You could tell baseball season was imminent.
The seats were packed with fans. There was the ritual nod to the national anthem and patriotism. And Wally the Beer Man scanned the crowd, looking for buyers.
"It's a new season," proclaimed Peter Wold.
The scene was not Target Field, but Hennepin County District Court. The case: The State v. Walter McNeil, aka "Wally the Beer Man."
It was perhaps the most All-American case so far this year, with images of hot dogs, baseball and beer filling the courtroom. You could almost smell the infield being watered.
McNeil, known by anyone who has ever attended a professional sporting event in Minnesota by his "Beer Man" sobriquet, was on trial for selling alcohol to a minor last season, a charge that ended his stint as a vendor at Target Field, where he was known to be more reliable than Matt Capps. Wold, his lawyer, claimed that a decoy and cop entrapped the redoubtable Beer Man.
Normally this would be a minor case over a minor offense. But it took on a playoff feel when the Beer Man hauled out the heavy lumber. He got Wold, the Rod Carew of defense attorneys, to represent him for free. And he got Joe Friedberg, the Harmon Killebrew of Minnesota lawyers, to testify to his character. Friedberg has never met a scoundrel he didn't like, so I'm not so sure about the wisdom of that strategy.
Friedberg and Wally know each other because they both own racehorses. It's a great country.
As a character, you can't do much better than Wally. The only way he could appear more sympathetic to the typical male sports fanatic is if he were also a stripper at the Tenth Inning bar, dancing to pay for college. Guys love to hear that story.
As to the facts -- Wally admitted selling beer to a minor. He was arrested and charged with a gross misdemeanor along with a few other vendors, including co-defendant Ed Stepnick. And yes, in each instance they charged $7 for a beer at Target Field, but under the law the price is only a crime in spirit, not in fact.
Wold was in rare courtroom form, channeling Clarence Darrow and summoning up images of conniving, overbearing government, a corrupt and dishonest cop (who was fired after the Target Field arrests for lying in another case) and a sniveling snitch "camouflaged as a Twins fan" who hoped to further his career and get his jollies by taking down a couple of old beer peddlers.
Of the decoy, Anthony Pasquale, Wold said, "It was great fun for him. Make no doubt, Pasquale wanted to please [officer] Peter Ritschel and his new contacts at the Minneapolis Police Department."
Wold even suggested the sting was evidence of a dictatorship, and encouraged the jury to rebel. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely," he warned. "This is the one time in your life you can say no to your government and they can't do anything except thank you for your work."
It was great theater, writ small. I just wish Wally would have occasionally punctuated the show with his booming voice: "Cooold beer!"
The four women and two men on the jury watched Wold and Assistant City Attorney Judd Gushwa trade barbs. The jurors looked like they could have used a bag of peanuts.
"Why do you know McNeil and Stepnick sold to minors? Because they told you," snapped Gushwa.
Wold suggested the officer targeted Wally because he's famous. "[Ritschel] said he'd never heard of Wally the Beer Man," said an incredulous Wold. "Really? Really? REALLY?"
Apparently, the jury agreed, and acquitted the Beer Man. Stepnick was found guilty of a petty misdemeanor, "a non-crime," in Wold's view.
But that doesn't mean the legend will be in the stands for the season opener. He's still barred from hawking beers at Target Field.
The Twins' lawyers "don't know Wally, don't know his allure here," said Wold after the verdict. "The jury thought he was entrapped. After 41 years, they trick you into selling a beer and it's over. That's cold-blooded. You'd think it would be good PR for them to say, 'Wally, you are not guilty, welcome back.'"
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