Friday, April 26, 2013

1981 Topps: Part I


At some point I figured out that there would, indeed, be a brand new set of cards to accompany a brand new season of baseball. It had been a long winter, waiting for the return of the game that grabbed my attention in earnest only in the final days of the 1980 season. This was to be my first full season (or so I thought) of wire-to-wire baseball enjoyment. When I finally spotted the first box of 1981 Topps Baseball Cards among the Snickers and Chick-O-Sticks at the local drugstore, it was better than Christmas!

Unlike the previous season, when packs found their way into my hands by way of my Grandparents, I did not intend to remain a passive collector. Instead, I took my weekly allowance and any money that I could make doing odd jobs directly to Rexall Banner, next to Boys Market, to get the cards into my anxious little hands asap. While the 1980 set evokes "indoors," to me, the 1981 set is illuminated in my mind's eye by sunshine. That's because there was no way I was going to wait until I got home to see what was in each mysterious pack. Sometimes I would simply step outside of the drugstore and begin ripping them open. Other times I would perform my investigations while I walked home. It's a minor miracle that I never managed to get hit by a car because I would get all the way home without ever seeing anything but baseball cards.

Sometimes I had a partner on my card-gathering pilgrimages. It wasn't Burt, as I'd burned that bridge the previous year with my thwarted theft of his Don Sutton card. Fortunately, I had found another fellow collector in a boy named Ryan, recently transplanted from the exotic wilds of New York City. With my laid-back Southern California personality, I would look on at a respectful distance with interest as he opened his packs, hoping he'd come across some Dodgers that I needed and could possibly negotiate a mutually beneficial trade for. On the other hand, Ryan's attitude, as he angled for a better look than I could get at the cards I'd just bought, was that any Yankees in my packs were, de facto, his cards. The details surrounding the transactions were of little interest to him, as long as he had all Yankees cards in his possession before his (barely-existent) patience had expired.

I generally went along good-naturedly with his compulsion. After all, though we expressed it differently, our needs were the same. Only the teams were different. But one time I couldn't resist the opportunity to feel a little of the power that Burt had exerted over me the previous year. There was nothing in the world that Ryan needed more than the latest card of his favorite player, Reggie Jackson (#400). And I was the first one to pull that card out of a pack. The moment I saw it, my instincts kicked in... and I ran. Like an animal sensing a predator, I knew the moment I saw that card that I'd become Ryan's prey. And this is an apt metaphor because Ryan, like a stereotype come to life, was a street kid from the Big Apple who wasn't afraid to try to pound the world into submission.

Using my penchant for diplomacy, I was able to assuage Ryan's concerns before he caught up to me, assuring him that it would be no more than a few short moments before the card was in his possession. I appealed to his sense of fairness, telling him that I had every intention of trading the card to him, immediately, as long as we could hash out an equitable transaction. Remembering Burt's torturous techniques, I began the negotiations with what I knew to be an unreasonable demand. But the look on Ryan's face made me quickly abandon my plans to drag things out. I may have had resources and diplomacy on my side. But Ryan had nukes and his finger was on the button. So I quickly assured him that I'd only been kidding, accepted some nondescript Dodger for my Reggie, and made a mental note to remind Ryan where he got his favorite card every time his short fuse was in danger of being lit.

As for the major league season, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times... and then it was the best of times again. It started with Fernandomania ("And a little child shall lead them"). Perfection was marred by a strike that wiped out the game for much of the summer. (There was one silver lining to the strike. With no games to broadcast, the local radio station aired vintage games, which I listened to with rapt attention and transcribed in a score book. It was like actually being alive to experience Mantle, Berra and the rest first hand.)

To my relief, the season resumed with Fernando in the mound for the All-Star Game. And the disjointed schedule ended with about as much drama as an eleven year old could bear. The Dodgers never should have been in the post-season given that the Reds, who got left out thanks to the split-season format, had the best record in the National League. But my sense of fairness was not at all disturbed. The Dodgers tested my nervous system by facing elimination but surviving against the Astros in the first NLDS and Expos in the NLCS, then dropping the first two to the Yankees in the World Series. But they turned it around to win the first of what I assumed would be many, many championships in my lifetime. It was a good time to be a Dodger fan. To this day, the 1981 Dodgers regular lineup comes as readily to mind as my social security number.

Lopes, Landreaux, Baker, Garvey, Cey, Guerrero, Scioscia, Russell, Valenzuela.

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