I threw away my baseball cards this week

by Mr. Sheehy

That’s an act I had to confess in the title – anything later would be an attempt to justify the act, because in waiting I would be hoping the leading sentence would soften the impact. It is too important, however, for me to delay and dress the action handsomely. I did it. I picked up four shoe boxes – two of them Kangaroos brand – and three “set boxes,” which are specially made to hold one season’s set of baseball cards, and I threw them into our large, green garbage can. That was Sunday, and tomorrow is Thursday, garbage day, so unless I wake up sweating and the repentant urge to remove our neighbors’ old banana peels and paper towels from the top of the pile overcomes me, the garbage truck will transport the majority of my baseball card collection to the landfill.

Some acts, a man is supposed to do himself. Steinbeck’s Candy, the old swamper in Of Mice and Men, articulates this best. After the ranch hands shoot his dog, he remorsefully declares that he should have shot the dog himself; it is a declaration about what a man should do – he should clean up his business himself, take care of his own problems in the most honorable and humane way, the way only he can. Thus George follows Candy’s advice with his best friend Lennie.

But Candy’s approach is not universally applicable. Some acts a man is not supposed to do himself. One of them is throwing baseball cards away. Baseball cards are supposed to be lost, or, preferably, thrown away in ignorance by a man’s mother. A man can stumble into no better situation than sitting with his friends at 40 years old and telling them how he once owned a Mickey Mantle rookie card, but his mom threw it away when she turned his bedroom into a guest room. It’s the sweet sorrow of Romeo and Juliet applied to sports-spectatorship. It’s the fish that got away, the MVP award he almost won.

You see, he didn’t need that baseball card. If his mom hadn’t thrown away the Mantle card, he would have carried the burden with him forever and passed it along to his children: he can’t sell it, and he can’t throw it away. Selling it would earn him a seat alongside Harry Frazee, the fool who sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees to finance a musical. His only option would be to frame it, but his wife doesn’t particularly want a baseball card displayed in the living room, so he desperately waits for a son, not because he doesn’t want a girl, but because he needs a temperature controlled room where he can hang his baseball card. And he would love to tell people about his card, but then this forces him into a dilemma: be a pompous fool and mention boldly to any man stepping beyond the threshold that he has a Mantle rookie card, or attempt to drag every guest into his son’s bedroom hoping they will observe the card displayed prominently but almost humbly on the wall. What is the fun in that?

But if he once had the card and it disappeared, he can brag as boldly as he would like. Then, he doesn’t even have to have had the card – he can have had any Mickey Mantle card and say it might have been the rookie card, but he didn’t know at the time and his mother robbed him the opportunity of financing his daughter’s education with a baseball card. He is free of the collector’s burden and as unrestrained as the fisherman who didn’t have a camera.

Unfortunately, of course, every story has a goat, and in this case the goat is Mom. Yet a man will not forever nurse anger over such an incident. For a time, certainly, he will, because he collected these cards so painstakingly, but eventually he will forget about the cards for such long stretches of time that the frustration will fade. And if opportunities periodically rekindle his tales of glorious cards lost, he will come to relish the memory of his cards more than he would if he had kept them. He won’t forgive Mom, because that is not permissible, just as it is impermissible for a Red Sox fan to forgive Bill Buckner. Such a fan cherishes the Buckner memory; by it, every Sox fan of the proper age co-owns one of the most memorable moments in baseball history. Buckner can’t be forgiven, because that would ruin the value of the moment – it would sap the sorrow that supposedly pierced the fan’s heart the moment the ball squibbled through Buckner’s legs. With no lasting bitterness, the moment fades in an historical perspective. Just the same, a man cannot forgive Mom for tossing the baseball card collection, because forgiveness signals the devaluation of the collection. If they were truly valuable, the tosser cannot be forgiven.

Which leads me to my present state. I am the tosser. I tried for years to get my mom to throw away my cards. I left them at home when I moved to college; I failed to get them when I married; I never looked for them when I returned home to visit. I even suggested that I wouldn’t be angry if she sold them in a yard sale. But she had heard the stories about the mothers who threw away Honus Wagner, and she was determined not to repeat their errors. She knew I might not forgive her, even though my most valuable card was a Keith Hernandez rookie card whose value has never topped $20.

Even worse is that my collection was never about money. It was about fancies and whims. My brother and I chose random pursuits in collections. For a stretch, I collected Mets cards – any player, any year, as long as the team was Mets. I hadn’t heard of most of them, but that was okay because they were cheap, so I could collect more of them. In 1987 we decided that we would try to collect a complete set of Topps cards, but instead of spending a hundred bucks to buy one, we bought packs of 20 cards and traded for them, amassing so many doubles that they took up two and a half boxes and still left us without a valuable card in the bunch. Cool pictures, guys with odd batting stances, players who played the same position as me – I’d fabricate a personal attachment to cards and then I’d collect them, because collecting was fun.

And then my mom got tricky. When she came to visit this summer she borrowed my car, and a month after she left I discovered a massive Rubbermaid container in my trunk – it was filled with stuff I didn’t want and she didn’t want to throw away. My baseball cards filled half the box. Now I’m almost 30, and collections of forgotten Mets and doubles of 1987 Topps cards are not a priority for my growing family. The boxes of cards sat behind a chair in the living room for two months as I hoped for some opportunity to give them all away – a young man willing to sift through them? A yard sale where we could sell them for two bucks? A collector who didn’t have a standard for mint-condition cards? All vain hopes – there were no opportunities, because the only value these cards possessed was sentimental.

And so, unlike Steinbeck’s Candy, I had searched the ranch for a hand willing to shoot my dog, but I found none. In a spasm of frustration, then, I dragged him out and shot him myself.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Some things a man is not supposed to do himself.