Why I Love but Will Never Own a Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck Rookie Card

It would cost about a hundred bucks to get one, but it's not about the price anymore

One of the greatest baseball cards ever (Wes Robinson for InsideHook)
One of the greatest baseball cards ever (Wes Robinson for InsideHook)

Welcome to That’s the Dream, InsideHook’s series exploring the things we want but will probably never own, for whatever reason. In this installment, Emmy-nominated television writer Alex Scordelis looks at a collectable that unites the generations, a baseball card that pretty much everybody can agree is the coolest of the last 30 years.

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1989, nothing was more vital, culturally significant or elusive as an Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card. This, of course, is the opinion of a baseball-obsessed eight-year-old (which I was). From the moment the card debuted, it established itself as an iconic pop-culture phenomenon, like Pulp Fiction or “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Every baseball card that came before it seemed like obsolete cardboard junk. Bruce Springsteen once said that the opening snare shot on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” “sounded like someone kicked the door open to your mind.” Opening a pack of Upper Deck cards that summer and finding a Griffey had the same euphoric effect. Having it in your hands felt like holding a golden ticket to the Wonka Factory.

I never felt that feeling, though, because I never got one. I never even got my grubby mitts on a pack of Upper Deck cards. Tried-and-true Topps or Donruss cards cost a quarter-a-pack that summer. Upper Deck? That set you back an outlandish $1.25. My family lived on a cul-de-sac in a Bay Area suburb, and a kid down the street, Michael Yang, had the Griffey card. Envy oozed out of my pores. I tried every possible trade to get Michael’s Griffey  I trotted out my big guns — an ‘88 Topps Canseco card, an ‘87 Roger Clemens. Michael Yang passed on my meager offers. Not only did Michael have the Griffey, but he could beat Super Mario Land on GameBoy with just one life. Some people just have all the luck. 

In the summer of 1996, at age 15, I got my first job as a bagger in a grocery store. I made a vow to myself: if I ever got a promotion, I’d go to a baseball card shop and buy the Griffey, which by then sold for around $70-$100. A year and a half later, it happened. The store manager, Melinda, called me to her office. “Time to learn the produce codes, Scordelis,” she said. “I’m making you a checker.”

With the promotion under my belt, I had the extra capital to buy a Griffey. I went to Collectors Corner II, the local card shop (for the record, I don’t think there was a Collectors Corner I — it’s confounding). I gazed with awe at the Upper Deck Griffey in the glass case. Griffey’s high-wattage smile, and yellow $100 price tag stared back at me. The kid behind the counter asked if he could help me. I took out my gray velcro T&C Surf Till It Hurts wallet. “How much for the Griffey?” I said, as if I couldn’t read.

“Uh, $100,” he said. I fidgeted. 

“Thanks, just curious.” 

I couldn’t pull the trigger. I looked back at Griffey, still smiling up at me, with that turtleneck on and his bat slung over his right shoulder. I calculated all the other things I could do with that $100. I could see a movie every Friday for the entire summer. I could go to five or six A’s games up in Oakland. I put my wallet away. You’ll buy it then next time you get a promotion, I thought. 

That was 23 years ago. I’ve worked my way up the career ladder since then, and at every rung, the thought crosses my mind: Buy the Griffey. I’ll look it up on eBay. For the past 20 years, a mint copy sells for around $100. That number hasn’t changed, even though by most estimates there are a million copies of the card floating around. A lot has changed in my life since I was eight. I’m married. I have a son. There are infinite ways that I can be more responsible about spending a hundred bucks. 

Then, a few years ago, I had somewhat Proustian realization. I still want that Griffey card, as much as ever. But Collectors Corner II went out of business two decades ago, and I don’t want to buy it off some random on eBay. I would experience no joy PayPal-ing a faceless dude from the Internet to get my dream baseball card. No, I realized that there is only one way that getting the Griffey card could make me happy: I need Michael Yang’s Griffey. 

Now, I haven’t seen Michael Yang since 1994. I don’t know where he lives, or what he does, or if he still has his Griffey. But I want to sit down with him and make a fair trade. My best cards are in a box at my parents’ house. I’ll dust them off, and I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse. No, not murder. Maybe my 1990 Leaf Frank Thomas rookie card.

It’s not really the Griffey that I want, it’s making the fantasy of getting Michael Yang’s Griffey in a trade a reality. But what’s the cost of finding Michael Yang? Of looking batshit crazy when I show up at his door and ask, “Hey man, been awhile. Are you looking to trade your ‘89 Upper Deck Griffey?” I can’t risk it. Why? Maybe my pride. Maybe because I’d look certifiably insane. Maybe because I’m afraid he’d say the same thing he said thirty years ago: “My Griffey? It’s not up for trades.”

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