- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Cardboard Lessons

1976 was the first year I collected baseball cards.

I’d peruse rack packs — three blisters of cards, the top and bottom player in each blister visible through the plastic — at the local stationery store or McCrory’s at the Smith Haven Mall. I was searching for the maize-and-blue banners that, at least in 1976, denoted the New York Mets. Such searches were often frustrating and sometimes futile. I remember dissolving into tears the night my best friend’s brother somehow pulled a Tom Seaver [1] from his first rack pack and a Mets team card from his second, while I was flipping through yet more Don Hoods [2] and Nyls Nymans [3] and OH BOY YET ANOTHER MIKE ANDERSON TRADED CARD. Then Robert wouldn’t trade me either of those Mets cards. Not for that near-perfect ’76 Johnny Bench [4] I’d found, and in fact not for my entire stack.

The fronts of those ’76 cards were the main attraction, but I soon figured out that the real treasures were on the backs. That’s where my baseball education began. First came the agate type of career stats, which revealed that the current crop of Mets had pasts, some of which were long and complicated. Jesus Alou [5] and Rusty Staub [6] had been playing baseball since 1963, an impossibly long time ago, and they hadn’t always played for the Mets. Alou had been a member of the Giants, the Astros and the A’s, while Staub had played for an outfit called the Colt .45’s, who no longer seemed to exist. And Ed Kranepool [7] had been around even longer than that — he’d been a Met in 1962, which I already knew was the first year there was such a thing as a Met.

That meant Ed Kranepool’s little cardboard rectangle somehow encompassed the entire history of the Mets. That was a mind-blowing idea for a seven-year-old, and one that encouraged further exploration — even if it also created some unrealistic expectations. Kranepool had hit 14 homers and hit .280 in 1971; surely he’d figure out how to do that again. Tom Hall [8] had been around for a long time and had a 3.21 career ERA, which I’d learned was good. Why wasn’t he talked about all the time, now that he was a Met? Skip Lockwood [9] had posted a 1.56 ERA, and not a million years ago but in 1975, and as a Met. Why hadn’t I known this? Lockwood was a superstar, but no one seemed to mention it.

Rich Sauveur card [10]

Herein lies a story. Many stories.

The flip side of that idea was that some guys I knew were part of the Mets pantheon didn’t seem to be all that good, at least not when measured by the backs of their baseball cards. Six ’69 Mets remained Mets in good standing in the ’76 card set. The statistical merits of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman [11] were obvious, even to a young newcomer. But the cardbacks of Kranepool and Wayne Garrett [12] and Bud Harrelson [13] suggested they were rather pedestrian players, which I knew couldn’t be true because they were Miracle Mets. There was a puzzle here, one I had to figure out.

And there was evidence that baseball was far bigger than I’d guessed. Take the back of Craig Swan [14]‘s card. It showed a baffling progression of career stops: Memphis, Tidewater, Mets, Tidewater, Mets, Tidewater, Mets. What was Tidewater, and why did Swan keep returning there? Mike Vail [15]‘s card was even stranger, beginning with something called the Sar. Cards and moving on to Modesto, Ced. Rap. and Arkansas. What could “Ced. Rap.” possibly mean?

And, as if that weren’t enough, some cards talked about other players and places and impossibly long-ago years. The backs of ’76 Mets cards taught me that Christy Mathewson [16] had hurled (great word, that) three shutouts in the 1905 World Series, that Joe Sewell [17] had fanned only four times in 608 at-bats in 1925, and that Connie Mack [18] had been manager of the Philadelphia A’s for 50 years. That last one came complete with a little cartoon showing a man in civilian clothes. Connie Mack? Philadelphia A’s? There was so much I didn’t know, but it wasn’t intimidating when taken one cardboard slice at a time. It was intoxicating.

I quit collecting baseball cards in ’81, then returned to it a few years later, essentially by accident [19]. That kicked off a slow-motion, decades-long landslide: collecting all the Topps Mets cards; collecting all the Mets cards from any manufacturer; collecting all the Topps cards for players who’d been Mets at one point or another; collecting minor-league cards for Mets who’d never gotten a big-league card; making my own custom cards for the nine Mets who’d never had so much as a minor-league card; and making customs for pre-1987 Mets who’d never had a Topps Mets card, as well as extras overlooked by Topps for various reasons. All of those cards led to The Holy Books, three binders that include everyone to play for the Mets in order of matriculation, as well as ’61 expansion pick and Met-on-paper Lee Walls [20], the managers (full and interim), and the nine “ghosts” who were on the active roster as Mets but never played for the club.

Over time I became more and more intrigued by the marginal players in Mets history, the third catchers and fifth outfielders, the soon-to-be-discarded long men and Plan D spot starters. What struck me was that their major-league summaries on cardbacks or in MLB databases described brief careers when the reality was often the opposite. Those weeks or days or minutes of big-league life were like icebergs, bright points visible at sea that told you nothing about how much invisible mass was below the waterline.

Take Blaine Beatty [21], who pitched in two games for the ’89 Mets and five more for the ’91 club. Beatty began his pro career in 1986 as an Orioles farmhand, making his ascent to the big leagues a pretty rapid one. He last pitched in the big leagues on Sept. 30, 1991; that winter the Mets traded him to the Expos for another blink-and-you-missed-him player, Jeff Barry [22]. Beatty never pitched in the big leagues again, but his career wasn’t over. He kept playing until 1997, compiling this post-MLB itinerary: Indianapolis Indians, Carolina Mudcats, Buffalo Bisons, Chattanooga Lookouts, Carolina Mudcats (reprise), Calgary Cannons, Mexico City Red Devils, and the Gulf Coast League Pirates. Those two lines of big-league stats obscured 11 years of baseball, played in nine U.S. states and three countries.

Or take Ray Daviault [23], lifelong Quebecois and momentary ’62 Met. Daviault’s career path was the opposite of Beatty’s: He started playing pro ball in 1953, when he was 19 and spoke only French. His road to the Polo Grounds included these stops: Cocoa, Fla. (Florida State League); Hornell, N.Y. (Pony League); Asheville, N.C. (Tri-State League); Pueblo, Colo. (Western League); Macon, Ga. (South Atlantic League); Montreal (International League); Des Moines, Iowa (Western League again); back to Montreal; back to Macon; Harlingen, Texas (Texas League); Tacoma, Wash. (Pacific Coast League); and Syracuse, N.Y. (International League again) And then, finally, the Polo Grounds. Daviault pitched in Buffalo in ’63, his third stint in the International League, then hung up his spikes at 29.

And finally, there’s the man who introduced me to the concept of the baseball waterline, and was my first card-collecting white whale.

Rich Sauveur [24] pitched 3 1/3 innings for the Mets in June 1991, racking up a 10.80 ERA. My only memory of him is seeing his name on the transaction wire while working in the newsroom of the Fresno Bee; I don’t think I ever saw him pitch in an actual game. But he possesses one of the odder baseball resumes in the history of the game.

Sauveur made his big-league debut on July 11, 1986 at Candlestick Park as a Pirate and appeared in three games that year. He next turned up as a 1988 Montreal Expo, appearing in four games. Then, three years later, he recorded his six games with the Mets. In 1992, he was a Royal for all of eight games. That was it until 1996, when he appeared in three games for the White Sox. Four years after that, he was back at the age of 36 for 10 games with the A’s.

Six teams and six seasons over 10 years. But that’s only what’s visible above the waterline.

Sauveur made his pro debut as a 19-year-old for the Pirates’ New York-Penn League affiliate in Watertown, N.Y., the first stop on this gloriously Daviaultesque travelogue: Nashua, N.H. (Eastern League); Woodbridge, Va. (Carolina League); back to Nashua; Honolulu, Hawaii (Pacific Coast League); Pittsburgh; Nashua again; Harrisburg, Pa. (Eastern League); Indianapolis, Ind. (American Association); Jacksonville, Fla. (Southern League); Montreal; Indianapolis again; Miami, Fla. (Florida State League); Norfolk, Va. (International League); New York; Omaha, Neb. (American Association); Kansas City; Villahermosa, Mexico (Mexican League); Indianapolis again (this time for a shockingly stable three seasons); Nashville, Tenn. (American Association); Chicago; Des Moines, Iowa (American Association); Nashville again (now a truly far-flung outpost of the Pacific Coast League); Indianapolis yet again; Nashville yet again; Sacramento, Calif. (Pacific Coast League); and Oakland.

(You’ve probably figured out by now that Sauveur is left-handed.)

Sauveur last threw — or lets say “hurled,” like Christy Mathewson did — a pitch in anger in 2000, but he’s still in baseball. Last year he was a pitching coach for the Diamondbacks’ Arizona League affiliate. He’s been a pitching coach for 15 years, and three different organizations. That’s a logical second life for an almost cosmically bizarre baseball career. Consider that Sauveur pitched in three different decades but didn’t lose his rookie status until his sixth and final year in the majors. Or that he’s the only player in baseball history to pitch for six big-league teams without recording a win.

He’s also the unwitting poster child for a misfit era of card collecting.

Baseball cards exploded in popularity in the late 1980s, with Topps and its competitors first saturating and then oversaturating the market with product boasting supposed innovations. The most notable of these was the dreaded insert card. Inserts are rare cards seeded randomly into packs of regular cards. They now include autographs, jersey swatches and even cross-sections of bats, but back then they were a little simpler. One of Topps’ early experiments came in 1992, with Topps Gold, which added gold accents and lettering to the regular cards.

Topps’s dilemma: what to do with the checklist cards? Since no one on Earth wanted a gold checklist card, Topps decided to replace them with cards that hadn’t appeared in the regular set. Today, Topps would just make additional cards for the marquee players, but it didn’t do that for the first three years of the Topps Gold era. Instead, the substitutes were fringe big-leaguers, 26th men on rosters passed up for the regular set. I had no idea Topps had done this until the day I stumbled across a 1992 Topps Gold card of less-than-immortal Met Terry McDaniel [25]. As a Mets completist, I needed that card — and cards for the other checklist substitutes. Even if they weren’t Mets, they might have been Mets earlier in their careers, or might show up on the roster one day in the future.

Skip ahead a year, and enter the 1993 Topps Gold Rich Sauveur. It’s #396, a replacement for Checklist 3 of 6 in the regular set. It’s Sauveur’s lone big-league card, on which he’s a member of the Kansas City Royals.

A 1993 Topps Gold Rich Sauveur isn’t impossible to find in the eBay era — according to the Trading Card Database [26], its median sales price is 19 cents — but eBay didn’t exist back then. At the time, I collected by making the rounds of baseball-card shows around Washington, D.C., zooming in my little red Honda CRX from Laurel, Md., to Leesburg, Va., becoming familiar with Elks Clubs and armories and third-rate hotels.

I also became familiar with baseball-card dealers, and in the early 1990s there were essentially two kinds.

The first kind were lifers, older men or couples who lived in sagging houses out in the sticks whose cellars and attics and rec rooms were crammed with baseball cards. They were fans of the game and collectors at heart, variously grumpy or sweet but always OCD. At shows they’d be surrounded by stacks of card storage boxes, filled with thousands of common cards they’d hauled to the show in the back of a station wagons or a van. They knew players and they knew cards, and they’d let you look for as long as you needed to amass a stack of cards, which usually cost a couple of bucks. And if they didn’t have a card you were looking for, the best of them would promise to exhume it from their holdings and bring it to the next show.

The other kind of baseball-card dealer? Antimatter to their matter. They were people who’d started selling cards because they were hot commodities. Most of them were semi-employed misfits, the kind of serial, darting-eyed grifters who are always hot to make a fortune but dislike the idea of actual work. Today they’re hawking Purell and N95 masks; back in the day they arbitraged Beanie Babies … or baseball cards. At a show, you could spot their tables from two rows away — they invested in fancy metal cases with black fabric linings and glass tops that could be tipped up at an angle to become displays. They almost never brought storage boxes, because to them common cards were by-catch. They’d stand behind their perimeter of display cases, curating their rainbow of gaudily priced inserts, glossy price guide in hand. Few of them knew baseball or liked it, an opinion they’d share freely if asked and sometimes even if not.

Here was my problem. The baseball-card lifers detested inserts, because they flew in the face of tradition and attracted buyers who didn’t care about cards or the game any more than the price-guide chiselers did. If the lifers had Topps Gold cards, they were either mixed in with the other commons or in a box somewhere back at the house. But the grifters didn’t care about Topps Gold either, because they were too low-end to be rare or valuable. There were five or six random scrubs in that set who’d replaced the checklists? Who knew or cared?

I couldn’t find a 1993 Topps Gold Rich Sauveur in 1993. As winter turned to spring in 1994, it seemed unlikely that I ever would. I kept trying, though, spending hungover Saturdays pawing through boxes of cards and having deeply stupid conversations like this one:

“Hey, got any 1993 Topps Golds?”

“Yeah, right here.”

“These are ’94s.”

“Oh. I’ve got a holographic insert Barry Bonds [27] for $20.”

“No thanks, I don’t collect those. I’m looking for a ’93 Topps Gold, one of the cards that replaced the checklist cards.”

“The what? What player you looking for, buddy?”

“Rich SO-ver. It looks like SAU-vee-UR.”

“Never heard of him. Tell you what, I can go $18 on the Bonds.”

Lather, rinse, repeat. It got old.

Until one Saturday pretty much like every other one. I’m at a card show in a sad hotel in Alexandria, Va., one I’d debated not bothering with. It’s in one of those half-ballrooms, with the accordion divider separating the couple of dozen card-dealer tables from the quarterly meeting of the Northern Virginia Chapter of Actuaries. I pay my $2, walk in, scan the room with my by-now-practiced eye and know immediately that I should have stayed home. There are barely any tables with storage boxes — just the usual tipped glass cases maintained by the price-guide set.

I circle the perimeter anyway, because it’s 40-odd minutes back to Bethesda. At one of the tables, I do a double-take. Clipped to the tilted-up display case is a 1993 Topps Gold card. And it’s … Rich Sauveur. The card I’ve been searching for. The one nobody else seems to know exists.

This makes zero sense — Rich Sauveur’s up there alongside the Griffeys and Thomases and Bondses. I talk with the couple whose table it is and they strike me as typical nouveau card speculators. I keep it casual, because there’s only one possible explanation for the sudden elevation of Rich Sauveur to insert-card glory: these people believe this anonymous checklist-replacement card is worth far, far more than it actually is.

But then I do a little math. Suppose they’re overvaluing their Rich Sauveur card by 100X? If so, it should cost me about $5. Am I willing to pay $5 to stop searching hotel ballrooms for Rich Sauveur? I am so, so willing to do that.

“Hey, Rich Sauveur,” I say casually.

The response is not what I expected: “Oh, you know Rich? He’s our neighbor! Rich is a great guy!”

Huh. Still, baseball players do have neighbors, right? We chat about all things Rich Sauveur for a few minutes, a conversation to which I bring relatively little, and then I ask how much they want for the card.

Dead silence.

“Oh, it’s not for sale,” the man says.

“What do you mean it’s not for sale?”

“It’s not for sale,” he says, and I notice his wife has gone stiff and silent.

“I’ve been looking for that one for a while,” I say. “It’d sure be nice to scratch it off the list.”

“Like I said, it’s not for sale.”

At this point I’m actually dizzy. I seem to have fallen through a rip in the space-time continuum, finding myself in a bizarre dimension that obeys the laws of neither physics nor commerce, and from which it’s possible I’ll never escape. It’s all I can do not to scream at these people. Why would you bring a baseball card that’s not for sale to a baseball-card show, the only purpose of which is to sell baseball cards? Why would you … why would … why why why why why why why.

Desperate, I offer them $10. No sale. In fact, they unclip their neighbor’s card from their fancy display case, put it away, and ask me to leave.

Annnnnd scene.

At the time, that story was a yarn about a weird era of card collecting and an OCD quest gone comically wrong. And hey, it still is, But now it’s also a reminder to me of all that you can find below baseball’s waterline. A single card and a couple of lines of stats can be head-scratching or entertaining or both, but provide scant summary for decades of hard work and perseverance and dogged love for a game that makes no guarantees about loving you back.

The postscript, which I swear is true: A week after the Alexandria debacle, I trudged into an equally unpromising card show in Beltsville or Silver Spring or somewhere like that and almost immediately found not one but two 1993 Topps Gold Rich Sauveurs. The guy said they were a quarter each, but sold the pair to me for a dime.

Read more A Met for All Seasons [28] posts.