Monday, December 10, 2018

Eight Clubby Nights: A Stadium Club Hanukkah (and one for good luck)

Our eight-pack blaster from Hanukkah is empty and fully documented, which we've done over the last eight nights. The final candles are burned out, and as much excess wax has been cleaned off the menorah as possible. Still, the superstitious wish of "and one for good luck" is somewhat common in Jewish celebrations, at least as I've heard it. Apparently, n+1 is a lucky number. So is eighteen, or whichever multiple of eighteen you deem suitable.

I thought I'd take this opportunity to put one last post up in this series, for a couple reasons. One, this was a pretty well-received theme and I got good feedback on it. And two, I bought a value pack of 2018 Stadium Club that I never wrote about on the blog, so now is as good a time as any. I picked four cards to show, all base cards, which fits in with the final three official nights of our blaster. That will bring us to forty-four total cards, exactly the same as as the number of candles burned throughout a full Hanukkah celebration.

2018 Stadium Club #61 Anthony Rendon
Judging by how the first two packs went, I was expecting to see lots more Washington Nationals than I did. That didn't end up happening, but there were a lot of Marlins. So to retroactively validate my earlier prediction, here's Anthony Rendon preparing for a plate appearance in the on deck circle. He's at home in this shot, giving us a spectacular view of Nationals Park, a place we all saw lots of during this year's All-Star festivities. I can't quite make out who the visiting team is, but under high magnification, my guess goes to the San Francisco Giants.

Rendon, a third baseman, has been remarkably consistent the past few seasons, challenging Nolan Arenado in MVP voting, and even leading the NL in doubles in 2018. If Bryce Harper doesn't return to the Nationals, look to Rendon to become the star of their lineup.

2018 Stadium Club #268 A.J. Pollock
Like Harper, A.J. Pollock is also on the free agent market, and with the trade of Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals, it's clear that the Diamondbacks are in rebuilding mode. That will make it easier on the Rockies next year, but they have challenges of their own. 

Here's a not-often-seen angle of Pollock making contact. It looks like he's a tiny bit under this one, but only a fraction of an inch separates a sky-high popup from a home run. If you look closely, you'll see that Pollock is wearing a throwback Diamondbacks uniform, their original teal and purple color scheme. I can't quite tell who this catcher is, but there's enough red trim on his catcher's gear to make me guess the Chicago Cubs. Maybe Alex Avila, maybe Willson Contreras. Hard to say for sure.

2018 Stadium Club #9 Zack Godley
Elsewhere in Chase Field, starting pitcher Zack Godley is just a moment away from taking a dip in the pool they have out in center field. Paul Goldschmidt and many others have hit home run balls in there, and it's the closest thing the D-Backs have to a 'splash hit", something the waterfront San Francisco Giants have in abundance. With five days between starts, it's not surprising that pitchers might go have a little fun on their days off. 

Godley put up decent numbers for Arizona last year, a 15-11 record, which tied with Zack Grenike in the win-loss column. Less desirable is that he threw 17 wild pitches and hit 12 batters. That led the NL in both categories, and the former number even eclipsed Garrett Richards, which we discussed in Night 2. 

These last couple you've probably seen before, partly because they're awesome, and partly because the collation of this set is a little iffy.

2018 Stadium Club #15 Hanley Ramirez
The very last card of this theme shows another famous stadium, Fenway Park. The green monster and its namesake mascot, Wally the Green Monster, are shown on this card, along with Hanley Ramirez, an underproducing player that the Red Sox cut in early 2018. Clearly, they had the right idea, as they won the World Series without him. Allowing J.D. Martinez to DH every day was definitely a good move. We'll see if he lands anywhere in 2019. Maybe the Marlins will sign him and bring the 2006 NL Rookie of the Year's career full circle, but I wouldn't count on that.

Wally is clearly holding a flag on the left of this card, but the way this is cropped makes it look a little like a frame. I can't help but see a tiny bit of 1996 Pinnacle in this card. On the other side, there's just enough sharpness on the out-of-town scoreboard to spot a few scores. Detroit over Kansas City, 13-2. Baltimore over New York, 7-6. A quick look at the 2017 results date this card to September 5th, 2017, when the Red Sox bested the Blue Jays in a whopping 19-inning marathon that took six hours. Naturally, Hanley finally batted in the winning run, allowing Mookie Betts to score from second after Betts' leadoff double.

That explains why Hanley looks a little exhausted and relieved in this photo. Even as a DH, a 2-for-8 day at the plate ending well after 1:00 am local time is not an easy feat.

There were a few other cards in this value pack, such as a pair of Power Zone inserts and assorted rookie cards, but these four horizontal beauties really seemed like a great way to wrap things up. If they can keep finding photos like this, I'll keep buying the set.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Eight Clubby Nights: A Stadium Club Hanukkah (Night 8)

We've come to the end, the final night of Hanukkah. Technically, it still goes until sundown tomorrow, since the day changes at sundown in the Jewish calendar, rather than arbitrarily at midnight. But we'll be out of both candles and cards soon, and there are no empty branches left on our menorah. And my dreidel hand is a little fatigued.

Hanukkah will be late next year, so we have a bit more than a trip around the sun until we begin the ritual again. Did the final pack of 2018 Stadium Club top the pinnacle of night four? Read on to find out.

2018 Stadium Club #253 Aaron Nola
Aaron Nola is only 25, but he already has the makings of an ace. His 17-6 record for the Phillies in 2018 got him as high as #3 in Cy Young voting, and with all the NL East clubs besides the Marlins taking 2019 very seriously, we'll surely see some more stellar performances next year. His card is already mentioning him in the same sentence as Phillies stars like Curt Schilling. He'll surely face the Nationals' shiny new acquisition, Patrick Corbin, at some point in the coming seasons.

I'm still a little shaky on pitch grips, so I can't quite tell what Nola is about to deftly filing toward the plate. All I know is that I probably wouldn't be able to hit it.

2018 Stadium Club #143 Tim Locastro (RC)
It didn't take long for our first rookie to join the party, Tim Locastro, formerly of the Dodgers. Los Angeles dealt him to the Yankees the day before Thanksgiving in return for a minor leaguer. He had a single plate appearance in 2017, and spent most of 2018's September call-up as a pinch runner.

This photo is from a 2018 game, based on the 60th Anniversary patch on the right sleeve, which documents that it's been 60 years since the Dodgers left Brooklyn and broke hearts all over New York.

According to Baseball-Reference, Locastro has only worn #70 for the Dodgers, so whatever number Topps photoshopped him into isn't actually a real Dodgers uniform, unless this is a spring training shot. Also giving that away is his helmet with two ear flaps, something generally just reserved at the major league level for switch hitters, which Locastro is not. I wore helmets just like that in little league. We weren't rolling in enough dough to afford both left- and right-handed helmets, so we all wore the slightly goofy-looking double flap ones. A batting helmet with a single ear flap once seemed like the ultimate luxury.

2018 Stadium Club #214 Parker Bridwell (RC)
Our second rookie of the pack is Parker Bridwell, formerly of the Angels. He, too, is now a Yankee, as the Bronx Bombers selected him off waivers a couple weeks ago. They must see quite a bit of potential in him, but they surely weren't looking at his 2018 stats, which saw him give up 13 earned runs in 6.2 innings pitched. It was an injury-shortened year, obviously, so we'll see if he can turn things around when he dons the pinstripes.

At least Topps got the uniform number right. He might even get to keep it when he moves to New York, as 62 is one of the many integers that the Yankees still have in circulation.

2018 Stadium Club #39 Wil Myers
At this point in the offseason, when players aren't mashing baseballs out of stadiums across the country, talk turns to which team a player might be with next year. The Yankees have already been busy acquiring the rookies from this final pack. Wil Myers, like many of his fellow players, will be discussed at the upcoming Winter Meetings (that's actually a trademark), and many rumors pop up if you search his name. The Padres have already been active recently, acquiring Garrett Richards and Francisco Mejia, both names we've seen in this little Hanukkah celebration so far.

Underneath the lettering at the bottom of the card, we can see that Wil Myers, 2013's AL Rookie of the Year, is one of the few players who do not wear batting gloves. Tim Locastro isn't either, pointing to a small but growing trend. It may have the tiniest impact on the pace of play debate, because if you don't wear batting gloves, you can't constantly step out of the box to adjust them.

Like a batting helmet with a single ear flap, batting gloves for both hands were another once-unobtainable luxury, but I did have one for my left hand.

2018 Stadium Club #190 Ian Happ
The final card of this 40-card blaster is a good way to wrap things up. It shows Ian Happ soaring past first base, presumably after just hitting one out of Wrigley. This has the look of a walk-off shot, but nothing to that effect shows up in his career stats. He doesn't have a ton more experience than most rookies throughout this series, just two seasons. However, he's gotten regular playing time with the Cubbies and has been on their postseason roster in both years. If he's out there giving photographers this kind of opportunity, then he's sure to stick around for some time to come.

I have to admit, even though these have been some great cards, I am a little disappointed with my luck this time around. Our final three packs yielded fifteen straight base cards. I like the base cards from this set more than most others, but not to have that punctuated with something a little more unique is a slight letdown.

It turns out that night 4 was my favorite, and it included the only Rockie of the bunch. But thanks to Trevor's group break, I have plenty of the Rockies from this set, and I guess that's why we do group breaks. Once I get these into binders, I'll see that Photographer's Proof case hit nearby, and I'll remember that Stadium Club is actually pretty awesome.

Thanks for coming along this little adventure, and being open to indulging my little nightly Hanukkah lessons. I hope you all have an excellent holiday season, however you choose to celebrate it.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Eight Clubby Nights: A Stadium Club Hanukkah (Night 7)

The seventh night of Hanukkah only leaves one branch of the menorah unlit. There are eight candles going, and when it gets this late in the holiday, my favorite thing to do is watch the candles as they're almost burned out and try to guess which one will extinguish itself first. I wouldn't go so far as saying I'm "betting" on which candle will last the longest. That's what the dreidel is for. It can be tricky, as sometimes there's a tiny bit of wax left over from the previous night that acts as a little extra fuel. Depending on the material of your menorah, you might even see flashes of green in the flame if there are tiny bits of copper or other pigments in the finish, but that's exceptionally rare and requires a patient eye.

I also have to admit that the smell of a recently-extinguished candle appeals to me a bit more than maybe it should.

There will be plenty of time to watch the candles burn down later, but for now, let's take a look at the penultimate pack from 2018 Stadium Club.

2018 Stadium Club #38 Jake Arrieta
Jake Arrieta has been a story of regression to the mean. His win/loss ratio has gone down every year since 2015, although to be fair, that was starting from a stellar 22-6 record, or .786, the year he won the Cy Young Award. Strangely, he's only been an All-Star once in his career, which came during his championship season of 2016. The Phillies spent an enormous amount of money on him, but there is always the chance his best years are behind him.

Topps did find a spring training shot of Arrieta for this year's set, so they didn't have to resort to Photoshop to picture him in a Phillies uniform. It's hard to miss that gigantic Grapefruit League patch on the right sleeve, but one other thing that tips us off that this is from before April is that different logo on his cap. I don't think people make a big enough deal about spring training hats, because they sure look awesome to me. Come on, people, the Liberty Bell is right there on the cap, instead of the usual white "P". That Philadelphia landmark is also going to be more prominent in their recently-redesigned team logo.

For their spring training gear, the Rockies have a great mash-up of the mountainous portion of their regular logo along with the Colorado state flag. We love the state flag in these parts. It's a defining feature of your identity as a Coloradoan.

2018 Stadium Club #173 Anthony Banda (RC)
Anthony Banda is joining Alex Verdugo in sporting a heavily-inked right arm. I'm not really a tattoo guy, but these guys can feel free to do whatever they'd like. In my opinion, they should even be able to choose their own footwear.

The Rookie Card logo is back, and has been present in every pack besides Night 4. Banda has appeared for two teams in his short two-season career, and they both happen to be the teams from the 1998 round of MLB expansion. 2017 was with the Diamondbacks, and he obviously ended up with the Rays in 2018. He originally came up in the Brewers organization, but has been involved in a few trades already, and his name appears in the transaction list alongside former Rockie Gerardo Parra and one of my favorite under-the-radar players, Mitch Haniger.

2018 Stadium Club #5 Johnny Cueto
I have this idea in my head that Johnny Cueto changes teams constantly, but other than that brief stopover with the World Champion 2015 Royals, he's only played for three teams. Just the Reds, Royals, and Giants have had him on their rosters. He's well-known for his "shimmy" during his pitching motion, something Topps calls "his pretzel-like delivery", and his dreadlocks, which, we're told, have been in the works for seven years. Of course, he's also an All-Star, and came oh-so-close to winning the Cy Young Award in 2014, finishing behind now-division rival Clayton Kershaw.

One drawback to these unorthodox pitching motions, like Cueto's shimmy, the "pause" that Kershaw, Kyle Freeland, and others have been incorporating into their motions, which dances on the edge of legality, or Tyler Anderson's leg kick, is that they don't show up very well in still photographs. A Sportflics-style lenticular insert set that shows these quirky deliveries in better detail would be an awesome idea.

2018 Stadium Club #234 Adrian Beltre
When Topps put this set together, they definitely had an idea of who they had in mind for retired players. We've seen Tim Raines, Hideki Matsui, and Mike Piazza. Technically Brad Ziegler is now in that camp too, and Ichiro was sort of a toss-up, but I really think Topps expected Adrian Beltre to call it quits at the end of 2018. Turns out, they were right, as he announced his retirement just a couple weeks ago. Beltre, a member of the 3,000 hit club, has quietly put together a Hall of Fame-worthy career, amassing nearly 500 home runs and even more doubles than Todd Helton.

I'm not sure what occasion this speech is from, but Rangers fans were surely happy to see Beltre on the field all these years. His goofy feud with Elvis Andrus is the stuff of legend, and he and Orbit share a special bond. Baseball just isn't going to be the same without Beltre, who was having so much fun that no one really noticed he was a superstar. He just quietly carried on and didn't want anyone to touch his head.

2018 Stadium Club #234 Adrian Beltre (RC)
These have been nice cards, but that marks two straight packs without an insert or parallel. The Rookie Card logo makes yet another appearance. Greg Allen isn't what we'd call a power hitter, but he clearly has good speed. He put up a top-25 number for stolen bases in 2018, and that was only while playing half the games. He even got a plate appearance in the ALDS this year.

It's starting to become clear that Night 4 may be the pinnacle of this blaster. At this point, there are more candles remaining than cards, and with just one pack left, the pack with the only Rockie of the bunch may be hard to top, especially when the vein of insert cards seems to have gone missing. One night remains, and I'm as interested as you in what that final pack contains.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Eight Clubby Nights: A Stadium Club Hanukkah (Night 6)

It's usually around the sixth night of Hanukkah when someone remarks about the lit menorah, "It's getting bright!" Seven candles in close (but not too close) proximity will do that. On occasion, two wicks will bend toward each other and create one larger Hanukkah super-flame, but that rarely lasts for more than several seconds. Mostly it's just gotten to be a little bit routine. It's the same prayers each night, the candles all burn about the same length of time, and the dreidel can only land on one of four sides.

So it was with this pack, the sixth in our series, which neither contained anything earth shattering, nor anything particularly unexpected.

2018 Stadium Club #222 Domingo Santana
The first thing I noticed about Domingo Santana's card is that his Brewers uniform is actually in Spanish. The team name reads "Cerveceros", and is worn on the team's annual Latin American-themed Cerveceros Day. Assuming Topps didn't rush a print job out the door, this would have been from July 1st, 2017. And that means this photo is probably of Santana celebrating his two-run home run in the second inning, off of Marlins starter Tom Koehler. Santana hit an impressive 30 homers in 2017, just trailing Eric Thames who had a torrid April that year, and Travis Shaw, who was the first man to cross the plate when Santana went deep.

I even had the chance to see Domingo Santana not long ago, exactly two months ago, in fact. He pinch-hit in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the NLDS, a chilly afternoon Postseason game which I managed to snag some tickets for. Santana drew a walk facing Chris Rusin. He was stranded on the basepaths, but that didn't much matter, as the Rockies were unable to plate a run during that final game of their season.

2018 Stadium Club #285 Mike Piazza
Our third retired star of the blaster, and second Hall of Famer, is catcher Mike Piazza. He entered the Hall in 2016, the same year as Ken Griffey, Jr. Griffey, a first-ballot inductee, is the closest anyone has come to a unanimous selection, but Piazza needed four years on the ballot to get the call. This photo is closer to his 1993 Rookie of the Year season than to his retirement, specifically from 1997. The 50th Anniversary Jackie Robinson patch is a dead giveaway, and can be found all over late-1990s cards. It's rarely seen at this point in the hobby, though.

It's much harder to spot, but the 12-time All-Star appears to be inside the previous Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis, which was torn down in 2005. The series of arches around the top of the stadium were its main distinctive feature, and we can just see one beyond Piazza's prodigious right forearm.

The ballparks in St. Louis do seem to be a frequent setting for Stadium Club cards. I know it isn't explicitly about stadium photography, but I do appreciate seeing the architecture in a set named Stadium Club, such as Target Field last night.

2018 Stadium Club #220 Walker Buehler (RC)
Walker Buehler, on the other hand, could be pitching anywhere. Well, maybe not one of the two remaining artificial turf fields, Tropicana Field and Rogers Centre, because that definitely looks like natural grass and a full-dirt infield. It might even be Coors Field, since two of the five road appearances Buehler made in 2017 were in Denver. This shot is definitely from 2017, which we can tell from his uniform #64, a number he only wore in his debut season.

Compared to some of the other players we've been seeing, it's a little unexpected to see the Rookie Card logo on Buehler's card. While a lot of those other guys are struggling to bat over .200, this young pitching phenom has already started four Postseason games for the Dodgers, including the marathon 18-inning Game 3 of the World Series, many hours before Nathan Eovaldi endured perhaps the least-deserved loss in Postseason history.

So far tonight, we've only seen the teams that made it to the 2018 NLCS, but that's about to change.

2018 Stadium Club #162 Brad Ziegler
Even though he's pictured as a Marlin, Brad Ziegler benefited from the Marlins fire sale, returning to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a July trade, the team he spent most of his career with. The submariner decided to call it a career just a couple months ago after eleven seasons. He saved over a hundred games in his career, and even played in the Postseason twice, though he totaled just a single inning pitched across three appearances. He closed out an inning for the Red Sox in the 2016 ALDS, but things didn't go well in the 2011 NLDS against the Brewers. He had two appearances that year, but somehow managed to record only 0.1 innings pitched. Game 1 went fine, but he was rocked for four earned runs in Game 2 without recording an out. That led to an astronomical ERA of 108.0, something his regular season stats massively improved upon.

The Postseason may go on for a month, but for the few players that ever get there, it can be over in a real hurry. Regardless, I do appreciate that Topps selected a photo of this pitcher's unorthodox delivery.

2018 Stadium Club #139 Garrett Cooper (RC)
The Marlins have to be getting somebody for all these trades, right? Well, Garrett Cooper is one of those somebodies. He was originally drafted by the Brewers, but he didn't come over in the Yelich trade. He played for the Yankees in 2017, but he didn't come over in the Stanton trade. According to Baseball Reference, which is where I get most of my information about this bevy of rookies, he was basically just traded for a minor leaguer and what is known as international bonus slot money. Signing amateur foreign players works a bit differently than collegiate or high school drafts, so the Yankees might as well have some money to get those guys, too.

This switched from being a Nationals-heavy blaster over to being heavy on the Marlins. Most players in this pack played for the Marlins, including Mike Piazza's 5-game layover in 1998. Even Domingo Santana was playing against the Marlins in the first card. Bryce Harper has yet to make an appearance to complement his early Nationals teammates, but maybe the insert cards will pick back up in the final two packs. This one, careful readers will note, consisted of five straight base cards, without even a parallel in the mix, let alone a variation.

Hanukkah is winding down, but it will get brighter still before the final candle burns itself out. Or before I run out of things to say about the Miami Marlins.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Eight Clubby Nights: A Stadium Club Hanukkah (Night 5)

It's Night 5 of Stadium Club Hanukkah, and we've leapt over the center branch of the menorah, and are now filling the left half with candles. At least, that's assuming the common design of a menorah, with four branches on a side and a slightly offset branch in the middle. They don't have to look like that, though. You'll occasionally see a straight row of eight branches or reservoirs, and a separate spot off to the side for the shamash.

Candles are actually something of a convenience. To be historically accurate, they would really be small reservoirs of olive oil with a wick. Israel and surrounding areas are in the Mediterranean region, after all. In the (second) Temple in Jerusalem, a holy flame fueled by olive oil was always supposed to be kept lit, something like the Olympic flame. Various conquests and revolts interrupted that, but when the Jewish people retook the Temple in the 2nd century BCE, one small vial of oil, about a day's worth, was all they could find. As it's told, the miracle that's being celebrated is that it burned for a full eight days until more could be found, hence the eight-night duration of Hanukkah.

That oil is why the food associated with the holiday tends to be fried, i.e. potato pancakes. Because if they had discovered a small box of Hanukkah candles and selected the drip-prone red color, we probably wouldn't be celebrating this holiday today.

This week, you're not only getting baseball cards, you're also getting a history lesson and some exposure to a different culture.

Carrying on with the cards, this pack was actually somewhat of a letdown compared to the awesomeness of Night 4. Not every pack will be great, but we will open it nonetheless.

2018 Stadium Club #155 Francisco Mejia (RC)
Francisco Mejia is the first of four rookie cards in this pack. I'm probably not going to have a lot to say about most of them, since they've yet to make much of a mark on the big leagues. This young catching prospect has already moved on to his second team, joining the San Diego Padres in a late-July trade. He'll be catching Garrett Richards if he sticks around long enough.

The minors never have as much coverage as the Major Leagues, but that doesn't mean you won't find amazing records at lower levels. Neifi Perez, for instance, once turned an unassisted triple play. And Francisco Mejia, according to the card back, put together a whopping 50-game hitting streak in 2016. That's probably about as many baseballs as you see in that basket behind him.

2018 Stadium Club #1 Sandy Alcantara (RC)
Sandy Alcantra, from the Dominican Republic along with Mejia, became a Miami Marlin before the 2018 offseason. The card #1 recipient was packaged up with a few other prospects by the St. Louis Cardinals in return for All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna. The Marlins have been doing plenty of trades like that, and they somehow managed to trade away two consecutive NL MVP winners. At least Giancarlo Stanton was a Marlin when he won it in 2017, but Christian Yelich was long gone to Milwaukee when he got it this year, almost putting together a triple crown season.

The Marlins Fire Sale, which tends to happen once a decade, is usually a pretty ugly affair. Alcantara has actually been one of their better pickups, and he only went 2-3 in six games in 2018. It makes sense that the Mets are busy working on blockbuster trades, knowing that one of their division rivals will be a pushover for some time to come. And it's probably no accident that some NL East teams are at the top of the headlines when it comes to Bryce Harper's free agency.

Not even the Home Run Sculpture survived the bloodbath. At least Alcantara's Marlins will be sporting a new logo next season. And I seem to have pulled the bookends of 2018 Stadium Club, card #1 above, and card #300 the other night.

2018 Stadium Club #227 Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller of the Indians is the only established player in the pack, and this photo is more typical of a Topps base set than Stadium Club. The stitches on the ball are quite sharp, and they look darker than the usual red stitching we're familiar with. It's been dirtied up just enough with baseball's rubbing mud, a just-so natural product from the banks of the Delaware River.

He's played for quite a few teams, but the "high-leverage" role the Indians created for him has been what's contributed to his fame and two straight All-Star selections. He's even been pretty high up in Cy Young Award voting, a rarity for a relief pitcher. And none other than the New York Mets are talking about picking him up this offseason, though that seems less likely now that they got 2018's AL saves leader Edwin Diaz from the Mariners along with Robinson Cano.

2018 Stadium Club Red Foil #170 J.D. Davis (RC)
There wasn't a traditional insert card in this pack, but I did find a Red Foil parallel of J.D. Davis' base card. The Astros have not brought him along on the Postseason roster these past couple years. Davis seems to be a decent utility player, which is good, because I don't see him unseating Alex Bregman anytime soon. He has the makings of a borderline two-way player, with a handful of pitching appearances under his belt, and plenty of closing experience from his college days at Cal State Fullerton, the card back tells us.

I can't ever hear of Cal State Fullerton without thinking of two things. First, the beautiful arboretum on campus, which I visited with my dad when he lived in the Orange County area. And second, Tim Wallach, one of the best players to attend the University. I don't follow college sports too closely, and other than the superstars like Tom Brady and Michael Jordan, I probably couldn't tell you where a given player went to college. But for some reason, I always remember that Tim Wallach went to Cal State Fullerton.

The front of the card gives us just a touch of red foil, which you know I like, but since this appears to be a road game, there is no chance of Orbit being up to some antics during this pre-game warmup.

2018 Stadium Club #295 Mitch Garver (RC)
The last card in the pack is also a horizontal one, and probably the most Stadium Club-looking card in the set. Mitch Garver, another catcher, got a pretty great shot on his card, showing Target Field and the home dugout pretty well. The Twins are in the majority of teams who select the first base side for their home games, but there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason about which team occupies which side. I grew up watching the Rockies, and generally assumed in my younger years that the home team was on the first base side. Of course, that's not the case, but it does tend to be generally selected, especially in newer stadiums.

Like most of the rookies in this post, he has playing experience in two seasons, 2017 and 2018. I haven't heard of him, and he's got some big shoes to fill with Joe Mauer's retirement, although Mauer hasn't been catching since 2013. Of all the rookies in this post, I like Garver's chances the best of appearing in another set five years from now, but prospects can always surprise you one way or the other.

We only have three packs to go. You might think it's winding down, but most of the candles are burned in the final few nights, so we'll see if anything can beat night 4's pack.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Eight Clubby Nights: A Stadium Club Hanukkah (Night 4)

As we continue with our Stadium Club Hanukkah, we've reached Night 4, nearing the halfway point. By now, one side of the menorah is entirely full, and we're up to using five candles for tonight's ceremony. Yes, even though it's just the fourth night, there are five, since you use a separate candle, called the shamash, to light the nightly candles, rather than just lighting the nightly candles with a match or lighter.

There are all sorts of rules and customs concerning how Hanukkah is celebrated, each with varying degrees of debate surrounding them. It's a translated Hebrew word, so there are about a dozen ways to spell Hanukkah. There's a bit less debate about which direction to light the candles, traditionally from left to right (i.e. newest to oldest). The menorah is supposed to have certain design elements, candles have to burn a certain length of time, and so on. But they don't have to be wax candles in the modern form we're familiar with.

More to come as we progress past the halfway point, but I think there's room for only one rabbit hole on this blog, or at least one a night, so let's see what this fourth pack contained. Spoiler alert: it was pretty awesome.

2018 Stadium Club #52 Paul Goldschmidt
Paul Goldschmidt is the face of the Rockies' chief division rivals, the Arizona Diamondbacks. I've never been a big D-backs fan, but there's been more of a sense of solidarity in recent years, thanks to the shared spring training facilities, and the alliance the rest of the NL West seems to have built against the Dodgers. There was a lot of "root for whichever NL West team is playing the Dodgers this week" camaraderie in our individual team subreddits this season.

As Hot Stove season heats up, the trade rumors are swirling around Goldie, as it has been for a ton of other players. (EDIT: Looks like he's going to the Cardinals.) The six-time All Star is starting to cool off just a hair as he hits his 30s, but he's been in the running for MVP honors more often than not. He was the runner-up twice, and finished third in MVP voting in 2017, a point the card back stresses. It remains to be seen whether it will fully click for Goldschmidt and he'll walk away with the highest individual honor in baseball.

If he does, that will probably not be a great year for the Rockies.

2018 Stadium Club #103 Tim Raines
Tim Raines, or "Rock", as nearly everyone else besides Topps called him, is our second retired player from this blaster, and our first Hall of Famer. Raines is one of the rare players to play across four decades, his career spanning from 1979-2002. His playing time in '79 amounted to nothing more than six pinch-runner appearances. It would be 1980 before he saw big league pitching for the first time. He was a speedster, leading the NL in stolen bases for four straight seasons, 1981-1984, even eclipsing the great Rickey Henderson in a couple of those years.

His career was in full swing (pun not intended) when I became a baseball fan in 1993. I remember him playing for the Chicago White Sox in the ALCS that year, though it would take him getting traded to the Yankees before he'd win his first of two World Series rings. The Yankees came out on the winning end of that swap, as the PTBNL in that trade, Blaise Kozeniewski, never progressed past Double-A, nor did he ever play a game in the White Sox farm system.

I like seeing retired superstars scattered throughout this checklist, and I especially like seeing the Expos uniform pop up from time to time. We're over a dozen years removed from their departure to Washington, D.C., and I regret never having the chance to see them play in person. That may change, as it's been twenty years since the last round of MLB expansion. There are a few cities in the running, with Portland, Oregon leading the rumor mill. Las Vegas, Charlotte, Nashville, even sites in Mexico have been suggested. But seeing baseball return to Montreal is something many people want to see, and it could definitely happen.

That might leave the Rockies in an odd spot. They may end up in some sort of weird Central-South division and could even have to switch leagues. I'm not wild about that idea, but it beats having your team moved across the continent.

2018 Stadium Club Power Zone #PZ-NA Nolan Arenado
For now, the Rockies remain in the NL West, and Nolan Arenado's tremendous power swing is a part of that. This insert of the six-time Gold Glove winner is our first Rockie of the blaster. I think this space theme works a little better with a righty than on left-handed hitter Kyle Schwarber's card. It looked vaguely like Schwarber was moving backwards. But Nolan's launch angle on this card really does make it look like he could put a ball into orbit, and he's not even at Coors in this photo.

The back of this Power Zone insert card, which seems to be pretty common in this year's Stadium Club, goes in-depth about Arenado's unique "step back", a slight lift of the back foot before he steps into a swing. MLB has written at length about it, and I never really picked up on this movement, but it certainly seems to work well for him. He's climbed up one spot in NL MVP voting each year since 2016, so by 2020, he'll have the award, if that trend continues. Of course, there's no guarantee he won't instead get a massive payday in free agency, so that MVP award may not come as a Rockie.

The Rockies as a member of the AL South without Nolan Arenado is really not a future I'm looking forward to. But nothing lasts forever.

2018 Stadium Club #74 Ichiro
The standard arrangement of these packs is starting to become clear. Two vertical cards, followed by an insert, concluded by two horizontal cards. This glorious card of Ichiro shows him taking the field in a spring training game. It's probably the Peoria Sports Complex, which the Mariners share with the Padres, and you can just make out a tiny "SD" logo on the outfield wall. If you look closely, you can see the ageless outfielder bounding onto the field without his feet even touching the ground. That youthful vigor isn't often seen as players near their retirement, but Ichiro has always been in a class of his own.

He returned to Seattle to finish his career, which many thought would end in 2018. But the Mariners are opening their regular season against Oakland in Tokyo in March 2019, and the M's have confirmed that Ichiro will be on their slightly expanded roster of 28 players. I never really quite know what Ichiro's retirement plans are, but if he plays his final two games for the Mariners in his home country, a place where he amassed nearly 1,300 hits starting at the age of 18, it will be a spectacular end to an amazing career.

2018 Stadium Club #96 J.D. Martinez
Speaking of international series, the Boston Red Sox and J.D. Martinez will be squaring off against the Yankees in London in late June 2019. The two-game set will be held at London Stadium, the central location of the 2012 Olympics. It marks the first time the MLB will visit the UK, and I see no reason to doubt that the iconic AL East rivalry will be diminished in any way. Power hitters like J.D. Martinez, who finished second on the home run leaderboard last year, and whoever the Yankees get this offseason to complement Stanton and Judge, will surely put on a show this summer.

Interestingly, that series was announced on May 8th, 2018, which was right smack in the middle of my trip to London. Copies of the free Evening Standard are handed out at all the Tube station entrances during the homeward-bound rush hour, and I happened to grab a copy as I was returning to my Airbnb from the Saint Pancras area. I remember reading all about this announced series on the final leg of the train journey from Victoria Station to Battersea Park, and it was actually quite comforting to read about baseball after being alone in a giant foreign city like London for several days.

Coincidentally, I visited the Jewish Museum in Camden Town that same day, which included a collection of menorahs, among many other items. Even more coincidentally, I just saw a production of, and have been reading, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and none other than Bob Crachit and his family lived in Camden Town.

You never know what will come out of a sealed pack of cards, and it's amazing to be able to tie a baseball card of J.D. Martinez to a destination I visited in London half a year ago. The candles are pretty, but when I see a bunch of seemingly unrelated puzzle pieces fall into place, that's what really makes me feel there's something bigger than myself. The philosophers might call it sympatheia. It can catch you off guard, but it's there if you look for it.

And I'm pretty sure this post broke my record for using italics.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Eight Clubby Nights: A Stadium Club Hanukkah (Night 3)

Hanukkah is not a holiday for those with little patience. You're in it for the long haul, a week and then a day. This leads to the fun chronology of it always ending on the same day of the week on which it began, in this case Sunday. The actual celebration is quite ritualistic, and it differs from Christmas in that it doesn't have weeks or even months of buildup, suddenly followed by an abrupt end. December 26th always felt like the most anticlimactic day of the entire year. Hanukkah is a nice, slow burn, and by the end of the eighth night, you feel like you've gotten your fill.

By the third night, you've got the rhythm down again. You probably remember the prayers without having to look them up. You've also perfected your dreidel spin. And the more candles you have, the more fun it is to watch them dance in varying ways, even just a centimeter apart.

Something else where your muscle memory comes back quickly is opening packs of cards. I might go months without opening a pack, but partway through a blaster, I have that little tear of the back flap of cellophane just perfect.

2018 Stadium Club #59 Yonder Alonso
First out of Night 3's pack is Yonder Alonso, the Cuban first baseman who has played on three teams in two seasons. He spent all of 2018 with the Cleveland Indians, which means he made it to his first Postseason in October. All those years on the Reds and Padres didn't afford him a taste of October baseball until now.

This card shows the rapid recent evolution of the Cleveland Indians uniform. Red and dark blue are becoming more prominent, and the Indians are gradually moving away from the Chief Wahoo logo, which is barely visible on Alonso's left sleeve. Starting in 2019, the longtime logo will not be used on-field anymore.

2018 Stadium Club #266 Alex Verdugo (RC)
I'll spare you any political opinions about the Indians' logo and move right along to the first of two rookie cards in this pack. Alex Verdugo has mainly been a September call-up for the Los Angeles Dodgers these past two years, and the Dodgers haven't chosen to add him to a Postseason roster yet. He's only 22 years old, and the Dodgers show no signs of slowing down. That will continue to make it difficult on the rest of the NL West, and gives this 22-year old plenty of time to improve his game.

This card has the general look of those 1970s cards everyone loves so much. Other than the massive amount of ink on Verdugo's forearm, the chain link fence and various parked vehicles in the background just scream "retro". That's also one of the better examples of a bat's woodgrain that I can recall.

2018 Stadium Club Never Compromise #NC-MT Mike Trout
This pack's insert arrived exactly in the middle, and it's another new one called Never Compromise. Perennial MVP candidate Mike Trout is the subject this time, who was named the AL Rookie of the Year in 2012. He's reached that age of 27 where most players either finally figure out the big leagues or fade into obscurity. Trout, on the other hand, is a two-time MVP, seven-time All Star, and would be a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer if he retired tomorrow. Instead, he's sure to score a gigantic payday once he hits free agency.

I'm not sure what the point of this set is, other than an excuse to make another card of Mike Trout. The paragraph on the back mostly talks about Trout's clubhouse demeanor, including a quote from former Angel Howie Kendrick.

I am a frequent Redditor, and things get quite different around the /r/baseball subreddit during the offseason. There are plenty of highlights and game recaps during the season, but between November and March, people are grasping at straws a little bit. One offseason post pointed out that Shohei Ohtani was the first Angel not named after a fish to win Rookie of the Year, after Mike Trout and Tim Salmon.

Sometimes April is a long way away.

2018 Stadium Club #280 Harrison Bader (RC)
We're rotating to landscape orientation for the final two cards, starting with our second rookie card of the pack. It's outfielder Harrison Bader of the St. Louis Cardinals, just barely off the ground in a picture-perfect dive, though the ball is still nowhere to be found. It can be a little lonely out there in the outfield, and your ability to dive for fly balls is the only thing standing between an out and an inside-the-park home run. A play like this can spectacularly turn against you very quickly, but professionals like this make the SportsCenter highlight reel more often than not.

Back when I was a young Beckett subscriber, they'd occasionally run a feature where fans would write amusing captions for their cards and send them in. Gloves on heads, dugout shots, Bip Roberts, that sort of stuff. Upper Deck cards were frequent candidates. Anyway, I always wanted to send a card like this in to Beckett, and caption it, "Hurry up and take the picture! I can't hold this pose much longer!"

I may have stolen that from my dad. It was a long time ago.

2018 Stadium Club #300 Hideki Matsui
Closing out the third night is our first MLB retiree of the blaster, Hideki Matsui as a Yankee. The Japanese star spent most of his American career as a Yankee, though he did wrap things up with a few other AL teams in the early 2010s. He was named the 2009 World Series MVP in the Yankees' defeat of the Philadelphia Phillies, and I had the good fortune to see him in late 2009 in Anaheim, the only regular-season MLB game I've attended outside Denver. Matsui went 0-3 that day, with a walk and a run scored.

There is definitely some funny business going on with the background of this card. The umpire, catcher's head, and fans nearer the third base dugout are much blurrier than the fans on the other side, leading me to believe that either Topps applied some weird artificial bokeh effect to the upper right quadrant of the photograph, or else an image processing algorithm got confused. I speak from experience when I assure you that light does not work this way.

I haven't played with new smartphone features like Portrait Mode much, but they can get confused when a background is encircled by a foreground object. Someone with their hands on their hips, for example, or a chair arm. The enclosed area might not be digitally blurred like the rest of the background in the same focal plane. For my money, a fast lens with a wide open aperture is still the best way to get a nice bokeh effect, but I'm a purist.

It's a good photo selection, as is usual with Stadium Club. But the strangeness of how it was manipulated knocks it down a few pegs in my book. However, this is the final card in the set, #300, so that raises it back up a little bit.

Our streak of Washington Nationals has come to an end, but it's never too late to begin a new one.