In 1984 I found myself at a crossroads. And the devil on my shoulder nearly sent me down the wrong path. How did I find myself facing this decisive moment? There were two causes. One benign, one decidedly malignant.
After two years of buying complete sets through the mail, I returned to the joys of ripping open packs when 1984 Topps hit the shelves. This was a very good thing. But it would lead to temptation.
And the devil on my shoulder was... Don Mattingly?
Actually, I can't blame Donnie Baseball. But I can blame his 1984 Topps rookie card (#8). They meant little to me when I began pulling them out of the copious packs flooding the market. I was a Dodger guy, and Mattingly played in that backwater New York place, far enough away that it may as well have been another country. And in a league that didn't even play by real baseball rules.
But his card had created a buzz, a stir, a disturbance in the force, and a shift in people's perceptions about baseball cards. Overnight (at least to naive, fourteen-year-old me it seemed that way), buying these nifty, colorful images of ballplayers went from being a hobby to being an investment strategy. And since this was the 80s, the whole greed thing had a nefariously broad cultural appeal.
I wish I could say that I immediately saw the inherent evil in the trend and tried to rally support for the simple joys of collecting for... well, fun. But I'm a little ashamed to say that, at least for a summer, I was one of those people who would come to see dollar signs instead of ballplayers.
Cecilio Guante, you have a bad-ass card (#122), peering in for a sign in your black and gold Pirates uni with the pillbox cap, your sweaty scowl accentuated by the devilish red framing your portrait.
Don't care. You're a middle reliever with no investment value whatsoever. You're wasting a potentially valuable space in my pack of cards. You mean less than nothing to me.
Except as filler in my own ingenious money-making scam. I made my own packs. I would put twelve cards in a clear plastic bag, put pseudo-stars that I had tons of duplicates of on top and bottom (think Ron Kittle, Manny Trillo, Ken Singleton), and then stuff the pack with the Cecilio Guantes of the world in between. I hadn't really thought things through enough to realize I was unlikely to get any return business once someone opened a pack. But I didn't have to worry about that since I could never convince anyone to buy one.
Thankfully, this was the beginning and the end of my days as a card investor, rather than collector. Today I don't keep a single card behind plastic. I'm happy to hold the Mattingly rookie in my hand, risking corner damage or scuffing or what have you, and ponder on his great career as a player and his legacy-in-progress as the manager of my Dodgers.
And I've come to enjoy pulling the supporting players out of packs just as much as the "valuable" superstars. Who would have thought, with a mug like that, that Cecilio Guante would turn out to be the angel on my shoulder?