My love for baseball began with Return of the Jedi.
As a boy, my mom and I would visit Manhattan Drug, the nearby shop. It was 1983, and I was five. Taped to one of the windows was a picture I had recently colored for a contest, and somehow won: ten dollars, which I used as seed money by buying more crayons and a carrying case for them. The case quickly found its way into a drawer. It was the last time I was paid to make fine art.
Manhattan Drug was one of those shops with low ceilings, dirt-flecked tile floors and long narrow aisles lined with tightly-packed metal shelves. The store sold everything: socks, Whitman samplers, makeup, cassettes, and maybe some actual medicine. Each time everything was in a different place, according to my flawed kindergarten memory. We’d go in and I’d wander into the jungle, looking for treasure: the old childhood economics of picking a toy cheap enough to qualify as an impulse purchase, but interesting enough to occupy the ride home. In one forgotten corner lay a box of trading cards for my beloved Return of the Jedi, and my mom would throw in a couple extra quarters for a few packs.
The cards had bright red borders and grainy photographs of Luke and Han, mostly retelling key plot points, sometimes just promotional headshots of the actors in character. In an era before home video, those cards were my way of reliving the film. I kept them in order, and flipped through them, reciting the events that I didn’t have cards for yet. After a few months, and a dozen more visits to the drug store, we’d built enough of a collection to start thinking about compiling the complete set. We bought pack after pack, hunting for the last couple of cards I needed, cursing at yet another goddamned C-3PO.
But before we could, the cards weren’t there anymore. The movie was too old. I still have those cards, somehow still flecked with the scent of the bubblegum that stained the back, sitting in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups tin.
A couple of years later, 1985, I chose instead the brightly colored borders of Fleer baseball cards. I didn’t know the names yet; my parents hated sports and the games were rarely on television anyway. Instead I just searched for the bright yellow border of the Seattle Mariners. The team was full of fresh faces: Alvin Davis, Mark Langston, Jim Presley, Ken Phelps, Phil Bradley and Danny Tartabull were all rookies that year. Small heroes for a small kid. According to my checklists, marked with ballpoint pen, at one point I had a Kirby Puckett rookie card, but it was probably stepped on and discarded one groggy morning. I searched forever for it, combing through piles, never thinking (like any kid) to put them all neatly in one place.
Baseball cards were supposed to be a way to relive baseball the way that those Return of the Jedi cards were for the movie, but for me it was the other way around. Baseball cards made me love baseball. The tiny numbers on the back enthralled me; I loved statistics and used to track my own as I played one-player wiffleball in my gravel driveway. With card sets ranging from 660 to 792, the idea of completing a set was beyond both my imagination and means. Instead I sat with them in piles in front of the fireplace, sorting them by color, examining and ranking the poses, making fun of the pitch faces, reading the trivia on the back. I’ve always treated baseball the way I treated those cards, when I think about it: detached, amused.
I’m writing this on the last day of everything, the last day of NotGraphs and the season, and it seems funny to me that I ever wanted to finish that Jedi set. I don’t like endings, especially the end of good things. I finish books because I make myself do it, but it’s rare for me to find a book that I felt ended really well. Regarding television, I’m less disciplined: in ten years I’ve watched seven episodes of Firefly, because that way it’ll never end. Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthrone still alive in my unwatched DVDs of Yes, Minister. But you can’t escape conclusions: my cat’s fourteen, my daughter wants to do everything without help. It’s all so much. It’s why I make so many jokes about death; because I can’t really grasp or deal with the concept.
It’s also a reason why I rarely watch the World Series. As a Mariners fan, I never have to worry about the culmination, the letdown, the sense of any narrative arc whatsoever. Being a Mariners fan is a sort of immortality. So is writing, I’m told, though it feels more like the cobbling of a raft. But baseball especially: baseball really isn’t about anything or for anything. It just is. Any metaphor of it is a mockery of itself, which is fine as long as you don’t mind mockery. It’s unfocused energy, a literal way to pass the time, over and over, the same windups and the same batting stances and the same different scores rolling across the scoreboard. Baseball is Waiting for Godot only, you know… pleasant. Something to pull us out of the terrible future and into the present.
Until we run out of present. Infinity is terrifying, but so is the alternative. We all have our own way of escaping the finite, of expanding it: sports have developed the offseason, and the transition to fandom-of-management that prevents us from ever having to detach from the game. The Star Wars fans turned to novelizations, comic books, and fan fiction to perpetuate their universe of choice. Baseball card collectors turn to errors and variations, the 1990 Topps Frank Thomas and the 2006 Alex Gordon, to redefine their concept of “set completion.” The true collection, in sport, life and even baseball cards, is never done. The alternative is unthinkable.
I still have my 1985 Fleer cards, in the corner of my garage, relics of the Manhattan Drug that is now, according to Google Maps, a Starbucks. Those cards are shameless links to my childhood, the blissful irresponsibility I’ve had to slowly, begrudgingly release. I think the set’s about two-thirds complete. Every once in a while a new one will find its way into my possession, and I’ll add it in. Now, in the modern age, I could finish the set (or just buy a full one) for less than an hour’s worth of work, a couple clicks and a Paypal transaction.
But why rush? I still have time. Just enough time.