It was a Thursday in September when Kevin Ashford heard the radio story about Reese Osterberg. The 9-year-old girl had lost her home — and her beloved baseball card collection — in California's Creek Fire, the single largest fire in the state's history.
"I didn't think too much about it, and then on Friday I heard the same story and it just gripped me quite a bit,” recalls Ashford, 62, who lives in San Jose, California, more than three hours away from the still-burning Creek Fire near Shaver Lake. “I thought, ‘That's horrible.'"
The story went on to say that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection was hosting a baseball card drive to help replace the cards that Reese, a baseball player, and some of her friends and teammates had lost in the wildfire.
Ashford pictured his own collection of baseball cards — 25,000 of them, worth an estimated $45,000 to $50,000 — in boxes in his garage.
"I wasn't really doing anything with them,” he says. “I thought, ‘I could take care of this problem rather quickly.'"
Decades-old collection gets a new home
Over the years, Ashford, a candy salesman, and his wife of 38 years have had their share of ups and downs, including sudden job changes and having to file for unemployment. Friends and strangers always came through, providing food and sometimes money.
"We've had that happen so many times, that this was one of those no-brainer moments,” he explains of his massive donation. “This little girl lost everything, and I can't even relate to that."
About six months ago, Ashford thought about selling some of his cards on eBay. Instead, he helped load 50 boxes, boxes holding cards dating from the late 1990s to 2019, into four California Highway Patrol cars. The fire department had alerted the local news media, which showed up along with fire engines from several stations.
Ashford, who played baseball every chance he got growing up, found himself at the center of a news conference at the end of his driveway.
"If I had the chance to do it over again, I'd do it in a heartbeat,” he says. “Reese was very happy, and that was the objective."
The Osterbergs live in Auberry, California, six miles from Shaver Lake.
When they realized the fire was close enough that they needed to evacuate their 22-acre farm, they first focused on moving themselves, their horses and their dogs to safety.
Reese knew her father had to return for more things, and told him, “Daddy, don't forget my baseball cards."
Their farm is down a one-lane road. There was livestock to rescue quickly. The 100 or so cards Reese kept in a binder in her bedroom got left behind.
Paying it forward
That oversight has led to a bigger collection than Reese, who is a southpaw and pitches and covers first base on a Little League team, ever could have imagined. In addition to Ashford's donation, others sent their card collections along with heartfelt letters, and baseball card manufacturer Topps gave her 516 pounds of cards. Deliveries are going to the Shaver Lake Fire Station and the local high school.
Of Ashford, Amy Osterberg, Reese's mother, says, “He went above and beyond to put a smile on a little girl's face and asked for nothing in return. We can't thank him enough."
Reese has decided to start donating herself, starting with the Children's Hospital of Central California, where she spent a couple of weeks two years ago after a massive seizure. (Given that the San Francisco Giants is her favorite major league baseball team, she doesn't mind parting with cards featuring rival players from the Los Angeles Dodgers.)
"It feels pretty good just to pay it forward,” says Reese, “because it's making my heart happy."
"There's one other thing I want to say,” she adds. “Go Giants!"
Ashford and Reese met over Zoom, and plan to attend a Giants game together once the pandemic ends. Reese is especially looking forward to watching her favorite player, Buster Posey. Posey spent 20 minutes on a Zoom call with her after she wrote him a letter asking for one of his cards.
Reese's family will be rebuilding their home on the same property, eventually. Reese already is designing her new bedroom to look like a dugout. She envisions using baseball cards as wallpaper.
As for Ashford, he still has a few cards left. He found them after parting with the others, in a cabinet in the garage. They date back to the early 1980s.
"They're probably not worth too much,” he says. “I'll hold onto them. Or wait for the next disaster. We'll see."