When I was a young kid, there were few things that I was more passionate about than my baseball card collection. I began collecting in 1986 at the age of 11 and had a large baseball-shaped hard plastic case in which I kept all of my cards. The case stood upright and had little shelves for the cards to rest on. I can't tell you how many times this case would tip over and all of my cards would scatter across the floor, but I never minded. It just gave me a reason to reorganize them. Sometimes by team. Sometimes aphabetically by last name. Othertimes by position and league.
I soon outgrew that tiny case and moved on to the world of three-ring binders and vinyl 9-pocket sheets. Despite growing up just minutes from New York City, it would be many years later -- here in Seattle -- where I would attend my first Major League game. My family was not a baseball family. We watched the NFL. And when we threw the ball around, it was a football. As my two-hit season in Little League would attest to, all I knew about baseball I learned from reading the backs of baseball cards. And from playing RBI Baseball and Bases Loaded on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Growing up in New Jersey in the mid 1980's, it was hard not to have some level of affection for the New York Mets. With my parents going through a disgustingly nasty divorce coinciding with the increasing popularity of cable television, I found myself with more freedom regarding my viewing options. And I started, finally, to watch some baseball. But when not watching Daryll Strawberry knock balls over the fence or Dr. K light up the radar guns in triple digits, I enjoyed watching the Minnesota Twins. And for one reason: Kirby Puckett. There wasn't a whole lot of opportunity to watch the Twins in NJ in the 80's, but there was something about this guy that drew me to him. I'm pretty sure it was his smile. Like Ozzie Smith and his trademark backflips, Kirby's smile was captivating and he always seemed to be just having more fun than everyone else around him. He was faster than his pudgy body would make you believe; he would make spectacular plays in the outfield; and he clearly played the game better than anyone around him.
Kirby Puckett burst onto the scene in 1985 and although I didn't have his "true" rookie card from the Donruss or Fleer brands of cards, I did have a full sheet of his 1986 Topps "rookie card" shown here. My collection eventually grew to contain thousands of cards but few were more coveted than those 9 identical cards. I don't have them anymore, unfortunately, and I've definitely forgot what little statistical information they had on their backs. But one thing for sure is that if Kirby still played, he would definitely still be one of my favorites.
So long as he kept smiling.