VAIL, Colo. — At a sports memorabilia shop in Denver we visited early during our guys’ trip, the owners were clearly trying to pull a mom — clear out the clutter from my childhood.
In a back corner, the shop had staples from those heady collecting days of the late 1980s and early 1990s at deep discounts. A few tables were organized with boxes of baseball cards, most on sale for $6.99, or more than half off. The usual suspects were there: Donruss 1989, complete with technicolor borders; Donruss 1988; some Leaf boxes; a stack or two of Topps football cards; and the familiar green box that holds Upper Deck 1990. Walk past the pyramids of over-printed baseball cards and there was a haystack of Starting Lineup figures. Dumped in tubs or lined up on the table were figures going for as little as $1.99.
The Kevin Maas in home Yankee whites — no pinstripes! — was priced to move.
The boy wonder and I dug into the tubs looking for a prize. We found a 1988 Willie McGee at $4.99 (pictured to the left), a “legend” Mickey Mantle at $20.00, and a host of others, from Ben McDonald to Don Mattingly to Tony Gwynn and Barry Bonds — and their almost forgotten frames — dozens and dozens of Mark McGwire figures. There was a Steve Carlton in his Philadelphia Phillies blues, and Greg Maddux — swinging a bat. I couldn’t leave without the 1991 edition Bo Jackson in Kansas City Royals home whites. It comes with a “Special Edition Collector Coin.” A collector coin! How can you pass that up? Ian went with a 1999 Derek Jeter, levitating as if turning a double play with the help of a pole coming out of his right knee and still sporting no pinstripes (they couldn’t paint them on?). Opposite the baseball figures were NBA figures, NHL figures and NFL figures, also on clearance. A young Martin Brodeur looked a lot like the Eddie Belfour figure, though with different pad colors. Todd McFarlane hadn’t yet gotten his hands on the sports figure biz, so such details (like you know pinstripes) weren’t a Kenner priority.
Deciding whether to grab a box of baseball cards was a harder decision.
The 1990 Upper Deck box, discounted to $9.99, seemed like the appropriate penance for those days spent saving up for a few packs in an often fruitless attempt to get a Ken Griffey Jr. card or Ben McDonald’s rookie card.
But no. Been there, opened that.
I went with a box I don’t think I ever saw and one that could help bridge the generations for a night on our trip here to visit the grandparents. On the cover of the box was Steve Carlton, in Cardinals home whites. Inside were 36 wax packs from Pacific’s 1990 “Baseball Alumni Team Legends,” a collection to benefit B.A.T., the Baseball Assistance Team. My thought was we could open the packs with grandpa. Unlike a box of modern players (or early 1990s players), these cards would be recognizable to both the Baby Boomer and the boy wonder, age 5. In hindsight, perhaps it was overkill to buy a full box (36 packs,10 cards each) when the set is only 110 cards.
The wax packs didn’t disappoint, as grandpa opened up a few packs that had heroes from his Milwaukee youth — Warren Spahn and Eddie Mathews. It was grandpa that got the first No. 1 card we unwrapped. In this set, that was Hank Aaron, another Milwaukee Brave. Ian, meanwhile, got the first Lou Brock and the first Yogi Berra — two players he recognized. He also got the first card No. 90 that we found: a young Tony La Russa in a highlighter-yellow Kansas City Athletics uniform (see at the right). It was Ian who suggested we make a separate stack of Hall of Famers. “So,” he said, “I start to learn who they are.” Ian then promptly put the Joe Torre card in that Hall of Fame stack. Who am I to argue? With each pack he opened, Ian had me read off the names he didn’t know, and sometimes we’d flip over to read the bio on the back. Rick Monday’s does include his rescue of the American flag. La Russa’s described him as a .199-hitting utility infielder, and having heard all about that for years it’s entirely possible he wrote his own bio. Lou Piniella’s card explains why he’s pictured in a Seattle Pilots’ uniform. Piniella “was once property of the ill-fated Seattle Pilots, having been selected in the expansion draft. Seattle promptly swapped him to the other new A.L. entry, Kansas City.” Who knew?
With all the packs open, all the 360 cards accounted for, and all of the Hall of Famers properly recognized, the three generations set about answering the question that faces all baseball card collectors: how do we organize them?
There are three choices that I know:
— By team.
At home, Ian and I organize our new cards by team. That helps him recognize patterns — the different logos, team uniforms — and, most importantly, learn to read the team names. As a kid, I organized the cards alphabetically because that made them easier to find for trade. Since La Russa in his KC A’s uniform didn’t really fit in a stack with Monday in his Oakland A’s outfit or Willie Wilson of the KC Royals and Piniella would just be a stack of one, we didn’t think teams would work. Enter the 110.
Remember the days of trying to put together a set through wax packs alone? It took dedication. It took luck. It took a lot of quarters. With 360 cards from a 110-card set, I thought are chances were good to put together Ian’s first wax pack-filled set.
We first sorted the cards by 10s, 20s, 30s … etc. up to 90s, and 100s.
Then we sorted the cards within those stacks to see if we had every number. There were some moments of anxiety. In the 360 cards we only pulled two No. 5 Ernie Banks cards, and the first one didn’t come up until the third to last card in the 10s bunch. The final card to fall into place was No. 108, Earl Weaver, pride of Beaumont High. We had two complete sets come out of the box.
It was a fine way for three generations to spend a night in front of the fire.
And it taught the boy wonder an important lesson I didn’t learn until I was much older and wasn’t reminded of until we saw Upper Deck on discount.
These cards lose value the moment you buy them.
Their true worth isn’t measured in dollars but in the thrill of the wax pack, the possibility this is the one that contains a treasure and the time spent sharing baseball with the boys of all ages.