Monday, September 3, 2007

Finding Tommy

The pre-wife and I like to check out new construction in our area, just to get ideas for our own home. In one of the houses (they come decorated) they had a boy’s room with a baseball theme. The bookshelf was filled with Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, a magazine my friends and I read religiously growing up. The issues were from the late 1980’s. I nostalgically flipped through and came across a favorite column of mine. Kid’s Korner by Tommy Wheatley.

I called Ren to share my find. Wheatley became kind of a running joke between the two of us over the years. Whenever either of us would get published, or write an insightful or funny email or message board post, we’d congratulated each other by calling the other “a real Tommy Wheatley.”

The joke and the reminiscing over the magazines got me to thinking. “What the hell ever happened to Tommy Wheatley?” I imagined he was a writer somewhere, considering he was published in a major magazine as a pre-teen.

I decided to find out. (Good bless Google.) I came across an article written by Tom Wheatley for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This made sense, remembering that Wheatley was a Cardinals fan and often wrote about them for Beckett. I emailed and explained who I was and that I’d be interested in speaking with him. I got a response a few hours later. It was his father. He was glad to hear from me, and glad to hear people remembered Tommy. He gave me his email and told me to get in touch with him. He told me to give him a couple days to respond though, because he doesn’t get to a computer very often in China.

And that’s were our interview begins.

How did you end up in China?

That's the big question, right after "What is the meaning of life, eh?"

I have lived in Nanjing, China for the last five years. One of my best friends in college studied Chinese, and he lived in China for two years after graduation. When he returned home he persuaded me to go back with him. I wasn't working at the time, had a bit of money saved up, and had never been out of the US (Even though I was 24). When I came to China for the first time in the fall of 2002 it blew me away. After three months I came back to the US. The economy was in the toilet and the Iraq war was about to begin. I decided to go back to China for just six more months as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. Six months in China became a year, then two, then three...

Ok, let’s start with the obvious. How did you get the Beckett gig?
I think every kid that read Beckett wondered about that. It was nothing more than good old fashioned nepotism. My father is a sports journalist and in the mid-1980’s he done some work for them. In 1987 they wanted to do a story about card collecting from a kid's point of view. My Dad mentioned that I was a collector, so they gave me a shot. I think they envisioned it as a one-time, cute, gimmicky thing

Did you get paid?
I did get paid. I won't say how much, but I was surely in a higher tax bracket than most other ten-year-olds. They even gave me a raise after a couple of years.

Any free perks?
I got to do a tour of the Beckett offices when my Dad and I went to Texas for vacation. I was excited to meet the people that ran the magazine, and it turned out that they were pretty excited to meet me after reading about my life for so many years.

During that trip I also took a tour of the Score/Sportflicks headquarters and received a limited edition Nolan Ryan card. One side of the card was Score, the other was Sportflicks.

What article are you most proud of?
That’s a tough question. I'd say the guys at the magazine would say one of the more popular articles was the one where three friends of mine and I had a table selling cards at a card show. We were ruthless capitalists.

My personal favorite was the article about my experience as a batboy for a St. Louis Cardinals game. I had interviewed Cardinals pitcher Joe Magraine before the game, who was nice enough to take the time to talk to me. During the game he hit a home run. The story ended with the line, "Batboys aren't allowed to cheer, but I was cheering in my heart."

What was the card selling story about?
The idea for the article came from the fact that there were a lot of baseball card trading shows on the weekends. We wanted to do an article about what you should do if you wanted to have a booth and sell your cards at a show. At first, we were going to interview
a guy named Bill Goodwin. He dealt in vintage, graded cards and is regarded as one of the top people in the card collecting industry.

That was the plan, but my when my Dad found out how cheap it was to rent a booth at one of these shows, he got the idea that maybe my friends and I should just do it ourselves and we would write about how it went. I recruited three other collector friends and we ended up doing it one weekend.

I think it cost $100 to rent the booth, so we each put up $25. Our booth looked really good because Bill had given me some broken display cases for free. My grandfather fixed them so it looked like a professional table. The professionalism ended with those nice cases.

I can only wonder what these adults thought when they walked up to our table, with our gleaming display cases and complete lack of business ethics. We were all about thirteen years old at the time and had zero clue what we were doing.

It didn't occur to me until we got there and set up our stuff that the three guys that chipped in with me to rent the booth were all my friends, but they weren't friends with each other. We all also had basically the same inventories of cards. This ended up making things...interesting.

If a customer was looking at one of my friend's cards, another one of my friends at the table who was selling the same card would jump in and undercut him on the price. Then the first guy, not wanting to lose his customer, would undercut his own original price. I remember that two of my friends really started gunning for each other's customers. It was insane.

Another guy at the table spent all of his money in the first ten minutes buying things from other tables and then didn't have money to make change. Naturally, none of us would help him make change because we were trying to take all the business for ourselves. He had to cut deals with his customers so that they could pay him in exact change.

My dad was there the whole time, but just to make sure no one tried to rip us off. He didn't interfere when we were shooting ourselves in the foot, and I wouldn't have either if I was him because frankly it was too funny. He did manage to keep some semblance of order, but every now and then he'd have to use the bathroom or go chat with someone he knew. He's be gone for five minutes and the table would descend into "Lord of the Flies—The Baseball Card Convention". He'd come back and we'd all be at each other's throats. Our table was a big hit at that show, not because of the quality or uniqueness of our merchandise, but just for the spectacle of it.

We all ended up blowing any money we made. I was the only one that finished in the black. My net profit was something like $13, which was pathetic because I actually sold a lot of cards. At first I thought I had lost some of the money I made, but then my Mom sat me down and we did a little accounting and I was able to see for myself where the money went. I remember thinking, "Wow, I did all that work for thirteen bucks. I'm an idiot." Looking back on it, it was a really good life lesson. It's also a great memory. I'm laughing right now just thinking about it.

Finding Tommy (Part 2)

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