-- by Josh Suchon
Note to readers: The feedback on the “You Were Lucky, Hershiser” story was so positive, and triggered so many memories from a childhood where my playground was the Oakland Coliseum, I’ve decided to share more of these stories. I’m blatantly stealing this idea from “Cardboard Gods” author Josh Wilker, who used his baseball card collection to tell the story of his childhood in the 1970s. Wilker gave me his blessing, so I’m going to use my autograph collection to tell the story of my childhood in the 1980s.
To say that I was obsessed with the 1988 Olympic baseball team is a massive understatement.
The summer of 1988 was the peak of my Sharpie-Scribbling, Ball-Chasing, Game-Watching existence. I went to 53 A’s games that year. From the time my freshman year in high school ended in June, until my sophomore year started in September, I only missed two games – and that’s because I was in Reno with my mom and sister to celebrate our birthdays.
The stars of the 1984 Olympic baseball team – Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Barry Larkin, Cory Snyder, B.J Surhoff, Bill Swift, Bobby Witt – were established in the big leagues by 1988. I recall reunions of that team at massive baseball card shows, which were exploding in popularity.
I’d already snagged most of those players’ autographs at the ballpark, so I didn’t wait in the lines and pay the money. But one of my favorite purchases was an official baseball from the 1984 games in Los Angeles.
So when the 1988 Seoul Olympics arrived, I was ready for the next generation of American heroes that would become major league stars. And when I say ready, I mean ready to buy anything that had their name on it, and ready to hound them for Sharpie Scribbles.
It wasn’t easy to find information or watch that team. Baseball was only a “demonstration” sport. Pretty sure not a single game was on TV. This is when NBC only had one network to show events. There were some highlights on NBC’s coverage, but you’d have to scour the agate of newspapers, and hunt for little nuggets from Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News.
Team USA won the gold medal at those games. Jim Abbott went the distance in the championship game victory over Japan. All the baseball card companies would follow Topps’ lead from 1985, and put those Olympic players all over their sets in 1989.
It wasn’t enough for me to buy those Topps, Bowman and Upper Deck cards. I found myself buying the “rookie” minor league card for those players too.
In the case of Robin Ventura (Birmingham Barons), Tino Martinez (Williamsport Bills), Ed Sprague (Dunedin Blue Jays) and Charles Nagy (Kinston Indians), they were smart purchases.
In the case of a few others, it was an utter waste of money. That’s why I still have in binders the 1989 team sets of the Springfield Cardinals (Mike Fiore), Peoria Chiefs (Ty Griffin), Osceola Astros (Scott Servais and Dave Silvestri), Shreveport Captains (Ted Wood), Cedar Rapids Reds (Jeff Branson) and San Bernardino Spirit (Jim Campanis).
The most disappointing flameout was Griffin. I had big hopes for him. So did the Cubs. They drafted him with the ninth overall pick in 1988. The plan was for Griffin to take over at second base, so Ryne Sandberg could move to third base. Griffin blistered the competition for the USA national team, posting a .416/.485/.805 slash line, plus 21 steals.
I bought two 8x10 photos, a lot of his rookie cards, and even some minor league cards. One year in spring training, I went to the Cubs minor league fields to look for Griffin. Nobody else was there looking for autographs. I found Griffin and got a signature on his Olympic card. He was destined for greatness, I thought for sure.
That was a miss. Others were big hits.
Everybody knew Ventura would be a star. He had that 58-game hitting streak at Oklahoma State, made his big league debut a year after the Olympics, and was a regular in 1990.
Ventura made an appearance at a baseball card show in San Francisco in the 1990-91 offseason. My good friend Jeff Coulthart and I bought a dealer’s table at that show to sell cards.
It wasn’t my style to pay for autographs, but I made an exception for Ventura with three specific items – his minor league card, his Olympic card, and in the sweet spot of an (almost) shiny white ball that I got one day at during batting practice.
Immediately, I placed them in a Ball & Card Display, which I shortened to BCF for Ball Card Frame. I was all about the BCF’s, especially for that Olympic team.
In spring training, I got Andy Benes and Abbott’s autographs on those Olympic cards and the sweet spot of a ball. More BCF’s were purchased. The shelves of my bedroom became a shrine to that Olympic team.
Usually, anything was fair game for an autograph. I made a rare exception for a rare 1987 Olympic team item. Yes, 1987, the year before the Olympics.
It’s a team set produced by the United State Baseball Federation. Most of those players went on to play in the Seoul Olympics, but a few didn’t. To this day, I’ve still never opened the packaging to look at any of the cards. The only card I’ve ever seen is the pitcher Abbott, who is showed with a bat in hand.
The back of the packaging shows the checklist, which includes Frank Thomas, Gregg Olson, Cris Carpenter and Pat Combs.
The name Pat Combs means nothing to you. But for reasons that I can’t fathom to this day, I was totally obsessed with Pat Combs. I must have 10 of his minor league cards and 20 of his rookie major league cards. A lot of good those purchases did me.
Olson is interesting to note. Once I learned he was on the USA training team, I started purchasing more of his items, and added him to my BCF wish list. When I took the photo a few nights ago of what remains of my batting practice ball collection, I saw Olson’s signature on a ball in the sweet spot and in a protective case mixed in.
Not sure what happened to the autographed card, or the rest of that BCF frame. Just like I’m not sure what happened to Olson’s once promising career. I guess they both got injured somewhere along the way. But I do have Olson’s signature preserved on an 8x10 photo. I remember exactly where I got it: the parking lot of the Oakland Hyatt hotel, before he went across the freeway to the Coliseum.
In 2000, my first year covering the Giants for The Oakland Tribune, their top prospect in training camp was a kid named Kurt Ainsworth. He was a first-round pick, made a solid pro debut, and his appearance in training camp warranted an early feature story.
That September, Ainsworth was chosen for the USA National Team that went to the Sydney Olympics. Ainsworth was the starting pitcher for a couple victories in those games. Ben Sheets won the Gold Medal game over Cuba, and those players came back home heroes.
A few of my colleagues, especially Mark Saxon, accused me of writing too much about Ainsworth and having a man-crush on him. I tried to justify it by saying what a top prospect he was for the organization, and what else was there to say about Russ Ortiz and Kirk Rueter?
In retrospect, Saxon probably was right. The number of stories and notes on Ainsworth probably was overkill. Upon reflection, maybe I’ve never got over my obsession with USA Olympic Baseball teams.
In 2008, a few weeks before I moved from Modesto to Los Angeles to take the job as the reporter for the Dodgers Radio Network and the co-host of PostGame Dodger Talk, I attended a fundraiser for the University of the Pacific baseball team in Stockton.
Ed Sprague, a Stockton native, was the Pacific head coach. He invited his friend and old Olympic teammate, Jim Abbott, to be the keynote speaker. Abbott is an incredible speaker, and the audience was enraptured by the story of his no-hitter, and how he was shelled the start before that no-hitter.
For me, the best part of the night was the stories that Sprague and Abbott told about that Olympic Team, and winning the gold medal in Seoul. As I listened, I was a 15-year-old kid again.
Before leaving for that banquet, I thought about digging through my trunk of childhood memories, finding the items left from my Olympic collection that still needed to be signed, and buying a fresh new Sharpie to get a couple new scribbles.
In the end, I decided against it. Autographs were my childhood addiction.
Now, I’m content with a free banquet meal … and a chapter for the Sharpie Scribbles.