It's November and it's cold outside. I exhale another Marlboro breath and wonder which part is smoke and which part is moisture. It doesn't really seem to matter these days...
I stomp out what remains of the butt, and with my sole gloved hand reach for the handle of the forlorn, now-defunct, church. The room is not much warmer than outside.
I see nine people seated around a foldout table, seated in foldout chairs. Everyone’s got coffee. It, along with the cigs, is now a part of my everyday life.
Barry, a bigger man, is wearing an authentic Pedro Martinez Red Sox jersey with grey Red Sox sweatpants. It doesn’t look like he’s taken them off in years. He’s seated at the head of the table and fidgets as I slowly make my coffee and then take a seat.
“Okay, now that everyone’s here, who wants to start?” he says.
I raise my hand, eager to get it over with. Barry nods at me. Here we go again.
“Hi everyone. My name’s Dylan and I’m addicted to baseball cards.”
Of course, I’m not really addicted to baseball cards. It’s introductions like this that got me into trouble during college. Imagine how pissed my English teacher was when I presented a laundry list of maladies only to reveal the culprit, and topic of my senior paper, as Senioritis. It wasn’t pretty.
The truth is I haven’t really opened a pack of baseball cards since 1994, the same year my favorite sport and my favorite sport’s players ripped my heart out and pounded it into submission for 232 days.
If the 1994 Major League Baseball strike hadn’t occurred though, I could very well be sitting in that worn-out church chatting with Barry.
I can remember gobbling cards up like crack, cigarettes, or any other serious addiction. A new product came out? I had to have it, no matter how broke I was or how broke my parents were. There’s a one-of-a-kind Robin Ventura card located in Beijing, China? I’d probably consider the trip. A Phil Nevin rookie card (1992 first pick!) in the bottom of a jar filled with razor blades? Ouch.
If I had somehow found a way to quell my appetite for cards for a short amount of time, a few triggers could easily set me off. One of them was Cecil Fielder.
Cecil Fielder electrified the baseball world by clobbering 51 home runs in 1990. No player had broken the fifty-HR mark since George Foster did it in 1977. Throughout the ‘80s, reaching that number looked futile.
After being sold to the Hanshin Tigers following the 1988 season, Fielder lit up Japan’s Central League by whacking 38 homers, well above what he’d been able to do in parts of four seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays.
In 1990, Fielder signed with the Detroit Tigers for a measly $1.25 million. He rewarded their optimism with four consecutive 40 home runs, 100 RBI seasons. In the strike shortened 1994 season, he still hit 28 homers and drove in 90.
I fell in love with the character of “Big Daddy” Fielder. His shit-eating grin. His ever-growing paunch. The mammoth home runs. He was a new breed of slugger, one that hadn’t been seen in over a decade.
I was a Cecil Fielder fiend. I remember my father and I rummaging through flea markets, card shows, and even gas station card selections looking for rare Fielder cards. Before I knew it, I had reverse negative cards, cards with no backs, cards with upside down backs, cards with no fronts, cards from Japan, cards from Citgo, and every base card put out. I mean, it was truly ridiculous.
And then the strike hit. I was done. Cold turkey.
A few months ago, I bought a box of baseball cards for the first time in over a decade. I don’t know what made me do it. Was it the memories of my childhood? The joy of nabbing my favorite players? An innate and primal urge to throw away my money? I really don’t know.
All I do know is that things have changed.
I opened my box of 2007 Bowman Heritage at a local card shop in front of the owner. It was cheap, but it was based on the 1952 Bowman design and I’m a sucker for all things classic. As I ripped through pack after pack, I realized a few things.
First, half of the players are not in the major leagues. I got a card of Jeremy Papelbon, the famous Sox closer’s brother, who has not even reached AAA yet. It was cool, but after a while it really wasn’t fun getting cards of people who I have no chance of watching play.
Second, the owner scowled when I pulled out a card with a Jose Reyes jersey in it. I was ecstatic! Jose Reyes is an amazing ballplayer! But I guess in the grand scheme of today’s collecting, I guess it’s just another card that happens to have a piece of jersey on it.
“It would be good if it was numbered,” the owner said. Bah humbug.
If the owner doesn’t think this card is cool, then how many of them are there out there? How many of this card does he have? Come to think of it, where is Topps getting all of these Jose Reyes game-used jerseys? What does he wear to the games all summer?
This card should make me the coolest kid on the block, the kid everyone wants to trade with. Instead, I felt like I’d been duped.
Third, I looked through the stacks of cards I’d just collated and noticed that I had literally five Joba Chamberlain cards. And the thing is, they all looked different. One had a different picture. One looked to have a different background. One was a prospect card. One was thick and shiny. One might be a little different than the one next to it because I think there’s a bird flying in the sky in the background. Exactly what the hell was going on here?
In short, nothing.
“They’re all worthless because they’re just spin-offs of the base card. His cards are pretty bland in this product,” he tells me.
I should tell you that I didn’t buy this box to get cards that were “worth” something. I bought this box for fun, to see what one of my favorite pastimes had become. But by the end of this experience, I felt that collecting baseball cards had become a game of greed by both collectors and the companies that produce them. The whole experience felt cold, forced, and slimy.
Back in the 1990s, you went for the whole set, not just the big names. You collected to get your favorite player, to make a dream team, to decorate your bike, or to poke the eyes out of Yankees players. That means that pulling a Phil Plantier from 1992 Score could be the greatest thrill in the world if it completed your NINE HUNDRED AND TEN card set. Any inserts were just the icing on the cake—not an expectation.
During this recent foray into collecting, I pulled a shiny card that featured Ken Griffey, Jr. in his Seattle Mariners uniform. I didn’t ask the owner what it was worth, what he thought about it, or whether it was special.
I simply brought it home and added it to my Cecil Fielders.
Dylan Sharek is a former baseball card addict. He had been clean for 15 years until he relapsed in 2008. He claims he has not touched a pack in six months.