Twenty years ago this weekend (Easter Weekend – not the date) I was celebrating Easter with my family. One memory I have from growing up is getting Easter Baskets with candy and chocolate, etc. The one twist my parents liked to do was give my brother and I a few packs of baseball cards along with it. That was the real excitement for me. On Easter Morning in 1997 I opened a regular retail pack of Topps Baseball cards and it changed my perception of everything in my favorite hobby.
The interesting thing about collecting baseball cards in the 1980’s and 1990’s was that it was strangely profit driven. Even in the young mind of adolescent kids, it somehow became more about what a card was ‘worth’ rather than the excitement of pulling a specific player or insert strictly for the joy and surprise in the eyes of a collector. My dad always told me that cards (and anything else, really) were/are only worth what someone would/will actually give you for them.
One of the card types I had never pulled from any Topps pack was a Finest or even more rare, Finest Refractor. It was a super glossy rendition of a card that actually had a protective plastic cover to keep it from getting scratched in the package, a refractor was a card that had the glossy finish but also gave a rainbow color refraction. The big cards in that set were Willie Mays autographs and Mickey Mantle reprints, etc. I collected Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas cards when I was a kid. A refractor of any sort was generally a tough card to pull – let alone insert cards from special sets.
My dad always told me about the great ballplayers from his childhood – Mantle being one of his favorites, although he was relatively young when the Mick was entering the end of his career. To me, he was the Griffey of his generation on the field and at bat. They both ended up having career numbers cut short because of injuries.
As I opened my pack of cards I was already excited about baseball season coming around. I hoped I would pull a Griffey card to add to my collection. After flipping through the first few cards I noticed nothing special. Generally, my luck was zilch… my brother had the nickname ‘Lucky Boy’ ever since I can remember. No matter what packs of cards or contests he would enter with me or whatever it was – he would win. I figured he would get some card in his pack that simply didn’t exist. I don’t remember what cards he pulled on that day simply because this was my lucky day – and I haven’t forgotten (obviously) all these years later.
Sitting in the living room with the lights off and the sun coming up; I made it halfway through my first pack and knew there was nothing special, maybe a Barry Larkin or something. Then I opened the second pack and it was the same story, a couple decent guys (I think I pulled a Barry Bonds insert). Then, in the third (last) pack from my Easter basket I looked through them with my typical cynicism and about halfway through the pack I stopped. I was looking at two players on the same card that blew me away. Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron standing side by side… I couldn’t believe it! Then I saw that it had the typical protective plastic cover that meant it was a Topps Finest. As I let out a yell and did a fist pump I went over to show my dad and my brother what I had pulled. My few steps across the room and into a bit more light made me stop in my tracks.
I had pulled a Topps Finest Refractor Mickey Mantle card. Not only that, but it was a card with Hank Aaron next to him. It felt like I was floating. This stuff didn’t happen for me… this had to be my brother’s pack of cards. No, it was mine and this was real. To this day I remember my dad telling me how cool it was and my brother was his typical awesome self, not an ounce of jealousy as he was simply excited for me. To this day I always think about opening that pack of cards and the joy that it brought me.
I looked up the ‘value’ as soon as I could get my hands on a price guide that had the card listed. It was listed at between $50 and $80. I was 13, so holding a card ‘worth’ that much money felt like a surreal moment of presumed wealth. The only thing was that eBay wasn’t a thing. Hell, the internet was barely a thing at that point – especially in rural Ohio. I had no real means of selling the card and even then – I didn’t want to. It was more than just a rare card, it was my rare card. It was my lucky day and it was a day that I didn’t want to forget… not even for $80.
Now, twenty years later, I am 33 years old and I have had to store a lot of my things as my wife and I have moved around the country for a few years. My entire childhood baseball card collection is among the things my parents are keeping safe for me whenever I come back home and have a place of my own for those things.
Somewhere in my box of top loader and screw down cases of baseball cards there is a 1997 Topps Mickey Mantle Finest Refractor that is worth more to me than it would be to most people.
It is the reason why every year around this time I will go to the store and buy baseball cards. There aren’t a lot of ways to feel like a kid again, but for me this is one of those things that brings me back to that Easter morning with my family and a few packs of baseball cards.
It’s also the type of feeling that comes with cherished memories… and that is something for me that’s never for sale.