In my part of Brooklyn the news of A-Rod’s confession had to take a back seat to something far more important: the arrival of 2009 Topps Series 1.
They’re great, and not just because it’s early February and I’m gasping for baseball like a trout expiring in a bucket. Last year’s Topps cards were a disaster, not only blandly designed but horribly photographed. This year’s are different: The fronts have team colors and logos, the design is new but hearkens back to the classics, and the photos are well-shot and well-chosen. And plenty of the Met THB Class of ’08  can now shed their minor-league placeholder cards: Jon Niese, Bobby Parnell, Fernando Tatis and Daniel Murphy all have pretty nice cards. Even Luis Ayala got one — his first regular-issue Topps card, to boot.
Joshua, as you can see from this picture , has caught at least a mild case of his father’s collecting illness, which isn’t a surprise given he has the same mania for order, categorizing and sorting that I do. Besides, if kids still collect baseball cards, it’s about his time to do so — he’s six, and I was seven in 1976, when one day I decided what I wanted to get at McCrory’s in the Smith Haven Mall was a couple of those three-plex packs of baseball cards. (About which you can read more here .)
I quit collecting baseball cards the first time when I was 12, like a more or less normal person. Which might lead you to ask how, in the year I’ll turn 40, I’m getting a box of 2009 Series 1 in the mail and am happy that Jon Niese has a decent-looking Topps card.
The short answer: It was an accident, and it’s all Rickey Henderson’s fault.
My last year collecting cards as an actual kid was 1981. (It would be convenient to say my hobby was killed by the baseball strike, but actually what shoved it aside was D&D.) The cards I had went into shoeboxes, six seasons’ worth of carefully collated singles and a lot of doubles and triples and quadruples and worse. (I think I got about 17 1976 Mike Anderson Traded cards, and even now seeing one  still slightly annoys me.) My cards lurked in their boxes for the first half of the Reagan years, then went with us when we moved from Long Island to St. Petersburg, Fla., where they landed in the closet of a room I’d never live in. (I went off to boarding school about a week after we moved to Florida — as a side effect, I didn’t know my way around the town in which my parents lived until I was about 22.) And there my cards stayed until the summer of 1987, shortly after I’d outrun bad habits  and managed to graduate from high school, with an not-inconsiderable assist from Mookie Wilson.
Our next-door neighbors in Florida had two boys, who were around seven and nine if memory serves. They collected baseball cards, and at some point they’d learned from my mom that I had a stash of by now pretty old cards up in my closet. But my mom wouldn’t let them even look at them until I got home, so my little neighbors basically spent the entire spring fidgeting until I got home from school and could hear their pleas.
When that happened, I discovered something strange had happened to baseball cards during my teen years: They’d turned into some kind of mutant investment. My next-door neighbors arrived with a shoebox of cards, but that wasn’t the most-important thing they had with them. The most-important thing, in their eyes, was their price guide, a glossy magazine that showed off the newest baseball cards like they were the latest flavor of credit-default swaps. And these kids weren’t really collectors, at least not in the way I’d thought of collecting. They weren’t interested in my old, well-loved ’76s, or in the handful of older cards I’d picked up somehow. They didn’t care who Thurman Munson was or what had happened to him. They had no 1987 tale equivalent to that of Mike Anderson, no card you couldn’t stop getting when you spent five bucks on packs in vain hopes of getting just one lousy Joe Shlabotnik.
No, all they cared about was what a card was worth, what it had been worth last month and what it might be worth next month. Over and over I’d find an interesting old card, explain to them why it was interesting, and watch them scan the Tuff Stuff agate, only to grumble that the card was worth maybe 50 cents.
It was a long afternoon — and then we got to Rickey Henderson.
Rickey Henderson was a superstar then, but when I’d stopped collecting he was just getting started. In 1980, the year before I’d quit buying packs, he’d been an anonymous rookie: Topps #482, Oakland A’s. 1980, as it turned out, was the year I’d collected most avidly. I had a couple of shoeboxes of 1980 doubles, all of which had gone straight from the pack to the box. Unlike a lot of my cards, they were in perfect shape. Heck, they were practically little Platonic cardboard rectangles. Rickey Henderson’s 1980 rookie card was worth north of $100 then, which struck me as an unbelievable sum for a not very old card. Could it be that I had a Rickey rookie somewhere in those doubles? The neighbor kids were saucer-eyed at the thought.
Anything’s possible, I said. Let’s look.
It turned out I had five of them.
This was a dream come true for the neighbor kids, but there was a problem. They were children. They didn’t have $100. Nor did they have anything of possible interest to me that was worth $10, let alone $100. They tried various unlikely stratagems until I was thoroughly tired of the discussion and their price guide and their baseball cards and them. I’d briefly perked up at finding I had $500 in a shoebox, but now my quintet of Rickey cards felt more like the digits of the monkey’s paw , a gift that you really wish would stop giving.
So just to get the neighbor kids to go away, I said, “I tell you what. I’m a Met fan. Go over to your house and bring me every Met card you have. Every single one, no exceptions. Bring me all those, and I’ll give you a Rickey Henderson rookie.”
Off they went at unsafe velocity, and about a half-hour later they returned with Met cards. Lots and lots of Met cards. Met cards from 1987 and Met cards from 1986 and even a scattering of Met cards from 1985 and 1984. I gave them their Rickey, looked at my new collection of newish Met cards, and started to wonder what the hell I’d done.
The rest is OCD collector history. I had enough Met cards that it didn’t seem like it would be that much work to fill in the blanks between the new cards I’d been given and the old cards I still had. That would give me full sets of 11 years’ worth of Topps cards. And 11 years’ worth of Topps Met cards would be closing in on half the Topps Met cards ever made.
You can see what happened.
I didn’t know that traded sets had returned, that the rookie cards of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry would cost a fortune (at the time), or that the rookie cards of Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver would make those seem cheap. I didn’t know how expensive and hard to find high numbers from the 1960s were. I didn’t know there was about to be an explosion in card sets made by more and more manufacturers, or that I’d feel compelled to collect those too. I’d never imagined anything as insane as The Holy Books, or that I’d feel compelled to somehow get and then create cards for those brief-lived Mets who never got proper ones.
I had no idea about any of this. I just wanted two kids out of my house, and a Rickey Henderson rookie card seemed like a fair price if it accomplished that.
My family left Florida long ago. I suppose the neighbor kids grew up and did whatever they did. (My mom says one of them went to prison, which might be true and might be some sort of wish-fulfillment on her part. Oh, what the heck. Let’s say one of them went to prison.) The market for baseball cards swelled and crashed and gradually returned to some vague sanity. And the funny thing is that I don’t have the faintest idea what happened to the other four Rickey Henderson cards. I can’t recall whether I sold them or gave them away or lost them somewhere. I suppose it’s possible they’re in my parents’ latest attic in Charlottesville, Va.
You know what? They can stay there.