Ken Griffey Jr’s face was pressed between thick plastic, his friendly grin locked up — screwed tight at four corners. A gold chain hung around his Mariner-blue turtleneck, a bat rested on his left shoulder, calligraphic letters hovered above a gold star announcing the birth of a rookie. I wanted to be him, the kid with the perfect swing, the guy everyone talked about in the corner of the jewelry store devoted to sports cards. If I was at the mall that’s where you would find me, bent over the bargain bin, hunting for treasure.
I knew I would never find a 1989 Upper Deck Griffey among the rejects, but once in a while the jeweler would toss an all-star in the box, a Bo Jackson or Jose Canseco to reward the kids who could barely scrape together the four quarters needed to pick 50 cards out of the mix.
I dug through the piles looking for Cardinals. Their bright red caps were easy to spot. I would grab them thinking maybe I found Ozzie Smith only to be disappointed to discover it was just some outfielder for the Reds. If there weren’t 50 worthy cards in the bin I would fill my quota with the players with the funniest names or strangest facial hair.
When my back hurt from hunching over the bin, I would take a break to study the artifacts of an ancient American pass time secured behind a bullet-proof case, to peer at hall-of-famers through greasy glass smeared with fingerprints from sticky-fingered hooligans, the kids you couldn’t trade with because you knew the second they touched your Mark McGwire it would disappear into a back pocket never to be seen again.
Everything a kid needed to know was right there. Minor stars get slipped into thin transparent sleeves. All-stars are protected with top-loading hard cases. Legends get top honors, immortalized behind thick screw cases. Everyone else is cast into the bargain bin, the place baseball cards go to die.
I saw the kids who’d drop $100 on a Griffey card without ever opening a single pack, the kids whose collections were constructed from grocery store heists and gas station smuggling, the privileged kids whose cards came from dubious fathers who stumbled across Mickey Mantles in dusty attics. I felt the appeal of these worlds, the pull of shortcuts, the righteousness of those who wouldn’t waste their time digging through the discard bin.
I suspected that the game was rigged, but that didn’t stop me. It was the American Dream, a belief that a common card could advance from the depths of the bargain bin to sit among the legends on the top shelf of a glass case. The proof was right there, inches from old white men wearing tobacco-stained jerseys. A black kid with a big smile, a deep love for the game, and the most beautiful swing baseball has ever seen.
Thanks for reading. I collect stories like this every Saturday. Did you miss my last one about a Jackson Pollock a in a dumpster? Follow me if you don’t want to miss my next one. Stay creative.