Old Times, Springtime And Baseball Cards

by Kevin Burton

    Mid-March, this time of year. In the old days, when it wasn’t quite time for baseball, it was time for baseball cards.

    Growing up at the school for the blind in Ohio in the 70s, with the gloom and chill of February fading, with temperatures perhaps in the high 40s or low 50s, I always got that itch, the baseball itch.

   With the early-morning birds singing their encouragement, I would lie in bed planning my after-school workouts.  And if the weather didn’t quite allow them, thoughts would turn to baseball cards.

   Baseball was the perfect game. It was filled with running, throwing, strategy and statistical analysis.  There was history and culture, a sense of family and belonging.

   There was spitting and scratching, very cool for little boys. There were colorful uniforms.

   There was the Saturday Game of the Week on NBC-TV. But mostly there was radio, stitching it all together.

   Baseball on the radio, calming, reassuring but filled with anticipation.

   To open a new pack of baseball cards was to buy in to all that and more.  In the old days, those cards kept me in tune with my Cincinnati Reds heroes and their contemporaries. 

   I went back to that place Friday. Not to the school for the blind, but to baseball cards.

   If I could go back to the little IGA store where I used to buy the cards, surely the place would seem small and dingy, very different. So was my Friday purchase of cards, very different.

   After work my wife Jeannette drove me to Oliver’s Cards in Wichita, namesake of Al Oliver a first baseman/outfielder for the 70s Pittsburgh Pirates who terrorized pitchers spraying line drives off of outfield walls.  Let’s not forget Bob Oliver who played eight seasons with five teams, including a stint with the expansion Kansas City Royals from 1969 to 1972. 

   At Oliver’s Cards I bought four packs of the Topps 2023 baseball cards and two packs of 1993 Topps cards.

   Six packs of cards. Total cost $32.48.

   In the old days I could never have scraped together that much dough to spend on cards. But had I been able to, I would have needed a shoebox to carry them in. Now, I can easily carry the cards in one hand.

   In the old days with that many cards I would have also acquired a jaw-breaking cavity-inducing wad of bubble gum.

   “You don’t sell bubble gum here, do you?” I asked at Oliver’s Cards. The woman there said no, and didn’t seem to understand why I would ask such a thing. 

   It was different.

   It was a little like going to one of my blind school reunions and not recognizing dear friends on sight after so many years away, but with recognition coming upon hearing their voices.  

   With the new cards, I knew only a few of the players. Albert Pujols, Gerrit Cole, Christian Yelich, Corey Seager, Trevor Story and a few others are familiar names.

   With the 1993 cards, I remembered all but a few players and some of the stories came back to me immediately.

   I got the card of the man responsible for the last time The Reds won a World Series game, Jose Rijo.  The back of his card reads, “Jose won Babe Ruth Award as MVP of the 1990 World Series. He pitched 7 scoreless Innings for Win in Game One and hurled 8.1 Innings to earn Win in game Four as Reds swept A/s in 4 straight.”

   Weird capitalization, great memories!

   I also got the card of the man responsible for the last time the Reds lost a World Series game. That would be Carlton Fisk, whose solo home run off Pat Darcy won game six of the 1975 World Series for Boston over Cincinnati.

   By 1993 Fisk was no longer the second-best catcher in baseball behind Johnny Bench, but a part-timer who played in just 62 games for the 1992 Chicago White Sox.

   I was pleased to get Rijo and Fisk cards after buying just two packs from 1993.

   I also got the card, the last card, of Steve Olin. He was a good right-handed relief pitcher for Cleveland who logged a 2.34 ERA in 1992.

   Olin and pitcher Tim Crews were killed in a boating accident in spring training of 1993. If you watch the video of Kirk Gibson’s famous game-winning home run in Game One of the 1988 World Series, you will see Crews, number 52, as one of Gibson’s Dodgers teammates congratulating him.

   Gibson’s home run induced goosebumps from all of baseball, from even Dodger haters such as me. Seeing Crews in that film reminds me of the highs and the lows you could encounter on any given day in baseball and in life.

  That’s what makes baseball cards a slice of life.  That’s what took me back there Friday.

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