While reporting sports for Daily News is my number one passion, ripping through packs of sports cards brings out my inner kid. I’m a sports junkie, through and through. I collect to reflect. I collect for value. But mostly, I collect the greats of the game to remind myself of the passion and the competitive qualities they embody that make sports special.
My passion for sports memorabilia began in Arly Ohm’s sixth grade classroom. Ohm had students write letters to sports programs of their choosing. I penned mine to the Florida State Seminoles football team and received an autographed photo from head coach Bobby Bowden.
Bowden, who passed away in 2021, is Division I college football’s winningest coach with 377 career victories and two national titles.
Later that year, Ohm held a “Team Player” essay assignment. My piece won the classroom contest. Ohm sent his personal John Wooden book to the 10-time national champion UCLA basketball coach, who sent it back to me with a handwritten message.
“To Robert Wanek, best wishes. Learn as if you were going to live forever, live as if you were going to die tomorrow."
Unlike the “Junk Wax” era of the 1980s and ‘90s when mass production destroyed sports card values, the current market has skyrocketed — and so has my personal collection.
The card hobby exploded at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as collectors and product flippers flocked to big box stores and cleaned the shelves in their newfound free time. Twenty dollar retail boxes were suddenly popping up on eBay for $200 due to the scarcity of sealed products.
I was able to grab the last two boxes of Topps Gallery baseball cards from Wahpeton Walmart in November 2020. What I found inside … was magic.
The last pack from box one contained a Yordan Alvarez rookie “Impressionists'' autograph. Only 10 of them exist in the world. Alvarez, 24, leads the Houston Astros in 2021 with 32 home runs and 101 runs batted in. He is one of professional baseball's top young sluggers. There were 20 packs in the box I purchased. The odds of pulling the autograph are 1-in-3,918 packs.
Midway through box two I pulled another rare autograph, an orange heritage Miguel Cabrera. Only 25 of them exist. Cabrera, baseball’s last triple crown winner in 2012, recently became the 28th player in MLB history to hit 500 home runs — surely a first-ballot hall of famer. The odds of finding the orange parallel autograph are 1-in-1,309 packs.
One of my favorite cards was acquired from a friend, Breckenridge basketball coach Stevin Lipp. He gave me a Jerry West Donruss Signature Series autograph. One of the Los Angeles Lakers’ greatest players ever, West was a 14-time All Star, 12-time All-NBA selection, Finals MVP and the inspiration for the NBA logo.
While I own a handful of Justin Herbert and Justin Jefferson football rookie cards, baseball has my heart. I own a single slabbed card, a Pete Alonso x Francisco Lindor “Generational Icons” rookie card, graded Gem Mint 10 by PSA. Alonso, a 26-year-old first baseman for the Mets, recently became the fastest player in MLB history to reach 100 home runs. He broke the rookie record for home runs with 53 in the 2019 season.
Growing up, my parents would take me to West Acres Mall in Fargo, North Dakota, where I’d spend my time browsing the card collection at Big Nick’s Sports Cards. I’d purchase the Beckett card catalog and comb over card values for hours dreaming of amassing a worthy collection of my own.
My favorite part about collecting is that it's not all about the money. It's about which pieces of sports history are important to you as a fan. Some people may think I’m cardboard crazy, but for me, sports memorabilia is a tangible investment and a nostalgic way to relive my childhood .