Sometimes when I talk about my childhood, it sounds eerily similar to an episode of The Wonder Years. In retrospect, my childhood was sickeningly idyllic to many in the outside world. It’s not that it was always perfect, and I definitely wasn’t always the nicest, or coolest kid, but I’m not also not naive to how lucky I was. I grew up in a close-knit neighborhood with a handful of other kids around and within biking distance of all my close friends and the elementary school. I had a perfect court to build the world famous Castro Coliseum (where many a’great wiffle ball battles were hosted), the school’s basketball court to pretend I was Dr.J or later, Michael Jordan, pesky but harmless older brothers to both annoy and challenge me, and a neighbor friend that was my teammate on the plastic ball field and my regular riding partner through town on our two wheel escapes. And it was one of these escapes and the shared hobby within that I have recently rediscovered and has me reveling in memories of my pre and early teens: collecting baseball cards.
It’s hard to describe my current relationship status with professional sports. On one hand, I’m disgusted by them: the money the players make, the cost to attend, the seemingly total lack of loyalty to stay with one team, and my utter jealousy that I wasn’t one of them (at least for the first reason listed above). Yet, on the other hand, I love sports. If I put on a glove, pick up a basketball, or do some ghost batting, it brings me instant, even if fleeting, happiness. Sports and the memories they created are hard wired into my soul. I’m fortunate because I was able to play and play competitively for a long time, and it never got fully to a point where it was anything but fun for me.
It’s a testament to my parents, especially my dad, that while I continued to play at higher levels, I never felt like I had to do anything for anyone other than myself. And while I’m sure he wishes I had kept playing, baseball in particular, he’s never expressed disappointment (and hopefully has never felt it) that I stopped. As I’ve grown up and sports have become even more of a competitive beast than they were when I was a kid, that kind of support without being vicariously overbearing, is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity in a parent. While I’ve yet to don the role of father, I’ve seen first hand the pressure that some parents put on their kids to try to redeem the multi-million dollar contract they were unable to attain in their youth, and it makes me sad that so many kids will think of playing sports as work. After all, there’s a reason you play sports and not work sports.
For a long time, I carried this partial disgust of sports onto baseball cards. And as the steroid era came, it not only devalued the game I once had so much love for, it devalued many of the players and their cards that I collected for years. It was hard to look at Juan “as in gone” Gonzalez cards without thinking about PEDs, or looking at an old Clemens card without imagining him sitting in the training room getting a little extra uumph to his fastball from his trainer (okay, in all transparency, that visual never actually occurred to me until now, but still). Baseball had been tainted and the stain was hard for me to move past.
Then, when I was unemployed this past summer, I decided that it was time to do the grown up ritual of purging and dumping, and where better to begin than with my boxes and boxes of cards. They’d just been sitting around, collecting dust, and I was either too busy to rummage through them or simply didn’t care. But once I did, something odd happened, I became a little kid again. There I was, sitting on my living room floor, shuffling through cards and pulling out early ’90s Craig Biggios and Randy Johnsons and, when I was really lucky, Ken Griffey, Jr’s. And the more I did it, the more the kid in me came out and the fantasy grew to life. While I was still annoyed and disgusted at the players that tarnished the sport and the legitimacy of a myriad of cherished records and careers*, I began remembering wiffle ball games on a Saturday afternoon, bike rides across town to get to Champ’s to buy a pack of Score or watch E.J. tear it up on Street Fighter II (I was never quite the gamer). I remembered the innocence and fun of being a kid and idolizing players.
I ended up going through my thousands of cards and pulling out the few hundred that I decided were worth keeping. Now, I’ve got the itch to collect those players that were before my collecting days as a kid. The players that I now admire years later – Roberto Clemente, Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Hank Aaron, and on the basketball side, guys like Dr.J, Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem). While spending hundreds of dollars on going to the city to see a Giants game still doesn’t have the appeal it once did, buying a 2.5″ x 3.5″ piece of cardboard with the image of a player I looked up to as a kid sure does sound fun!
*One of my biggest gripes of the steroid era isn’t that players took PEDs and had Nintendo-esque stats for a decade plus, it’s that those players scuffed the greatness that other players of that era that haven’t been linked to PEDs. That player is most notably Ken Griffey, Jr. Yes, he’s going into the Hall, and yes, he’s considered a great, but had Bonds, Sosa and McGwire not trampled all over the power statistics, Griffey would be going in as not just A great, but as one of THE greats, alongside Mays, Aaron, and Ruth. One player’s whose career has been totally diminished by others’ PED usage is Fred McGriff. It’s easy to look back on him now and consider him an above average or good player over the course of his career. However, before the Steroid Era came along, his stats would almost assuredly put him in the Hall of Fame.Name me another player who has 493 career home runs, 2490 hits, is a 5 time all-star, .284 career batting average, and a World Series ring. In fact, his 493 home runs are the most of any player not in the Hall that either isn’t current, ineligible for the Hall yet, or hasn’t been linked to PED use during their career, and is more than Stan Musial, Willie Stargell, and Carl Yastrzemski.