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The Trading Game
by Robert W. Leibold Jr.

Grown men and teenagers line the glass counter as we enter the dimly lit store nestled between a barbershop and a used CD outlet in a strip center on the other side of town.

"Did that Upper Deck box I ordered come in yet?" a teenager dressed in a white basketball uniform asks the pot-bellied guy behind the counter. The man's got a wad of bills in his left hand as he shinnies between two tables stacked with sports paraphernalia and heads into a back room. He comes out toting a brown shipping box filled with a lot of little boxes inside. On the outside of the big box it reads 119 dollars.

"They've gone up," he says.

"Give me one anyway," the kid says.

In front of him on the counter are two big mounds of silvery cellophane wrappers, three large stacks of baseball cards and another stack of unopened packs.

"Where am I now?" the kid asks.

"Three ninety-four."

"Okay, keep track."

You'd think I'd get used to this scene. I see it weekly, or at the very least every other week, as my nine-year-old forces me to take him to one of the sports trading card shops where he finds it necessary to drop off his allowance, and if he works it right, some of mine as well.

This store in particular reminds me of a casino, with the man behind the counter acting like a pit boss, a gimme cap perched precariously atop his balding pate, a cigar clutched between two puffed-out lips while he barks nearly incoherent sentence fragments to those surrounding him in response to practically incomprehensible questions.

It's kind of like a craps game in which the only ones who understand what's going on are the players, and the only sure winner at the end of the night is the guy in the pit.

Zane immediately heads to the long rectangular boxes lined up next to the counter which contain thousands of basketball cards waiting to be put in little plastic holders and transferred into binders that keep them fingerprint free.

Each box holds hundreds of cards of the current crop of basketball stars caught in mid-pose as they go through their paces. Some are standing in place at the foul line ready to shoot the ball, others are captured in mid-air, legs split apart, their upper bodies contorted in unfamiliar, and what appear to be quite painful acrobatics, the ball over their head as they soar toward the basket.

Zane flips through a row of cards, stopping occasionally to pull one out, turning it over a couple of times to inspect its condition.

"How much for this Mike Bibby?" he asks.

"Look it up for me," the pit boss says, flipping a magazine to someone on our side of the counter.

"Twenty bucks," the guy says.

"For you kid, I'll take eight."

"Okay," Zane says, meticulously unraveling the crumpled bills from his pocket and counting them out one by one for the pit boss.

I just shake my head.

He spends more on one card than I did as a kid in six months going to Wilson's Drug Store buying three packs at a time for a ten or fifteen cents apiece. Back then you'd get five or six cards wrapped in waxed paper with a piece of pink bubble gum coated in white sugar powder that would make your mouth water with the sweet juice of some unidentifiable yet irresistible flavor.

I used to open the packs, cram all the gum into my mouth at one time and shove the huge wad between my cheek and gum so it looked as if I were chewing tobacco. A couple of seconds later the vacant crannies of my mouth would fill with the syrupy saliva. I could spit that stuff ten feet, easily. If my aim was on, I could knock over one of those little bottles of Coke that you almost never see anymore while it was perched on the edge of the curb. It was a real thing of beauty.

Now, you get nothing extra in the packs. Nothing but one card for eight bucks if you want a particular player. Sometimes Zane takes a gamble on a pack without the gum, hoping to get one card that has a piece of the jersey, a piece of the floor, or a piece of the ball attached to it. What is that all about, anyway? Those aren't real cards. It's just a gimmick by some marketing genius who decided that sticking a piece of wood floor or a piece of cloth to a card makes it more worth more. Maybe it does, I don't know. But it just doesn't seem right, somehow.

"How do you figure out how much they're worth," I ask the twenty-something guy who placed the value on Zane's newest card.

"Here," he says, opening the magazine he had been looking at. "You find the year of the card and who made it. The first figure there is basically the wholesale value, and the other is the retail value."

I rifle through the pages for a few minutes looking for something that makes any sense. Nothing does, even the parts I can read. The type is so small, it's like reading agate box scores in the sports section of the newspaper, and I quit trying to do that years ago.

"You figure it out?" the pit boss asks as I lay the magazine on the counter.

"No, not really, but I'm not into it that much," I say.

"You ever have any questions about it, you just ask. Okay? Your boy there seems to like it pretty much, so it's good to know what you're buying. You've got to be careful what you buy and how much you pay these days. There are some people who like to take advantage," he says.

"You shouldn't have given me that pack for free," the kid in the basketball outfit tells the pit boss who had thrown in a couple of extra packs when he handed the boy the hundred and nineteen dollar box of cards.

"I got a Mark McGuire with a piece of a jersey. It's probably not worth that much, though."

"It's got to be worth something," the pit boss mumbles, belching a load of blue smoke from the stub of his cigar.

"Give it here."

The kid slides it across the counter, grabs another pack from the stack and rips it open with his teeth.

"I'll give you seven."

"Whatever," the kid says.

Zane can't get enough of those cards. He will buy or trade almost any card in his collection for one for those special cards. It doesn't seem to matter who the player is or if he has ever heard of the guy, he wants them and he wants as many as he can get.

He told me once he had traded two Alonzo Mournings and a David Robinson for a Jerry Stackhouse.

"Who's that," I asked.

"He's on the Detroit Pistons, but look at this," he said at the time, holding the card up to the window so I could see the photographic transparency action shot of Jerry Stackhouse taken during a game.

The whole thing looked more like a basketball collage than a basketball card.

I had no idea if he made a good trade or not.

A man a few years older than I rummaged through a stack of stuff on a table near the front door of the card shop.

"Dad, look at this, a pre-pubescent boy yells from across the room. It's a picture of Michael Jordan, and it's only twenty-five dollars. Can I get it?"

As the man looks up we catch each other's attention. During that brief interchange we both roll our eyes with the resignation that what used to be is no longer.

"That seems like a good deal," I tell the man sardonically.

"Yeah, doesn't it?" he responds, seemingly resigned to the purchase he and his son are about to make.

The only criteria we ever used as kids to place a value on sports cards were if we liked the guy or the team he was on. It was easier then, if you liked the team you probably knew a lot about the guy and wanted his card. Most of the players back then stayed on the same team their entire careers so it was easy to follow them. There was no TBS, ESPN, or Fox Sports, and the local newspaper didn't do a complete wrap up of the sporting events of the day. We used to listen to the games on the radio in the afternoon after school or between pickup games in the park. Even if there had been a TBS, the Braves were in Milwaukee back then so they wouldn't be on anyway.

My friends and I would sit on the stoop outside the drugstore poring over the stats on the back of the cards until our legs cramped and the concrete steps dug into our backsides.

After we sucked all the juice out of the bubble gum and downed the last of the Coke, we'd take a couple of clothes pins pilfered from the laundry hamper at home, pick out a couple of cards we didn't care about and attach them to the frame of our bikes so they pushed through the spokes. The clickety-clackety sound turned us into motorcycle gang members as we lit out down the street in single file, whooping and hollering all the way to the swimming pool, the neighborhood park or wherever someone felt like spending the next hour or two on a lazy summer afternoon.

Zane and his friends don't do that. They would be appalled at the mutilation of something so valuable.

"These cards are worth a lot of money," he tells me, patting his blue, three-ring binder crammed with plastic inserts that hold his favorite superstars.

"I'm going to be able to sell them when I go to college and buy a car."

I sure hope he's right or his mom is likely to lose her car during those (hopefully) four years.

Over the years my brothers and I collected an unknown but undoubtedly large number of cards, mostly baseball but some football cards. None of us seemed to care too much about the NBA back then, except for Jerry West, of course. We'd come home from the drugstore, pull a shoebox out from under the bed and toss them in. We never really kept track of them too much like some guys did.

Every now and then some friends would come over and we'd all sit on the floor at one end of the room with a stack of cards between our legs flipping them one by one toward the other end of the room. I've long since forgotten all the rules, but I think if you landed on another card you got to keep both. The trick was to land on two or even three with one card. I don't remember what happened if you had a leaner where the card propped against the wall and the floor, but I remember it was a good thing.

We used a two-finger flip with the thumb on top for stability and the card wedged between the index and middle fingers. Then you just flicked it down there like you were trying to get something sticky off your finger. The action was all in the wrist.

Zane doesn't play that game. He acted like I was from outer space when I tried to explain it to him and promptly told me that he and his friends don't do it that way. Instead, they inspect the cards in each other's binders and trade back and forth by moving them from one guy's binder to the other guy's binder. Glorious fun.

They also get trade backs in which if one kid decides he got the raw end in the trade, he can nullify the deal. I think they get 24 hours or so to think about it.

It took us years, but by the time my brothers and I all left home we had amassed hundreds, if not thousands of cards. We always figured they were worth pretty much what we paid for them.

"Whatever happened to those baseball cards we used to have?" I asked my mother not too many years ago when I realized that if I could just snag them before my brothers did, I would be sitting pretty. California here we come!

"Those got pitched out years ago," she innocently replied.


I don't remember my dad taking much of an interest in our card collection when I was young.

"Did you collect cards of your heroes when you were a kid?" I asked recently.

"Heroes? I don't remember having any heroes," he said. "I guess I probably had some baseball cards, but I never collected them like you kids did."

Then again, I thought, he was a kid in Pittsburgh when the Depression hit, and I doubt they had too much of anything back then.

I walk around the store and flip through some of the boxes looking for the heroes of my youth. Mickey Mantle, Bill Mazaroski, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Whitey Ford, Stan Musial, Yogi Berra. They aren't there.

I finally spot some in a small glass case near the door where you can't really get to them easily. Some have frayed edges and a few of the pictures are mottled, making it difficult to make out the faces.

I point them out to Zane on our way out of the store. They are names and faces he has never heard of, and they wear funny looking costumes that appear to be hot and itchy. He acts marginally interested, but I don't think he really is.

Placating the old man, I'm sure, so I will be willing to tote him back here again next week.

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