In the cards: Shohei Ohtani, Vlad Guerrero Jr. and the boys of summer

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The story of a summer abroad, looking for baseball cards and dreaming of the value-inflating exploits of Shohei Ohtani and Vlad Guerrero.

Before leaving for Brazil in June, I tucked one pack of baseball cards among socks in my suitcase. A three-month withdrawal seemed impossible to do cold turkey and I began seeing myself as a guinea pig for the trading card and collectibles industry. After an enormous surge in demand early in the pandemic, interest was cooling off in the spring and the big question loomed: Would the collectibles market crash again like the 1990s? Back then, the printing of too many cards overloaded a ship that finally sunk with the 1994 MLB strike. Many abandoned collecting, with the most embittered sending their once treasured cards to a radio DJ to burn, I’d read in Dave Jamieson’s book Mint Condition.

In Brazil, I figured my renewed interest in the hobby might fade. My purchases would for sure. However, I still held rooting interests. On Opening Day, after Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit a line-drive single in his first at-bat, I clicked “Buy It Now” on one of his less expensive Gem Mint rookie cards. One hit is hardly good reason to drop more than $100, but in addition to his Hall of Fame lineage, Vladdy Jr. had become my AL MVP favorite after learning he’d shed 40 pounds. A couple weeks later, though, I discovered the Ontario Antiques Mall 15 minutes away, where display cases full of cards shared musty space with World War II memorabilia, McDonald’s souvenir glasses and Bee Gees’ records. Most cards were “raw,” meaning they weren’t professionally graded and worthless to some collectors, but it bubbled my blood to find two Shohei Ohtani rookie cards for $10 each.

By June, these cards sat a continent away in my parents’ basement. I missed seeing them, like a familiar barista or grocery clerk. Although I enjoyed the novelty of watching a few soccer games, as Brazil hosted South America’s Gold Cup, I longed to see the boys of summer and the game I really knew. Every morning over an espresso-sized cup of Brazilian coffee, I checked the box scores. Every HR by Vladdy and Ohtani inflated my mood as they embarked on a two-man race for AL MVP.

Somehow, I resisted opening my pack of Topps Heritage baseball cards until the Fourth of July. I decided to make the patriotic thrill last two-plus weeks by removing one card per day. On Day Two I pulled a Mike Trout, and nobody who followed would compare. Still, seeing the familiar names and faces and devouring the back-of-card stats before taking an always incorrect guess at the trivia question provided the cardboard connection to home I needed. The prior time I’d come to Brazil for this long, only a month had elapsed before the pandemic’s onset erased sports everywhere. Now, I realized how much I missed watching American sports, even one mute while eating wings at the bar or running on the gym’s treadmill.

By July, I was in Belo Horizonte, a city the size of Chicago, and hoped my Internet speed could let me stream the HR Derby and All-Star Game. Back when I first started collecting in the1980s, I’d have to wait a year for Beckett’s annual price guide. Now, the sale prices for many cards on eBay changed daily based on player performance. I watched Ohtani’s cards rise as his pitching and hitting feats rivaled the Babe. During the All-Star break, one of my raw Ohtani cards jumped to more than $150 in value while its Gem Mint graded version topped $1,000.

The value of Shohei Ohtani and Vlad Guerrero cards jumps with every homer

Caught in Ohtani-mania, I tried several times to bypass my Internet browser’s request for a local cable provider’s password to watch the HR Derby. Finally, I settled for ESPN’s HR Derby Tracker in which small red dots simulating baseballs landed around a USA Today-like graphic of a baseball field. In my “office,” one of the spare bedrooms of our rental apartment, I lay on a choo-choo train bedsheet in the dark (I swear I didn’t sneak this in my suitcase). I felt like the mythical American youngster with a transistor radio after bedtime. The following night in the same spot, I listened to an online radio broadcast of Ohtani pitching in the All-Star Game while simultaneously watching the recorded HR Derby on YouTube. I loved seeing Vladdy and Fernando Tatis Jr. chumming it up with Ohtani. They were younger, more wholesome versions of McGwire, Sosa and Bonds.

“Baseball is back,” Tatis Jr. said after the All-Star Game.

I considered returning to the States for the National Sports Collectors Convention in July, which drew its second-largest crowd. Of the 100,000 people who attended, more than 46 percent were first-timers, according to ESPN. Days before the convention I’d received an invite to a meet-and-greet for a research position with PSA card-grading services. I’d applied when thinking the convention was a possibility, but I couldn’t justify the fare to Chicago from Brazil.

With July nearing a close and my baseball pack entirely opened, I needed to figure out how to make it until September. So began my hunt for soccer cards. I believed I might feel more comfortable if I invested in Brazil’s “Beautiful Game.” My girlfriend and I traveled to the small town where she was born and several family members still live. On one of our first jaunts around town, though, she groaned upon seeing the café and news shop where her nephew bought cards had become a bar. She turned to a credible source — our taxi driver. When she asked the man in his 60s in Portuguese, all I could hear was “figurinas.” This sounded like I played with dolls.

“We all become children again,” the guy said, according to her translation.

He chuckled before revealing his wife recently caught him gleefully playing marbles with his grandson.

“I lost track of time,” he pleaded with his wife.

The driver suggested the town’s main news shop. As a teen, my girlfriend had bought fashion magazines there. She couldn’t blame the owner when he started carrying Playboy and other adult magazines. In a small, predominantly Catholic town, they sold. We’d soon find out from the owner that his family’s business had been around 80 years. But did they have cards?

We entered an otherwise empty shop where the owner spoke to another gray-haired man, a doctor who was presumably both a friend and customer. My girlfriend asked about the “figurinas.”

“What’s he going to do with them?” the owner asked.

“He collects them,” the doctor said.

The owner wrinkled his eyebrows before looking around. I tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid glancing down at the half-dozen Brazilian women on the covers of adult magazines on the front counter without protective wrapping.

“I think I gave them away,” he said. “I didn’t think they were worth anything.”

Finally, the owner handed me a consolation prize — a few programs for Brazilian soccer tournaments from a decade ago.

On the walk home at dusk, I pestered my girlfriend to ask the men near the old-school green newsstand on the outskirts of town. With stand-alone newsstands like this all but gone in America, I’d noticed it earlier. My girlfriend caught her breath and relented.
“Fernando,” one man called to a buddy seated at an outdoor chess table. Below the shelves of magazines, Fernando unearthed a handful of orange packs. I saw “Euro2020” on the sticker wrappers labeled Panini, among the biggest brands in the biz. Fernando also retrieved a sticker album, just like the ones I filled as a boy.

“I’ll take them all,” I said.

“100 reais,” he said after counting the 20 packs. The Brazilian currency converted to $20 U.S. for me but would feel more like $100 to him.

“You made that guy’s day,” my girlfriend said after we trudged to the ATM for cash. “He just got 100 reais for something he was probably going to throw out soon.”

I opened one pack of stickers each day. I hoped for a Cristiano Ronaldo but found mostly unrecognizable names. Weeks later, though, when I Googled the familiar-sounding Robert Lewandowski I saw he’d won 2020 FIFA Player of the Year ahead of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Is it worth anything? Who knows. Still, I’ll stow it safely in my carry-on instead of risking a soccer-savvy baggage inspector might find it. Back home, the stickers will help me remember Fernando’s tiny newsstand.

And then there’s another Fernando. Although I’d first lamented Tatis Jr. dislocating his shoulder again in late July, I soon saw opportunity. His Topps rookie card dipped below $200 on eBay. I bid $187.50 and thought I’d be outbid in the final seconds as usual. Not this time. The card shipped to my brother back home.

On the first day of September, I return to the U.S. in time to watch these boys of summer vie for Wild Cards and MVPs. With Canada’s border open, I’ve thought about a day trip to root on Vladdy in person. His rookie card, encased in plastic, might come as a good luck charm. I can’t say what will happen with the entire hobby, but now I know my interest will carry far beyond its former borders.

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