1980 was the year that I was most into collecting baseball cards. I turned 12 years old that summer. One evening, on his way home from work in Detroit (we lived in the suburbs), my dad stopped at a card collecting shop, and purchased the complete 1980 Topps set. I can’t be sure, but I think he may have paid something like $12 for it. It came in a plain gray oblong cardboard box. There was no printing or pictures at all on the box, which, at the time, I thought was odd, and slightly disappointing. Surely, something as monumental as a complete baseball card set ought to announce itself more prominently on its packaging.
We sat down at the kitchen table and opened up the box. We both grabbed a stack of cards and began to shuffle through them quickly, keeping our eyes open for any Detroit players. I remember the first Tiger I found was Milt Wilcox. Somehow, this was appropriate. It seemed like every time me and my Dad went to a game at Tiger Stadium, Wilcox was pitching (much to our frustration).
Sifting through the cards, we began to put all the Tigers in a separate pile. The images linger in my memory: there was Ron LeFlore, in the batting cage, attempting to bunt the ball. How ironic. If my childhood recollection serves me correctly, wasn’t LeFlore a terrible bunter? And there I saw a laughing Lance Parrish, looking dangerously close to swallowing his chaw. I found Mark Fidrych, trying to rub some elusive final magic into the baseball. Impish Mark Wagner, studious Jack Morris, Kip Young was glaring at me over his shoulder, his face full of accusation, as if you’d just cut a fart. There was a grinning Aurelio Rodriguez, bat in hand, checking out a lovely senorita in the upper deck; a wide-eyed Dan Petry, in the set position, checking out an imaginary spider on his left shoulder.
What came next was totally unexpected. It was an image of a portly player in an outlandish day-glo yellow jersey with an interlocking “SD” across the left breast. The player was standing against a background of nearly empty stands, while half of his cheerful face was shaded by the visor of his brown and yellow cap.
It was Mickey Lolich, and he was wearing the uniform of the San Diego Padres.
“Hey, look, dad,” I said. “It’s Mickey Lolich.”
“Mickey Lolich? He retired a long time ago,” my dad said.
“I guess he didn’t, because he’s right here.” My dad glanced over at the card, did a double-take and grimaced. “Mickey Lolich is on the Padres? The PADRES?”
For no particular reason, I tossed the card face up on the table, separate from all the others. Lolich, sporting his “SD” cap, continued to grin at us as we scoured through the rest of the 726-card set.
I remember thinking to myself, “So Mickey Lolich is on the Padres?” When in the hell did this happen? And why? I didn’t even know he was still playing baseball, for cryin’ out loud. The PADRES? San Diego? What in the world was the Tigers’ 1968 World Series hero doing pitching for the Padres?
Of course I knew about Lolich, and what he’d done in the Series. How he’d won three games, beating Bob Gibson in Game 7. Of course I knew all about that stuff. I’d seen the ’68 World Series film hundreds of times on TV. They’d show it whenever the Tigers were in a rainout and George Kell along with Al Kaline didn’t feel like just sitting there and talking for a half hour.
I knew next to nothing about San Diego. I knew it was in Southern California, where they said it never rained. I knew they had a famous zoo, because Johnny Carson sometimes featured its animals on The Tonight Show (I stayed up kind of late for a 12-year-old.) I knew the team was owned by Ray Kroc, who also owned McDonald’s. I knew this because our school library had Kroc’s dog-eared paperback autobiography, and I’d read it, because I liked Big Macs.
And I knew the Padres stunk. And I knew their uniforms were ugly. Not as bad as Seattle’s or Houston’s, for sure, but plenty bad.
C’mon! Mickey LOLICH? On the PADRES?
Later, still in stunned disbelief, I showed the card to my friend Bobby Klopps, also an avid collector.
“Hey Klopps,” I said. “Get a load a this one. Mickey Lolich on the Padres. The PADRES!”
“Yeah,” Klopps countered, eyeing the card with no particular interest. “I think I got his ’79 card here somewhere.”
Klopps foraged around in several shoe boxes in his closet. “Here it is.”
Indeed, it was a ’79 Topps Mickey Lolich. He was posed in the set position, wearing a brown satin Padre warm-up jacket, and “SD” cap. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
“How long has this been going on?” I questioned Klopps.
“How long has what been going on?”
“This whole Lolich/Padre thing?”
Klopps shrugged his shoulders. “How should I know? He was on the Mets for a while, too, you know.”
“The METS? Whaddaya mean the METS?”
“Yup, hey, let’s play electronic football.”
Back home, I finally decided to take a look at the flip side of Lolich’s card. “Mickey’s cousin, Ron Lolich,” it read, “was an outfielder with the White Sox and Indians from 1971 through 1973.”
“Who cares about that?!” I asked the card. I wanted to know who was responsible for banishing Lolich into baseball Siberia in southern California.
“Acquired: Signed as free agent, 2-2-78,” the card declared.
“Free agent?” This was just too much to digest all at once. “You mean Lolich CHOSE to play for that sorry-ass team? The PADRES?”
So he’d felt no shame, no embarrassment at having to pull on that dog-poop-and-mustard-colored uniform all summer long? Why would anybody want to go from the Old English “D” to THAT?
Ah, Mickey! Ah, humanity!