Andy Etchebarren will always hold a dear place in my heart. I always think about Andy at this time of year.
That's because one of the rites of spring when I was growing up was always that much-anticipated trip to the neighborhood store back in Ashland, Ohio, to buy those first packs of baseball cards.
My best friend and I used to rip open those packs with great ferocity for two specific reasons:
º Getting a Cleveland Indians player was something special. Much like kids in Quincy probably felt about pulling a Lou Brock from a pack of Topps cards, we felt the same way when we came across Max Alvis or Joe Azcue. They were just pieces of cardboard, but in the mid-to-late 1960s for a 10-year-old kid they were larger than life.
º In addition, there was always a competition between my buddy and me to see who would get the first Andy Etchebarren card of the year. Andy, in our estimation, was by far the ugliest player in the major leagues at the time and we always looked forward to see how his looks might have changed from one season to the next.
Etchebarren was a rather pedestrian catcher for the Baltimore Orioles who struggled to hit .220 and was one of those guys with a permanent 5 o'clock shadow, massive sideburns and a unibrow. When you came across an Andy Etchebarren card, there was never a problem with identification. He made Leonid Breshnev look like Brad Pitt.
Baseball cards were -- and still are -- a major joy in my life. Yes, I still collect them. My wife really doesn't understand my infatuation, but accepts it.
I think, more than anything, it's the memories each and every card can evoke. I can sit and look through my albums of cards for hours on end and do nothing but smile.
To this day, I remember the first pack of cards I ever opened. It was in the summer of 1961, and staring at me was the face of Detroit Tigers outfielder Billy Bruton. Some 53 years later, I'm still hooked, and those Cleveland Indians cards are still special.
What is rather dismaying at this point in my life, however, is how many youngsters have no interest in baseball cards. I often wonder when the baby boomer generation is gone if the baseball card hobby will be, too. The reasons are not hard to figure out, starting with cost. I used to be able to buy an entire box of cards for $1.80. That's 36 packs times a nickel. Nowadays, it's hard to get even one pack of cards for as little as $2.
Kids today have grown up with the ESPN family of networks and all of the satellite sports packages. Many prefer football and basketball over baseball. When I was growing up, the NBA was a second-tier sport with less than 10 teams and the NFL explosion in popularity was still a few years off. Baseball was the unquestioned king. We played it all day, and when it got too dark we'd retire to our homes and sort our baseball cards.
I have two grandsons who have absolutely no interest in sports, let alone baseball cards, and that's perfectly OK. But I can't help but feel a little sad, because I know they will never be able to appreciate those Andy Etchebarren baseball cards in the way their grandpa did.
And still does.