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Friday, December 8

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Baseball Thu Apr 21 2011

Stars on Cards

cubs sox cards.PNG

When I was a child, I hated cleaning my room. More than anything.

My family relocated often and my rooms never felt like my own. My parents didn't let me hang posters on my wall. I had a couple of generic framed pictures (one of tulips and a young girl running through a field) that added a touch of color to white walls, but were tasteful and generic for staging purposes for the next buyer.

"Do you know how difficult it is to patch holes in all of the rooms when we sell the house? We have to think about resale value!" my parents would scream every time I begged to get a baseball pennant at a game we'd attended.

Pennant-less and uncomfortable from my childhood in flux -- Parents, moving can be traumatic on children -- I did not care if my room was clean. I didn't want to make the bed. I didn't care if my Teddy Ruxpin was placed back on the shelf near the Jetsons lunch box that contained his cassette tapes.

The chaos was my solitude.

The little Lite-Brite pegs on my carpet were the land mines that kept everyone out of my fortress. (I couldn't have a moat because it would hurt the resale value.)

After many attempts to get me to clean my room -- stubbornness is one of my most endearing qualities -- my folks turned to bribery. If my room was cleaner than my sister's, I would get a prize.

To some children a prize can be everything, but to me, I was unimpressed.

My sister did not need much incentive to keep her room clean. She was on the fast track to being the favorite child, what with her good grades, her bubbly personality and her ability to wrap anyone around her little finger.

In those days she was the spitting image of Shirley Temple. She had some health problems, which made most people coddle her. She was the good kid who wanted to do everything right; she found her value in praise from the parentals for her accolades.

I, on the other hand, was a difficult child.

I've always been awkward. I've always been shy. I've been content to talk to myself and play alone, because I felt deep down the other kids didn't like me.

My best friend was my bicycle with the basket on the front that I'd ride around the neighborhood. I'd fill the basket with grass and caterpillars. I'd go look for turtles by our creek and keep them as pets in big buckets in our garage. (Sorry, PETA.)

I was rowdy and insatiable. I didn't follow bed times. I slept under my bed instead of on top of it, because I felt safe in that isolation.

My sister's room was cleaner, week after week, but I didn't care. She'd been getting Lip Smackers and a couple dollars thrown her way when she behaved. I didn't need that stuff; I had my favorite banana-flavored Minnie Mouse ChapStick.

I stopped noticing the prizes and kept my room messy until one Friday when my dad handed her a pack of baseball cards. It was no pennant, but I perked up, suddenly interested.

My sister disregarded the pack quickly. She took the chewing gum without offering me half and continued to play Nintendo.

Sneaking in beside her as she held the television at gunpoint (playing Duck Hunt), I stole two cards from the pack and snuck off to my room with the contraband.

I hadn't seen baseball cards up close before.

Sure, my dad had shown me the prized Johnny Bench and Pete Rose cards he kept in the top drawer of his dresser (much too high for me to reach), but I was never allowed to touch them.

The ones I stole, however, carried no such restrictions. I don't remember who was on those first cards, but I remember how rough the cardboard felt. I read the statistics on the back as if I knew what they meant, and gazed at the pictures as though I were sitting in the dugout actually watching the game happening. To me, these cards were a day at the ballpark I didn't get often enough.

My dad was a baseball player. A catcher, specifically.

I shared his love of baseball and from the first time he hustled me up the steepest steps I'd ever seen at Riverfront Stadium. I knew I loved the game. Well, I knew I loved peanuts with the shells on and the Capri Suns he'd smuggled into the ballpark for me, but there was definitely potential here.

Before bed that night, I asked my dad about the cards.

"If my room is cleaner next week, can I have a pack, too?"

"Of course."

From then, it was game on.

The Lite-Brite found its way to the shelf in the back of the closet. The stuffed animals -- my form of a security blanket -- went into their Pet Net. Teddy Ruxpin took up his perch atop the toy box my grandfather had made for me and the cassette tapes went back in my lunch box.

When Friday's judging arrived, I was nervous. I wanted to rush into my sister's room and sabotage things. Perhaps if I'd made her lamp shade slightly off-kilter, I'd win the prize. Surely if I unmade her bed, she'd be disqualified.

That week, I won the cards. My room probably wasn't the cleanest, but it was certainly most improved. Beaming with delight, I took the cards up to my bedroom and locked the door behind me. I paced the floor nervously as I ripped the plastic off and shoved the gum in my mouth.

The rest is fuzzy.

I wish I had been smart enough to save my first pack for days like today, when 20 years later I'm sorting through a new pack of Topps cards, comparing them to the first ones I ever saw. But that magical feeling of holding a star on a card in my hand never really goes away.

It's just a piece of cardboard, but it's intrinsic value to a kid who felt isolated and confused for much of their childhood is much greater. The cards became a slice of consistency and a normalcy in a chaotic world where decisions were out of a child's hands. They were handed out for good behavior and attention to detail.

To this day, I still buy them for the same reason.

For more from Cee Angi, visit her Red Sox blog at

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