They need a drink

Prime real estate for a Wrigley beer vendor is in the 100 level with a load of Bud. Courtesy of Jon Greenberg

CHICAGO -- Outside a low-slung building, just behind the Taco Bell on Addison Street, it's an hour and a half before first pitch and vendors mill about inside the fenced-in parking, standing in small circles waiting for their assignment from their union boss.

They will take their assignments, 100-level Old Style or Upper Deck Budweiser, and go to their commissary inside Wrigley Field (hidden in plain sight) and get to work as the sudsy evangelists of baseball's cathedral.

Cold beer here. Cold beer there. Cold beer everywhere.

This vendor group is Chicago in full, a mix of all races and ages.

They have union numbers befitting their seniority and, for some, regular spots inside the park where the season-ticket holders know them. You can watch for them on TV and see the same guys in the same rows every game.

The lucky ones sell beer. To be a Wrigley Field beer vendor equals money, albeit less every year.

As the Cubs lose another season rebuilding, with the focus solely on the planned renovation of the park, the beer guys are suffering through a lingering VendoRecession.

Pray for the Beer Man. And tip him too.

As the vendors wait for their marching orders, 35,000 fans are orbiting around Wrigley Field, baking in the late afternoon sun, ready to get drunk on nostalgia and, the vendors hope, on Budweiser and Old Style as well.

Two years ago, a Major League Baseball executive told me the Cubs were the No. 1 seller of beer by volume in baseball. That's no surprise.

At Wrigley, the "real fans" like to watch baseball with a few beers, the Dude Crowd wants to get drunnnnk, and tourists treat having a beer as a religious experience.

The team admits as much with the Bud Light Bleachers and the WGN Budweiser Fan Cam.

Selling beer isn't hard at Wrigley. But it's not easy vending beer, even if it's just a couple of hours at a time. The lifers work all sports and all seasons, and most have back braces and knee braces and decades of wear and tear on their bodies.

While anyone who's 21 who pays his dues, literally and figuratively, to join SEIU Local 1 has a chance to sell beer, only the lifers get the guarantee to sell the premium product at the premium location, Budweiser in the 100-level.

How tough is it to sell there? One vendor told me he has the penultimate spot in line to sell 100-level Bud, and he's been working there since 1985.

But even those guys are suffering a bit.

While vendors loathe to discuss money, especially tips, every vendor will tell you he's making less than he did last season, which was less than the season before that and the one before that.

In 2011, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about slow sales for beer vendors, where one vendor said he was down around 30 percent through late June.

While the Cubs declined to release sales numbers, and refused to let their concessionaire Levy Restaurants give any sales updates, it's not hard to find vendors willing to tell you how bad they're doing.

One vendor showed me his master sales list, which had him down 15 percent in total earnings compared to last year.

While this vendor cleared more than $400 in each of the Friday and Saturday games against the Cardinals, he made half that during the Thursday and Sunday games. His average this season is closer to the Thursday and Sunday games. He figures a vendor like him, mostly selling Old Style and Bud in the 200s or the Upper Deck, is down about four loads a game from 2008, on average.

Some games this year, he's sold two or three loads, an "unheard of" number just a few years ago.

And those numbers are helped somewhat by increased commissions (about $19 for a 24-beer load that retails for $186) and a slightly extended "last load" pickup time before beer sales are cut off.

While the Cubs are lucky they can draw more than 30,000 with bad teams, the losing has taken its toll on everyone associated with the team, such as the season-ticket holders who have trouble selling tickets on the secondary market, the scalpers who have too much product and not enough interest and the bars that count on the summer months to keep their lights on. You've heard the rooftop owners complain enough.

The tertiary economy of the Cubs is certainly feeling the heat from another bad season.

"There used to be a floor," said Nicolas Zimmerman, a part-time vendor who graduated from Bard College in 2000 and has a master's in journalism from Northwestern. "No matter how bad the Cubs were, you'd sell a certain volume of beer, and that floor just dropped."

Vendors' beer is priced at $7.75 for Budweiser and Old Style products, a number that creeps up every year. That certainly doesn't help.

"The price is catching up with the parks," said longtime vendor Lloyd R. (He asked that I not use his last name, even though it's widely known.) "It's definitely slowing the sales down."

Everyone agrees that bad Cubs teams devoid of hope have drained the fun, and crowds, out of Wrigley. After all, you can't drink your away your sorrows when the bullpen blows a save after last call.

"People want to be attached to a winner," Zimmerman said. "So when the Cubs start winning again, this will probably be the place to be again. But now, it just isn't."

Attendance at Wrigley is down 12 percent through 48 games compared to the first 48 games last season, from 37,471 to 33,000 a game, according to Baseball Reference. That doesn't count all the no-shows, which at times have been considerable. While the Cubs get the ticket money from the no-shows, they, and the vendors, lose out on the extra revenue.

If this season follows 2012's pattern, it will get worse. The Cubs averaged 35,589 for the season last year. September was particularly rough. This year looks like it will be the worst, attendance-wise, since 2002.

"Crowds are obviously smaller, but it's not just how many people come; it's who comes," Zimmerman said. "It's not the group of 25-year-olds with maybe the company tickets who are going to buy four, five or six rounds of beer in a night. It's bargain hunters, it's families, just people who aren't spending $75 on beer in a night."

Across town at U.S. Cellular Field, the cellar-dwelling White Sox are averaging 21,937 a game, and beer sales are dismal. Wrigley is like heaven compared to the Cell.

"It's been the worst I've ever seen it," says Lloyd, who is 65, the second-most tenured vendor in the union. He said he's down about 25 percent at the Cell, selling five loads of Miller Lite at the Cell compared to eight or nine of Bud at Wrigley.

Last weekend, though, was a welcome anomaly at Wrigley. The park was crowded, thanks mostly to the influx of Cardinals fans, the Cubs won two out of four, and for a couple days at least, it felt like old times again.

A season-high crowd of 42,240 people jammed into the stadium Saturday to watch the Cubs play their most hated rivals. No, not the rooftop owners.

The Cubs won 6-4. Everyone won.

"Yesterday was the best day of the year," said a beer vendor named Larry, who quickly told me his last name and quickly asked that I not use it. "For every hour I was here, I made over $100 an hour."

Does that include tips?

"Tips? What tips?" he said with a smile. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"I call them gifts, not tips," Lloyd said.

Lloyd is lucky compared to his peers. He said he's down about 5 or 10 percent at Wrigley, a low percentage according to one vendor, who mused, "It's kind of a microcosm of the U.S. economy. The men at the top are insulated."

But for the rest, as long as the Cubs rebuild, the financial pain will continue. They will cheer for Jorge Soler and Albert Almora as much as any other fan.

"As a Cubs fan, I like what they're doing," said Eli Kaberon, a 26-year-old sports writer/vendor. "But as a vendor, it's awful."

An hour before Sunday's game, Wrigley is maybe a quarter full as fans take pictures of themselves and stare upon the green expanse. And there's Lloyd making his way through the field level seats into the club seats, hawking cold beer on a warm night.

No one takes him up on his offer, but the night is young. So he keeps on moving. What else can you do?