The church of baseball

My childhood was divided between two enormous states, Texas and Alaska. Of the two, my heart lingers most in the north, among the snowy slopes and slick roads, where it was not uncommon to peer from the window to watch a moose, bedded down beneath the backyard deck, chewing its cud and waiting out the falling snow.

But without those years spent in the humid, long Texas summers, I suspect I wouldn't have found a love for the game of baseball. Sure, Alaska had its own incarnations of the sport—Mark McGwire honed his skill as a member of the Glacier Pilots; citywide, there were adult baseball and softball games that spun out beneath the midnight sun—but in Texas, I found my home in the orange-and-gold outfield seats of the Astrodome, pulled on my own baseball cleats for YMCA ball during the summer break, threw endless games of catch with my father and friends and cousins. 

That love took greater flight in 1990, when I first encountered baseball cards. I'm surprised, in retrospect, that it took me so long to discover them. When I finally did, it seemed everyone around me had been collecting them in secret, conspiring to obscure their stuffed binders and shoeboxes from me, lest I catch some rotten virus from them. I caught it, though. I began my collection with some rather humdrum cards—the 1990 Donruss series, I seem to recall—which seemed as magical as gold to me. I studied the player photos and stats religiously, memorizing Keith Hernandez's batting average, filing away Nolan Ryan's strikeout counts. I tied cards to a string and dangled them from the Astrodome’s outfield wall, hoping a player would turn around and notice them, and grace them with a quick signature. 

The cards taught me a surprising amount about things I still think about today, like backstory, or visual design. A player's stats were a narrative; you could trace their journey over the years, watch the numbers rise as they were healthy and strong, watch them tumble and know there was an injury, or that someone close to them had died, or that they'd been traded between three different teams that year, that they were sliding to the bottom of the hill on their career's arc. A card was a designed thing, communicating information that was necessary and completely frivolous; it carried a sense of reverence or frivolity, elevated the player or marginalized him. Even in those days, I knew that the '87 Topps series, with its faux wood grain and chalky typeface, was a design mistake. 

Baseball cards weren't often in the household budget, so I slowly built my collection from the odd pack here and there, or from discards that my friends knew, from careful study of each month's Beckett price guide, were patently worthless. But a determined child will always find a way to indulge his or her passions, and I discovered mine quickly: I began pocketing my daily lunch money, subsisting on whatever food I could scavenge from friends, or sneak out of the house in my backpack. With friends, I would raid the card selection at the convenience store nearest our junior high school, salivating over the foil-wrapped Upper Deck packs, decorating my school books and notebooks with the little holographic team logo stickers that were stuffed among the cards in each pack.

I don't recall when my gambit was found out, but it eventually was, and I could no longer get away with skimming lunch money for such frivolous things. By then, however, I'd amassed a few hundred baseball cards, had even begun buying plastic sheets of card sleeves, hiding the cards between the contents of my three-ring school binders. 

A long and careful discussion with a good friend led me to identifying my favorite baseball player. He selected his own, and from then on, we scanned the sports page daily, searching for each player's performance the night before. When his player hit well, he held it over my head all day long. I did the same when my player outplayed his. Of course, in the long run, my friend's choice proved laudable, and his player, Ken Griffey, Jr., slid effortlessly into the Baseball Hall of Fame. My choice, Darryl Strawberry, who I admired for his gazelle-like batting stance, his graceful swing, never made it to Cooperstown—though he did pick up several World Series rings over the course of his career, some more earned than others.

I watched my friends' collections grow impressively while mine slowly expanded. Before long I saw that their collections weren't built solely from wax packs, but strategically. My friends were attending baseball card conventions, dropping ridiculous amounts of money on single cards—rookie cards, or signed cards, or rare cards—which they would subsequently display in their bedrooms, locked away in airtight, hard plastic shells. I went to a few shows, but with very limited amounts of cash in my pockets. There was never enough money for me to add my most-desired cards to my collection: any of Darryl Strawberry's 1983 (and 1984) rookie cards.

But I was determined, and I was also a bit duplicitous, willing to gamble that classmates and neighborhood kids weren't familiar with the autographs of their favorite players. The Internet wasn't around in those days; there were no easy ways for your average thirteen-year-old to verify that a signed card had truly been signed by a ballplayer. 

So I broke out my Sharpies—several different colors, for purposes of authenticity—and began scrawling autographs on a few dozen cards...which I then sold to unsuspecting marks for terrific amounts. (Usually these sales netted me five or ten bucks, though I recall one particularly well-funded boy dropping thirty dollars on a signed David Justice rookie card and seventy-five on a Frank Thomas rookie.)

I'd begun my life of crime. 

There were goals, back in those days. I dreamed of purchasing an entire, unopened box of Upper Deck baseball card packs. I dreamed of owning a Darryl Strawberry rookie card, or all of them. But even with my ill-gotten gains and profits, building my collection was still a slow crawl. Meanwhile, a great-uncle saw my card-collecting ways, and took interest—not in furthering my collection, but in creating his own. Within a week of deciding to collect, he had a closetful of baseball cards—the entire 1989 Upper Deck series, for example; hundreds of unopened packs of cards; a prized binder stuffed to bursting with valuable cards from his era and my own. Each time I saw him—which wasn't often—he showed off the new cards he'd acquired since our previous visit. I always left his house feeling deflated. I couldn't catch up. I'd never achieve in a lifetime of collecting what he'd achieved in his first week. No matter how many forged cards I sold, I couldn't match his full-grown-adult's disposable income. 

In 1994, our family pulled up stakes and moved back to Alaska. Before we did, I sold off my entire collection. My heart wasn't in it any longer. A collector who lived a few streets away bought my entire archive for a couple hundred bucks, and that was it. I didn't purchase another pack of baseball cards.

Since those days, the baseball card industry has changed dramatically. Major League Baseball ended its partnerships with all baseball card companies except for Topps. The value of individual cards has plummeted. Topps still pursues collectors with money, albeit in ridiculous new ways—as a collector, you can buy the common man's baseball card series, which is reasonably priced, or you can buy the Super Duper Ridiculous Crazy Elite Series (not the actual name) for $25,000, which includes signed cards, fragments of bats, snippets of game-worn jerseys, and probably the nuclear launch codes as well.  

I said before that I never bought another pack of cards, but that was a lie. This year, it suddenly occurred to me that I'm a grownup, with a modest amount of disposable income myself. I'm not a retired grownup with more money than I know what to do with, as my great-uncle appeared to me twenty-five years ago, but I could afford to indulge a bit of nostalgia, purely for the sake of nostalgia. So I indulged, and fulfilled two of those old collectors' dreams of mine. 

I found an unopened box of 1989 Upper Deck cards, and one evening, Felicia and I tore through them, searching like kids for the infamous Ken Griffey, Jr., rookie card. We didn't find one. But Felicia turned up a Darryl Strawberry card, which thrilled me. I'd owned that one as a kid, and hadn't seen it in all the years since. Every pack included holographic team stickers, which Squish collected and used as decorations on a cardboard box she'd converted into her own personal automobile. 

And a couple of days later, a package arrived, and I opened it slowly to reveal three hardshell plastic cases—each containing a different Darryl Strawberry rookie card. 

None of these things are worth much at all, and yet the trip down memory lane was invaluable. 
My love for baseball persists. My first date with my wife was at a collegiate ballgame in San Luis Obispo. My daughter's first ballgame was in the same park. We listened to the World Series this year, rooting for Felicia's hometown Cubs; Squish cheered alongside us when they won. I still hear the voices of Ray Kinsella and Terence Mann echo in my skull, still hear Annie Savoy rhapsodize about the church of baseball. I don't pray at night—except to the baseball and Hollywood gods, who I hope will permit Kevin Costner to make more baseball movies.

Also, I still have a Sharpie. And a whole box full of Upper Deck cards just begging to be signed.