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Packed.

The Internet is full of people who write better than I do.

One of them is a young woman I know only by her Twitter handle, Cee Angi, who writes intelligently and sometimes touchingly on sports and other subjects on a couple of different websites.

The other day she wrote something that got a lot of people’s attention, including mine. She declared this the last year she buys Topps baseball cards, having spent much of her life collecting. (Click the link and go read what she had to say. Then come back to me. I’ll wait.)

I agree with a fair amount of what she has to say about the incompetence of Topps, which is now the official baseball card company of Major League Baseball.

In recent years, Topps has come up with ever more dopey and desperate ways to wave its arms and try to get noticed. It’s printed cards of players who don’t exist; airbrushed famous people at random into the backgrounds of other cards; and issued not one, but two, cards devoted to ballpark squirrels.

On top of that, it’s reanimated past card designs in a helter-skelter fashion and concocted a profusion of shiny, glittery or alternate-colored versions of its base cards.

1987 mini-repro Chase Utley. Attractive? Sure. Necessary? Not in the slightest.

The most important end result of all this, so far as I can tell, is that even the most industrious and earnest Little League shortstop in America can no longer assemble a truly complete card set through his/her own enterprise.

And yet, as much as I loathe Topps’ gimmicks, I still buy a couple of packs a year, and probably always will.

The reason is bittersweet, and requires some explanation.

As I drift toward 40, I find myself drifting away from the game I used to love. (“Drift” seems like the correct verb for both occurrences; neither is happening with much in the way of firm direction.)

Being a true fan of Major League Baseball seems more and more like an all-in proposition.

There’s a whole new set of statistics that didn’t exist when I was a kid, for instance. I am not a stick in the mud — I welcome these new perspectives; I like the idea of studying the game in new ways; and I recognize that the familiar stats of my youth often have holes big enough to drive a bullpen car through.

And yet, I have never quite managed to learn this new language — to comprehend these numbers and process them and make a comfortable place for them in my own mind. So when I see them being liberally tossed around on the Internet, it makes it seem more and more that today’s MLB is a cool party going on in the next room. This is nobody’s fault but mine, and maybe someday I will speak the language; but I don’t yet.

The Internet also brings us access to all kinds of new information and perspectives on the game, including comments from the players themselves. (I follow Cleveland Indians manager Manny Acta and several big-leaguers on Twitter.)

You might think that would bring fans closer; and for some, it surely does. But, again, a fan can only understand and learn from the information (s)he has time to read.

With kids, a job, a mortgage and other concerns, I no longer feel like I have the time to monitor all these news sources for every bit of the inside scoop. And it feels like discussion of the game is driven by those who do.

Skip Schumaker without his rodent buddy. This image is only here to break up all the damn text.

I check in on a few baseball blogs every day, and I enjoy doing it  — there are a lot of good ones.

Still, while I try to learn what I can, I often come away with a sense that I’ll never know this game the way others do … a sense of sitting on the 600 level looking down at the people sitting behind the dugouts.

Some of the best games I’ve seen in recent years have been at the college level, or in summer leagues for college-age players.

You don’t feel behind the times if you don’t know that the starting catcher broke a finger two nights ago, or that the numbers show that the sophomore center fielder should really be starting instead of the senior.

It’s more about the sounds and rhythms and familiar tactics of the sport … and I just sit back, on my blanket on the hillside, and watch the wheels go ’round and ’round.

Anyway: As I grow more estranged from MLB, baseball cards help keep me tethered, at least a little bit.

The experience of opening a pack is one aspect of baseball fandom that hasn’t changed since 1980. The teams and the players and the styles change, but picking carefully through a small pile of cards feels much the same as it did when I lived and breathed baseball.

Baseball cards serve as an educational tool for me, too.

For instance, I had no idea Ryan Hanigan even existed until today. I mean, I knew somebody had to be the Cincinnati Reds’ backup catcher since Dave Van Gorder, Alan Knicely and Dann Bilardello had left and gone away. But I had no idea who the incumbent was.

Every year I learn about a couple of players I wasn’t familiar with by getting their cards. And when I watch baseball on the tube, I’m usually a little more interested if I see one of these guys playing, which draws me into the game a little bit.

As for the quality of the cards themselves, I’m divided. Some of the pictures are indeed kinda ropey — Dee Gordon’s card, to cite one, shows as much of Chipper Jones as it does of Dee Gordon. (Gordon is turning the double play, Jones is coming in to break it up.)

And many of the pitchers’ faces are reamed with lines of strain, much more than I remember from my childhood cards.

I don’t know if Topps used to airbrush out some of the more visible stress lines from pitchers’ faces, or whether they used to steer away from moment-of-pitch pictures, or whether this is just a trick of memory. But on their 2012 Topps cards, the likes of Chris Schwinden, Alexi Ogando and Liam Hendriks truly seem to be taking part in an occupation that will leave them with limited use of one of their arms for the rest of their lives.

Having fun, Liam?

In other ways, today’s cards resemble the cardboard of my childhood. The player blurbs are goofier and less reverent than they used to be, but there’s still pleasure in reading between the lines and deciphering what they don’t say. (Remember how “versatile player” really meant “not good enough to start anywhere,” and “promising fireballer” was code for “young hothead who can’t throw strikes”?)

For instance, Hanigan’s blurb mentions that he hit three homers in three games last August. But you have to scan up to his statistical line to find out that that three-day power binge accounted for half the homers he hit over the course of the entire year.

As for the fronts of the cards, some of the pictures are lame — but others are marvelous. Take the combination of a retro jersey and a classic pose on Indians outfielder Michael Brantley’s card. Squint a little bit, and it’s easy to imagine he’s taking Mel Stottlemyre deep:

Another card I love (and another horizontal layout, for what that’s worth) shows Twins outfielder Ben Revere in a similarly great pose. Get rid of the Oakleys and the hideous pajama-bottom pants, and Revere could be making a running catch to bail Mudcat Grant out of a tricky inning:

Those two cards about sum it up, I guess. To me, there’s still enough substance in Topps cards to make a few packs a year worth buying. They connect me — perhaps not in a strong way, but in a way I can feel — to the game being played on the field in 2012. They make me excited again, just a tiny bit, about a game whose grip on me is otherwise slackening.

Will it last forever? Maybe not.

But just as a bunch of really bad “Peanuts” specials didn’t kill my fondness for Charlie Brown, a bunch of gimmicky jerk-moves by Topps haven’t killed the small pleasures in tapping out a fresh batch of cards and leafing through them with my fingers.

(If Topps in 1970 had been what it is today, we would almost certainly have gotten limited-edition foil-fronted Joe Shlabotnik cards. Perhaps I should stop writing before I give them any ideas.)

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2 responses »

  1. I’m glad your passing passion (is that possible?) hasn’t been dulled too much by Topps’ constant tinkering. My biggest complaints have been that the card quality themselves — as in the stock — seems to have gone down in recent years. It’s flimsy. It doesn’t feel as weighty as it should. And the gimmicks just get tiring.

    Beyond that, I still try to get all the Red Sox from a given year, and add them to my album, which has become less a collection of investments as it is just a scrapbook of the players themselves.

    Reply
  2. I could not tell you the last time I bought a pack of baseball cards. I can’t even hazard a guess. A decade at least. I’ve received some as gifts, but I just kind of drifted away from the idea of them at some point. Can’t say as I miss it much either, though I wouldn’t pin the blame on Topps or anyone else.

    I certainly understand where you’re coming from on the statistical front … I suspect our feelings are basically the same. The sort of advanced math that’s flying around might be indispensable for building a team, and I’m glad it’s there, but I’m also glad to watch the game without having to think about it. That’s not why I care about baseball. If it makes me a simpleton, so be it.

    Reply

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