If you still haven’t quite gotten all the bubble gum dust off your fingers, then it’s Flashback Friday at Faith and Fear in Flushing.
I stopped collecting baseball cards a long time ago. But I never stopped accumulating them.
That’s what I have, an accumulation. They have gathered. They have piled up. They have snaked their way hither and yon, to and fro. If I walk six feet in any direction from where I sit, I should be within arm’s reach of desire. Or at least a 1974 Tito Fuentes, the one on which he’s wearing a headband around his cap, which never made a lick of sense to me.
When it comes to my baseball cards, I have a decent idea of where to begin, but no idea where to end. That’s because my baseball card collection is a swarm. It just kind of started when I wasn’t looking and it kept coming. It hasn’t stopped yet. And if it hasn’t by now, it’s safe to bet it never will.
Then again, it’s not a collection at all. Collecting implies an active process. While I will cop to being one who piles up card after card, pack after pack, year after year, I can’t say I’m a hobbyist or a connoisseur. I just like my cards.
They are, when viewed from any discernible angle, less a collection than an accumulation. I have accumulated I don’t know how many baseball cards. Thousands? Tens of thousands? I don’t know. Who counts grains of sand?
Who wants grains of sand? Who wants anything else when you can have baseball cards?
This may be my inner child talking — and holding out for more change to take to the Cozy Nook or Belle’s Luncheonette or Kreitzman’s Bicycle & Toy for one more pack — but at this point, the outer adult is willing to admit he’s never quite outgrown his love of those cards. Every spring, I reach into my wallet (bills are required now) and buy four fresh packs wherever I can find them.
It seems right.
Three? Not enough.
I am all grown up, chronologically speaking.
Four it is.
Here are some things I learned one spring not long ago by maintaining the Topps tradition.
• Most players don’t wait until 34 to have their “career year,” but Scott will take it.
• It all came together for Ben in 2004.
• Athletics came fairly easy for Marcus.
• On back-to-back April days, Bill won games with walk-off RBI — in vastly different ways.
• Matt, a small-town boy who grew up the son of a textile mill worker, is good-natured and fun-loving — and not even his manager is safe from his pranks.
When I was a kid, there was an aim to all of this accumulation of card fronts and card backs. Get a Met. Complete a set. Collect an entire series. I don’t have that kind of aim anymore. I just like buying ’em and opening ’em and having ’em. About forty years in, baseball cards are too much a part of baseball for me to ever give them up. They’re not the obsession they were before my thirteenth birthday, but they’re still here and I have no intention of having them removed from my system.
Accumulating baseball cards is a lifelong affliction. It goes into remission but there’s no known cure.
I’ve been to baseball card shows and baseball card shops. At the age of 12, I traded with other kids, and at the age of 40, I bought some off of eBay. I still have the cards I flipped for in sixth grade. I’ve acquired specially cased Mets cards at Shea Stadium several times since the early ’90s. If that option were available when I was in my collecting prime, I probably would’ve been launched into a tizzy. Baseball and baseball cards in the same place? I wanna go there NOW!
I’ve been lucky enough to inherit some key cards — starting with my sister’s 1967s and 1968s which got me going — and have been gifted with some others. A day camp counselor named Irwin who felt bad for the way I got smacked in the face with the rudder of a sailboat attempted to ease my pain with the cream of his collection: a Mays, a Mantle, a rookie Koosman-Ryan combo to name three. (My pain was eased.) I opened up boxes of Sugar Frosted Flakes in order to scoop out 3-D versions of Reggie Jackson, Mickey Lolich, Lou Brock and Sonny Siebert. I ate one too many Hostess Suzy Q’s just so I could have the Seattle Mariner named Dan Meyer who was serving as snack cake placemat.
It’s been a rich, full life of obtaining and owning baseball cards however they’ve fallen into my possession. But there’s one sensation that beats all:
Opening a pack of cards and finding my favorite player while being nine years old.
It’s the only reason I can think of for having been a kid in the first place.
Third grade was a good year for baseball cards. Topps put out 787 of them, a record. My earliest transactions that year yielded two immediate classics: a Cleon Jones and a Willie Mays. I called my best friend John with the news. “I got Cleon Jones! I got Willie Mays!” And then I probably hung up because there was nothing more to say.
It was 1972, 35 years ago, the year of the In Action cards. There was one of Roberto Clemente In Action smirking at the plate, probably holding his tongue over a called strike. (That’s action? Maybe In Action meant “inaction”.)
There were cards stenciled TRADED. Jim Fregosi had one of those. Jim Fregosi was a star, so he rated being photographed in his new team’s uniform. The guy he was traded for wasn’t a star. His cap was merely airbrushed to reflect his updated status. Nolan Ryan wore a phony-as-all-get-out Angels cap. But Jim Fregosi was a full-fledged Met.
In 1972, I got cards.
I got Boyhood Photos of the Stars cards.
I got League Leaders cards.
I got a card with a picture of the Commissioner’s Award, whatever that was.
I got a Chicago Cubs team card in which everybody’s head floated around a Cubs logo.
I got Rookie Stars cards of guys who have may have been rookies but never became stars.
I got manager cards that I never quite knew what to do with.
I got checklist cards, though I never checked them off.
I got loads of guys looking out from the under the bottoms of the bills of their caps because they had obviously been sent to new teams since their pictures were taken but didn’t rate TRADED treatment or airbrushed aesthetics.
I got Joe Lahoud in some sort of Brewers witness protection program, pretending he had never been a Red Sock.
I got red-capped Rich (yes, “Rich”) Allen masquerading as a White Sock when he was clearly a profile in Phillie.
I got about a million Texas Rangers who didn’t want the world to know they had all been Washington Senators just months earlier.
I got Milt Pappas with a red glove and no cap whatsoever.
I got Don Gullett looking very nervous, Clay Kirby seeming unusually suspicious and Joe Hoerner standing as far back from the camera as possible.
I got Gates Brown and Ike Brown.
I got Milt May and Jerry May but not Rudy May or Lee May.
I got Gerry Moses giving himself one thumb up.
I got Marty Pattin as if I were constitutionally obligated to do so on a biennial basis.
I got a Boots Day and a Rich Hand and a Phil Roof and a Mel Queen.
I got a Bob Barton and a Dick Drago and a Scipio Spinks — several Scipio Spinks, in fact.
I got a Tom Bradley and a Tom Egan and a Tom Haller and a Tom Burgmeier and a Tom Timmerman.
But I didn’t get a Tom Seaver.
If you were me when I was nine, you and me had one favorite player: Tom Seaver. Thus, if you were me when I was nine, you and me had one goal: get a Tom Seaver.
Tom Seaver was pervasive in 1972. He was everywhere. He had been as long as I could remember, and it was the best part of being a Mets fan. The Mets had settled into comfortable mediocrity in the early ’70s, good enough to let you think they might win, not quite good enough to actually do so (unless everybody else in the division was in the same boat, but we wouldn’t test that theory until 1973). These were the 83-win years: 83-79, 83-79, a strike-shortened 83-73 that started out promisingly but reverted, via oodles of injuries and characteristic offensive inertia, to 83-win business as usual.
Tom Seaver was more or less the same old same old in 1972, or so I thought. The same old Seaver in the summer of ’72 was good news. Great news. Even if he wasn’t exactly the best Seaver he had ever been, he was still Tom Seaver, understood as one of the very best in any year. Yet I can still hear Bill Mazer on WHN telling a caller after a Mets game that September, “well, he’s won 20 games, but it hasn’t really been a typical Tom Seaver year.”
Imagine that! Imagine posting a 20-win season (21-12, actually) for a team that didn’t have a single batter record 100 hits across the 156-game schedule and imagine it being considered not quite up to snuff. Seaver’s ERA in 1972 was 2.92. That was the highest it had ever been since he came up in ’67. Imagine a 2.92 ERA being vaguely disappointing. Imagine 21 wins not providing quite enough solace to compensate for a career-low-to-date 13 complete games, a stat one biographer referred to as “both embarrassing and puzzling” in its time. After 1971 (ERA: 1.76), anything would have been a bit of a comedown, but talk about some high standards. Come to think of it, I believe Bill Mazer was responding to a “what’s wrong with Seaver?” query.
Nothing was wrong with Tom Seaver to me when I was nine. Tom Seaver was my favorite player, playing on my favorite team, winning 116 games in his first six seasons as if that’s what every ace did for every nine-year-old’s favorite team.
The only problem I had with Tom Seaver was his pervasiveness stopped as soon as I opened my packs of Topps.
The cards came out in April. No Seaver.
They flowed like a cardboard river through May. No Seaver.
Third grade ended in June. No Seaver.
My pack-buying tailed off as summer ensued. Whatever packs I bought in July had one disturbing element in common: No Seaver.
Marty Pattin…the Commissioner’s Award…Scipio Spinks…nope, no Seaver. Maybe it was just never going to happen.
My family took off on a trip to California in August. We drove the coast from San Diego to San Francisco, where my parents lived when my dad was in the army after they first married. The third-best part of the journey was it meant I would not spend the latter half of my summer as the pee wee league Clown who infamously “botched it up” in centerfield (going on family vacation with the Rec Center season still in progress was the nine-year-old’s version of going undercover like Joe Lahoud). The second-best part of the journey was discovering the latest issue of Sport magazine in the gift shop of the Jack Tar Hotel in San Fran. Guess who was on the cover…yes, that’s right, Tom Seaver. Tom Seaver was on the cover of national magazines and you didn’t blink because he was, Steve Carlton’s freakish 1972 notwithstanding, the best pitcher in all of baseball every year, even when he wasn’t having a “typical” Tom Seaver year.
The best part? In the middle of the state, we stopped for a night or two in a town my parents knew and loved called San Luis Obispo. My sister and I went into a Woolworth’s for some reason the morning after we arrived. Summer was nearly over, but they were still selling cards. I had never bought baseball cards away from home before, so for novelty’s sake, I counted out change for one final pack for the year. And in it, I got — pictured tossing lightly in a blue warmup jacket during Spring Training, making total eye contact and catalogued No. 445 — a Seaver. A 1972 Tom Seaver.
Still got it, too.
Next Friday: The right time to roll to the No. 3 Song of All-Time.