Looking back, the only truly useless piece of information on the backs of my childhood baseball cards was the name of the town where the player lived. It was the one tidbit of info that actually drove a wedge between young me and the player, the card, and the sport.
Sunland, Calif. Wayland, Mass. Spartanburg, S.C. Lilburn, Ga. Scottsdale, Ariz. Spring Hill, Fla.
These were either sun-soaked Southern and Western locales — the sorts of places where a man could take infield drills every day to stay sharp — or suburbs closely yoked to a big-league city where the player was employed. From time to time you’d also see towns in Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, which made sense, since that’s where those players came from.
To a kid in the eastern reaches of the Rust Belt, all these destinations seemed impossibly distant.
This was part of a larger pattern. With rare exceptions — anybody remember Dabney Coleman’s short-lived TV host, Buffalo Bill Bittinger? — the communities of western and central New York didn’t possess the sort of glamour that drew anyone’s attention. People didn’t sing about Syracuse on the radio or set movies in Rochester, and Binghamton was definitely not the cradle of shortstops. The region had its glories — apples, autumns, snow days — but mostly it felt like a gray smear from which you gazed out on more interesting locales … like the faraway places ballplayers lived.
I savored the occasional exception. I remember the flash of recognition, while watching The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh one Saturday afternoon, when one of the Pisces’ players let slip that he’d played his college ball at St. Bonaventure. And of course you’d sometimes pull cards that listed minor-league stops in Rochester or Oneonta or Batavia or Elmira — usually when the guy on the front of the card hadn’t gotten up to much at the big-league level.
I was 12 years old when this changed, in the spring of 1986, when I pulled card 514 out of a pack of Topps.
The front showed Royals pitcher Mike Jones against an improbably aqueous background that suggests, to my jaded adult eyes, the kind of low-budget day-for-night lighting celebrated on Mystery Science Theater 3000. (Either that, or the cover of Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky: It’s broad daylight where Jones is standing, but the dusk is falling on the bleachers behind him.)
But it was the back that counted, with its line of agate: “HOME: PENFIELD, N.Y.”
See, Mr. Jones and me, we shared a town. Not just a region — greater Rochester — but the very same town of about 30,000 souls. And there was its name, in black print on gray, just like all those distant California and Florida paradises where baseball players usually spent their offseasons.
The quiet suburb where I pledged allegiance to the wall, with its four elementary schools and its slushy bus stops and its sledding hills, had ascended to an elusive new level of reality. Penfield, New York, was Topps-certified.
Of course, just because Mike Jones lived somewhere within the same municipal boundaries didn’t mean I tracked him down for his autograph. It sometimes seems like boy baseball fans sort themselves into two groups — the hey-mister-sign-this screamers, and the please-don’t-hurt-me shrinking violets — and falling firmly into the latter camp, I made no effort to figure out where his house was. There were rumors that our school bus passed it on the way home each afternoon, but I never pursued that lead.
A few years later, during my high-school years, Jones pitched for the hometown Rochester Red Wings in an unsuccessful bid to return to the bigs. (Indeed, Jones’s big-league career was already over when I pulled his ’86 card.) I probably could have obtained his signature at the ballpark with a little persistence, but I didn’t go after it then, either.
It didn’t matter in the end. Nothing he wrote on the front would have been as noteworthy as what was already written on the back.