At home with John Orton

John Orton popped up again the other day.

Not in the sense of skying one to the second baseman. Rather, I mean he resurfaced. Came to the top.

He doesn’t live with the rest of my baseball cards — he lives on countertops, or on the edges of bookshelves — and it’s common for him to just show up every so often, like a wild cat wandering from time to time into the yard of a farmhouse.

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I found him in the fall of 2018, or perhaps the spring of 2019; the circumstances would have been the same at either point.

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I was jogging in Walpole, Massachusetts, near the two-room apartment where I’d moved after taking a new job in Boston in September 2018. My wife and younger son were still in Pennsylvania, with plans to sell our house there and join me in New England after the school year ended.

Most of the time between September 2018 and June 2019, I was either on a train headed to or from the city for work, or on a highway driving to or from Pennsylvania so I could spend a weekend packing, cleaning, and reminding my family what I looked like. What little time was left was spent in the two-room apartment, which my younger son christened the Sad Dad Pad. (Perhaps sensing that this cut a little close to the bone, he renamed it the Dad Cave, which it remained.)

Back to the jog: I was probably looking down, gauging a bumpy and unfamiliar stretch of sidewalk, when I saw John Orton — 1991 Topps Stadium Club #591, to be precise. The Doug Drabek card from the same set was sitting nearby, in similar condition, and a shuffling of additional weather-worn cards were spread further out in the yard.

I didn’t feel comfortable going into some stranger’s yard to look at the other cards. But John Orton (and Doug Drabek, who vanishes from the narrative hereafter) was right next to the sidewalk. So I picked him up. If some little kid didn’t want the company of the former Angels backstop, I’d take it.

As it turned out, we had something in common. I was the New Guy In The Office, trying to prove myself, and so was he.

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It’s possible that John Orton and his comrades were lost, not intentionally thrown away. But I tend to think they were discarded. There were enough cards in the yard to make me think that any half-attentive owner would have noticed the absence of their bulk and volume if they’d been dropped by mistake.

No, instead, I figured some kid had bought a repack of cards, or had been gifted some old cards by a friendly uncle, and had decided to shed the ones he didn’t like — perhaps while walking from one house to another, flicking the wrist, the way one would casually discard the wrapper of a candy bar eaten in transit.

Some cards had blown farther from the sidewalk. Others had stayed where they fell. And a few went home with me — such as “home” was. I didn’t have a whole lot of counter space, but John Orton claimed some of it, wedged onto a sort of kitchen “eating bar” area where my computer lived.

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The move worked out in the end. All the usual hurdles and speed bumps presented themselves, but the rest of the family moved to Massachusetts and rejoined me under a new roof as planned, and the sale of the house in Pennsylvania closed a month or two later. (I breathe multiple sighs of thanks and relief each day that we tackled this maneuver in 2018-2019, and not a year later.)

I probably gave some thought to chucking John Orton as I cleaned out the Dad Cave — him being emblematic of a time now over, and all that. But I kept him. I’ve never been one to throw out cards, not even teams I don’t like or players I don’t care about.

I should probably think about filing him in the boxes and binders that house the rest of my cards. “John Orton finally finds a home” would be a nice sentimental conclusion, I suppose.

But for now he’s still an outside cat, so to speak, living on countertops and desktops, getting buried by paper ephemera and then coming up again with each new cleaning. I think he fits nicely in that role, to serve as an intermittent reminder to both of us to be thankful for how life has improved since the day we met.

My Favorite Common

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.

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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.

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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.