Long after my arm, my glove, and my dream of playing baseball has deteriorated, the passion of my youth is still preserved in the cards that probably represented my best baseball memories. Yours, too.
CINCINNATI — It’s an old, beat-up, cardboard box. It’s tucked away on the top shelf of a closet half-hidden by some old sweaters that should have gone to Goodwill years ago. Every spring when baseball rolls around, I start thinking about the box, wondering if somehow it might have been tossed out.
The very idea makes me a little sick, like I ate some bad fish.
It’s not a big box, a little larger than a shoebox, but the contents – the contents are like my personal siren’s song, like some benign addiction that beckons and badgers. It’s impossible to resist. Ultimately, it always wins and I give in.
Some times, it costs me a few minutes, at most an hour or two. But there have been times, I must admit, when the box has held me captive for far too long.
On a dreary Saturday afternoon some years ago, the house was completely empty. My wife had plans with her sisters. The kids were out and about. The afternoon was mine, free and clear.
I retrieved the battered box with every intention of simply checking the contents, but once again I was lost. Purpose gave way to reverie. Hours passed without my notice.
It was near dusk when the door opened and my daughter and wife stood side-by-side, witnesses to the chaos. There I was—a man of 60-some years—seated on the floor surrounded by – baseball cards, hundreds of them.
My wife only smiled. After more than 30 years, she understands. “Dad, what are you doing,” my daughter said, “taking a trip down memory lane?”
There was nothing I could say. I just sat there, a 1959 Stan Musial in one hand and a ’57 Roy Campanella in the other. Strewn around me was an All-Star array: Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Al Kaline, Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente, and that was just the start.
Another pile included the true treasures, the first cards my dad had given me: a ’55 Ted Williams and a ’54 Jackie Robinson. I remember what he said at the time.
“You take good care of these, boy, real good care. This man, Ted Williams, is the greatest hitter of all time. This one,” Dad said, tapping his finger against the Robinson card, “he changed baseball; changed it for good.”
Baseball became our bond. He pitched to me when I was barely old enough to hold a bat. He made a ball field in our backyard and never complained that we killed the grass.
As I grew, he taught me how to pitch. He helped me paint a red square on the wall of the smokehouse. Inside that square, he painted a smaller square.
“Never throw the ball inside that small square,” he said. “Throw to points along the outside, and keep it low.”
He bought balls and bats and gloves when money was tight and groceries weren’t plentiful, and between mom and dad they always—always—had a nickel or two for baseball cards.
There came a spring day when my friends and I were playing catch and dad was busy loading things into his car. I asked him what he was doing. He squeezed my shoulder and said he was going to Florida. “On a fishing trip,” he said. “I’m going with your Grandpa and uncle Orville.”
The fishing trip lasted for years. I missed him, for sure, and he left Mom and me with some hard times. But he left me with something else. He left me with baseball and in many ways it became my guardian.
When my buddies were trying beer and smoking cigarettes in the woods. I was either playing or thinking about baseball. I didn’t cut class and I avoided pool halls and fast cars. At night, I would shuffle through the baseball cards hoping and dreaming of another world, another life. I imagined what it would be like to hang out with Joe Pepitone or Ron Swoboda.
I gravitated toward any one and every one who knew the game and loved the game, and for reasons I’ll never know, they seemed to find me. My aunt married a man named Bob Schuster. He’d played in the Yankee organization and had pictures to prove it. Bob picked up where dad left off.
When I was in high school—all of 17—and believed I was thoroughly and completely in love, I turned to Bob for advice.
“There are three things in your life right now,” he said, “girls, books and sports. You got time for two. You gotta make a choice.”
In the years that followed, there were scouts: Bob Kring from the Pirates, Sam Schively from the Tigers and Roy Sievers with the Phillies. For a while, they nourished my dream, but eventually the scouts went away and the dream went with them.
Still, I had the game.
In one form or another, Dad’s fishing trip went on for years, and when he did return, there was a large gulf between us. Still, I had his gift. I had the game and for that, I was, and remain, most thankful.
When word came that he’d died, I was in Florida covering a spring training game. When I left the grounds headed for the airport and a flight home, Lou Piniella shook my hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We’ll be here when you get back.”
I was a baseball writer. I had offices across the country, in every press box in ever Major League ballpark in the country. The dream had come true – with revisions, of course, and a much smaller paycheck. Still, my life revolved around the game.
My wife and I were married and honeymooned during the All-Star break in 1984, and for all these years she’s known about the cardboard box, and how each spring I dig it out and rummage through its contents.
She understands. The box is filled with old baseball cards. It also holds a lifetime.