True Value: A Journey Through a Box of Baseball Cards (Part 2)

A Dwight Gooden card could be an exciting get, depending on the year (via supportcaringllc).

A Dwight Gooden card could be an exciting get, depending on the year (via supportcaringllc).

The excitement of getting a Dwight Gooden card depended greatly on the year it was from (via supportcaringllc).[/caption]Elbow deep in cardboard now, I kept digging through the box.

I had retrieved the box from a boyhood closet, where cards by the thousands had languished for consecutive decades. Now it sat like a treasure chest in the middle of a hardwood floor. Midway through the collection, and still eager to find the older and more valuable cards that I presumed were at the bottom of the box, I began to organize the cards in categories – not in objective categories such as Hall of Famers and All-Stars, but categories I created.

Oddities

On both a Fleer ’91 and a Donruss ’93, future slugger Sammy Sosa – he of the eventual 609 home runs and notoriously muscular denial – is bunting.

On both a Donruss ’83 and a Topps ’87, noted misanthrope Dave Kingman – he of the “practical joke” in which he sent a rat to a reporter – is smiling.

By 1992, Dwight Gooden had begun his fade from ace to average. But did Donruss, in an image from Gooden’s 1991 campaign, really need to show him being removed from a game, head down and rump compassionately patted?

On his Donruss ’91, Brady Anderson is holding no fewer than six bats. The image is Bunyanesque, a portrait of a man so strong that he can handle 12 pounds of carved lumber. Is it proof for conspiracy theorists? Was Brady becoming, um, abnormally strong? Or was he just growing into his body?

On a Topps ’92, Yankees infielder Alvaro Espinoza is standing on second base with his right arm cocked, ready, presumably, to throw his helmet toward the first-base dugout. Granted, Espinoza would retire as a .254 lifetime hitter and thus a man who’d made his share of outs, at second base and elsewhere, but why, among all the available moments, would Topps choose a demonstrable failure as the one to portray Espinoza’s 1991 season?

In his 17-year big league career, Juan Gonzalez would wear three jersey numbers. None would be 12, the number printed on the knob of his bat in a photo obviously snapped during spring training for his Topps ’91 card. A quick search reveals that catcher Geno Petralli, he of the 24 lifetime home runs and .267 batting average, wore the number 12 for the ’91 Rangers. Why had Gonzalez borrowed Petralli’s bat? Well, they did both have mustaches.

On his ’86 Topps, he is Jorge Bell. On his ’88 Topps, he is George Bell. On his ’91 Fleer, he is Tim Raines. On his ’91 Topps, he is Rock Raines. On his ’90 Score, he is Joey Belle. On his ’92 Leaf, he is Albert Belle. On his ’88 Topps, he is Dennis Boyd. On his ’89 Donruss, he is Oil Can Boyd. And on each of his 28 trillion cards that appeared in my box – seriously, why is there always one guy whose card comes five to a pack? – Brian Hunter is Brian Hunter. If I didn’t know better, I’d think there were two Brian Hunters.

On his Donruss ’83, Ron Washington is not bunting. Yet.

If his Topps ’87 is correct, Jim Morrison took time away from his music career – actually, time away from being dead – to play for the ’86 Pirates, Meanwhile, according to a Donruss ’91, Tim Leary took time away from psychedelic drugs and the eight-circuit model of consciousness to pitch for the ’91 Yankees. Perhaps if he had turned on, tuned in and dropped a 3-2 curveball on the outside corner, he wouldn’t have lost 19 games that year.

Even Odder Oddities

Rance Mulliniks, we know you played big league baseball. And for 16 years! But how? On your Fleer ’90 you look like a seventh grade science teacher who, having lost his primary glasses, wore his backup pair to a Blue Jays fantasy camp. And with your mouth open in a style reminiscent of early Homo habilis, you appear to have difficulty grasping the concept of catch and throw. How hard can it be, Mr. Mulliniks? You’re a science teacher!

Hey, Juan Berenguer, what’s so funny? Outside of that Wiffle ball game when my dog Wilbur spoiled my inside-the-park home run by executing a perfect crack-back block while my brother guffawed, I’ve never seen a pitcher laugh so hard. Had the Topps photographer just told the one about the priest and the rabbi? Or had he arrived with a booger in his nose?

Chris Donnels! You weren’t a magician with the bat, as evidenced by the .225 batting average on the back of your Donruss ’92. But were you a magician with the ball? Witness the levitating cowhide – not to mention your Merlinesque stare – on the front of that card. Can you also bend a spoon?

Why the face, Lonnie Smith? Oh, that’s why! On the front of your Donruss ’92 you aren’t just sliding headfirst into third base, you are also eating third base. Might I suggest as a palate-cleansing sorbet?

Carlos Hernandez, I feel bad for you. Not only are you lost in a crowd – 17 other Carlos Hernandezes have played pro ball, one in the big leagues at the same time you played! – but, by showing you in a catcher’s mask, your Topps Stadium Club ’94 only adds to the sad anonymity. Worse, since you’re not wearing the rest of the catching gear, it’s clear that you are warming up the pitcher. You had a nice 10-year career, Carlos, but your card has made you a scrub.

Jim Eisenreich, your dark-eyed stare is scary. The fact that you are wielding a bat like a two-pound truncheon is even scarier. Please don’t kill that bunny you are apparently staring at in your Topps ’92. Maybe his name is Cuddles!

Hey, Jack Clark. Whatever you’re wearing in that Fleer ’91 — a Padres pinstripe jersey, as it turns out – is exactly what I want to wear. With the possible exception of Rob Deer on his Topps ’92, I have never seen a player perform so magnificently as a model for Paco Rabanne. That casual lean; that cool stare; those shades flipped-up so that the she, whoever she is, can see the smoldering intensity in your eye-blacked eyes – they all add up to a stunning portrait of the masculine man we all want to be.

Tony Tarasco! In your Score ’94 you are still a year away from the play – or the non-play, or the play that Jeffrey Maier made – that would do more for your legacy than a .240 lifetime average ever could. But why, in your photo, do you insist on looking like Dizzy Gillespie? If, on the other hand, you are holding your breath until you get your way, I suggest you give up.

Dave Nilsson, are you the Marlboro Man? You gaze pensively toward the distance on that Topps Stadium Club ’93, your visage cast in a soft and soulful light. Question: Did they let you build a campfire near home plate? If not, where did you cook the beans?

Oh, Orel Hershiser. Despite your “Bulldog” nickname and magnificent career, you’ve always struck me as a mild-mannered nerd, someone who might collect – oh, I don’t know – ceramic figurines. Is it this perception that inspired your Upper Deck ’92, in which photo you’re wearing Ray-Bans while leaning stylishly on an elbow and grinning into the camera as if you are a hotshot aviator who has just shot down three dozen enemy planes?

Greg Swindell! You’re a pitcher, not a belly-itcher. Nor are you a hitter in the weekend beer league. So why, instead of being on the mound in your ’93 Topps, are you wearing your hat backward while swinging a weighted bat? Hey, whatever. It’s your turn to bring the Bud.

Mark Salas, you can’t fool me. Sure, it looks as if you’re ready to field a throw and apply the tag, but the fact that you’re smiling and not wearing catcher’s gear is proof of your chicanery. Add to that the batting cage and the empty stadium, and, yep, the jig is up. There’s no crying in baseball, Salas, but neither is there smiling just prior to a nonexistent collision.

John Franco! Are you signing autographs on your Topps ’92, or looking to borrow a hat? Seriously, man, did you leave your cap in the cab?

Hey, Gary Matthews. Is that a fly ball you’re gazing at? Or is it the mothership?

Steve Balboni, you disappoint me. Why so sad? Did the photographer mock your mustache? C’mon, chins up! You’re on a baseball card! – a Fleer ’87!

The Department of “Huh?”

Fred Lynn played for the Tigers?

Kirk Gibson played for the Royals?

Graig Nettles played for the Braves?

Tom Glavine played hockey for the Braves? (Per his Score ’92, he sure did!)

Is it a coincidence …

… that I found a Lenny Dykstra right before I found a Joe Klink?

… that I found a Mookie Wilson right before I found a Bill Buckner?

… that I found a Brian Hunter right before I found a Brian Hunter?

Back-Of-The-Card Miscellany (And Bonus Commentary!)

Juan Eichelberger, ’84 Donruss: Under Career Highlights it reads, “Was in Indians’ starting rotation the 1st half of ’83.” Ouch, Donruss. Did he also sit quietly in team meetings, and let Rick Sutcliffe eat the last slice of pizza?

Guillermo Hernandez, Topps ’89: “Prefers to be known by his given name, Guillermo.” Prefers not to be known by someone else’s given name, Tim.

Steve Bedrosian, Topps ’87: “Steve’s hobbies include four-wheeling and breeding dogs.” … though rarely at the same time.

Pascual Perez, ’92 Score: “Pascual kept everyone loose with his antics on the mound. Best of all, he had a winning attitude.” By all indications, Score employed the person who wrote my high-school yearbook.

Mo Vaughn, ’92 Score: “Built like the Terminator and almost as lethal with a bat in his hand, he showed off his prodigious power in ’91….” True, but after the 2000 season, Vaughn would not be back.

Jay Buhner, Topps ’89. “Jay’s favorite spectator sports are pro basketball and baseball.” For 15 seasons, he’d have a good seat.

Ozzie Guillen, Score ’92: “His bubbly personality and wicked wit are enough to keep his teammates loose.” See? What’d I tell ya? Wicked wit.

Buck Martinez, ’83 Donruss: “Did some radio broadcasting of the World Series during the offseason.” Hey, big league dreams do come true.

Tino Martinez, Topps ’94: “Tino, who as a kid worked hauling tobacco bales at his father’s cigar factory, played whiffleball with his brothers in their living room, using the fireplace as a strike zone.” Awesome. I can’t add to that.

Scott Hatteberg, ’92 Topps: “Scott enjoys skiing and collecting baseball cards in his leisure.” This, too, should pass without comment.

Finally, The Memories

– Donruss ’92 (for now, the player remains nameless): It is July 26, 1990, and I am standing on the field at Arlington Stadium while the Yankees take batting practice. (At the time I work for a magazine. I don’t write about baseball, ever, but do have a press pass.) Tonight is a big night – the night when Nolan Ryan is gunning for his 300th win. Standing beside me is a Yankee. He looks familiar, but I can’t place him. (Yankees jerseys don’t have names on the back.) Who is this guy?

Cool as a refrigerated cucumber, I turn and say, “Hey.”

Nodding, he says, “Hey.”

And that’s it. No introductions are made.

At the top of the first I take my seat. The PA guy says, “Leading off…”

“Ah,” I say, “so that’s who it is.”

He promptly strokes a rope to the wall. A nanosecond later, he’s on third.

This is my introduction to Deion Sanders – fastest man I’ve ever seen.

Kevin Seitzer, Donruss ’92: I am standing on the field just prior to a Rangers-Royals game in ’90 or ’91. At the plate, taking BP, is this gifted craftsman, a .300 hitter in each of his first three seasons. Pitch after pitch, Seitzer hits ropes in the gap, liners up the middle. Off his bat the ball sounds like – well, a line drive. Thing is, I’m not really watching Seitzer. I’m staring at the guy a few feet away from me, a tailback waiting to hit. TV does grave injustice to those thighs – you have to see them to even begin to believe them. They are granite from a gifted sculptor, bigger in circumference than entire second basemen. Astounding.

A minute later he steps to the plate. Everyone stops. Everything ends. Each mortal gaze is locked on the figure in the right-hand box. Seitzer, slinking away, is suddenly a small and forgotten subordinate, a pro athlete who now seems a child, meek, weak, scarcely a shadow in Bo Jackson’s light. No one else exists, really, and now the demonstration begins. The sound is violence, a piercing crack, trailed by “whooooaaaaas,” preceding the clanking of steel.

Roberto Alomar, ’92 Topps: It is May 1, 1991, and I am sitting several rows above the third-base dugout at Arlington Stadium. Nolan Ryan is on the mound, and I can hear every fastball – a zip, and then a loud leathery thud.

“He’s got a chance,” says everyone.

Two hours later I watch as Alomar whiffs on a two-strike heater.

He falls to a knee, forever.

The image will be permanent, like a baseball card’s, like a seventh no-hitter.

Garry Templeton, Topps ’88: It is the summer of ’76, and my team is in Tulsa for a regional tournament. Early on our fourth morning I leave my room to fetch a local newspaper. It’s not the big league box scores I need to see. It’s the one for the Double-A Drillers. A shortstop named Templeton, I’ve noticed, is notching three or four hits every game. Who is this guy?

He is Garry Templeton, or will be, and for the next few years I’ll follow him like he is mine, like I discovered him, great scout that I am, in a Tulsa hotel.

Felix Jose, Donruss ’91: The A’s are standing in front of the dugout for the singing of the National Anthem. Just to the left of Jose Canseco is Felix Jose. From left to right the jerseys read, “Jose Canseco.” Did they plan it this way? Jose probably didn’t. But Canseco probably did.

Geno Petralli, Fleer ’90: It is a warm summer night at Arlington Stadium. Aided and abetted by Ozzie Guillen (see Part I), one woman has already run on the field and now a second has followed. Emboldened by the audience approval, a third woman climbs the rail and runs directly at catcher Petralli, who, in full gear, jukes the pursuit. He proceeds to perform a victory dance – a dance linked back to me.

Jimmy Jones, Donruss ’88: Fat. The fastball was fat – hard, yes, but right down the middle – and as I mope toward the dugout after a called strike three, I wonder if I’ll always recall the fastball, now just a wasted chance, delivered by the top high-school prospect. A few years later he’ll appear on his first baseball card. Meanwhile, and perhaps always, I’ll indulge a typical high-school lament: the one that got away.

Charlie Hough, Fleer ’91: After a game I enter the clubhouse. Why not? I have a pen. Sitting shirtless, without a muscle in sight, is Rangers pitcher Charlie Hough. Grinning, he is drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette.

“Hello, young fella. Have a seat. Wanna beer?”

Charlie Hough, you give us hope.

Wilson Alvarez, Donruss ’92: It is July 24, 1989, and, leaving politics apart from baseball, I am sitting beside George W. Bush. He’s excited to see this new Texas pitcher, a Venezuelan leftie just called up from Double-A.

“He’s got good stuff,” he says.

“I guess we’ll see,” I reply.

And we do. Alvarez proceeds to give up three hits, including two monster homers, and two walks before being lifted without having recorded an out.

His ERA for the game: infinity.

His ERA for the season: infinity.

His ERA on every baseball card from now to the end of days: infinity.

Some things go on and on. They endure, without finish.

_____

As I neared the bottom of the box, I realized I hadn’t encountered the cards I’d really come to find, the valuable cards, the ones from my first year of collecting. Then it hit me. Then I remembered.

I had sold them, way back when, to a kid named Norman.

A kid named Norman, now a man, had left with my collection.

I nodded and then kept digging, through the few remaining cards. Among them I found the lone ’75 representative: Jay Johnstone, outfielder, Phillies.

I laughed. Had the universe arranged to bequeath me the card of a noted prankster, forever grinning at grown-up me? I laughed again. The trip had been worth the time.

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Comments

  1. Pete said...

    John – Just wanted to say I really enjoyed the series. Nettles did play for the Braves, his last stop before finishing up for a brief stint in Montreal. I remember sometime in 1988 I thought I made a wise investment of buying 500 Nettles cards spaning his whole career for $15 in gearing up for his obvious induction into Cooperstown. I was blinded since he was my favorite player of all-time. My son is of the age now where he has started collecting cards and he asked me why I had so many Nettles cards. My answer mirrored the point of your story. I gave my son 10 boxes of unopened cards of 1987 Topps, the year I first finished the set from buying them at the corner store, those were to be traded in for the beach house someday but the joy he showed on his face in taking ownership of them trumped the disapointment of my failed investment ten-fold. A candy store located in the Lower East side of Manhattan sells packs of the high-tech for the time, SportFlicks for a $1 a pack. The two of us are enjoying buying them, along with the 1982 MLB stickerbook, packs of stickers which they also sell. Though the dreams of building a baseball card empire as kid were shattered with the markup of Gregg jeffreies Donruss rookie card, getting back to basics with a new generation and enjoying that can’t be quantified monetarily. Thanks again.

  2. Jim said...

    When I was in college a grade school acquaintance called me up and asked if I still had my baseball card collection. Maybe about 1,000 cards from mostly the mid to late 70s. Oddball 60s stuff would have been scattered in especially amongst the Red Sox and Mets cards. Nothing could have been in true mint condition at least I have a hard time believing that in retrospect. He offered $100 (this is 1987 or 1988) and we settled on the weird figure of $145. He probably made his money back and then some on a handful of cards provided he turned them relatively quickly. Would love to know what he got across the board and what fetched the most. Times have changed and there are zillions of every card dating back for many years. I have lost track of the market. Would be interested to know what still moves the dial as far as price goes from stuff that isn’t Honus Wagner level rare.

  3. said...

    Wilson Alvarez’s next start wouldn’t come until more than two years later on August 11, 1991. My dad asked (out of the blue) if I wanted to go to a game that day and of course I said yes. We sat on the third base side at Memorial Stadium. I laughed when they showed the career line for the White Sox pitcher opposing the Orioles that day.

    He promptly threw a non-hitter giving up five walks and striking out seven along the way.

    His career ERA stood at 3.00 after two career starts.

    • John Paschal said...

      Yes, I absolutely remember that no-hitter. Tom Grieve was the Rangers GM at the time. He had traded Alvarez to the White Sox. I’ll always remember what Grieve told a radio audience after Alvarez threw the no-no. He said that his daughter turned to him the next morning and said, “Way to go, Dad.”

      I guess you never know how things will turn out, both in the short term and in the long run. Alvarez was never a star, but he went on to have a pretty good 14-year career.

      Another interesting thing is that three future managers played in that no-hitter game: Robin Ventura, Ozzie Guillen and Bob Melvin.

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