By the spring of 1984, as the world was preparing for the Summer Olympics and the American Presidential race, I was digging into something brand new … a fledgling love for baseball.
And, naturally, baseball cards.
Even though my mom had started buying cards for me on her weekly trip the grocery store way back in 1981, I outright resented them for the first couple of years. After all, baseball cards weren’t toys, and I wasn’t even a baseball fan.
But then in the summer of 1983, as I was preparing for my last year of grade school (sixth grade), something changed. Part of it was the gorgeous cards popping out of wax packs that season, especially the ones from Topps. Part of it was that my family started going to a lot of antique shops & shows, and flea markets, where there were always plenty of cards for sale.
And part of it — probably the largest part of it — was that the Cincinnati Reds started popping up on our local television station on a regular basis. Were they there in before? Maybe, but I hadn’t noticed.
I noticed in 1983, though.
To me, those baseball games, and the Reds, seemed all sunshine and good times, even though they were busy losing 88 games on their way to an even worse season in 1984 … and even though they were losing an all-time great in Johnny Bench, who would retire at the end of the 1983 season. None of it mattered, because I had found my team, and that made all the difference in the world.
As we’re all wont to do when we find a new passion, I talked about baseball and baseball cards and, especially, the Reds, incessantly from summer of 1983 on into the early parts of the 1984 season. I was obsessed, and everything I did outside of school — and even inside of school, sometimes — revolved around getting more cards and learning more about the game.
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I was a very lucky kid, because my parents always listened to me and fed my passions to the extent they could as a hard-working middle-class family. They made sure I had a trumpet to play, they kept me in reading material, they got me a dog.
So I should’t have been surprised that they were up for advancing my fandom, but …
When my dad sat me down one morning and told me he thought we should go to a Cincinnati Reds game that summer — 1984 — my jaw hit the floor. Then I nearly shook the house to its foundations with all my excited jumping up and down.
What an incredible feeling — I was going to Riverfront Stadium!
Weeks of planning and frothing at the mouth ensued, but finally, on the morning of June 23, 1984, Mom, Dad, and I piled into our old Dodge pickup truck and headed south(east) to Cincinnati. The trip itself was a blast, as we stopped to eat a couple of times, hit a garage sale or two, even visited a couple of card shops in Cincy.
But nothing in the world compares to that moment you first set foot inside a Major League Baseball stadium, and I’ll never forget the way my heart darn near exploded when I caught my first glimpse of the ethereal green Riverfront turf winking at me through the concourse as we walked to our seats.
And then there was the rifle pop of the ball hitting Dan Driessen‘s glove during warmups …
The Padres, of course, were en route to a World Series appearance, while the Reds were awaiting the return of Pete Rose — unbeknownst to me — before they’d start their climb. So it wasn’t too shocking that San Diego took the game by a score of 5-2.
But the Reds would have had a fighting chance were it not for the only home run of the game. Sure, it was already 3-1, Pads, when Carmelo Martinez connected on a solo shot off Bob Owchinko in the top of the sixth, but that swing pretty much took the air out of the 22,000-strong crowd.
What I remember most about that play is how fast the ball got out. You watch a homer on TV, and it seems so suspenseful, but that Martinez clout was just gone.
And despite his Reds-clubbing antics, those “heroics” made me an instant fan … I pulled his cards aside into my “good” pile for years to come. So what better choice than a Martinez pasteboard for this entry, on Day 24 of my 2019 Spring Training Baseball Card Challenge, where I pick a card of a guy I saw play in person?
And what better card than his 1984 Topps base issue?
It’s a good-looking pasteboard that I was still pulling from wax packs even as I headed to Cincinnati for the first time, and it highlights the poetry of the game.
For, you see, Martinez is pictured as a member of the Chicago Cubs, for whom he played briefly in 1983. He was part of a big three-team deal in the off-season, though, that landed him with the Padres for his official rookie season.
That fall, the Padres dispatched the sweetheart Cubs in the National League Championship Series.
Ain’t this a beautiful game?
Check out the entire series of 2019 Spring Training Challenge posts here.