I took the kids out the other day to hit some balls. It’s been a bit of a frustrating summer in terms of weather—stifling humidity, or thunderstorms with leveling winds and torrential downpours—but we hit a sweet stretch of sunny, high-skied days, so we grabbed one by the lapels and the four of us headed out shortly after breakfast. We had four gloves, nine balls, and four bats: two aluminum, my old ash Slugger with Junior’s signature burned into it, and a bamboo Mizuno I picked up this spring. We had one batting helmet to pass between us. We also found a half-finished pouch of Big League Chew in the bottom of the old gym bag we use to carry our stuff. All signs pointed to this being a good day.
We do this pretty often. In this house taking the kids to a diamond to play catch, field grounders, shag flies, and thwack balls on hot summer days is as non-negotiable an aspect of the season as eating fresh cherries, sleeping with the windows open, and canoeing across smooth water to take a cooling dip in the buggy, violet dusk.
On this particular day I was wearing a Pirates tee with the old grinning pirate logo—the one that looks like a lobby card for a swashbuckler starring Dean Martin—and my son’s cast off Peterborough Tigers house league cap, mesh and adjustable, which he abandoned the moment he made the rep team, whereupon I swooped in to claim it. I finished off the ensemble with cut-off Levi’s and a pair of shabby running shoes. The kids all pretty much follow my sartorial lead, though given that they’re fifteen (my daughter) and eleven (her twin brothers), it doesn’t read for them like the cry for help it probably is for me. Among the hard lessons of adulthood is that what plays when you’re a kid doesn’t necessarily retain its currency as you age. I still haven’t fully internalized that one, as evidenced by my eBay search history.
We drove to a nearby diamond hemmed by a pair of busy roads and a construction site. A crane towered over centerfield. But the outfield grass was a thick, brilliant green—all that rain—and the freshly-raked dirt of the infield promised true bounces. Taking the first step onto that groomed and untrodden earth felt a lot like tearing open a brand new pack of cards. Maybe that’s why I hesitated.
Unopened packs are some powerful stuff, psychically, spiritually, precisely because you just don’t know what’s inside. I mean, you know what’s inside in broad terms—the packaging tells you, if it’s doing its job. But the specifics elude you, and that’s when the imagination takes over, making room for hope and anticipation. The box of 2021 Topps Series 2 that sits on my shelf tantalizes by virtue of its newness and the possibilities it represents, and that’s why, though I love opening cards with my kids, taking turns drafting until all the cards are gone, I also relish holding off on even telling them that I’ve picked up a new box or pack. Part of that is the joy of surprise, but the bulk of it is that hope, ephemeral and addictive. Maybe Tatis, Jr. waits to be taken, or Soto. There might be an Ohtani. There might even be a Vlad, Jr. In our house, that’d be the first card chosen. We’re a little crazy about Vlad.
Less exciting for the kids, by virtue of simple math, is the hanger pack of 1990 Donruss that I’ve been holding on to for a couple of years. It’s funny that I should be so reverent of that set, which I collected, but did not love, in its year of issue, with its funky and immodest Memphis Milano design cues, and the fact that I was at the time primarily obsessed with Upper Deck’s offerings. But I found this cellophaned relic in a junk shop a few years ago, where it was underpriced, sitting next to NASCAR models and board games marked “MISSING PIECES,” so I brought it home, and it has rested within arm’s reach of my desk ever since, waiting for a day that seemed to beckon toward the finality of tearing open its brittle envelope and revealing its contents.
That those contents might underwhelm is both a statistical probability and a compelling argument for leaving the packaging untroubled, and the mystery it cradles intact. Already there are indications that the cache could disappoint; the three cards visible through the clear wrapper are Jose Uribe (SFG), Clint Zavaras (SEA), and Brian Holton (BAL). I mean no disrespect to any of those men, but short of family has anyone ever longed to see those names when they crack open a fresh pack? You’re looking for Griffey, Bo Jackson, Barry Bonds, a Larry Walker rookie card, not commons and filler.
Hope for one outcome and the suspicion that another is all that awaits; this is the fine tension that fuels the excitement of an unopened pack of baseball cards. The only thing preserving this delicate balance is the packaging, be it waxed paper sealed with glue, a foil pouch, rectilinear cardboard, or clear plastic. Once breached, the mystery—and the promise—evaporates. Maybe Vladdy’s in there, maybe he isn’t, but knowing he is, or knowing he isn’t, isn’t as interesting as not knowing that he is, or isn’t. Ignorance is bliss, while hope is divine.
The kids didn’t hesitate to step onto the dirt, of course. Theirs were the first footprints on the unspoiled infield. They charged ahead and I followed, and we lay all our stuff at the foot of the chain-link backstop. We put on our gloves and started tossing a ball around. When the ball hit the dirt it left round impact craters and, from rollers, long runnels like sandworm tracks. Before long we’d collaborated on an original work, an abstract in dirt, a study in forms.
Then the bats came out. I walked to the mound and lay down a cluster of balls, most of which were worn and scuffed—last year’s crop, from the box I ordered to give us something to replace all the balls we were losing over the backyard fence during early pandemic games of catch. Of that batch of a dozen there are now six left untouched, gleaming and beautiful in their box, other iterations of promise, threats of diminishment. On this day I brought two of those fresh pearls, smooth and white, because there’s nothing like hitting a new ball. My son stepped in, waggled his bat, and I began serving up fat cookies right over the heart of the plate, which he hacked and whacked all over the field, leaving more craters and lines. His siblings fielded the balls and tossed them back in.
The kids took turns at bat and sullied the new balls, and it was glorious. Dribblers, stingers, high pop flies. The orbs picked up grass, dirt, scratches in their soft hides. They’re still brighter than the other balls, but a little less clean, and in time they’ll show evidence of heavy use, which is as it should be. An unused baseball is, I think, a tiny crime against the universe.
The cards, too, will eventually be opened. Let’s face it, I lack the willpower to hold out forever. The balance will tilt until it overwhelms me, and I’ll succumb to a moment of high-grade hope, and maybe there will be a gem or two buried within. Vlad, or Larry Walker, or Andre Dawson. And if no superstar appears, no Hall of Famer, or member of the Hall of Very Good—or even the Annex of Guys Who You Know Aren’t Very Good, But You Root For Them Anyway—the disappointment will dissolve nearly as soon as it sets in. There are no real stakes in this, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it.