When the Braves exited the playoffs with a whimper in 2005, I’m certain that I wasn’t the only one who believed we had just witnessed the end of the streak of division championships. That’s not a knock on the 2005 team. After all, many of us thought the streak would end before the 2005 season had even begun. Instead, led and inspired by the Baby Braves, a group of rookies including Brian McCann and Jeff Francouer, the Braves would take the division lead on July 22 and not relinquish it. It was an exciting season highlighted by McCann’s home run off Roger Clemens in the division series.
Still, this Braves team was no longer the lock to win the division they had been for so much of the streak. The offense seemed to be fine. Andruw Jones looked to be hitting the peak of his career. Chipper Jones remained one of the best players in the league when he was healthy. Adam LaRoche was showing a lot of pop and a lot of promise. McCann and Francouer had the look of future stars. There was little doubt that the Braves would continue to score runs. It was the pitching staff that was a cause for concern.
The Braves backbone throughout their run of division championships was their starting pitching. Even if the quality of the starting staff had diminished a bit towards the end of the run, the staff was still better than most. It was almost like there was a magical quality to pitching for the Braves. Even Russ Ortiz was a somewhat productive starter while in a Braves uniform. Of course, the true backbone was the three future Hall of Fame pitchers: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
Of course, Smoltz was the only pitcher of the trio to remain in a Braves uniform at the end of the 2005 season. The rest of the rotation was a question mark. The Braves had no idea when Mike Hampton would return from injury. Tim Hudson looked to be slipping from his form with the A’s. It was possible that Horacio Ramirez, Chuck James and Kyle Davies would turn into first rate starters, and it was also possible that they would remain wildly inconsistent and a source of constant frustration. The years when the Braves were anchored by three Hall of Fame starters were becoming a distant memory.
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When I first started collecting baseball cards in the late 1970s, it was easy. There was one set of any note put out each year. The Topps base set was the entire hobby. That would change in 1981 when Fleer and Donruss would enter the business. Still, three major sets a year wasn’t a difficult task. Sure, it meant my allowance money got spread around a bit more and left me far shorter of the cards I needed to complete the Topps set, but all three manufacturers were putting out quality product. Score started pushing out sets in 1988 and Upper Deck followed with their on line in 1989. Topps resurrected the Bowman brand as an individual product. It was no longer possible for a set collector on a High School budget to keep buying as many baseball cards as he could find.
While I still bought the occasional pack just for the thrill of opening, I would simply wait until late in the season and buy a few of the sets from the year. The manufacturers had been releasing complete "factory sets" of their cards to retail for a few years. I was now purchasing them every year. It wasn’t as much fun as trying to piece the sets together by hand, but it was easier and less frustrating. Still, the hobby kept changing.
It was Upper Deck who raised the stakes. They used glossy photographs. They used holograms to make their cards harder to counterfeit. They abandoned cardboard. They had the gall to charge a dollar a pack. They sold like gangbusters and the hobby began to spiral out of control. Fleer would introduce their Ultra brand to compete with Upper Deck. Topps would introduce Stadium Club with full bleed color photographs. Prices were on the rise. Speaking for myself, the money I spent on cards didn’t seem to go as far.
Soon, there were more products than anyone could reasonably keep up with. Dozens of sets at price points that were higher and higher were being released each year. Worse yet, the cards were ugly. Time has mellowed my opinion on the insert cards of the 1990s somewhat, but at the time, they were simply gaudy monstrosities. Technology allowed the manufacturers to get further and further away from the simplicity of a player’s picture on a piece of cardboard. Cards were now shiny and overloaded with graphics. Sets were overloaded with these "chase cards" and the regular baseball card became an object of disdain to most in the hobby.
I may sound like a dork, but the whole thing began to leave me a little cold. I’ve always spent a lot of time reading about the history of baseball, and I knew that the sport itself had always been a hard-edged business ruled by money. Free agency made that clear to even those who wore the foggiest of glasses. It was always true and it would always be so. I thought the hobby was different, but I was clearly wrong. The history of the baseball card business shows that it has always been about the buck. I still loved the Braves. I still loved the game of baseball. I just couldn’t feel any connection to the cards that were being released. I can’t say when, but I simply stopped as an active collector. I wouldn’t become an active collector again until after the 2005 season.
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Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. It was those three players that we were so privileged to watch pitch for all those seasons. They were also the symbol of what the Braves were lacking as the 2005 season ended. I didn’t even know the streak was over and I was already feeling the pangs of nostalgia. I wanted to relive the glory days. I wanted to see Greg Maddux catch great hitters looking at strike three again. I wanted to watch Tom Glavine stick stubbornly to the outside corner while getting another victory. I wanted to watch John Smoltz bring the power. I wanted them all back in their prime. I wanted them all back in Braves uniforms. There was only one way I knew for that to happen. I became a collector again.
If I was going to get back into collecting, I knew I should keep a narrow focus, and I decided that focus would be on collecting Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz cards. I became an eBay hound buying up every lot of cards I could find of any of the big three. Sometimes I would hit the jackpot. Other times I would buy a lot of 500 "assorted" cards only to end up with 500 of the exact same Greg Maddux card. Still, I was learning. Eventually, I had several hundred different cards of each. I got each player a binder. I was all in.
Looking around on eBay, I realized that it might be a good time to start trying to complete those sets from the 1980s. I didn’t want to just buy individual cards. Instead, I would pick up lots promising several hundred different cards from the sets I was looking to complete. These were usually fruitful purchases. In a moment of insanity, I purchased a vending case of 1988 Topps. That would be 10,500 1988 Topps cards. That was not a fruitful purchase. Still, the focus was narrow, even if I now had boxes overstuffed with the "worthless" cards of the late 80s.
I became an active collector of new baseball cards with an accidental purchase at Target. I picked up a blaster of Topps Total and Bowman Heritage and fell in love with both products immediately. Every visit to a major department store in that fateful 2005 off season would lead to me purchasing yet another blaster of those two products. When the 2006 Topps cards came out before the start of the 2006 season, I jumped in without caution buying as many cards as I could afford. In 2006 and 2007, I went a little crazy.
Those were the years where I decided to try and buy a box of every product released. It was a series of one disappointing purchase after another. For those few sets from the period that I truly loved, I wasn’t completing them because I was spending all of my money buying new product. Despite the disappointment, I kept buying and buying and buying. I thought if I just kept opening product, I’ll eventually get one of those big hits that I keep reading about online and in Beckett. It never happened. I realized that I needed to pull back so I wouldn’t go broke and so I wouldn’t get so jaded with the hobby that I would walk away again.
Yes, I still make the occasional stupid purchase of a new hobby box, but I finally started to bring some real focus to my collecting. I got a pretty good handle on what I want to collect and a pretty good idea of how I want to get those cards. In early 2009, I began blogging about the hobby as a way to start trading with others in the online collecting community. This in turn has led to a few real friendships and to the acquisition of some of my best cards. I’m now completing those old sets. I still get the occasional card of Maddux, Glavine or Smoltz that I still need. I still get a thrill from opening a pack of cards. I still get a thrill sliding that last card I need to complete a set into a binder.
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I started collecting in the 1970s. It is now 2012 and I’ve never been happier to be a baseball fan, a Braves fan and a baseball card collector. The game of baseball connects me to my past. It connects me to the days when I would play catch with my Grandpa while he would tell me the story of Harvey Haddix. It connects me to the day when my late Grandaddy took me to a game I played for the Schoolfield Methodist Midgets in Memphis and got picked off first base. It connects me to my Uncles and their stories of watching Stan Musial play. It connects me to my late Grandma who always wanted me to keep her up with the latest Braves news. It connects me to my Dad and the countless hours of Braves baseball we would enjoy together over the years. Baseball cards connect me to baseball and to those memories. I look forward to many more.
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I know that many of you collected in the past. I know that many of you stopped for your own reasons. I’d like to encourage you to give the hobby another chance in 2012.
Happy New Year!