A Wrinkle of Fate

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TORONTO (Aug. 26) — As a mural above the security gate at Los Angeles International Airport encourages, it’s time to tell an L.A. story. Sadly, my L.A. story did not pan out as I had hoped.

In my previous blog, I wrote about flying to the coast on Tuesday to have my Topps 1966–67 Bobby Orr rookie card professionally graded. Friends of mine in the memorabilia industry had long suggested I do so, as the 50–year–old item seemed in immaculate condition. When Goldin Auctions of Runnemede, N.J. peddled a Wayne Gretzky rookie card for a record $465,000 last month, I sent the company a detailed scan of Orr. The Goldin rep quickly got back to me, saying he wanted it for his upcoming Fall auction. Rather than risk loss or damage by mail, I got on a plane and personally delivered the card to Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) in Santa Ana, Calif. The PSA rep took one look and told me the Orr item had “great possibilities.”

With fleeting images of a surf–side home; a yacht and a butler coursing through my imagination, I checked into a hotel in Anaheim late Tuesday and had a wonderful dinner with my former brother and sister–in–law; niece and nephew. I spent the early part of Wednesday checking and re–checking on–line with my PSA account. When the grading came back in the mid–range as “excellent” but neither “near–mint” nor “mint”, I was momentarily floored. It contradicted every visual assessment I’d received prior to the Los Angeles trip — and that of the PSA rep who accepted the card. As you can see, below, the 1966–67 item is in beautiful condition, with sharp corners and a near–perfectly–centered image (the “scratch” near the bottom–right was actually a hair on top of the card when I took the photo). So, the grading puzzled me.

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That said, I had been warned, prior to leaving, that the grading process is rather “anal.” The assessors will look, under sharp magnification, for any minuscule defect. And, they are not obliged to explain or justify their final marking. In that regard, PSA is rather undemocratic. Perhaps even a dictatorship. Questioning a grade is like fighting City Hall. You cannot win. I will, however, give my PSA rep full marks for cooperation. When speaking with him on the phone, he hinted there “may have been” a slight wrinkle or two on the Orr image, which off–set the otherwise pristine nature of the card. Even if the wrinkle wasn’t noticed by any person viewing it beforehand. “It was probably found under magnification,” offered the rep. “And, sadly, that’s all it takes to bring down the grading of a card. The process is extremely detailed.”

With my hope of becoming an instant billionaire dashed, I figured there was no reason to hang around Los Angeles and burn hotel money. PSA would courier the Orr card to me. Had the item been graded an 8 or higher, I was prepared to stop in Chicago on my way home and personally deliver it to an auctioneer. But, that was no longer necessary. So, I got on the phone with Air Canada and was told of an Executive Class seat on the 6 p.m. to Toronto. By then, it was past 3 p.m. With me perched in Anaheim — 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles International Airport. A distance that can require half–a–day in L.A. paralysis. But, I decided to go for it, with a contingency–plan to stay overnight at L–A–X and fly home on Thursday, via Montreal.

Well, I must tell you, if a higher power wasn’t on my side with the hockey card, it joined me on the sprint to the airport. I never even slowed down while driving along the westbound Garden Grove Freeway (California State Route 22) and the northbound 405 (San Diego Freeway). Within 45 minutes of leaving the hotel parking lot near Disneyland, I had dropped off my rental car on Century Blvd. and was checked in at L–A–X just more than 65 minutes post–Anaheim. At no time in nearly 30 years of visits to Los Angeles — while covering hockey games (winter and spring) and spending summers at my in–laws’ house in the San Fernando Valley — do I remember a straight–shot at 65 m.p.h. between Anaheim and L–A–X in late–afternoon traffic.

With that, I wrapped up the only one–night California trip of my life.

THE GREAT ESCAPE

Having scrambled to make a flight like perhaps never before, I wasn’t able to relax and clear my head until I settled into seat 3–F on Air Canada #796 — an Airbus–320. A smattering of light haze had moved in over the coast and the sun began to drift lower toward the horizon. We took off over the Pacific Ocean at 6:40 p.m. and turned back on the normal L–A–X flight–pattern. With the trip home underway, the card disappointment hit me and I’m not ashamed to say that I indulged in perhaps an hour of self–sorrow. By the time, however, we flew north of Denver and Cheyenne 90 minutes after leaving, I was over it — reminding myself I had a healthy father turning 83 that day and flying from Toronto to Israel at the same moment.

Perspective is an incomparable ally.

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OUT AIR CANADA A–320 WINDOW BEFORE MY LATE–AFTERNOON DEPARTURE FROM LOS ANGELES.

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TAKING OFF OVER THE PACIFIC OCEAN, WITH MARINA DEL RAY AND THE BEACH–PIERS OF VENICE AND SANTA MONICA STRETCHING NORTH TO THE MALIBU COASTLINE.

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THE USUAL L–A–X FLIGHT–PATTERN FOR EASTBOUND TRAFFIC IS TO DEPART OVER THE OCEAN; CLIMB TO 4,000 FEET, AND TURN LEFT TO COME BACK EITHER DIRECTLY OVER THE AIRPORT, OR FURTHER SOUTH — PAST LONG BEACH AND OVER–TOP COSTA MESA AND ANAHEIM IN ORANGE COUNTY. WE DID THE AIRPORT ROUTE AND REACHED LAND AT ROUGHLY 7,000 FEET.

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BEAUTIFUL SUN–REFLECTION OFF THE SAN GABRIEL MOUNTAINS, WEST OF THE L.A. BASIN.

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ORANGE SUN-REFLECTION OFF CLOUDS AT 35,000 FEET…. AND ON FINAL APPROACH TO RAINY PEARSON INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT JUST AFTER 1:40 a.m. WEDNESDAY.

WHAT COMES NEXT?

After my 48–hour whirlwind, I absolutely crashed on Wednesday. Got home from Pearson close to 3 a.m.; unpacked; watched five minutes of TV, and passed out. I think I woke up during the day to eat, but I’m not sure. The next I remember was turning on the Blue Jays–Angels game from Rogers Centre around 9 p.m.

Though I’m disappointed the Orr card didn’t grade higher, my friends in the industry tell me to not despair. The rep at Goldin Auctions emailed: “Good news is that our bidders will realize the card is much nicer than its technical grade and will bid accordingly.” Alternately, collector/dealer (and close pal) Dan Nicholson felt it may be a “blessing in disguise” given that I now have the option of returning the Orr card to the full Topps 1966–67 set. The 50–year–old assortment of 132 cards is still in wonderful condition (as you can see, below, in the Toronto and Montreal pages) — sterling and rare in its entirety. Without Card No. 35, the set obviously plummets in value. Had Orr come back an 8 or higher, I undoubtedly would have auctioned it.

Now, I’ve got a decision to make… though I’m leaning toward reuniting the set.

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Among the cards I took with me to Los Angeles, three in particular caught the eye of the PSA rep. They are displayed below — a 1965–66 Topps Phil Esposito rookie card; Johnny Bower’s card from the same set, and a 1985–86 O–Pee–Chee Mario Lemieux rookie. All are pristine (front and back) with sharp corners and good centering. I will have them graded and then determine if I want to sell; auction, or keep them longer.

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AUG. 26, 1976

Speaking of Johnny Bower, it was 40 years ago today that the legendary Leafs goalie became a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. In a Facebook tribute, his grandson, John Bower the third (or JBIII), posted a rare photo of Bower wearing a mask and playing against the Canadiens at the Montreal Forum. Turns out the picture was from the goalie’s 552nd and last game in the National Hockey League — Dec. 10, 1969:

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JOHNNY BOWER, JIM DOREY (8) AND BOB PULFORD (20) OF LEAFS. PETER MAHOVLICH OF THE HABS.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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