The few cards I have from 1981, the year I turned my back on the Cardboard Gods, are an accidental monument to a moment so empty it was likely gone from my mind within hours after it happened, if not sooner. I must have a bought a couple packs, opened them, leafed through them. I must have been so far removed from feeling the magic of receiving brand new cards that I didn’t even notice the magic was no longer there, didn’t even remember there had ever been any magic. The cards from that year were as drab as the tile floor of a subbasement government waiting room, no sun anywhere, the color drained from the world that had been throughout the previous few years a brilliant synthetic rainbow.
Nino Espinosa stands in opposition to 1981’s dull extinction of joy. I probably missed this while numbly leafing through the cards in the pack he came in. If I focused on anything, it was probably the backdrop behind him, a wall the color of nausea. Maybe I briefly noted his afro, the size of it by that diminishing year already an anachronism, but who was I going to tell about it? My brother was away at boarding school by 1981, and even before he’d gone away he’d been showing less and less interest in the things I wanted to show him. So into my shoebox of cards went Nino Espinosa with barely a glance from me, and a few years later, 1987, the house I grew up in was sold and into storage went the shoebox of cards.
That year, 1987, I didn’t think that much about baseball or my baseball cards. I missed the news near the end of that year, Christmas Eve, that Nino Espinosa, member of the lovable and useless late 1970s Mets, member of what as of this moment remains the only World Series championship team in Philadelphia Phillies history, member of my sad tiny collection of 1981 cards, died of a heart attack at the age of 34.
In fact I didn’t find out about his early death until this morning. We are all headed that way. The best we can do is stand in opposition to the fading of the magic, as Nino Espinosa does here in an ugly, off-center card, his loose, limber body exuding the feeling that things are just starting, that he’s just getting warmed up, that the whole day is still ahead of him, waiting to be explored, waiting to bloom. Life, like the bulging preposterous afro of Nino Espinosa, will not be denied.