Thoughts on a Pack of Baseball Cards

Every once in a while, Rob Neyer used to write an article in the spring in which he would tear open a pack of the newest series of Topps baseball cards and spend a paragraph writing about each player.  I thought it would be fun to try my hand at this year’s edition.  Here are the twelve cards I came away with:

#1 Ryan Braun
#73 Brandon McCarthy
#83 Bobby Parnell
#87 Craig Kimbrel
#161 Dee Gordon
#224 NL RBI Leaders
     (Kemp, Fielder, Howard)
#230 Justin Morneau
#232 AL Active ERA Leaders
     (Rivera, Santana, Hernandez)
#262 Shaun Marcum
#303 Danny Valencia
Classic Walk-offs #3: Johnny Bench
1987 Topps Mini #50: Curtis Granderson

All in all, not a bad pack of cards.  Of course, I don’t know how much they’re worth; there are no baseball cards shops with store copies of Beckett around, and all eBay tells me is that none of the individual cards are worth the cost of shipping.  But there’s a good collection of young upstarts and star players; I’m not displeased.

As I examined my collection, however, I found myself thinking more about the baseball cards themselves rather than the players on them.  I have no strong feelings, much less insights, about Danny Valencia, who I’m sure is a fine human being and has probably donated more money to charity than I make in a decade.  Nor does the world need my opinions about Ryan Braun.  Instead, I was thoughtful of the experience of opening the pack, the familiar three-step process of peeling back the foil, just as I had when I was a kid.

The 2012 Topps card, itself, is a strange combination of old and new.  It’s easy to complain about the price: the $2.99 for a pack of twelve cards is nearly ten times the cost of a pack way back in 1986.  This is partially because the 1986 edition was ugly as sin: grainy photographs written on cheap cardboard with monochromatic backs.  Few of the cards even attempted action photography; most featured awkward, unsmiling head shots. Even the font that year was offensive.

But despite the glossy finish and foil lettering, the 2012 Topps card feels strangely conservative; the company has been employing the same white background for a decade, with a few exceptions, and the front border design is cheerfully minimalistic.  The back looks the same as any Topps edition of the past twenty years. Their last amendment was the laudable decision to add OPS to their stat line, but this happened nearly ten years ago.  The photographs are crisp and clean, the benefit of twenty-five years of photographic technology; and yet the pitchers all seem to be in the same pose, their arms drawn back in preparation to throw, while the batters are all swinging through, striding toward first.   The players and the cards both seem to be frozen in time.

The insert cards feel particularly pointless; the “mini” 1987 Topps card, with its familiar woodgrain border and bright colors, is attractive, though it reminds me of Fleer’s failed attempts to market a similar miniature set during that same era.  The Bench card, meanwhile, is nothing special; the front contains three cuts of the exact same photograph, and the back provides a contextually vacant two-sentence blurb about a game thirty-nine years in the past.  The biggest appeal of the card is Bench himself; and yet you can get any number of Bench’s later cards online for a dollar.  Why do we need another?

And that was the unhinging question; once I asked it, everything began to unravel.  If we don’t need another Johnny Bench baseball card, why do we need another Justin Morneau?  Or Danny Valencia?  Why do we still need baseball cards at all?

The photography, slick as it is, can be fairly easily replicated through a quick tour of Google Images.  The numbers on the back can be dug up in sixty seconds through FanGraphs.  The flavor text, though better than the filler that populated the cards in my era, could be easily found on Wikipedia or a Rick Reilly article.

In one sense, baseball cards still survive based on an economic bubble that burst nearly twenty years ago.  People buy baseball cards because they think they’re worth something.  The insert sets that killed the hobby still exist, and while some of them are interesting on their own merits (autographed cards and snippets of game-worn jersey), cards like my Johnny Bench are supposed to have value simply because Topps tells me they’re rare.  It’s up to me to assume that supply in this case doesn’t meet demand, but though the company meticulously lists the odds of every single insert in the set, it can’t quantify the number of people who might want to buy that card.  Few people, I think, can seriously look at baseball cards as an investment; even the few remaining store owners survive because of collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering.

So why baseball cards in the online era?  One could see a similar argument to the book-owners holding out against the e-readers: the legitimacy of the tactile experience.  This would make more sense if most collectors wrapped their cards in plastic and boxed them away for safekeeping.  (I’ve already dinged a corner of my Bench card while writing this, eliminating what little value it had.)  One could also argue that baseball cards are essentially toys for kids, but this is hurt by the fact that a factory set is nearly the same price as The Show for PlayStation 3.  It’s hard to imagine kids wanting to play around with motionless pictures of baseball players when they can take control of the players themselves on the screen.

A baseball card conveys ownership over the game itself, a foothold in a single moment in time.That gets us to the heart of the matter.  Though they serve a different meaning to each person, to me, a baseball card conveys ownership over the game itself, a foothold in a single moment of time.  The game is as cyclical as the tide; each season washes over the last and pulls some of it away.  The baseball card fixes a certain point, gives us a young Jamie Moyer and a middle-aged Jamie Moyer and every single Moyer in between.  But cards are no longer the only form of ownership over the game.  The proliferation of out-of-market television games and interleague play have brought the faces of formerly unknown players into familiarity.  And beginning with RBI Baseball and continuing on with the excellent current renditions like The Show and Out of the Park, computer baseball games have allowed fans to create their own attachment to players.

But in terms of creating a literal sense of ownership over baseball players, nothing has done more to push baseball cards to the periphery than the growing popularity of fantasy baseball.  This is why Topps’ multiple online ventures into e-cards have never succeeded: they remain a passive and static property.  They’re still an object to be looked at and read, not manipulated and played with.  Fantasy baseball recreates the economics of the baseball card, the trading and the collecting, but assigns a value to that activity, either through the cash of a payout or the reward of a well-managed team.  It’s difficult for baseball cards to create that sense of artisanship.

In the meantime, baseball cards will remain much the same, hanging next to the Yu-Gi-Oh cards at your local Wal-Mart.  Every year or two, I’ll buy a pack, less to relive baseball than to relive the feeling of opening a pack of baseball cards.  I find myself struggling to explain the disconnect, my reverence for the cards of the past and disinterest in the modern. Topps has certainly made valiant attempts to bridge that gap, with Heritage cards and reprints and commemorations. None of them seem to work. Maybe this is all self-delusion, and I’m only driven by the pull-tab mentality that has ruined the hobby. Maybe my new cards will someday build up the nostalgia of the worthless Fleer and Donruss cards languishing in the corner of my garage.  More likely, they’ll be just an echo, an increasingly fleeting connection to youth.

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