Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Revisiting the Simplicity of Baseball Cards

This Saturday, a very important announcement about the baseball season was made: The Chicago Cubs announced that youngster Andrew Cashner would be their 5th starter for the 2011 season, pushing veteran Carlos Silva off the 25-man roster. This is just one of the tidbits of information that flashes across the bottom of your screen while you watch Spring Training games on MLB Network. Why was I fixated on this one, then? It was because I recognized the name "Carlos Silva" from a 2011 Topps baseball card I had just opened.

That's right, at Spring Training this past weekend, I picked up a couple of packs of baseball cards, and I've been hooked ever since. Organizing them by collector's number, constructing fantasy depth charts on my table top, you name it, the whole nine yards. In fact, right before I heard the news, I had shifted Silva's card from my "good starters" pile to my "garbage starters" pile. And it looks like Cubs GM Jim Hendry's decision justified my classification.

Opening these few spring packs made me realize how much I missed baseball cards. I have binders full of the stuff at home, compiled between the years of 1989 and 2003, but once they're in the sleeves, you very rarely take them out and play with them like you do when you open a new pack. Part of the reason that baseball cards are so much fun is their permanence: they actually exist, cardboard and ink. Sure you can get stats and pictures of baseball players online, but it's very different from opening up a new pack of baseball cards. It's kind of like the difference between settling down with a cup of coffee and the print version of the New York Times, and paying a reasonable price for the New York Times' digital subscription.

So, has the death of print journalism coincided with the decline in popularity of baseball cards? I don't see how there possibly couldn't be a connection.

Of course, when you don't have access to a computer - as I didn't during my trip to Spring Training - you have to get your baseball stats fix through different venues. Thankfully I had purchased the Hardball Times Annual 2011, which includes pages and pages of stats - generic stats, advanced stats, stats you can't get anywhere else. Last week, you could find me at Camelback Ranch, diligently looking up batted ball statistics for certain players who came to bat. And surprisingly, just like in the Carlos Silva case, it's helped me understand who the truly effective players are, and what chance each has for making the major league roster.

I did have my smartphone too, so I could have looked up stats on the baseball-reference.com mobile site or the MLB.com At-Bat app. But there's something to be said for referring to an actual book full of information rather than burying your nose in a 3.5 inch screen, no matter how pleasant the resolution is on my HTC Incredible Android phone. It's like the difference between reading Thomas Aquinas from a huge dusty tome, and downloading articles on Medieval Philosophy from JSTOR. The book of stats, however, is not nearly as portable and accessible as the power of the Internet.

And everything that's true about the book of stats is true about baseball cards. They both contain information, they're both fun to look at, they both exist as manufactured, self-contained works in addition to tools for the transfer of knowledge. But because they both take up a bunch of space and are less-easily organized than electronic information, they've both fallen out of favor. You could say the same about almanacs, maps, books of world records, and encyclopedia sets. All have higher-tech, lower-cost, higher-efficiency alternatives.

So I like collecting baseball cards. Just like I like reading books. It's a way of taking a step back from our techno-crazed world, turning away from screens, and experiencing things in real-time and -space. I highly encourage and support art forms that specialize in the printed word and printed number alike. But some types of information - specifically cultural, editorial information - are better found on a more open and less regulated forum like the Internet. It's like the difference between clicking over to Perez Hilton to see the latest pictures of Lady Gaga, and picking up a copy of the Weekly World News to check in with Bat Boy. And if you prefer the information that can be found on screens, hot new millennium culture blogs like Charge Shot!!! are pretty good places to start.