On the alluring promise of an unopened pack

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.

Author: Andrew Forbes

Author of The Only Way Is the Steady Way: Essays on Baseball, Ichiro, and How We Watch the Game. Also: The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays, and the short fiction collections What You Need, and Lands and Forests. Peterborough, Ontario.

11 thoughts on “On the alluring promise of an unopened pack”

  1. Andrew, you have tons more willpower than I do. The only way that hanger pack could remain unopened for me is if I had a senior moment and forgot I purchased it. Here’s hoping you find the Junior rookie!

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  2. Absolutely love the Memphis Milano comment on 1990 Donruss. It’s there in a few late-80s to early-90s cards (hello there 1988 Fleer) and I love being able to actually name the design philosophy that makes them look so dated.

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    1. I only recently discovered the name and philosophy behind that once- prevalent aesthetic. Before that I just thought of it as “stuff that looks like the opening of ‘Saved By the Bell’.”

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  3. I know that baseball cards started out as a premium for other goods (tobacco, candy, gum), so it makes sense that you didn’t know what you were getting as the “free” premium item. However, at some point the cards became the focus. That was certainly true in the 1980s (no one was buying Donruss for puzzle pieces or Fleer for stickers), and likely true in the 1950s when Topps and Bowman had all their disputes, although I think Topps was still claiming that they were selling gum and not cards in legal cases that would follow. Certainly everyone I’ve talked to who was a kid in the 1950s and 1960s mentioned that they bought the cards for the cards and not the gum; if they wanted just gum they would buy just gum. That’s just me trying to set the stage for the actual question.

    My question is whether baseball cards were one of the first items where people bought a good without knowing what was in it. And I don’t mean not knowing the quality of a specific item (if you bought a 1962 Oldsmobile it could be a peach or a lemon but you knew which specific model you were getting). Sure, they knew if they bought a pack of 1958 Topps it was going to have 1958 Topps cards, but they didn’t know exactly what was in it (there could be a Mantle or Mays, there may not be).

    In recent years it seems that there are many more items, certainly in the collectible world but not exclusively, that are sold in this manner. There are toys that are sold where you don’t know which figure you are getting until you open the box, and there are common, rare, super rare, etc. levels of figures. That seems like a natural extension. But services like Priceline sell various travel accommodations in this manner, and I also saw (pre-pandemic) services that sold trip destinations in that manner (you didn’t know where you were going). But does anyone know of goods (I know there are lotteries and raffles, but I’m thinking of goods for sale at a store) that were sold earlier than baseball card packs with the random element of not knowing exactly what you were getting?

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    1. I’m tempted to suggest that Exhibit/Arcade cards might be prior art here. Not *exactly* the same thing as a pack of cards but the vending machine model of paying 1¢ or 2¢ and getting a random photo of the athlete/cowboy/hollywood star/etc feels close enough to me. Still also part of the entirely-related larger world of trading cards and photo collecting too.

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      1. I thought about the Exhibit cards, as well as any other potential items like that. At the front of the grocery store, along with the gum and candy dispensers, there used to be the “vending machines” with little trinkets (stickers, little plastic figures, sports helmets, etc.) that cost a quarter or a dime, but I don’t know if those predated baseball card packs.

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