Inside the Pack: Two Trips: One to a Card Shop, One Down Memory Lane

As most people who know me can attest, I never pass up the opportunity to add a detour onto a trip in order to check out a local card shop. In November 2020, for example, I wrote about turning a trip to Virginia for my sister-in-law’s wedding into an opportunity for me to check out a few card shops.

I’m currently in the middle of a two-week-long road trip where I’m doing the same thing. This trip, however, ties into my childhood beginnings as a card collector as well.

My friend Jesse got married in Colorado this past weekend. Well, not exactly — he got married last year, but due to pandemic precautions, the celebration was shifted to this year. We had already planned to visit Denver for the wedding last year, so we turned the visit into our summer vacation. True to my nature, I added a card shop visit last year, writing about my visit to Mike’s Stadium Sportscards in Aurora, Colorado.

Since we visited Denver last year, we decided to do this trip differently — flying into Denver, and immediately driving to Colorado Springs, then out west to the small mountain town where Jesse was getting married, before heading south to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and ending with a visit with friends in Tucson. The day before our flight, my wife told me she had a few hours of work she needed to do when we got to Colorado Springs. Never one to miss an opportunity, I pointed out that our drive from Denver to Colorado Springs took us through Aurora, and suggested that maybe she could work at a coffee shop while I spend some time digging through boxes at Mike’s. She went for the plan.

My return visit to Mike’s was similar to my first, albeit shorter. Mike’s (4032 S Parker Road, Aurora, CO) is still a bustling mecca for local card enthusiasts. For the first hour I was there, Mike was talking to folks in the store and on the phone, holding court in between bites of his lunch, always making sure his collectors got what they needed before tending to his own needs of nourishment.

After things calmed down a bit, he and I got to talk as I hurriedly dug through boxes of raw vintage so that I could leave at the time I told my wife I would. (I was late, but she didn’t mind.) Mike’s is still one of my favorite shops in the country, perfect for my obsession with searching for cardboard gold in unsorted boxes. To be clear, Mike’s has plenty of sorted cards, too — I just pass them up due to my preference for chaotic excavation of cards.

After leaving Mike’s, we headed to Colorado Springs. I got recommendations for John’s Sports Cards and The Iron Lion, two apparently very different types of shops. Unfortunately, our schedule didn’t allow me to go to either, so I’ll add them to my wish list for the future.

Next, it was on to the wedding, about two hours west. Set in a small picturesque town with a mountainous backdrop, the venue couldn’t have been more beautiful.

This isn’t a wedding blog, of course, so I won’t go into details about the beautiful affair. But it is a baseball card blog, so talking about Jesse makes perfect sense.

Jesse is one of my oldest friends. We met in kindergarten because we noticed we had the same shoes, and even though I left the school after a single year, our parents continued to schedule time for us to get together.

As I’ve written before, I got into baseball cards at the age of 9, thanks to my grandfather. But if he was the most influential person at starting me on my collecting journey, Jesse may be the most influential person at allowing me to continue on that path. I only had two friends who collected cards at that time. My other friend had cards, and sometimes got new cards when his parents would buy him a blaster box, but we rarely traded with each other. I remember only one trade we ever made, when his mom bought us both blaster boxes of 2002 Topps. I pulled a Derek Jeter Topps Gold parallel and he got a Mike Piazza/Al Leiter dual jersey card. It made sense for the two ex-Marlins to come to me and the Yankee card to go to him.

But Jesse was most definitely my closest collecting buddy at the time. We would frequently go to the card store together. A regular outing for us as kids would be for my mother to drop us off at the shopping center in front of my house, where we would order pizzas from Schlotzsky’s Deli, then walk over to Tom’s Sports Cards to buy singles or packs before stopping at PetSmart to get a bone or tennis ball for my dog, and finally finishing up at Hollywood Video to rent a PlayStation game.

We traded a lot; I can remember picking out cards we each wanted and Jesse saying “Let’s put it in the pot,” then stirring the cards around on the carpet in my room, neither of us caring about condition. There were, however, a few cards I coveted that Jesse wouldn’t trade me. There was a 1971 Nolan Ryan that I needed for the set I just began building. This card stayed in Jesse’s room in the binder that housed his vintage cards. He also had a Ben Grieve autograph card that, at the time, ranked among the worst baseball card trades I ever made: at the card store, we each got a pack of 1998 Topps, and I foolishly suggested we trade packs before we open them. The pack Jesse ended up with had the rookie autograph of the top prospect in baseball.

But chief among the cards I wanted was a 1988 Topps Al Leiter rookie card. I had an error version, which incorrectly showed a different Yankees lefty, Steve George. Jesse’s card was the real deal and, as a Marlins fan whose pitching staff was led by Leiter, I wanted it. Jesse was a Yankees fan, so he wanted it, too.

I never got the card from him, but I do pull that card out of collections I buy and stick it away for the memories. I tried several times through a few different avenues to contact Al Leiter and try and get a copy of the card signed as a wedding gift for Jesse but, unfortunately, I struck out just like the nearly 2000 MLB hitters who met the same fate with Leiter.

The trip to Mike’s Stadium Sportscards was great, but the trip down memory lane was even better. Next week, I’ll focus the second leg of my trip with another local card shop review.

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