Every so often life assigns you a family: First at birth (when you meet the bozos who share your surname), again in college (when you're forcibly bunked with a stranger from Cincinnati) and again at marriage (when annexed by in-laws who suddenly call you "son"). In each case, you didn't choose these people, they certainly didn't choose you, but chance -- that sadistic matchmaker -- has thrown you together for life.
That's how I feel about my first pack of baseball cards, whose wax wrapper I strip-teased away with trembling hands in 1974 to reveal a pink tongue of gum and the deeply disappointing names -- Dick Ruthven, Skip Jutze, Joe Lahoud ? that still resonate for me, and me alone, 37 years later.
There was one star in that first pack of Topps -- the horizontal card of Steve Garvey, who I would come to think of as perpetually horizontal, a mental image abetted by Garvey's multiple paternity suits.
The gum, of course, was unchewable, but a powerful inhalant that remains in my nostrils to this day. Those first cards were a lesson in life's little disappointments -- lessons long overdue my 2-year-old son, who was living in a blissful bubble until Monday, when I drove him through a spring snowstorm to buy his first pack of baseball cards, nine names and faces that will lie scattered across his closet floor, seeping into his psyche even as he sleeps.
For this timeless act, we chose a timeless place -- the 60-year-old toy store in our town, all Slinky dogs and glowing yo-yos, a kind of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium with a box of baseball cards beckoning at the counter.
The boy reached in and churned his hand around, like a spokesmodel reaching for a lottery ball. And it was very much a lottery. Who would he get? He fatefully removed a foil pack of 2011 Topps, its wrapper displaying Robinson Cano in home run trot, raising our hopes with the promise of superstars. Like Cano, we were happily headed for home.
The truth is, the boy hadn't a clue what the packet was -- except that it was shiny. Which was enough. At home, he tore open the wrapper, revealing a sliver of face. The childbirth analogies were impossible to avoid. "Wazzat guy?" he said, pointing.
"That guy," I said, "is the newest member of your family." And so it was, his first baseball card: A 235-pound, 74-inch boy named Lyle Overbay. In our excitement (mostly mine), we didn't care that Overbay was in a Toronto uniform despite having signed with Pittsburgh over the winter.
No, this was a multiple birth, and there was little time to fret and coo over Lyle before card number two arrived. "Wazzat guy?" the boy said. As it happened, another first baseman. "Carlos Pena!" I said. "Of the Rays! Except -- " my voice sank an octave -- "he plays for the Cubs now."
I withheld my treatise on the mercenary nature of the major leagues and the hard-won right to free agency, and turned over Pena's already-obsolete card to recite the Fun Fact on the back: "No Major League player is a more avid reader than Carlos. 'When I'm in a bookstore, I think every book is talking to me,' he says. 'All of those great minds, all of those points of view.' "
And while the reading habits of many big-leaguers, in my experience, tend toward magazines -- upmarket autos, downmarket nudies -- at least one player will forever live in my son's mind as a voracious consumer of Western literature. (I still recall George Mitterwald's Fun Fact of 40 years ago: "George likes to take home movies.")
The next card was my son's Garvey -- his first horizontal All-Star. "Wazzat guy?" the boy said, and I answered: "Ichiro." The card bore the single name. Shorn of his Suzuki, Ichiro was going opposite field. Gorgeous.
Behind Ichiro, batting cleanup in this pack, was a horizontal card depicting a horizontal man: Cardinal second baseman Daniel Descalso is seen sliding, with an "RC" emblem embossed on the photo that I first took to mean "Roman Catholic". (He attended St. Francis High, run by brothers of the Holy Cross, in Mountain View, California.) On further reflection, it was probably "Rookie Card." Either way, the boy grabbed Descalso and tested his powers of flight. The card sailed across the room, sharp-cornered as a Chinese throwing star.
Speaking of throwing stars, next came Jason Marquis of the Nationals. Marquis is the best-known Jewish pitcher since Sandy Koufax, or at least Ken Holtzman, or possibly Steve Stone, knowledge I would pass on to the boy at another time, as he was busy at the moment having Ichiro and Pena head-butt one another in hand-to-hand combat.
The next card was a timeless Topps insert promising "a chance to win prizes (see back for details)." We drew it aside, as if a curtain, to reveal the card beyond it. Wait a minute: It's Carlos Pena! Again? The dreaded duplicate. The boy's first set of twins. I turned the card over like a summer steak: "No Major League player is a more avid reader than Carlos ..."
Only three cards remained. Of the six so far, 33 percent were named Carlos Pena. The pressure was building for a big finish, but when the boy next said, "Wazzat guy," I had to answer "Tyler Colvin," while trying very hard to make "Tyler Colvin" sound like "Henry Aaron."
Two cards left and I felt that sinking feeling -- "Is that all there is?" -- familiar from childhood. Don't get me wrong: I like Edgar Renteria as much as the next guy, but his was the fourth card -- out of eight -- on which the player was in his previous uniform, the Giants instead of the Reds. The boy, of course, wasn't bothered. In his hands, twin Carlos Penas were flying overhead, circling the tower of my office lamp, looking for clearance to land.
I turned Renteria over, hoping a Fun Fact might draw the boy back in. But the shortstop's career is now so long that there's no room for a fact. Indeed the font for his 15 seasons of statistical minutiae reads like the fine print in a pharmaceutical ad, all pinched and squeezed. If Renteria plays another season, Topps will have to issue two cards next year, with "To Be Continued" on the back of the first.
And so it came down to the final card, the last child. The boy slid away Renteria to reveal ...
Here I must ask a metaphysical question: Can an inanimate pack of baseball cards possibly have a knowledge of narrative, a flair for drama, a sense of scene-building? Probably not, but as God and my wife will attest, when Renteria stepped aside, the boy looked at the last card and yelled "Yes!"
My son has one baseball jersey and it matched the one on the card. He has a baseball cap that matched the player's batting helmet. Like a pro athlete, he speaks of himself exclusively in the third person. And so he said, while pointing at the batting helmet: "Tom have that!"
If he'd been hooked to a heart monitor, his readout would have been all mountain peaks. It was the last card in a pack randomly selected from a tiny toy shop in Connecticut, and I felt a bit like Charlie Bucket's grandpa singing "I've Got a Golden Ticket."
"Wazzat guy?" the boy said.
"That guy," I said, "is Joe Mauer."
I didn't say that some called him Baby Jesus, or that he used to date Miss USA, or that he featured on countless hometown billboards, on which The Joe is drinking chocolate milk beneath the caption "Tall, Dark & Wholesome." I just said, "He's from Minnesota."
Then I flipped the card to his Fun Fact, to the legend distilled: "Joe has always been a cut above. When he was just 4 years old, he hit the ball so hard he was asked to leave his tee-ball league. In high school, he struck out only once in his entire career."
Even after my son put the card down, some trace of it remained in the air. The sideburns and the eye black hung there like the Cheshire cat's smile, or a faint scent from long ago.