Friday, September 9, 2011

Wave of the Future

For some collectors, it's a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card. For others, it's the T-206 Honus Wagner. Maybe for you it's the oft-counterfeited but just as classic 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan. Or the infamous Billy Ripken card with the curse word on it.

All rare, valuable, and in the case of that last one, esoteric to say the least.

But you can have all of those, I say, because my tastes run a bit different when it comes to baseball cards and collecting. Or, more appropriately, they ran a bit different when it came to those things.

Let me explain.

Growing up for me was baseball, baseball, and more baseball. Especially by the time I was in middle school, somewhere around 10 or 11 years old, baseball had become my life and my love.

I played it as often as possible--both on organized teams in leagues and out in the backyard with friends--and I watched it on TV devoutly. Back then, you could only really expect to get the local teams, but that was fine with me.

I went with my cousin and my dad and my uncle to Yankees games a couple of times every summer at the Old Stadium. Down the third baseline, about a dozen rows back, a bag of peanuts in my hands, and we were kings.

My love of the game was just entering its prime years. My bedsheets had Yankees pinstripes, and my bedroom walls were adorned with posters and autographs of favorite players from both my dad's generation and my own.

I remember buying plaques at a local mall one hot summer day--one featured a Don Mattingly autograph, the other a Mickey Mantle. The plaques had photos of the players and were made of hand-carved wood and featured a mini bat and a baseball in a case.

To this day I have no idea if the autographs are real, but the elderly man who ran the booth--and made the plaques--in the center of the mall was very nice to me and my mom and we decided to trust him.

But we're getting off topic a bit here. Back to baseball cards, and Mike Piazza.

Despite the fact that Mike Piazza was a star player for another team--he was Rookie of the Year for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1993 and would go on to hit more home runs than any other catcher in history--he was my favorite player not named Don Mattingly.

This was strange for me.

I'd never rooted for a player who didn't wear Yankees pinstripes before, but a power hitting catcher (my position) who beat the odds and made it to the Big Leagues despite being drafted (by his uncle, Tommy Lasorda) as a favor? And he was Italian?

How could I not root for him?

And so Mike Piazza became my second favorite player, behind the one and only Yankees first baseman and captain, Don Mattingly.

By this point, I had plenty of Mattingly collectibles--action figures (remember Starting Lineups??), cards, even the above mentioned autograph. I needed to shift my collecting attention to this Piazza guy.

Before I get into that, though, let's back up just a moment.

Now don't get me wrong. I wouldn't say no if you handed me any of those cards that I mentioned way up above in this post, but my Greatest Collecting Challenge didn't revolve around the most famous, or the most rare, or the most expensive card out there.

For me, it was and, I suppose, it's always been, the 1993 Flair Wave of the Future Mike Piazza.
Sure, it may not have the simple elegance of the Mantle card, or the historic significance of the Wagner or Jordan, but to me, for an entire summer at least, getting my hands on that weirdly designed blue card was all that mattered.

Flair was a relatively new product in the exploding world of baseball cards--the 90s saw the number of companies and series grow exponentially from the previous decade. Baseball cards were big, big business, and card shops (and comics shops) dotted the landscape of most towns in America.

Baseball cards, especially, were just at the beginning of a boom.

"Insert" cards--rare, limited number single cards randomly inserted in packs at sometimes incredibly tough odds (like, say, 1 in every 500 packs)--were the biggest craze, and opening packs of cards was, quite literally, a treasure hunt.

Flair's product was new and shiny, and their regular cards were high-end, glossy, and quite nice to look at. Pack prices were higher than a normal set, such as the baseline Topps set, and collectors really dug the new brand.

The big insert in that set was the Wave of the Future line, featuring young players (mostly rookies) who looked to make an impact in the Big Leagues.

When I found out that Piazza was in the set, I knew I had to have it. And so the chase began. I'd go with my dad to card shop after card shop--and back then, there were four just in my hometown--searching for that Piazza.

There was the easy way to do this, and then there was the hard way.

Most stores back then (and now, actually) opened packs of cards and if they were lucky enough to get something good, they'd sell it for a premium in one of several fancy display cases. If a store owner pulled a Piazza Wave card, that would assuredly be in his or her case.

Of course, that was just not meant to be.

Store after store had Wave cards, but never the Piazza. So before leaving each place, I'd buy a pack (or three) of Flair cards, hoping to pull that beautiful blue card.

I must have bought a hundred packs that summer. I was able to nearly complete the entire regular set, I had amassed an impressive number of inserts, and I swear I had every Wave card except for the Piazza.

I could always tell if the pack had a Wave in it, too.

The unmistakable blue and white poked out of the pack, like a beacon calling me home. When the pack had a Wave, I'd be sure to save it for last and unveil it after I'd rifled through the rest of the pack.

You know, for the drama.

Of course, each of these little displays of wishful thinking ended in disappointment, as I never managed to pull a single Piazza Wave card from a pack.

This went on all summer. Seriously. Four months of this. My poor parents; I'd drag them to card stores and make any excuse in the world to just pass by a shop, pop in, and grab a pack.

My dad got pretty into it, though, I have to say.

On the ride home, he'd always keep an eye on me as I carefully ripped the wrapper and dove into the pack. At one point, he even bought me a box of Flair--probably two dozen packs--which was not cheap.

Still no Piazza.

As summer winded down (as summers tend to do), my own baseball season was coming to a quick close. One night after a game, my dad was driving a couple of my teammates home and we all got to talking.

It's funny. During the entire season--that whole spring and summer--I'd never mentioned my (insane) Piazza chase to anyone. And then, for whatever reason, our center fielder mentioned that he collects cards and that he had a few Piazzas he thought I'd want to take a look at and possibly trade him for.

I said sure, and half-heartedly asked if one of those Piazzas happened to be a Wave of the Future. I knew the answer already, so I just stared out the window as he said, "Yeah, I've got one of those. You want it?"

My dad hit the brakes.

Not fully, not dangerously, mind you, but he instinctively hit the brakes when my buddy said this. We were both shocked. Dumbfounded. Gobstopped. One more appropriate synonym.

I don't even remember what card it was that I traded the Piazza for. It didn't matter. It could have been a 1952 Mantle, or an '86 Jordan, or my kidney.

When we made the trade the next day at the ballpark and I held that Wave card in my hand, it was the culmination of a 4-month quest. And, when you're 10 years old, 4 months is a long, long time.

But as my favorite stories always do, this one ended well and I had my card.

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