This is an extended version of the story that appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 15 Photo Issue. Subscribe today!
WHERE'S THE magic?
For one thing, it's dawn and too dark to see much of anything as TOPPS photographer Gregg Forwerck sets up to shoot the Mariners for their Topps baseball cards. For another, it's unseasonably cold at the complex in Peoria, Ariz., and the players are more concerned with staying warm than with looking cool before they actually have to go to work.
As the sun comes up over left-center, manager Eric Wedge swings by for his photos, and then some unusually tall people -- the pitchers -- begin to line up, holding pale blue placards with their names on them. These tags are important: For his 1969 Topps card, Angels third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez had bat boy Leonard Garcia pose for him, thus making No. 653 in the set an instant collectible.
To pose, each Mariner gets paid only enough to buy a few packs of cards (Topps keeps exact figures secret). But if a player has a card printed, he'll get about enough to snag a mint Derek Jeter rookie card. And that's not all: Topps delivers additional royalty checks for special autographed cards. So there's a slight air of anxiety, with the rookies whose names are not yet on the backs of their uniforms and the journeymen vying for the last spots on the roster wondering just how much a picture is worth.
Wrangling the group is the club's senior director of marketing, Gregg Greene. "I love this day," he says. "First of all, my father is a photographer -- I spent a lot of time sitting in cars waiting for the right light. Second of all, when I was a senior in high school in Seattle, I worked at All-Pro Sports Cards, which was owned by Norm Johnson, the Seahawks' All-Pro kicker. I still get a thrill when I see Ken Griffey's 1989 Upper Deck rookie card."
At one point, Greene whispers something to Forwerck. They both know the value of a good rookie card, and on deck is one of the tallest people, Taijuan Walker, a right-hander who's the No. 2 prospect in the organization. He gets the time usually reserved for a VIP like Felix Hernandez, and when he's done, Walker tells Forwerck, "Appreciate it."
Photo day can be something of a cattle call. On this particular morning, the sky is dramatic, and the pace is frenetic because Forwerck has to keep up with both the flow of players and the changing exposures. But he maintains a steady, friendly banter with them. He's been doing this for Topps since 1989, when he left his job managing a fast-food restaurant in North Carolina to become a full-time photographer.
"Craig Biggio was my first posed card," he says during a break. "Kissimmee, 1991. Could not have been nicer. And I have to say, the vast majority of the 10,000 players I've shot over the years have been very cooperative. Every once in a while, I'll get someone who big-times me. But most of them really care about how they look, probably because they collected cards once themselves."
Watching the procession, you know, or at least hope, that the magic will happen, that one of these poses will yield a card that will give some kid the same joy his grandfather got when he opened a pack and saw his favorite player.
Baseball cards date from around 1865, when both the game and photography were new to America -- a team photo of the 1865 Brooklyn Atlantics recently sold for $92,000. But it was Topps, a bubble gum company, that made the cards a juvenile national pastime starting with its first set in 1951.
So much has changed since then. No more of those bubble gum slabs in each pack. And kids today know enough not to abuse the cards by playing knocksies, farsies, topsies … or worse, by putting them in the spokes of a bicycle to create a clicking noise that made it sound motorized. "I hate to think of the fortune I lost by clipping cards to the spokes of my bicycle," says Yankee scout Pete Mackanin. "I loved that sound, though." But they do still trade them -- a Josh Hamilton, say, for a Pedro Alvarez and an Andrew McCutchen -- the way people used to swap a Tom Tresh and a Hector Lopez for a Jim Bunning.
Mackanin happens to be a good person to talk to about cards because he too is a collectible: "Back in 2005, when I was a Pirates coach, Lloyd McClendon was fired as the manager with 26 games to go in the season, and I took over. So there's a 2006 card with my name and Lloyd's photo. We both still get autograph requests."
Long before fantasy baseball, cards were fantasy baseball. Radio was the only regular medium for the game in the '50s, so the "cardboard gods" provided the visuals. Bill Szczepanek, who maintains the Golden Age of Baseball Cards website, says: "The fronts of cards allowed us to see who these guys really were, and the backs gave us their bios and statistics. I grew up a Cubs fan, so one of my favorites is the 1956 Ernie Banks. Those were the horizontal cards with two photos, a close-up with an action shot in the background. I can still see Ernie crossing the plate. Just beautiful."
That 1956 Topps set is almost universally considered the best ever, but there's a real battle for second: Topps '53, Donruss '84, Topps '87, Upper Deck '89 … To each his own, and it often depends on the height of passion. (Which is why this writer and former Phillies fan is still partial to the 1964 set, a fairly plain year for Topps.) And it's not just collectors who have their favorites. Brian Cronin, who writes about cards and works at Squiggy's Dugout in New Rochelle, N.Y., says, "Andre Dawson liked his 1993 Topps Finest card so much that he offered people $5 if they would send it to him."
What makes a great card? "We want it to capture what that player is about," says Clay Luraschi, VP of product development for Topps. "You want to feel the power of Prince Fielder, the speed of Rickey Henderson, the knuckleball grip of R.A. Dickey." Eye contact is good, too -- there's a certain "here's looking at you, kid" connection that lets you sense the wonder of the rookie Sandy Koufax (1955 Topps), the weariness of the soon-to-retire Koufax (1966 Topps).
Somewhere in the 1970s, cards crossed over from make-believe to the reality of commerce and to the regret of all of us whose mothers threw our cards out. By the '80s, half a dozen companies competed against one another and raised the game as far as photography and design were concerned. But the bubble burst at the turn of the century, popped by cable TV, the Internet, Yu-Gi-Oh, you name it. "Kids collect re-Tweets the way we collected cards," says Greene. "Still, I can't wait to show my collection to my oldest son, who's four years old."
Now, thanks to a licensing agreement signed with MLB in 2009, Topps is the last one standing, like the final card in a game of knocksies, cornering the market with a website that offers everything from a 24-pack box of the 2013 cards ($49.95) to the 1976 signed Topps contract of Jack Morris ($500). For all the different products we offer," says Luraschi, "baseball cards are still our bread and butter. When I see a kid open a pack of cards, I see myself looking for a Roberto Clemente."
As for the Mariners' photo shoot, the sun is up now, and Forwerck is working his own magic -- he makes it fun for the players. "Smiles or badass?" veteran pitcher Jon Garland asks Forwerck. "Both!" he replies. Catcher Kelly Shoppach strikes a walk-off pose.
Waiting patiently in line is a new acquisition, Jason Bay, who's in his 11th year in the majors. "I'll never forget the first time I ever saw a card with my picture on it," he says. "It was at a junior hockey game in my hometown [Trail, British Columbia]. A guy came up to me and asked me to sign my 2002 Expos Prospect card. I went out to the 7-Eleven and must've blown $60, $70 buying every pack they had. But my card wasn't in any of them. My parents, though, found me for 99 cents on eBay."
Hernandez, King Felix, gets to cut in line because of interviews, but nobody seems to mind, and besides, he's a prince about it. The line dwindles, and Forwerck can finally relax. It's 8:45, and there's only one player left to shoot: shortstop Brendan Ryan. But he's off doing interviews, which gives the two Greggs a chance to chat. ("My rap name is Superfluous G," Greene tells Forwerck. "You can use it on the East Coast.") As in many baseball card discussions, the name of Bill Ripken comes up -- "Fleer 1989!" they both shout.
For that set, Ripken posed with a bat on his right shoulder, looking perfectly earnest. But the words "F--- Face" were clearly written on the nob of the bat. "Billy visited the ballpark a few years ago," says Greene, "and I couldn't resist asking him about his card. He told me there wasn't a day that goes by that he doesn't get asked about it. I felt for the guy, especially having to live in the shadow of his brother."
Asked what his favorite card is, Forwerck says, "That's easy. Growing up in Michigan, any card with Al Kaline on it. I'd trade you anything for a Kaline. My favorite card as a photographer? Has to be a shot I took at a Rangers Photo Day that Topps used in the 2009 set. It's actually called Photo Day Fun, and Michael Young is climbing on Josh Hamilton's back while Ian Kinsler is holding up the sheet of paper with his name on it. It kind of captures the camaraderie of a team."
After about 10 minutes, an apologetic Ryan shows up. He throws himself into his poses, living up to his reputation as the team joker. Then he rhetorically asks Forwerck, "Why don't you take a picture of me doing this?"
As Forwerck aims his camera, Ryan proceeds to juggle a baseball with his legs and feet, like it's a Hacky Sack. "See what you can learn when you have a lot of downtime?" he says. Then he announces: "One last trick."
With that, he grabs a bat, walks out toward home plate, puts the ball on the ground, flicks it over his shoulder with his feet, hits a rope to the wall and walks away with the pronouncement: "Solid single."
Who do you want for a Brendan Ryan?