My White Whale & the Sad Story Behind It

I remember 1997 like it happened last month. It was hands down my favorite year of collecting baseball cards and sadly also my last, at least for a while, as relationships and employment began to consume my time as a 17-year old. That year, Bowman Chrome made its debut and easily became one of the best and fastest selling baseball products of the year thanks to a one-game performance from Kerry Wood.

At my local card shop, I watched the owner proudly run through two cases of the product one particular night as he was blessed with 4-5 men in suits who were buying pack after pack of Chrome. By that time, packs of ’97 Bowman Chrome had run up to $13, which was astounding considering the product featured zero autographs and carried just 4 cards per pack. With gas at .98 cents per gallon, a single pack could fill up my entire car. I passed.

I was shocked to discover that Bowman’s Best, was for the most part, complete ignored. Unlike the overrated Bowman Chrome, Best really lived up to its name that year with the gorgeous Atomic Refractors and on-card prospect autographs, which are officially the first Chrome Prospect Autographs ever produced. Bowman Chrome’s debut had none of these luxuries but collectors still turned their nose at Best.

At $4 dollars for a pack of 6 cards, Bowman’s Best seemed like a much better deal so I splurged on 4 packs. With all the madness of the card shop that night, I took my packs home and chose to open them in my room. I wish I could tell you that I pulled a Kerry Wood Atomic or even a Derek Jeter Prospect Auto but pack after pack I kept pulling duds like Mark Kotsay and Chili Davis. Nothing at all to write home about.

In my last pack, something unbelievable happened. I actually beat the odds, for the first and possibly last time in this God-forsaken hobby. I pulled a Mirror Image Atomic Refractor insert of Ken Griffey Jr. with stated odds of 1:192 packs. I screamed like a little girl not because I was a fan of “The Kid” but I knew someone who was and had a gigantic stack of Jose Canseco cards I desperately needed.

Craig Zimmerman had the perfect life. A mother and a father, as well as a great home life. Craig was an excellent student and his dad rewarded him each week by buying him a box of every Topps, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Pinnacle baseball product released going back to 1994. By 1997, Craig kept his clothes in a portable drawer because his closet was filled with well over 100,000 baseball cards all neatly organized by teams and stars.

I was a fan of Jose Cruz Jr. and expected big things from him but knew that I could trade the insert for 20-30 Jose Canseco cards I needed. I spent an entire day in Craig’s closet (no jokes, please) and pulled out a monster stack of Canseco cards. At the end of the long day, we made a trade for 36 different Jose Canseco cards from 1994 to 1997 and he in turn got my rare, 1997 Bowman’s Best Mirror Image Atomic Refractor, which had a book value of around $150.

There was one little problem. When Craig saw the card I brought him he immediately said, “Oh, I already have that one”. I guess he just felt bad that I rode my bike all the way to his house and proceeded to start the trade anyway. When I took a peek into his collection, I found the card he said he had but there was something different about it. Everything was the same except for the photos, which were reversed. Instead of Griffey Jr. being in the larger spot, this one had Jose Cruz Jr in it. I don’t think Craig even cared to notice.

When I got home that evening, I immediately began to wonder exactly why the images were reversed. Keep in mind this was early 1997 before social media, message boards, and even eBay. I had to wait a couple of days to hit my local card shop but the owner also had no idea what the card was. I picked up the latest issue of Beckett Baseball but it too made no mention. I started to think this was possible a very rare error card and Craig probably had the only copy in the world.

As I stated earlier, 1997 was my last year as a collector for an entire decade and by 1998, I moved and lost track of Craig. By the time I decided to start collecting again in 2007, I created this blog to document my journey and eventually discovered the card Craig owned was the original SSP, the “Inverted” Mirror Image Atomic Refractor. These cards are so rare, there is still no stated odds or print run available. Atomic Refractor autographs have a 1:6,107 stated odds but these Mirror Image cards are way more rare.

So naturally, I spent the next decade looking for Craig on Facebook with very little luck. Finally, late last year I pulled up some addresses online and drove down to our old hometown in Weston, Florida to see if I could track him down. Craig and I had some unfinished business to take care of. Unfortunately, my visit would be the start of a sad, downward spiral to this story.

After speaking with Craig’s mom she informed me that Craig’s father passed away the very same year I moved away (1998) and that Craig never really emotionally recovered from it. She gave me an address in Winter Park, Florida where Craig, now 39, resides. The next morning, I made my way to Fairview Mobile Court to speak to Craig for one final trade, this one involving cash money for the two Mirror Image inserts that I’ve obsessed about for 25 years.

To say Craig had seen better days is an understatement. Craig’s mobile home looked welcoming enough from the outside but inside it was filled with trash, way more trash than I have ever seen in my life. Under and around that trash was yellowing boxes of baseball cards. Craig, now well over 300 lbs and suffering the effects of diabetes (missing part of his left foot) was unemployed and living off government benefits. His dad’s old Monte Carlo sat rusting away in his car port, along with a large tricycle with three flat tires.

I didn’t want to spend much time in that trailer, so I explained to Craig that I was still collecting baseball cards and wanted to make him an offer on two particular cards in his collection, if he still owned them. He told me he had every card his dad ever bought him, but he could always use some extra cash. I spent about 20 minutes rummaging through his collection before finding the two Mirror Image cards. Craig asked me how much he thought they were worth because he stopped collecting in 1999.

Craig said he wanted to get his dad’s old car running again but needed around $200 for an oil pump (plus labor). This is where the story takes another turn and may not leave me in the best light. I remember seeing an Inverted Atomic Griffey selling for $330 dollars way back in 2016 so I offered him $400 for both cards. It was an incredibly low offer considering he had the inverted plus the regular version but his face lit up and he immediately accepted the offer and I went on my way with my White Whale in hand.

By the time I began doing my research earlier this year I was shocked to discover that the last sale of the inverted Griffey Jr. was in 2021 for $1,400 and the regular version last sold for $499. Granted, both these copies were graded but I definitely short-changed Craig, by a lot. I spent the last two months calling and texting Craig but couldn’t reach him. I found out last week why that was. Craig died on Valentine’s Day of Covid-19. As tragic as it is for someone to die so young, I’ll never forget that very special year in 1997 when I was able to search through Craig’s unbelievable collection to make the trade of a lifetime and how I got to do it once more before his passing.

Below are the pride and joy of my collection, 1997 Bowman’s Best Mirror Image Atomic Refractor and the mythical Inverted version. Although neither player lived all the way up to their hype, it’s still a very important card from what is my favorite year of baseball cards ever, 1997. A couple of years ago I wrote a countdown of the best products from 1997 which I think deserves a second look, or first if you are new to the site. Stay tuned!

4 thoughts on “My White Whale & the Sad Story Behind It

  1. Awesome 👏 we don’t see you on Twitter you leave ? Greg jeterfan 🔥👊😉from france

    Envoyé de mon iPhone


  2. Dang. This is a sad story. It was nice of you to try and reach out to him. Maybe his mom is still around and you can donate some money for his memorial or something.

  3. It’s amazing how quickly things can change for people. It sounds like he needed some help, and never got it. Hopefully he was at least able to get that car running again. And if you’re feeling bad, you could always donate some money to a charity in his name.

  4. A remarkable story of getting your white whale, and of the people affected along the way. It is strange how we don’t see the blessings in our life until we see ourselves in others and their trials. You may have been one of the last people to actually reach out to him before he passed, gave him some human companionship. And as Jon said, you can always do something in his name to honor him.

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