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More than anything else in this world, baseball cards have the power to transport me back to my childhood in rural Indiana.
A single glimpse of, say, a 1983 Donruss Cesar Cedeno card, and I’m floating down Mill Creek in an innertube on a perfect summer afternoon.
And sometimes, when I visit the old home place like I did today, the poetry of the game and the images of our boyhood heroes become overwhelming, and I have to cathart.
So, if you’ll indulge me, here is a piece I wrote some years back but the sentiment of which hangs all around me this evening.
It’s a story of baseball and baseball cards, of being a boy and becoming a man, of fathers and sons.
It’s the story of Cesar and the Schwinn …
Schwinn Bicycle

My nine-year-old son can’t ride a bicycle.

That, in itself, is not really a revelation or an indictment of my value as a parent, but it’s not really my confession either. My secret is that I don’t care that he can’t ride a bike.  More than not caring, each passing year leads me closer to the conclusion that at least a part of me doesn’t want him to learn how to ride a bike.  And I think there’s something dark and little and sad and maybe even scary in that.

And why would I take any kind of joy in having my son miss out on one of the great pleasures of childhood?   Am I lazy, not willing to work hard enough to get the job done?  Am I just sadistic?   I don’t know, but I suspect it’s because, as long as my boy can’t ride his bike, there is a chance that he will ask me to spend some more time teaching him.  And that will keep him little.   And it will keep me young.   And needed.

Because if there is one thing that a father wants, it is for his son to need him, and to come to him for help and advice.

So my son muddles along through his summers, swimming daily, taking piano lessons, playing video games … but not riding his bicycle.

Me, on the other hand, I could ride a bicycle, country style, like nobody’s business.   In the winter of 1983, my parents helped me celebrate my eleventh birthday with a trip to a genuine Schwinn shop to pick out a brand new bike … and what a beauty I found!  The “tweener” bike in Dodger blue with an ethereal sheen to its metal crossbars and the tactile blue tape wrapped around its underturned handlebars beckoned me as soon as I walked in the shop.   I was overweight and sort of short for my age, so this outstanding machine, sporting wheels in between a full ten-speed and my banana-seated kiddie bike was perfect.   I grabbed it and fawned over it the way I had my first puppy some six years earlier.

I spent the rest of the cold months alternately spit shining my new baby and straddling the soft black seat while watching TV.   Spring took an extraordinarily long time to arrive that year, or so it seemed to my young heart, eager for the freedom to love my new bike the way it should be loved, out in the gravel and dirt and grass and fresh air.  Ignorance of one’s reality can be a powerful thing, and in these sweet days leading to Spring Break, I had no idea that my Schwinn wasn’t the most awesomely perfect machine ever built or conceived of by man.

1983 Donruss Cesar CedenoCesar Cedeno was the human embodiment of my Schwinn.  They came into my life at about the same time and ultimately both represented the same misplaced infatuation, but I continue to love both of them all these years later.

See, while I was waiting for the great thaw of 1983, my new bike wasn’t the only thing that I was playing with.  No, I dragged out the dog-eared and bent baseball cards that my Mom had bought me occasionally since 1981 during her weekly trips to the grocery store.  I’m not really sure what made me drag out these dusty hunks of cardboard other than abject boredom, but I do remember how dingy the 1981 Topps cards felt, and they fit right in with my mood.   The Fleer and Donruss cards from the same year, though seemingly designed by blind men, were printed on white card stock rather than Topps’ drab brown/gray, and so seemed a bit lighter of spirit.   To my untrained collector eyes, all of the 1982s seemed a good deal chirpier than the 1981s.    Who knows … maybe I had heard some carping about the strike that forever tainted my impression of that dreadful summer.

At any rate, I spent a lot of those cold months getting acquainted with the stars of the game, according to my wealth of baseball knowledge … Shooty Babbitt, Barry Foote, Fred Lynn, and, of course, Mike Cubbage.   To this point, I had fairly hated all things baseball since I got hit in the arm with a fly ball and nearly tossed my McDonald’s cookies running laps on the second day of Little League in second grade.  On that day, I hung up my spikes for good and committed to a life as far from baseline chalk and fungoes as I could possibly get.  But the concoction of cabin fever, spring training images of mostly sour-looking men on poorly-designed swaths of cardboard, and reams of statistics and funny little card-back cartoons swirled into a potion that transformed me into a new creature by the time Easter rolled around … a baseball fan.

Of course, as a new fan, I needed to choose a team.  I had heard a few things about nearby teams over the years, so armed with this “knowledge” and my burgeoning card collection, I dutifully selected the Cincinnati Reds as my team, then and forever.  Of course, my cards extended back only to 1981 and forward only to 1982, which means I could only see statistics as late as 1981.   The Reds were actually a very good team during that fractured season but were your basic shower-curtain mold in 1982.  Of course, I didn’t know that.   Or that the Cardinals had won the World Series the year before.    I did know, however, that the Cubs all had these hideous Mike Stivic mustaches and looked absolutely miserable against the army-green ivy on their 1981 Donruss cards.   But I didn’t know that they were, even then, lovable losers.   Had I known more, would I have chosen a different team?  Possibly, but it doesn’t really matter.   The Reds are mine and always will be.

But, truthfully, the Reds love affair probably didn’t really start until the weather started turning warm.   Mixed in among the images of my new bike slipping and weaving on re-graveled roads or kicking up fresh black asphalt onto my winter-white legs are my first distinct memories of baseball card wax packs.  And though I probably “bought” (more like finagled from my parents) more Topps packs than any other during the ensuing summer, it is the blue-green Donruss pack which really stands out in my mind.

Maybe it was the little bat and glove that formed the main design elements of the cards, or maybe it was the feeling of the wax paper as it gave way to the treasures inside, but these cards remain, for me,  the ultimate physical representation of that glorious spring.  And the king of all 1983 Donruss cards was undoubtedly Cesar Cedeno.  He appeared to be absolutely glowing in his crisp white Reds uniform, and the unbridled joy that I imagined he must feel to be playing baseball on a beautiful day jived completely with my saccharin view on life that season.   And the back of his card revealed that he had been something of a star.   Maybe he would be again.  For the Reds.  How could I resist such effervescence and promise delivered by the baseball gods to the “hometown” team?   Yeah, I was definitely hooked … on baseball, on baseball cards, on the Reds, and on Cesar.

As rosy as those days were, I can sit here in 2010 with a more realistic, admittedly jaded, view of 1983 and its two concrete manifestations, Schwinn and Cedeno.  I never really got the hang of the ten-speed and ended up plodding along in first gear for the most part.  My legs grew (some) and the Schwinn eventually became obsolete, replaced by my first car.  I never really did tear up the roads with my sweet ride the way I had with my Huckleberry Hound Huffy in the preceding years.

Like me, Mr. Cedeno never really got out of first gear, for the Reds or anyone else.   A quick visit to baseball-reference.com reveals that Cedeno had, indeed, been somewhat of a star during his years in Houston in the 1970s.  Despite my perceptions, though, he was pedestrian at best in Cincy, and he was gone part way through the 1985 season.  Looking at Cedeno’s similarity scores is a very interesting exercise … through age 26, Cedeno roughly mirrored Vada Pinson, another very talented fellow who spent time with the Reds but was ultimately relegated to the “solid” bin.  Cedeno’s mid-career had him looking a lot like Yaz, a Hall-of-Famer.  During his decline phase, Cedeno was essentially Johnny Damon, who arguably has an outside shot at the Hall.  By his early 30s, though, Cedeno’s career numbers were essentially riding on cushion built by a younger man.   He was done at 35 and had become Amos Otis.

My continued love for Cesar Cedeno and his 1983 Donruss card, and that shiny little blue Schwinn (wherever it is), remind me that there are foundational *things* for everyone, that can’t be shaken, no matter what warts are eventually revealed.  My collection of foundations includes years and bikes and cards and papers … and people.    Cesar Cedeno is not a girl that I had a crush on for awhile.  My first car was like that: I loved it and drove it for years, but I really haven’t thought about it at all since I got rid of it, until now.

Cesar Cedeno, in some ways, is my father.   And he’s me, as a father.  We all find out sooner or later that Dad is not Superman or infallible, but it doesn’t matter a wit.  He’s part of our core, and, deep down, there is a part of us that knows, just knows, that he really can bend steel.

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