Nick Lehr buys scratch tickets for the same reason he used to collect baseball cards—the pursuit of the big score.
Over the past year, my friend Miles and I have taken to buying scratch-off lottery tickets. What started as a once-in-a-while thing has turned into a regular routine. We feed each other’s habit—he’ll come back from work with a couple of $800 Million Dollar Spectaculars, which means, a day or two later, I’ll have to return the favor. Even though I sometimes feel it’s a waste of money, the fun overrides any doubts or misgivings.
But it wasn’t until I found myself trolling the list of winners on the Mass Lottery website, wondering—How great would it be if I were the next Kenneth J. Maffia, retiree from Hopedale, proud owner of a $2.5 million ticket?—that something clicked.
I was brought back to sixth grade, curled up in my bed, absorbed in the back page of Beckett Baseball Card monthly, where every month they had pictures of the big “hits”—kids smiling, having beaten astronomical odds to get that Babe Ruth autograph worth thousands of dollars.
Looking at those lucky kids, that same thought pounded through my twelve-year-old head, filling me with a giddy mixture of excitement and longing: How great would it be if that could be me?
And I realized that the longing, the hope, the excitement, the disappointment—lottery tickets or baseball cards, it didn’t matter—the roller coaster of emotions and rituals were all the same.
More than a decade ago, baseball cards were our lives. Miles and I pored through stacks of old cards, combed yard sales and flea markets, owned thick binders and boxes filled with cards in hard, plastic cases. We never had enough; the perpetual presence of hope and potential wound us up, propelled us forward, emptied our pockets: What if it could be me? What if this pack has it?
We second-guessed the packs chosen, weighed them in our hands (heavier ones were more likely to possess memorabilia cards containing pieces of game-used bats or swatches of jerseys), compared prices—it was all ritualistic, all inside our heads. Weird rumors, like the one we heard about distributors putting the packs with the rare inserts at the bottom of the box, dominated any reason (of course, it was all completely random).
But why not make it a game? It was more fun that way. Plus it was about the psychological advantage—putting ourselves in a better position than the average collector. When we knew more than he did, good things were bound to come our way.
Like ten years ago, during the summer when Miles and I blew every last cent of our birthday money at Waverly Collectibles, where one day made everything worth it.
The broken air conditioner belched sporadic spurts of cool air in my face as I contemplated my losses. I glanced over at Miles. He hadn’t fared much better—lots of commons, a few stars, and only a couple of pretty easy-to-obtain inserts—in other words, garbage.
“I think I can see the bus,” Miles said, squinting out the tinted store window.
I emptied my pockets onto the display case—two crumpled dollar bills and a handful of coins that clanged against the glass. Hearing the coins, the store’s owner, George, waddled over from the back room, where he spent most of the day surfing the web.
He was a quiet, overweight guy in his mid-fifties, and even though he never had much to say, we liked him. Sometimes he’d offer us free packs of cards in exchange for buying him a cup of coffee at the Dunkin Donuts across the street. Other times, after sensing that we’d had a miserable day, he’d offer us two packs for the price one. As his best customers, Miles and I felt we deserved this special treatment.
“What’ll it be?”
“I think I’ll have a pack of Topps Gallery.” I counted my money, then looked up sheepishly. “George, I’m, uh, thirty cents short.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he assured me, holding out the box of packs.
Miles and I had a ritual for opening packs of cards, designed to prolong the enjoyment and suspense.
First, I carefully fingered a pack on the very bottom of the box—doing otherwise violated previously established regulations—and delicately removed it. With Miles looking over my shoulder, I peeled away the foil, doing everything in my power to keep the cards enclosed in pristine condition. Then, hands trembling, I examined each card, one by one.
“Jose Vizcaino…Luis Gonzalez…Jeff Suppan…Kerry Wood…Mike Sweeney…Wil Cordero…”
After each name, my hopes diminished. Maybe today just wasn’t my day.
But then, I arrived at the final card. There it was—a Rick Ankiel Topps Gallery Certified Autograph Issue. I was floored. Miles rushed behind the counter and returned, wielding a copy of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, the Bible for assessing the value of baseball cards. We frantically flipped through the pages.
“Topps…Gallery…1999…Certified Autograph Issue…”
“There it is!” Miles yelped, jamming his finger next to Ankiel’s name.
“A Hundred Bucks!” We both cried out. I looked up at George, beaming with pride. He smiled.
“Let me get a plastic case for that,” he said. “On the house.”
The Ankiel card is worth pennies now. A year after getting the best pull of my life, the hugely hyped prospect had a psychological meltdown on the mound during the 2000 NLCS, and eventually lost the ability to throw strikes. A testament to his athleticism, he’s been able to rebuild his career as a middle-of-the-road right fielder. But a good story doesn’t translate into a valuable baseball card.
And that’s the thing with baseball cards: hype drives prices up, and hype is bound to disappoint. McGwire (steroids), Griffey (injuries and decline), Ankiel. No one’s as good as they’re hyped to be. Currently it’s Stephen Strasburg—a phenom, yes, but a rookie card worth $40,000? As Zac Bissonette writes on dailyfinance.com, that price might be a bit over the top.
I had a dream last summer in which I won two hundred grand after buying a ticket with animals on it. Waking up was brutal—that crushing, sinking feeling. But I tried to stay in the dream, in that half-conscious daze, keeping it alive as long as possible—up until the chirping birds and a dagger of sunlight finally snapped me back to reality.
I got dressed, called Miles, and we went to the drug store near my house. The old hag behind the counter stared in disapproval as we tried to make out the pictures on the tickets—Merry Millionaire, Super Cashwords, Spooky Rich, $100,000 a Year for Life. No animals, though.
I didn’t say a word, just looked at Miles, and together we left.
“That lady must have thought we were nuts.”
We hit up a couple of more stops, before trying the 7-11 in the neighboring town, where I found exactly what I’d been looking for: “Wild Millions.” Just like in my dream, it had animals on it: a zebra and an elephant.
I bought it and headed to the parking lot, where I won forty bucks.
And so, having outgrown baseball cards (and realizing they’re simply not worth the investment), today, a year later, I find myself staring at the rolls of lotto tickets at White Hen Pantry, thinking about the numbers corresponding to the ticket, which ones mean something—so many to choose from: the old uniform number, eleven? My birthday, sixteen? I settle on a “$100,000 a year for life.” I buy a Super Cashword for Miles, his favorite.
The allure of that top prize drives me to buy the ten dollar scratchers, which, with more jackpots, increase the chances that I’ll be one of the lucky ones, have my pictures on the website, maybe even with State Treasurer Tim Cahill. Together, with wide, goofy smiles, we’ll hold one of those huge checks.
We used to frequent baseball card shows. The Best Western in Waltham, the Holiday Inn in Mansfield, the Elks club in Marlborough—moldy ballrooms with hundreds of folding tables stacked high with boxes of cards. Peddlers smoking cheap cigars tried their best to con kids like us with a salesman’s charm. There were the regulars on the card show circuit, and we had names for them. There was Fish Lipz, a Steve Buscemi look-a-like who smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and wore floppy fishing hats—and Molester Guy, a ringer for James Woods’ character in Casino, who talked a mile a minute.
“Hey there, kid—check out this Eddie Murray hologram card, just got into the Hall o’ Fame, look at the shine on that baby,” he’d coo. “I’ll give you a deal—twenty bucks—only cause I’m tryin’ to get rid of the whole lot today.”
Yeah, we were the seasoned ones—haggling, bargaining—getting every last penny out of our allowances.
Card shows were golden because they were one place where hobby boxes could be bought cheaply. Before the Internet and eBay stifled the value of all cards and boxes across the board, this was the place to be: a Mecca of dealers, all competing with one another under the same roof, which inevitably drove down prices, much to our delight.
We’d settle on a box, usually costing us somewhere in the range of fifty to seventy-five bucks, pooling our money together to make the purchase, before retreating to the parking lot, where we’d sit in the back seat of Miles’ dad’s minivan.
Nothing beat opening a fresh box. Taking turns picking out packs. Crinkly foil. Hearts racing. The smell of cardboard and chemicals. Sticky-new cards in pristine condition.
I return from White Hen Pantry, and we sit on our porch with our tickets—they’re smooth and shiny, with bright colors and the promise of millions of dollars in prizes.
So far, Miles has been luckier with scratch tickets. He’s actually won a hundred dollars twice—maybe it’s karma, as I usually fared better during our baseball card years. My top pulls, the Ankiel card, a Cal Ripken, Jr. autograph ($250), and a Barry Bonds refractor ($100) out-priced his best by a significant margin.
A hundred dollar a lottery ticket is nice, but it’s nowhere near as satisfying as when we’d get a baseball card of equal value. A hundred bucks is a hell of a lot more money when you’re in middle school. Plus, when you’re staring at a ticket that says “20 One Million Dollar Winners,” and you get a hundred dollars, you don’t feel so much like a winner knowing the big one eluded you again.
With two pristine tickets in hand, bursting with potential, we talk about what we’ll do with the money when we win.
In Massachusetts, jackpot winners have two options: they can either take an instant payout—a sum significantly less than the amount they’ve won (e.g., $600,000 for a $1,000,000 prize) or take yearly payouts that add up to the actual amount won (e.g., $50,000 a year for twenty years). It’s amazing to us how many winners will take the instant lump sum rather than the yearly payments. Miles and I both agree that we’d take the spread out payments—security for pretty much a lifetime. And there’d be no risk of blowing the $600,000. There’s a part of me that worries I’d put it all on black at Foxwoods.
Still, when I win, I’ll splurge a little bit—go to Vegas with my friends, giving them a thousand each to gamble with, and go nuts. MGM Grand, nightclubs, bottle service.
Gripping a faded penny, Miles is about to start on his Super Cashword, and I give him a head start. With the Cashwords, you’re given eighteen letters, and you have to form words—the more words you’re able to form with the letters given, the bigger the prize. It takes deliberation. I think he likes that because it delays the disappointment as long as possible, keeping the hope alive for that much longer.
As he’s halfway through, I start in on my 100,000 Dollars a Year for Life, which is a lot simpler: scratch the winning numbers, and hope they match up.
Today, silver shavings fall to the chipped paint on our sagging front porch. As we scratch feverishly, the shavings accumulate, and with them, a chance at that top prize slips away.
Today, we lose.
Tomorrow we’ll wake up—tired and groggy—and go to work, barreling down the Mass Pike late as usual, nervously sipping coffee, shielding the sun. It doesn’t have to be this way, I’ll assure myself.
It’s all just a scratch away.