Probably what drew me the most to Wilker’s work was the fact that I also have a baseball card collection that began in earnest in the late 1970s before dropping off as I aged. For fun, I got a bunch of the newer cards over the past few years, but was completely overwhelmed by just how many different sets and the price for a pack of cards.
For instance, when I started out collecting cards they were all made by the Topps Chewing Gum Company and they put out a standard issue every year. In fact, it was always a big deal when the new cards came out and there was some cachet amongst my friends for getting that first pack before anyone else. Really, what could be better? We didn’t know much about art theory or photography, but we definitely appreciated the aesthetic of the new baseball card design. We could differentiate between the years based on how the card was designed… 1975 looked and felt very different than 1978. In 1975 there were odd color scheme and a modular design that made us feel as if primary colors were too passé. But in 1978, classic script and basic facts were en vogue. It was a less-is-more year.
These days, Topps puts out about a dozen sets a year. So too does Fleer, Bowman, Upper Deck, Donruss and whatever other upstart card company deigns itself to commit photos to cheap cardboard. Worse, there is no way to collect all of them, what with the subsets and extras and everything else released every year. It's maddening because I hate being one of those guys to say it was better in my day...
But, it was better in my day.Nevertheless, going down to the garage to dig out the baseball cards to browse through them is a much different activity now. In one sense it’s disappointing because I remember how exciting it was to get a card of certain players in those packs that cost no more than the loose change my mom had in her purse. After all, back then baseball players represented the very best in adults and were people worth emulating. Who didn’t want to grow up to be a baseball player?
But remembering how it was to find one of those heroes randomly inserted into a wax pack compared to actually having the opportunity to know some of those men all these years later can be a downer. Not only did some of them not represent the best in what adults should be, they didn’t particularly care how big of a jerk they could be and held some ridiculous sense of entitlement that pervades many aspects of professional sports—yes, even media types, too.
Rather than dwell on the negative, a recent session with the old baseball cards turned out to be so illuminating. Oh sure, I found a few cards of guys that I knew who were kind of creepy, but I never knew I had so many cards of Billy Sample.
Those boxes tucked away in the corner of the basement turned up a half-dozen cards depicting Billy Sample. Of course the hunt also turned up piles of Sarge Matthews cards, too, but that’s a story for much later.
Anyway, Billy Sample spent nine seasons in the Majors, mostly with the Texas Rangers aside from a year with the Yankees and Braves. In fact, Sample’s last year in the big leagues came as I was going into my sophomore year at McCaskey High, which made it more interesting that we eventually became colleagues of sorts. Billy was winding down before I even got started, and he may even played in some of the very first games I attended.
That made knowing him much cooler. And yes, these were all things we discussed.See, baseball games can get long and tedious. There is a lot of time spent just standing around and waiting and that pretty much goes for every aspect related to baseball. I think they call it the national pastime because you stand around and watch time pass by without anything happening. Regardless, when Sample was working as a correspondent for MLB TV on the Internet, we got to spend a lot of time passing the time in the press box. I learned a lot about baseball from sitting with Sample, but more than that, I learned that he is probably the classiest dude ever to step into a press box or a ball diamond.
Go ahead, ask around.
In swapping stories and waiting for time to pass with Billy, I learned that he was the star football player for Andrew Lewis High in Salem, Va., which was the team T.C. Williams played in the state championship game in real life and in the movie, Remember the Titans. The difference was, Billy told me, the movie was given the Hollywood treatment since the real Titans won in a blowout. Moreover, the car accident that crippled Titans star Gary Bertier didn’t happen until long after the state championship.
Otherwise, it was kind of accurate.
Billy doesn’t work for MLB anymore (which stinks for us), so I don’t see him around much these days. However, at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas in December of 2008, I got to spend even more time with him away from the park. What stands out most was the time we hung out at The Bellagio after the work day had ended, but not far from the baseball talk. What I remembered the most was we were all in a big group with guys like Dusty Baker, Ellis Burks, and, most notably, Eric Davis.
Baker and Burks were players that had some dynamic seasons and were All-Stars throughout their long careers, but not nearly as fascinating as the crazy course baseball carried Davis.
Davis very well might have had a Hall-of-Fame career if he hadn’t been nicked up by some crazy injuries. If all the injuries weren’t enough, Davis also had a bout with colon cancer, but preserved and returned to play for several seasons his diagnosis. Nevertheless, as a high school kid I remember when Davis put together a hot start to the 1987 season where he mashed a career-high 37 homers, including 27 at the All-Star Break.
It was during the late ‘80s where Davis was billed as the second-coming of Willie Mays
In 1990, Davis helped the Reds win the World Series, which he was famously remembered for diving to make a catch in the clinching Game 4 only to be carried off the field with a lacerated kidney. That injury kind of explains the tough luck Davis had during his career. One minute he’s an All-Star and helping his team win the World Series and the next he’s being left behind by team owner Marge Schott in Oakland with a lacerated kidney, having surgery AND THEN being diagnosed with cancer a handful of years later.
Anyway, Davis was at the winter meetings in 2008 with the Reds where he serves as a special assistant to general manager, Walt Jocketty. It was at the Bellagio one evening with Sample at my side when we were introduced and I immediately started in on the guy.
“I remember a game when you were with the Tigers in Baltimore where you hit a ball so hard that it was on the way up when it hit the batters’ eye,” I told Davis while shaking his hand. “You really smacked the bleep out of that one.”
Davis barely paused and his answer left us all wide-eyed in disbelief:
“Arthur Rhodes,” Davis said. “It was a slider. Two-two pitch.”
Honestly, he was like the Rainman. I looked it all up later, and he was exactly correct on the pitcher and the count, though there was no way to prove that it was a slider that Rhodes served up that September night in 1993. Either way, it was an impressive display from Davis, who based on that meeting proved to be a worthy winner of the Roberto Clemente Award during his playing days.
Davis remembered every detail of the games I saw him play to a fascinating degree. He was like one of us sports geeks whose knowledge of the games and his role in them was just like ours. The difference was Davis was making great plays in the All-Star Game and World Series while we had some pretty tense CYO basketball games or wiffle ball wars at May Field or Bernhardt’s backyard. Davis hit his homers off the brick batters’ eye at Camden Yards, while mine inched over a copse of bushes or a chicken wire fence spread out in a suburban backyard. Different, of course, but no less meaningful for anyone involved.
The good part is that guys like Billy Sample and Eric Davis got that, which is why their baseball cards are more valuable to me than any gem mint shown off in a museum.