Thursday, April 2, 2009

It's All in the Cards

Every boy growing up gets hit with it at some point. You're going about your life. Going to school, playing sports with your friends, trying to get your homework done, and eating as much pizza as humanly possible. And then, suddenly, only one thing matters: cards.

Baseball cards, basketball cards, football didn't make a difference. If there was a picture on the front and statistics on the back, I wanted it.

You had the kids that collected strictly for business. They cherished their cards, kept them in hard cases, and would not dare part with even one if not given fair value in return.

Others just did it for the innocent fun it provided. Trade 'em, memorize the stats, and maybe if one is real special, it goes in a soft plastic sleeve.

I was somewhere in the middle. I liked the thought of having an expensive card or set, but was ultimately drawn to it simply for the love of sports and the ability to feel closer to the players by having their likeness in a small cardboard rectangle right there in my hands.

There are highs and lows when collecting cards. I experienced both. This is my story.

My older brother Gabe and I only really cared about a couple of things early on in life. Playing Nintendo and following sports.

When we would wake up in the morning, it was always a minor competition as to who would read the Sports section first. A lot of times, we would just split it in half and switch after 10-15 minutes. It was always a good break if you got the part with box scores and league leaders in it. I might not have known how to tie my shoes until I was a good 15 years old, but I damned sure could tell you that Kevin Mitchell was leading the National League in homers when I was 5.

We marveled at Bob Welch's 27-win season in 1990. At the time, there was no Internet to speak of. You couldn't make a few clicks and instantly watch highlights of these guys. It was all about the little numbers in small print at the bottom of the Sports page. Stats meant everything to us.

It was not long before baseball cards made their way into our lives.

There were two binders with plastic sleeve pages for the cards.

One for the good players; and one for the guys like Doug Strange and Rick Schu.

This was pretty easy to do. If a guy had great stats on the back, he went in the good pile. If it was someone like Felix Fermin, and we saw an endless string of zeros throughout his home run column, he went with the bums.

Oddly enough, maybe 20 years later, there's still only one guy I can remember struggling to determine what book he belonged to...Phil Bradley.

His statistics confused me to no end. I remember looking at his first couple years. No homers. You're in the bad group. Wait, though. Out of nowhere, the next number in his tater line hit me like a ton of bricks: 26. My 5-year-old mind could not comprehend this rapid change. Bradley then followed with a slew of pedestrian power seasons that wound up somewhere in the low teens. I could never figure out where Phil Bradley's card should be, and he remained a homeless outfielder in my collection.

I went on gathering cards here and there. Not once did I have thoughts of these little pictures with stats being worth any kind of money. Then my good buddy Diz came along.

He was ahead of his time as a card collector. We were maybe in the 3rd or 4th grade, but his collection was a more organized operation.

He had the good cases for the special cards, and actually went to various shows with real adults to haggle and buy his way to an improved set.

He once put a Michael Jordan "Court Kings" card on lay-away when neither of us had the slightest clue of what that meant. Sounded like a good deal at the time.

He would come over and we would lay a bunch of our cards out on the floor of my bedroom. Divided in half, of course. His on one side, mine on the other. And we would commence trading.

There would be 8-player deals. Times where I thought I made the deal of the century. Others where it seemed like I got taken for a ride across the country.

We acted like major league GM's, doing anything possible to convince the other guy to give up the goods.

Diz would say things like, "I hear Clifford Floyd is going to be a Hall-of-Famer."

We were nine years old and Floyd was a young prospect in Montreal...who was he hearing it from???

Things became serious for me the first time I got an actual box of cards. A "waxbox" they called it. I was never sure why.

It was basketball season, so I opted for the '1993-94 Hoops' set. I called Diz to help me open the packs, which became tradition for either one of us whenever we got our hands on new cards. As we worked our way through, I was quickly drawn to the signature cards that were found in this particular box: the Magic's All-Rookie Team cards.

A set of 10. Made up of 9 of the first 10 picks in that '93 draft, with Rodney Rogers being curiously omitted in place of Toni Kukoc. For some reason, when I laid my eyes on the Isaiah Rider and Calbert Cheaney specials that I found in that first box, I immediately made it my life's mission to collect the rest of the set.

I had lost a little bit of that early "cards are just pictures with numbers" vibe and was now falling more to the Diz side of "fun, but with dollars in mind." I mean, that draft was loaded (or at least it looked that way at the time). The Magic's All-Rookie set looked like this.

1. Chris Webber
2. Shawn Bradley
3. Anfernee Hardaway
4. Jamal Mashburn
5. Isaiah Rider
6. Calbert Cheaney
7. Bobby Hurley
8. Vin Baker
9. Lindsey Hunter
10. Toni Kukoc

I had to have all 10. But it wasn't that easy.

After rifling through many more silver-foiled packs like Charlie Bucket looking for a golden ticket, the same few names kept popping up.

Rider...Cheaney...Hunter...a Webber might show up if you were extremely lucky.

Is it possible that Hoops was only putting out some of the cards to keep getting me to buy new ones? Were the Shawn Bradleys and Bobby Hurleys even out there??

After a while, things finally started to take shape. The hard to find Mashburn was found. Vin Baker jumped out from a random pack. Then a neighbor called from a card show, saying he'd come across the elusive Bradley and Hurley gems. As sad it was to get excited by cards of those two NBA busts (though Hurley's was a little different with the car accident), I was ecstatic nonetheless.

After many months of opening pack after pack with Diz while listening to the 'Boyz II Men' CD Cooleyhighharmony 475 times in the process, the job was done. I had all ten. This was undoubtedly the high point of my card-collecting life.

Me and Diz kept on going. His grandma would take us to Crosswinds Mall by West Bloomfield High on Monday afternoons for their card show.

We would banter with the older gentlemen running the booths. I don't think we came within 30 years of the next youngest guy there. But we loved every minute of it.

There were other spots, too. The K-B Toys at Twelve Oaks Mall was always holding this "Buy Zero, Get Two Free" promotion on any packs of cards that you could jam into your pockets without the guy behind the register seeing. Best deal in town.

The Target by West River Theaters ran a similar crowd-pleasing deal. Sure, we may have been committing a felony, but the possibility of getting a glossy Shawn Kemp 'Topps Stadium Club' card made it plenty worthwhile.

After a time, my All-Rookie Team set was joined by other high quality pieces. A Steve Yzerman O-Pee-Chee rookie card. Mark McGwire's Fleer from his 49 HR first season. A Tom Gugliotta card that, with the athleticism he showed in his action photo, seemed to have an unmeasurable ceiling.

Like Matt Damon in the opening scene in Rounders, I decided to make a run. I was going to gather up my best cards, Magic's All-Rookie set included, and head over to the Crosswinds show with Diz.

I imagined a giant swap with one of the "big-time" guys at a booth. Or maybe someone would be so impressed with my lot of treasures that I would just get offered thousands in cash on the spot. The possibilities were endless.

Tragically, there was one possibility I never accounted for: my own forgetfulness.

We trekked around to the different booths, but nothing had caught my fancy. Amazingly, despite the amount of time and effort it took me to attain my impressive collection, I decided to transport the cards around that day by simply clutching the large stack in my little hands. No plastic bag, no fanny pack, nothing. Just me and my baby mitts. If they were in a container, maybe things would have been different.

We made our way over to a vacant table to grab a little breather. But after a few minutes, me and Diz were back on the prowl, scouting out the terrain and hunting for bargains.

And that's when it hit me. My hands were empty.

I sprinted back to the table where we just dice.

I asked everybody around if they'd seen someone grab my precious help.

Just like that, with one moment of carelessness, they were all gone.

The Yzerman and McGwire rookies. Randy Johnson on the Expos. Googs.

And most important of all, my Magic's All-Rookie Team. They had all vanished into thin air. boy Shawn Bradley. All gone.

That was my last day as a card collector.

The event had officially sapped me of all the card-loving energy I had accumulated over the years.

I probably had the right idea when I was a young pup. Just deciding which ones were good and which ones were bad.

Like Mike McDermott in Rounders, I tried taking it up a notch...and wound up walking out of Crosswinds that day with holes in my pockets and tears in my eyes.

Lesson learned: when it comes to collecting cards, it should never get more complicated than "Phil Bradley: Good or Bad?"

And I think I'm ready to finally make that call. He's going in the "Good" binder.

Of course, his stats still look the same and his power numbers continue to boggle my mind. But after the 'Monday Afternoon Massacre of 1995,' there is plenty of 'good' space available.

I am at peace. The unfortunate events of that day are now long in the distance in the rear-view mirror. And I have finally given Phil Bradley a home.

is my story.

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