Putting My Cards on the Table

I was recently at a holiday party that included an enjoyable grab bag/gift giving activity.  There were tea cups, candles, candies, some gift certificates…and the greatest wine rack ever.  Really.  (Sometimes you just have to grab the big ugly box.)

But, most of all, there were baseball cards.  Four packs of baseball cards from 1985 and 1986…

When I was a kid, baseball cards were an important part of my life.  I, of course, collected them, but it was more than that.  I read them.  I studied them.  I memorized them.  I played with them.  I invented games with them.  I also sorted them – time and again by player, by team, by season, by card number, and in many other ways and then back again.  (Might this be where I developed some tendencies to keep things in order?)

I had my baseball cards in boxes, wrapped with rubber bands, and later in plastic sheets.  I loved my baseball cards.

The first set I truly “collected” by buying packs at the store was the 1977 Topps set.  Those were great cards.  There a special joy when opening pack of cards and finding an All-Star or a Yankee.  Reggie.  Thurman Munson.  Graig Nettles.  These were some of the joys of my childhood.

I became hooked on baseball cards.

By 1978, I seemed to have the opportunity to buy even more cards and more packs.  I didn’t love this set as much as the 1977 cards, but they were still great. 

I wish today that I could find that same mix of enthusiasm, excitement, joy, and wonder as I had as a kid opening packs of baseball cards.  (Maybe part of adulthood is wishing wistfully for the ability to find the same positive emotions we experienced as children when seemingly ordinary things were magical.)

The 1979 Topps cards were also great.  For whatever reason (maybe I was getting older), this set seemed more serious to me.  I didn’t notice it at the time, and it might not be true, but these cards actually felt different, especially from the 1977 cards.  They were less “cardboard” and more “card stock.” 

Because all those cards were so much a part of my childhood, you could show me any card from any of those sets today and I could still tell you the name of the player, his team, and maybe even more about him.

By 1980, things had changed a bit.  I had learned that you could buy a complete set of cards, in a collector’s box, for one low price.  Based on my wish, my parents bought me that complete set. 

These were cool cards, but, because I already had the complete set, I didn’t buy as many packs in the stores.  My parents, who are very practical, didn’t allocate as much (or any) spare change to feed my baseball card habit.  “Why do you need to buy any packs of cards,” my mom would ask, “You have the whole set.”

I was eleven years old and my relationship with baseball cards was changing…

***

Let me take a step back…

Sometime around 1977, my dad bought me a huge box of cards at a flea market.  This box mostly contained cards from the 1974 Topps set.  Oh, how also I loved those cards!  That 1974 set remains my favorite of all time.  My closest relationship with any baseball cards is with that set.  I can’t really explain it.  This might because they were among the first cards I really played with.  More, it might be because they were from my dad.  I remembering seeing that box at the flea market.  I never expected my dad to buy it for me, and then, out of the blue, I was in baseball card heaven. 

The impact it left of me never went away.  In my life, the 1974 set are more than just baseball cards.

 “Look Dad, I got Yaz.”

***

Going back to 1980, at the time, it all seemed so much easier.  One payment, sent to the Renata Glasso Baseball Card Company in Brooklyn, New York, and instantly, I had the whole set. 

And that was cool.

But, in retrospect, it was too easy.  Much too easy.

By buying packs and trading cards with friends, I was not able to get the complete sets in 1977, 1978, or 1979.  I came close, but I never got all the cards.

Beginning in 1980, and for a number of years after, I got the whole sets with one payment.  Getting the sets that way was easy, but it wasn’t as much fun. 

Whenever you get something with no effort, it isn’t as much fun.

Part of the joy in succeeding, in anything, is the effort it takes to get there. 

(Part of the joy of marathoning for me is the struggle to even get to the race’s start.  I can’t really put into words the dread and trepidation I feel those autumn nights that come before a planned twenty mile training run.  It’s horrible and wonderful at the same time.  That’s part of the joy – those self-doubts, that fear, and the unknown…)

Sometimes the best parts of life, the times when we really find out who we are, come from the struggle.

I didn’t know any of this in 1980. 

Opening a complete set of baseball cards is fun, but short lived.  By buying the whole set, I lost out on the opportunity to discover the cards pack by pack, player by player over time.  That was the magic.  By having all the cards at one time, that magic was lost.

***

In 1981, two new baseball card companies emerged on the scene.  Now, in addition to Topps (the standard), there were baseball cards from Fleer and Donruss

That year my parents bought me all three complete sets.  How cool was that?  The cards were fun to sort, and organize, but the hobby was changing.  I wondered which the real cards were.  Were all the cards the same – or were some better than others?

And then, the worst thing happened…

I started to learn that baseball cards had value. 

In 1981, I got my first Baseball Card Price Guide. 

These weren’t toys any longer.  They were “investments.” 

Now, I was a kid who loved baseball.  You have to understand, these weren’t just cards of ballplayers.  They were gods.  They really were.  These were my heroes. 

(When one ages enough to know that their heroes are human, I think, he loses just a little bit about what makes childhood so wonderful.)

I couldn’t not play with the cards, but I played with them less, touched them less, and put more and more of them in plastic sheets where they’d stay in “mint” or “excellent” condition.  I started to feel guilty about touching my cards lest I destroy their future value.

My relationship with baseball cards had changed yet again.

***

After 1984, I never bought a complete set for myself again. 

Maybe I was growing up.  There was also a girl that I began spending my money on. She became my wife. 

And maybe it was that over the previous eight years, I had lost the true joy and the true magic of buying baseball cards.

I had forgotten the joy of opening a pack and finding one’s favorite player.

***

I wonder, when we focus more on the value of things, if we lose the personal relationships that are often the bedrocks of life…

***

Old habits die hard.  One year in college, my roommate and I bought a ton of packs of baseball cards like we were kids again. 

It was fun to find cards of Don Mattingly and my new favorite player – a scrappy third baseman named Mike Pagliarulo.

But it wasn’t the same.

***

Something also happened in those years between then and today, the value of baseball cards, maybe because of the economy, or the fact that you can get any card on eBay seemingly for pennies, dropped precipitously.  In short, they just ain’t worth what they used to be worth and a lot aren’t worth anything at all. 

Today there are so many card sets and subsets that it is impossible to know every kind of card.  That’s also a problem.

Once something isn’t so special – it’s just not as special. 

***

Of course, since that time I also became a dad.  My boys and I shared a good decade of buying cards in packs and at baseball card shops and sorting and sorting and sorting them.  Those are great memories.

Now I was the dad and delighting in seeing the joy in my sons’ eyes.  “Look Dad, it’s Andy Pettitte.”

Matsui!!!

But now, those boys, as well, have grown up.

(Why do we grow up so fast?) 

(Why do our kids grow up faster?)

Until the day of that recent holiday party, my sons and I hadn’t opened a pack of baseball cards in a number of years. 

And then, once I brought the cards home, we each were able to step back, for a moment, into our own childhoods…

All because of a grab bag game.

***

We found a few good players – Cal Ripken, Jr. and Nolan Ryan, to name two – but the biggest thrill for me was flipping through the cards and finding a card of my old favorite player, Mike Pagliarulo.

It was fun reliving, if even for a moment, the joys of opening cards and finding a true prize.

Mike Pags.

Pretty darn cool.

***

The lesson in all this, I think, is that it is essential to always try to remember what it is like to be a kid.  When we lose that, I think we lose a lot.  

It is important to try to find the joys of childhood that remain within us. We need to try to capture that innocence, that wonder, and that magic.  We need to tap into the imagination that is a part of every child.

As a school principal, I try to remind teachers, and myself, that this connection to the wonders of childhood is something that we can never lose.  It is a big part of what elementary school is all about.

Sometimes we’re reminded about what it’s like to be a child by participating in child-like activities… like opening baseball cards… and remembering when that magic opened our own imaginations.

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