Today, young adults have a vast assortment of ways they might become the next millionaire. They could start a software company. They could start a tech company. They could win a reality show.
In 1991, however, we did not have any of those options. But we still knew exactly how we were going to become rich beyond our wildest dreams: baseball cards.
I was absolutely certain that baseball cards were going to make me filthy rich. I started out buying wax packs at Rose’s, occasionally dipping into the world of rack packs, where you could attempt to select the pack with the biggest star showing on the front of the pack (always Ryne Sandberg for me). Then I learned about Paper Heroes in Knightdale, a baseball card shop owned by a gentleman named Paul Snow. For at least my next five birthdays, my entire birthday list looked like this:
GIFT CERTIFICATES TO PAPER HEROES
Armed with that year’s birthday haul, I’d spent entire afternoons at Paper Heroes. Sometimes I’d buy full boxes (36 packs in each box). Sometimes I’d buy single older cards in the fancy screw-down holders. By 1991, I had become a savvy baseball card connoisseur. I attended baseball cards show at the NC State Fairgrounds. At one point, I subscribed to Baseball Cards magazine, Sports Collector’s Digest, Tuff Stuff, and of course, I eagerly awaited every month’s issue of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly (they once had an awesome Bo Jackson cover that briefly became a collectible in itself). The latter had a price guide that was essentially written in stone. Every month, I’d wait to see if any of my prize cards–you know, like the ’89 Upper Deck Griffey or the ’83 Topps Sandberg–had possibly received an “up arrow” by the price, or perhaps even the dreaded “down arrow.” As I tallied my imaginary net worth every month, my dad would unfailingly tell me, “You realize the cards aren’t worth anything if you don’t sell them.” I ignored him. Why would I sell my baseball cards? They would be worth millions one day.
In 1991, Topps celebrated its 40th anniversary of printing baseball cards with a special promotion. They randomly inserted one of every Topps card into wax packs. To a savvy baseball card shark like myself, this seemed like obvious gold. I purchased an entire case of 1991 Topps cards, meaning I purchased 20 boxes of 36 packs each. And why not? There might be a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle in there! In 1991, that card was approaching $10,000; by the time I was really ancient, like 40 years old, it would probably be worth as much as the Mona Lisa. Dad was convinced he’d had dozens of Mickey Mantle cards when he was my age, but he unwisely put them in the spokes of his bicycle because “it would make my bike sound like a motorcycle.” Ha! I would never be that foolish! I first sorted my cards into numerical order, then put them in plastic sheets (one to each slot, so the cards wouldn’t decompose each other–can’t be too careful with chemistry), then put the sheets in binders that were labeled by which set they contained.
Yes, looking back I agree it could have been an early sign of an obsessive compulsive disorder.
While cleaning out a closet recently, I found about a dozen of those 1991 Topps boxes, still unopened. There was only one thing to do, of course–tear into them.
I know what you’re most curious about: yes, the gum survived. Yes, that perfect pink sliver of rock-hard alleged gum was still just as pink as you remember. The disappointing news is that it no longer carries that Topps gum smell that will forever be synonymous with baseball cards. A normal person might have realized the lack of a smell might indicate it would be unwise to consume the gum. This did not occur to me. After sitting down with our oldest son, I had to try the gum that came out of the first pack we opened.
It fell apart in my mouth immediately. Now, you might remember that Topps gum was not exactly high-quality carcinogens to begin with. But after 25 years in the wrapper, it had devolved into little tiny pieces of crispy cardboard. It tasted pretty much like what I would imagine chewing an actual baseball card would taste like, except without the complete yearly stats and cool trivia facts. Our oldest daughter happened to be passing through the den when I sampled the gum. I faithfully reported it was not delicious. She gave me an incredulous look, like when I don’t know the words to a Hamilton song. “Why would you eat 25-year-old gum out of a pack of baseball cards?” she said.
As the molecules broke down into tiny little pieces of brittle pink rocks in my mouth, I realized she had a point, although I didn’t admit this to her (Parenting 101). I did quietly make a mental note that in the event of a nuclear strike, I could probably construct an impenetrable shelter from pieces of 1991 Topps gum.
We opened an entire box of 1991 Topps cards while watching the Little League World Series. The coolest card, by far, was the horizontal shot of Roger Clemens posing by the words “Strike out” on Fenway Park’s Green Monster, but that was an aberration; in 1991, most of the cards featured players sitting on the bench in the dugout. Many of the names I remembered (don’t tell me you’ve forgotten Oddibe McDowell), some I didn’t. At one point, Drew piped up with, “Hey, I got Steve Avery!”
I prepared my speech on the early 1990s Atlanta Braves and the Avery/Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz quartet. Just as I began my soliloquy, he continued, “You know…the guy from Making A Murderer!”
I pulled a Ryne Sandberg All-Star card and a Mark Grace…the 1991 version of Adam would have immediately put those cards into top-load holders to keep them in mint condition. Instead, Drew and I gathered what we believed were our best finds and put them on the kitchen table. This is them:
These, folks, are the cards I expected to one day enable me to retire. As best I can tell on eBay, their present worth is currently about a dollar.
Of course, as Dad would say, they’re not worth anything unless I’m selling them. But why would I ever consider selling them? They’re worth too much to me.
But I can let you have a great deal on some slightly chewed gum.
It never fails. No matter what time Carolina plays a home basketball game, whether it’s 12 noon or 9:30 p.m., when the players leave the Smith Center after the game, there are autograph seekers waiting outside. It’s a much better way to try and get signatures than leaning over the tunnel inside the building, and most often, the patience is rewarded with a few autographs or selfies.
Whether you’re the parent of a kid who begs to stand outside and wait for the Tar Heels, or the kid herself who does the begging, I’ve got some reassuring news for you: don’t worry. You can still turn out to be a fairly productive member of society (well, sort of). I’ve got proof.
The above picture was taken at the Blue-White game before the 1990-91 season. Kids, the Blue-White game was something that used to happen twice every preseason, and it was basically an open scrimmage. The 1990 edition was an especially big one, because Dean Smith had inked an incredible freshman class that included Eric Montross, Brian Reese, Derrick Phelps and Pat (“Pat had a good game”) Sullivan, plus a very talented player who would ultimately transfer, Clifford Rozier. The Montross/Reese/Phelps/Sullivan/Rozier group was essentially the Fab Five before the Fab Five existed…and, of course, this group minus Rozier ultimately beat the actual Fab Five in the 1993 NCAA title game.
Before they could do that, though, they had to play the Blue-White game. In the photo above, that’s George Lynch signing autographs after the game at the Smith Center exit. That kid holding the Sharpie and the team poster and making the truly regrettable fashion choice to wear a turtleneck under his Carolina “Just Do It” sweatshirt is me. This pretty much ensures my kids will never believe I was once cool.
Here’s Eric Montross as a freshman with his proud father beaming in the background:
That’s current Tar Heel assistant coach Hubert Davis in the back of this shot:
And here’s me wisely standing on a ledge to try and reach Sullivan. 1990 was a simpler time; we all just mobbed the exit and made the players wade through us. Today the autograph seekers are at least nice enough to stand back from the door.
I’ve still got that poster, along with dozens more programs, posters and basketballs that I tracked down while following the Tar Heels around the country during the late 1980s and 1990s. At the Final Four in New Orleans in 1993, while everyone else was out enjoying Bourbon Street, I was staking out the elevator at the team hotel, adding signatures to a team-signed basketball that I now cherish. After numerous autograph hunts at the ACC Tournament and the now-defunct Diet Pepsi Tournament of Champions, I quickly learned who enjoyed signing and who considered it a chore. Former assistant coach Dave Hanners was by far one of the nicest people I ever encountered in these pursuits, as he was prone to revealing when the team might be leaving for a shoot around or a meal. That was precisely the useful information I needed to make sure I was loitering in the lobby at exactly the right time. Despite being the target of virtually everyone chasing the team, I never saw Dean Smith turn down a request, and almost every time, he would ask, “Who should I make this to?”
I never sold or traded a Carolina autograph. Why would I? As far as I was concerned, every single player on the roster was the pinnacle of the entire sports world. My favorite player on the 1990-91 team was a guard named Kenny Harris who eventually transferred. I still have a hat signed by Harris. I never wore it–after all, it was priceless and couldn’t risk being worn out in public.
Here are some things you definitely need in order to be a Carolina basketball autograph seeker:
- Know the roster. Know the assistant coaches. Know the managers. Here’s a tip you might not know–many times, the managers are just like you. They grew up loving the Tar Heels and are thrilled to be that close to the program. They remember what it’s like to idolize the players and coaches and they’re almost always willing to help as much as they can.
- Have very understanding parents. I spent a lot of my time in lobbies, just sitting and waiting. Many times, our family had to make the choice between, “Let’s go out to eat” or “Let’s wait ten more minutes and see if Donald Williams comes downstairs.” More often than not, they chose the latter. That’s how you end up with a kid who eventually wants to spend his entire professional life writing about the Tar Heels. Parents, whether you take that as a warning or as encouragement is up to you.
- Be polite. This is the one thing that hasn’t changed since I was seeking autographs a long, long, long time ago. It was startling how rude people could be to college kids who were doing them a favor. That’s still the case today. More often than not, if you’re not one of those people, you’re going to have a positive experience.
The 1990 version of me would’ve been stunned to find out that more than 25 years later, I follow around the Tar Heels as a “job” rather than a hobby. The 1990 version of me also would’ve wanted to make sure to find out when the team was leaving for the next shoot around, so I try to be as helpful as I can when fans are looking for the team. If there’s one thing I learned standing outside the Smith Center and waiting in lobbies, it’s that everyone can use their own Dave Hanners. You never know when you might fuel a fan’s passion that turns into a lifetime of love.
Today, in theory, is the final day of the College World Series. It’s only “in theory” because yesterday was supposed to be the last day, but bad weather–which is sort of an Omaha staple, like the zoo or arguments over the best steakhouse–forced the postponement of the final game.
I was lucky enough to work with Jones Angell on the Tar Heel Sports Network radio team for five Tar Heel trips to the College World Series. In 2006, after Carolina lost the final game in heartbreaking fashion to Oregon State, 3-2, Jones and I walked out of the Rosenblatt Stadium press box. At that facility, the stadium was on top of the hill, and the press box was on top of the stadium on top of the hill. So we could see for what felt like hundreds of miles all the way around us. Jones was carrying the giant box of stuff that was required to put us on the air. We looked at each other and agreed we should savor the view, because we would probably never be there again. We then proceeded to go back four more times, eventually broadcasting two dozen games from Omaha. By the end of our summers there, Jones made the observation that of all the cities in the world other than the Triangle and his hometown of Jacksonville, he believed he probably knew the streets and directions of Omaha better than any other city. It reached the point that we knew traffic patterns and shortcuts like a local.
We saw a lot of great games (and some devastating defeats). But when I think about Omaha memories, these are some of the first ones that come to mind.
Arby’s: Our first year in Omaha, there was an Arby’s within walking distance of our hotel. For some reason I don’t remember, we ate there before Carolina’s first CWS game, which turned out to be a 7-5 win over Cal State Fullerton. You have to remember that this was 2006. We couldn’t believe that Carolina was in the College World Series, much less that the Tar Heels had won their first game. It seemed obvious that our trip to Arby’s had propelled Carolina to victory (looking back, Andrew Miller might have had something to do with it). We proceeded to eat at Arby’s for every subsequent 2006 Carolina game of the CWS, to the point that the employees began to recognize us. Also, we parked in the same place at Rosenblatt every single time–directly beside a newspaper delivery truck with a giant photo of Omaha columnist Tom Shatel. At least our car was easy to find after the game.
Kong burger: You’ve probably heard that milkshake favorite Zesto did make the transition from Rosenblatt to the new TD Ameritrade Park. One Rosenblatt local that didn’t–as far as I know–make the trip was King Kong Burger. Kong Burger was like a Char-Grill if Char-Grill was slightly less classy, with a little less attention to nutritional value, and had a giant inflatable gorilla outside the front door. After the win over Fullerton in 2006, which took 13 innings and lasted nearly five hours, we were walking to the parking lot and came across UNC baseball photographer Joe Bray, who had the same did-that-just-happen deliriously happy expression that we did, except that he was gleefully eating a double Kong burger. This was well after midnight local time. But why wouldn’t you be eating a double Kong burger in a deserted parking lot after midnight in the middle of Nebraska? That’s what you do at the College World Series.
Radio rivalry: I believe the statute of limitations on this story may have expired, so it’s OK to tell. Carolina’s opponent in the national championship series in both 2006 and 2007 was Oregon State. I mean this in the nicest way possible, but Oregon State was more annoying than the zika virus. They had made their own rap song, and their mascot was the Beavers (which of course everyone thought was plucky and hilarious), and they were an underdog, smaller school that had never won anything. Also, they were good at baseball, which proved to be a problem for two straight years. In 2006, they had a second baseman named Chris Kunda, who is probably selling insurance somewhere right now, but in 2006 he had morphed into the second base version of Brooks Robinson, making every ridiculous play and usually leaving me staring at the sky from the broadcast booth and shaking my fist while muttering, “Kundaaaaaaaa” under my breath. I built up such a hatred for Oregon State that when mascot/shortstop Darwin Barney signed to play with my beloved Chicago Cubs during his professional career, it created some major internal conflicts.
Oregon State had a very colorful radio play by play man who also believed he was a member of the baseball team. He regularly cheered great plays from the booth and also, on at least two occasions, yelled out of the booth at the umpires after unfavorable calls to the Beavers. He was annoying, and when coupled with the fact that Oregon State beat Carolina four out of five games in the two championship series combined, he was very annoying. Finally, after the Beavers swept the 2007 series from the Tar Heels, we just happened to be walking through the parking lot at Rosenblatt (why did so many memorable stories happen in the Rosenblatt parking lot?) just ahead of him. “I need to talk to him,” I told Jones. “That seems like a terrible idea,” he told me. He was exactly right, but I didn’t care. I walked back to the OSU
head cheerleader radio broadcaster and said, “I just wanted to tell you congratulations on your national championship. And also that you are the most unprofessional broadcaster I’ve ever seen.” Not my finest moment, but it sure was satisfying, and I can still see the look of surprise on his face.
Sullivan’s: Most of the details of this meal need to remain covert, but one of the greatest UNC athletics meals of all time happened at an Omaha Sullivan’s with Jones, Clint Gwaltney and Brian Bersticker. This was also the only Omaha meal we ever ate that prominently featured a famous (to Stick, at least) folk singer.
The ski lodge: The College World Series has now moved downtown and has a much more corporate feel. All the team hotels are also downtown, and everything is more centralized. But in the Rosenblatt days, teams were housed all over town, and poor luck of the draw could stick you a solid 20 or more minutes from the stadium. One year–I think it might have been 2008, but I’m not completely sure–the Tar Heels were housed at a mock ski lodge. Yes, in Omaha. The Regency Lodge featured a giant stuffed grizzly bear by the check-in counter. I really wish I had photos so you could understand that this isn’t being made up. TripAdvisor currently rates it the 44th best hotel out of 83 establishments in Omaha, just below a Super 8, which sounds about right, if possibly a little optimistic. On the bright side, however, it did feature a rocking happy hour in the lounge most weekday afternoons, which usually was attended by no one under the age of 85 and sometimes included dancing. There was a bar called The Naughty Lounge located directly across the parking lot (the ski lodge rooms had doors that opened to the parking lot) from the Regency Lodge. I never saw anyone eat a Kong burger in the parking lot of the Regency Lodge (although I did once see a Tar Heel land a new job in the parking lot), but if I had, it would’ve been the quintessential Omaha experience.