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first person

Illustration by Drew Shannon

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Recently, and seemingly out of nowhere, I have once again been drawn to baseball cards. I discovered online videos of people opening packs of cards (known as “card breaking”) and to my surprise, I got caught up in the excitement of searching for that great rookie or limited edition insert, even though I didn’t know any of the players.

When I was 10 years old, until I was about 15, I used to collect baseball cards and so my knowledge of baseball is limited to the 1980s. It’s hard to say how I even got into it – it’s not the most common hobby for a young girl – but I spent many Saturday afternoons, and most of my money, at a sports-card store in a strip mall in Toronto.

I was pretty serious about the hobby, daydreaming about my own sports card store and studying the Beckett price guide as though it was the stock market. I even had a business card that said SPORTSCARDS buy-sell-trade, with my name – and my mother’s home phone number.

The memory of collecting is still a strong feeling, one that I had forgotten about until my mother sold her house last summer and asked me to go through my childhood stuff, a.k.a. my baseball cards. I couldn’t believe how many there were. I wasn’t particularly interested in going through them all because, after a few Google searches, I determined that unless I had a Mickey Mantle rookie card (no), everything else was mostly worthless. I was, after all, collecting in the late 1980s, a period that is known as “the Junk Wax Era,” when the overproduction of cards eventually led to the pop of the 1990s baseball-card bubble.

It was overwhelming trying to determine what was worth keeping and what wasn’t, but waves of nostalgia started to wash over me as I went through more and more of the cards. It brought me back to my childhood – the hours I would spend sorting cards and the careful ritual of sleeving them and placing them in toploaders (protective cases).

I threw out a lot of 90s baseball cards (hopefully no Derek Jeter rookies) and the irony was not lost on me that I had been outraged as a kid when I learned that my dad’s childhood baseball card collection had been thrown out. I also kept a lot to sell, and while it was fun meeting with other collectors and sharing in the nostalgia, the feeling soon waned. I put the remaining cards in a storage box and shoved it in the back of a closet.

Then I discovered those online videos, and before I knew it I was standing behind some kids at another games store, waiting to talk to the clerk, who told me what I was already beginning to suspect: “Baseball cards are really popular right now.”

Why? He said some of the more recent releases are full of hot rookie cards. So I bought a pack of 2020 Topps Series 2 for $7.95. I had no idea who I was looking at when I opened them.

But it didn’t take long to figure out that some of the coveted rookies of the past few years include: Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr., Luis Robert, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Lewis, Gavin Lux, and Blue Jays Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., to name a few.

Continuing my research, the next day I went to Walmart, where an employee told me that customers had been asking for baseball cards. Clearly I wasn’t the only one thinking about this. I was in luck and found a “blaster” box of 2019 Topps Heritage (eight packs for about $3 each).

I brought it home (along with a pack of face masks) and began the (almost) forgotten thrill of opening up packs of cards. I was transported back to my 12-year-old self. The Heritage cards feel like the cards of my youth, with their vintage cardboard and simple design, rather than the high-gloss, action-y cards of today.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the pandemic had anything to do with the renewed interest in baseball cards. After doing a bit more research, I learned that the sports-card market has been booming over the past few months. During lockdown, with more time on their hands, people rediscovered their interest in collecting, while others may have picked up the hobby to feel more connected to baseball when it was on hiatus. Social media allows new and old collectors to safely share their interest.

In some ways, it feels like the 1990s sports-card boom all over again – but in a digital era with online pack breaks and eBay listings that seem as active as the S&P 500. In August, a new record was set for the most expensive sports card ever sold at auction: a Mike Trout rookie card went for US$3.93-million. But in other ways, it seems collectors are simply enjoying the pastime and are genuinely excited for the next Babe Ruths and Jackie Robinsons of today.

There is something comforting in rediscovering an old hobby. While I momentarily thought I was regressing, I now see I was just reliving a favourite part of my childhood, and that feeling of connecting to a time that brought me so much joy, especially now, during a time of so much uncertainty and upheaval.

My 2019 Topps Heritage packs gave me a Shohei Ohtani chrome (numbered 87 out of 999), and rookie cards of Touki Toussaint and Kyle Tucker. Of course, I had never heard of these players before, but I can’t help but root for them. Not because I’m hoping their cards go up in value, but because it feels good to be excited for them, and for the future.

Rachel Kagan lives in Toronto.