SHAVER LAKE, Calif. — It’s been two months since Reese Osterberg’s house burned to the ground and the air still smells like fire.
There are reminders everywhere of what life used to be like before the largest single-source wildfire ever in California hit this tiny mountain community — the blackened hills and the burnt trees are almost as pronounced as the sense of loss.
There are 50 kids like Reese who lost their houses. Her friend Grayson is one of them. Her friend Emmett is another. The shop Emmett’s dad owned, a general store called Cressman’s that had stood since 1904, is gone too. Almost everything is gone.
Including the baseball cards.
Those might not seem as important as other things put in peril when the Creek Fire came and burned nearly 380,000 acres near Sierra National Forest, but try telling that to these kids. Reese, 9, loves the San Francisco Giants and Buster Posey, while her best friends Grayson and Emmett, both 8, are diehards for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Like other 8- and 9-year-olds, those baseball cards were their link to a game they love.
And when the Creek Fire gobbled those up too, something incredible happened — new cards started coming. They came in big boxes and small envelopes. From California, Wisconsin, Nevada, New York. Everywhere, really. They kept coming and coming.
What started as a local baseball card drive to give three kids a sense of normalcy turned into a nationwide effort to help these kids who had lost everything. People sent cards by the thousands. They sent bobbleheads and autographed balls. A man named Kevin Ashford in the Bay Area heard about it and sent 25,000 cards their way. Buster Posey, the Giants star and former NL MVP, surprised Reese with a phone call one day.
“I had a binder of cards at first,” Reese told Yahoo Sports, “and now it’s 25,000.”
And then Topps — the leading baseball card maker in the country — heard the story and sent quite the care package. Fourteen boxes totaling 526 pounds arrived at the Shaver Lake Cal Fire Station, which had started the baseball card drive and where the donations were arriving.
This wasn’t a little local baseball card drive anymore. It had the makings of something better.
Now with Thanksgiving week here, the families behind the baseball card drive have a plan to share this bounty of baseball cards with all the other kids in Shaver Lake who lost their homes. And Reese herself, now with too many cards, has an idea of how to pay everything forward.
‘I’m in deep trouble’
Labor Day weekend was when lives changed for everyone in Shaver Lake. The fire headed their way, they learned, wasn’t like any regular wildfire.
Sean Osterberg, the principal at the nearby high school and Reese’s dad, got a call from a friend who was a forester that Saturday morning.
“This is bad,” his friend told him, so the family and their animals evacuated that day.
Sean came back up to his house on Sunday for what would be the last time. He grabbed the essentials. Or so he thought. When Reese asked about her baseball cards, he realized the mistake he’d made.
“I’m in deep trouble,” he told the others.
By the next day, it was too late. Cressman’s General Store burned down, and they knew if that happened, their houses weren’t going to be standing either. Luckily, everyone was safe. Emmett’s family, the Gilletts, evacuated in time. So did Grayson’s family, the Gaults.
Right now, all three families and dozens more like them are still in the clean-up phase. They’re making sense of the mess, figuring out what insurance covers and what it doesn’t. They’re making plans to rebuild their homes. They all estimate it will take two years before they’re fully rebuilt.
Those are adult problems. Kids just look for a little of what makes them feel comfortable and safe. In this case, it was talking about baseball and baseball cards with their friends. They all played youth baseball together and their families would travel to Giants and Dodgers games together — even though they were on opposing sides of the rivalry.
Before the fire, Reese used to watch baseball games and pull out her cards. She’d find the players she had that were in the games, setting them up in front of her to match their positions on the field. She’d recite the stats from the backs of the cards.
After the fire, some days she’d watch baseball like normal, just without her cards. Some days, she’d tell her dad she just wanted to go home. And he’d have to tell there was no home anymore.
“You have good days and bad days,” Sean Osterberg said. “I’m glad the World Series happened, it gave us something else to focus on. You put on a game, life kind of becomes normal again.”
Christmas morning but with baseball cards
The day the massive Topps shipment arrived, Reese was wearing a Giants T-shirt while Grayson and Emmett donned Dodger blue. The stacks of boxes were taller than they are. The excitement was about that big too.
The first box Reese opened was something special that Topps put together for the kids. Reese pulled out a bubble-wrapped stack of cards. Looks like Topps had read a scouting report.
“There’s a Buster Posey,” she said, “… another Buster Posey … and another Buster Posey.”
They were all either autographed or contained pieces of Posey’s jerseys. Relics, those cards are called. Reese grabbed another bubble-wrapped stack, looked inside and passed it over to Emmett and Grayson.
“Grayson, I think this pack,” she said, handing him a stack of cards he grabs before the rest of the sentence comes out.
He unwrapped it and his face lit up.
“Dad! Dad! It’s Cody Bellinger,” Grayson yells out. “Clayton Kershaw! Dad!”
It was like Christmas morning, but with boxes of baseball cards. There were autographs galore. Cards with game-used memorabilia. Even cards with dirt from MLB fields. But perhaps even more important — there were so many smiles and so much excitement. And no worrying about fires.
“This is a great start to Christmas,” Reese said near the end of the first box. “And it’s not even December.”
This box-opening session lasted for nearly another hour. Box after box revealed new treasures. There were full boxes of unopened cards, MLB sticker books, even WWE cards.
The dads stood by, marveling, happy to see their kids smiling again.
“It’s been just a great break for them thinking about all the problems,” said Ty Gillett, Emmett’s dad. “This is an outlet that’s amazing.”
“Things like this are a healing moment,” said Dylan Gault, Grayson’s dad, who is a teacher at a nearby high school. “They don’t express it, but the kids feel all these emotions. The baseball card drive has helped them reconnect and feel normal again.”
How Reese plans to pay it forward
Once the baseball card drive became bigger than Reese, Grayson and Emmett, a Plan B quickly emerged. Even if they wanted to keep them all, they didn’t have room for all these baseball cards. The Osterbergs are living in a 1,000-square-foot family cabin until their house is rebuilt.
As the donations kept arriving, the stacks of baseball cards kept growing and growing. Just the other day, Sean Osterberg arrived at the fire station to boxes upon boxes of cards again. He now has a 40-foot storage container that’s full of baseball cards.
“We’ve been blessed,” he said.
So they — and Reese specifically — wanted to pay it forward.
Part of the idea was always for these three families to distribute the baseball cards, autographed balls and bobbleheads to other kids in Shaver Lake and the surrounding mountain communities. Originally, they wanted to invite all 50 kids who lost their homes to the school gym and divvy up the baseball treasures. But since this is also happening during a pandemic — and California just locked down many of its counties last week — the first step happens Tuesday as 13 local kids will get their baseball-card care packages.
Reese and her family have an even bigger idea. One that they hope will help kids all across the county.
Motivated by the outpouring of kindness coming her way, Reese and her family started a project called Cards from Reese. She wants to send baseball cards to other kids who are going through a tough time — particularly kids in the hospital. In 2017, she battled a heart condition and was hospitalized, another potentially traumatizing event she’s trying to turn into good.
“When I was in the hospital, people gave me things that made me happy,” she said. “So I want to give them things that make them happy.”
When you think about that statement from a 9-year-old, especially during a year that has been extra crummy to these kids and their families, it’s easier to find some good in the world. Sometimes you just need excited kids cackling as they open boxes of baseball cards to remind you that even the worst problems — like losing your house in a fire — can have a silver lining.
A few days after the Topps shipment arrived, Shaver Lake got its first snowfall of the season. The air still smelled like fire, but less so. The months-burning fire was starting to become more contained.
Life wasn’t back to normal yet, but at least it was getting better. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for.
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