Scalping Rays is a tough gig amid hard times

ST. PETERSBURG — Mark Williams called up his old friend Jim Hickey a few days back, just to catch up.

The fact that Hickey is the pitching coach of the World Series-bound Tampa Bay Rays may have played some role in the timing of this phone call.

"I left him a long message," Williams said. "Buttered him up."

Now here comes the pitch:

"Oh, and by the way," Williams added. "My son and I can't buy tickets."

Get in line, pal.

Which is exactly what Williams did Wednesday, along with everyone else who wanted the hottest ticket in town: Game 1 of the World Series at Tropicana Field.

But things weren't so hot for the people here to sell those tickets: scalpers.

• • •

The hardened stares, the nervous manner, always having to hold your hand up in the air.

For a crowd that gets together at the most glamorous and exciting events, they sure don't seem to enjoy themselves.

But then they're here to work. They are scalpers, and they came to this busy stretch of Central Avenue between 11th and 13th streets S to re-sell tickets — despite the confusing ban on where tickets can be scalped — right across from police headquarters.

Business, though, isn't what it used to be.

"This is the worst year to have the World Series," said budding scalper Alberto Miranda, 25.

Scalpers here had a lot to grumble about: the economy, the match-up, The Dow, the fans, online auctions, the baseball market here — basically, everything.

Early morning seemed the best time for scalpers. But time passed, and it became a buyer's market.

Upper deck seats in the 300s: $100 tickets were going for $175 to $200. Press level seats in the 200s: $225 tickets were going for $300.

Some scalpers did even worse than that: eight were cited by St. Petersburg police for violating a city ordinance that forbids scalping in public right-of-ways.

A few buyers fared even worse: police took four complaints of patrons buying counterfeit tickets.

Miranda and a friend spent about $5,000 for 12 tickets online hoping to score a profit.

"Now we're hoping to break even," Miranda said.

• • •

The signs all say: Need Tickets.

But that's not accurate. Most of those signs are being held up by scalpers who already have tickets.

Rick Hollingsworth's sign has the virtue of being true: Dad And I Need Two Tickets. Go Rays!

Taped to the back of his old black Devil Rays cap, the 45-year-old Madeira Beach resident and his 76-year-old father, Jim, are in the thick of the scalping scrum.

It took about 20 minutes to get a pair. They paid $300 each for $225 press level seats. Not bad.

"We could have waited and gotten them cheaper," said the son.

But this is his dad's 20th World Series. So why wait?

Some tried connections.

Mark Williams played minor league baseball with Jim Hickey, the Rays' pitching coach.

Williams flirted with AAA ball, then became a teacher and baseball coach in Hillsborough County. When Hickey came on board with the Rays, Williams said the two caught up on old times.

But when it came time to score World Series tickets, Williams never heard back from Hickey.

He understood. Surely Hickey had much more important things to worry about.

Still, Williams, 51, wanted to take his 13-year-old son, Tanner, to see the World Series.

Online ticket auctions scared him. "I don't trust those computer printouts," he said.

So he came to the mecca of scalping to find two tickets. He spent $350 — $175 each — on two 300 level tickets. Face value: $100 apiece.

Still, money isn't everything.

"If I get to take my kid to the World Series," Williams said. "It's priceless."

Staff photographer Kainaz Amaria contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Scalping Rays is a tough gig amid hard times 10/22/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 24, 2008 10:28am]

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