Blast from the Packs: Reminiscence Bites Vol. 1

I never had what anyone would call a large sports card collection. As a kid, I hung onto EVERYTHING, every single, every common, every dupe, and I put them in shoeboxes with cardboard dividers so the cards could stand up neat, rather than sloshing around the box in a pile. Of course, at one point, I did have a box with cards sloshing around, at a time near the end of my first collecting phase, when I had a bunch of cards I didn’t want to devote binder space to, but also didn’t want to throw away, and didn’t care to organize.

At some point in the last 15 years — and I genuinely can’t remember when it was, even though this SHOULD have been a pivotal point in my adulthood — I took one last look through my commons boxes to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, and then threw several hundred of the crummiest away. I still had a long box of cards that didn’t quite rise to the level of binder or toploader, plus a full binder and a box that was maybe half full of cards in toploaders and lucite protectors.

None of these cards probably ever rose much above $30 or $40 in value between the time I stopped collecting as a teen and when I started again last fall as a 38-year-old. The card with the most value potential is likely still my Alex Rodriguez Fleer Flair rookie, but I recently noticed that it’s not in great shape (despite spending years in a screw-down lucite block, it looks like the glossy surfaces have warped somewhat with age), meaning basically all of these cards have solely sentimental value.

So why not plumb some of that sentimentality for the blog? I have cards that remind me of times in my life, incidents at school, great games I watched or even just memories of the player on the card. Like, for example:

1992-93 Upper Deck Shaquille O’Neal 1b (Trade card)

Arguably, the card on the right of this image is the biggest “pull” I’ve ever made from a pack of cards. I remember seeing it, reading it, flipping it over, reading it again, and freaking out. What was this crazy thing?

Even though I grew up in northern Indiana, at this time, I was an Orlando Magic fan. Why? It was a mixture of rebellion (everyone here was Bulls fans, and as awesome as Jordan and Pippen were, it felt lazy and “default” to root for them) and a pursuit of novelty (the Magic were an expansion team in 1989 when I was 7, they had cool uniforms and they were based in Orlando, right near Disney World!). The Magic getting the No. 1 overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft when LSU super center Shaquille O’Neal was the consensus No. 1 pick felt like some sort of universal signal that I’d made the right choice to follow what was about to be a young, exciting team.

I was all-in on Shaq, and I was SURE he’d be one of the all-time greats. Looking back, I could say I was a basketball scouting prodigy, but really, this wasn’t a difficult call to make: At the time, the general opinion was he was a can’t miss, generational talent, and would have a long and fruitful career, barring injury. At that age, I hadn’t yet experienced the heartache of losing a beloved player to injury, so all I could hear was the “can’t miss” part.

I don’t know how many of these NBA Draft Trade cards there were inserted in packs. Judging by the fairly low value of the O’Neal card these days, I’m guessing it wasn’t a super rare pull, but still: For a young Magic fan, newly infatuated with the promise of a team led by an unstoppable Shaq in the paint, to pull that redemption card was absolutely mind-blowing. It’s not like I was buying boxes of these cards. I bought probably 10 or 12 packs total over the course of the ’92-93 season, if that many. The worst part, and I mean the WORST part, was realizing that I had to mail this card in and wait for them to send me my coveted Shaq card. I didn’t keep track of how long it took (it felt like months and months), but I had nearly forgotten about it when it did come.

By that time, I had a life-size cardboard standee of Shaq in my bedroom and at least one Shaq poster. And even though those are gone, I still have these cards as a reminder of my Shaq-mania.

1991 Upper Deck Emmitt Smith Game Breakers hologram

Holograms are the coolest. Even as an adult, I love holographic cards and graphics, so as a child, when these were en vogue, they were like gold nuggets to a prospector. My eyes danced whenever I saw one of these cards shimmering in the light.

Like prospectors with a gold strike, though, kids could be pretty cut-throat when it came to these hologram cards. I was a member of an after-school trading card club when I was in elementary school, and on days when the club was meeting, I would come with my binder and a selection of cards in hard toploaders that I thought would make good trade fodder (or just to show off). I didn’t pull this Emmitt Smith card from a pack; I acquired it in a trade with someone. I can’t imagine what I must have given up to get that card, because even though Emmitt Smith wasn’t my FAVORITE football player, the fact that he was on a great team (those Cowboys teams in the early 90s were killer) and that this was a FULL HOLOGRAM CARD meant this thing was a hot item among my 10-ish-year-old cohort.

One particular club day after I had traded for this gem, I had it in my backpack with my other cards. To be honest, I don’t know why I had it with me: I wasn’t going to trade it. But like a middle-aged dude with a sports car, I had to have it to show off. Why else would I have it, you know? Between classes, I went to my backpack, which was stored in a sort of plastic tote in a shelving unit with other students’ backpacks. A friend came up to say he’d seen another kid, let’s call him Travis, rifling through my backpack just a few minutes prior. Somehow I knew exactly what he would have been doing: Travis and his brother were both big Cowboys fans, and Travis had a rep as a bit of a rough kid. I hurriedly looked through my cards and realized that the Smith hologram was gone. And just at that moment, as though it’d been scripted, I looked up and saw Travis and his younger brother about 25 feet away, looking at me, pointing at me, laughing to each other, and walking in a line with classmates to the next class or lunch or whatever was going on at that point of the day.

Travis was kind of a bigger kid, and I was definitely not. I never really got into any fights, but I also didn’t have much fear. I also didn’t have much in the way of inhibitions when it came to those “unwritten rules” of the school yard, which meant I had zero problem telling our scariest teacher, Mr. Garcia, that Travis had DEFINITELY stolen one of my cards.

Did it occur to me that telling on a known bully to a teacher could potentially put me in physical danger? Did I give any consideration to whether I would get a reputation as a tattle tale? I was so full of hot, indignant rage that someone had STOLEN from me, that those things didn’t even cross my mind. I think if Travis had been close enough and I’d had the opportunity as soon as I discovered the theft, I probably would have launched my body at him in a torrent of fitful, angry, untrained fists and feet (and I’m SURE that would not have ended well for me, so I’m glad in retrospect that didn’t happen). My strategy to tell Mr. Garcia was calculated: He yelled the loudest, he stood the tallest, and he was also the most fair, though I also knew he had clashed with Travis for in-class hijinks before, so I was counting on Travis’s priors helping motivate Mr. Garcia’s sense of justice.

The ending to this story is fairly undramatic, to be honest. By the end of the next day, Travis and his brother had relinquished the card back to me (though they’d put it in a crummy, dirty toploader, a passive aggressive last little act against me) at Mr. Garcia’s stern urging. They apologized, and Travis’s brother actually said “if you ever want to trade it, let us know.”

I think I stopped bringing my holographic cards with me to club days after that, and weirdly I didn’t get beat up later (strangely, Travis and I developed a sort of mutual understanding after this incident, and I never had trouble with him again), nor was I aware of having earned any sort of reputation as a tattle. It all worked out, and all these years later, I’m the proud owner of a $4 holographic card of a long-retired star running back.

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