"That was my only hobby until I was 12 or 13 years old," the Texas Rangers first baseman said. "I remember when my parents bought me the Don Mattingly rookie card. That was my favorite. I still have it. I still have all my cards."
Most players are just like baseball fans. The only difference is that they get to pose for the front of those cards today, and the introduction of the first-ever National Baseball Card Day on Saturday means everyone has a chance to celebrate that time-honored hobby with some special events that make collecting even more fun.
National Baseball Card Day is a joint effort by the Major League Baseball Players Association, Major League Baseball and the trading card companies. It is part of an overall campaign to inject new life into a hobby that has sustained through generations and now competes with video games, computers and myriad high-tech entertainment.
MLB.com/Cards was recently launched as an Internet hub on behalf of those parties above, and any person who signs up on that site on Saturday will receive a free pack of special National Baseball Card Day cards. It is a 12-pack that features six cards from Topps and six from Upper Deck. MLB.com ripped open a cellophane sample of these and was dazzled by the quality. Pujols ... Ichiro ... A-Rod ... Junior ... it was as much fun as ripping open a pack many years ago, and these are certain to be worth collecting because of the unprecedented event around baseball.
Of course, you might not want to rip that pack open. It will only become more valuable through the years, which you already know if you love collecting baseball cards. Rangers catcher Rod Barajas fits into that category.
"I loved baseball cards," he said. "My buddy used to work in a card shop and whatever money I had, that's what I spent my money on. I loved it, absolutely loved it. I remember my favorite was Mike Schmidt's rookie card. I still have them. I have boxes of the stuff from my childhood all at my parents' house."
Tampa Bay pitcher Seth McClung said he collected as a kid from the mid '80s through the early '90s. He moved to Atlanta for a few months over the summer when he was "8 or 9" and made friends through baseball cards, always buying them at the grocery store. To this day, he still has his collection and checks it over every so often.
"I used to build complete sets with my brother Marcus [who played football at Virginia Tech]," McClung said. "Our favorite sets, which we completed, were Topps Stadium Club, Topps '88, the '91 Donruss and a Fleer yellow set. Fleer Ultra always had better pictures and higher gloss. They were 'the coolest cards.'"
You can go to the grocery store like McClung used to, or you can just order baseball cards conveniently through MLB.com/Cards. The card companies offer their sets there, and great individual cards. One of the benefits of visiting this area is the opportunity to join the Pack of the Month Club, which is an exclusive club at MLB.com aimed at promoting card collecting. Fans can sign up for a subscription of one, six or 12 months, and if you sign up now, each six-month commitment (limit two and while supplies last) means you will receive a trading card featuring an authentic piece of a game-used uniform or bat. Each month, at least one new pack of recently released cards will be mailed directly to you. The number of packs depends on the retail value of the cards.
Other examples of promotions in support of National Baseball Card Day that are MLB-related included two big Pack Attack events in New York. MLB will be hosting Pack Attack at the Yankee Clubhouse Store at South Street Seaport from 12-2 p.m. ET, and at Shea Stadium before the Mets' game from 5:15 to the first pitch. Many prizes will be given away and many packs of cards will be opened up to remind everyone that the hobby is fun.
Just ask someone who has been around the game a long time: Diamondbacks' pitcher Terry Mulholland, who is now with his 11th different Major League club.
"You'd get your friends together from school," he recalled. "We each had our own card collections and we used to go to one kid's and we'd hang out in his bedroom and we'd have our shoeboxes full of cards. Everybody always had doubles of guys and stuff like that. So [we'd] try to flip for the other kid's cards. If you landed face up and he landed face down, you won. Or if both landed face up, then he won. If they both landed face down, then they stayed out there and two more cards were flipped.
"Back then, no one really cared about what they were worth. When you're a kid, you just cared about who your idol was and getting his cards. Growing up, I never had a price value on the card. It was just fun to try and get guys that you didn't have and give away guys that you had triples and quadruples of."
Mulholland has seen the evolution of the baseball fan from a player's perspective. He knows that new fans come into the game all the time, and he sees them at the park. But he also understands the pull of today's digital age as a competing force for the free time of people young and old, and perhaps an event like National Baseball Card Day can help introduce new excitement. The Players Association also has been aggressive in marketing baseball cards on television; rookie cards have been standardized so you won't get a "rookie card" unless the player has made it to the Majors; and there has been a consolidation of the card companies so values ideally will gain strength.
"A lot of games that I followed were on the radio, they weren't on television," Mulholland said. "You spent most of your nights listening to the games on radio and so your imagination takes over and the only way you can put faces to names was basically through baseball cards. I can remember having cards like Manny Sanguillen and [seeing] his batting stance, and then listening to the game on the radio and imagining him up at the plate in that very stance. So that's kind of what baseball card collecting meant to me back then. There were very few pictures in the newspaper back then. Everything was black and white. Baseball cards were really the only thing that you had a colored picture of a player on back then. ... it just brought me closer to the game and kind of helped my imagination flourish a little bit more.
"When you're a kid today, you have so many different avenues of interest. Not only baseball or sports, but video games, there's all the other traditional things that kids do like dancing, horseback lessons. There's such a multitude for kids to get into and healthy activities. I think it would be sad if baseball cards fell by the wayside, so [I'm glad] the Association is trying to popularize it and make it a larger activity for more kids."
That's the way it was for Michael Young long before he became the Rangers shortstop. Like the teammate he throws to on a 6-3 groundout, he said his favorite card was a Mattingly rookie, and it's still in mint condition. "I still have them at my parents' house," he said of his cards. "I was really into it when I was 8 or 9. ... I tried to do trading, but I was always trying to make a big steal. I had a friend who was a Dodgers fan, and I tried getting Dwight Gooden's rookie card for Steve Sax but my friend wouldn't bite."
On National Baseball Card Day, it's time for a lot more of that. Trade your cards. Collect some more. Be like so many of those players who are pictured on the front of them.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. Lindsey Frazier and T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.