roller derby star Val Capone.
Currently a member of the Chicago Red Hots, and a two-time Ivy King Cup-winner for being champion of Chicago's Windy City Rollers league, Val also coaches the U.S. men's national roller derby team, and is working to get the game into the Olympics.
She does all of that while slinging suds not only at Wrigley, but also at the United Center during Bulls and Blackhawks tilts.
Val has worked at Wrigley for 11 years, and grew up in Wrigleyville as an ardent Cubs fan, which makes her work personal. "I still get chills," she says of arriving at the ballpark on game days, thinking to herself: "I work here!"
Her goal as a vendor is straightforward: "For many visiting fans, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I'm here to make it awesome." She loves being part their memory, and if you hang out by her stand for a while, you'll see her direct fans seeking a particular beer to a fellow vendor rather than trying to up-sell them on her higher-end brands. Given that vendors work for commission and tips -- "You make what you sell," as she puts it -- it's clearly not all about her pocketbook.
Val's lifetime highlight at Wrigley -- "The happiest day of my life," she says -- was singing the seventh-inning stretch with Drew Barrymore in 2009. The movie star was in Chicago to promote her roller-derby film "Whip It", which Val consulted on. A picture of that moment can be seen as her twitter avatar (@valcapone). For her, the only thing greater would be a Cubs World Series.
With the playoffs still to come, 2016 already has been packed with highlights for Val. "The whole season has been an overflowing wealth of awesome," she says. "All of it."
Val even comes to the games on her off days, as she splits season tickets with a friend. What will happen if the Cubs are still playing at the end of October? Will she work or take her seat?
Val will be behind the stick, and her father will have her seat.
That, my friends, is family values.
Card tricks in the upper deck
Then there's Leo, a "guest services ambassador" -- aka, an usher -- in the upper deck.
Originally from Cleveland and an Indians fan, Leo -- whose real name is Stan Klein, but who goes by Leo while working at Wrigley -- adopted the Cubs as his team after sitting with Bill Veeck in the center-field bleachers in the '80s. Leo bought a beer for the former White Sox owner (and the man who planted the ivy at Wrigley when his father was Cubs GM), and Veeck regaled Leo and other bleacher creatures with insider details about players and the park, bringing Leo into the Cubs fan fold.
Leo is a Renaissance man: An actor and artist, he manages Firecat Studios, an art gallery in Bucktown, along with noted Chicago artist, writer, actor (and White Sox fan) Tony Fitzpatrick. Leo also works as an usher at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, pretty much covering all of the city's cultural bases.
What sets him apart is a bit of performance art he does before and during every game he works. Beyond just helping people find their seats and gently keeping the aisles clear of loiterers, Leo gives fans of the opposing teams baseball cards featuring their team's players.
"It's a great way to greet visiting fans, families and patrons," he says, and points out that the Cubs' promotional giveaways are all, naturally, aimed at Cubs fans; he wants visitors to feel welcome. It promotes the game and its history as well. "Little kids get a card, and their dad recalls that player, and it starts a dialogue about the game and its history." It also introduces modern youngsters to baseball cards themselves, beloved hands-on analog artifacts many have never seen before.
While Leo would love to cut a deal with Topps or another card company, that hasn't happened yet; he gets his stock at flea markets and garage sales, and donations from fans. Several other upper-deck ushers have joined him in this project, and he gives away between 200 and 300 cards every game. Some travel agents and school groups even contact him in advance to request a certain number of cards, as his generous gesture has become part of the Wrigley experience for their annual trips to the corner of Clark and Addison.
"An unexpected gift at an unplanned time is the best thing you can do for somebody," he says, after handing cards to several children -- and their accompanying grown-ups -- wearing Pittsburgh Pirates T-shirts.
Leo's 2016 highlight? While heading for his bike after one day game, he ran into pitcher Kyle Hendricks, the current MLB ERA leader. Hendricks lives within walking distance of Wrigley, and he and Leo chatted about neighborhood restaurants as they walked down Waveland. "He's just a nice guy," Leo says.
The downside to his job? "The cold in April and, hopefully, October," he says.
But he'll take it. "I can bear it in October, no problem."