Scalper Schmalper

The only trouble with a sports ticket these days is that you can't get one. Applications for the Final Four basketball championship in Charlotte, N.C., next March numbered more than 533,000. The Charlotte Coliseum holds barely 20,000. At Camden Yards, the first Baltimore Orioles ticket available is an obstructed view on Sept. 8 and last week a $60 face-value AU-Star game ticket was being brokered forafat $1,000. As for Wimbledon-always a difficult ducat unless you're a Broadway show-tune specialist having a thing with the defending champion-just the other fortnight the All-England Club turned down a ticket request from a gentleman named Ringo Starr.

Help! When Beatles can't score big time anymore, the ticket situation has drifted into that nasty nether world where demand overwhelms supply. Even as TV gives us more sports than we ever cared existed, live attendance has exploded at the same time the number of seats has remained fixed, in some cases declined. And good seats? Forget it-unless you have money, clout, celebrity and, obviously, some kind of Now-ness. For example, a couple of nights before he died in 1982, John Belushi tried to explain to a friend where he got his L.A. Lakers tickets. "Uh, I guess from Jack [Nicholson]," said Belushi, "who I think got'em from Lou [Adler] who might have got 'em from a Laker Girl who probably got 'em from somebody, I dunno, somebody real important!"

That's fairly routine for Hollywood, not to mention indicative of how the makeup of sports crowds has changed in direct proportion to the difficulty of procuring tickets. Live audiences are increasingly portfolio-bearing, cellular-laden, button-down, corporate. As more seats go to season-ticket holders, big-business and special-interest groups, Somebody Real Important has become the ticket broker (or, watch your mouth, "scalper"), the one who frees up the precious booty and gets it into circulation pronto.

Hot tickets and cool brokers were as thick as crabs on the docks last week in Baltimore when Major League Baseball (MLB) underscalped the scalpers by subtly offering the Congress AU-Star tickets at face value. "I don't know where [it] came from," Rep. Jim Slattery, a Kansas Democrat, said of his ticket. "I don't think I took [it] [from MLB]." No broker/scalper could have whispered it any better,

Meanwhile, Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Littwin snickered at the All-Star, excuse the expression, fans, "Two kinds of people have tickets. Rich people. And really rich people...people who think Carl Hubbell invented that telescope."

Ah, but where were the tickets? Some were spread out in room 1232 of the Sheraton Hotel over, under and all around Ram Silverman, who runs a ticket-brokerage business, Golden Tickets. Others were in the sweaty paws of Mike Fitzgerald, a.k.a. "Minnesota Mike," a Runyonesque creature in flowered shorts, a pseudo-baseball shirt and a ponytail who worked the lobbies, elevators and streets, knocking off, be claims, "five for five" ($5,000 profit in the five-hour run-up before the game).

Both men passionately eschew the word "scalper." Says the earringed Silverman, who despite little sleep kept an air of perpetual charm: "Who's the scalper? This hotel room is jacked up twice its regular cost. Face value? What's face value, the marked price of your polo shirt? Listen, we're in the ultimate capitalist system. We're not out to hammer anybody. If the Oriole season-ticket holders and the MLB people and the players kept all their tickets, we wouldn't be here. But somebody wanted to forfeit their seats to make some bucks. We provide that service. We're the middleman."

Silverman got into the ticket business working for a woman who would later cheat a Japanese businessman out of $60,000. "I didn't want to get ginsenged to death," he says, so he went independent. While his partner, a muscular fellow named Joe Bonino, traipsed the Inner Harbor hunting tickets -known as "junk" or "cardboard" or (only the best ones) "fruit"--Silverman never left his room for four days. He feverishly slaved over phones, tickets, $100 bills and electronic notebooks right up until game time. Uh, long after game time.

Back in Dallas, Silverman drives a Mercedes and owns three polo ponies, but mostly the business yields doses of stress. At the Barcelona Olympics he was hauled in for holding up a sign that read, in four languages, BUYING TICKETS. At the Final Four in New Orleans, four huge customers, "drunk and disorderly," Silverman says, visited his room to complain about their tickets. Unfortunately, they ragged Bonino about his hair, which at the time was a burr cut. "I wanted some quick flurries. I wanted some blood on their fat asses," says the imposing Joe. The terrified quartet was persuaded not to pass Go on its quick way out.

Minnesota Mike Fitzgerald seems to have surpassed in reputation the legendary street hustlers of the business: Big Nate Clay, Doug the Rug, Knockout Pete, Wisconsin Tom, Metal Mouth and the ubiquitous "J.R.," who showed up in Baltimore from his home in Beverly Hills, vaguely clad in an ATLANTIC CITY LIFEGUARD tank top. "I was the only ticket hustler to get jailed at the Seoul Olympics," says J.R. "Nips made me an example. Four days in jail. No Kentucky Fried or anything. Hey, you press? No last names."

Fitzgerald is not so adverse to media since he started trading the junk as a batboy for the Minnesota Twins. In high school he speed-skated against Olympic legend Eric Heiden. He earned a marketing degree and owns a home just down the street from Kirby Puckett's mansion in Edina. We are not making this up. But he may be.

The weekend before the All-Star game, Minnesota Mike was working a NASCAR race. The day after the game he would be hustling the Lollapalooza concert tour in Trenton. Sometimes Fitzgerald works with brokers, filling their orders. Other times he's on his own. The man knows where the tickets are. In Edina, his son and daughter take him to show-and-tell at school: Our Dad, the Ticket Guy.

"Only seven states have laws against selling over face value," says Mike. "If Ticket Master can pull a $3.75 service charge over face, why can't I charge $50 over? To folks who want to pay it! Hey, the lowlifes can't make the big events." Conversely, Fitzgerald has moved tickets at 7 Final Fours, 8 Olympic Games, 11 Super Bowls and 12 All-Star games. "God gave me this one great ability," he says, "...to spot a police officer a mile away."

Late Tuesday afternoon God struck out when undercover officers ushered Fitzgerald--along with several other Ticketeers out of the Hyatt Hotel. By game time Minnesota Mike was back working the Will-Call ticket window at Camden Yards where no other hustlers dared to tread but where he soon turned an enormous profit.

"I was home free until I saw uniforms, plainclothes, Secret Service, all the heat in Maryland coming right at me. I thought I was a goner," said Minnesota Mike. "Then I realized they were surrounding somebody else. It was only Al Gore."