I was five years old living outside of Atlanta, Georgia, when I started collecting Topps baseball cards -50 cents a pack with a piece of rock-hard, chewing gum packaged inside. I cut my cheeks once a week. The packs had about twenty cards apiece and each was filled with a random assortment of players. I was as likely to get Roger Clemens, as I was to get Ron Gant. In seven weeks, I ended up with eight John Smoltz and one Randy Johnson. A good card was random at best and truly, only valued years after the fact. Of course at five, I didn’t know that.
* * *
When I was six, my parent’s rented out the back room of the card shop for my birthday party. It was ten children and myself playing “strike the batter” in hopes of winning special prizes. The prizes were baseball cards. I was ecstatic, until the day passed and I hadn’t struck the batter once. The old man who ran the shop gave me a “birthday boy” Steve Sax card encased in a protective clear plastic case. When I got home, Mom gave me an empty shoebox to store my ever-growing collection of cards. I placed Steve Sax inside.
* * *
I was seven when I stopped buying assorted packs of Topps, moving onto more selective purchases. I made 4 dollars every other week for dusting the house, my chore. My brother, Josh, vacuumed. My sister, Jess, cleaned the bathroom. I saved for a month. Dad and I went to the card shop, 8 dollars in my Velcro wallet.
“What should I buy?” I asked him.
“Cards,” he joked.
“Get a team set,” the old man who ran the shop offered. “You get more cards, and you know who you’re buying.”
I tore the two sides of my Velcro wallet apart. I held out my 8 dollars. “What team can I get?”
The old man looked at the money in my hand. “Not much for 8 dollars. You could get the Atlanta Braves or the Minnesota Twins.”
“Maybe you should save more,” Dad said. “If you held off for another month you could probably buy the Red Sox. Three more and you could have the Yankees. The Braves and Twins are both last in their leagues. Get a worthwhile team. Don’t waste your money.”
“I’ll take the Braves,” I said.
“8 dollars,” The old man responded. He winked and said conspiratorially, “Every team is worthwhile.”
I handed him the money. He handed me a set of cards wrapped in a thin plastic sheath, a top flap taped to the back. A small white sticker stuck to the top right. A dollar sign followed by a hand written 10. When we got home, I put the cards on top of Steve Sax in my shoebox.
* * *
It was my eighth birthday when Dad took my brother, myself, and a white, shopping bag to an Atlanta Braves game.
We sat on the first base side of the stands about sixty rows from the field. From our seats, the players looked nothing like their cards. They were blurs of white and red with blue heads.
“I hope John Smoltz is pitching today,” I said to Dad.
“He might be.”
“Think Ron Gant will hit a homerun?” I asked.
Dad smiled. “Hopefully he’ll at least foul.” He reached into the white bag at his feet. Dad pulled out an Atlanta Braves baseball cap and a brown baseball glove. “Happy Birthday, Jimmy.”
The game started. Steve Avery pitched. I cheered for the worst team in the league.
They won. The final score was 3 to 2.
“I knew they’d win,” I said.
Dad laughed. “Even a fart can smell nice, occasionally.”
“You should still pick a better team to cheer for,” my brother said. “Why not the Yankees? They’re in first.”
* * *
I was nine when I saved my allowance for three months. I spent 24 dollars on Tom Glavine, the newest Braves pitcher. He won thirty starts out of forty. The old man who ran the card shop smiled.
“Topps to teams to players,” he chuckled. “You’re growin’ up.”
When we got home, I took Steve Sax out of his plastic case. Tom Glavine was protected instead. I put him in my shoebox, next to my Braves set.
“I bet he is going to be an MVP this year,” I said to Dad.
“I doubt any Brave will ever be an MVP,” he responded. “Come on, Jimbo, let’s get on home.”
“They could be the best,” I said. “They can’t be last forever.”
Dad laughed. “Come on, we’ll pick up some baseballs on the way home. We’ll practice your batting until supper, my little optimist.”
“Can I throw some pitches?”
* * *
I was ten when I joined my town’s Farm Level Baseball League. I hadn’t made the cut for Little League. I practiced pitching an hour every night with my Braves cap pulled low over my eyes. Dad was my catcher.
“You got some heat in that arm,” Dad told me. “You been lighting matches in your arm pits?”
“Dad,” I said. “That’s stupid.”
“Just saying, maybe I need to clear some space on the mantel for some new trophies.”
After practice, we went inside. The television was free. I searched for a Braves game. It was an off night. T.V. Guide said they were playing in Seattle tomorrow, Glavine pitching. Tomorrow, I would study his technique. He was a top ranked pitcher on the worst team in the national league.
Tonight, I thumbed through my set of the Atlanta braves. I ended on Tom Glavine in his plastic case.
* * *
When I was eleven, I won my first game as starting pitcher. I had two strikeouts and three walks. Dad cheered the whole game.
“Let’s celebrate,” he said when the last out was caught. “What’s my guy say to ice cream?”
“Well, come on.”
We climbed into our Maroon Minivan and started driving.
“Dad, we passed Val’s Ice Cream.”
“I’ve got a surprise before the ice cream.”
We drove for twenty minutes down streets I had never seen. It was a residential section of town with trees passing between our minivan and row after row of houses. They were beautiful places, each successive residence nicer than the last. Every block added a new architectural trick. We started at cookie cutter constructions. Three blocks later, there were balconies on the front of each residence. Four more blocks and white picket fences sprinted rectangles around each plot of land. The trees started as pines, by the time we reached the first house with columns, they were white birch, beautiful and flaking.
Dad stopped the car outside of a house five times the size of ours.
“See that?” Dad asked.
“Do you know what that is?”
I shook my head.
“Tom Glavine’s house.”
I stared at the house, encased in a picket fence, four columns standing guard over the white, double doorway.
“Can we go to the card shop tomorrow?”
* * *
I was twelve when the impossible happened. The Atlanta Braves were in the World Series. They were playing the Minnesota twins in a seven game championship titled, “The Cinderella Series.” Somehow the two worst teams in their respective leagues were playing for a chance to be the best in the country.
The first game of the World Series was played on the last day of Farm league. I was the starting pitcher, Mom and Dad were both there.
Dad had made a cardboard cutout for the occasion. It was a picture of Tom Glavine blown up to full size. He was in the middle of a pitch, arms tucked into ribs, left knee pointing to the heavens above. The face wasn’t Tom Glavine’s, though. It was mine. Blown up to his proportions and glued onto the cardboard cutout.
I let three homeruns up before the coach pulled me out of the game. We lost an inning later. I walked to Mom and Dad. The three of us walked Tom Glavine to the minivan. All four of us climbed inside; Mom and Dad up front, Glavine beside me.
“Let’s go to the stadium,” Dad said.
“We’ll get hotdogs for dinner outside Turner Field. Maybe a homerun’ll come over the wall. Got your mitt ready, Jimmy?”
I was wearing my uniform, my Braves cap on my head.
“Ok,” I said.
“We’ll pick up your brother and sister from the house, then we’ll go.”
We were at the stadium an hour later. We parked a mile away then walked as a family to the Turner Field gates. Vendors were sprawled in every direction, “Get your official World Series Shirts,” “Beer,” “Official baseballs! Mini bats! Autographed pitures!”
“Can we get one?” I asked Dad.
“It’s a hoax, son. Let’s get a hotdog instead. That’s truth.”
“This is stupid.” My brother said. “Can we please go?”
“Josh is right. This is stupid,” my sister agreed. “It smells funny here.”
“It smells like baseball,” I said.
“How ‘bout we walk through the city?” my sister offered.
“A-bout the city, Jess. Use proper English,” Mom replied.
“Jane,” Dad said. “How about you take Jess and Josh out for a bit? Jimmy and I’ll stay here.”
“For the whole game?” Mom asked. “That could be four, five, six hours.”
“Just for a little bit,” Dad said. “Not the whole game.”
“Come on, Mom” Jess said, “we’ll go shopping.”
“I don’t want to go shopping,” Josh blurted out.
“Come on,” Mom said. The three of them walked away.
I looked to the stadium.
“They’ll win,” I said.
“You’ve been saying that for years,” Dad responded.
A week later, the Minnesota Twins had won the series, a clean sweep.
* * *
I was thirteen the last time I went to the card shop. I walked inside, Dad ran to the hardware store next door, had to pick up a light bulb for the living room lamp, the old one burned out.
A young man was working the counter. I had never seen him before. He was reading a magazine. I didn’t see any words, just pictures of girls.
I had four months of allowance saved up, 32 dollars in my Velcro wallet. I walked to the National League team sets. They were kept in the glass counter left of the cash register.
“Do you have any Braves sets?” I asked the man.
“I dunno, kid,” he responded without taking his eyes off the magazine. “What we got s’in the counter.”
“Oh,” I said, “ok.”
I crouched to get a better view.
“Think they’ll win the series this year?” I asked the man.
I looked at him. His tongue slowly ran laps around the inside of his lips.
“Think the Braves’ll win this year?” I repeated. “They got so close last year. I was outside the stadium for the first game. Glavine pitched. He was robbed. You there? I wasn’t. But I bet it was awesome.”
The man looked at me. He kept the magazine open in his hands.
“You guys don’t have any Braves. I was really hoping to get last year’s set. I’d get plastic protectors for each card. It’d be so awesome. I saved up my allowance four months to-”
“Shut up,” the man said. “I’m trying to read.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry. I just, I mean. I’m sorry. I was just hoping you had last year’s set.”
“We may have a couple.”
“Just be quiet, okay? Shut up for a second and I’ll check the back.”
The young man placed the open magazine on the glass counter. He walked to the room where my birthday party had been held seven years earlier.
I walked to the magazine and took a look. A girl was loosely wrapped in a towel. Her left breast hung over the top, drooping like a dropped baseball, her nipple staring me in the face.
“Hey, Kid!” The man yelled at me as he walked back to the counter. “You’re not old enough to look at that.”
I jumped back in surprise. His voice rang in my ears. A plastic sheath of cards with a top flap taped to the back was in his right hand. He threw the cards on the glasstop, and picked his magazine back up without looking inside. He closed it.
“There’s the set,” he said.
I held out my four months of allowance. He took it.
I picked up the cards -Tom Glavine on top, smiling at me with his Braves cap pointed straight ahead.
“This isn’t enough.”
His uniform was free of dirt, the stripes running perfectly vertical.
“Hey kid. Kid.”
I looked up.
“This isn’t enough.”
“This isn’t enough. It’s a 115 for the set.”
“You only gave me 32. You need 83 more.”
The man reached over the counter with his left hand and took the cards from my right.
“I only have-“
“Nothing. Get outta here.”
“But. I. I need the-”
“Get out of the shop. You don’t have enough.”
My mouth was open.
I felt the heat of tears rimming my eyes. They rained down, canceling any game on my face.
“But. I. But-”
“Jesus, kid, it’s just baseball. Some rich fucks you’ll never meet, printed on paper. Grow up.”
I took my four-month’s of allowance off of counter. My right hand swabbed at my cheeks, 32 dollars drying my eyes.
I walked to the door. I started to push it open, when I stopped, turned around and looked at the young man. His eyes were back to staring at the open magazine in his hands.
“What happened to the old man?” I asked.
“The one who used to run the shop.”
“I guess. I don’t know his name.”
“Yeah,” The young man said, he flipped the page. “Had cancer. Shot himself in the-” he stopped. “He’s dead.”
I walked out the door towards the minivan.
Dad was walking towards me, a plastic bag in his left hand.
“Hey there. You get the set?”
“They were all out,” I lied.
“You’re kidding. I’m sorry, bud.”
“We’ll come back in a couple days. Maybe they’ll have ‘em in.”
“It’s ok,” I said. “We don’t have to.”
“Well, your heroes are playing tonight,” Dad offered. “How ‘bout we make a bowl of popcorn and watch the game.”
“Hey, what’s on your face?”
“I’m not feeling too good. I think I want to go to bed.”
* * *
I was fourteen when I stopped playing baseball. I was too old for Farm League, and I was half a foot smaller than everyone in the Babe Ruth League. I told Dad school was more important. Mom agreed.
* * *
I was fifteen when I stopped watching the Braves. We moved from Georgia to the Northeast. Our life went from suburban to rural, barn included. Dad didn’t want cable, and no local stations broadcast their games. I didn’t mind. I stole a Hustler from the local convenience store. Josh stole it from me.
* * *
I was sixteen when Dad caught me smoking a joint in our barn with Jess. He stood in a bathrobe, one in the morning. My eyes were the color of the Red Sox’s B and I reeked of weed.
“I’m disappointed,” he said. “Very disappointed.”
I sat silent.
“Whatever,” Jess said.
Dad nodded slightly, looked at me, turned around. He walked past his baseball glove, hanging a peg higher than mine.
* * *
I was seventeen when I picked up my shoebox of baseball cards and walked outside with them. I walked it to the end of my driveway, looking down only once. I reached the end, turned left. A blue, plastic trashcan stood next to the road. I threw the shoebox in. Then, I walked back inside.
“What’re doing out there?” Dad asked. “What were you carrying?”
“Nothing,” I said, as I walked past. “Just some trash.”