The first year that I really collected baseball cards was 1983, and Rod Carew was everywhere in the packs I opened that summer.
A (probably) incomplete listing of his pasteboards from that year include:
- 1983 Fleer #81
- 1983 Fleer Star Stickers #26
- 1983 Donruss #90
- 1983 Donruss Action All-Stars #38
- 1983 Topps #200
- 1983 Topps #201 – Super Veteran
- 1983 Topps #386 – All-Star
- 1983 Topps #651 California Angels Team Leaders
- 1983 Topps Glossy Send-Ins #29
- 1983 Topps Stickers #39
Before that summer, I was only vaguely aware of Carew — or any other player — but these cards made me feel like I knew who he was, at least a little.
The Donruss and Topps base issues told me this was a man serious about fielding his position, even though his lithe body and in-the-dirt crouch made me think he was a second baseman.
I would later find out that he did, indeed, man the middle of the infield during his most productive years.
The base Fleer card, Topps Glossy, and Donruss All-Star inset told me that he was a focused batsman.
And, holy cow, the Topps Angels Team Leaders card and the backs of all his base cards, showed me the result of that focus. It didn’t take me long to realize that the cardboard I held in my chubby little hands depicted a living legend who could bang out 200 hits a season like he was mowing the lawn.
But Carew’s Topps All-Star card told me it didn’t all come easy.
There he is, rounding the bin toward 40 years old, wrapped up in a foil-lined sweatsuit with his Angels jersey overtop and armed with both his fielding cap and his batting helmet. This was a man clearly ready to battle age and pitchers with equal ferocity as he mounted his assault on 3000 hits and a Cooperstown plaque.
Through it all, there was an ease in his posture and a flame in his eyes that told me he loved what he was doing, that he didn’t want to be anywhere else.
And, every once in a while, as on that All-Star card or in profile as the Angels’ batting leader from 1982, Carew would flash his big, happy grin.
“Can you believe I get to play baseball for a living?” he seemed to be asking the photographer.
To my 11-year-old eyes, nothing seemed more natural. Judging by the backs of his baseball cards, Rod Carew had been playing baseball forever.
And judging by the fronts of his baseball cards, Rod Carew would go on playing baseball forever.
Of course, we’re all human, even our Wax Pack Gods.
Sometimes, forever doesn’t last nearly as long as we thought it would, or as we had hoped.
Rod Carew only played two more seasons after that barrage of 1983 cards, and he never did hit .300 again.
He did collect his 3000th Big League hit in 1985, though.
He played his final game four days after his 40th birthday.
Carew was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1991, and more or less disappeared from public life until his recent health problems reminded us of how great he was and how human we all are.
We stop being great in our chosen fields. We get old. Sometimes, we get sick.
But for a generation of collectors, Rod Carew will always be out there in the field, turning the gears on the baseball fountain of youth under the California sun.
Just like he is in our cardboard dreams.