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A fan sells some treasures from his youth

As you may have noticed over the past few weeks, I've been gathering lists of interesting items listed on eBay. While combing through the listings to compile this week's installment, I noticed a seller who had put several envelopes up for bid, such as this one, with each described as a "fan mail response."

I clicked on a few of the items and found the following basic description for each of them:

    Buy my childhood memories and help me pay my mortgage!

    Remember how exciting it was to receive mail back when you were a kid? Imagine how exciting it was to receive an envelope from a professional sports team, and full of stuff!

    Now I’m in financial straits and my failure as a man can be your personal gain!

    You are bidding on a piece of mail sent to me almost 20 years ago in response to fan mail. ... At nine or ten years of age, I wrote letters to every professional major league basketball and hockey team, mentioning my favorite player on that team and asking for anything that they might be willing to send back. ...

    Sixteen teams responded to my letter. Some envelopes contained photocopies of team apparel catalogs. ... Some contained autographs from Hall-of-Famers. ...

    These envelopes are like a time capsule. ... Whatever was sent to me 20 years ago is still inside today.

Huh. So some poor guy is down on his luck and selling off a piece of his childhood. But here's the kicker, which appears at the end of each listing: "I will not give any hints about the contents of each envelope. You are taking a chance. You may get a Hall of Famer's autograph, or you may get a form letter on how to buy team-branded Zubaz pants."

Intriguing! I contacted the seller via eBay's interface and soon found myself talking to Andy Holmes, a 30-year-old, unemployed financial consultant from Massachusetts who filled me in on the whole thing.

"I was always obsessed with getting in touch with my sports heroes when I was a kid, especially hockey goalies and basketball players," he said. "So I decided to write to all 47 NBA and NHL teams. It was a fun way to interact with my heroes."

Holmes said his letters "were about what you'd expect from a 10-year-old. 'My name is Andrew Holmes, my favorite player is whoever. If you have any bumper stickers or postcards lying around, I'd sincerely appreciate it if you could send them.' That kind of thing." He wanted to type up a form letter and have his mother photocopy it, but she insisted that he write each letter by hand -- a wise move, in retrospect. "Imagine if I had sent out letters that said, 'My favorite player is ...' and then fill in the blank!"

Holmes sent out his letters over the course of several months in the winter and spring of 1990. He wasn't sure what to expect, so he was super-excited when he got his first response in just a few weeks. But then the next one didn't come for another 10 months. ("That wait was excruciating," he said.) Slowly, in dribs and drabs over the course of about two years, the responses trickled in -- 16 of them in all, or about one for every three teams he had contacted.

If you can remember what being a sports fan was like before the days when we could track an athlete's thoughts in real time on Twitter, you'll appreciate how Holmes reacted whenever a response appeared in the mail. "Seeing an envelope show up with a team logo printed on it and my name written on it -- I can't even describe how exciting that was," he recalled. "I'd tear open the envelope and see what was inside. Then I'd put everything back. Then I'd take everything out and put it back again five or six times, just to relive the magic. Then I'd store them away with the others. I always left everything intact -- never peeled off a sticker or anything like that. It was all precious treasure."

OK, so that sounds like a total geekfest, but it's a very endearing geekiness. Come on, like you've never been there? You know you have. We all have.

But now Holmes' childhood enthusiasm has given way to a very adult reality. He's been out of work for eight months and money is tight and he's decided to liquidate a few of his holdings, including his treasured envelopes. The twist is that he's not saying what's inside any given envelope. Like he wrote in the eBay listings, you could end up with a Hall of Famer's autograph or you could end up with something more pedestrian. You won't know until you open the envelope -- just like Holmes didn't know what he'd find when he opened the envelopes 20 years ago.

Holmes put the envelopes up for sale on Sunday. Won't it be hard for him to part with these goodies? "Yeah, but I have the satisfaction and the memory of it, and that's what really counts for me in the end," he said. "I don't need the actual bumper sticker. And the extra cash won't hurt a bit."

As of this writing, nobody has bid on any of Holmes' 16 envelopes. The auctions run through this Sunday night.

Paul Lukas wrote a few fan letters to teams when he was a kid but didn't save the responses he got back. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch website, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.