Thursday, November 20, 2008

Conquering Collectacitis: Getting to the Heart of a Collection

The first cards I had were O-Pee-Chee E.T. cards. I still remember the box sitting on the counter of the grocery store, begging my mom for a single pack, her conceding but only if my sister got one too, the white powder the gum left on my fingers, sorting through the numbers and putting the story together. Then it was nothing more than a treat, something that got tossed aside a couple of days later and revisited every now and again when a new pack made it into the house. The cards don't survive today, likely the victim of a spring cleaning, move or particularly bad day by any one of my particularly bad dogs.

Next up came 1985-86 O-Pee-Chee Hockey. Again, it was a ritual of sorts. On the way home from Beavers (the junior Canadian version of Boy Scouts) on Wednesday nights I'd ask my stepdad to stop at the local Mac's and let me run in for a pack. His relationship with my mom was still in its infancy and I'd like to think he stopped to help the bonding process along. More likely, he'd didn't care, just as long as I was spending my money and not his.

This marked the first time I really got into organizing my cards. I wasn't worried about the set in as much as I focused on sorting them by team one day, by position the next and then back to team. I loved the checklists as I could scour for the names of the five hockey players I recognized - all of them Edmonton Oilers, of course. Just as the pile was entering the "impressive" stage, a fateful visit from my one-time best friend wiped out that collection in one swooped. To this day I still don't know how he got the cards out the door but I liked to think at the time that he shoved them down his pants and got paper cuts all over his thighs (although, in retrospect, O-Pee-Chee cards have some of the softest edges in the business so I doubt that wish came true).

Over the next few years, there were packs here and there but nothing major: The A-Team, Wacky Packages, Garbage Pail Kids, ALF and Fright Flicks were all favourites, but I never had more than a handful of each. But in 1989 I got my first case of the fever. It wasn't cards, but rather stickers. Late in the 1988-89 hockey season I became friends with someone who was working on the Panini sticker book. I thought it was cool and grabbed a few. I mapped out my quest to build the set but before I got very far the packs ran dry at the local corner store and I had to wait for next year.

Little did I know of the coming boom. Between 1990 and 1993 I tried to collect every baseball and hockey set that came north of the border. This meant mostly O-Pee-Chee and Topps for the first couple of years and then everything as the card stores started popping up. Somewhere around 1993 I noticed the sets were becoming too numerous and these inserts were getting increasingly difficult to find. So I cut back a little to the sets that caught my attention. While I like inserts and the perceived value they brought to my teenaged mind, I was still a base set collector at heart. The foundation was firmly in place for my primary collecting passion, but as the hobby evolved, so did my habits.

For the next couple of years, I was simply grabbing what I could a) find in Canada and b) caught my attention. I started dabbling in team collecting as I pursued the Cleveland Indian bats of Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga and a happy Manny Ramirez. Frank Thomas was also a monster worth getting from the quarter box, as was Mike Piazza because he was a catcher who could hit. This period was one in which I got into to many areas without focusing. I was throwing my McDonald's paycheques around and building a collection I could never describe to anyone.

Then the Internet arrived. I started the first incarnation of Trader Crack's back in 1996 on Geocities posting wantlists and tradelists. It was a pretty sweet time to be collecting. A new world was opened up to me as all of a sudden I wasn't limited by borders. By now I was focused almost exclusively on baseball. Since it wasn't hockey, it was slim pickings around my parts. But with trading I could have anything I wanted and get rid of my unwanted bits. I opened up a few new sets and began two player collections: Johnny Damon because I thought he'd be a star and John Jaha because he had a cool-sounding name and his cards were cheap.

You see, I'm a completist in a lot of ways. Once I'm in, I'm all in. I liked Frank Thomas but he had so many cards that I wouldn't possibly be able to get all of them. And this was before everyone went hog-wild on the parallels. John Jaha, now there was a guy I could go after. He wasn't a star so he didn't have a ton of cards and not a lot of people going after them. Today my John Jaha collection is about as complete as it likely will. Outside of one-of-ones, I am missing less than 10 of his cards. I've also got a couple of memorabilia pieces and oddball bits. His Topps contract would have been mine last week if the Topps Vault only wanted to make some extra funds and ship outside of Canada.

With the new-found collecting freedom, I got the fever bad. I bought anything and everything, traded for everything else and found a then little-used site called eBay to find everything John Jaha. The problem was I was still buying random packs in bunches and not focusing on anything in particular outside of a set or two and my player.

The fever led to an infection in my wallet that caused massive bleeding of pay cheques. Everything would be gone with my frequent sprees to the shops. Sure, I came away with some solid trade bait but when you're collecting John Jaha you don't need much as people are normally happy to pass their commons on in bulk.

One day I realized my collecting habits were too chaotic. It was time to focus. No more going after anything and everything. No more blowing entire pay cheques (note, I was young, not married, no kids, no responsibilities) and having nothing to show for it other than an Angel Pena autograph and way too many half-finished sets from series that sucked. It was about this time I stopped buying much wax. It was too expensive for getting little in return. A decade ago the Canadian dollar was worth about 50 percent less than the US dollar. This meant I was paying $100 for a box of low- to middle-end products like Stadium Club and Bowman. Instead I started getting singles I needed off eBay and continued trading.

Today, sets are still my main passion, although I limit myself to only a couple per year. I go after a set that catches my eye and, traditionally, Topps base sets. Of course, when something new comes along like Masterpieces I find myself adding to the wantlists, but with the Internet, I'm now at a point where I can build a set through trading without buying a single pack.

I work primarily in baseball and non-sport, with little straying today. I find now my collection is more focused and I'm much happier. I'm a firm believer in gimmicks. I like lots of things about card collecting and am pretty easy to please. So even though I build sets, collect John Jaha, have enough Montreal Expos to write the team's history through cards, set aside Canadian-born baseball players, get giddy over autographs of guys I've heard of and am mesmerized by holograms, most everything I get today has a spot in a specific box or binder. I purposefully keep massive wantlists so that I have a better chance of making trades.

Much of the joy I take from collecting today is in the chase. In the past I've lost sight of what it was I was chasing in the first place. That led to fever and burnout. The simple medicine was simply sitting back and seeing what it was I wanted from a collection. Now that I have that figured out, collecting is fun again.

This is my contribution to the Blog Bat Around. Thanks, Gellman for the wonderful idea.

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