For the first time since 2019, Chicago will allow baseball fans to attend Chicago Cubs and White Sox games. Both baseball teams have been working for weeks on plans to allow ticket holders inside their ballparks, as both Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field saw players go through an abbreviated Major League Baseball season last year without fans in the stands due to worries about the spread of COVID-19.
Baseball’s sights, sounds, and smells — like Polish sausages charring on a flattop grill covered with onions — endear it to fans. Food vendors hawking peanuts, Cracker Jack, and more are essential components of that feeling. While the city will permit the Sox and Cubs to welcome about 8,000 fans in each stadium (20 percent maximum capacity), Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the teams have yet to give any indication that beer and hot dog vendors will return. Vendors were omitted in the announcement as the only food-related nugget in Monday’s announcement was that concession stands will accept credit cards and not cash.
For veteran vendors, this time of year springs eternal as stadium food service companies begin sending out emails to see who wants to work this season. Rookies may have a hard time finding work unless the know someone on the inside as a reference. Lloyd Rutzky has been a beer vendor since 1965 at both the South and North side stadiums. He’s never used a handheld credit cardholder. In recent years, cash-only vendors haven’t made as much money as those accepting plastic, but Rutzky’s a traditionalist. He opposes new rules introduced last year for the shortened pandemic season including shortened seven-inning games during doubleheaders or expanded playoffs where 16 teams made the postseason.
“Vendors are like hits, runs, and errors; vendors are part of the game,” Rutzky says. “Some get in the way and block the view, but if people have to get up and to the stands in the middle of an inning, it certainly would ruin the enjoyment of many people.”
Rutzky, who celebrated his 73rd birthday on Monday, describes himself as “the vendor who’s sold the most beer in the history of baseball.” He was ready to start work in February 2020, before Americans understood the risks of COVID-19 and before events — including the baseball season — were postponed or canceled. He planned for 2020 to be his 56th and final season. The pandemic took away his swan song.
“I’m probably the most famous vendor in Chicago,” he says. Rutzky has written two books about his adventures (Wrigley Field’s Amazing Vendors and White Sox Park’s Amazing Vendors): “They’re available for full price on Amazon,” he adds with a laugh.
Last year, Rutzky told the Athletic about his struggles with filing for unemployment as COVID-19 regulations kept him away from baseball. Few have made the well-being of food vendors a priority during the pandemic. Communication hasn’t been stellar, with workers reading about developments online instead of being informed by MLB or the companies that handle stadium concessions (Levy at Wrigley and Delaware North at Guaranteed Rate).
There’s still a flicker of hope that Rutzky could return for a game or two this year, but he suspects the normal baseball experience won’t return until 2022. Teams have yet to alert vendors on the plan for the 2021 season, Rutzky says. Normally, the Cubs and Sox send an email to vendors telling them to sign up to work the upcoming season. Right now, Rutzky’s read is that fans will be able to snag hot dogs and a beer at food stands. It doesn’t make sense to employ the 150 or so vendors who walk around the stadium on a regular basis.
Vendors haven’t been permitted during spring training in Florida and Arizona, but the stadiums have been creative with feeding crowds. Some are allowing food trucks inside the stadium on the outfield concourse. Food has to be consumed in a “stationary location, such as your seating location and not while actively walking.” Ushers are back wearing mask and holding signs reminding fans of social distancing rules.
While he says he doesn’t need spring training workouts to test his physical fitness, Rutzky says vendors go through a preseason orientation to go over new policies. The pandemic makes Rutzky certain that vendors and teams will have lots to talk about at the next orientation.
“I’m sure by the next time there are vendors, there will be a whole lot of different rules,” he says.
Chicago lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to vaccine distribution. Food servers won’t be eligible until March 29 under the current rollout. Rutzky isn’t vaccinated, but he says it’s something that’s on his mind. He hopes to get one soon and has a doctor’s appointment lined up to investigate the possibilities.
Rutzky is dedicated to his craft, a walking encyclopedia of baseball lore. He remembers selling beer to fans after games as they waited in line to exit the ballpark, before MLB restricted sales to before the seventh inning. At Sox Park he last sold Modelo, but at one point he also sold slices of Pro’s Pizza, a company owned by former Cubs great Ron Santo who had a mini-chain of restaurants.
Last week, a rather unscientific study released by a gambling site claimed that White Sox fans drank the most alcohol in comparison to other MLB fanbases. Rutzky, who uniquely qualifies as an expert, agrees with the assessment. He’s talked to vendors at other ballparks, and says when it comes to beer sales, “no one does the numbers like Chicago.”
The Cubs home opener is April 1, and the White Sox is on April 8.