June 14, 2011

Guest blog post: Chasing the Texas Rangers -- from Pennsylvania


All those years of subscribing to Beckett – studying the price guide, reading the articles, feeling pangs of jealousy over people’s awesome pulls – and I’d never read the table of contents.

Now, it’s the first place I turn. My girlfriend Sooz’s name is listed there.

As a two-decade collector of baseball cards, I always hoped to date a woman who wasn’t repulsed by my collection. Someone who could stomach the terms refractor, rookie card and top loader.

And somehow, I got really, really lucky.

My collection started in earnest in 1993. I was 9 years old then, the product of Phillies-Reds parents.

I hated the Phillies, even though I grew up in Lancaster County, Pa.

And the Reds didn’t have much beyond Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo – although Sabo’s Rec-Specs were magical.

No, I needed to find my own team. A team that was uniquely mine.

I stumbled onto a newspaper article about Nolan Ryan, the ageless hurler for the Texas Rangers. Dude was 47 years old and still playing! Fifty-six hundred career strikeouts entering his final season.

About that time, a family friend gave me and my brother packs of Upper Deck. We peeled them open. There was a shiny card in my pack.

Hmm …

Pulse increasing …

It was a “Then and Now” hologram card of Nolan Ryan. The card showed two pictures of Nolan – one as a rookie for the 1966 Mets, the other a forty-something for Texas.

I stared at the card for hours, mesmerized.

This Nolan Ryan guy was pretty cool, I thought. So I started watching Rangers games, during those rare occasions when ESPN showcased the team.

The All-Star game was held in Baltimore that year, and my brother and I stayed up late to watch the home run derby.

Everyone remembers Ken Griffey Jr. hitting the warehouse during the contest, but he didn’t win – Juan Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers did.

I became a Texas Rangers fan that night, unwittingly setting the stage for 17 seasons of frustration.

My collection grew along with my support of the team. The Rangers reached the playoffs for the first time in 1996, then again in 1998 and 1999 … each time against the Yankees. The Rangers won one game – the first one. Gonzalez hit two home runs.

Then, nine consecutive losses.

No matter, my team was stacked with stars such as Gonzalez and catcher Ivan Rodriguez, giving me lots of collecting opportunities. After Nolan Ryan retired, “Igor” Gonzalez was my guy, and I collected every card of his I could, from 1990 rookie cards to 1997 Upper Deck short prints to a 1998 Donruss tin numbered to 200.

We had a hobby shop near our house, and our mom would take me and my brother each week or so.
Or to K-Mart to check the card aisle.

One time our mom bought us boxes of 1999 Stadium Club. I studied the inserts beforehand, and noticing there was a Juan Gonzalez autograph (odds – 1:877 retail), told my brother that one of us was going to pull it.

I was right.

He pulled the Juan Gonzalez autograph.

My favorite player. Signed. The. Card. You could have opened 10,000 packs, and not pulled that card again.

And my brother got it, not me.

After some hours of griping and bitterness, he gave me the card, and it remains my favorite card in my collection.

My player collection, 250 cards strong by the late 1990s, was rocked when Gonzalez was traded to the Tigers after the 1999 season. I cried that day. I despised the man who replaced him, an up-and-coming prospect named Gabe Kapler.

I softened to Kapler after pulling his autograph from a pack of 1999 Upper Deck Challengers for 70. Then Kapler had a 30-game hitting streak.

Eventually I met Gabe Kapler before a Rangers-Orioles game, with the muscle-bound outfielder signing my baseball.

Who knew that a decade later, I would be showing off a Gabe Kapler autograph on a first date?

(Note: Sooz likes Gabe Kapler for different reasons than I do).

My collection slowed after I went to college in 2002, but I’d always find myself busting packs here and there – every apartment I’ve ever had has contained a baseball card drawer, those drawers full of various Rangers, from Alex Rodriguez and Hank Blalock to Michael Young and Mark Teixeira.

I had special reasons to fill my baseball card drawer last season, as my Rangers reached the playoffs for the first time in 11 years.

I savored each game of the playoffs. Given my team’s 1-10 all-time playoff record, with zero series victories, I didn’t know if the opportunity would pass again.

So I hoped. I wished. I tore through packs of 2010 Topps Update, searching for cards of midseason acquisition Cliff Lee in a Rangers uniform.

Another Ranger caught my eye from that set – a rookie first baseman named Mitch Moreland, a Mississippi native who could also play outfield and pitch, if necessary.

Moreland had been overshadowed in the system by fellow first base prospects Justin Smoak (traded for Lee) and Chris Davis.

But here were my Rangers in the playoffs, trotting out this Moreland guy. And he could hit better than anyone else the team had at first, so I believed in Moreland.

I believed in my team. On the strength of Cliff Lee’s arm, Texas defeated the Tampa Bay Rays in the first round to move to the ALCS against … the Yankees.

The freakin’ Yankees.

The Yankees, who’d won 27 total World Series rings to my Rangers zero.

Despite a game one collapse, the Rangers took three of the next four. Three to two lead, headed back to Texas.

Oct. 22, 2010. Ninth inning. 6-1 lead for Texas. Two outs. Rookie reliever Neftali Feliz dealing to Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez, the guy who used to suit up for Texas.

The guy who left town because he wanted to win.

Strike three. Looking.

Confetti. Celebration at the mound. Ginger Ale showers.

The Rangers lost to the Giants in the World Series, with one of their few bright spots a three-run homerun by Mitch Moreland in game three, the Rangers’ only victory. Eventually that homerun made a card of 2011 Topps Heritage, titled “Rangers Retaliate.”

Like the Nolan Ryan “Then and Now” from two decades prior, I was mesmerized. Here was my guy’s biggest moment captured on cardboard.

I became a Mitch Moreland player collector soon after, with the help of my girlfriend, the only woman I’ve ever met who knows more about baseball cards than I do.

She’s done this player collection thing before – ahem, Derek Jeter and Kevin Kouzmanoff. I bought a binder and sleeves. She wrote Moreland’s different releases on slips of paper, slid the slips into the missing spots in my binder, and the search was on.

As I began my search, I expected to find a couple dozen minor league cards, some autographs, some bat cards …

Mitch Moreland might have the most unorthodox card career for any current Major League Baseball player.

  1. Only seven minor league cards, almost all team issues and no TRISTAR (his minor league teammates appeared on TRISTAR, but not Mitch).
  2. No Major League cards prior to his 2010 rookie year.
  3. Even after a World Series home run and flirting with the league lead in batting average, he still has no game-used or autograph issues.

Due to the lack of assortment, Moreland’s short-print cards are at greater demand – his collectors are forced to fight over the same cards, specifically various 2010 Bowman issues numbered to 50 or less.

I currently have 40 different Mitch Moreland cards, from his 2007 Spokane Indians card to 2011 Topps team issue. I should be receiving the rest of the 2011 Topps series two parallels in the mail this week.

And as I slide new cards into my binder pages, I have someone to show my collection to, someone who understands the difference between black parallels and Wal-Mart parallels, who encourages me to pursue Moreland’s Gypsy Queen stamp card and Bowman International with the same enthusiasm – because that’s what player collectors and supportive girlfriends do.

7 comments:

  1. Great post! I remember those Upper Deck Then & Now cards. They were so cool.

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  2. I still remember that Laser beam Juan Gone hit off the 2nd deck at CY. Frickin' Missile!

    BTW, you still in Lancaster area? I'm about 1/2 hour east...

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  3. Lancaster County?

    And you're a Rangers fan?

    Really?

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  4. That's a great story! I'm a huge Rangers fan who lives in Western New York. But, my grandad was from Texas, so that's how I got into the Rangers.

    I remember seeing Gabe Kapler play baseball here in town. He played for the Single A Jamestown Jammers. I was never a fan. He was a little too into himself. But, maybe that was because he knew he was going to The Bigs soon.

    Also, I met Nolan Ryan one time here in Jamestown. He used to be part owner of the Hudson Valley Renegades, and one of his sons was pitching so he was at the game. One of my favorite moments ever.

    Keep up the collecting. I bet we share a lot of the same cards. Haha.

    Ben

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  5. I am trying to turn him into a Yankees fan, but it doesn't work every time he mentions ARod striking out looking.

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  6. I just came across that Nolan Ryan then & now card last night. It's one of my all-time favorite cards, and somehow I had lost it for a while.

    Also, I think I speak for all the guys out there that have wives/girlfriends that hate our addiction to cardboard when I say, you are a lucky son of a b.

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  7. I love collecting sports card, especially baseball.
    The one I’ve seen here looks pretty rare to me.

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