Friday, September 18, 2009

The Pyznarski Affair

How about more with sports memorabilia? When I was young I was an avid baseball card collector. My first real year of collecting was 1983, and I petered out somewhere around 1989 with the first year of Upper Deck and the Ken Griffey Jr rookie card ruckus (for what it's worth, I got 4 Griffey Jr rookie cards in packs. One I gave to my brother - or traded - I can't remember which, but the circumstances were somewhat dubious; a second I sold freshman year of high school - to a kid who would become my best friend - for a pittance of its Beckett value; two I still have safely tucked away). But one of the highlights of collecting as a kid was attending card shows and trying to find deals.

There were no deals to be had, of course, but one year I developed a flawed strategy in which I thought I could increase my overall gains by playing some dark horses. I decided I would do this by buying up rookie cards of some of the less heralded prospects. And there were a lot of them. Go back and check your Rated Rookies - I'm talking here of the Paul Coleman's, the Julio Machado's, the Kelly Mann's. You've never heard of any of these players, I'm sure (Machado's career ended with murder charges in Venezuela, Mann's ended in an accusation of petty theft), but they sat side by side with the likes of Gary Sheffield, John Olerud, and John Smoltz. These Rated Rookies, Future Stars, No 1 Draft Picks, though unproven, were tapped by the card companies as sure bets and therefore automatically went for a higher price than, say, your common veteran utility infielder. And these cards were worth holding on to in case a player's career did take off as the rookie card was usually the most valuable.

It was at one of these card shows, I don't remember where, exactly, but it must have been at a Courtyard Marriott because they all were, that I decided to try out this strategy of seeking out these Rated Rookies rather than waiting for them to come to me. My eleven year self made his way down one of the many aisles with a pocketful of lawn mowing money, oversized glasses, mesh Padres cap askew, looking not only for rarities of my favorite players - Tony Gywnn and Will Clark - but for that rookie with a certain something. At a table staffed by a heavy set man with a mustache, I looked long and hard at the year's offerings of future stars in all shapes and sizes. Soon I was drawn to one in particular. It was definitely the Padres uniform that caught my eye, but more - it was the ease with which he held the bat, the confidence in his eyes. I settled on my star and pointed.

"How much?" I ask.

The man blows about an inch of dust off the card at the tip of my finger.

"Hey," he yells to a beefy twin. "How much for the Pyznarski?"

We pause as this second giant lumbers over.

"Pyznarski, eh?" He looks at me. "He's a dollar."

As I reach for my money, he slips in as an aside "he'll be a good player" sealing what was already a done deal.

I clear my throat.

"I'll take five," I muster.

Four fleshy eyebrows, two sets of them, rise, but not a word is spoken, for this - this is the magic hour. I hand over five dollars and get my five precious Pyznarskis. We all smile, each certain he's come out ahead.

Not surprisingly, these two fatties ripped me off good. Not only did they overcharge me at the time, but Pyznarski was a bust. I never heard of him again, and I dare say I never thought of him again. That is until recently when I discovered this in an old book of baseball cards:

Three of the five, mint condition, staring hopefully up at me. The other two lost or traded, these triplets stand as a testament to the folly of youth.

But more than that...what about Pyznarski? What became of him? From Baseball Reference I get this tidbit - "Pyznarski was named 1986 The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year and was also named Pacific Coast League MVP. Pyznarski got a September call-up, and made his ML debut on September 14, at the age of 26. His 42 at bats would prove to be his only at bats in the majors." Wikipedia further fills out the mystery: "He grew up on the South side of Chicago, attending Marist High School. Pyznarski led Marist to the IHSA Class AA State Championship in 1978. After a stellar high school career, he went on to attend Eastern Illinois. He set several offensive records at EIU. After a brilliant career in the minors, highlighted by The Sporting News & Topps 1986 Minor League Player of the Year Award, Pyznarski enjoyed a brief stint in the majors. Pyznarski now is an assistant coach at Marist and is raising his daughter Mandy who is a junior at Marist." One rarely thinks of these figures enshrined on cards - the very epitome of making it - as not making it, but I guess they often don't. And I was glad to hear he was coaching.

This was my only conscious attempt to buy baseball cards as an investment and I suspect that this market value philosophy of collecting is what helped to kill baseball cards. This attempt to anticipate success and hoard rare cards guided the kids I knew who collected, as we pored over our monthly Beckett's like the stock pages. Card companies took advantage of this, card sellers took advantage of it, and kids went right along with it. It doesn't mean it wasn't fun, and that we didn't follow our favorite players, but the industry began to expand and became much more complicated. Still, I rather think that if Pyznarski had had a longer career, I would have followed him along with Will the Thrill and Tony Gwynn. And these rookies would be worth a mint, I tell ya.


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