Monday, August 09, 2010

Fear and Loathing in the Charm City. (part one)

“A card collection is a magic carpet that takes you away from work-a-day cares to havens of relaxing quietude where you can relive the pleasures and adventures of a past day —- brought to life in vivid picture and prose.” -- Jefferson Burdick

They came together on a hot afternoon in Baltimore, howling and clawing at each other like wild beasts in heat. On a sunny Chesapeake Bay day, the fierceness of their struggle brought tears to the eyes of thousands. They were men who were somehow more than men. They were giants, idols, titans...

They Were Collectors.

They stood for everything Good and True and Right in the American Spirit. Because they had guts. And they yearned for the Ultimate Glory, the Great Prize, the Final Fruits of a long a vicious year.

A Stephen Strasburg baseball card.

They were hungry for it. They were thirsty. All year, they had struggled to reach this Pinnacle... and when the clock struck 3:30 on that fateful Wednesday in August, they were ready. To seize the Final Fruit.

They could almost taste it. The smell was stronger that a bushel of decaying blue crabs. Their nerves burned like open sores on a dog's neck. White knuckles nervously grabbing their 10 packs of Allen & Ginter. Wild eyes. Strange fluids welled up in their throats, with a taste sharper than bile.


The tension was almost unbearable. By 4:00 in the afternoon, many were weeping openly, for no apparent reason. Others wrung their hands or gnawed on the necks of plastic soda bottles, trying to stay calm. Many fist-fights were reported in the urinals. Nervous rent-a-cops roamed up and down the aisles, confiscating alcoholic beverages and occasionally grappling with drunkards. Gangs of crazed Joe Collectors prowled through the aisles, beating the mortal shit out of luckless strangers...

What? No... Jefferson Burdick would have never written weird stuff like that: His prose was sparse & lean; his descriptions came straight from the gut. Then again, he'd never heard of one Mr. Stephen James Strasburg. And if ol' Jeff rose from the dead to attend the 31st Annual National Sports Collectors Convention, chances are he'd be right in there with them. Waiting in line, with a waxbox of 2010 Topps, to receive his $100 bill/Stephen Strasburg rookie card.

Indeed. There is a dangerous kind of simple-minded worship at the root of the massive fascination with rookie cards in this Hobby, and people like me are mainly responsible for it. With a few rare exceptions, we in The Hobby Media are a kind of rude and brainless subculture of fascist drunks whose only real function is to publicize & sell whatever the product managers send them...

Which is a nice why to make a living, because it keeps a man busy and requires no thought at all. The two keys to success in The Hobby Media are: (1) A blind willingness to believe anything you're told by the flacks, hustlers, and other "official spokesmen" for the card companies who provide the free cards & free booze ... and: (2) A Roget's Thesaurus, in order to avoid using the same verbs and adjectives twice in the same paragraph.

Even an editor, for instance, might notice something wrong with a lede that said: "The precision-jackhammer attack of Joe Collector stomped the balls off a case of Topps Tribute today by stomping and hammering with one precise jackthrusting rip after another, mixed with some BIG MOJO HITZ!!! and numerous hammer-jack rips of foilpacks...."

Right. That was the genius of Jefferson Burdick. He was a Syracuse Man and had no need for such exaggerations.

But what the hell? Why not? It's almost midnight in the Republic of Fairfax as I write this. It's hot, muggy, and I've been here all night drinking John Daly's and getting more and more wired on something out of Tokyo called the "Yellow Magic Orchestra" howling out of four big speakers hung in all four corners of the room.

With what I've witnessed over the past few days, I kept wondering: "What would Jefferson Burdick have thought of The National?" It has been a thought that has haunted me.

On Wednesday, I took the light rail train to Baltimore to attend Day One of the 31st Annual National Sports Collectors Convention. I arrived at 2:00, just-in-time to receive my VIP credential, and to prepare for the madness that is The World's Biggest Card Show.

After a brief opening reception thrown by the Beckett people (sadly, no open bar), by 3:00pm many of the collectors, myself included, began to make their way to the entrance of the convention hall. One of the perks of being a VIP is the fact that the doors to the show open 30 minutes earlier. While this may not seem like a big deal, and for most it isn't, the jockeying-for-position was already on. They knew what was on the line. For once in my life, looking at the dumb schmucks on the other side of the velvet rope, I actually felt like a Very Important Person.

At 3:30pm the doors flew open and the mad dash to the Topps corporate booth was on. Like stampeding bulls in Pamplona, the rush to be one of the first 100 in line for the coveted Stephen Strasburg card was on. So much so, that by 3:37pm, I was counted as the 105th person in the queue. Sucks to be me, I suppose.

For the remainder of day one, I wandered the table-enclosed aisles doing some serious window shopping. I made a pledge to myself that I wouldn't buy anything the first two days of the show. Just see what's out there and take mental notes.

Indeed. At a show like The National, you can't afford to fuck around. Every collector has a limited budget and impulse purchases early in the week usually mean that come the weekend, when the dealers slash their prices looking to break even for the week, you're tapped out. So, you just wait. Just see what's out there. Be patient. Keep moving.

For day two, I kept to the same plan. Looking. One of the great joys of going to The National, even if you're not a collector and just a sports fan, is for five days it is the largest sports museum in the Free World. You will see things you never knew existed, like Adrian "Cap" Anson's bat -- which wound up selling for $286,000. And there are things you know exist, but are so be rare and expensive, the only place you can see them is The National. Like the T-206 "Big Four" (Honus Wagner, Eddie Plank, Sherry "Magee," and Joe Doyle "NAT'L"), Dmitri Young's collection of Gem Mint "PSA 10" rookie cards, and entire display cases of high-grade Babe Ruth cards.

Just as I wandered to the PSA booth (where the "Big Four" were on display), a horrible thought came to me. What would it take for me steal all these cards? We're not talking a run-of-the-mill smash-and-grab; that's bush-league stuff. Surely, it would take a full frontal assault with multiple high-powered firearms, body armor, smoke bombs, stun grenades, etc.?

Cazart! Even with all the rent-a-cops, uniformed police, undercover FBI agents, et al, inside the Baltimore Convention Center; not to mention the firepower amassed outside, there's no way to escape. Sheer madness, a suicide mission. Then again, I am surprised no one's thought of it before.

The adventure continues in Part Two, soon...

1 comment:

PunkRockPaint said...

Unable to make it to The National in person, I breathlessly await Part Two!