Why do I collect baseball cards? It becomes increasingly hard to remember as prices spike and more adult concerns occupy my mind and my bank account. A lot of the simple joys of ripping open a pack of cards have been lost in the cynicism of the current state of the hobby. I can remember the thrills that I used to feel just by pulling a star player, or even a card that I needed to come a bit closer to a completed set. Heck, an insert that would be run-of-the-mill by today's standards (like a Collector's Choice Silver Signature of Cal Ripken, Jr.) was a major get to my adolescent self. When I got 11 1993 Topps BlackGold cards from one Winner card, it was like I had hit the lottery. Now, I occasionally get a quick smile from an especially goofy-looking picture, or a little rush of familiarity from an Orioles player, but there's nothing all that special about opening a pack of baseball cards.
As I've alluded to recently, the past few weeks have been a period of upheaval in my life. There was the unwelcome surprise of a malfunctioning car window, and the subsequent expenses. The following week, my roommate moved out on fairly short notice. I returned from vacation to spend last week in a half-empty apartment with no cable or Internet, wondering whether I could afford the next month's rent on my own while hoping that one of the handful of friends an acquaintances who'd expressed interest would be able to move in before October. The point became moot by midweek, when a dental checkup revealed the need for a crown and three fillings, at a cost which made my parents' offer to move me back home for the near future a borderline necessity.
That's right, I'm embracing the most tired new-media stereotype: the blogger that lives in his parents' basement.
Don't get me wrong: I get along very well with my family, which includes my younger sister (also living under that same roof). I'm grateful and relieved that I'll be saving a good deal of money by going home. But I can't help but feel a little self-conscious; it seems like a step backwards. After three-plus years of living on my own, and four years of on-campus living before that, I don't want to be perceived as dependent or lazy or immature. With all of these thoughts swirling in my head last Saturday, I found myself in Wal-Mart (or is it Walmart now?) seeking out my own brand of comfort food: baseball cards.
I've been seduced by the siren call of the premium retro cards as of late (Allen & Ginter and Goudey). I bought an Orioles Goudey team set from eBay last year, and recently got a pack of 2007 Goudey in a repack box; that's the total sum of these two product lines in my collection. My curiosity has been piqued as the blogs that I frequent devote their energies to this year's sets. I spent several minutes in Walmart carefully eyeing the blaster boxes before concluding that there was no A&G. So I grabbed some Goudey, superstitiously selecting the first box that had caught my eye (always go with your first instinct, right?). I knew the base set had some retired players scattered throughout, and maybe I'd get lucky and pluck an Eddie Murray or Jim Palmer card. I rolled my eyes as the box touted a cut signature of Abraham Lincoln, as well as randomly inserted buybacks of actual 1934 Goudey cards.
I delayed my gratification, waiting until Sunday to tear the shrink wrap off the small box. I reached in and pulled out the first pack; a quick tear of the wrapper showed the back of a Steve Carlton card. Not too shabby; he was one of the short prints. As is my habit, I flipped the pack over and started from the front. Ryan Zimmerman: like most of the Nationals, he fills me with indifference. John Lackey: pretty good pitcher, ugly guy, fairly plain. Eric Byrnes: mini card of a player who sucked as an Oriole (briefly) then resurrected his career in Arizona and annoyed the crap out of me on Fox telecasts. Nick Markakis: a brief pick-me-up. I was happy to get an Oriole, particularly the young guy that is expected to be a cornerstone of a long-awaited future winning team. As I took a closer look at the card, I noticed the blue ink that was somehow camouflaged by the orange script on his jersey. As I recounted on another blog, this was my genuine reaction:
"Holy crap, it's autographed!"
My surprise had been compounded because of the stealthy nature of the signature. Unlike most autographed inserts, the design of the card was identical to the base card. No blank space laid out for Nick to sign, no sticker, no front-of-card text announcing something special. I like it better that way. Talk about your lucky pulls! The only other autograph I've nabbed from a pack was Nyjer Morgan in 2008 Topps. That was decidedly less exciting because a) I'd bought a whole hobby box, and Topps seeds one auto card per box and b) Nyjer couldn't manage to stick on the PIRATES' major league roster. So essentially, the first at-random autograph I got was arguably the best player on my favorite team! I had a silly grin plastered on my face for the rest of the afternoon. I showed off the card to each member of my family, though their collective interest in rectangular cardboard is considerably less than my own.
So why do I collect baseball cards? At a time when I really needed a pick-me-up, I plucked a card that instantly becomes one of the most personally significant pieces of my collection. That will give me enough juice to keep buying, ripping, blogging, sorting, and trading for the next little while, until the next discovery.