It’s nearly 11pm on a school night and we’re on our way home from the stadium. I haven’t heard anything from you for several minutes and I’m beginning to wonder if you have drifted off to sleep, the excitement of the day finally having caught up to you. But then you ask me, “What was your dad’s favorite baseball team?”
“The Orioles,” I tell you. “Just like me.”
“Wait. He liked the Orioles, too?”
“Yep. That’s the reason I became a fan. We didn’t have a major league team in Montana, so people usually just liked the teams that were good. And when my dad was a kid, the Orioles were really good. Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer. A lot of great players.”
You are quiet again, absorbing this new piece of information about your grandpa. After a few moments, I add, “I really wish you could have met him, buddy. He would have loved you, and he would have been really excited to see you fall in love with baseball this summer. He would have wanted to play catch with you in the backyard. He would have taken you out to buy baseball cards and watched you open the packs to see what players you got.”
“He would have loved Collector’s Heaven,” you add, referencing the local secondhand store that sells baseball cards, including overmarked packs of cards from the early 1990s. Relics of the ancient past to you.
“You’re right. He would have loved that place.”
Immediately, I’m transported to a warm summer day in 1991. My dad and I are sitting in the family car in the mall parking lot, A/C on full blast, opening a pack baseball cards.
Our family has taken a family vacation to a small city in northwest Montana. While my mom and sisters wander the mall in search of new clothes and other goods, my dad and I beeline for the only place that interests us: the baseball card store. In 1991, there are no Pokémon, no Beanie Babies, no Magic: The Gathering. Instead, what people are collecting are baseball cards, and seemingly every shopping mall has a store that specializes in them.
This store in Kalispell is small, maybe half the size of the Talkin’ Baseball store we frequent in my hometown of Billings. But as we look over the shelves and through the display cases, my dad notices that this store has something we haven’t seen at Talkin’ Baseball since I started collecting a few years ago. Unopened “wax packs” of 1982 Topps.
In the three years or so that we’ve been buying cards, my dad and I have both accumulated sizable collections. Complete sets of late 80’s Topps, Fleer, and Donruss. The fancy new Upper Deck set, including the prized Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card. Boxes of old cards from garage sales (sadly lacking any Mickey Mantle’s or other rare gems).
My friends and I bring cards to each other’s houses when we do sleepovers, and I trade away all my Kirby Puckett’s and Jose Canseco’s for Cal Ripken, Jr’s. I have amassed a small binder full of Cal Ripken, Jr. and other Orioles cards. No rookies, though. The baseball card companies flooded the market with product in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but cards from the early 80’s are harder to find. Especially since there is no ebay or Amazon to try to track down the cards you are after.
But here is our chance. The only problem is, the packs of cards were expensive. Not that my dad couldn’t afford to buy a few, but the price – maybe $10 or $12 at the time – is steep considering the only card of real value is the Cal Ripken, Jr. rookie card. My dad, recognizing the odds are against us, buys one pack of the 1982 Topps and several packs of the newer cards and we leave the store.
In the car with the A/C cranked up, my dad hands me the old pack first and says, “You open it.” I knew he would let me. Still, this feels like a significant honor that has been bestowed upon me. Reverently, but excitedly, I begin to peel back the edges from the pack.
“Now, get a Cal Ripken, Jr. rookie card,” my dad utters quietly, more as a way of willing it to the universe than saying it to me. I begin to shuffle through the cards, sliding each one to the back of the pile after I have read the player’s name.
I come to a card featuring three Orioles players. I realize that I don’t actually know what the rookie card looks like, and I am a little confused to see Cal Ripken, Jr. surrounded by two other players whose names I do not recognize with caption below reading, “Baltimore Orioles / Future Stars.”
“Like this?” I ask, with genuine uncertainty.
My dad studies the card for a minute. “Like that,” he says and a smile breaks across his face.
That was perhaps the most magical moment I ever shared with my dad: the odds of finding the card in the only pack we bought, and his incantation just before the card rose to the top of the pile. Even so, there were many other great memories I have with him around baseball. Seeing an Orioles game at Memorial Stadium. Him coaching me in little league. Opening packs together in the basement while the Orioles game played on TV. Camping under the Wyoming stars on a fishing trip with my grandpa in 1993, talking about what it would be like to have expansion teams join the league and planning a trip to watch the new Colorado Rockies one of the following years. Finding out I made an all-star team when I was 13. Watching Cal Ripken, Jr. break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak later that year, cheering together in the basement as he took a celebratory lap around the field mid-game and then capped it off by belting a home run to left.
There were many less-than-magical moments, too. Like getting beaned in a game when I was 12 and forever after being afraid to stay in the batting box. The MLB strike that same year that left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. The ever-struggling Orioles. My last year of Little Leagues, when my coaches lost confidence in my hitting and played me the bare minimum every game, often signaling for me to bunt even when the situation did not call for it.
My dad came into my room after one of the games toward the end of that season and asked my permission to talk to the coaches about it. I said no. I was embarrassed and too proud to let him interfere. But more than that, I was burnt out on baseball. After consuming most of my childhood, the magic was finally gone.
And then later my dad died.
And the steroid scandal put a black mark on the major leagues.
And the Orioles kept losing.
And baseball was pretty much a thing of the past for me.
I found some of the magic again briefly when the Orioles started to make a resurgence in the 2010s. When players like Adam Jones and Manny Machado and Chris Davis brought some life back to Baltimore. You were born in the middle of their ascendancy. I bought myself a new shirt and I bought you an Orioles onesie and “together” we cheered the team on as they swept the Detroit Tigers in the AL Division Series before being swept by the Royals in the ALCS.
Three years later, though, the O’s fell apart again, and began another slow rebuild of the organization. I wasn’t sure baseball had much of a role left to play in my life or yours.
You brought the magic back this year.
It started when I took you and your grandparents to an A’s – Orioles game in April. Expectations for both teams were extremely low. For the A’s, fan support was also at an all-time low, with many locals frustrated at the team’s constant selling-off of its top talent. The game we attended – the A’s home opener – was well under capacity, and many of the fans that showed up voiced their displeasure in one way or another (I was particularly amused by the person wearing a jersey with a player name reading “Trade Bait”).
You weren’t sure that you would enjoy the game, but you went to humor me and to score some cotton candy. They gave out yellow rally towels at the entrance, and mid-game you asked for a foam finger souvenir. The A’s scored four runs in the sixth inning, and you joined the resolute fans in cheering on the home team. Then, as I watched my O’s load up the bases in the top of the ninth, you began a frenzied screaming with the other 10,000 or so A’s fans, whip-whip-whipping the rally towel in my face, somewhat unintentionally (I hope). The A’s got out of the jam to win the game, and earned themselves a new fan in the process.
I didn’t expect that we would attend many other games this year, but as the summer went on, your love of baseball grew and grew. You wanted to play catch in the backyard every night, asking me to throw you pop flies and to call the plays as if I was an announcer. “Bottom of the 9th, two outs, and what’s this? Another pop fly to center field?! I don’t know why they keep hitting it there. This guy is catching everything!”
We made it across the bay for a couple of Giants games, sitting in the bleachers as the cool air swirled in off McCovey Cove. Your new light-up hat kept you warm, and a few overpriced beers did the same for me.
We went to a few more A’s games on a whim, as the ticket prices plunged to try to boost attendance. At one of these, a kind security guard tossed you your first MLB ball after the game. You then caught the attention of catching coach Dustin Hughes, who happily came over to the railing and gave you your first autograph.
More excitement and memorabilia followed as the season went on. I bought us close seats for a game against the Yankees. Rookie pitcher Jared Koenig signed another ball, and first baseman / outfield Seth Brown signed your hat. That night, we watched Aaron Judge hit his 49th home, on his way to 62 for the season. You told me later that Aaron Judge was your favorite player and that the Yankees were now your second favorite team after the A’s. I am still working on accepting these things.
Toward the end of the season, we went to an afternoon game in which the team retired Dave Stewart’s jersey. Heroes from my time – Mark McGwire, Dennis Eckersley, and Rickey Henderson, among others – were in attendance for the event. After the game you got to go onto the field and run the bases that so many of our heroes have run.
As we left the stadium, we happened to run into Rickey Henderson, who kindly signed a ball and gave you a high five. You know who Rickey Henderson is – you’ve memorized his single-season and career stolen base records – but you did not recognize him and hadn’t heard me call his name. So you weren’t sure who had signed your ball until after we parted ways. Once it dawned on you that you had high fived a hall-of-famer, though, you said you never wanted to wash your hands again, an idea I appreciated but vetoed.
And with that special moment, it became official: the magic of baseball had returned. You somehow brought it back.
The A’s were as bad as expected this year, but the O’s somehow caught some of magic of their own, becoming the first team in over a century to break .500 only a year after losing 110 games. They didn’t make the playoffs, but they were the last team eliminated in the American League, and the future looks bright in Baltimore for the first time in a while.
So, as we drive back late at night from tonight’s game against the Angels, where you got your final autograph of the season (from Angels RF Taylor Ward), I’m not only thinking about the past and about my dad. I’m also already thinking about next season.
I’m thinking we’ll head on down to the Coliseum when the O’s come to town, and probably a few more times, too. You’ll keep working on adding to your autograph collection and I’ll keep shelling out for souvenirs along the way.
I’m thinking we’ll talk some more about my dad. Maybe I’ll share with you the time that he took me to play baseball and threw me pitches. How I hit one out to center and started running the bases in celebration. How he surprised me by chasing down the ball and running faster than I’d ever seen him move to tag me out on my way to home plate.
I’m thinking you’ll ask as many questions of me as I did of him at your age. I’ll do my best to answer off the top of my head, but unlike him, I have the luxury of consulting Google when you ask me one that’s too tough for me to answer.
I’m thinking I’ll sign you up for little league, and cheer you on when you make a shoestring catch or hit a shot into the outfield. And I’ll be there to help you pick your head up when a grounder squirts past you, or when the ump calls a strike that missed the plate by a mile.
I’m thinking we’ll go to Collector’s Heaven and buy packs of cards, even overpriced, ancient ones from the 1990s. I’ll watch as you carefully open up them up in hopes of finding your favorite players or a valuable rookie card. And I’ll be touched every time you hand me an Oriole player to add to my collection.
I’m thinking we’ll play catch in the yard and I’ll try to throw you pop flies like my dad used to throw to me. Mine never seem to sail as high as his used to, but I’ll keep throwing them all the same. And you’ll keep catching them, even with the bases loaded and the game on the line.
I’m thinking we’ll just go ahead and enjoy the magic of baseball together as long as we can.
Thanks for bringing back some warm memories of your dad. As Yogi Berra said, “Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.”
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What an amazing flashback to the good old days of baseball! Evander will cherish this letter some day and it will give him the chance to really know your Dad & Grandpa even if he never shared those things with them. Time marches on but the bands are still the same. We love you two. Love, Lorraine & Larry
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