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How I fell in love with baseball cards all over again

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Jose Canseco's wispy mustache didn't make me rich, and that's okay.

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The monthly calendar for an 11-year-old is a blank sheet of construction paper. There are no mortgages, no electricity bills, no reasons to know the first of the month from the 15th. This meant that two weeks after getting a Beckett Baseball Card Monthly in the mail, I kept expecting the next one because I didn't get how a month worked. On the walk home from school, I imagined the magazine waiting there. When I got to the mailbox, the magazine was never there.

Once a month, though, everything was beautiful. The magazine was in hand. The routine could began.

Yes. Yes, very good.

No. No, this can't be.

Yes. It's all going according to plan.

It was time to go through the magazine and see if my baseball cards had increased in value. Kevin Maas hit eight homers in his first 20 games, and his rookie card was the IPO of a tech company that discovered cold fusion. Buy. Buy. Buy! When Frank Viola had a bad season, it was murder on his 1983 Fleer. There was no concept of the invisible hand, no concept of supply and demand. There were only arrows. Listen to the arrows.

You son of a bitch.

★★★

Around this time, my mom came to me with a request. She wanted in the game.

"I want a baseball card as an investment. Help me pick one."

She knew the basics. Buy in a month when the ▼ ruled, and hope you were ahead of the game. Nothing was more important than the player, though. Pick a player who is a lock for the MLB Hall of Fame. Figure out the right superstar and watch the value go up, up, up. There were several candidates, but only one real choice back in 1989.

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1986 Donruss

Ol' Wispy Joe, who was now apparently wanted by both my mom and Madonna. We (my mom and I) went to the next card show together, jostling past piles of Kurt Stillwells and Don Mattingli, looking for the best deal on a Canseco rookie. There were no best deals. Everyone had the same magazine. Everyone knew that ▼ was temporary for the Canseco and the ▲ would reappear because he was going to the Hall of Fame. The price was fixed. $50 for a mint one.

She handed over the cash -- about $143 in today's money, which was no joke for my family back then. You have to teach your kids how to invest, though. You have to look towards the future.

The Canseco rookie was not a card to display. The card was hermetically sealed in translucent plastic and it went straight into my mom's closet, where it was going to accrue enough value to be the MacGuffin in a heist film.

★★★

Another card-show story: My idol, Rickey Henderson, was signing cards for $5 each, just five minutes from my house. The line was long, imposing and worth it. You had to buy a ticket for each item to be signed, and handlers would collect them one-by-one for every card you handed over, as if they were carnies asking for dollar bills before every ring you tossed. The line was long and imposing, but moving quickly. There wasn't a ton of chatter. It was a well-maintained assembly line.

Until I got to the front of the line. Rickey liked my cards. Rickey knew the cards, and Rickey was going to give me some advice on the cards.

This here ... this is Rickey's rookie card. This one is valuable. You have to take care of it.

I did. It eventually went in the safety deposit box. I knew it was valuable. I knew I was supposed to take care of it.

Then Rickey pointed to a Granny Goose card that had a contest at the bottom you were supposed to scratch off with a coin.

Hey, you can't scratch that contest off. It'll make the card less valuable. You're not gonna win, so just don't scratch it off. I think the contest expired five years ago, so don't even mess with it. Ruins the value.

I didn't scratch the card. There's probably a PR person still wondering why no one came forward to claim their Corvette filled with bags of potato chips. It was Rickey's fault. Who among us would not listen to Rickey in that situation?

When Rickey was done signing my cards, I thanked Rickey and Rickey thanked me. He spent longer with me than any of the other kids because he wanted to tell me what his baseball cards were worth. For about a year or five, I would have grabbed my binder with hundreds of Rickey Henderson cards if the house were on fire. That's not hyperbole. It was a what-if that I practiced in my mind constantly. A lot of that had to do with Rickey being my idol. A lot of it had to do with ▲.

★★★

"We should put your most valuable cards in the safety deposit box," my mom told me, anticipating and revealing my darkest fears for not the first, or last, time. There was that specter of a fire again, the possibility of losing everything. So, instead of ogling the cards or showing them off to friends, the best ones had to go into a bomb shelter, just in case. When it was time for college or to pay my bride service, the cards would come out unharmed, unfettered and unsullied. I would take them to the local card shop, which would never go away, and sell them for thousands of dollars.

That is how investments usually work.

I recently summoned my inner Geraldo and unearthed this safety deposit box. The contents:

  • One 1985 Topps Kirby Puckett (scuffed)
  • One 1983 Fleer Tony Gwynn (scuffed)
  • One 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr. (scuffed)
  • One 1984 Topps Don Mattingly (scuffed)
  • One signed 1980 Rickey Henderson (scuffed)
  • One 1959 Topps Frank Robinson (scuffed, but still kind of cool)
  • One 1957 Topps Mickey Mantle (apparently dropped in a running garbage disposal filled with acid and silverfish)
  • One 1986 Donruss Jose Canseco (mint!)

My in-laws never asked for bride service, and the government was nice enough to just lend me the money for college. Everything still worked out. But the cards didn't help at all.

★★★

Picture me in 1990, a nerdier, dirtier Macaulay Culkin, at my sister's garage sale, standing proudly in front of my binder of baseball cards. The ad in the newspaper read "baseball cards," as they often did back then. Collectors came to nose around.

Picture a blue binder with about 100 cards, price stickers on all of them. The prices all followed the same formula: (Beckett price) - $1. The ▲ cards, like my hot Dave Stewart rookie, were on the front page. Buy low, sell high and leave a good-looking corpse.

This was before it was common or expected to get the cards graded for their condition. Now, there's a 10-point scale, and if your card has four perfect corners and smells of persimmons, but not vanilla, it might get a nine. Back then, you had two columns in Beckett: mint and near-mint. Of course, all my cards were mint, the left column. They didn't have a crease, or much of one, and you could barely see the brown fuzz desperately trying to escape from the corners.

Collectors asked me if my prices were firm. They were. At least a dozen grown men left the garage sale completely annoyed. I don't remember how much I made that day, but it couldn't have been more than $20. Whatever. It was the summer before I started high school, and my interest in baseball cards was going ▼. The market was about to agree.

★★★

I bought my first home last December. The day after I moved in, my mom dropped 16 boxes of baseball cards on my porch, rang the doorbell and peeled out with a middle finger extended out of her open window. She had been waiting for that day. She had been waiting for so long.

The first card I could reach was a 1983 Donruss Action All-Star John Stearns. My wife asked me what I was going to do with them. "I don't know ... give them to Amelia?" My five-year-old daughter overheard this. She tossed a chair through the window and used the curtains to rappel down. We found her six hours later, hiding under the house.

That's when I realized my boxes of baseball cards were an eternal burden, something I'll have to trick Hercules into holding as I scurry off. No one was going to want them.

It might not have happened quite like that, but it probably did.

★★★

This was my relationship with baseball cards until last May. It's the story of a dumb kid collecting pieces of cardboard because they were going to make him rich. I liked baseball well enough to play it and go to the games with my parents. I developed a love for baseball that eventually turned into a career. I should have loved baseball cards deeply, as if they were the kindling that started the fire.

The cards had nothing to do with baseball, though. They were penny stocks, inflated numbers on a ledger mailed to my house monthly. Overnight, they became a burden. They took up attic space at my parents' house. Two decades later, they're taking up attic space in my first house. Do you want a Mario Soto card? How about 10? Does it matter if they're bent? Of course it doesn't, I'll be right over. Take them. Take them all.

And then, looking for Johnnie LeMaster-related apparel on eBay, like most red-blooded Americans do on the Internet these days, I stumbled upon it.

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Here we have one of the worst hitters in baseball history, a symbol of the post-Mays era, a player who was booed so much by San Francisco fans that he once took the field with "BOO" stitched on the back of his jersey, and one of my favorite players as an adolescent. This is his minor league card, and his name is misspelled.

It was mesmerizing. I had to have it. I pushed buttons on a glowing rectangle, sent electronic money into space, and the card arrived in the mail in four days. Endorphins were released. My wife wasn't giddy that another baseball card came into the house, but I'm not going to embellish and invoke the cliche of sleeping on the couch. No, I slept in my own bed. Next to a John LeMasters card that was cool as shit.

This isn't a story about a young boy losing money when the baseball card bubble popped. This is the story of how a grown man -- a grown man with a mortgage, two kids and no time to screw around with baseball cards -- fell in love with baseball cards for the first time.

During a Simpsons marathon, a throwaway gag sent me to eBay again. Say, how much does it actually cost to get a Yaz with the big sideburns?

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1973 Topps

About $3, if you don't need it to be museum quality. More endorphins. Another baseball card came in the mail. Except, what in the hell was I supposed to do with two baseball cards? There was no sense getting just one or two. It was time to collect them again.

What I needed were cards with stories. If my daughters asked for a story about the 5,339 Eric Anthony rookies I had in a box, it would be simple. They weren't worth as much as I thought they were going to be. Sorry. That's the story, kid.

Here's another story: It's about a large slugger who played 17 seasons and had a generally excellent career. Shortly after taking the picture for the card below, Vic Wertz took one of the most famous swings in major league history, clobbering a ball in the first game of the 1954 World Series. It's famous because of someone else, though. Willie Mays ran back and caught the ball over his shoulder on a dead sprint. It would have been a home run in 29 ballparks today, and Mays would have had to climb up a small hill to catch it in the 30th.

You've watched the clip dozens of times. A man puts his hand to his head and yells something in amazement. People in bow ties and suits stand up, clapping furiously in that old-timey-video way. Here's the guy who hit the ball in the first place and his card from the year it was hit. It should be a collector's treasure.

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1954 Topps

It's about $4, and if you're not in the mood for a scavenger hunt, it gets mailed right to you.

What about a Curt Flood card from 1970, when he was traded to the Phillies but never reported, sitting the year out rather than be an indentured servant in the money-printing mill of an oligarch?

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1970 Topps

Say, you don't have a Dock Ellis card from that same year, when he literally threw a no-hitter on acid? Which, was possibly the greatest achievement in modern sports, considering it took me an hour to get my keys out of my pocket when I was on mushrooms once (because I thought the pocket was filled with pudding)?

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1970 Topps

How about a teeny-tiny card featuring a track star that a magnificently insane owner put on his baseball team to do nothing but run fast and steal bases?

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1975 Topps

How about a George Brett card, from the year he almost chewed through an umpire's torso to swallow his spine?

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1983 Fleer

A pair of cards featuring the dudes who swapped wives and will be played by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in an upcoming feature film?

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1973 Topps

Baseball's eternal symbol of promise and horror, the embodiment of the hope and ugliness inherent in every sport and, by extension, life, with what you thought was a rising sun in the background before you discovered it was setting?

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1967 Topps

I am nine years old and always will be. Have something for me?

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That last one probably doesn't count, but I'm not made of stone. The cards all cost between $1 and $5, give or take, especially if you don't mind the tiniest of scuffs around the corner. And why would you mind that? The more rounded the corners, the more they were loved, baby. It's not like I'm going to sell them at a great profit. That was never the point, even if it took me decades to figure out.

To fall in love with baseball cards again, I had to see them like a Tralfamadorian would, as points in the mountain range of time, each of them a fixed moment in a non-linear universe. This is the card that's making a young Indians fan sad in 1954. This is the card a young Phillies fan is looking at in 1970, wondering what could have been. This is Johnnie LeMaster looking at his very first baseball card, thinking about just how cool it ... aw, raspberries. This is a kid looking at George Brett, his danged hero. They're always the card that a baseball fan studied back then, a static piece of what had happened, what was about to be and what would never change.

Also, to fall in love with baseball cards again, I had to accept that I was always going to be poor and cheap, which meant I should probably find some interests befitting poor, cheap people. This beats restoring a classic car or collecting guitars in that regard.

This is all why you're reading the Penthouse Letters of baseball card love, an expression of both surprise and passion.

Dear Beckett,

I never thought it would happen to me, but ...

One of these days, perhaps I'll have enough disposable income to own a 1947 Jackie Robinson or a 1961 Roger Maris. Maybe I'll get the '54 Mays to complement the Wertz up there. I'd love to have a nerdy room filled with the things, something out of Andy's house from 40-Year-Old Virgin. There sure are some cards from the early 20th century that would look good in one of those.

Until then, I'm happy with my cheap, curated collection of kinda-neat baseball cards that wouldn't have been possible if the market didn't totally crash back in the early '90s. It turns out that baseball cards aren't just the burden of unrealized potential. Decades after all of those investments went ▼, a baseball nerd learned that more baseball cards were ▲ the whole time. Welcome back, old friends. Sorry about not knowing what in the hell to do with you in the first place.

Ryan and Jon open old packs of cards