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Baseball cards and connecting with the game

One fan’s reflections on why they matter.

This guy really likes Bruce Bochy.
This guy really likes Bruce Bochy.
Kevork Djansezian

Last weekend I was visiting a friend at the bottom of Manhattan. We had the kids along, and a request was made to load up on Halloween candy. So we grabbed a bus uptown to the East Village where we made a pilgrimage to the Economy Candy store. If you haven't been there before, then let me explain that the name says it all. However, they also have all of the old stuff that you never see anymore at the drug store counter. This is where you go if you're looking for something like strawberry flavored Charleston Chew, or a 100 Grand bar. They even had those old inappropriate cigarette gum packs. No one thought that was a bad idea?

As you might imagine, late Saturday afternoon in a place like this, two weeks away from Halloween, it got pretty crowded. I opted to wait outside instead while the rest of the crew perused the limited space in the aisles. After a while everyone came out with the goods. The kids wound up with pumpkin head Pez dispensers, which I was immediately requested to fill as we walked through the bustling East Village street. My friend kindly picked up something he thought I might find fun, since I had been stuck outside. It was an unopened Topps Bubble Gum Card set from 1989. Some gifts you can give back right away just by opening them, and so I did.

"Oh look there's Rob Dibble," I said after flipping to the second card in the deck. A few cards later Toronto Blue Jays Dave Stieb popped up. There was a #1 Draft Pick card for Gregg Olson, who had a decent five years at the start of his career as a closer with the Baltimore Orioles. My friend wondered out loud if that had any value as a rookie card.

"Ho Jo!" We both exclaimed as the Mets Howard Johnson showed up. No Yankees, unfortunately, and it's not like there weren't any fun names to have found from that team in a stack of cards: Don Mattingly, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Kelly, Steve Sax, Jesse Barfield, Mike Pagliarulo, Steve Balboni, Al Leiter, Tommy John at age 46, Rich Gossage. Heck, it probably would have been fun to find the Ken Phelps card in there just for the infamous notoriety of it all.

Most folks these days start to immediately think of what these trading cards might be worth. It seems to have become ingrained in our culture at this point. Truth is that there aren't many baseball cards of any value past the very early 1980's. The amount of people collecting cards, and the loss of Topps monopoly on production, added so much supply that pricing for these cards are not very high. The most valuable card from this 1989 Topps set looks to be Craig Biggio's rookie card at something just below $2.00. That pattern holds for most years. My old card collection was recently unearthed from a garage on Long Island. I had a ton of late '70s and early '80s, but found out that I really don't have a lot of value in the collection. I still can't believe I somehow missed Cal Ripken's rookie card in 1982. I had 75% of all of the cards that year!

The process of opening up and flipping through that pack last week was a lot fun. So why is that exactly? There was a comment from an article I wrote earlier in the year about catching foul balls that caught my attention. A reader commented about never understanding the hype around catching a baseball. I think it's an uncommon view, but it does beg the question: what is it that attracts fans to having this physical connection with the game?

It really shouldn't matter. Whether we're talking about a baseball that happened to be touched by the bat that a given player held, or was thrown from the hand of a noteworthy pitcher, the ball was just an inanimate object interjected in the actual events that occurred. In other words, the ball isn't the game itself that we love. It's just the object that determines the events of the game and how they're displayed.

However, these things do matter to most of us. That commenter may have reached a level of enlightenment beyond our understanding, (are you a bodhisattva perhaps?), but the majority of fans love to have that physical link to the game they're passionate about. Who wouldn't want to have the Jeffrey Maier baseball? That might require a problem with your personal identity, but it still would be pretty cool! For that same reason baseball cards can be a lot of fun. Sometimes it's not the obvious players that are most interesting. In the 1989 set, I found Brian Harper with a Minnesota Twins uniform on.

"I remember him," I said to my friend, but when I looked at the back of his card I had to wonder why. He hadn't had more than 166 at-bats in any given season up to that point from 1979-1988, but I did remember him for some reason. So here I am looking up Harper's page on Fangraphs, and realizing that at age 30 he finally got the chance to play for the Twins and he did a good job. He never generated 3+ WAR in a given season, but he was decent at the plate, producing a wRC+ over 100 for six years in a row. Considering he did that all in his 30's is pretty impressive.

Clearly a lot of the fun part of baseball cards is reminiscing about the games we saw in the past. How those games made us feel. The time I told my roommate to get out of the apartment, after proclaiming the Yankees were going to lose when Chuck Knoblauch just stood there pointing instead of going to get the damn ball. These objects don't mean squat in and of themselves, but it's the metaphysical we're talking about here. Language is a minefield when it comes to metaphysics, but hopefully these objects are connecting you to joy. That's the point of this whole thing. The world we are discussing is baseball. If it doesn't bring you joy, then what's the point?

By the way, these are bubble gum cards that I was given. Does anyone want to guess how hard that horrible stick of gum was? It did crack in half after a few good whacks on the side of a table. It also left a nice dark rectangular stain on the back of Lance Johnson's card. Good thing that wasn't Craig Biggio's rookie card, or I would have been pissed.

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