What's in the cards: An Opening Day MLB tradition

by Geoff Graser

Sports fandom is built on rituals and tradition, like opening a new pack of baseball cards every year on MLB Opening Day.

I’ve long admired my younger brother’s spring ritual of buying one pack of baseball cards for Opening Day. He started the tradition of opening one pack as an adult to celebrate baseball’s rejuvenating flicker after Western New York’s endless winters. I could appreciate his nod to our youth obsession but without any urge to peel my own cellophane pack in search of today’s stars and yesterday’s joy. I’d long grown out of the hobby.

These days, writers are my heroes. In the rare times I have cable, I mute the Yankees game as a backdrop while I read. Maybe if I felt more stable in adulthood, with a home of my own or a child, I could allow myself to feel like a kid again. Or, maybe if there were a pandemic.

*****

In early March, a year into lockdown psyche, my girlfriend watched me lug a box of my baseball cards from the basement of my parents’ townhouse, where we now resided. Earlier in the day, the hosts of a sports talk show spoke about the soaring trading cards market, mentioning a Luka Doncic basketball card recently selling for $4.6 million. My cards had waited three decades for this moment, and I nearly slept on it.

With my parents wintering in Florida, my girlfriend and I had escaped a dire roommate situation while we continued hunting for a home. The pandemic-induced seller’s market priced us out of normally affordable housing in Rochester, NY. With a limited supply of homes, I’d placed only one bid, offering $5,000 over list price while it sold for more than $20,000 over listing. I didn’t own a home, but I owned cards.

“A treasure hunt,” I said to my girlfriend, who is busy finishing a short story collection in an MFA program.

“I wish I could make money for doing nothing,” she said.

Since the pandemic began, many who normally would go to concerts and movies have sought diversion in the nostalgia of Friends episodes, old family recipes, or digging through their basements and attics, launching the value of many collectibles into a stratosphere that dizzied me.

After a fortunate 2020 as a freelance writer, 2021 started slow. My cards could bring a quick uptick, though, and I envisioned making enough for a significant chunk of a down payment or a couple of months of a mortgage. Yet opening the flaps of the box propelled me backward as much as forward. I’d toted my cards in a box for at least a half-dozen moves since my parents sold our childhood home in 2015. The smell of vinyl binders and plastic sheets protecting my cards stirred memories. Once we’d grown old enough to understand the value of our cards, my brother and I created an imaginary sports card store in a 5 x 10 crawlspace under our stairs. Lit by a naked 60-watt bulb, we placed prices on the plastic card savers with colored dot stickers. Meanwhile, I studied the player’s batting stance, shaggy haircuts and stats. The pricing was a charade. At that point, we would sell to nobody.

Now, though, it felt like business. I appraised cards for crisp corners, centered borders and random ink dots. I owned many Hall of Famers. However, before knowing any better as a child I’d set them up on the carpet in their fielding positions as if they were taking the diamond. No cards from before 1983 looked mint. Through its hard plastic container, the two bottom corners of a 1972 Carlton Fisk rookie, also featuring Cecil Cooper, looked as unnerving as flat tires. The card recently sold for $27,500, and I wanted to sharpen those two slightly dulled corners with my stare. For preserving a card two years older than me (inherited from a generous cousin) in otherwise pristine condition, I wanted a Nobel Peace Prize. Instead, those nubs dropped the card’s value to a couple hundred dollars.

My 1983 Wade Boggs rookies, one of which had recently gone for more than $2,000, stood a chance at mint. Perfectly centered, only one corner loomed as questionable. While my 1984 Topps Don Mattingly, bought from a dealer rather than found in a pack, stood an even better chance. I fought a twinge of guilt over my parents having the disposable income to buy me so many baseball cards. The rich get richer. When I told my mom by phone about the current state of the market, she apologized for not letting me buy the Donruss Mattingly for $20 more than the Topps one. I said I was grateful to have the Topps card while leaving out how the Donruss one now fetched thousands more.

While looking up these absurd values on the Internet, I’d learned about the arduous process of sending cards to expert appraisers who grade their condition, which seemed about as nerve-wracking as early sonograms. Those with valuable cards — and wisdom— buy insurance.

Over the next week, I realized I couldn’t grade and sell my cards quickly enough to solve my immediate housing need, and sentimental attachment started winning. Some bequeath their cards to children. I had to choose another option — investing in new cards.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch

The following night, a Friday, I had big plans — a trip to Walmart. After dinner, I asked my girlfriend if she wanted me to pick up any dessert without mentioning my ulterior motive. I’d pick up my Opening Day pack, or maybe two. At the store, I first saw Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh cards before finding boxes with logos I recognized so well: Topps, Donruss, NBA Hoops. Yet my heart dropped like a child striking out with the bases loaded. I pushed around the empty boxes, already ransacked by treasure hunters who had beaten me here, looking for stray packs. I almost snapped a picture to warn my brother of the apocalypse but had forgotten my phone in haste. On trips to various Walmarts over the next couple weeks, I’d discover cards protected in glass cases or behind customer service desks. One independent contractor who delivers cards varies her arrival times because customers recognized her car and stalked her in the parking lot.

After my first Walmart setback, I sped to Target near the mall, worrying that taking too long would raise my girlfriend’s suspicion — or that I’d miss out on remaining cards. On the rack, I saw a couple dozen packs of Topps 2021 baseball cards, with Juan Soto on the cover. I knew the big stars, Soto and Harper, Judge and Stanton, but most young players were now a mystery waiting to be revealed. I snatched a handful of packs listed at $9.99. A few steps from the rack, I pivoted and eyed them all. I had no basket, so I grabbed only a second handful. At the self-checkout, the packs rang up for only $4.99. My delight fizzled, though, when the next pack I scanned prompted a robotic voice saying an employee would assist me.

“Oh, sports cards,” said the attractive young woman. “There’s a limit.”

“Oh. OK,” I said.

I tried to play it cool as she took several packs away. In high school, I would’ve been embarrassed about my braces and blushed. Now, my embarrassment came from buying sports cards as an adult. After I paid, four packs waited for me unbagged. Wait, did she say the limit was three? I didn’t ask. I prepared for a blaring alarm if I had a pack too many, but strolled through the automatic doors without incident and refused to look at my receipt until reaching the car. The receipt showed three packs. For a moment, I considered returning the extra one. I liked Target, but not that much. I justified my extra pack as the employee’s error, and also worried about her deeming me a goody-goody if I returned the extra pack. Maybe she’d felt bad and let me have it. My rationalizing signaled something scary overcoming me. Knowing their scarcity, I wanted more cards.

Before opening my packs at home, I checked the news online and saw the latest in a series of high-profile bunglings by the Rochester Police Department. An officer pepper-sprayed a Black woman while she desperately clung to her three-year-old daughter’s hand. She’d been suspected of shoplifting but the officer found nothing in her purse before the assault. Having been closely documenting protests against police brutality in Rochester, my heart skitted and skatted yet again.

This woman, who presumably didn’t own a car since she walked to the store on a snowy February day, might have been shopping with a hungry child. Meanwhile, my unopened packs sat next to my MacBook. Fate had delivered me into a white body where even my illegal acts could escape without suspicion. An hour later, I still found myself reading social media posts from outraged activists I’d come to know. Nearing bedtime, I needed to calm myself. While I couldn’t correct the gross injustices in America in one night, I could honor traditions I respected — including a brotherly one.

I peeled the top of my first pack’s cellophane wrapper delicately, making sure to unsheath the stack of cards without knicking a corner. In sharp colors, the players shined in gloss. The borders framed them with perfect symmetry. Uniforms popped with color. I opened two packs that night. Jacob deGrom. Ronald Acuña, Jr. Max Scherzer. I studied each card like a child, reading the back to learn more about unfamiliar players. Good fortune, warm in my parents’ townhouse with baseball cards as Opening Day neared, engulfed me.

Over the next couple weeks, a guilty conscience about the extra pack I would never return also engulfed me. Finally, on a Friday night, I drove toward my brother’s house before deciding that leaving a surprise pack of cards in his mailbox was too risky in case a greedy postal worker couldn’t resist the pack (I could relate). The following day, he texted me saying he hadn’t been able to find cards anywhere. On a sunny Saturday, the first day of spring, while he shot hoops in the driveway with his teenage daughter, I delivered his Opening Day pack.

Geoff Graser writes memoir, essays, journalism, and fiction. Home base is Rochester, NY. His work has appeared in FanSided, Narratively, USA Today, Cleaver Magazine, Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature, Washington City Paper, Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle, and other publications. He holds a Master’s in Journalism from Syracuse University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College. Find him at geoffgraser.com.