To me, part of the beauty of collecting baseball cards is the escape it offers, an escape almost paradoxically rooted in the reflections and images of real-life players in a real-life sport.
But as of late I've been forced to consider some of the more unpleasant questions that arise when that fourth wall breaks. Specifically: what happens when a player you once admired turns out to be a total dunce? What happens to the cards you've accumulated of that player, and how do you reconcile the lost time, spent money, and dead joy spent chasing said cards?
These questions, while uncomfortable, definitely aren't anything new. But they really came to the forefront during a Twitter exchange that recently took place between former teammates Seth McClung and Aubrey Huff, one that saw McClung label Huff as the worst teammate he ever had. Huff has come off as a bit of a bonehead in the past, and his response here didn't do him any favors. And if Huff wasn't a player I once admired I honestly wouldn't care -- he was one of my top five player collections at one point, and I currently own about 300 cards of his. To say I don't have much enthusiasm for my Aubrey Huff collection these days would be an understatement.
As the slightly updated version of a popular axiom goes: never follow your heroes on Twitter.
I could live with some of my one-time heroes becoming dunces -- it happens.
But unfortunately the question doesn't end there: the longer you stretch it out, the more serious it gets. Like, what happens when one of your favorite players, like Robinson Cano, gets busted for PEDs? Or, in the case of Marlon Byrd, what happens when one of your favorite players gets busted for PEDs...twice? It's even more painful with the latter since I gave Byrd somewhat of a pass after his first PED bust and kept collecting him, only to wind up with the egg on my face after his second suspension (which he retired before serving).
I used to be a big fan of both of these dudes (especially Byrd), but ever since I've been led to question what was real about them and what was all just a drug-made illusion.
Here's one that has sadly become somewhat of a regular occurrence: what happens when a player you like reveals himself to be a domestic abuser?
As a rule, I don't remove guys from my binders. Once they're in, they're in for good -- it's one of those collectors' OCD things for me. But I no longer accumulate their cards, and if I could go back in time and just never start collecting wife-beaters like Addison Russell and Steven Wright in the first place, I definitely would. (Wright also has a PED suspension under his belt now, which makes him a double dunce.)
Aroldis Chapman's trade to the Cubs brought up all kinds of uncomfortable questions for me when the Cubs traded for him in 2016 -- it's obvious they wouldn't have won the long-awaited World Series that year without him. As a baseball fan, I'm eternally grateful to have seen the Cubs win it all, but as a sheer feeling human being, it's hard for me to reconcile. I have no doubt that people can change for the better, and Chapman seems to have done that, but I mean the dude fired a gun in the same room as his girlfriend. That's pretty darn close to unforgivable.
And speaking of the Cubs...
...what happens when the team you love is run by a hateful, money-crazed dingbat?
It's no secret that the Ricketts family supports a lot of the horrible things going on in the country right now. And somehow they had the bright idea to give Addison Russell a job last year. No? Not bad enough? How about their grand scheme to take Cubs off public television and move them to a subscription-only channel starting next year?
What I once said with sarcasm is starting to skew more and more to reality, but...sometimes I wonder why I'm even a Cubs fan in the first place.
The sad part is that none of what I've talked about so far has even scratched the surface of baseball's long and often tainted history.
And by no means am I trying to say that I'm above any of this with my collection and general fandom. For example, I've long been a fan of Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle, and I'm still a huge collector of both to this day. I hoard as many of their cards as I can. But despite their stardom, both were also heavy alcoholics and general deadbeats for much of their lives.
My collection isn't perfect, and neither am I.
And what of people like Ty Cobb?
What of Cobb, a racist and generally incorrigible human being? What of Cap Anson, who refused to play any team that fielded a black player? What of baseball's long and embarrassing history of segregation? It's easy to ask these questions, but as a collector, it's so much more difficult to answer them with anything resembling correctness. Of course Cobb was an asshole, and Anson a dickhead. But the unfortunate fact is that I remain fascinated by them, and I thus collect them both, along with the numerous other dead-ball stars who froze major league baseball into a white man's game for nearly a century. You'll sadly find the Josh Gibsons and Oscar Charlestons and Cool Papa Bells in my binders along with the very same people who kept them from ever playing big-league ball.
It's admittedly one of the darker corners of collecting, bridging that disconnect between being (or trying to be) a compassionate human being, yet at the same time owning cards of idiots, 'roiders, wife-beaters, drinkers, racists, etc., etc. At the very least and most simplistic, it's uncomfortable. And as a white man observing what has been and still is largely a white man's game -- and devoted to what is overwhelmingly a white man's hobby -- I have no answers for any of the questions I've asked in this post, nor am I equipped to answer them in the first place.
I may love baseball, and the cards that go along with it, but there's no changing the damaging and sometimes sad history of the game reflected in the very cards I choose to collect.