Category Archives: Sports

Hockey, baseball, football, golf, cheering for the home team, free agency, broadcast journalism, and buffet. OK, maybe not buffet, but the Canada Center in Metullah, Israel lists “buffet” as a sport.

Hall Of Fame Lifecycle

In the span of 24 hours I revisited forty years of parenting, music and sports.

Friday night we attended the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction at the Barlcays Center in Brooklyn, mostly to see two-thirds of Rush (inducted a few years ago) do the honors for Yes, my all-time favorite band and the core of so much of my love of music. Saturday took us to the other new hockey arena in the tri-state area, this time to see Patrik Elias take one final pre-game lap as he has announced his retirement from the NHL. Elias cemented us as Devils fans, not just for bringing home two Stanley Cups (and two more Finals appearances) but for his loyalty, work ethic, and popular presence in the local area. His number will be retired by the Devils in 2017-18, and he is a likely NHL Hall of Fame candidate. Over the course of two nights in two big rinks, we saw the past, present and future of various testaments to craft well plied, through the lens of our past, present and future love of music and sports.

The similarities between the two nights were subtle but present: Playing — sports or music — is critical to our enjoyment. Seeing something live gives you context and texture and experience that you can’t get from recorded or televised events. Our heroes, whether known to us personally or just from the backs of their sports cards and record sleeves, influence our approach and goals and style. Our greatest moments of joy are often theirs as well.

Hearing Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson describe the influence Yes had on them as teenage musicians was priceless; it was a peek past the close of the “R40” tour that wrapped all the way around to the beginning of Rush time. Devin Harrison connecting Jeff Lynne’s ELO to his late father, and Geddy Lee invoking the awesome power of Chris Squire’s bass lines by sitting in with Yes on “Roundabout” made it feel as if both musical icons were smiling from on high. From past to present to future – Elias was greeted at center ice for the ceremonial face off by his wife and daughters, a surprise that made all in attendance (including Patrik himself) tear up; they are the influences on his future life.

Season’s End

For the first time since Labor Day weekend, my car does not have a bag of pucks, coach’s whiteboard, hockey stick and some collection of gloves, jackets, helmets and skate repair kits clanging around the rear hatch. Today ended another season of Mites hockey, my third as a team coach and fifth as a development squad coach, and perhaps for the first time I understand what university professors must feel as a stellar class of students leaves for the real world.

I started coaching travel hockey three years ago, when about half of this team were U6 Mites. They were wobbly, funny, and sometimes more concerned about whose birthday party was after the game, or if they had an itch under their helmet. Today I saw them passing, shooting, supporting each other and showing every aspect of a game that’s ready for full ice, full sized nets, and full score keeping. It was a pleasure to see these kids grow up with hockey as part of their lives.

I got to coach my first tournament – and took a silver medal. I’ve been there as a manager, and as a parent, but never with the responsibility for ensuring the team had a wonderful tournament experience. Despite losing the medal game, it was the type of bonding and mildly exhausting trip that will be etched into hockey memories.

I got to be Coach Santa and Coach Leprechaun. My repertoire is expanding, and the kids seem to love taking pictures and hamming it up with whatever alter ego is calendar-appropriate.

I had the pleasure of sharing the bench with two men who played at a high level, versus the beer league and education-through-sports casting training I’ve had. They brought an amazing mix of humility, humor and knowledge to each game.

At the end of today’s game, concluding our in-house tournament, amidst handing out medals and cupcakes, I took 30 seconds to talk about each player. It was the easiest public speaking I’ve ever had to do, and it happened without notes, because I just had to say what each player made me think.

It was a mixed year outside of Devils Youth hockey – a full season (so far) without Saint Patrik Elias, the patron saint of dangle pie in our house; a horrendous season for the NHL Devils yet one in which I still follow every game; a year in which I got to see playoff hockey in Prague and see my Princeton Tigers return to the ECAC playoffs (and win a series for the first time in nearly a decade); the first year in which I didn’t play in a single adult beer league game due to work, travel and injury schedules. But when you see 11 small players throw their gloves in the air, pile on their goalie and celebrate like they’d just won the Stanley Cup, it’s a good year of hockey.

Suny B Psycho Squad, Assemble

I nearly missed my ride to Newark Airport screaming at my Princeton Tigers in the semifinal of the first Ivy League Men’s Basketball Tournament (seems like it needs a name, and a championship trophy name). The game went into overtime, with Princeton’s ability to tie it in the waning seconds presenting a kick-save opportunity for a game in which they never led. Along the way, I channeled every single strange event memory I could dredge up, from Carril era nicknames for players who made poor shot selections to performing my own, best-viewed-privately version of the Suny B Psycho Squad cheer while wearing this shirt.

No manner of weirdness, no talisman, no historical reference, no alliterative profanity is too far when you are on the doorstep of the big dance, wishing for a ticket to get in, to relive your salad days and remember great friends for two weeks. If the Olympics are an international house guest that makes you feign interest in strange sports in the name of national pride, then March Madness is a mini college reunion of friends with whom you cheered until your throat and head hurt equally.

Here’s what I remember from various Princeton basketball games between 1982 and 1984:

My friend Ed had a rubber chicken that we brought to most games our senior year. The Columbia game that winter was 11-10 at halftime (no shot clock, and verrrryyy long possessions) and ended with Princeton losing 33-31. I said some mean things that night and we did a few visual puns with the chicken that would be unacceptable on the Monmouth bench (or anywhere else with respectable adults present).

Princeton clinched an Ivy Title, and an automatic tourney bid, in the last game of the year versus Penn, which I listened to on my Walkman (!!) in the EQuad terminal room (think about it: you could take cassettes with you, but you still had to go to where the computers were). My friend Lemon knew I was working on my thesis, and brought me a stromboli from Victor’s about an hour after the game. There were no cell phones, no email, no texting, she just knew where I would be and what would make that evening perfect. It was one of the finest acts of friendship during my four years as a Tiger.

Princeton had an alt-cheering force known as the Suny B Psycho Squad, of which friend Ed and a number of other arm’s length friends were members. Their cheers featured animal onomatopoeia, hand-lettered poster board signs to goad us into joining them, and in later incarnations, the rubber chicken providing aerial support. It was fun and goofy and nearly impossible to explain, but the people who “got it” can still trigger a tight network effort on Facebook with a mere “E I E I E I O”, the clarion call, shofar-like, of the assembly of the Suny B team.

Ed’s rubber chicken disintegrated somewhere along the travels of married life with kids. I bought him a new one a few weeks ago, in the middle of Princeton’s run to a 14-0 Ivy season. It seemed the right thing to do.

Slowly march, forward, thirty-three years and Princeton finds itself in the Ivy Tournament finals, an invitation to dance forty minutes away. Penn has been defeated, at the Palestra, again, and in the course of yammering online I heard from Ed, Lemon, and a host of other friends who recognized the animal sounds and requirement to cheer in non-obvious ways.

For one shining moment, we were all on the bleachers again, rubber chicken in hand, despite a few thousand miles of geography and three decades of life.

Always Play The Over

I have told my kids, half-jokingly, to always play the over in life. Most sporting events have a sports book line on the total score, with even money bets offered on the total being over or under the established line. An NHL game might have an over/under of 5.5 goals; Super Bowl LI’s over/under was 58 points (a record high); a boxing match over/under may involve the number of rounds before a knockout.

Always play the over. If wager on the under, you’re betting on something not happening. You’re hedging against faith, spirit, confidence, and good luck. Those bets may pay off sometimes, but against a large cross section of people, over time, they lose. Jodi Picoult, a favorite author, wrote that sometimes a miracle isn’t what happened but what didn’t; that case is the strong exception. The Patriots coming back from 25 points down to tie, then win the game? You don’t bet against that. A Super Bowl that had a scoreless first quarter ending in 62 total points? The only thing that was freaking out Vegas odds makers was the Super Bowl ending with a sack in the end zone for a safety, New England by 2 and only 58 total points. But that’s a bet on a miracle; a bet on motivated teams produced a favorite covering, the over covered, and somehow, another Super Bowl title for New England. Like the Voldemort lookalike on their helmets: you count them out and they come return in some weird configuration to take the day, again.

Always play the over in life. Don’t bet against yourself, your peers, your friends, your like-minded but unknown teammates. Doing so is a lack of confidence and hope, both of which are in short supply in some quarters.

A Snowy Hockey Morning

We’re in the last weekend of youth hockey games before the Christmas break, the last few practices before the true winter stretch of tournaments and games bracketed by short days and weekends absent football. I woke up to a few inches of fresh snow yesterday, noticing the deer and rabbit tracks across the front porch, just enjoying the feeling of a true hockey morning.


I’ve been slowly reading bits and pieces of former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti’s A Great and Glorious Game and stumbled upon his perfect summation of the nation’s pastime: It’s about going home. The scoring, the imagery, even the neighborhood love we sprinkle on the grass of our city’s ball fields are all about home: home runs, stealing home, pitch reaching home plate, home team batting last.

Football, on the other hand (and not to channel too much George Carlin here) is about defense. Protect the quarterback, block for the ball carrier, defend the end zone, tough pass defense, defend our house. It is indeed a game of inches, as that’s how turf is defended, a lineman’s step at a time.

Hockey, especially on a snowy winter morning, is about going places. It’s about going to the net, going to the puck, going out when most would prefer to stay indoors in the warmth of bed and the light of a morning read. My favorite memories as a hockey parent and manager were about going places, whether it was a ride to a rink in which we lost a muffin in the luggage rack (don’t ask), or the long gentle drive to a weekend in Lake Placid. Hockey, like baseball and football, has boundaries of play, but you can play off the boundaries; even the boards take you someplace unexpected (ideally behind a unsuspecting defender).

As parents, coaches, managers and spectators, we watch as the young hockey players are forever skating away from us, coming back a little older, a little more certain, a bit more self confident and hopefully grateful for the journey.

“Legends Club” – V, K and the Dean


John Feinstein delivers in his sweet spot – college basketball – with “The Legends Club”. It is a story of fathers and sons of genetic and organizational and institutional relation; it is a love story of men and a game and rivals and life-long learning; it is at times almost unintentionally hilarious and equally sad because of the real-world characters involved. I have told bits of pieces of the following to people who ask why I left a technology company to join a healthcare company: reading stories of how Dean Smith’s mental gifts were stolen by his struggle with Alzheimer’s made me realize how elements of my management style were a reflection of his public persona, and that nobody deserved to die without the dignity of being their true mental selves through their entire lives.

If that’s a bit melancholy, it sets the tone for the book. Dean Smith and Jim Valvano don’t survive to the end of the story, but how Feinstein relates the incredibly textured, complex and rival-driven relationships of their lives is what makes this a compelling read.

My introduction to college basketball happened mostly accidentally – my freshman roommate decided to run a pool for the 1981 NCAA tournament, featuring our own Princeton Tigers squaring off against a BYU team lead by some kid named Danny Ainge (how prophetic that would be for my sports fandom years after moving to Boston). At the time, I knew very little about college basketball, and after being immersed in freshman physics, linear algebra and intro to CS, few of us knew very little about the outside world at all. So my Final Four picks included Indiana (because a high school friend went there) and North Carolina (since my closest roommate, Matt, was from Chapel Hill and his dad taught there). It was nothing more complicated than that.

I spent the week between the Elite 8 and the Final Four in Chapel Hill. It was my first time on an airplane, my first time south of Virginia, and my first exposure to life at a school with a storied coach. Marking time in NCAA brackets, nearly everything about that trip of 35 springs ago remains crystal clear, from the fact that I had a scruffy beard that was painted Carolina blue by someone during an impromptu parade after the Tar Heels won their semi-final game, to cleaning that same paint off of Matt’s car, to my intense fear that I was failing freshman E&M and had decided to re-learn the entire half semester one day, to sitting with Matt’s dad listening to “Classical Gas” which I stupidly thought was originally recorded by Larry Fast and Synergy. Seeing me studying, Matt’s mom brought me a slice of home made pie that was the single greatest incentive and study aid ever invented. Freshman physics took me deep into overtime but lost (I eventually wrapped college with an astrophysics class that made me revisit those days with a bit of educational joy). Names like Al Wood and James Worthy became part of my sports vocabulary (that Michael Jordan kid arrived the next year). Carolina fanaticism was born, slowly, emerging over the course of watching the Tar Heels tournament run reflected in the college town, because of the spirit, the people, the warmth, the fierce competitiveness that never spilled over into ugly vernacular or name-calling, and because of a slice of pie. UNC lost to Indiana in the championship game, and as a result I won the roommate pool for my first ever sports betting win. For the next 25 years I learned to idolize Dean Smith, the UNC hoops coach, my first steps in becoming a lifelong college basketball fan.

The only title-named coach that makes it to the end of the book is Coach K; the book was released before he took the US Men’s Olympic basketball team to a gold medal in Rio; but the final chapter is as moving as any novel where the plotlines can be constructed for heartstring tension. It’s not a happy book in the way that any resolution of long-standing, often petty and ugly personal conflict isn’t happy and jocular, but it is hopeful and illustrative of the power of mentoring, coaching and public relationships, and for those reasons I will put it in the short list of “sports books with business implications”.

Here’s what I learned from Feinstein’s deeply personal narrative of how UNC, NC State and Duke, with a strong supporting role played by Indiana and Bobby Knight: Dean Smith was far from a saint, but he acted in a way to always put the focus on his team and its players. He acted out of love for the game, and as a manager, his redirection of the spotlight is a tenet I hold dear. Mike Krzyzewski is not the (Blue) Devil, a bad person, an angry man or a bad coach. He is remarkably adaptable, dealt with physical setbacks (back surgery) that would have forced others into retirement, and worked in the dual large body shadows of Bobby Knight and Dean Smith. And Jimmy V was always the mood lifter, the soul shifter, and sadly, the too gentle soul whose career was injured through actions several long arms’ lengths away from him. My dislike for Coach K has been tempered and damped with facts and backstory; while I respect Dean Smith to this day, it’s evident how much his gravitas and context created space for him to excel. And I will always, always laugh at the ESPN/CBS clip of Jim Valvano running onto the court after winning the National Championship, arms open in a half-hug, because while joyous and hilarious it also represents in relief the best part of enjoying sports – doing so with family, friends, and those you want to hug after the win.

Wisdom of Andy

Went fishing with my father today, an outing that always brings back a lot of good memories of the olfactory, muscle and narrative types. One of our regular bits is to review the “Wisdom of Andy,” the koans spoken by a regular on one of those party fishing boats who was easily fifty years my senior.

“Eat a pepper sandwich”. Quite literally, Andy put sliced bell peppers on bread and ate a succession of them through the morning’s fishing stops. He was a man who made the most of his local (garden) resources.

“Catch your fish going under”. When drift fishing, your line either goes under the boat or away from it; when you’re “under” you run over the fish first. Andy was a big believer in catching most of your fish by getting first crack at them, particularly the big ones.

“Catch the ones the other side missed”. The logical counter to having the best luck going under, if the opposite side of the boat wasn’t literally pulling its weight, you could pick up the slack.

“Always use fresh bait”. Whether there is anything to to science of fish picking up scent, contrast, or just ensuring you were checking that you had bait on the hook (after drifting over rocks or rough bottom spots), this was the best advice of all. There is likely some deeper meaning to ensuring you make the most of each chance, and present your best face at all times, but really it just means to make sure you have bait on the hook.

You can interpret Andy’s mental lures however you like, but he really was just dispensing rather good fishing advice. The fun part of sharing a boat with a group of strangers is that sometimes they leave you with sound bites to accompany the fish bites for the rest of your life.

Quadrennial House Guest Reflection

One of my favorite images of Hanukah is that of the house guest that visits you for a week, during which you indulge in foods and celebration. For years, I’ve felt the end of Hanukah tinged with sadness, as I pack away the special menorot and candles, putting away the equivalent of our house guest’s trappings for another year. A similar, but different, feeling applies to the Olympics. Staggering the winter and summer games has made their two week run feel less like a leap year or Presidential election and more like a much anticipated book or album release. However, there’s still the feeling that you’re living with a long-cycle periodic house guest who holds up a mirror for you to check in on how things have progressed. Or not.

We see ourselves in the Summer Games more than the winter episode because anyone who has run around outside, glided on a swingset, hung from a playground climbing set, kicked a ball or jumped in the water has visions of being the best, the fastest, the first of some unique aspect to ascend that podium. The Summer Olympics appeal to our first and best outdoor childhood instincts.

We need to measure how we, as a nation, show up. Are we respectful of the host country, its norms and people and food and culture, or do we vandalize a local business and lie about it? And then as a country, do we fail to ask for accountability of those chosen (and funded) to represent us? Not just in their actions, but in how they participate, cheer for their teammates, and how they comport themselves in and around other athletes (good: men’s basketball team cheering for swimming; bad: same team staying on a luxury yacht)

We need to let the stories tell themselves, rather than having NBC spoon fed us tape delayed highlights and heavily produced segments. One of the highlights for me was seeing runner Brenda Martinez sporting a Coheed and Cambria tattoo, which she later acknowledged to fellow fans. On Twitter. That bit about seeing yourself in the games? Works for us old people too. She overcame incredible adversity, trained in basketball shoes, and has given back to her sport immensely. There’s a hero of the games who doesn’t need a medal to earn our admiration, and has done more to tell her story with authenticity than any professional sportscaster.

We need to realize that the athletes representing our country are projection of our demographics and diversity, and to treat our country’s team with respect, equality, and a little bit of “all nations but mostly America” pride (to quote Muppet Sam The Eagle). If we go looking for every fault with those we’ve put on the international stage, how can we achieve anything with our neighbors and co-workers who represent those same changing demographics. It’s not just gender and skin color and religion and body shape; it’s style and approach and geography and public comfort. I’m sometimes amazed that Bill Walton became an outstanding basketball commentator after learning how to work with his stutter; had internet trolls existed to shame him in his early interviews then we would have lost the opportunity to hear a jocular and informed voice. Why on earth do we even consider shaming those who have represented us so well on the world stage, for their actions in cheering teammates, receiving honors, or excelling in their sports that require strength and agility composited with poise and character in any shape or color of body?

If the Summer Olympics are our house guest, here to reflect our collective and individual behaviors, let them show the best of mature adult as well as dreaming child.

Generational Performance

I believe once every 18-20 years we witness something that constitutes a generation marking performance; a confluence of skills, poise, courage, stamina, team and individual leadership that make us sit up and take notice, in a way that we’ll use as a chronological reference point for the ensuring quarter century.

Within my sports recall lifetime:

The 1980 US Men’s Olympic Hockey Team. The 1969 Mets and 2004 Red Sox. The “We Are Family” 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. Bill Walton in his final season with the Boston Celtics. Mark Spitz.

I’ll add a Rio quartet: Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel. Nearly all of the previous generational moments happened in a world of print media, selective mediated access, and slowly evolving timelines. Our US Olympic women athletes competed in a world of social media, intense pressure, direct access to and from the athletes, and a race to expose “stories.” Each of the four battled competition and those external pressures to deliver a generational performance. Katie Ledecky literally swam away from the pack, and then was the roommate and teammate everyone wants as she cheered Simone Manuel to a gold medal. Simone Manuel combined faith and grace and power to establish new a first ascent. Aly Raisman showed how you come back from crushing disappointment with stamina, humility, hard work, and an intense smile. Simone Biles makes me question gravity, in both the physical and existential sense. She seems to be having more fun the higher she flies.

The generational moment is that I like the Olympics again, after re-assuring myself that I wouldn’t watch or care.

Father’s Day 2016: A Poem In The Cards

This is a chapter from a book I’ve had in progress for more than 15 years — one day I may finish it, but for now, here is my tribute to fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and fathers’ friends, all of whom help us craft poetry out of our allegiances. Hat tip to Cory Doctorow who provided inspiration along the way.

“..so the cards stayed in the glass cases in Eddie’s…And after a while I no longer opened my shoe boxes…And the surprising thing was that I never really missed them. Or even thought of them in any special way. And very gradually the memory of it all faded….And that is the way you always lose your childhood.”
– Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris, “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book”

“It all made poems…when I spread them out in front of the TV, and arranged them just so, they made up a poem that took my breath away…A thirtyish bachelor trying to spend half a month’s rent on four glasses so that he could remember his Grandma’s kitchen was a story and a poem.”
–Cory Doctorow, “Craphound”

My childhood was never lost, not with the passing of Willie Stargell and not with university commencement and not when my baseball cards were thrown away, because my Mom never thought to dispose of the briefcase in which they were safeguarded. My childhood retreated and went subsurface, only to be reeled back into current events with my own kids. Collecting sports memorabilia, especially sports cards, is the cornerstone of that rebuilding.

I love collecting things with a past. They form a jigsaw puzzle, missing some center pieces, telling most of a story with only a few salient details left to be discovered or invented. I have an entire box of world coins, collected by uncles in various tours through Europe, stamped with mint dates between the World Wars, in currencies or from countries that no longer exist. The older, more worn coins have history encoded in fingerprints and scratches. Their person to person circulation stopped when pocketed by someone like my Uncle Ziemel, saving a coin from every country where he had a cup of coffee and told his own stories.

Coins were something to be studied and tucked into cardboard albums; baseball cards were the circulating currency of my youth. I remember the smell of the bubble gum inside the wax paper packages, the slightly gritty feel of the card unlucky enough to be riding shotgun with what passed for gum but had the taste and consistency of an ill-fated marriage of gum rubber and sugar. Baseball cards arrived in my hands from a number of sources: cards won in flipping contests with classmates; payment for some nerd oriented activity – my biggest haul being payment for the home-made Phillies jersey t-shirt that eventually ruined my friends’ laundry; a reward after a Little League game long before the snack bar became a staple of the 60-foot diamonds.

I sorted, arranged, cataloged and read my baseball cards with interest ritually required for rabbinic interpretation, fearing that I’d overlook some subtle nuance or fact that might prove useful later in life. It’s how I learned that Willie Stargell was from Oklahoma; that he owned a chicken restaurant that was his off-season occupation; or that some baseball players took time off for military service before resuming their careers. Baseball cards were the intersection of nerdiness and sports; they let me be a student of the game without actually playing the game. They were a view into the game; they elaborated on players’ lives off the diamond one sentence at a time; they were a mass of statistics and numbers and checklists and other things to thrill a budding engineer. I never had the urge to collect famous players or complete sets; I had what I had and was happy to pick up the occasional extra Willie Stargell card as well as additional Pirates or Mets. Too young for Mickey Mantle, too old for baseball cards as a serious business. Cards were the harbinger of elementary and middle school springs, pre-dating televised spring training games or fantasy baseball magazines on the variety store shelves. An old business-suitable briefcase served as safe haven and predictor of their eventual value in someone else’s business, and prevented them from suffering in the periodic childhood closet pogroms.

Somewhere between 7th grade and having kids of my own, sports cards went from “my business” to Big Business. Collectors fret over the nuances of a card in mint condition and look at the quality of the image on the card stock. Price guides abound and cards represent a brisk business on eBay, creating a stock market for childhood memories. Sports cards don’t have the well-traveled history of a 1923 Czechoslovakian coin. They go from sealed pack to plastic holder to eBay or memorabilia retailer, untouched, unworn, maintaining their “near mint” status but losing some ability to carry the memory of touch. The sports card industry has somewhat made up for this by embedding pieces of game-worn jerseys or equipment in the cards themselves, so our associations with the cards are through experiences with the literal sports thumbnails wedged between the pasteboard slices.
Before commercial interests established formal systems for card ownership, my own grading system went something like this:

  • Pack Fresh. Smells of bubble gum, and minor nicks where the glue that holds the wax packs together leeches onto the face of the cards. They last approximately 36 seconds in this state before being shoved into pants pockets, thrown into boxes, or deemed fit only for spoking. Should a particularly interesting card surface in the wax pack, the lifespan of pack fresh cardboard increases correspondingly, but eventually the goods have to make it back to your bedroom.
  • Unlaundered. Rescued from pants pockets before the washing machine could bleach ink from the paper, corners slightly damaged from last minute shoving out of a teacher’s line of sight, but reasonably legible.
  • Game worn. Today “game worn” means the card has that small slice of a jersey, bat, glove, stick, or other equipment wedged between the front and back faces. It is a bit of the game reduced to trading size and delivered to the collector. In middle school, “game worn” meant that the card had seen its share of flipping, trading, last-second jamming into desk trays in home room, and any other signs of having been played with by pre-teens.
  • Spoked. Shows clear signs of being clipped to the fork holding a bicycle wheel. Spoking a card, or a set of cards, meant that your bicycle made a cool thwack-thwack-thwack sound as you raced up and down the street; if motorcycle mufflers were filled with papier-mache you’d get the same sound effect. Much of the ink on the front is worn off, and at the atomic level card is barely held by the weak nuclear force. There are definitely times when, as fans, we feel we’d like to take one of our less favorite players and administer a virtual spoking, but as kids we did it symbolically and regularly. I humbly apologize to the man in the Pittsburgh hot corner, Richie Hebner, for spoking him. Multiple times. Not my fault he showed up in wax packs with the alarming regularity of the telephone bill.

Most of my baseball cards – and one errant pack of basketball cards, whose story figures prominently into my little sports montage – lead back to Grandpa Herman’s general store. The prime funding timing and sources for my little cardboard empire were spring and summer afternoons spent at my grandparents’ house. Each invariably brought a trip across the street to the general store, where the candy assortment seemed to stretch from the front door to the darker regions where the meat cases began and younger interests faded. Grandpa Herman’s store evolved from a carriage stop; Smithburg is midpoint – the way the crow flies or the carriage is drawn – between New York City and Philadelphia. A disorganized mosaic of office supplies, hardware, cold cuts, and engine parts defined the boundaries of the store, only Grandpa knew everything’s true location but you never had to ask twice for any item. You could get a tank of gas pumped and the same person (frequently my father) made you a sandwich, tossed in a bag with carriage bolts and some oil (sandwich or crankcase, your choice). The shelves ran floor to ceiling; the days ran dark to dark o’clock.

Somewhere near the front door, just to the right, where the grandchildren could look up at Grandpa, and he would look down over the counter to his grandchildren, were boxes of Topps baseball cards, seated proudly on the candy shelves next to the Necco wafers. On Sundays when the family congregated at our house, Grandpa brought an all-star selection from his general store along in the trunk, a true grab bag with all of the younger cousins bobbing for whatever goodies we chose without visual cues. The unmistakable feel of a pack of cards in your hands, the promise of what lay inside, is a juvenile lottery ticket on which there is no way to lose. Even if you get your fourteenth Richie Hebner card.

One Sunday in the late 60s, several of us – the kinder, as our grandparents referred to us in Yiddish – popped into the store. In the floor, near the register, was a small trap door that functioned as a safe at one point. Inside were all of the trappings that didn’t quite make the candy aisle, including a dusty box of Topps trading cards. We were handed several unidentified wax packs of cards, with Grandpa’s shrug indicating that he didn’t know what they were either, but his smile said that he was happy we’d take them. We tore into the packs that afternoon, realized that they were basketball cards of some unknown vintage. Faced with players who looked like our parents in their wedding pictures, from cities of uncertain basketball heritage (Syracuse? There were professional teams in Syracuse?) they were shoved into a back pocket while we hoped for another dip into the paper goody bag once we had crossed back to the house side of the street. Those hoops cards were dumped into the big briefcase along with the rest of my cardboard memories, where Willie Stargell, Ted Williams, and a collection of Pittsburgh Pirates (including a pristine Richie Hebner) sat protected from the elements. Most men will tell you that their baseball card collections died a more pitiful death than transit through the washing machine – they were thrown out during some room purge; my parents simply insisted that I clean out my room, and the briefcase moved with me to Massachusetts where the pieces of the Topps jigsaw puzzle would finally slide together.

It’s necessary to fast-forward to adulthood and my own married life. Taking a hint from the numismatists, sports cards today are slabbed and graded; once they become an investment they are no longer something you can touch to enjoy. That robs you of the feeling, of the connection, that this was little cardboard token was part of someone’s life, perhaps part of your own. I adore my old Willie Stargell cards that are far from mint condition with perfect centering and sharp color because they survived four tours of duty in my favorite school pants. Willie Stargell went to science class with me and sat where wallet and car keys sit today. The briefcase full of cardboard wonder came to rest at our house in Burlington, Massachusetts, where, between moves, I decided to examine its contents more thoroughly and was again caught blindside by sports tradition.

One of the advantages of living in a major east coast city is that the sports teams tend to have long histories, so it’s easy to pattern match childhood possessions against popular culture. Those nondescript wax packs of cards from Grandpa Herman were a set of 1957 Topps basketball cards, the first year such a set was produced. In the middle of the pack was a man in a kelly green uniform, sporting the #14 of the Boston Celtics: Bob Cousy. In my single-digit years this never registered with me; he was another guy with the wrong ball in a strangely lit picture. With the briefcase open, and the business of my cards displayed before me, I immediately recognized one of the saints of Boston sports. Gently slipped him into a plastic protective sleeve, then and ever since that afternoon Cousy runs above my desk, frozen in time dribbling toward the hoop, evoking the voice of late Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most with “a notion, going right to left”. Cousy’s backstory doesn’t involve basketball for me; it’s about my grandfather, a first generation immigrant to America; the humble beginnings of a major sports derivative business; boys and the little swatches of youth that we cling to forever. Or at least until we decide to part with them via eBay.

Fast forward to early 2005 when I am stuck at home with a broken leg, battling cabin fever, making it time to once again dip into my cardboard history. If the cards don’t hold my interest, there must be someone else who can put a time and place to a face, a quote, or a number left open on a checklist. Turns out that 1957 Topps basketball cards have a following somewhere north of ice hockey in Florida but less than current all-star baseball players; there’s significant activity and action as I lovingly photograph, describe and post most of the cards. Cousy watches the whole thing, immobilized in his plastic trap, as my trading business gains critical size and momentum. I am momentarily in middle school again, and thanks to the crutches, just as clumsy.

Riding shotgun in the wax pack with Cousy was a player named George Yardley who set the single-season scoring record in the 57-58 season. Yardley was the first player to score 2,000 points in a season, and is enshrined at the other end of Massachusetts in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Even if you follow basketball, it’s likely you didn’t know that much about George Yardley, or any other NBA baller from that season. They were, and are, in the words of someone who met most of those players, “very nice, humble men”. Nice and humble don’t trump “valuable in this condition,” and my eBay transactions continue. This results in the hobbyist’s own worst enabler: more money to spend on the hobby.

Sales of old basketball cards fuel purchases of hockey cards. This dates back to the beginning of our family love affair with our favorite New Jersey Devil, Patrik Elias, when I asked Ben “What if we try to collect every Patrik Elias hockey card?” It seemed a simple way to get him interested in one of my childhood pastimes, a simpler diversion in a day of video games and movies on demand. Simple questions have complex answers. Obvious simple questions have very complex, difficult, expensive answers. “Every Patrik Elias” card tops out at close to a thousand unique items, ranging from the simple rookie card printed before anyone in New Jersey knew that the terminal, accented Czech “s” sounds like an “sh”, to cards highlighting milestones and carrying the ever-popular slices of game equipment. A first approximation of buying all of them would make it the most expensive hobby that didn’t land me in the hospital.

When they became big business, sports cards also lost their childhood. They became a stock market in their own right, with the card companies annually creating new products with ever-decreasing print runs. Today, sports cards are about numbered editions, jersey cards, game-used equipment cards, short-print (fewer than average) run, and rookie cards. They are about acquisition and ownership, not knowledge and collecting. However, they still have the ability to make adult men think about days spent looking at the faces of heroes, arrayed before them in a system that only made sense at the time, gazing back at us.

Starting with current cards selected from packs, and adding small “player sets” picked up on eBay, we had a good starting point. A year of more precise searching, bidding and research brought us more than halfway through An Illustrated History of Patrik Elias, in full color and mint condition. At that time, Ben and I hit what most collectors think of as the “hard ones” – the difficult cards were what remained as empty spaces in our collection; the easy finds were found and now equal combinations of money and luck were required. Immediately after becoming flush with hobby funding from I discover the existence of the Elias “Country of Origin” card. With some mix of bravado and stupidity, I decide I’m going to find one.

Sadly, there may only be one to find. The Beckett Price Guide, de facto authorities on sports card values, doesn’t list a price for it due to scarcity. This puts its value in collectors terms roughly on par with the Hope Diamond, with only a slightly better chance of finding one in the wild. Supposedly there are a dozen that have been printed, but I’ve only seen proof of two in existence; a picture on a web site and an eBay auction that I managed to misjudge. I search eBay listings and online catalogs to no avail; there are no more Elias Country of Origin cards than in-the-wild large bore diamonds to be found in New Jersey. That’s when luck comes into play, as one of the two is re-listed on eBay and I simply bid until it’s mine. I exchange the price of a good dinner for a small rectangle of high-gloss paper, an inch-tall picture of Patrik Elias on the side, and a square inch of jersey real estate wedged in the middle. Without eBay, I would have been forced to go to card shows, trawl through dealer inventory, and simply hope that a 3 ounce card and a 250 pound man crossed paths with a “do you know” radix of no more than two. The minor miracle urged along by good obsessive-compulsive online shopping habits lets me have a daily reminder of a great day involving two generations of heroes.

Three winters earlier, Ben and I attended the 2002 NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles. It was a magic weekend of “guy time,” watching hockey, talking about hockey, glimpsing athletes in and around the hotel, going to parties and generally celebrating in a city known for celebrations. Elias was voted onto the All-Star team, wearing a maroon jersey for the World Team, facing off against teammates Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur skating for the North American All-Stars. During the pre-game warm-ups, Ben ran to the glass, watching the players skate without helmets, hoping to catch a glimpse of Elias as he sped by. Before the game started, the 1980 Olympic hockey team was introduced. My heart jumped up into my throat, nearly a quarter century of my own hockey memory looking back at me, waving again from the ice, this time in person. I quickly and quietly explained the Miracle on Ice to Ben, letting the video montage and the rink announcer provide the details. Two weeks later, at the opening of the Salt Lake City Olympics, we smiled again having seen this hand tipped as the 1980 hockey team lit the torch. Those are the moments that forever bond a father and son; not the winning or championships; just seeing heroes as men, made human without helmets or equipment, smiling for all to see. During that warmup period, when the players and the fans were all smiles as well, I captured one badly focused picture of Ben looking back at me, Elias looking back to the blue line, both of their blond curls in the frame, with a red, white and blue Czech flag jersey patch on Elias’ shoulder visible just past Ben. If you know countries of origin and hairstyle, you can figure out the puzzle, otherwise it’s another blurry picture taken in a major sports arena by an enthusiastic father. I love that picture for both reasons.

When the bubble envelope containing my personal Honus Wagner equivalent arrives, I wait for Ben so we can open it together. Nestled deep inside the mailer is a smaller package, wrapped with card protectors and tape, a hard shell inside the soft outside. We peel it open, and I show Ben the card with a jersey patch segment in the middle, a tiny window on a Czech flag waving to us, having gone from Elias’ shoulder to our kitchen through a card manufacturer. The look on his face tells me that he gets it immediately; he’s seen that player in that jersey with that patch, and we have the picture to prove we were there when the jersey and patch were game-worn. There’s a soundly reassuring circular logic to it, value in a shared memory far greater than the price tag. Even though our Elias cardboard mosaic now contains hundreds of little rectangles, there’s only one that sits out on display in my office. It frames a small lineup of a plastic-cased Bob Cousy, a well-worn Willie Stargell, and a flag-waving Patrik Elias. It’s the poem of multiple family generations, a haiku tinged with regret that I didn’t know my grandfather well enough, but hope and promise for what and who comes next.

Ecstatic with this happy end, I still have cards to mail out as payments trickle in, completing the flow of funds that funded my mental excursion back to Los Angeles. On the way to the post office with the George Yardley card, I notice that it’s addressed to someone with family name Yardley. This cannot be a coincidence, so I email him as soon as the bubble mailer is en route, asking if he’s related. The buyer returns stories of professional basketball players who are nice and humble and a George Yardley card is his own Country of Origin: his father is pictured on the front. He was putting together sets of his father’s sports cards for each of his kids. My grandfather’s desire to clean up his safe area, followed many years later by my desire to clean up piles of old trading cards, will connect another generation of Yardleys to their grandfather. I’ve returned whatever karmic balance in the universe that caused the Elias Country of Origin to re-appear out of the wild, as both Yardleys and I have bridged generations with a story told in pictures of our childhoods.

The value of memorabilia is the tensile strength with which it ties a thing to a point in your or your family’s life. I doubt Nick Swisher will be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but his photograph on my wall of signed pictures reminds me of the summer of 2009 when daughter Elana and I watched the Yankees together en route to a World Series win. It’s more Richie Hebner than Reggie Jackson, but it makes the memory tangible as well. The artifacts make poems, the poems tell stories, and the fire of those stories forges family tradition.