Thursday, May 16, 2019

House Special: When You Wish Upon Some Cards

In an attempt to shake myself out of my writing funk, I'm temporarily turning my focus to getting small stories from my life out of my head and on the page. Will it work? Dunno, but it sounds like as good a way to prime the pump as any...

Like most boys growing up in the ‘80s, I was a big baseball fan. Back then, Major League Baseball was unquestionably the most popular sport in the land – it was still very much “America’s Pastime” – and nearly every kid between the ages of 5 and 15 played at least a season or two of Little League. I was no different, although saying I “played” was probably an overstatement: I spent most games either riding the bench or tucked away in right field where I could do the least amount of damage. My main contribution was at the plate, where I was smart enough to realize that most of the kids my age sucked at pitching and that if I only swung at pitches that were right down the middle, I’d probably get walked to first base.

My lack of skill or talent or athletic ability didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the game, nor did the fact that I was a Red Sox fan. I come from a long line of Red Sox fans, back during a time when the Curse of the Bambino seemed to be very real. Generations had come and gone waiting in vain for the Sox to win a World Series, and the idea that this season would be their season was both laughable and too tantalizing to ignore. I’d spend many a hazy summer day playing baseball with the other guys in the neighborhood, exchanging Red Sox-Yankee trash talk, and debating whether Jim Rice or Dave Winfield was the better player.

So it wasn’t surprising that around the age of nine, I started collecting baseball cards. I don’t remember how I started – hell, I might’ve just picked up a pack with some hard-earned pocket change to get the cheap piece of gum that was included – but soon I had enough Topps cards to move them from a shoebox to a proper binder. I kept adding cards, mostly from the 1983 series of Topps, but occasionally from other seasons, other lines or more random sources, like the Reggie Jackson card I got out of a box of Hostess Devil Dogs. I even got an occasional high-profile card for Christmas, like the one year I found a mint 1969 Tom Sever card in my stocking.

The jewel of my collection – not that I would know it until years later – was a rookie Ryne Sandberg card I’d obtained quite randomly from one of those Topps packets. Sandberg would go on to play 16 seasons (most of them with the Chicago Cubs) at second base and get inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005. Thanks to the Internet, baseball cards don’t have the value that they used to, but that care alone is still worth about $70.

Sadly, I probably had a couple of these at the time.

I loved those cards, so much that – and I’m sure this will sound like heresy to a collector – I would play with them. I’d pull the cards of their sleeves and put together American League and National League all-star teams. Then I’d lay out the home team into their positions on the diamond and have batters come to the plate, imagining how my Rod Carew card would do against my Fernando Valenzuela card (Rod Carew would get a hit, of course – it’s Rod Carew). 

No need to fake this cover.

As much as I loved those cards, like many things in childhood, I eventually out-grew them. I stopped playing with toys, football became more interesting than baseball, and my binder of cards stayed on a bookshelf, collecting dust. After college, as I moved to Japan and then Boston, I would think about the collection from time to time. I’d left the cards at my parents’ house and because they’d rearranged and remodeled a few times over the years, I wasn’t entirely sure of where the card were or even if they’d been spared the trash heap. 

“I wish I could look through those cards again,” I’d say whenever the subject came up. “Even if I could only see them one more time, that’d be enough.” And then, strangely, that wish came true.

I was living in Boston at this point and received a call from my folks: They were doing some major remodeling to the entire house and wanted me to come down for a weekend to take care of the remaining things I still had there. I came down soon after, where I was presented with a large cardboard box of long-forgotten stuff: Dungeons & Dragons books, VHS tapes of random TV shows, a couple random action figures and, near the bottom of the pile, my collection of baseball cards. 

I was thrilled. Since it was a lazy, rainy day, I was able to spend the entire afternoon flopped out on the couch, slowly going through my collection. I poured over every page, familiar faces of sports heroes past looking back at me, occasionally pulling out a card to revisit stats and trivia printed on the back. Each new page was like a reunion.

When I was done, I carefully closed the binder and put it in the pile of items to take back to Boston with me. At least, I thought I did.

Turns out that wish to see the collection one more time was taken very literally because when I returned to Boston and unpacked, it was gone. I went through all the bags multiple times, went through the car twice as many times, and retraced my steps between the car and the apartment. Nothing. I called my folks to see if the binder had been left behind. Still nothing. I shrugged. What else could I do? I figured the cards would likely turn up somewhere at some point, but that was almost 20 years ago.   

That’s okay. True to my wish, I had that one lazy, rainy afternoon, and that was enough to re-discover something I thought I had lost.

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