The Greatest Pack of Baseball Cards Ever

Sunday, July 26, 2009 |

The wife and I stopped by Economy Candy again on Saturday. Nestled on Rivington Street in the shadow of the new, ultra-modern $500-a-night hotel across the street, Economy Candy (Est. 1937) is one of the last remaining holdouts against the sad, hipster-fueled gentrification of New York's Lower East Side.

Stepping into the place is like stepping back in time. The store is stocked floor-to-ceiling with a dizzying selection of hard-to-find sweets
that you likely haven't seen since childhood, and it never fails to transport me to a time in my life when all it took to make me happy was a fresh pouch of Big League Chew and some Fun Dip.

I stop in there whenever I'm nearby, which is often. I live within walking distance of the store. But I confess that the reason I frequent Economy Candy isn't just so I can load up on candy buttons, Pop Rocks, and bubblegum cigarettes.
That's certainly a part of it, but beyond all the wax lips, candy necklaces and collectible Pez dispensers, there's something else about the place that keeps me coming back. Mostly, I come back for the old baseball cards.

Yes, Economy Candy has stacks and stacks of unopened wax packs of 1988 and 1989 (and occasionally 1987) Topps baseball cards for sale, reasonably priced at a buck a pop. 1988 and 1989 were years I spent actively collecting and taking great delight in baseball cards (there are tens of thousands of them stuffed in closets back at my folks' house), and purchasing a few packs from time to time these days helps me recapture, if only for a moment, some of that old joy. There are few thrills in adult life that can match the experience of opening up a wax pack, setting aside the gum, breaking and flipping the turned-over half of the cards at the "special offer" insert, and then carefully thumbing one's way through each of the pack's 15 cards in search of one's heroes. Or, as the estimable Josh Wilker calls them, one's cardboard gods.

As a 13-year old in 1988, my cardboard gods were always New York Mets. And then, much like now, I had to flip past a lot of Fred Manriques and Moose Stubings before I got to a Mookie Wilson. Even when I found a Met, I always seemed to find more Barry Lyonses and Jeff Innises than I did Keith Hernandezes. And that was fine. If you wanted a Keith Hernandez you had to earn a Keith Hernandez. You had to ride your bike to the stationery store a bunch of times. You had to spend your hard-earned allowance ($2 a week, for me). You had to open a lot of wax packs. That's what made the discovery of a Keith Hernandez all the more special.

That's also what made Saturday so incredible. Standing on the sidewalk under Economy Candy's firetruck red awning I opened what very well might be, from this 34-year-old Mets fan's perspective, the single greatest wax pack of 1988 Topps baseball cards ever sealed in Duryea, Pennsylvania. Of the 15 cards, 7 pictured current, former or future Mets.

The pack contained:


A Roger McDowell, inventor of the Hotfoot.
A Kevin Mitchell (in a Giants uniform) who, as a rookie, singled and scored the game-tying run in the greatest inning in New York Mets history.
A Nolan Ryan (In an Astros uniform) who, as a babyfaced 22-year-old fireballer, won his first and only World Series ring as a member of the 1969 Miracle Mets.
A Tim Leary (in a Dodgers uniform), who the Mets made the second overall pick in the 1979 Amateur Draft but who won just 4 games in 10 career starts as a Met.
A Brett Butler (in an Indians uniform), who would spend 90 games roaming the Mets outfield in 1995 (hitting .311) before being traded to the Dodgers for two players who would never reach the majors.

None of those cards are what made this the greatest pack ever, though. Neither is the Gary Matthews (1973 NL Rookie of the Year), the Graig Nettles (six-time All-Star), the Bo Diaz (strangest athlete death on record) or the Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, who gave up six runs (including a leadoff home run to Lenny Dykstra) in a Game 3 loss to the Mets in the 1986 World Series.

Forget those cards. They don't matter in the slightest.

No. The real reason why this was the greatest pack ever is because it contained both a Darryl Strawberry and a Dwight Gooden.

I'm not kidding. Doc and Darryl. In the same pack.

If I had opened this pack in 1988, it's entirely possible that I might have shit myself.
Both players were still in their respective primes in 1988, in true All-Star form. That was the year Darryl hit the roof in Montreal on Opening Day and ended up leading the league in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS (and getting robbed of the NL MVP award). Doc won 18 games and made the All-Star team for the fourth time that year. They were just two years removed from a world championship, came close to reaching the World Series again, and in New York (and my neighborhood) they were like gods. Not just cardboard gods, mind you, but actual diamond deities deserving of worship. I had a life-sized poster of Strawberry on my closet door. A few feet down the wall, next to Lawrence Taylor, hung Doc's iconic Sports Illustrated poster.

Doc and Darryl never came in the same pack. Ever.
You had a better chance of getting three Tom Nietos than getting both a Darryl and a Doc. Getting them in the same pack of cards would be like winning twice on the same scratch-off lottery ticket. Or like catching two keepers with one worm. It just didn't happen. At least not to me.

But 21 years later, as I stood under Economy Candy's awning shielding myself from the hot afternoon sun, there they were, just three cards apart. And I'm not at all ashamed to admit that reuniting with them there made my entire weekend.


* * *

I'm not one of those Mets fans who laments what might have been with Doc and Darryl. While it's true that they may have accomplished more had they heeded the sage advice printed on Topps' 1988 wax packaging and said no to drugs (and alcohol), I think the whole "Dead End Kids" perception is greatly overblown. Because those kids accomplished plenty.

First of all, they did what no Mets in the past 23 years have been able to do, which is deliver a World Championship to Flushing. The significance of that cannot and should not be understated. While Mets they were also named to a combined 11 National League All-Star teams, and won back-to-back NL Rookie of the Year awards in 1983 and 1984, becoming the last Mets to be so honored.

19 years after he last donned a Mets uniform, Darryl Strawberry is still the franchise's all-time leader in home runs, runs scored, runs batted in, walks, and extra base hits. He's second in total bases. He did all that in just 8 years. Not bad for a guy who never realized his potential.

15 years after last donning the blue and orange, Dwight Gooden still stands as the franchise's all-time leader in winning percentage and fewest home runs allowed per nine innings. If it weren't for a Hall of Fame legend named Tom Seaver, he'd also be the club's all-time leader in wins and strikeouts. Besides Seaver, Gooden is the only New York Met to capture a Cy Young Award, which he did in his phenomenal 1985 campaign. Not too bad for a guy who is believed to have snorted his career away.

While Doc and Darryl have certainly both endured personal setbacks in their lives that affected their baseball careers negatively,
I never felt let down by their failures as men. Despite their shortcomings, they still accomplished more than a ton of guys who kept their noses clean and supposedly got the most out of their talent. And today I choose to remember them as they were on their baseball cards. I celebrate them. And while I acknowledge it's sad that for many they will always be remembered for those off the field troubles, all it takes is something like opening a rare pack of baseball cards to remind me how much they meant to me (and other young Mets fans) growing up.

On the field, Darryl and Doc never let me down. And on Saturday, in the midst of one of the most disappointing seasons in recent Mets history, they picked me up again. Together.

6 comments:

Jon said...

Holy shit.

Headsnack said...

You better have tried to eat the cardboard gum. After all, I
"keep my gums tightly wrapped like wax packs".

Weinstein said...

I think I'll avoid chewing 21-year-old gum, friend. If I want to make myself sick, I'll just watch these 2009 Mets. Two-game winning streak notwithstanding.

G-Fafif said...

I'm kind of glad you didn't open this pack in 1988.

Yist said...

great post!

john smith said...

For previous installments, please click on the players' names below. visit here