I was watching ESPN Classic this past Sunday morning, and they were running a yearly recap of “This Week in Baseball” from 1992. It was fascinating. I realized how much the game of baseball has changed over the past decade or so. Well, not really the game itself, but the players. Baseball players of yore — and by yore I mean fifteen years ago — hold a special place in my heart. Not because they were good at baseball, but because their images are etched in my mind for all eternity as a result of my heyday of baseball card trading.
I don’t think that many kids today still trade baseball cards, what with all of their Pokemon, extreme sports, and time spent avoiding Michael Jackson. But when I was a kid, baseball cards were pretty much all I cared about. I spent hours upon hours trading cards with my friends. I forced my mom to spend her weekends dragging me to various baseball card shops and shows, where shiesty adults who made a “living” collecting and selling sports cards would rip me off and take all of my lawn-mowing money (I hope they are all still living lonely lives, in their mother’s basement). The greatest birthday gift I ever received was when my Aunt Carol got me my 1984 Topps Don Mattingly rookie card. I still have that card today, tucked away next to my other valuables, like my 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly rookie card, and my college degree.
But it’s not the Mattingly cards, the Griffeys, the Bonillas, or the Larkins that force me to wax nostalgic. It’s the other guys — the players I must have flipped right through hundreds of thousands of times while opening packs, and trading cards. These are the guys that the baseball card companies printed a surplus of cards for, just to annoy the heck out of kids like me, who were desperately searching for a Barry Bonds’ rookie card, but kept coming across that darn Vincente Palacios.
It truly takes time to appreciate the absolute magnificence of these players. The mullets, the jheri curls, the mustaches. I would venture to say that 98% of the players during my baseball card trading days rocked the mustache. If you were a pitcher, the mustache was actually mandatory. You can look it up. Or just ask Ed Whitson. Or Danny Darwin.
And the names. Oh, the names! They read like a who’s not of popular athletes: Tom Brunansky, Atlee Hammaker, Zane Smith, Spike Owen, Franklin Stubbs, Skeeter Barnes, Jack Lazorko! Could you even imagine a guy named Jack Lazorko playing in the Major Leagues today? It’s not even possible. I don’t care if his changeup was 100mph — he’s not getting into The Show today with a name like that. It’s that simple.
Nevertheless, these players still remain relevant today. My friend and I, while on our annual road trips to Camden Yards in Baltimore, play this game where we go back and forth naming random “old school” baseball players from our more impressionable past. Our wives sit confused in the back, while they hear us blurt things out like, “ODIBEE MCDOWELL!” followed by three minutes of nonstop laughter. I think I may have won last year with “Don Slaught.” It’s actually amazing that either of us are even married in the first place.
And you just don’t see these kinds of players anymore. Gone is the 5’3” second baseman, with the thick mullet and a lifetime .237 average (Mike Gallego, anyone?). No more lanky starting pitchers who wear glasses that are too big for their face, with a fastball that tops out at 82 mph (where have you gone Tom Henke?). And alas, what happened to the overweight DH, who, in 500 at bats, would hit 29 home runs, and strike out the other 471 times (like Steve Balboni, who once struck out in nine straight plate appearances)?
Baseball has certainly changed. The players nowadays are actually good, and look the part. Chalk it up to steroids, the influx of foreign talent, and the demise of horrendous fashion, I guess. You can call me a dreamer if you want, but I’ll take Eric Plunk over Roger Clemens any day. Not to win a game or anything — to go out and grab a beer with. He always seemed like that kind of guy.
So watching that yearly rewind of “This Week in Baseball” really brought me back to a happy time, when most major leaguers were all just guys like us, whose baseball card was nothing but a cheesy picture of them that was worth three cents. These are the players I am most fond of. And do you know who, according to “TWIB,” had the play of the month during April of 1992, with a sliding catch down the third base foul line?
Pat Listach, that’s who.
Pat freakin’ Listach. I know I have a bunch of his cards.