The box – 15 inches long, 11 inches wide and 11 inches deep, with “renewable resource” printed on one of the flaps – had sat undisturbed in a closet at my mother’s house for more than two decades, a time when I had explored a variety of incentives and yields but none in rectangular cardboard. Now, having retrieved and opened the box, I waited for the smell of pink sweetness to further wed the past and the present, a scented reminder of the flat stick of a bubblegum that upon contact with the tongue would balkanize into several gum republics before reconstituting into a single unified state. None came, the smell remaindered to memory.
In its absence I gazed at the artifacts, disordered tokens of separate but connected lives. Framed for posterity, the players had somehow intersected my Saturday jaunts to 7-Eleven, back when I had chewed that gum without regard for consequences. Cavities? What cavities? The sugar, such an addictive rush, would always usher the discovery of a coveted all-star infielder keeping company with some no-name pitcher, the sort I might as well have trashed with the played-out gum.
But here they were now, I imagined, all of them, still in this long-unopened box. I gazed at its treasure, thrilled but also uncertain. Would I find what recalled? Would I discover, or rediscover, the faces I’d put away? After all this time I could still envision the ’75 Rod Carew card. I could still see the “AL ALL STAR 2nd Base” printed inside a bold white star in the bottom right-hand corner, and the man himself, the batting champ, in a momentary but everlasting pose: pretending to swing the bat for a Topps photographer.
I hadn’t seen them in decades, but I could still picture the Bench, the Palmer, the Ryan and the Brett, each now poised between paired applications of fair market price. How much had I paid, using my own skimmed lunch money, for the cards at 7-Eleven? Wasn’t it something like 15 cents for the 10-count pack? And how much, today, were these cards worth?
Focused now, my eyes came upon an inch-thick stack of newer cards, purchased in early adulthood, all held together by a blue rubber band. Clearly, this wasn’t the ideal storage. A rubber band could easily damage a card – remove it from the ranks of mint condition, the go-to status for any collector who had monetized his hobby – and sharply reduce its value.
The fact remained, however, that I hadn’t collected cards for the purpose of creating a foolproof investment portfolio – not at first, anyway. As a kid, I considered each card a window to a world I wished to inhabit, a souped-up Neverland where grown men played the same game I played. If not windows the cards were portraits, each of a man I wanted to become. Not until years later, when I had become a man, did I look to cards as a sound investment, a way to buy that 10-room beach house by placing a box in Mom’s closet and waiting for it to go ka-ching!
Alas, like every so-called collector who’d bought a pack during the first Bush Administration, I’d discover that my Topps and Fleer and Donruss – the ones issued circa ’86 to ’92 – weren’t worth the print on their cardboard. Thanks to press runs in the millions, the Glavines and Griffeys had joined the Meolis and Montagues, players whose cards, owing to the basics of demand, were worthless. The old price guides – $10 minimum value! – had made a mockery of investment dreams. No longer would Jose Canseco (Fleer ’90) put little Jimmy through Harvard.
Still, even as I gazed at the cards, I felt the thrill that precedes discovery even if the treasure is what you once stashed away. First, the cards lay in a heap whose excavation might reveal what archaeology often uncovers: truths more surprising than those we imagined, and relics whose value is understood only through the eyes of those who buried them. Second, I reckoned that the older, more valuable cards lay somewhere at the bottom of the pile, primed for conversion into something tangible and pricey – if not a beach house, then a beach vacation.
Grinning, I reached for the stack. Upon seeing the top card I laughed. A ’92 Topps, it showed a skinny shortstop in the instant that precedes the outcome, a batter stepping toward the pitch. In the time since I bought the card I had grown to dismiss Ozzie Guillen as an egocentric blowhard. But back in the early ’90s I really liked the guy. Now a memory came to meet me: One summer night, while sitting above the visitors dugout at old Arlington Stadium, I feel a tap on my left shoulder. I look up to see an attractive young woman gazing down at me.
She smiles and says, “I’m gonna go down on the field.”
Does that mean we’re not going out for drinks?
Disappointed by the romantic development but still happy that she has chosen me, among all these people, as her confessor, I reply, “Go for it.”
I then watch as the woman descends the steps toward the dugout. Once there, she leans in and says something. On the top step, Guillen turns around and nods assuringly. Given the go-ahead, she climbs over the dugout while Guillen helps her down. Safely on the ground, she runs toward the Rangers pitcher while Ozzie, having aided and abetted, howls.
Gazing at the card, I remembered how much I had liked that guy, the other Ozzie, the younger Ozzie. I didn’t like him now, but so what? Such is life. Things change. Feelings fade, move around, collide with other feelings. But that doesn’t devalue the feelings you once enjoyed and claimed as your own.
Those feelings no longer exist, sure, but neither have they vanished.
It is a sunny afternoon in the 1970s, and I am tossing a ball to myself in the front yard of our house on Rupley Lane. Just after snagging a “deeeep driiiiive” at “the warning track” to win “a dramatic Game Seven” of the World Series – cue crowd noise: bwaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!! – I see my sister Laurie arrive in the driveway. Smiling in a way that Santa would smile if he were a blonde-haired teenage girl, she tells me to hold out my hands for a surprise.
I do, and immediately feel the presence of one … two … three … four … four packs of baseball cards! I thank her like no boy has ever thanked a sister, like no boy has ever thanked anyone, and run posthaste into the house.
Once inside I stack the packs in a short column on the den floor, to express with impromptu architecture the magnificence of my windfall. With a deep breath I pluck the pack at the top of the column, feeling in my palm the familiar edges of the still-concealed cards, the weight and solidity of 10 rectangular treasures, the telltale contours of that flat stick of gum, and, finally, the waxy texture of the vibrantly colorful paper – so colorful that it seems precisely like wrapping paper, as if it really is Christmas in late July.
Eager, I press my fingers to the flaps and gently pry them apart. The snap, so satisfying, is the auspicious prelude to a stratified discovery, an excavation whose Meoli/Montague layers will render the Carew/Jackson layers eminently more exciting, greatness requiring the props of mediocrity to set it above and beyond … and, now, as I put the Guillen card aside, I recalled that boyhood feeling. I remembered – I felt – the thrill of wondering, “Who’s first? Who’s next?” Were Rod and Reggie just waiting for me to find them?
Well, not now.
Next, in this moment, I arrived at Delino DeShields. What stood out most was the word “Expos,” once so familiar but now extinct, a vanished ancestor in the chain of descent. Here and now, the card seemed ample proof that no matter its appraised value, memorabilia might always serve as a time capsule, a cache of information that yields a nod or a grin. This card, a Topps ’92, omitted as much as it revealed: Like Guillen, DeShields is batting from the left side. But on closer inspection you see that he is wearing only a hat, not a helmet.
The picture is posed. The moment is faked, a fraudulent reality but still a reality, still an honesty of product met with a sincerity of appraisal. The moment, such as it was, had produced the card that I now held in my hands, a card as real as any other. On the back it read, “His leadoff HR gave Expos a 1-0 win vs. Dodgers 4-30-91.” What it didn’t say is – doesn’t say – is that in the year that Topps produced the card, DeShields produced his son, Delino Jr., now patrolling center field for the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks.
It seemed to me, in the moment, that a card is never in isolation, never offset. Even if stored for 20 years, it is always a link in an unbroken chain.
It could have been any day, at any place. Maybe I had popped into the E-Z Mart for a Coke, or elswhere for a six-pack of beer. Maybe I was in line at the market, preparing to buy a Swanson’s frozen dinner, when I noticed the see-through packages of Cansecos and Goodens at the checkout.
Whatever the place, I grabbed the cards and said, “Ring ’em up!”
And why not?
According to my calculations, I was paying 50 cents on the dollar – heck, maybe 40. The supermarket might as well have given me the money, yeah?
Strutting toward my blue Corolla – soon to be traded in, no doubt, for a red Porsche – I’d ask myself, “If the cards are so valuable, why doesn’t Topps just keep them?” The problem was, I never bothered to answer the question.
Now, years later, I kept flipping through a worthless stack, cards that no appraiser would ever overvalue … cards I should have wrapped around the dispenser, used as directed and flushed directly down the crapper.
I came next to Edgar Martinez (Topps ’92), his gaze fixed on a distance more inscrutable than even the card’s blurred background. Was he looking for Ken Griffey Jr., or was he searching for some bright promise of what might come? What Martinez couldn’t know then, beyond the stats on the back of the card, were the facts that I knew now, the sorts of certainties that might have populated his ’92 dreams: a .312 lifetime average, 2,247 hits, six 100-RBI seasons and seven All-Star selections. But here, on this keepsake, he remained an ancestral version of his eventual self, a player whose career had been synopsized in one enduring line: “Edgar went 4-for-4 with a Triple and Home Run and scored 4 Runs in 14-3 triumph vs. Indians, 7-14-91.”
It had been a great performance in what would be a great career, but was the card worth more than the vegetable medley on that old frozen dinner? I went to my computer, and for the first time in decades I sought a card’s value.
The result: 69 cents.
I kept moving through the stack: Lou Whitaker, Rob Dibble, Andre Dawson, Omar Vizquel, Fred McGriff, Jack Clark, Joe Carter, Ron Gant, Ryne Sandberg and Darryl Strawberry – all great players, some Hall of Famers, but their cards?
I grabbed a Cal Ripken Jr. card and searched online, hoping that one of history’s most beloved players would defy this woeful market performance. Wincing at the truth, I turned the card over, searching for solace in numbers devoid of dollar signs: Following the ’91 season, Ripken had notched 1,638 games – and that meant consecutive. I turned the card to the front. In the photo he is staring out from the batter’s box, bat in hand, having elevated the ball to right field. What happened here? We cannot know. We’re in a moment between twin mysteries: a pitch that preceded a swing, and the result that lasted. Still, despite the riddle of the instant, this is a dot on a pointillist portrait that hangs on a Hall of Fame wall.
It means something.
But the card?
At once eager and disappointed, I continued through the cards: Wade Boggs, Alan Trammel, Tom Glavine, Vince Coleman, Craig Biggio, Jack Morris, Julio Franco, Frank Thomas, Cecil Fielder, Will Clark, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Greg Maddux, George Brett, John Smoltz, Curt Schilling, Robbie Alomar, Eddie Murray, Kirk Gibson, Barry Bonds, Kirby Puckett, Randy Johnson – all All-Stars, some MVPs, some Hall of Famers, and yet all of them, in their cardboard incarnations, worth less than half a ham sandwich.
What world is this, I wondered, where a cardboard box is a suitable bank for the souvenirs of mastery? It had always seemed odd, somehow unjust, that a man’s professional life could find such easy summation on a 2 ½” x 3 ½” cut of recyclable material, the tiny numbers so feeble in their expression of Boggs’ bat, Johnson’s arm, Alomar’s glove and Coleman’s legs. So much sweat, so much pain, had been reduced to rows of digits that had stolen from their creators the breath that once made them move. But here the injustice, or perhaps the imbalance, had been compounded, not only by careless storage but also by a collective value that, by all indications, justified the storage.
As if to underscore the depth of this sad revelation, Canseco came next. Canseco – the card I had plucked from a supermarket checkout to use as a down payment on that new red Porsche; the card, even then, that had traded for 10 bucks, 20 bucks, 30 bucks and more; the card, now, that had joined the likes of – let’s see … Brian Barnes, Tom Pagnozzi, Jim Eisenreich, Todd Van Poppel (the next big thing!), Steve Lyons, Kal Daniels, Donald Harris, Jay Baller (what a name!) and Willie Canate … who? – in a collection of mementos that weren’t worth remembering, at least on an objective level.
Jose Canseco – reduced to a fraternity of unremembered men.
Infamy, in the modern age, could yield a big check, and Canseco had made it work, not so much for his legacy but for his room and board, but here the infamy had generated no more value than a shrug and a chuckle. No book or celebrity boxing match could bump this card’s price.
Geniality, as much as infamy, had also proven a weak predictor of precious cardboard securities, even if paired with Canseco-like power. Indeed, the term “rookie card,” like “oil well” or “marrying up,” had long equated to instant riches, but even the “nicest guy in the game” couldn’t create much value in the rookie card I discovered next. Even Jim Thome, having slugged just the first of 612 career home runs, couldn’t generate any more power, economically speaking, that a 12-volt light bulb.
Nice guys might not finish last, but neither do they finish above $1.99.
I then arrived a different-looking card, featuring Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. It appeared to have been cut out with scissors. I turned it over and sure enough, the card had been copyrighted “1992 Baseball Cards Magazine.” Scanning the back, I read the bio. “Chuck’s a scrappy, hard-nosed player who’s not afraid to get his uniform dirty.”
I kept reading: “Chuck’s fine glovework led the Twins to the A.L. title.”
What ironies, I mused, does the future bestow on past revelations?
Finally, the Investment Advisor counseled, “Chuck will never have real big-money cards, but over the long term I like the chances of this scrapper. Buy now if you can buy cheap.”
Origins are joined but fates diverge. Players begin in the same location, or in similar locations, but their paths become their own, lengthening and dead-ending, twisting and crisscrossing, one on the rise and another on the drop. I came next to a ’92 Topps Top Prospects card featuring third basemen Frank Bolick, Craig Paquette, Tom Redington and Paul Russo. At the instant the camera clicked, each had surely hoped for Hall of Fame greatness or at least a steady check.
Today, by way of lifetime stats, I saw how it turned out.
Paquette: 11 big league seasons, worth a WAR of -1.6.
Bolick: 298 big league at-bats, spread across two seasons five years apart.
Redington: eight minor league seasons, none beyond Double-A.
Russo: 10 minor league seasons, seven at Triple-A.
This would be Russo’s truth, a biographical detail that only a decade’s work would author: seven years of sniffing the big leagues.
Next came another Top Prospects card: Manny Alexander, Alex Arias, Wil Cordero and a fourth named Chipper Jones. Paths diverge. I kept moving, to a rookie named Jeff Bagwell and a prospect named Shawn Livsey, to an All-Star named Mark Grace and a “Future Star” named Mike Campbell. I arrived at men I’d never heard of – big leaguers, sure, once the best in the whole dang county, but no-names now – and then to Tim Crews, Steve Olin, Eric Show, Gus Polidor, men who had lived the dream of so many kids but who, tragically, had passed away while still young men.
Moving on, I came to Tony Gwynn and Bob Welch, just days after their deaths. Framed in a follow-through on a Fleer ’92, Gwynn by this time had begun rearing a future big leaguer, Tony Gwynn Jr. Meanwhile, on his Score ’94, Welch is tossing a pitch to a little kid.
I gazed at the Ruben Sierra card, a Topps All-Star ’92, and smiled. As a lifelong fan of the hometown Rangers, I had cheered for Sierra in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But long before that, at around the time I began buying cards, I had played against him. It happened in a national championship tournament in Knoxville. Sierra, with future big leaguers Ed Correa and Juan Nieves, in addition to Roberto Clemente Jr., played for the Puerto Rican team. I played for the Texas team.
Following the game, we joined the Puerto Rican players in a room at our shared hotel. Despite the language barrier, we managed to exchange T-shirts. I traded a Dallas Cowboys shirt for one that bore the word “Flores.” Unable to communicate further, we did a lot of nodding. At some point, upon an epiphany, I went to my room and returned bearing 10 cardboard gifts. Maybe I gave one to Sierra, another to Clemente Jr. In the future I wouldn’t quite recall.
Now, still smiling, I kept digging toward the bottom of the box.