It has been nearly 19 years since I left my childhood home for college.
In that time, the closet in my old bedroom has been housing the rotting souvenirs of my youth. Souvenirs that eternally remind me of my precious, fading juvenile memories. Items that will forever sentimentally call out to me, and ALL of us children of the 1980’s… Invaluable, beautiful trinkets that I have been unable to part with since I was 13-years-old.
Of course, I am referring to thousands of ridiculously worthless Pac-Man key-chains, Garbage Pail Kids and armless GI Joe figures. Go-Bots and Star Wars spaceships that were shoved into back drawers directly next to a myriad of autographed baseballs – ranging from superstars like Gary Sheffield to busts like onetime Cleveland Indians prospect Luis Medina. At least 120 baseball-themed posters, like the Jose Canseco-Mark McGwire Bash Brothers print and the Bo Knows Bo Nike series. And finally, a colossal amount of baseball cards littering the back wall of my closet, long ignored and cast aside.
From what I remember, there is even a small collection of stuffed animals that somehow found themselves packed into a moldy cedar trunk – not unlike the toys from Toy Story 3 – who were forgotten when Andy eventually headed off to college…
They are all there. Forgotten and lonely, praying that someday their owner would return home and rediscover them – bringing them out for one last play date…
As mentioned, the majority of the closet was packed with my onetime extensive collection of baseball memorabilia.
My mother always told me typical stories of her mom accidentally throwing away all of her toys and collectibles when she went off went to the University of Wisconsin in 1964. She never forgave her parents for tossing out scores of Mickey Mantle baseball cards and rare Howdy Doody collectibles, which were now worth thousands of dollars. So, in my early years, she encouraged me to save certain things and to collect potential items for future profits… So, I jumped into my collecting with a furious passion.
Back then it was cool to own 123,000 baseball cards.
Today, they call it hoarding.
My closet has virtually lain dormant for 19 years. In that time, a certain online website known as ebay has shattered the dreams of memorabilia collectors everywhere, revealing that there were a lot more Mike Schmidt rookie baseball cards in the world than we once would have thought. Onetime Topps Nolan Ryan rookie cards – that the Beckett Baseball Card Monthly previously listed as being worth 725 dollars – are now available online for eight bucks. And the glorious holy grail of all kid collectors nationwide – the 100 dollar Don Mattingly 1984 Donruss rookie card – was suddenly available for a paltry $14.99 on ebay.
Even the crown jewel of my collection – my grandfather’s 1920-21 Christy Mathewson W514 Strip Card – which had once been admired by a middle-aged man willing to trade me a used car for it, was now selling for 250 dollars online… or best offer…
The goldmine in my closet has officially gone belly up.
My mother finally placed the phone call that I always expected would come… The newsflash that it was time I went home to clean out my closet of all my old childhood memorabilia. The alert that she was turning my room into an office – and that she needed some ‘at home’ space.
“What?,” I said. “Clean out my museum?”
“If it’s a museum, nobody is taking the tour,” my mom responded.
So, reluctantly, this past weekend, I returned home to Tucson, Arizona to begin cleaning out the two-decade old treasure chest that I once swore would only be sold to pay for my kid’s college fund.
I arrived in town like a cast member of American Pickers. It had been so long since I had explored my collection of stuff, I wasn’t sure what was still in that closet. After all, 19 years? I wasn’t sure if moths had eaten away at everything… or if I would discover some long lost prize that would pay off my student loans and credit card debt.
When I opened the door to the lost tomb of my childhood, I was immediately hit with a warm wave of nostalgia that spread over me as if I was a 13-year-old screaming at Ken Griffey, jr. for an autograph in 1988. Everything was there. All the busted bats I convinced players like Joe Carter and Cory Snyder to give me during Spring Training. The scores of batting practice foul balls I had gathered and had signed by one time major league prospects like David Taylor and Craig Smajstrla – and tens of thousands of baseball cards. Other souvenirs like pine tar rags, batting gloves and lineup cards from my days of following the Tucson Toros and the Cleveland Indians helped compose my makeshift museum. I had stored unopened Kraft Macaroni and Cheese boxes that had cut-out baseball cards of Angels’ rookie Wally Joyner on the back panel sitting in the corner of my closet, adjacent to a Michael Jordan Wheaties box. I even found a few Kathy Ireland Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues that had been dear companions to me on lonely junior high afternoons… It was a beautiful assemblage of my long lost childhood. And I couldn’t quite figure out where to start.
From1981 until about 1990, I rearranged my bedroom in a tribute to the game of baseball. Don Mattingly was my boyhood hero, and box scores, batting averages and ERA’s practically ran my life for nine splendid and unforgettable years during my adolescence.
When other kids went to Golf-N-Stuff on the weekend to meet the cute 6th grade girls like Amy Foust and Erin Shelly, I went to Tucson’s premiere baseball card shop “The Sports Page” with my collector-geek friends. My mother would often walk by my room and see me obsessing over Dave Winfield’s career batting average or Rickey Henderson’s stolen base record and casually mention that she had heard some of my other friends were going to a local water park with some classmates… I offered up a simple shrug of my shoulders and poured directly back into rearranging my baseball cards, occasionally choosing to alphabetize them so that I would always be able to pull them out at any given moment.
Girls were certainly around, but I was way to insecure too ever do anything about them. I left the girls at school to the skater kids who were dressed in Vision Street Wear and rode designer Gator skateboards…
Me? I was a baseball card kid. The Vice President of the baseball card club and a hip-hop music fan who used to write songs like The Baseball Card Rap to perform with some of my friends at a school talent show.
Basically, I was a complete fucking geek.
My parents seemed to never truly understand my obsession with America’s pastime. Perhaps it was because my own personal baseball career had come to an abrupt end when I broke my arm in fifth grade. My much-hyped little league comeback fell through and I hit a combined .216 over the next three seasons. So, I found my true baseball success in collecting memorabilia and autographs from big league ballplayers.
My mom could only stare in bewilderment as her oldest son spent all of his allowance and Bar Mitzvah money on what she viewed to be merely useless pieces of cardboard. In fact, the only time I remember talking to my mom about baseball cards was when I asked if I could fly to her childhood home in New Jersey to look in the attic for all those Mickey Mantle rookies she claimed her mom once threw away.
My travel wishes were never granted.
I started picking through my closet at a snail’s pace. Initially, it was mind-blowing.
Old baseball cards and memorable pictures brought me back to those hot summers spent in drug stores scrambling for the newest rookies, slipping Wade Boggs rookies into plastic album sleeves and standing outside in the 92 degree Tucson weather trying to get minor league players like Craig Biggio to sign a baseball.
The majority of my memories came rushing back to me all in the cards. It was like a Rorschach test…I was thrown back into Mattingly’s clean-shaven face on his ’84 rookie… Dwight Gooden’s pre-cocaine gold tooth on his ’85 Fleer card. Even Ryne Sandberg’s impossible youth on his 1983 Topps rookie that I traded for back in 1985.
Every scrapbook, picture and signature recalled a memory of a childhood full of innocence and a passionate love for the game of BASEBALL.
It was actually a fairly peaceful and calming experience. For the first hour, I was suddenly 11-years-old again. Going through common cards and rediscovering lost names like Alvaro Espinoza and Steve Sax was both magical and cathartic… However, when I came across a poorly-forged Mark McGwire autographed baseball shoved deep inside my closet, I suddenly burst into tears.
The first friend I had ever had in my life was a kid named Nathan. Our parents had lived together when we were born -two months apart- in 1975. At age two, Nathan’s family split Tucson and moved back east to Fairfield, Connecticut. My family stayed in Tucson. Still, by that time, a brotherly bond had already been formed and as the years moved on, Nathan and I grew closer through written correspondence, summer travel and phone calls.
Around first grade, we discovered that we shared an intense passionate love for the New York Yankees – forced upon us by our fathers. We also both had an extensive collection of baseball cards, inherited from older kids who had moved onto skateboards and girls, and we both began collecting them with fervor. As the years rolled on, our collections grew endlessly, as did our friendship.
My first Yankees game was in 1983 – with Nathan and our dads – against George Brett and the Kansas City Royals. (It was the day before the Pine Tar Game). Dave Winfield hit a home run and Nathan and I split about 5 hot dogs and 3000 calories of stadium treats. A lifelong obsession had been kicked into high gear and the memories are still there – from Winfield’s homer soaring into the bullpen to that first view of the infield as we walked up from the escalator. I get chills just thinking about it.
As the years rolled along, Nathan and I continued to share our baseball card collecting stories through the mail. However, it wasn’t until 1986 or so, when I had begun obtaining hundreds of players signatures at spring training, that Nathan began to get somewhat jealous of my collection. At the time, if you were a kid in Tucson, you could walk up to Hi Corbett Field and practically stand in the on deck circle as the teams warmed up to play each other. My buddies and I would skip school and get to the field to watch guys like Mark Grace and Rob Deer take batting practice before snagging their signatures. It was the end of an era, when ballplayers still made the league minimum of $62,500 and didn’t face any threat of being harassed and jumped by some stupid drunk fan hanging around the dugout… Even though they did offer Dollar Beer Night time and time again.
Meanwhile, as my autograph collection grew, I found that more and more collectors from across the country began asking me to get them signed baseballs from the superstars of the day like Canseco and McGwire…(This was way before the steroid era and Canseco’s tell-all book Juiced).
Still, realizing that I had an inside advantage to any collector from, say… Vermont, I recognized a little business opportunity.
So, I began charging a fee.
It was actually Nathan’s idea to charge. I was so adept at getting autographs, that I would charge five dollars to a guy in Nebraska for a Canseco ball and maybe a little bit more for a team ball. I went to at least 25 games that spring and got everything I could get signed. From there, it was sold, stamped and shipped. By the end of spring training, I had made roughly $375 and was buying any baseball card I wanted at The Sports Page. It was easy money. It was actually quite perfect and even a bit business savvy… I had become an entrepreneur.
But it was about to get easier.
That August, Nathan wrote me a letter and suggested a way to make even more money.
Have you ever considered forging the autographs?
I was on it like Tony Gwynn on a knee-high fastball. Within days, I had mastered every All-Star’s signature. I spent hours perfecting Will Clark’s end of name “K-tail,” Mark McGwire’s curvaceous bubble “cG” and Dwight Gooden’s sloping, elongated “D.” I had handwriting intonations down pat… And nobody could tell the difference. I was suddenly, a MASTER FORGER.
Nathan came to visit the following spring and proceeded to take back about 50 forged items to Connecticut. We had agreed that he would sell them to his local card shop and we would split the profits. Within two weeks, after convincing his local baseball card shop that he had been collecting autographs in Arizona at Spring Training, he had pulled in 750 dollars.
All on 100 percent forged material.
I guarantee that if you ever bought an autographed baseball or card in Fairfield, Connecticut or Tucson, Arizona during the late 1980’s… Nathan and I had something to do with it…
So that moment, when I held the poorly forged Mark McGwire ball, it made me cry.
I knew I was feeling emotional, but it was for many different reasons. One was because Nathan passed away 15 years ago at the age of 21, long before we ever got to reunite and laugh about our little criminal business venture. Back then, our operation was so easy to pull off, because nobody would question 13-year-old kids who were selling really legitimate-looking autographs. In the years following, I have read about dozens of teenagers and adults getting arrested and caught in the forgery game. (Most recently Babe Ruth baseballs were the subject of a criminal investigation).
I am happy to say that we got out before there was any industry crackdown.
Our little gig continued for a few years, until Nathan and I both stopped caring about baseball cards and retired from the forgery racket about $2500 richer. Girls and music and pot had entered our lives and we suddenly realized that maybe those cool skater kids had the right idea all along…
So, there I was. In my childhood bedroom, holding that poorly forged Mark McGwire baseball – obviously feebly done with a nervous, shaky hand back in 1987. It was a touching return the last days of my innocence… Long before overdue bills and property taxes. Long before I followed a girl named Leslie around the country on the heels of a Grateful Dead tour just to hope she would consider me as a boyfriend, and long before I had a family of my own to feed… And long before Nathan’s demons got the best of him.
And now, here was my mother demanding that I throw away everything in my closet. I decided to take a stand.
“Mom, I can’t do this right now,” I screamed from across the house.
“Oh shut up and get rid of that crap,” she responded.
I wiped the tears from my eyes and approached her in the living room about five minutes later.
I sat down and relayed some of the stories and forgery adventures I had shared with Nathan all those years ago and told her I wasn’t able to emotionally get through the memories stored in the closet just yet. Having recently lost her best friend to cancer, my mother sat me down and talked me through it.
She totally understood.
She also informed me that it had been 15 years since his death and that I needed to get over it. She had to go clean out her best friend’s house in San Francisco just after she had passed away a year earlier… All I had to do was throw away some baseball cards and get back to my family in Los Angeles.
It was as intense of a moment I have ever shared with my mother and we have never felt closer.
After agreeing to keep a few items, but sell the majority of the cards to a baseball card shop, I managed to get through the rest of my closet somewhat easily. I found some special bits and pieces that, worthless or not, meant the world to me and tucked them away for my son.
My grandfather’s Christy Mathewson card passed down from my uncle for my Bar Mitzvah.
A Craig Biggio Tucson Toros cap.
Even that 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly card.
The rest of my collection was bundled up into a box and headed towards a baseball card shop. I decided I was going to sell it all to the “Sports Page.”
I dialed the number from memory. 886-5000, expecting to hear Mike or Orby answer, the way they did back in 1988.
Instead, a woman answered. She did not work at the Sports Page.
She went on to inform me that the Sports Page had closed roughly 12 years earlier, and that she used to get people calling her looking for the shop all the time. Turns out, I was the first caller looking for The Sports Page in about 9 years.
Wow. Had it been that long?
I was shaken again, but I eventually managed to find another store in Tucson willing to look at my collection. As I brought the nearly 120,000 cards into the shop, I looked around at the changing face of what was once my obsession. Gone were the display cases full of modern rookie cards. The new collector’s items of choice were LeBron James or Kobe Bryant autographed game-worn jerseys. Both of which came with a certificate of authenticity. I couldn’t blame ‘em.
I sat and talked to the two baseball card employees for roughly 45 minutes about the changing face of collecting, the effect ebay had on the hobby and the future. After they scoured through my cards, they told me there wasn’t really much they’d be interested in, and I told them I kind of figured that would be the case. They suggested Goodwill. I admired a Derek Jeter autographed baseball mitt in a glass case and a Josh Hamilton signed bat before thanking my new friends for their time.
However, before I packed it all in and left for the parking lot, they informed me that if I had any autographed items of value I’d be willing to sell, to come back and they would take a look.
I surveyed the store and thought long and hard.
“Well, I do have a Mark McGwire autographed baseball…”
I looked towards the sky. Nathan would be so proud…