Why Upper Deck Baseball Cards Taught My Generation to be Timid

The 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card was an icon. The blue Seattle Mariners baseball hat, brim aiming toward the sky with the youthful Griffey, bat on shoulder, primed to make a big splash: it all worked flawlessly. This card received the coveted number one spot in the compete set. The whole Upper Deck line, launched that same year, felt exciting and smelled different: more mechanical and sophisticated than their Topps gum-filled pack brethren. Sure, the wood grain on the 1987 Topps looked fancier than the 1986 cartoon style font and Gregg Jefferies on the front of a 1988 Donruss clear pack was a cherished gem for kids of my ilk. But 1989 Upper Deck was my generation's Ferrari; we couldn't lose with Upper Deck.

All of my closest friends had multiple three ring binders (mega size) filled with our favorite baseball players, each binder organized by alphabetical order of last name. The Starting Lineup action figurine fad as well as the coming and goings of Garbage Pail Kids editions made small splashes, but we were baseball card collectors through and through.

The bike ride at the end of each month to the independent bookstore to get the new issue of Beckett, the baseball collectors' version of Sports Illustrated, was a lust filled conquest. I could never make it all the way home without first stopping to lay my bike on the grass and quickly thumb through the lead articles, tips on where to invest, and a quick scan of value changes for my best cards. I was hooked on collecting.

And we had role models: A guy who went by the unambiguous name of Mr. Mint was at the helm. He wrote books and told stories about how he cleared a million dollars in baseball cards. He was an inspiration. Needless to say, all of my expendable income in those days went toward my world domination of the baseball card market.

If the story of my youth, which is similar to many of my generation, were to stop there, I would say we were all primed to be risk takers and, eventually, become savvy investors on the NASDAQ. Yet, the true outcome of this scenario was a lesson in the discrepancy between the supposed value and the actual value of goods. And that education was taught to my generation by the strict hand of the 2008 housing crash. We still flinch at the memory.

It wasn't until a reprioritization of my own life's important features, perhaps spurred on by the Come To Jesus 2008 moments, which brought my family to sell our curb appeal ridden house in Grosse Pointe, Michigan for a complete change of direction, opting instead for a rustic and rural Vermont cabin. This move brought me to dust off my baseball cards. Two dogs' life expectancies had passed since I had last laid eyes on them.

Opening my well-packed boxes created by the youthful, ever energetic iteration of myself -- I was in awe of the sheer amount of time and effort I spent decades earlier in organizing complete sets by hand, alphabetizing "common" cards," and listing out card values.

I was astonished to see my baseball cards in a modern light and felt as if I had blinked and now found myself in my late thirties looking at a time capsule of my former ideals. I really wanted to convince myself that I should save the collection, but cross country moves and a daughter who is pretty clear she has no interest in old relics of a sport that she generally doesn't care for, help sift out some of life's non-necessities. I called the few sports card shops (not referred to as baseball card shops anymore) and was met by a continual passive voice echoing the same response, "We are not interested in anything from those years." My generation's aspirations seemed to have fallen into the overproduction bin.

Like an investment gone toxic, I couldn't find one person on the planet who wanted my collection. The day before our move, with moving vans parked in front of our house, I made a desperate craigslist plea at one 22-year-old collector. He showed up in a 1997 Dodge Neon with what I assume to be an empty pizza box on the passenger seat. He could barely fit my collection in his trunk. As he handed over the $140 (I negotiated up from the original $100 offer), I felt as if I had given away a part of myself for free.

I did take one card out of the collection, prior to the finalized transaction: the 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck rookie card. I felt I owed Ken Griffey Jr. a debt of gratitude, not for his lustrous baseball career or investment potential, but for what his card signified for my life journey.