Since the moment my first daughter was born in March 2010, I've done my best to surround her with and immerse her in baseball. My motives are greater than simple exposure to the finest sport ever created, though of course there is that. Baseball is an important element of my work, and a passion as well. Having a child, and not sharing baseball with her, would be keeping her at arm's length.
It's early yet. But one of the easiest and still most emotionally rewarding ways to connect to her through baseball has been via baseball cards. This process began immediately: We had a birth announcement that included her picture on some 1987 Topps design baseball cards.
And early on in the potty-training process, I offered a pack of baseball cards as a reward for a successful trip. The lure usually worked, and the box of 2012 Topps I purchased for the endeavor became what I hoped it would be: An event each time I carried her down to my office to select a pack. Her anticipation at opening it immediately reminded me of how I felt when my father would take me to buy a pack at the Voorhees News Agency, or better yet, The Bagel Shop in Cherry Hill, which carried not only Topps, but Donruss and Fleer as well.
Sitting with her, examining the cards contained within the silver foil, offered a series of teachable moments -- Daddy did a story on that player, or this throwback of Duke Snider was Pa Ira's favorite player growing up, or that catcher on the Cardinals hit a home run that made Mommy cry.
Still, and I hope my daughter doesn't take this the wrong way, she was only two years old. Given my lifetime of training in the care and feeding of baseball cards, well, I had to compartmentalize, to pretend a part of me didn't cry out in pain when she happily showed me an insert card she'd earned that day, creasing it as she squeezed it proudly. When we thumbtacked Kevin Youkilis to her playroom wall, a trio of new knowledge (Judaism, baseball and how tricky back injuries are) came with it, but I could see NM/MT drop to VG in that instant.
So it wasn't collecting, exactly. But now my daughter is about to turn four. That's a little earlier than I began to horde the gloriously stark 1986 Topps cards, including, for some reason, like 35 Glenn Wilsons staring into the middle distance.
But I thought she could handle it: the responsibility of carefully navigating the corners, keeping them in a safe place. And I loved the idea of starting to connect the knowledge of individual players with the reality of seeing them on television, a constant in this household. I'd taught her the starting lineup of the Mets when she was two, but it was more parlor trick than real understanding of the 2012 Mets.
So when I heard the 2014 Topps cards were out this week, I knew just where we'd be going after her violin lesson on Sunday morning. To be sure, the number of strictly sports cards stores that populated my childhood have been culled significantly. 3-2 Pitch in Westmont, New Jersey, where I once purchased three Mackey Sasser Rated Rookies for a dollar, has long only existed in my imagination.
But there are an encouraging number of stores on the Topps.com store locator now, and my daughter and I were a ten-minute drive from home when we arrived at Toy Wiz in Nanuet, NY, a retailer where I could set her up, not merely with cards, but the means to keep them protected and look at them. Two jumbo packs, a blue Ultra-Pro Collectors Album and 30 9-sheet pocket protectors selected, and we were on our way.
I saw a man who looked to be in his early 50s carefully selecting a jumbo pack himself. He'd parked next to me, and rolled down his window once I secured my daughter in her car seat.
"I remember starting my son on card collecting just like you are with your daughter now," he told me approvingly. "He's 17 now. It goes by fast. Enjoy it." I couldn't help but notice he'd purchased the cards, and opened them, by himself.
A few minutes later, my daughter and I sat at the kitchen table, and I showed her the way to pinch the sleeve together to open it up, how to gently tilt the card into the slot, making sure not to bend any corners as you do so. My daughter already likes to do things herself, and told me a few times, "Daddy, I can do it!" before I got the point.
In went Jake Peavy, Bryce Harper, Chris Sale. Quickly, she knew which logos belonged to the Red Sox, Nationals, White Sox. A Jonathan Schoop rookie card held a special place in her heart, because Oriole Bird is on the front of it. And incredibly, a sparkling red insert of Matt Harvey, along with a Zach Wheeler rookie card, both made it into her first haul, two players she knows well from conversations in this Mets fan household.
"I wish Matt Harvey's elbow wasn't hurt," she told me, frowning as she placed the cardboard photo of a delivering Harvey from better times into a sleeve.
"I know, sweetie. Everybody wishes that," I told her. "Especially the Mets."
It wasn't quite watching baseball, but Topps has done a far better job of capturing players playing, instead of that Glenn Wilson contemplative stare. Juan Lagares is about to make a shoestring catch. Alfonso Soriano has just finished hitting one of the, oh, 78 home runs he launched in August. Howie Kendrick is midair, about to hit home plate and get mobbed by his teammates. Emilio Bonifacio is sliding into home for the Royals, blissfully unaware of his upcoming DFA.
I love the design, the fact that most cards provide an interesting fact about the player that I can tell my daughter about, and that her Zack Wheeler contains the same "Future Stars" designation my 1987 Topps Dave Magadan does. Whatever drew me to baseball cards as a child still does as an adult.
Truly, I don't know if it will take with my daughter in the same way. I've found that all I can really do as a parent is put her in position to experience things. She may adopt them, she may not. Mozart, so far, hasn't inspired her, but she asks repeatedly to dance to Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and for the Bruch Violin Concerto in the car. She loves watching the Marx Brothers with me, but Rocky and Bullwinkle left her cold.
But she did ask me to open the next pack this afternoon, with our family snowbound. She proudly showed my wife her new binder, while my wife commended me for managing to let our daughter take care of the cards. She's been with me when I've bought a pack here or there at some big box store, refusing to let the checkout clerk scan the cards for fear of damage, so she understands the size of the neurosis we're dealing with here.
But the payoff is too enormous for me to think about just how pristine we need to keep her Jose Fernandez "The Future Is Now" insert (seriously, it was a killer pack she pulled). I'm just laying the groundwork for something that maybe we can share together, something to bring my daughter a little closer to me for the years I have with her, for those few minutes until she's 17, and my backseat no longer contains her car seat.