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Mudville: July 23, 2024 8:46 am PDT

The Olson Life

BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI

Rain delays can often be the bane of many a baseball fan’s existence. Yet, it was Mother Nature’s intervention that led to Mike Olson becoming one of the sports card art genre’s hottest new artists.

Olson, 47, a South Jersey resident, was at home watching the Phillies and the Braves attempt to play at Citizen’s Bank Park on June 21, 2023, when the skies opened up. The game was ultimately postponed. When the broadcast cut away from the raindrops, however, it was the show The Card Life that appeared on Olson’s television and not the usual rainout theater reruns.

The Card Life is hosted by Phillies pitcher Matt Strahm, who discusses and showcases his love of baseball cards as he travels the country playing ball. The show, which debuted in June 2021 and is the brainchild of Brandon Verzal, follows Strahm as talks about the hobby, rooting out great stories about the cards and the people behind them. The show has aired more than 5,000 times in three years and on this particular night, it got Olson, an artist by trade, thinking.

He had created a series of cards for himself in 2014 but didn’t follow up on that beginning. However, the episode of The Card Life Olson saw created a flood of ideas upon which he decided to act.

“I didn’t know where this was going when I started doing it,” said Olson, who formerly worked in advertising but was laid off a few years prior to the pandemic. “We [Olson and his wife Mary, more on her later] were watching the game when The Card Life came on and I was blown away. I thought maybe I could do another card; it had been 10 years since I did one.

“It was an old Bryce Harper that I had done in 2014 but now he was on the Phillies and I thought I should redo that exact card but put him in a Phillies uniform. When I did, I thought about how much better the [current] card looks than the one from 2014. You can see a huge difference. You can see the difference in quality and that Harper card got me started.”

The Harper card led to Olson creating a George Brett card, which he posted on Instagram. It didn’t take long for a Brett fan and collector to reach out, offering to buy the card. The appreciation shown for his work on social media stunned Olson, who then began getting requests from people to put out more pieces.

Olson has created 30 cards in just over a year since watching The Card Life Episode. His cards are his own creations but mirror many famous cards that have been produced by various companies over the last 70 years. So, whether you’re looking for a 1981 Fleer Mike Schmidt or a 1972 Topps Nolan Ryan, there isn’t any route that Olson won’t take to fulfill his customer’s wishes.

He says he wants to stay true to “card community” but he also isn’t afraid to take a chance. Consider a recent request from a fan who asked him to make a 1990 Greg Maddux from the Donruss Learning Series even though Maddux was not a part of the original set.

“I get a lot of interesting requests, things that I would never think of on my own,” said Olson, who does not actually collect cards. “A lot of the stuff I am doing Topps can’t do. Folks will reach out with a photo from one card and ask to have it done with the design of another card. I can see why big companies can’t do stuff like that, but card artists can do what they want.”

Another example of such a card is the one he made of Tom Reisinger, an Oakland farmhand who was a 10th-round selection in the 2023 First-Year Player Draft. Reisinger’s father reached out to Olson and asked him to create a card depicting his son. The two talked for a while and came up with the idea of making an early 1990s Topps replica card.

Mike and Mary Olson

“At the moment it’s my favorite card because I just finished it,” Olson said. “He said that his son had gotten drafted and he didn’t know if he would ever get to a point where he would get a card so he wanted him to have a card of himself. He asked if I could make an A’s card of his son and we came up with a couple of ideas.

“I put the little trophy in the bottom corner of the card and the draft stats on there. It is a really wonderful card. I wanted to make something for a dad who is super proud of his son. It’s my favorite because of the story behind it. It’s one of my best ones and I just love the story behind it. Topps just can’t make this guy’s son’s card.”

One of the reasons why the big companies can’t do what artists like Olson can is the individual service he and his wife provide. While Matt Olson does the drawing and the painting, Mary Olson is the brains behind the card presentation and packaging. The couple, who met at The Rochester Institute of Technology, have been together for 25 years [married since 2006] and work very well together.

“She actually does a ton behind the scenes,” Olson said. “She’s a creative person as well and she has revamped the whole packaging system with the cards and I couldn’t be more thrilled. She is very talented in her own right and noticed a spot where we could be doing a little better. She works in medical advertising but saves a lot of creativity for after nine to five.

“She is good at paper engineering and folding. What I was doing was just putting it in a big cardboard box. It didn’t tell a story. She took nice boxes and did paper engineering so the box holds the flat card and pieces of gum. She engineered a part for the certificate of authenticity and included a nice nod to our [personal story]. She kept score in the first Phillies game we went to together so she includes a little mini scorecard with a pencil attached. It’s a more detailed part of our story and I am super proud of it.”

Olson added that he and his wife are both concerned about the environment so they make sure the cards and packaging are ecofriendly. Everything is done with recycled paper and there is no plastic involved.

The cards themselves are standard size and just about everything on them is done by hand. Olson eschews using a computer, leaning on pencils, colored pencils, ink and oil paints. Everything is one of a kind, particularly the stats that appear on the card backs. They are all done painstakingly by hand. Occasionally, Olson will make a mistake on the card back but won’t change it.

“I went from being super upset about mistakes and being upset to now, and I don’t want to say it, but they are kind of nice because it shows a computer didn’t make it,” Olson said. “It takes me about a week, on and off, to make a card. I spread it out; I try not to work too long because I don’t want to make a ton of mistakes, so I spread it out, maybe 15 to 20 hours. I have to use a magnifying glass so I spend a good portion of my day almost in the card so I need to spend a few minutes to step away.”

Olson charges about $200 for a card [that includes all the neat packaging] and shipping his free. His work can be found on his website and his Instagram page. Olson’s workload, however, has only increased recently because he not only drew inspiration from The Card Life he also appeared on the show in June.

“I did a card of Matt especially for the show and he got to open it recently in San Francisco,” Olson said. “The producers brought it to him and he opened it so it was super exciting.”

Verzal is appreciative of the response the show has gotten and said that Olson’s experience is not unique.

“It’s really cool when you hear stories like that,” Verzal said. “We’ve heard that from a couple of artists. We have probably featured five or six artists. That’s the great thing about our show; it comes on right after games so many people see it. So many people have said that it helped get them back into collecting. It happens over and over, whether it’s an artist or someone returning to the nostalgia of their childhood.”

It certainly took Olson back, at least a decade for sure. That was more than enough to reignite the spark for his love of cards and set him on his current path.

“It really all comes down to The Card Life show,” Olson said. “Those guys were great and they gave me an opportunity to share what I do with a wider audience. If I’m not watching that show, I might not be doing this. If that rain delay didn’t turn into a card, my life might not be me doing this. That show helped make a lot more people reach out.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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