A root: Baseball and baseball cards

Today was a ritual like many in the past between my son and I. He had a practice that lasted 1 1/2 hours, and he and I practiced another hour before that. He wanted to get more work in – to the batting cage – but it was hot and I was tired, so we went directly to a local retailer for the other half of a ritual: buying baseball cards.

It was buying a retail package of 2011 Topps Series II with a guaranteed Diamond Giveaway card. We decided to get that, plus another pack. He got three packs, I got two, and we decided to flip a coin for the Diamond Giveaway card; I won.

We got home, opened the packs, and talked about the players and teams that were on the cards.

My son is 8, and began collecting when he was 7.

I began collecting when I was 11 or 12, I can’t recall which, but I do know what initially got me started. My mom was dating someone who played slowpitch softball and he collected cards. I had a few, so he brought in a locally produced price guide and we found that a 1985 Topps Tony Fernandez was worth $1.

Now, a $1 isn’t worth a lot. To me, then, it showed that baseball cards were a worthwhile pursuit. On top of that, my friends at school – albeit hundreds of miles away in the South – were trading the cards like crazy. And I now had something to relate to them with, or so I thought.

The catch was that my collection of cards was with my mother, not in the South where my father lived. I eventually built a small collection there, made some trades, and the cards I liked the most I stowed away and brought with me back to the North. Once there, I continued to add to my collection. The clerks at the store must have loved when I rolled in with numerous 50-cent pieces, silver dollars, Susan B. Anthonys and $2 bills that mom was giving to me to save.

Forget that, I wanted baseball cards. I collected cards based partly on the price and partly on the way they looked. If I didn’t like the design, I didn’t buy them. Starting out in 1990, I enjoyed Topps and Donruss the most, disliked Fleer and couldn’t seem to get my hands on Score with Upper Deck, at $1 per pack, too rich for my blood. In 1991, I cheated a little; I ate so much Bazooka Joe bubble gum to save the wrappers just so I could mail them in for a complete set of Topps cards that year. It was the 40th anniversary of the series.

A sample of some of my Topps baseball cards, including the oldest one I own (top left), one that started this all (center right) and even some from last year's Topps' Million Card Giveaway.

I listened to every Detroit Tigers games those summers, when Ernie Harwell had the call and when he didn’t. When the Tigers were playing on Channel 4 or Channel 50, I tuned in. Between the baseball cards and the broadcasts, I had stats and stances down. I loved watching the power of not just Cecil Fielder those days, but the stance of Mickey Tettleton. How that guy could hit like he did with that stance still baffles me.

From there, I continued to collect baseball, football, basketball and hockey cards. I also started reading comic books. It was a golden age for these sorts of things, in the early 1990s, from my perspective.

The gimmicks, though, began to price me out. I couldn’t afford $1.50 for a pack of eight baseball cards. Although the stock of the cards was changing for the better, it left a kid like me behind. I was accustomed to 50 cents for a pack of 16 baseball cards and throwing out the gum. The strike of 1994 hurt, too. It turned my attention to football and hockey more.

Those were high school years, and with maturation, you start to like different things. I don’t mean girls, because I was unable to work until after I graduated from high school and I had very low self-confidence in myself. I kept to myself instead because of a number of issues I was going through.

I still had a passion for sports, borne from those days of opening pack after pack of baseball cards. That’s a major reason why I am the career I chose – Topps baseball cards brought out my interest in sports, photography and design.

I dabbled back into baseball cards some 10 years ago, sparked a little by fantasy baseball and by the incoming Japanese hitter, Ichiro.

But nothing really caught hold until last year. Following a down year of T-ball, I thought it would be a good idea to reward my son for hard work during practice and a game. We set up a deal where he could get a pack of baseball cards after each practice and maybe two after each game. Dad got some, Mom got some and my daughter got something, too.

It was good family bonding that cost an arm and a leg. The price of a pack of cards – basic cards – has gone up to $2 per pack of Topps. It’s more for series such as Bowman or Allen and Ginter or Gypsey Queen. My son got as much Upper Deck last year as he could, figuring that he wanted as much of the last year of Upper Deck as he could. This year, my son is rewarded only for games. Next year, the reward will have get scaled back more as he competes in not just one league, but two.

I was happy with Topps. It’s a company I started out with 21 years ago as a kid, too. My goal when I was a kid to get at least one card of Topps from every year they made a basic set. When I stopped collecting, I had a card for every year all the way back to 1975, but I still had some from the 1960s and none from the 1950s.

Those gaps are still there, and I have another gap I want to fill – 1996 to 2000 and 2003 to 2004.

Last year, I joined the pursuit of Strasburg, through Topps and Bowman. This year, it’s more Topps and I’m really liking the Gypsy Queen set. Yeah, it’s the design of the cards.

Then there’s my son, my wife and I opening baseball cards and saying, “I got a Tiger!”

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