It’s early August, 1988. Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It” is holding down the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts, thanks to regular airplay on New York’s Z100 and countless other radio stations across America. Tom Cruise maintains the right mix atop the box office rankings in “Cocktail.” A gallon of gas costs about 90 cents, but that doesn’t matter to me – seventh graders can’t drive. Milk costs $2.19 a gallon, but again, I’m a month away from turning 12; I don’t control the family purse strings.
What I do control is my pursuit of the 1988 Topps set, and as I’m sorting my collection one more time before my family heads off for our annual vacation in Maine, I find there’s only one more card I need: No. 39, Gerald Perry, Atlanta Braves.
I’d been collecting cards casually since 1985, the year I went to my first two Mets games, and increased how much of my allowance went toward 40-cent wax packs in ’86 as the Mets bludgeoned the National League. In 1987, I really ramped up my trips downtown to the Family Pharmacy (still there! Despite a CVS and Walgreens also within a ballpark’s footprint of one another) to buy packs of Topps’ wood-grained design, though I fell short of the complete 792 before the boxes faded from shelves.
So in ’88, I was determined collect the whole set. I’d save up my allowance and money from sweeping a neighbor’s patio and wrap-around porch and purchase a box at a time: 36 packs at 40 cents each, plus tax, came out to $15.26.
It’s a bit unfortunate that the ’88 set is the first one I set out to complete, because I find it the least visually appealing of the late-’80s Topps sets. Though I hadn’t really gotten into the hobby in ’84, I possessed a few of those cards with team names in colorful block letters down the left side, a main action photo of the player and the inset headshot. The ’85 issue featured those bold colors on the lower fifth of the card: the team name in a diagonal box above the player’s name, mostly in team hues. The 1986 set wasn’t that much more appealing, but it did feature the team name in a Napoli Serial Heavy font at the top (and was the set available for purchase throughout that championship season for the Mets). The greatness of the ’87 set and its suburban-basement paneling has been discussed on this blog before.
But the ’88 design is … OK? There are elements of some of those previous sets in it. The team name across the top is a cousin of the ’84 block font presented horizontally instead of vertically. The player name in a diagonal banner harkens back to the placement of the team ID in ’85, which was also the last year before ’88 with an all-white border. The most notable thing about the design may be Topps’ decision to go back to spelling out “Athletics,” after three years of using “A’s.” This prompted my friend Joe to ask one day, “Hey, did you see there’s a new baseball team? The Athletics?” He was always more of a football guy.
So as I’m packing for our vacation, the Mets are a few games up on the Pirates in the NL East and clear of the Dodgers overall in the NL, thanks to a 5-1 head-to-head record thus far. If things hold and the Mets maintain their success against the Dodgers when they meet in the NLCS, a second World Series berth in three seasons is looking promising!
But one of the toughest parts about the trips to Maine – a place I always loved to visit, and still do – was losing such easy access to baseball. My relatives in Vacationland didn’t have cable, and it’s not like we would’ve spent our evenings watching Red Sox games or stayed inside on Saturday for the national game of the week. There were woods to explore, rivers to plunge into, lighthouses to visit. L.L. Bean is open 24 hours! Only at night could I get my fix, delighted to find that the radio could pick up the Mets on WFAN all the way from New York, and I’d fall asleep to Bob Murphy’s play-by-play or Howie Rose taking calls on the postgame show.
Before this trip, I gave my friend Will the status of my pursuit. He had already completed his ’88 set, so I asked him to keep an eye out for that Gerald Perry card so we could trade and I’d be able to fill in that last box on the duplicate checklist card. Our outings in Maine didn’t usually give me an opportunity to look for cards – souvenir shops aren’t inclined to stock wax packs – so my search was on hold. (One exception came the following summer, when I saw a newspaper ad for a baseball card show in Augusta and got my dad to drop me off for an hour. I came away with a 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. card.)
A week later, after the long drive home down I-95, I was the first one to step inside our back door. And there, on the beige-blocked linoleum floor of the kitchen, lay this 3 ½ by 2 ½ piece of cardboard depicting Gerald Perry manning first base for the Atlanta Braves.
In hindsight, it’s appropriate that Perry was the final piece to my ’88 Topps puzzle. He had the best full season of his career in 1988, posting a 109 OPS+ and making his only All-Star team (0-for-1, F7). But nothing he did on the field stayed with me – to this day, whenever I flip past any Gerald Perry card, I think back to this 1988 Topps, No. 39, the last one I needed to complete the set. Until looking up his career just now, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you which of his 13 seasons was his best or that he played until 1995 or that he spent one season in Kansas City and five in St. Louis.
He’ll always be the first baseman in that grey Atlanta road uniform, manning his position on a sun-splashed afternoon, waiting for me to open the door at the end of our annual summer vacation.