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2014/10/21 / tocovava

What Smart Investment?

At best this story contains a blurry-eyed, self-important resemblance to The Wolf of Wall Street.  But this story is rarely at its best.

I used to skip school every couple of weeks and kill the hours in a baseball card shop. I didn’t drive there all buzzed-up, zim-zamming through traffic in a Lamborghini. No, I walked through parking lots and empty fields, bramble-bushes extending their habitats by sticking briars to my shoe laces, cuffs of my pants, my socks. The scene did have a sort of Scorcese-feel, soundtracked as it was by the starched arena rock blasting through my headphones. The card shop owner (not Matthew McConaughey doing Bobby McFerrin stuff on his chest) dealt in bulk, and sold the common cards at three cents a piece, maybe a nickel. All I had to do was wait for a player to get famous then my penny stock card would shoot up in value. There is the resemblance to The Wolf of Wall Street, cheap penny stocks, and also don’t forget that rock music blasting.

The shop had recent Topps sets displayed in trays by the long window in back. I loaded up on 1983 rookie cards. Only the cheap ones. Wade Boggs‘ rookie card was $1.25 per card, too expensive for my penny-pinching ways. (Boggs’ card is worth $20 these days.) Ryne Sandberg was 50 cents, which wasn’t a bad price, but they were always out of stock. (Sandberg’s card now is worth $20.) Somehow, the shop owner overlooked Tony Gwynn. I ended up with 13 Tony Gwynn rookie cards. Over the years, those Gwynn cards increased in value. (Currently at $ 32.) When unemployed or under-employed and totally broke living in Providence, Rhode Island, I sold off a Gwynn here and there to re-invest my earnings in six-packs of Hope beer, cans of tomato sauce/paste, garlic, and onions. The cards were worth $15 back then. The Gwynn card was my only good investment. I have at least ten each of Jim Eisenreich, Eric Show, Mike Moore, Storm Davis, David GreenBud Black, and a couple each of Frank ViolaWillie McGee, and Gary Gaetti (I unloaded Gaetti after he waved around that batting glove). None of those cards paid off in the end. Speculating a total of $20 on rookie cards is only a bad investment when wearing the blinders of hindsight–$20 back then is worth about $45 now. However, I would have been unable to keep for very long that $20 in a money-bearing account, to say nothing of a Charlie Brown bank on my dresser. And for what? A couple of bags of groceries? I am not kicking myself for spending the money all those years ago. It was just the way I lived my life, and maybe still do. Probably I should’ve wised up at some point. Wisdom I am projecting onto Tom Niedenfuer, card 477 from the 1983 Topps set. I have 32 Tom Niedenfuer rookie cards.photo

Tom Niedenfuer had a solid 1982 season. He fit in with the team – they gave him the nickname Buff because they said he had a big head like a buffalo. His place in the Dodgers bullpen for the 1983 season was safe. So safe that the 23-year old Niedenfuer got married before heading off to Vero Beach for Spring Training in 1983. Why not? He had a nice job in LA, the team was successful, his teammates liked him, he was earning good money, his path through life would be briar-less. Over the next few years he became the Dodgers closer whenever Steve Howe battled drugs. Often. Niedenfuer was the Dodgers’ closer at the end of the 1985 season. He had a rough time in the National League Championship, twice giving up leads late in games, which ultimately sent the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series, where they lost to the Kansas City Royals. Maybe Niedenfuer’s wife didn’t support him after he gave up those big home runs in the 1985 play-offs? By 1986 they were divorced. There is probably a reason more primal than unkind fates for the divorce. LA nightlife and proximity to Hollywood starlets might’ve turned Niedenfuer’s big buffalo head. After the 1987 season Niedenfuer married Judy Landers, the actress, Stacks from BJ and the Bear, Angie from Vega$, Sara Joy on Madame’s Place and a guest on almost every other TV show from about 1981 to 1988, half of the famous Landers sistersJudy Landers.

And looking at his life through a few websites, I surmise that he made his true match with Judy Landers. My imaginings carry a lot of weight in this matter and saying that he wised up by marrying a Hollywood starlet could be misguided. And yet, 27 years later Tom Niedenfuer and wife Judy Landers are still together. They are parents to Lindsey and Kristy, another set of famous Landers sisters. These Landers sisters are in the band Official Hot Mess, which seems to have gone dormant after releasing Fallin’ Angel (2007) and doing an apparent residency at the Playboy Mansion. I’m over-reaching here (and I’ve done it before–I thought Willie Nelson wrote Red-Headed Stranger in the misery of a divorce, then found out he and his wife hatched the song cycle road-tripping back to Austin after a ski vacation in Colorado) but maybe Tom Niedenfuer realized his first marriage was a mistake, and in meeting Judy Landers he changed his life, maybe he’s gone vegetarian like his daughters, maybe he does yoga, maybe he always did, what do I know? I hope he’s happy. (He is.) Just on the surface of his life he did things about which many people fantasize: being a big league pitcher and marrying an actress. And he retired before he was 32 years old. He never became a Hall of Fame pitcher, his rookie cards didn’t buy me a nice car, not even a six-pack of beer. I still have all 32 of those cards.

The current value of Niedenfuer’s rookie card is 29 cents. I’m too lazy to figure out how greatly they’ve appreciated in 2014 dollars. There is no need. Does a market exist for 32 of them at 29 cents a piece? Having them, holding on to them, knowing which box they are in, is just a reality I’ve made in my life. I cannot discard things. Baseball cards are flash cards to me. Or family photos. And a person can get stuck in one deep rut looking at 32 of the same photo. I hold onto the past. If it had been me giving up those home runs in 1985 I’d be dwelling on them still, studying news clippings, VHS tapes close at hand to mull over which pitch I should’ve thrown to Ozzie Smith or to Jack Clark, or trying to will a bird into the path of the ball.

A movie of a teenager sorting through baseball cards alone in his green-paneled bedroom doesn’t have the glamour of Leonardo DiCaprio throwing a party in a Manhattan office. And the bald future of that kid (maybe not hounded by the FBI and maybe not jailed for money laundering) wondering why the things he put stock in didn’t pay off…hey, shit, well maybe that is a movie to which we can all relate?

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