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My late grandfather, Derek Jeter, and one massive card collection

How a way to pass the time during lockdown became a way to reconnect with my grandfather.

A display of collectible baseball cards from Bill’s Collectibles on 2335 S. Broadway (top row left to right) 1933,Ben Chapman, NY Yankees, $12, 1934-36 Rick Ferrell, Red Sox, $100, 1933, chick Hafey, Cincinnati Reds, $75, 1941, Charley Gehringer, Detroit Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Since I started writing for this site, most of the articles I’ve published have dealt with data analysis and the hard numbers behind our favorite team. As much as I love the numbers, though, they’re only one part of the story. The other part is memory.

That’s where this series comes in. The Yankees have been a big part of my life since I can remember. This series will revisit some of my favorite memories of growing up a Yankees fan living just outside Toronto, and how the events of the last 29 years have informed my fandom. Some will be Canada-specific, some will be funny, and some will be heartbreaking, but my hope is that all will be, at the very least, entertaining.

This article is part one of this series. I hope you enjoy, and I’d love to read your own personal stories in the comments.

I have this weird memory of pickle. The game, not the vegetable (or is it a fruit?). When I was six or seven years old, my parents told me to get ready fast and dropped me off in a hurry at our neighbor’s house. They rushed off somewhere with my 12-or-13-year-old brother, but didn’t tell me what was going on. That was fine by me, though, because that meant I got to play pickle all day with my best friends, just like we did every other day during the summer.

A few hours later, right before dinner was to be served, my parents picked me up. They sat me down in the living room and told me that my grandfather had passed away. Cancer. They explained to me how he had been in hospice (and what a hospice was) for a couple weeks and hadn’t gotten better, and how I’d need to be on my best behavior at church in a few days.

After the arrangements were taken care of and we laid my grandpa to rest, we found out that he had left his sports card collection to my brother and I. I don’t remember much of the time immediately after my grandfather’s passing, but the one memory I do have is of digging through my grandparents’ basement with my brother and my father for hours going through his collection. It was filled with cards from every sport you could possibly imagine, and there were still some boxes that were entirely unopened. I remember this confusing my six-or-seven-year-old brain — what do you mean grandpa didn’t want to play with them?! — but my dad explained how sometimes people like to just collect things. Looking back now, I’m thankful my dad was there to explain that to me, because I absolutely would have massacred those boxes.

At our home, my dad had converted a crawlspace into a playroom for my brother and I, and we decided that would be the best place to store the cards. There were cabinets along the back wall, and the card collection filled them up. I would occasionally look through them — oddly enough, the one card I remember most vividly is Alex Cora fielding a flyball during his time with the Dodgers — but, for the most part, they sat there untouched for years. Eventually we moved, and the collection’s new home was in totes underneath our stairs, where they’ve been collecting dust ever since.

Fast forward to September 2021. I’m now 29, working full-time for a publishing company, and about to get married in a month. I hadn’t thought about the cards we inherited in ages; to be entirely honest, I kind of forgot about them as I got older. But for some reason I can’t seem to figure out, I remember turning to my then-fiancée, who was watching television while I was reading, and saying something to the effect of, “Did I ever tell you about the card collection I inherited?” When you’ve been with one person for 10+ years, it’s hard to come up with new topics of discussion, I suppose. I told her the same story I just told you, and we determined that we should probably see what we have, on account of the one and only card I could conjure a memory of was that Alex Cora one.

That night, I texted my dad to see if he still had them, and he told us that he would get them out from under the stairs for me. When I got to my parents’ house the next day, I couldn’t believe my eyes: there had to be more than 100,000 cards in my grandpa’s collection. It was even bigger than I remembered it being. As soon as I saw the unopened boxes, the brown lunch bags full of strays, and the totes full of binders, all of the memories came rushing back to me. I decided to grab a couple boxes and see what we were working with.

I’m not one to believe in things like fate or higher powers or anything like that, but I don’t exactly know how else to describe what went through my mind when I opened up the first box to find a Derek Jeter rookie card at the top of the pile in mint condition.

This reveal may seem a little unsurprising to you since there are probably thousands of these cards out there, but to understand my bewilderment, you need to first understand my childhood. My brother and I both played baseball growing up and, like every Yankees fan growing up in the 1990s, we idolized Jeter. In his playing days, my brother wore the number two, played shortstop, and mimicked Jeter’s batting stance at the plate. Before I was moved to pitcher, I also played shortstop and begged my coaches to let me have number two on my jersey whenever I could. We dreamed of being Derek Jeter literally every time we picked up a baseball, a bat, or a glove. In fact, my brother is still the biggest Derek Jeter fan I’ve ever known to this day.

I haven’t gone through our entire collection yet. As happens, life got in the way. But in the boxes I have gone through, I’ve come across countless gems: a Don Mattingly rookie card, a Thurman Munson card, and a 2000 World Series highlight card with Mariano Rivera jumping into Jorge Posada’s arms are just a few of the baseball-related highlights. I don’t know anything about card collecting so I can’t speak to the monetary value of the collection, but the sentimental value is off the charts.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to forget things about my grandfather. I remember he used to come to watch my brother and I play baseball, but the only reason I remember his face is from photos we had of him around the house growing up and his voice is totally lost from my memory. In digging through these cards some 23 or 24 years after his death, though, I’ve never felt closer to him. And that’s what I want to get at with this series: baseball is more than just the data and the contracts and the superstars; it’s the memories we make, the stories we tell, and the impressions we make that live on well after we’re gone.

We’re flirting with another lockdown here in Ontario, so I’ll finally have time to get back into digging through this collection. If I come across anything cool in the next hundred boxes, I’ll be sure to be update you all.