By Michael Roche aka DiebytheCubs

This Sunday, I will be turning 20 years old. Unfortunately, birthdays now are not the momentous occasions they were when I was younger. Each year, the presents now get blander and I am less excited to grow up. While a pack of socks may make a good present this year, years ago that would never have been the case. When I was younger, I would get excited for a Hot Wheels track or Super Soaker. Those toys were fun, but they rarely lasted. Thirteen years ago though, I was given my best birthday present ever, my first pack of baseball cards.

It was the year after the Great Home Run Race of ’98 and it was my seventh birthday. Like any other Cubs fan at the time, I idolized Sammy Sosa. I wanted to be him, blasting homeruns out of Wrigley Field. Even though he had been beaten out by the hated Mark McGwire the previous season, next year Slammin’ Sammy was going to come back better than ever. My aunt was in town from Milwaukee that day and I can still remember the conversation like it was yesterday. As I sat down on the couch, she handed me my first packs of cardboard gold. She told me that my cousin didn’t want her to give me the packs because they might have a Mark McGwire card in them. They did not, but nevertheless, I was hooked. As I stuck the cards in the binder she had also given me, my dad told me that one day I would be organizing those cards by team, players, or however I saw fit. I didn’t believe him at the time but he could not have been more right. Now that I was a baseball card collector, I set my first collecting goal that day: to find my first Sammy Sosa card.

At that time in my young life, I don’t think I had ever been so dedicated to anything as finding a Sammy Sosa card. If I ever had spare time or money, it would result in a bike ride down to the local White Hen for a pack of cards. There was no rhyme or reason to the way I bought my packs, at the time I didn’t know anything about different sets or even card companies. Looking through my old collection now reflects that; it really just seems to be a random assortment of whatever cards looked cool to a seven year old. I’ve grown more educated about card collecting now, but at the time cards were cards and as long as one of them said Sammy Sosa on it, I could not care less whether it was Topps, Upper Deck or Donruss.

I didn’t have to do all the leg work myself though; I had some help from a mythical companion. While the tooth fairy would leave most kids one or two dollars for their pearly whites, she was generous enough to leave a pack or two of baseball cards beneath my pillow. Every morning after losing a tooth, without fail a new pack of cards would be waiting for me to open them. My mouth was a gold mine and with the combined help of my trusty bike and the good old tooth fairy, I soon built up a considerable collection.

Even though the size of my collection began to swell, Sammy Sosa still eluded my grasp. It felt like years since I had started collecting baseball cards and for all the players that I had in my binder, I did not have Sammy Sosa. Then one day I lost a tooth, and then I lost it again. Another pack of baseball cards had fallen out of my mouth while I was attending mass with my family over the summer. I was as excited as any kid was when losing a tooth because I knew that meant payday. For the rest of the longest hour of my life I proceeded through the ritualistic tissue in the mouth and holding tight to that meal ticket. As I was heading back to the car from mass though, I dropped the tooth in a pile of gravel. I could never be able to find it in all those rocks, but my dad assured me that if I wrote the tooth fairy a note explaining what had happened, she would probably understand. So I did, and she did. As per our agreement, the next morning two brand new packs of baseball cards were right there under my pillow. I jumped out of bed and snatched my binder off the shelf; I had a good feeling about this one. As I carefully opened the packs and sorted through the cards, my fingers began to tingle. Then suddenly, there it was, in my own hands: my very first Sammy Sosa card. I was so excited, I ran downstairs and woke my parents up to show off my prize: Sammy Sosa! With all the cards I had collected before then and with all the cards I have collected since, I don’t think I have ever been as excited as I was on that day.

Since then, times have changed. Slammin’ Sammy has moved on and so have I. Although I went through a long period where I stopped collecting, I just started again last summer. I have never made a better decision than to return to collecting. I had forgotten how exciting it was to buy a new pack: the minor stress of choosing which one to take, the tantalizing feeling of what lies between you and the cellophane, the overwhelming joy when you pull one of your favorite players. Those feelings cannot be duplicated and when you have a good experience it stays with you forever. I only really recall bits and pieces of my younger years, but the memories that are the most vivid are the ones that involve baseball cards.