Baseball card collections bring priceless memories

My childhood memories are very scattered, lost in the clutter of advancing age.

But one that resonates clearly involves my late uncle, who used to go bowling in Coral Gables on Sunday nights. I remember asking him one evening if he could pick up some baseball cards for me at a grocery store across from the bowling alley.

He came home after his three-game set, looked at me, and said, "I'm sorry they didn't have any left."

The disappointment had barely set in when he reached into his pockets and threw a bunch of Topps baseball packs onto my bed. I hugged him and thanked him, and then went scavenging for cards that I needed to complete my set.

That moment crossed my mind Sunday morning when, over a cup of coffee, I read about the quest of Oakland Athletics pitcher Pat Neshek. He is trying to collect autographs on the entire set of Topps cards (totaling 792) from 1985. He has completed about 75 percent of a project he started in January.

Neshek told the New York Times that he picked 1985 because that set included the rookie card of Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins. For a kid who grew up in Minnesota, it was an easy call.

As a kid growing up in Miami in the late 1960s, I had no affinity to any team, though the Baltimore Orioles eventually became my adopted squad because they trained in Miami. Those baseball cards became a more intimate connection to Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Boog Powell and the rest of the gang from Balmer.

I suspect just about every Baby Boomer has a story like mine. Kids collected baseball cards without a thought of preserving them for prosperity. We stuck them on bicycle spokes or in old cigar boxes, traded with our buddies for favorites players, and eventually stuck all those cigar boxes in a closet when we discovered girls.

If you were fortunate, Mom didn't throw the cigar boxes out a decade later during spring cleaning.

The business of baseball cards has evolved, too, into something far less innocent. Between 1952 and 1969, Topps sold five- or six-card wax packs for a nickel, complete with a stick of gum that tasted like wax. Today a pack will run as high as $6.

There are all sorts of sets produced by Topps and Upper Deck these days, some under different brand names. Kids who have the money to collect cards stick them in protective sleeves. They send multiple cards to baseball players, hoping to get a bunch of signed cards that can sell for a nice profit. The biggest attraction for collectible cards now involves football players.

"I definitely see a lot of kids priced out of [collecting]," said Joe Ellicott, who runs Uncle Joe's Coins, Gold and Silver and Collectibles in Maitland.

"Big Joe" says he is hopeful of a revival one day, when the economy picks up and a second wave of collectors spring up, wanting to share those memories and that hobby with their kids.

I hope so. Those are the moments that stick with you, not asking for Daddy's credit-card number so you can buy Cal Ripken's signed rookie card for only $396.04 on the Internet.

Nostalgia is one of the reasons that Neshek is on his cool quest — he started collecting in 1986 with the help of his dad. It's connective tissue that binds generations of baseball fans.

My unsigned Jim Palmer card from 1966 sells for $54.30 online, but I'm not looking to get rid of it. The card isn't in mint condition anyway. It's still in a cigar box, though. And it has the uncanny ability to connect me to the days of my youth, and that Sunday night when my uncle made me the happiest kid on the block.

Sorry, $54.30 isn't going to cut it.

Those memories are priceless.

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com

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