Because I am time-deficient today and in tribute to baseball, which just got underway yesterday, I will post the following, the first article I ever got published, through an act of nepotism:

From Time Out New York, January 17, 1996

In 1867, the Russians sold us Alaska for two cents an acre. My first business deal was even more foolish. When I was nine, I traded my Eddie Murray rookie baseball card, now priced at $110, to my friend Jason Hipp for one that isn’t worth the pulp it was printed on. But I cared very little about investment strategy back then. I cared only that I had in my possession the greatest baseball card ever manufactured—the 1977 Topps José Cruz.

And what a beautiful, mysterious card it is. In it, the largely forgotten Houston outfielder mugs so defiantly for the camera that he manages to look cool even though he’s suited up in one of those wussy ’70s Astros uniforms. Plain and simple, the guy was a major stud. His nickname was “Cheo,” for chrissakes.

These days, I’m more concerned with financial matters. So, after finding José buried in the closet of my boyhood home in Michigan, I brought him back to New York to unload.

How hard could it be? A card as cool as Cheo’s must be worth hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars. Of course, that thought came before I encountered the rough-and-tumble world of the Manhattan sports-card dealer.

At the Collector’s Cache, at 6 Beekman Street, you know you’re in a baseball card shop: The walls are plastered with sports posters and paraphernalia, and a long counter at one end of the room is crammed with expensive cards—including a mint-condition Eddie Murray rookie. When I straight-out suggested a swap of my José Cruz for the Murray, the two young men behind the counter looked at me as if I were speaking Swahili. When I repeated the offer, Jerry Isaac, one of the dealers, said, “I have no idea who he is.” He deferred to his coworker, On Man Tse, who appraised José quickly. “I’ll give you a quarter,” Tse said. “It might be good to complete someone’s set.” Now I’m no business major, but I know a thing or two about bum deals. A quarter wouldn’t even have covered my overhead: I had used a pay phone to get directions to the place.

Hoping that a different store might give me a better price, I trudged down to Chameleon Comics & Cards, at 3 Maiden Lane. It’s beautifully crammed with the stuff card hounds crave, such as underpriced Hideo Nomo rookies and autographed Yankee baseballs, and the staff can tell you all about the next area card show. I asked Victor Colón, the youngish sales clerk, if he’d ever heard of José Cruz. “Oh, yeah,” he said, almost proudly. “He’s my neighbor.” Upon seeing the photo of the Astros outfielder, however, he changed his story. “Wait, that ain’t my neighbor.” Had my José been his José, I assume Colón would have paid top dollar for the card. But when I suggested he buy the card as a gift for his neighbor, Colón shrugged and said, “I don’t really know him all that well.” New York can be such a cold place.

The commercialism of ’90s-style card collecting was beginning to wear on me. It’s not enough anymore to own a cool card, like the Oscar Gamble-with-an-Afro card of 1976 or the Elliot Maddox–being-interviewed card of 1978. It’s got to be worth something. The José Cruzes of the card world no longer have a place.

Upon entering Alex’s M.V.P. Cards at 256 East 89th Street, I figured I had two options left. One, I could hold onto a worthless but awesome-looking card as a lasting reminder that I was every bit as dumb as I look. Or two, I could try to swindle a young kid into swapping the card for, say, a Ken Griffey Jr. I set upon a 12-year-old who would only give his name as Matthew from Queens. Wary from the start, Matthew grew even more so when I offered to trade every card in my possession for one of his ten Frank Thomas rookies, which he said were worth about $60 apiece. Though Matthew appreciates the whole card-collecting aesthetic—from putting them into the plastic sheets to attending card shows—he brings his Beckett price guide with him wherever he goes. “People try to rip you off,” he explains.

With that kind of bottom-line mentality working against me, I guess I should have known better than to try to pull a fast one on him. When I placed my José Cruz alongside his much more ugly but valuable Frank Thomas, Matthew, a shrewd young man with a definite future in sports cards, had only one thing to say: “That’s it?”

At the coffee hut, I mistook a Mudhoney song for Van Halen. And this is coming from a guy who owns Fair Warning. So humiliating.