I'd always been of the mindset that malls were decidedly uncool.
I've never been a mall guy, though part of that probably has to do with the fact that I've lived across the street from a megamall for virtually my entire life. I'd stay as far away from it as possible were it not for the fact that my local Target -- and its expansive baseball card aisle -- is housed there. And even then it takes a special effort to will myself into the place.
I've mingled with the mall crowd on many occasions in my life, and every time I go, it's like a tape on an endless loop: the deadpan faces, the exhausted suburban parents, the wandering adolescents, the Hot Topics and Forever 21s, the cleanups in Aisle 4, the vague smell of cinnamon rolls and sweat, the never-ending white walls, the infinite fluorescent lighting.
Malls are just not my habitat.
But then an epiphany recently presented itself: how uncool could malls be if they've been featured on baseball cards?
Allow me to explain. Last week, during one of my aimless scrolls through a Facebook feed filled with cat memes and selfies and presidential debates, I stumbled upon something truly spectacular. One of the handful of baseball pages I follow posted an article about the Spokane Indians team sets of the late '80s (then affiliated with the Padres), which itself linked to another write-up regarding the same topic.
Reading through those articles left me with two questions -- 1) They took photos for baseball cards at THE MALL? and 2) MY GOD, how have I never heard about these before?!
No less than about five minutes and a few clicks later, I'd secured the 1987 and '88 Spokane sets (I couldn't find a copy of the '89s, sadly) for just ten dollars combined.
The story behind these cards is as genius as it is zany.
In an effort to drum up business, the NorthTown Mall in Spokane (who sponsored these sets) had players from the local minor league club pose at various shops around the suburban palace. The result is a masterful mix of grainy photos filled with shopping bags and escalators.
What's more, a few future big-leaguers do indeed pop up in these sets. Dave Hollins and Paul Faries would both enjoy a handful of years in the majors in the '90s, and Jose Valentin -- the lone "binder guy" to appear in either set -- became something of a star with the hometown White Sox in the early 2000s.
I wonder if any of them even remember these cards exist.
One of my favorites from the '87 set is Mike Myers here, not to be confused with the Canadian SNL star or the longtime lefty specialist who seemingly appeared with just about every team in the majors.
No, this Mike Myers would be out of baseball by 1990, but at least he can say he got a card with a plush smoking monkey out of his minor league career.
A couple members of the squad posed in front of DJ's, a local music establishment in the NorthTown Mall.
Dig the Sgt. Pepper-era Fabs behind Mr. Lutticken.
As you'll soon see, mannequins are much more prominent in the 1988 set.
But that didn't stop Saul Soltero from showing off the summer's hottest fashions.
Manager Rob Picciolo took the opportunity to get a photo with his toddler son and, better yet, the flip side of this card features "stats" for the 2'4", 23-pound Dustin Picciolo.
Hard to believe that little tyke celebrated his 30th birthday this year.
I still can't say for certain, but I think this might be my favorite card from the '87 set.
It's awkward enough to have Reggie Farmer pose in front of what appears to be a barbershop, but even more awkward is the fact that, from the look of that dazed individual on the right, they seemed to snap these photos right in the middle of the mall's standard hours of operation. You can just see that customer wondering just what in the heck is going on.
And now his mundane afternoon haircut is forever immortalized on a baseball card.
The 1988 set picked up right where the previous year had left off at Spokane's NorthTown Mall.
Many of the cards feature different stores (The Dog's Ear?), new garments ($8.95 for a T-shirt?!), and slightly crisper photos, which is a plus.
You can almost smell that fresh fabric above the distinct nacho-cheese smell that most malls seem to have.
What I might love most about these sets is how unironic they are.
You'd expect these guys to be flashing sarcastic smiles, rolling their eyes, wanting to be anywhere but where they were at that moment. At least that's how I would react if someone told me they wanted to snap pictures of me at the mall.
But, doggone it, they look like they're having real, legitimate fun here, and it translated into a brilliant hidden gem of baseball card history.
Nikco Riesgo and AJ Sager would both reach the bigs (Riesgo's being a brief 4-game cup of coffee with the '91 Expos), and it's truly a shame that a guy with a name like Squeezer Thompson didn't make it to the show.
This was Riesgo's first baseball card, and he's quoted in one of the articles as saying that he thought all card sets were done this way until he eventually moved on to other franchises.
We wish, Nikco, we wish.
Here's another one with that hilarious Bystander Effect.
What's this guy in a baseball uniform doing in the food court?
Between the mirrored reflection and the quick camera flash, there's an almost surrealist feel to this particular card.
That's not even mentioning the shampoo.
Even grown men can still have a little fun with stuffed animals.
Which reminds me that much of the expansive Beanie Babies collection I amassed as a kid probably came from my local mall.
More mannequins -- both male and female -- courtesy of the NorthTown Mall.
Also present is Greg Conley standing next to a cardboard cutout of pilot Chuck Yeager (a cousin of former Dodger Steve Yeager).
But as far as cardboard cutouts go...
...this one does Chuck Yeager one better, and is far and away my favorite card to fall out of either of these sets.
That's manager Steve Lubratich with an arm around a life-sized cutout of, yes, you're seeing that right...Whitney Houston. I don't really know what I can say about this card other than the fact of how oddly genius it is that they had the skipper pose for this one rather than one of the players.
Despite my conflicting feelings regarding malls, they do indeed speak to me. As I imagine they would for anyone who grew up in the suburbs and window-shopped at every store in the place. I'm still not exactly sure how I went so long without knowing about these sets. They're goofy, unique, awesome, and brilliant all rolled into one. And it's all thanks to a mall.
Maybe I should start giving malls a little more credit.