When Is a Baseball Card More Than Just a Baseball Card?

Escapism via Time Traveling, and a Story of Baseball Card Grace

David Zahl / 5.21.20

A few recent acquisitions

Blame Michael Jordan, or blame COVID-induced storage diving, or blame birthday number four-zero-one last month, but I’ve been doing some serious time traveling of late. The calendar may read 2020, but inside my head I’ve been traversing 1986-1994, one pop culture artifact at a time. Listeners to The Mockingcast have now had to listen to me opine about Weird Al, Garbage Pail Kids, The Dream Team, and most recently, Topps’ baseball cards.

Subconsciously, the regression likely has something to do with retreating to a sunnier time while simultaneously catapulting into the future via anticipated eBay deliveries (Cranky Frankie is on his way, ptL!). A non-chemical escape from the present, you might say, nostalgia as coping mechanism, etc.

There’s a quote from Albert Camus in the inner sleeve of Scott Walker’s Scott 4 that hints at a deeper dynamic. “A man’s work,” he writes, “is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”

While I doubt Camus was thinking of pop culture iconography when he wrote that, those are the images that emerge when I close my quarantined eyes. The slide-show contains McFarlane’s Spider-Man, the mid-celebration 86 Mets, MJ’s “Beat It” get-up, the Kenner figure of Han Solo in his Bespin outfit, Calvin and Hobbes zooming down a hill. These images are all cloaked in so much emotion it’s overwhelming. But none so much as the final one, that holy grail of American men my age known as the 1989 Ken Griffey Jr Upper Deck rookie card.

At the time, the design seemed space-age in its sleekness and sophistication, its white borders almost blinding, with Griffey exuding superstar out of every pore. I have to work hard to see it for what it really is: a headshot of a bright-eyed teenager framed by very rudimentary computer graphics. Irreverent as it may sound, when Orthodox Christians talk about icons I’m usually baffled–until I think of that card.

I thought again of that Ken Griffey card while reading Ryan Hockensmith’s piece for ESPN on “My Priceless, Worthless Baseball Cards,” in which he recounts an indelible story of baseball card grace. We read parts of it on The Mockingcast recently, but the words themselves are worth absorbing:

Could Ryan Hockensmith come to the guidance counselor’s office?

I didn’t even know what a guidance counselor was, so I was clueless when I wandered into his office. But Mr. Thompson knew me. He asked about the weather, and how I liked school, and how cool it must be to have made the same T-ball all-star team as my younger brother Jason. But then he narrowed his eyes and just stared at me for a second.

“How are things at home?” he asked, his voice a little lower, his words spaced out enough to indicate concern.

“Pretty good,” I said.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

Oh no. He knew. How did he know?

“Everything is fine,” I said.

We went back to talking about T-ball and football, and he mentioned how much he loved basketball. I barely spoke, though — I had shut down. Eventually he told me I could go back to my classroom, and I thought my family’s secret would stay that way.

But my name blared from the loudspeaker again the next day, and I had knots in my stomach as I went back down to the office. The trepidation lasted about 30 seconds.

“Ryan, I have something for you,” Mr. Thompson said, and he slid a 1979 Topps Pedro Guerrero rookie card across his desk to me. Guerrero was my favorite player from my and my dad’s favorite team, the Dodgers. “I’d like to give it to you. Maybe you can hold on to it and remember that if you ever need to talk to someone about anything going on in your life, I’m here.”

The sadness welled up through my body and out of my eyes. It was one of those physical cries, where your brain relinquishes control of your respiratory system and the chest heaves and there’s no slowing it down. When I could finally get out a few words, I asked Mr. Thompson questions he had no answers for: Why are my parents splitting up? Will Dad ever move back home? How do I get him to come back? Can you talk to him and tell him just to come home?

Mr. Thompson listened and nodded. I don’t remember if I ever met with him again, or what I thought later that day or that week. I don’t know when I gave up on the idea that my dad would ever come back again.

But I do recall two things from that moment: It was the first baseball card I can remember, and that was the only time I remember crying when my parents’ marriage broke up.

When is a baseball card more than just a baseball card, you may ask? When it is a talisman of grace.

I say “grace” rather than “kindness” for six reasons.

First, the card comes from out of the blue–a surprise of the highest order! Which I have to believe is a big part of why it pierces young Ryan’s defenses so completely.

Second, it is specific in the extreme, conveying a depth of knowing and affection unfathomable to someone who’s basically a stranger, let alone in elementary school. Grace in practice is always personal.

Third, the gesture is gratuitous. Guerrero was an all-star, so that card was a pretty big deal and would have come at a cost. I wonder if Mr Thompson felt a pang when he let it go. I would have.

Fourth, there is no because. Not really. Ryan hasn’t done anything to deserve this gift. His internal reality is one of confusion and shame. Yet instead of a pep talk or lecture, he receives Pedro Gurrerro. It is the opposite of what a boy in his position would think he deserves.

Fifth, as we find out when Ryan tracks the man down thirty years later, Mr Thompson doesn’t even remember doing it (Matthew 6:3)! There was something un-self-conscious about the gift in other words, the opposite of credit-seeking.

Sixth, the act sows seeds not only of healing but gratitude–though not in a formulaic or coercive way. In fact the “response” doesn’t occur until thirty plus years later, but when it finally does, it has that much more impact:

[Mr. Thompson had] recently retired after a 40-year career as a guidance counselor at various schools, where he’d also become a successful high school basketball coach. He didn’t recall working with me at Rossmoyne, and even the Pedro Guerrero card didn’t jog his memory. “That was a really good card, though,” he said.

He told me he handed out cards because there were lots of kids like me in the early 1980s, when divorce rates spiked to all-time highs. “At the time, divorce was still stigmatized, and I had to fight through that stigmatization every day to try to get kids to open up,” he said. “When you see a kid who’s hurting, you clutch at anything you can. You just want to make a connection.”

“Mr. Thompson, you did make a connection with me,” I said, and I could feel a little moisture around the corner of my eyes. “I hope you hear from people like me, because I bet there are hundreds of kids out there who are thankful every day, even if they don’t realize it.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Ryan, I’ll tell you, I am in the West Shore Chapter of the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame and the Chagrin Falls Hall of Fame back in my hometown in Ohio. And what you just said to me is as meaningful as any award that has ever been given to me.”

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7 responses to “When Is a Baseball Card More Than Just a Baseball Card?”

  1. Jeff Sackett says:

    And this is precisely why M bird is the best thing I ever read on the net. David Zahl, you are having an impact man. Keep it up.

  2. Luke Roland says:

    Dave this was such a touching reading. Grace in practice is always personal. I love that! Thank you!

  3. This reminds me of a book that has come out in the last few weeks called “The Wax Pack”, about a guy who opened and unopened pack 1986 baseball cards in 2006, and then sought to track down every player in the pack (no matter how famous, or anonymous) and interview each of them to make up the chapters in the book.


    I wanna be sure to pick up that book, and this Hockensmith piece. Good stuff!

  4. Jt says:

    Very good!

  5. Jack Hardy says:

    This might be totally foreign to all of you! That’s what Jesus wants to give each one of us every day along with eternal values! That is a topnotch story and well written!!!

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