I have a fantastic memory when it comes to Major League Baseball players from about 1988 on, and I owe it all to baseball cards. My friends and I used to play this game where they would name off a big leaguer and I would give them a synopsis of his career, including the position(s) he played and all the teams he had played for. They would try to stump me, and I in turn would awe them with my useless talents. The only time I was ever flummoxed was when a teammate on a summer baseball team I played on came running into my hotel room one evening (we were at a tournament) and blurted out “Ty Wigginton.” Turns out my cold-blooded teammate had been watching Sportscenter when a highlight of Wigginton, making his Major League Debut that day, came up on screen. Touche.
I’ve been collecting baseball cards since around 1989, when I was five years old. In elementary school, when most kids were into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Micro Machines (remember those?), my sole mission in life was to get my hands on the 1989 Upper Deck Card #1, otherwise known as the elusive Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie. I didn’t have the money to buy the card outright, so I purchased packs in an attempt to find my holy grail.
Even when I wasn’t pursuing my dream card, I still spent all my extra money on wax packs. I went to hobby shops and card shows (shout out to long-defunct Coast-to-Coast Cards on Bellevue’s Northrup Way…they always gave me a deal), had my own subscription to Beckett (the leading source on sports card pricing), and spent my free time organizing and appraising my collection. On weekends, my little brother and I would trade cards, with me hijacking his rookies in exchange for the brightest and most colorful inserts I could find (“inserts” are cards that are inserted at random into packs and are usually slightly more rare and valuable than regular “base” cards).
This trend continued all the way through middle school, but began to wane once I reached my mid-teens. My fading interest in baseball cards corresponded with a boom in the product that saw the market become flooded with new brands, even flashier inserts, and exponentially rising prices. At the same time, I became more engaged in other things, such as competitive athletics, CDs, and the ladies.
Recently, I’ve begun to take stock of the card collection I put together throughout the 1990’s. In shoe boxes marked “Nike,” “New Balance,” and even “Nevados,” I’ve located my past treasures and begun to reassimilate them. There are Griffeys, Ripkens, Gwynns, and even the occasional Geronimo Berroa or Mike Fetters. They reside in soft sleeves, hard cases, or, more often than not, naked in the box. Some are glossy, others faded. Every now and then I find a decades-old stick of bubble gum from a wax pack lying there. I’m tempted to chew it, despite its current resemblance to pink concrete.
I check and recheck the values of my cards. Some carry a price tag of five cents, others tens of dollars. The Griffey rookie, which I managed to get ahold of two times over, now books at $40; during the late ’90s, in Griffey’s peak years, 1989 Upper Deck #1 was worth up to $150.
I discover long lost Mariners, such as former utility infielder Jeff Schaefer, ex-minor league superstar Marc Newfield, and even the most obscure of the obscure: pitcher Clint Zavaras, for one, outfielder Bruce Fields, for another. They intermingle with the likenesses of Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, and other greats of a previous generation.
More than anything else, though, these cards bring back memories. I come across a Teddy Higuera, a middle-of-the-road starting pitcher who played ten seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers from 1985 to 1994. I remember sitting in my garage on a warm spring day as a kid, swinging a bat, and listening to the Mariners on the radio, facing none other than Higuera in Milwaukee.
I stumble upon a Mike Heath. Heath, a catcher for the Detroit Tigers at the time, was the final out of Randy Johnson’s no-hitter in 1990. I was at that game as a five-year-old. Rumor had it that after Heath struck out swinging at a pitch above his head, he went into the visiting clubhouse and promptly broke a chair.
Jack Savage, a relief pitcher for the Minnesota Twins. He was the losing pitcher at a game I attended in that same 1990 season. Mike Jackson, Mariner setup man, was the victor. I know this because I have a baseball which I found in the right-field, 300-level seats of the Kingdome that day with all the game’s stats written on it by my mom; I tried to scribble some notes on the ball as well, but with my five-year-old hands it came out as just that, scribble.
It’s nostalgia, in cardboard form. My childhood, laid out in stacks and boxes before my eyes. It’s my love of sports, represented in paper heroes and plastic cases, shoeboxes, and dog-eared price guides. We all have memories brought on by sports. We all have a history with sports. We have a reason to love sports. We have mementos, and things we can cherish which remind us of moments gone by. For you, it may not be baseball cards. Maybe it’s a t-shirt, posters, autographs, a foam finger, who knows. But it’s there, and it’s meaningful. This is just one man’s story of nostalgia. What’s yours?