From the sideline

Column: Baseball’s presence hard to overlook

July 18, 2013 

I haven’t been the most faithful Major League baseball fan since my childhood, but it’s hard not to reminisce on my young love of the game as All-Star week takes place each year.

Soccer became the local craze by the time I was about 9, but before then all I can remember is baseball. I was beyond proud to put on an Indians cap and play for a T-ball team that circuited Lynn Road, Millbrook and Stough elementary schools. I thought I was on the brink of turning pro when I was promoted to North Raleigh coach- and kid-pitch leagues that mostly called West Millbrook Middle School Park home.

I remember mimicking Babe Ruth and pretending I was calling a shot in a pro game almost every time I picked up a bat. And I recall holding the general stance that you were only as good as your bat – preferably a sharp-looking TPX aluminum club – and would be better at stealing bases if you wore gloves on both hands.

Another necessity for any “real” player of the game was an adult-size Louisville Slugger, even though at the time I could hardly pick up and swing the one that still lives in my closet.

But having a good collection of baseball cards was what mattered the most. And I mean boxes and boxes of baseball cards.

My slightly older brother and I amassed stacks of the cheaply-made collection containers full of cards and were right proud of our registry. Our prized possession was a David Justice rookie card that I think was worth about $15 back then. We treated it like it was going to be a winning lottery ticket one day.

It would be an understatement to say our understanding of the word “collectible” changed drastically one day when we were cleaning out our grandparents’ basement.

When we learned my uncle Rick – who lost his life on a call as an emergency responder when I was still in diapers – had grown up in one of the two finished rooms in the basement, we were eager to snoop around. In his closet we discovered Rick shared our mutual interest in collecting baseball cards when he was a young boy. We also discovered Rick’s collection made ours look like toilet paper.

The highlight of his lot, price-wise, was Nolan Ryan’s joint rookie card with Jerry Koosman from the 1968 season with the Mets. The rest of his collection was more impressive from a historical standpoint.

We found two Mickey Mantle cards, two of Hank Aaron and one of Willie Mays. He had four Tom Seaver cards, including his 1967 Mets rookie card, and a Carlton Fisk rookie card. We also found the faces of Johnny Bench (three cards, one rookie), Roberto Clemente (3), Rod Carew (2), Lou Brock, Reggie Jackson, Al Kaline, Gaylord Perry and Pete Rose in the mix of hundreds of cards and commemorative coins.

It wasn’t long after we stopped drooling over the elaborate collection of history that we realized it was ours, as our uncle had willed virtually everything he owned to the two of us. We immediately put the most valuable of the cards in protective cases that, for us, also protect a way of remembering our uncle.

It was pretty cool to hear Seaver’s name called on TV as he threw the first pitch for Tuesday’s All-Star game at Citi Field. I thought of his rookie card and subsequently of my uncle, and realized I still identify with America’s pastime a great deal despite not following the sport as closely as I once did.

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