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Florida State Fair midway games undergo legal scrutiny before opening day

Ready to fly off the shelves: Melvin Stuit, 68, of Lecanto arranges birdhouses for sale at the Triple J Ranch booth at the Florida State Fair in Tampa on Thursday. The rustic birdhouses are handmade from cedar and cypress wood and sell for $20. Last year, vendor Jon Sheldon sold out of the birdhouses in six days, but this year he brought double the number.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Ready to fly off the shelves: Melvin Stuit, 68, of Lecanto arranges birdhouses for sale at the Triple J Ranch booth at the Florida State Fair in Tampa on Thursday. The rustic birdhouses are handmade from cedar and cypress wood and sell for $20. Last year, vendor Jon Sheldon sold out of the birdhouses in six days, but this year he brought double the number.

TAMPA — The sign said "Basketball," and that's what the game on the edge of the Florida State Fair midway appeared to be.

Basket, net, rim, ball. All there.

But Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober wasn't satisfied with appearances. His job Thursday morning, after all, was not to prosecute the county's criminals but to make sure that games such as Water Gun Fun and Skee Ball met the very specific guidelines set out in an inch-high stack of state statutes and codes.

And unless the rim was 18 inches in diameter, the ball regulation size and the hoop exactly 10 feet high, this game couldn't be called basketball.

Out came the measuring tape. Then, the verdict: The hoop was 9 inches too tall. Sheriff's Detective John Couey told the game operator to either lower the rim or change the name.

The Florida State Fair now has a game called "Asketball."

Each year, before thousands of people shell out thousands of dollars for the chance to win jumbo stuffed animals they don't need, the state attorney and a group of law enforcement officers embark on a journey through the midway. They scrutinize every booth and play every game, looking for darts that are dull, challenges that are rigged and rules that aren't displayed.

Operators usually get a chance to fix the problems. When they don't, law enforcement shuts them down. The games can't open for business until they have official clearance.

This may seem an odd job for the county's top prosecutor. But Florida Statute 616.24 requires elected state attorneys to be tough on crime — and on games. One year, Ober says, he closed a duck pond game because the throwing rings were too small to fit around the toy ducks' necks.

On Thursday, investigators notified fair officials after they found a booth with knives and brass knuckles for sale. Midway coordinator George Kolias said the items would most likely get pulled from the fairgrounds.

Otherwise, Ober and his colleagues found minor violations. Steeling themselves against an icy wind, they shot hoops, fired fake guns, tossed baseballs and threw rings.

At the "Bloc Bust," misdemeanor prosecutors took turns trying throw a ball to knock three blocks all the way off a low table. No one could do it. They asked game operator Wesley Wilber to prove the contest was possible to win.

Wilber cleared the table on his first try, satisfying authorities. After they moved on to the next booth, he chuckled.

"I got lucky on that shot," he said.

At Ring-A-Bottle, where customers pay $2 for 10 rings or $5 for a bucket, prosecutors were skeptical that the rings were wide enough to fall around the necks of glass soda bottles. It took dozens of tries by the group before Assistant State Attorney Greg Pizzo finally had success.

"They've never been fair," Ober said of the games. But, "they're legal."

Thursday's job wasn't complete until officials made sure one fair staple in particular met their personal standards.

"Hey, it's about time to measure the length of the corn dogs!" Ober reminded his group. "Make sure they're regulation."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Florida State Fair midway games undergo legal scrutiny before opening day 02/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 5, 2009 11:13pm]
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