When I was in high school, this would be in the early 1980s, I decided for a time to get serious about collecting baseball cards. This is the sort of thing high school kids do, I think, when they are not getting dates. I had collected baseball cards as a kid, but that was different, more about the social experience, flipping cards, trading cards, putting cards in the spokes of my bicycle and all that. My Mom, following the Mom Handbook of my generation, threw out my card collection one day when I wasn't looking, and I have come to believe those shoeboxes of baseball cards were filled with Mickey Mantle rookie cards, Sandy Koufax rookie cards, Willie Mays rookie cards even though all of these people played years before I was born, much less before I started collecting cards.
Anyway, I moved to a new school, and a friend of mine, Robert, had this astonishing baseball card collection -- the first time I had ever leafed through notebooks of baseball cards behind protective plastic -- and I thought that was about the coolest thing going. I went with him to my first card show, and he showed me how things worked. The thing that sticks with me are those two boxes:
1. The commons box.
2. The minor stars box.
Many dealers would have these boxes out on their tables. Of course, these were not the cards that made the dealers money. Their core business involved rookie cards -- the first card for any given star -- and cards of superstars and autographs and stuff like that. But Robert and I could not really afford any of those cards. So what we would do was look through these two boxes. The minor stars box, as the name suggests, was supposed to be filled with players who were not quite big enough for the superstar treatment. Harold Baines's cards were often in the minor stars box. So were Joe Carter cards, Alan Trammell cards, John Tudor cards.
The other box was filled with commons which -- again, as the name suggests -- was supposed to be filled with cards of common players. The idea, I think, of putting out these cards (three cents apiece!) was to help people complete sets or collect the common players for their favorite team. But what Robert and I did, because there wasn't much else for us to do, was scour through these common cards and try to find bargains that the dealers had overlooked.*
*Through the years in those commons boxes, Robert found pages and pages and pages of 1971 Bert Blyleven rookie cards because he was convinced long before anyone I knew -- probably long before Blyleven himself -- that Bert was going to to the Hall of Fame and that would make those cards worth a fortune. It worked out for Robert … and didn't work out. Blyleven is in the Hall of Fame. But the bottom long ago fell out of the baseball card market. The Bert Blyleven rooie book price can be as high $20. You could find it on eBay for $5 or less.
All of this is an excruciatingly long way to say that much of what I learned about baseball, I learned scouring those common and minor star boxes. Why was this player a common (say, Darrell Evans or Jose Cruz) while that player was a minor star (say, Bucky Dent or Tony Armas). I couldn't understand it. Clearly superior pitchers (like Jerry Koosman or Rick Reuschel) were always commons while others (Lamar Hoyt or Dave Righetti) were often in the minor stars box. Obviously, this was simply the dealers' choice, but these choices fascinated me.
And it didn't take long to realize … these choices had more to do with memorable moments than anything else. It not like the dealers were calculating how many runs Bucky Dent created. The dealer thinks: "Will there be a Yankees fan who will run across this Bucky Dent card, have it bring back memories of the 1978 homer, and pick the thing up for a dime or a quarter?" The dealer thinks: "Will there be a Red Sox fan who will run across this Bucky Dent card, have it bring back memories of the 1978 homer, and have him go into a homicidal rage at which point he tears up the card and stomps on it, at which point he has to pay me a dime or a quarter?"
I mean, I'm sure the thought process isn't quite that pronounced … but I think that's that the heart of it. Does the player spark an emotion? A memory? At the end of the day, you could argue that Chuck Finley had a better overall career than Dwight Gooden. He won more games, had a better ERA+, struck out more batters, anyway, you could make the case. But for most people, Gooden sparks countless more memories, memories of when he was young, invincible, his arm bending like a Gumby doll, his fastball rising like it was shot with helium, Doctor K, the guy who threw the curveball that Tim McCarver called "Lord Charles," because the usual curveball nickname "Uncle Charlie" wasn't regal enough. Finley? Good pitcher. I remember he was married to actress Tawny Kitaen and that it did not end well.
Dwight Gooden would never be in the common box. Chuck Finley probably would be in the common box.
I've been thinking a lot about commons and minor stars this postseason because there have been so many memories stuffed into such a short period of time. When I was looking through the minor stars boxes, I would pause all the time to try and figure out why they were in there. Why Mickey Lolich? Well, of course, it was because of his amazing 1968 World Series -- a complete game 8-1 victory in Game 2, a complete game 5-3 victory in Game 5, a complete game 4-1 victory over Bob Gibson and the Cardinals in Game 7 (on two days rest).
OK, well, why Bob Turley? Oh, because in 1958 against Milwaukee -- after getting shellacked in Game 2 -- he threw a shutout, retired Frank Torre for the final out in the 10th inning two days later, then threw the last 6 2/3 innings the next day as the Yankees won the Series.
You would see Gene Tenace in the minor stars box sometimes or Bernie Carbo or Larry Sherry or Rick Monday or Mike Scott and you might wonder, "Why?" And then you would go back and see something they did in the postseason and say, "Oh, I get it." There are people who would say that a singular postseason performance is undervalued when it comes to things like, say, the Hall of Fame -- there have long been people who believe that Don Larsen, for one magical day, deserves a place in the Hall. That won't ever happen, but I can tell you this: Don Larsen never once appeared in a commons baseball card box.
It was Raul Ibanez who made me think about all this. Raul Ibanez is my friend, and he's had a wonderful and often surprising baseball career -- an All-Star appearance, four 100-RBI seasons, some down-ballot MVP votes -- but even I would have to concede he would have been proudly in the commons box. Until Wednesday. On Wednesday, when he pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez and homered to tie the playoff game with Baltimore, then in 12th homered again to win it, Raul Ibanez at age 40, a part-time player worn down by the years, grabbed his moment. Sometimes, people will say something like, "Raul Ibanez will never have to buy another drink in New York." That's probably true. I thought it as the moment when Raul Ibanez moved into the minor star baseball card box.
And there have been others who have done that. St. Louis' Daniel Descalso, who hit .227 for the season and was hitting .176 for the playoffs, smashed a double, a homer, and cracked the single in the ninth off shortstop Ian Desmond's glove that tied the game in the ninth when it seemed like Washington could not possibly lose. Into the minor stars pile for you Daniel, at least in St. Louis. For a few minutes there, Oakland Coco Crisp -- long known for his Kellogg approved name -- couldn't stay out of the spotlight: ridiculous catches; titanic misplays; death-defying hits; frustrating misses, pies in the face, disappointment in the face, he was everywhere, he was nowhere. The A's eventually lost -- a major star, Justin Verlander, ended that -- but Crisp was indelible.
This is the thing about so many postseason games, there are so many memories, and so many people crossing through our paths, it's hard to keep up. I think this is what baseball wanted. I don't know if baseball card dealers do those common and minor stars boxes anymore. I suspect they don't. But if they did, the minor star boxes would be overflowing.