Blog Bat Around: Of Regrets, Mario Lemieux Rookie Cards and the Act of Fitting In

In case you're not familiar, the Blog Bat Around is a regularly infrequent collection of posts all on the same topic. It has been many years since I've participated. But I also thing it has been a while since there was one to begin with. garveyceyrusselllopes revived it like Netflix did Full House and here we are. Like a Bollywood love story that cuts out before the final number where the boy who lost the girl but gets her again, the topic is cards you've had but regret letting go.

This one's easy, at least with regards to kicking myself. But at the same time, I don't regret it. Or maybe that's just me telling myself to help me sleep at night.

The year was 1989. I was in Grade 6, a Canadian, just getting into sports and already sick of hearing about hockey. Baseball was my young love. It probably also had something to do with the fact that six-year olds could out-skate me.

But even though I wasn't a huge hockey fan, that was the sport that dominated the early stages of my card collection. If I want to get even more precise, it'd be 1985-86 O-Pee-Chee Hockey. Included in the set was a rookie card of a certain Mario Lemieux who, in 1989, was out-playing Wayne Gretzky.

Being the wannabe baseball snob that I was, I wanted to go all in and turn over my hockey cards for the more elusive baseball cards (if you're a Canadian baseball fan, you'll understand).

So I've got one of these.

1985-86 O-Pee-Chee Hockey Mario Lemieux

I'd recently gone to my first card show at the Ramada and knew it was worth a couple hundred dollars. That was a lot of lawns to cut. But that didn't matter because I was looking to deal.

My target? Well, who was the Mario Lemieux of baseball at the time? Jose Canseco, of course.

My early collecting days were filled by instinct, not knowledge. Let's just say that if I relied strictly on instinct for survival, I'd somehow find a way to freeze to death in the middle of summer. And given the amount of TV I watched as a kid, it would probably be trying to reenact the notorious episode of Punky Brewster where Cherie accidentally locks herself in an abandoned fridge.

So without knowledge, my instinct was telling me to target the 1987 Topps Jose Canseco. Fleer and Donruss were foreign and exotic at that point, like Cuban cigars and Kinder Eggs in America. That was the card with the trophy on the front, after all.

So by my logic and instinct, if a 1985-86 O-Pee-Chee Mario Lemieux was worth a couple hundred dollars then a 1987 Topps Jose Canseco should be comparable. At that point, he was the only 40-40 player in baseball history and still a couple of years away from a ball bouncing off his head for a home run.

1987 Topps Baseball Jose Canseco

Being in Canada, it didn't take long to find a taker for my Mario Lemieux. Amongst my friends, it wasn't actually a hard card to find. Those of us who had cards had the Lemieux. But a Topps Canseco? That was something different. That was something that would make my small card collection stand out among my peers.

Part of me thought that this card would actually make me Grade 6 cool.

As the popularity of cards continued to grow (trends are a little slower heading north and slower still when you live on an island), we got a couple of card stores within biking distance from my house. With the card stores came Beckett magazines that had these arrows that showed us what was hot and what was not. There were also these notations telling us which cards were rookies.

One of my first bits of knowledge came with the fact that the 1987 Topps Jose Canseco, the one that had a rookie trophy on it, wasn't his rookie card. Those were out the year before in these "foreign" sets from Fleer and Donruss. Not only that, but the 1987 Topps Jose Canseco sure wasn't on the same pedestal as the 1985-86 O-Pee-Chee Mario Lemieux.

And you wonder why I avoid prospecting.

GI Joe DevilfishThat is my biggest trade regret. Even more so than swapping a Christmas orange box filled with well-loved 1981-82 O-Pee-Chee cards for some then brand new 1990-91 Pro Set Hockey. It was even bigger than trading my G.I. Joe Devilfish and a handful of figures for a couple hundred 1991 Score Baseball cards.

But I don't regret the trade because the Mario Lemieux is still worth hundreds and I can be a hero by taking one of the Cansecos off someone's hands.

I ended up going back and building the 1985-86 O-Pee-Chee Hockey set. It's not only a classic, but it was the first set of sports cards that I bought en masse. I wasn't looking at sets at the time. I wasn't even into hockey much. They were cheap and I liked to organize them, one day by team, the next by position, then by number, then by team again.

I remember getting my step-dad to stop at the Mac's convenience store on the corner of Sooke and Jacklin to grab five or ten packs on the way home from Beavers (the Canadian little kid version of scouts) on Wednesday nights.

I remember the romantic hobby notion of riding my bike to the store after getting out an hour early from school on Friday afternoons.

I remember the letdown when the store owner told me in broken English that he was sold out and there wouldn't be any more packs on his cluttered shelves. For the next two months, every time I went to the corner store, the owner thought I was there for Nerds and Runts. It was actually a ruse. I was convinced they missed another box of cards and it had fallen behind the candy. I was there to spot it.

It turns out, they were out.

I remember the kid I grew up with coming over and my stack disappearing the moment he went home, wiping out a big chunk of my collection.

I remember Mike O'Connell's deer-in-headlights look. I don't know anything else about Mike O'Connell or what he achieved in his hockey career but that stare scared me for some reason.

1985-86 O-Pee-Chee Mike O'Connell

I was hooked on that set back in the early days of 1986 and I didn't even realize it.

I've managed to go back and rebuild most of my 1985-86 O-Pee-Chee set. It's one of the few hockey sets I have bindered. But there's a hole on the first page. It's not because of a Topps thing where a number was retired like Mickey Mantle and #7 in baseball. It's because of my instinct masquerading itself as savvy. It was because of getting wrapped up in the moment. It was because I was happy to trade away a Mario Lemieux rookie card -- an O-Pee-Chee Mario Lemieux rookie card (sorry, but Topps means nothing to me when it comes to 1980s hockey cards).

The regret is built in the fact that I could have had the complete set instead of trying to find a way to justify spending a couple hundred dollars on a card I had already and experienced life with. In a lot of ways, it was like all those times I dropped a friend as a kid for the other kid I thought was cooler that week.

Supper Socco Juice BoxOne week we're talking Rambo cartoons and being best buds. The next week you're drinking Supper Socco juice boxes while the cool kids with the Nikes are drinking Hi-C out of a foil thing. Sorry, we can't be friends. You got Contra? I'm coming over to watch. The cute girl thinks you're weird. I don't know what she means but, sorry, I'm not coming over.

The late '80s were confusing times for me. I was quietly ruthless in my attempts to fit in. I was shallow. I think most of us were to a certain extent. These were times when the brand of juice box you brought to school was enough to not make but definitely break you in the recess pecking order. I didn't want to be the kid on the bottom. Part of me thought an exotic baseball card from America, land of Bon Jovi and Guns N' Roses, would help me get there. It didn't.

My biggest regret is that even though one day I'll probably cave and fill that hole at the front of my 1985-86 O-Pee-Chee Hockey binder, it won't be the one I had in the first place. It won't be the one I got on the way home from Beavers while rocking a sweet vest and matching toggle. It won't be the one I likely stacked with my other Penguins then with the centers. It won't be the one that somehow managed to avoid the purge brought on unexpectedly by an old friend. It won't be the one I let go in search of something I thought was cooler.

Sometimes you learn the hard way that what you've got is not only good enough, but the best -- especially if you put time and focus into it. Sometimes your biggest regrets aren't the things that you do but they're why you do the things you do.