My dad took me to my first baseball game when I was eight. He told me it was the Freeway Series, Dodgers vs. Angels. I ran up the ramps ahead of him waving my Dodgers pennant and waited for him at the top. He walked with hot dogs and sodas. He was a sturdy man with broad shoulders and grayish hair, but to me, he was just Dad.
I loved that game because Dad took me. One of the players smacked the ball, and he stood and raised his arms. I must have spilled half my drink trying to cheer like he did. The Dodgers clobbered them, and Orel pitched a dandy. Dad called it a shutout. That night I dreamt about baseball and the Freeway Series and stealing home to win and having the whole team rush the field to carry me to the dugout. I looked up at Dad, and he was pointing at me. He was tugging on the shoulder of the man next to him and pointing at me.
After work the next day, Dad came home with a box of wax packs, Topps brand. He watched as I tore those packs open, making stacks all around me. I must have had my tongue out because I bit it a little and could taste the blood. I wondered what I was supposed to do next. Finished, I sat back and looked up at Dad. He helped me put them in order by the number on the back. Thirty-six packs was a load of cards.
We flipped through the price guide he'd bought with the cards laid in a half circle around our caramel-colored island of uncovered carpet. The packs had a lot of doubles and triples. There were 4 Mark McGuire rookie cards and 2 Jose Cansecos, the Bash Brothers, Dad called them. 6 Barry Bonds and a Bobby Bonilla, 4 Orel Hershisers, a Danny Tartabull, 3 Eric Davises, only one John Shelby, a Mike Scioscia, "The Wall," who looked just like Dad, and hundreds of others.
My parents would invite me in to watch television, but I would say, "No." I wanted to sort my cards. They were already sorted, but I wanted to do it again.
Dad brought home box after box - Donruss, Topps, Fleer, Score, Upper Deck, and even a box of Canadian brand wax packs, O-Pee-Chee. All the kids called them O-Chee-Pee's though. Anyone who was anyone collected cards, and when you were fortunate enough to come across one of value, you stored it safely in a screw down protective case.
The next year the Dodgers made playoffs, and Dad got tickets, two of them right down by third base where we could hear the players spit. Dad, all grizzled and forty, pushed the scrum of dads scrounging for the foul ball that landed a few rows behind us. He emerged with a John Shelby foul ball. Orel Hershiser pinch hit in the thirteenth inning. A pinch hitter wasn't supposed to be a pitcher, but let me tell you something, he could hit. He came through, a two-run threebagger to the right field corner.
The Diamondvision fan camera got me and Dad. I was on his shoulders spilling the rest of my drink and shaking my oversized, blue number-one hand. Dad had his shirt over his head and a blue arrow painted on his stomach. The arrow pointed up at me. He knew we'd get up on the screen if we did that.
The Dodgers won.
Dad said the players always sign autographs after they win, so we tried. I wasn't the youngest kid though, and they only signed the young kids' stuff. Even John Shelby. They just ducked under the metal dugout roof and were gone, and all I had was a ball.
The miracle Dodgers went all the way to the Big Show that year and won. John Shelby got a World Series ring, and Kirk Gibson limped around the bags after he hit the home run heard around the world.
And I had a ball.
If you look hard enough, I think you can still find baseball cards, scattered around in strip malls and swap meets. The dealers have all but disappeared. Hype for the hobby fizzled after the player strikes and pay hikes. They even tried corking the ball to make for higher scores and more excitement, but that didn't work. Baseball card dealers are almost extinct, and cards are more expensive than ever.
I saw a kid looking through a stack, all glossy and state-of-the-art. I'd bet he didn't know that packs used to have gum in them, that the players used to be real, that things used to be done because they could be done, that the love of something often created an unexplainable loyalty that could only be broken by years of neglect. It was the way of sports and fathers. I remember when baseball didn't have any trouble getting fans, and there were dealers on every block. The cards were simple cardboard and smelled like sawdust.
I kept my cards for years. I saw the stores turn the "closed" sign and had to go to liquor stores to find cards. They were always more expensive and never had the good brands, but I had to find cards. I looked harder to find them as they got harder to find. I remember that. Dad was at work and hadn't brought cards home in months. He didn't help me sort them out anymore. The miracle Dodgers managed to stick around longer than the miracle Dad.
If Dad had a baseball card with his face imprinted for all time, I would keep it protected in a plastic case, so I could mull over his statistics on the back - batting average, which really dropped off in later years, teams he played for, home runs, the last of which the card says he hit last year, and fielding errors, which he would have to admit should be higher. I would keep the card, waiting for the ideal time to reveal my intimate knowledge of his performance. I would let him know I had watched him play every day, that he had turned me from fan to fault-finder.
This morning I almost fell apart, I tell you. I mean, I have my custom-plated Suburban in the three-car garage and the pool out back, but I almost lost it today. People tried to tell me that I should keep my cards, you know, to give them to my kids, but that wouldn't work. There's really no way to explain it to them. They weren't just cards. They were a journey of sorts, a discovery of a world that someone introduced me to, but I explored. Handing them down to my son wouldn't be the same for him. I'd be cheating him.
I hadn't told him about the cards yet. I could never think up a way to show him my collection and avoid having to tell him over and over that those were my cards, that he would have to collect his own. I never had the heart to do that. Now I've been selling them off at garage sales. I've sold close to forty boxes, more cards than I care to count. I even put an ad in the paper.
I'm sure Dad forgot about my cards years ago. It was probably around the time he forgot about me. Dad was like one of those baseball cards that turned up with an error during printing. In this one card, Cal Ripken Jr.'s kid brother had the "eff" word written on the bottom of his bat. It shocked everyone. It made it worth something for a while until they covered the word up with black tape, then white tape. Each version was less exciting than the last. Everyone wanted it while it was worth something. It was all hype. I wished I could have traded him away while he was worth something.
A man called up this morning asking if I had any cards left, and I told him that "Yeah, I do." I didn't go check, but I was sure I still had a ton of cards.
He asked, "Can you give me directions to your place, so I can come pick some up?"
I said, "Yeah," and gave him directions.
When he called from the gate on the intercom, I went out and walked him to the house. I asked him, "Can you wait here for a minute?" I closed the front door and hurried upstairs to the closet in my office. I reached up and grabbed the last three boxes on the shelf.
I had gripped the rail to jump down the stairs when I paused and looked down at what I cradled under my arm like aglove with a baseball in it, the last out of the game. The last three boxes. I stopped myself and sat on the top stair. I set two boxes next to me, turning the last box in my hands. The old beat-up white box had packing tape around the ends.
I held it and stared at it. That's when I almost lost it. I ran my finger along the tape. I hurried through my pocket for my house key. Sawing through the tape, first the left side then the right, I pulled out a handful of cards and spread them out on the box across my knees. They were brown cardboard with the faces of athletes.
I remembered what these were. There was a time I treasured these like the gold letters Dad had inscribed on his Bible or the hanging dice in my brother's VW Bug. Jose Lind, Darryl Strawberry, Andy Van Slyke, Tom Lasorda, Jack Dempsey, Mickey Tettleton, Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, and John Shelby, they all sat with me on that top stair as the doorbell rang.
There, with those cards spread across my lap, I realized what it must have been like for Dad to watch me open all those boxes of cards he'd bring home, the veneration my wide-open eyes must have shown. It made me angry to think that he could let that go so easily. "Call him and tell him you sold all the cards," I thought. But he wouldn't remember. That wouldn't do anything.
I looked back in the box. There were hundreds more cards and a baseball. Dad had fought off hordes of other men to get me that ball. Its white leather cover bore a black Sharpie signature. Touching the signature made me feel like I did the first time coach told me to lead off at first base. I hadn't remembered Dad signing it for me. I chuckled at the forgery attempt that stained the ball with love. I tossed it into the air a couple of times and spun it in my hand to look at the autograph again.
"You could call him," I thought. And I could. I should. Maybe the whole thing could happen again. We could get tickets to a game. We could buy hotdogs and beers and sit together in the sun. We could talk.
The doorbell rang again.
At that point, nothing else seemed to matter. The only way I'd answer the door is if it were Dad bringing home a box of wax packs that we would sit on the floor and open and sort or wanting to go catch a game and eat nachos and see who could spit sunflower seeds the furthest. We didn't even have to go anywhere to do that. We could just sit here on the top stair and spit them. I'd clean them up later.
But the guy outside could wait. These were cards.
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