Baseball Cards and Barefoot Sluggers

I'M getting back into baseball cards during our summer vacation, which is the time of year when we focus on collecting things. The cards have held an attraction since I was six and my neighbor had three shoeboxes of baseball cards and I had none. I also had no understanding of the concept behind baseball trading cards, much less baseball, but I felt that there was value in owning a collection of anything several shoeboxes in size. Eventually Tommy gave me a box of the cards he didn't want any more. If I had kept them, I like to think, they would now be worth a small fortune. To get our collection started I bought notebooks with those plastic pages slotted for baseball cards. Every morning before breakfast the kids and I open one package of baseball cards each. Inside are 16 cards and a piece of bubble gum. First we chew the gum. Then we sort, trade, and insert the cards in the proper order in our notebooks. Hilary has chosen to collect all of the bird teams and important-sounding names like the Royals. Spencer concentrates on the animal teams, both Sox, the Pirates, and the Indians. I have the teams on which I played in Little League, plus the teams that no one else wants because they don't sound exciting.

Hilary, who will be in kindergarten in September, is fascinated by the colorful graphics and varied poses of the players and loves curating the gallery of photos in her notebook. She is usually the one to ring the bell for ``baseball-card time.''

Perhaps being allowed to chew bubble gum right after breakfast has something to do with it. Spencer loves the ``authenticity'' of the gum in each pack: ``It's the same kind the baseball players have in their cheeks.'' I can't bear to correct him. For Hilary, our routine is also a phonics lesson - she can't yet read all of the team names and sometimes gets the Phillies and the Padres and the Pirates confused. Spencer loves hoarding and artful dealmaking.

I love the cards out of nostalgia and the belief that I am reclaiming a lost opportunity. I wish I had been better schooled in ``sports talk'' and could toss around pertinent statistics when I show up at Carl's for a haircut. I'm never sure how to answer the question, ``How about those Red Sox?''

None of us can identify the city or league to which our teams belong, the rules of the game, the merits or status of any of the individual players, but we love the lore of this collection. Just this evening, as I was out pitching the whiffle ball to the kids, Spencer asked if anybody could be an All Star. He had decided to be a ``Record Breaker,'' not because he understands the achievement but because the ``Record Breaker'' cards are graphically more sophisticated.

It's interesting to watch how the kids attach value to their collections. For instance, Spencer has decided to collect the ``company cards'' which are nothing but advertisements for baseball card hats and albums. There's one in each pack and I have obtained a few choice cards from him by using them in trades.

But what is a ``choice card''? Why do both Spencer and Hilary place higher values on All Star cards, though they don't know what ``All Star'' means? This morning Hilary traded her whole Blue Jays page for Bret Saberhagen's All Star card! When we went into extra innings last night, trading cards at 9:30, the ump had to iron out a little tiff at home plate when Hilary couldn't get Spencer to trade the Johnny Bench ``Turn Back the Clock'' card for Nolan Ryan's All Star card. She collects the Reds and felt it belonged to her. Spencer thought it comprised an altogether new category of collection.

Frankly, I appreciate baseball itself more for its poetry and metaphysics: the mystery of the curve ball, the fact that a hit ball is theoretically always in play, the grace of three strikes for the batter. Don't the great trials of legend always come in threes? And I love the nicknames: The Steamer, The Eck, Catfish Hunter, Hawk, Shoeless Joe ... in baseball onomatopoeia, the names match the position in rhythm and glottal stops. Could Johnny Bench have been anything but a stolid catcher? The svelt sound of Nolan Ryan predestined him to pitch six no-hitters.

Baseball has the pastoral pace and tidal change in mood of a summer vacation by the sea. There is teamplay on defense and individual play at bat. Contemplation in the dugout, concentration and exertion on the field. The sleight-of-hand of curve ball, stolen base, cryptic signals by catcher and third-base coach. The prospect of torpor for several innings and the prospect of frantic activity erupting in the outfield ... as when a barefoot slugger connects with the whiffle ball and circumnavigates the bases - an elm tree, the flag pole, a stump - for the game-winning run. There is no schedule. The game can go on forever, called only for darkness by the fatherly umpire.

After baseball cards we work on our other collections. They will become our ``statistics'' for July and August, like the hits, RBIs, home runs, and stolen bases of our heroes. When we walk the beach at low tide we concentrate on a specialty, some object to which we are mysteriously drawn. Spencer collects mussels, periwinkles, and seaglass; Hilary small shells and starfish. I look for smooth stones, seaworn pottery, and crab claws. Ariel, who will soon turn two, collects sand, mostly in the cuffs of her overalls.

These collections are wholly different from baseball cards because they aren't collected in comparison to anyone else, have no standard value or point of completion, though a few of my starfish are All Star material for sure. But we can't trade periwinkles or improve on our assortment of smooth stones except by returning to the beach and enjoying the search for more. Each collection is unduplicable and unending and will certainly, in a few years, be worth a small fortune ... to the collector.

Come World Series time, these collections will be ensconced in old jam and peanut butter jars on the bookshelves at home, to be taken down and admired from time to time along with the photo album, our own gallery of stances, poses, grimaces, and graceful smiles amid all of our ``away'' games. They jar our memory of the cove, the harbor, and the bluffs by the lighthouse, of days measured by tides and the drift of sunlight across the deck, rather than minutes and hours; of twilight innings on the schoolyard merry-go-round and games of catch in the park; of the season we came in first in our division, yet again.

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