As a child, I discovered baseball through two sources. First, the daily games played in backyards throughout our neighborhood, and second, baseball cards. As the youngest boy on the block, I struck out a lot and lost a lot of good cards in lopsided trades (I distinctly remember two older boys celebrating after I gave one of them a Pete Rose for a handful of magic beans), but these early defeats did nothing to stem my love for the game.
I bought my first pack of Topps baseball cards from a liquor store called the Melrose Market in Southfield, Michigan, probably in 1976, and it marked the beginning of a life-long love affair.
The majority of my allowance would find its way to drugstores, liquor stores, or ice cream men -- anyone who was selling baseball cards. I'd rip open the packages, toss aside the gum, and slowly thumb through the cards, hoping desperately for Reggie Jackson or George Foster or Mark Fidrych. I'd study the faces on the front, memorize the stats on the back, and search for players who shared my birthdate. Finally, the cards would be sorted and rubberbanded into teams and each new player would be marked off on the team checklist. The ritual was always the same.
Eventually my parents became concerned that I was pouring all of my money into thin rectangular pieces of cardboard, and they tried to curb my spending. With my mom's blessing, I sent ten dollars to a woman in New York named Renatta Galasso, and in return I received a random assortment of 1,000 MINT (I had never heard this word before) 1978 baseball cards. After an hour or so of sorting and tallying, I announced that I was still almost a hundred cards short of completing the set, meaning my allowance would still be split between slurpies and wax packs at 7-Eleven.
In 1979 -- and for a few years after that -- I went ahead and bought a complete set from young Miss Galasso, but it wasn't quite the same. I missed the thrill of holding an unopened pack of cards in my hand, wondering what I might find inside. Years later when I was spending far too much money at card shows, buying individual cards in protective plastic sleeves, I still longed for the suspense of the wax pack and would often buy twenty or thirty packs at a time, not missing the gum a bit.
As card companies and sets have mulitiplied like rabbits in recent years, I've become disillusioned with the hobby, but I still can't through a drugstore checkstand without scanning the counter for baseball cards. A few weeks ago I spotted a box of 2005 Topps at Target, and I reflexively pulled two packs, one to open and one to save. As I opened the pack of twelve cards later that evening, there was a part of me that was riding in the back of a pickup truck on the way home from Melrose Market. I was six years old again, and I was hoping for something big. In order, here's what I got:
Tony Batista, Vinny Castilla, Juan Cruz, Chad Fox, Darren Fenster, Jerome Williams, NLCS Highlights, Joe Black (vintage reproduction), Terry Francona, Brian Stavisky, Jason Bay, Gerald Laird.
A few marginal players and a bunch of guys I've never heard of, but it didn't really matter. When you open a pack of baseball cards, you always get your money's worth.