My priceless, worthless baseball cards

Ryan Hockensmith/ESPN

I WAS IN first grade, sitting in my little-kid chair at a low-to-the-ground table, when the loudspeaker in my classroom rattled to life one day.

Could Ryan Hockensmith come to the guidance counselor's office?

I didn't even know what a guidance counselor was, so I was clueless when I wandered into his office. But Mr. Thompson knew me. He asked about the weather, and how I liked school, and how cool it must be to have made the same T-ball all-star team as my younger brother Jason. But then he narrowed his eyes and just stared at me for a second.

"How are things at home?" he asked, his voice a little lower, his words spaced out enough to indicate concern.

"Pretty good," I said.

"Are you sure?" he asked.

Oh no. He knew. How did he know?

"Everything is fine," I said.

We went back to talking about T-ball and football, and he mentioned how much he loved basketball. I barely spoke, though -- I had shut down. Eventually he told me I could go back to my classroom, and I thought my family's secret would stay that way.

But my name blared from the loudspeaker again the next day, and I had knots in my stomach as I went back down to the office. The trepidation lasted about 30 seconds.

"Ryan, I have something for you," Mr. Thompson said, and he slid a 1979 Topps Pedro Guerrero rookie card across his desk to me. Guerrero was my favorite player from my and my dad's favorite team, the Dodgers. My brothers and I had some cards at home, but we were so young (I was 7, Jason was 5 and Dustin was 3) that we didn't have much of a collection yet. "I'd like to give it to you. Maybe you can hold on to it and remember that if you ever need to talk to someone about anything going on in your life, I'm here."

The sadness welled up through my body and out of my eyes. It was one of those physical cries, where your brain relinquishes control of your respiratory system and the chest heaves and there's no slowing it down. When I could finally get out a few words, I asked Mr. Thompson questions he had no answers for: Why are my parents splitting up? Will Dad ever move back home? How do I get him to come back? Can you talk to him and tell him just to come home?

Mr. Thompson listened and nodded. I don't remember if I ever met with him again, or what I thought later that day or that week. I don't know when I gave up on the idea that my dad would ever come back again.

But I do recall two things from that moment: It was the first baseball card I can remember, and that was the only time I remember crying when my parents' marriage broke up.

A FEW WEEKS ago, maybe 12 days into quarantine, I approached my 5-year-old daughter and asked, "Hey, can I get you something for lunch?"

"Yeah, how about some peace and quiet?" she said.

"Uh, OK, I love you too," I muttered under my breath as I backed slowly away from this tiny dictator in Elsa pajamas.

If you're someone of my age and circumstances -- 42, married, three kids, all bottled up in the same house -- you're probably having similar conversations. Nerves are fried. Everybody loves each other forever ... but doesn't like each other for significant chunks of time. You're home-schooling while working from home. You live in fear about the world. It's a lot.

The only sanctuary in my house is the basement, home to the old couch, three litter boxes, that damn fake Christmas tree that the cats continue to try to eat ... and about 150,000 sports cards, 500 old magazines and 50 figurines of athletes and pro wrestlers from my massive memorabilia collection. I find myself down there for a few minutes every day, and I'm immediately transported back to my childhood every time.

Those cards kept my life glued together after my parents got divorced. But two years ago, when my family was moving, I set out on a quest to sell my unwieldy and space-consuming collection. It was mostly an epic fail.

I'd spent roughly $50,000 on those cards in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but I knew they weren't worth that much now. I hoped maybe I could get a few grand for them, maybe take the family on a road trip with the money.

It didn't take long for me to realize that my cards were practically valueless. The mass overproduction and fraud that plagued the boom period for baseball cards of the late 1980s and early 1990s had doomed that sector of the industry. I reached out to 10 dealers who advertised that they aggressively bought cards, and their responses were 10 different variations of "We buy cards but not those cards." I called an auction house that required payment up front, then a cut of whatever sold, and even with virtually no risk, the company said it didn't bother with any cards from that era. During the heyday of the early 1990s, I probably had 1,000 cards worth $50 apiece. Now, I realized, only one or two were worth that much.

That left me three options. I could keep trying to sell them and surely eventually find someone who'd give me something -- even $100 -- for all of them. I could hang on to them. Or I could throw them in the trash.

I thought my decision was made for me on the day we moved into our new house in 2018. It rained biblically that day. More than 2 feet of water pooled in our street by the middle of the afternoon. While I was out getting lunch for our movers, my wife called to tell me to get home ASAP. Water was pouring into the basement. My card collection was slowly drowning in it.

By the time I got back home and down into the basement, about half of the collection was submerged, including a box with my most valuable cards. I yanked as many boxes out of the swamp as possible, but entire crates were ruined, immersed in what the fire department later said might have been sewer water that backed up into our house. I had to junk vast chunks of my collection.

It crossed my mind to just throw the whole damn thing out. What was the point? I bounced back and forth between the impulse to toss them and the pangs of nostalgia I kept feeling.

After my parents divorced, both remarried within two years, and both had more kids in their new relationships. Our family was a big 1980s-era hodgepodge of step-this and half-that, and my parents did an impressive job of making it feel as normal as possible. But it was hard, and chaotic, and the only consistent order in my life was my card collection.

My brothers and I went to my dad's house every other weekend, and we would often pack bags that had only two things -- essentials, like clothes and toothbrushes, and our cards.

You could organize them alphabetically by sport, then get the new price guide and reorganize them by value. We'd open packs together and share in the gold rush of unboxing something new. Then we'd make trades, and we chuckle now because we'd trade so much that we'd end up with the same cards we started with. It wasn't really about the cards as much as the shared ground shelter we'd found, a place beneath the tornado above us where you could still hear the wind but feel calm and safe.

I was the oldest of the three boys that my mom and dad had together, but we all were obsessed in the same way. We'd sprawl out on the floor of both houses, say a cordial hello to our stepmom or stepdad and then retreat into the cards. When I sat with my cards, and my brothers with their cards, those were the moments when my life felt the steadiest.

But now, some 30 years later, staring at the remains of that collection, I was paralyzed by indecision: Drive the surviving cards to the nearest dumpster or cling to the remnants of my childhood?

Then it dawned on me that perhaps I could find the perfect person to help.

"HELLO, THIS IS Jeff Thompson," the voice on the other line said.

"Hi, Mr. Thompson," I said. "You used to be a guidance counselor at Rossmoyne Elementary School, right?"

Yes, it was him. After a few days of trying to hunt him down, this was the right number. He told me I could call him Jeff, but it felt more comfortable for me to stick with Mr. Thompson. He laughed and said that's fine, and we spent the next hour talking. He'd recently retired after a 40-year career as a guidance counselor at various central Pennsylvania schools, where he'd also become a successful high school basketball coach. He didn't recall working with me at Rossmoyne, and even the Pedro Guerrero card didn't jog his memory. "That was a really good card, though," he said.

He told me he handed out cards because there were lots of kids like me in the early 1980s, when divorce rates spiked to all-time highs. "At the time, divorce was still stigmatized, and I had to fight through that stigmatization every day to try to get kids to open up," he said. "When you see a kid who's hurting, you clutch at anything you can. You just want to make a connection."

"Mr. Thompson, you did make a connection with me," I said, and I could feel a little moisture around the corner of my eyes. "I hope you hear from people like me, because I bet there are hundreds of kids out there who are thankful every day, even if they don't realize it."

There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Ryan, I'll tell you, I am in the West Shore Chapter of the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame and the Chagrin Falls Hall of Fame back in my hometown in Ohio. And what you just said to me is as meaningful as any award that has ever been given to me."

We talked for another minute or two, and then I told him I had one last question for him. "What do you think, should I sell my card collection?"

He wouldn't say yes or no, but he told me he regretted getting rid of his cards from when he was a kid. "If you give them up, it's almost like losing a piece of yourself," he said. "And it's hard to ever get that piece of you back."

As we hung up, I promised to be in touch and told him this call had tipped the scales. The cards were so valuable to me that it didn't matter that they were worthless.

FOR THE PAST couple of weeks, when I haven't been disrupting pre-K people with lunch orders, I've increasingly found myself staring at my cards.

The basement is the quietest spot in my house, a place where I can shelter in place within my shelter in place. I've found one of the most disorienting things about quarantine is the loss of chapter breaks in my life. I never realized the value of walking from my work desk to the ESPN cafeteria, or the half-hour ride from work to home, to disconnect from the previous chapter within every day. Right now, everything feels like one big run-on sentence.

It seems that other people in my life are feeling the same way -- that every single thing, big or small, has an undercurrent of subconscious dread, like how a TV in the background makes every conversation start from a slightly louder place. When will this end? How will it end? Will the economy collapse? Will I collapse?

A friend of mine always says, "Don't live in the wreckage of your future," but I can't help it right now. Even in the best-case scenarios that I can come up with about what a post-COVID-19 world will look like, I feel tremendous fear about the society my kids are growing up in. It's hard to have a rational conversation about who dropped the Tostito into the sour cream with that stink of existential crisis hanging over the planet.

But I feel 10% less scared in my basement, with my cards. I don't really need them anymore. I don't even dig into them. I don't go through the many boxes, still organized alphabetically in protective plastic sleeves, or open up any of the packs I still have. I just stare at them. Some people have bubbling brooks or bird noises from the backyard that bring them calm and serenity. Me? I have 500 Pedro Guerrero cards that aren't worth the plastic cases they're housed in.

All three of my girls are at a place in life where they're trying to figure out the world and how to interact with it. Throw in a pandemic that forces them to isolate and avoid their friends and I can't begin to imagine what they're feeling. They drift toward devices and streaming services, and they're quiet and calm for long stretches of time. I know how I feel: terrified, then optimistic, then confused, then annoyed, then terrified again, then tired, then content ... and on and on and on. It must be so much messier inside the brain of my 12-year-old.

Thankfully I go to bed most nights leaning toward optimism. That the world is good, that people are good, that order will return. I hope my daughters feel that way too. But I don't know if the fleeting distractions of Snapchat and TikTok are giving the kids of 2020 what Tom Gugliotta and Napoleon Kaufman rookie cards gave me.

When my oldest daughter read this story (she likes to edit everything I say or type or think), she immediately texted me -- it's too hard to walk downstairs to tell me in person, after all. I'd love to tell you that what she sent me was a heartwarming note about how moved she was, but what she actually wrote was: "It's a really good story. I'm sure TikTok isn't giving us what the cards gave you. Especially because we aren't allowed to have it."

Then she asked when she can get TikTok. All of her friends have it, ya know?

My wife and I will eventually cave on the app. The parental approval click is always so much easier than the fight -- and right now, no one should be denied their shelter, even one made out of tiny little pieces of cardboard.