Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Happy Birthday dear Phi-il

We're all desperate for a sense of community right now. The state of the world has really thrown a giant monkey wrench into everything, to say the least.

I participate in Blog Bat-Arounds only infrequently, but I think now is a good time to let everyone know I'm still alive and kicking. Well, not kicking that much. Because the kickboxing gym I've been going to since 2017 is currently closed. But that's a different story.

To join the April Fools' Day activity that Matt at Diamond Jesters kicked off, let me take this opportunity to wish a happy 81st birthday to legend Phil Niekro.

If you ever doubted how out of hand things got during the overproduction era, one lone blogger basically said, "everyone find your stash of 1988 Score and post the Phil Niekro card today". And many, many of us had no trouble doing just that, myself included.

Which is basically how viruses spread. But that, too, is a different story.

1988 Score #555 Phil Niekro
Number 83 on Joe Posnanski's The Baseball 100 list, Niekro is a Hall-of-Fame knuckleballer. This being a Score set, I expected to see the lengthy paragraph on the card back that early Score cards are known for. But that's not what you'll find here. Rather, flip it over to see Niekro's complete career statistics, twenty-four years starting way back in 1964. Curiously, that year is closer to the 1918 flu pandemic than it is to today.

On this card back, you'll find 318 wins, 3,342 strikeouts, and a whopping 5,403.2 innings pitched, good for 4th all time, and the most in the live-ball era. Baseball-Reference has that innings count at an even 5,404, finding an extra out somewhere in 1981.

Google launched Gmail on this day in 2004 with a then-gigantic 1 GB of free storage. That was in a time when Yahoo was offering four entire megabytes. The scan of this Niekro card alone is a quarter of that. But other than that historic product launch, I'm not much of a fan of April Fools' Day. It's been a lot of deception and satire since then. That's the last thing we need more of. Of all the things we're missing right now, April Fools' Day pranks are not something I'm mourning.

My sister isn't a big fan of it, either. She gave birth to a healthy baby girl on Monday, her second, and expressed relief that the little one didn't arrive on April 1st. If she had, she would have shared a birthday with Phil Niekro and two current Rockies. On March 30th she instead gets Chris Sale and a couple players from the 2017 Astros. My nephew, nearing the age of three, shares a birthday with one of my favorite catchers, Salvador Pérez.

We may not have any baseball right now, but a Blog Bat-Around and wishing an old player a happy birthday seems like a nice change of pace.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay home.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Another Trip Around the Sun

My birthday was a few days ago, but it feels like I've aged quite a bit more than that since then. I'm sure we all have. Before the upcoming baseball season was postponed, though, I went over to see my mom for a little birthday celebration.

As expected, she went hunting for baseball cards and found a good one to add to my collection. This time, she ventured off the beaten path of my Eight Men Out list and found something I was rather unfamiliar with.

2005 Topps Cracker Jack Take Me Out to the Ballgame Mini Relics #TO-AR Alex Rodriguez Bat (MEM)
Topps released a couple Cracker Jack-branded sets in the mid-2000s, and this mini relic of Alex Rodriguez is from the final 2005 set. I do have a couple base cards from this set in my 2005 binder, but this design didn't jog any memories when I pulled it out of my birthday card. It has the faux-vintage card stock you'd expect of a set like this, a lot like Allen & Ginter sets we've become familiar with. This isn't as tiny as some other Cracker Jack cards, but rather it's the size of the 1975 Topps Minis.

The two vertical ovals on each side of the card bring 2017 Allen & Ginter to mind, with a portrait of A-Rod occupying one, and his bat relic the other. Since this is a bat relic as opposed to a jersey swatch, it makes the "infield" of the diamond design look a bit like a tiny softball field, the kind without grass that I played on in little league. The bases in this design aren't quite anatomically correct, if you will, and the shape at the bottom is just another square, rather than a home plate shape. But it certainly gets the point across.

There were two relic sets in 2005 Topps Cracker Jack. The first is just six cards, and was called "1-2-3 Strikes You're Out", an obvious mention of the baseball anthem that features a technically vegetarian meal of peanuts and Cracker Jacks. This Rodriguez card is from the second relic set, clearly called "Take Me Out to the Ballgame", with a helpful "relic card" note inside the banner, just in case you weren't sure what you were holding.

There is lots of tiny print on this card, including "Authentic game-used bat", part of the relic set name itself, and of course Alex Rodriguez's name and team. I wouldn't go quite so far to call it a busy or crowded design, but it's tiptoeing into that territory.

The card back has the usual congratulatory note that you pulled a relic card, a little context around the Topps Cracker Jack set itself, and Rodriguez's position, which at this point in his career was third base. His recent entry in Joe Posnanski's The Baseball 100 list mentions that he began his career as a shortstop, but moved to third to ensure Derek Jeter kept his spot in the infield. That essay also points out that Rodriguez is arguably the greatest five-tool player of all time who didn't play the outfield.

Whether Mom checks the Eight Men Out list or not, she always finds good stuff. I'm already looking forward to my next birthday.

To all my readers, be safe and healthy.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Trading Post #140: Nachos Grande

One nice thing about being perpetually behind is that I never have to go fishing for post ideas. It's pretty unlikely that you'll ever see me publish something titled, "Top nineteen cards showing the Pirate Parrot".

Here are two, in case that's what you're here for.

But seriously, the incoming stacks of cards are starting to multiply, as my fellow Cardsphere citizens are keeping my mailbox full. Those are the blogging priority, because I'm extremely thankful for all the carefully selected shipments put together by fellow traders like Nachos Grande. That blaster of 2018 Big League will be in a holding pattern for quote some time to come.

Mom gets to skip ahead, though. Hope you understand.

And what's that you say? 2020 Topps Series 1 is already out? Get in line, I guess.

1999 UD Choice Yard Work #Y12 Vinny Castilla
Nachos Grande's "Season of Giving" has happened before. It took me until early February to get the posts up that time too. He's appeared on The Trading Post theme numerous times, and that doesn't even count all the group breaks he's run. In short, he can take credit for a sizable chunk of my recent collection, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

One of the more eye-catching cards in this stack was a copper foil insert from the final year of Collector's Choice, known in 1999 as UD Choice. Just like a shiny little penny, complete with raised "Yardwork" lettering on the right. It's part of a 30-card insert set, and Castilla is one of two power-hitting Rockies to appear in this colorful homer-focused set.

Specifically, this card describes how Vinny Castilla began his 1998 campaign with a bang, smashing two homers in the brand new Bank One Ballpark on Opening Day, spoiling the inaugural game of the Arizona Diamondbacks. I've seen Pacific chronicle that first-ever D-Backs series elsewhere, mentioning Pedro Astacio's first win of 1998 on his Pacific Online card.

The error that Upper Deck made on this card comes toward the end of the paragraph on the back. After the newspaper-style blurb about the game, they go on to include a "Prologue" about how Castilla would finish his 1998 season with 46 home runs, a career high that he never eclipsed. Todd Helton later bumped Castilla's 1998 season down to fourth all-time in franchise history, but the problem is that UD should have called that an "Epilogue", not a "Prologue".

Card backs are so much fun. One of these days I'll dive into early-90s Score sets and read those novellas.

2005 UD All-Star Classics Midsummer Classics #11 Todd Helton
Here's a less-coppery Upper Deck card showing a youthful-looking Todd Helton. The good stuff here is on the back, where we learn that despite all those Blake Street Bomber power hitters, despite the 1998 All-Star Game actually being held at Coors Field, despite the rule that every team must have at least one All-Star representative, no Rockie homered in an All-Star Game until 2003. Blackmon and Story have both done so in the past couple years alone, but Helton set that Rockies first on the South Side of Chicago.

This insert from Upper Deck's 2005 All-Star Classics also mentions that now-defunct rule that the winning league would get home field advantage in the World Series. It was implemented in 2003 following that disastrous tie in Milwaukee in 2002. The TV networks laid it on thick with "This time it counts" promos, but the American League usually ended up with the win, and the rule was finally rescinded in 2017.

Just in time for the Astros to come along.

But that's a different story.

2009 Topps Ticket to Stardom #136 Todd Helton
It's been a few years since we've seen Topps Ticket to Stardom in these parts, not to be confused with the more violently-named Rocket to Stardom, a late-90s Ultra insert.

The card back highlights Helton's evening on June 10th, 2008, where he went 3-for-4 with a three-run home run. He was sporting a goatee later in his career, so I'm guessing this photo is from much earlier than 2008.

It would appear that Topps grouped teams by card number in this set, as Helton's card is just one before the Troy Tulowitzki card I received years ago, but a closer look at the checklist shows that it's as random as ever. Fleer got pretty weird in their later years, but I loved how they set up their checklists alphabetically by team.

1997 Metal Universe #75 Kevin Ritz
Speaking of weird Fleer (and rockets, I suppose), how about some twin-barreled robotic laser cannons on Kevin Ritz's 1997 Metal Universe baseball card?

Somehow, that's a valid sentence.

And yes, that's what's on this card. Nothing in the whole hobby scans worse than Metal Universe.

As weird as you think 1996 Metal Universe might be, trust me, 1997 is weirder still. Part of me wants to complete it just for the sheer insanity of it. Artist Clayton Chambers is credited with the artwork, mentioned on a card back that would fit perfectly in a late-90s video game menu screen.

There's a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this, in that Fleer was once a subsidiary of Marvel Enterprises, long before their parent company started cranking out billion-dollar box office blockbusters under the Disney umbrella. There are plenty of Marvel Metal cards out there that look a lot like this, just without any sort of baseball tie-in. Blending baseball and comics isn't the craziest idea to ever come out of a boardroom, but they just don't fit together. I've been through enough mergers in Corporate America to recognize this as a collectible manifestation of "our cultures are really similar!"

1999 Fleer Tradition #528 John Thomson
Even after over six years of writing this blog, somehow there are still Rockies making their Infield Fly Rule debut. And it's not like John Thomson was a one-and-done guy. He spent all or part of five seasons with the Rockies. He didn't have a great time as a Rockie; in fact his 1999 record was an abysmal 1-10. He did turn things around a bit elsewhere in the Majors later on.

Players with cameras is a fun mini-collection topic, but this is just the second one to appear on the blog. I'm guessing Thomson wasn't slated to start this game in Dodger Stadium. He's hanging out with the photographers and looking through a surprisingly beat-up telephoto lens that's likely worth more than my first car (and maybe even my second). He just has his warm up jacket on, and it looks like it's late afternoon with the California sun casting long shadows on the seats and the foul pole in right field. It doesn't look like game day for this starter to me.

1999 Pacific #152 Jeff Reed
Think of this: 1997 Metal Universe is so crazy that a Pacific card isn't the craziest card in the post. Instead, this is really a nice, normal design, with a fantastic horizontal shot of catcher Jeff Reed in full extension, not to mention the Coors Field home dugout in the background. Pacific even kept it simple with silver foil. None of that red, green, or copper foil you'd find from them on occasion.

There are lots of specific game performances mentioned on card backs in this post, and this one is no different. Jeff Reed came on as a pinch hitter on July 27th, 1998 (back when I still got summer vacations), and ended up with a walkoff double in the 13th inning. Todd Helton got on base to start the 13th, and Reed came through with two outs to send fans home happy.

1999 Pacific #148 Darryl Kile
Incidentally, one of those two outs in the bottom of the 13th came from pitcher Darryl Kile, who pinch hit for Curtis Leskanic, worked a 3-1 count, and popped out to the catcher. Reed was on deck at the time and settled the matter a few pitches later.

It was one of those kinds of games.

In case you were wondering, that's not the game Pacific chose to profile for Darryl Kile's card. They went with September 20th, 1998, in which he pitched 10 shutout innings on 102 pitches in San Diego.

10 shutout innings; how's that for a lack of run support? Kile would have had a "Maddux" if the Rockies did anything at the plate that day before the 11th inning.

In that 11th, Larry Walker pinch-hit for Kile and singled in the game's only run. Dave Veres got the save, and Kile picked up a well-earned win, his last of the 1998 season, and good enough to earn a spot on a Pacific card.

2000 Pacific Crown Collection #96 Larry Walker TC
Pacific didn't have much baseball life left in 2000. They put a single set out in 2001 and decided to focus on other ventures. But 2000 offered some good Pacific sets, including the primarily Spanish-language Crown Collection. If you're wondering whether this card back thought highly enough of Walker's clutch hit back in 1998 that saved Darryl Kile's shutout, sorry to disappoint. In fact, this card is a team checklist, or rather a listado de jugadores del equipo, helpfully checking in card #96 for us.

I thought I'd point out the CHS memorial patch on this card, which the Rockies wore for most of the 1999 season following the events at Columbine High School.

2000 Topps Own the Game #OTG13 Larry Walker
This Own The Game insert card looked incredibly familiar, but what we have is ever-so-slightly different from a card Night Owl sent a few years ago. That one focused on Walker's batting average, but this one, showing Walker in a home uniform, looks at his slugging percentage instead. Now that I have a couple cards from 2000 Topps Own The Game, I can see that it's basically a league-leader set. And since Walker led the Majors in both average and slugging in 1999, he got two cards in this 30-card set, as did other players like Mark McGwire, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and more.

Walker's slugging percentage was a whopping .710 in 1999, and .567 for his career to that point. That stat dipped ever so slightly by the time he retired, finishing at .565. That's currently 12th all-time, and still ahead of Hank Aaron, whom Walker was compared to on the card back.

Now that he's a Hall-of-Famer, you'll probably be seeing a bit more of Larry Walker on the blog. 

1999 Topps #438 Matt Belisle / Matt Roney (RC)
We'll get back to Hall-of-Famers before this post is over, but not before a quick detour to draft picks.

A pair of Matts appear on this 1999 dual-player card, Matt Belisle and Matt Roney. Though he's pictured as a Brave, Belisle is actually the only one of this pair to ever play for the Rockies. He was a Rockie from 2009-2014 and finished an even 32-32 in relief appearances before entering journeyman status. He pitched as recently as 2018.

Roney, on the other hand, accumulated a 1-10 record over two seasons, mainly with the historically bad 2003 Detroit Tigers, who went 43-119, the worst mark in the MLB since the 1962 Mets. Even recent Tiger and Oriole teams haven't been that bad.

At first, I thought one of the Matts here was Matt Holliday, whose Rookie Card also appeared in this set.

1999 Topps #442 Matt Holliday / Jeff Winchester (RC)
That's actually this one, a few card numbers away in the same subset. Holliday's career lasted about as long as Belisle's, retiring as a Rockie after the 2018 season. I guess I got to see his final game, which was Game 3 of the 2018 NLDS against the Brewers, in which the Rockies were swept. I crunched the numbers, and Matt Holliday has appeared in five-eighths of all Rockies Postseason games (fifteen out of twenty-four).

Rockies Postseason appearances are truly once in a blue moon, aren't they? Two dozen playoff games in club history, and just ten at home. Blue Moon wheat ale, born at the Sandlot Brewery in Coors Field, has a name that ended up being a little too appropriate.

Holliday's cardmate, the only non-Matt in this pair of cards, is Jeff Winchester, a catcher who never progressed past Double-A.

2007 Bowman Heritage Prospects #BHP15 Greg Reynolds
As long as we're doing Infield Fly Rule debuts, how about pitcher Greg Reynolds? I've mentioned him a time or two, but this is his first card here. He had a forgettable Major League career, finishing with a 6-11 record and a -1.5 WAR. Mostly, he's famous in Denver for being selected second overall by the Rockies in the 2006 draft, ahead of players like Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, and Max Scherzer.

It's a good retro card, at least. You don't see actual cardboard often anymore.

2018 Donruss #106 Kyle Freeland
Of course, the Greg Reynolds story is just one data point. They've drafted some greats, like Helton, Tulowitzki, Arenado, Blackmon, Holliday, and Story, to name a few. It remains to be seen how Kyle Freeland's career will shape up, but he's another highlight of the Rockies draft history. He grew up a Rockies fan, and came darn close to pitching a no-hitter a couple years ago.

Every so often, Bowman cards pan out. Turns out I was sent a Bowman Chrome Prospects card of Freeland way back in 2015. He's progressed well enough to get a card in 2018 Donruss, an obvious Coors Field card that shows the raised outfield wall in front of the bullpens, with a bright Comfort Dental billboard just beyond.

That section of Coors Field has been a rotating stream of Denver-area businesses over the years, and watching old highlight reels brings back memories of defunct brands that used to do well enough to advertise in a ballpark. Airtouch Cellular, for example, has been showing up on a lot of Larry Walker highlights recently, and that brand has since evolved into Verizon Wireless. US West was another, one of the Baby Bells that is now part of Centurylink.

These phone companies are something else with their mergers and acquisitions. Which is how you end up with bipedal robot battle tanks on baseball cards.

That about does it for the Rockies, but there were a handful of unopened packs thrown in, which are always a joy to open whether you've completed the set or not.

1989 Topps #269 Tom Bolton
1989 Topps was one of the first sets I completed, and by "completed", I mean I bought a hand-collated set at the local card shop when I was a kid for under $10. I should have known then that this would not be a successful retirement strategy. I even kept a sealed pack of 1992 Stadium Club squirreled away for a time until my curiosity got the better of me.

I don't really know much about Tom Bolton. Topps lost interest in him after he was traded in 1992, but Upper Deck kept him in their sets until his retirement in 1994. What really caught my eye on this card is the Ferris wheel in the background. It's one of the last vestiges of random card backgrounds, sort of like that legendary Luis Alvarado parking lot card in 1973 Topps.

And it says more than a little bit about the circus that's been following the Red Sox this offseason, beginning with Alex Cora's connection to the Astros cheating scandal and his subsequent departure from the Red Sox managerial position. And let's not forget the Mookie Betts trade that's been in question for several days, and the media frenzy surrounding it.

1990 Donruss Bonus MVPs #BC-26 Alan Trammell
I've had 1990 Donruss on my Completed Sets list for a really long time. Not quite as long as 1989 Topps, but I definitely obtained it during my first foray into the baseball card hobby as a kid. However, these one-per-team MVP bonus cards have proven surprisingly elusive.

Alan Trammell got the nod for the Tigers that year, and is the final card in the 26-card insert set. It's hard to imagine a 26-team league, especially when it seems like we'll see a 32-team league shortly. Anyway, Trammell, now a Hall-of-Famer, spent his entire career with the Tigers, and is currently part of their front office. A friend of mine who grew up a Tigers fan ran into him at a sports bar outside Coors Field when Trammell was a coach with the Diamondbacks. My friend felt that nagging sense of familiarity, but only realized after the fact who he had been talking to.

There are enough incomplete insert sets in my collection that I'll open packs of anything, and I'm still likely to find something worthwhile. I have a feeling that I'll catch up on my blog posts before I complete 1988 Donruss, unless I just buy the set outright.

2010 Upper Deck #516 Aaron Hill
The final unopened pack Nachos Grande threw in for me was 2010 Upper Deck. I have around five or six pages worth of this set, so I'm likely to find a slew of new cards even in one single pack. This Aaron Hill card is one of them. It shows Hill when he was with the Blue Jays, er, Toronto, and had just led the league with a mind-boggling 682 at bats in 2009, earning a small splash of red text on the largely empty card back.

There's also a small splash of red on the front, that "TED" patch on his sleeve. That was a memorial patch for Ted Rogers, the owner of the Blue Jays who passed away in 2008. That's the same Rogers family that founded the Canadian telecom Rogers Communications, for which the Jays' home park of Rogers Centre is named.

Below that is an official Blue Jays logo that got Upper Deck in a massive amount of legal trouble.

I consistently can't do a Nachos Grande shipment justice without writing 3,000 words. And I didn't even show you Jamey Wright's Metal Universe card with tiny Death Stars floating all over the place.

OK, here.

1997 Metal Universe #78 Jamey Wright
Thanks for reading!

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Hall Bound

For the first time ever, a Rockie is headed to Cooperstown. In his final year on the ballot, Larry Walker earned 76.6% of the vote, just squeaking past the 75% threshold.

I watched the announcement live, and must admit that my heart skipped a beat when his name came up. For too long my hometown team has been denied a presence in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and I can't wait to finally make a trip there and see a Rockies cap on a plaque.

I certainly can't think of a better reason for a one-card post than a Hall of Fame election. But which card to use? He's had some great ones over the years. As I was making my selection, I thought something from 1997 would be most appropriate. That was his MVP year, which remains the only time a Rockie has won the award. Night Owl's recent “Best MVP-year cards” post omitted Walker's 1997 Topps card, as he came out on the wrong end of a split hair, to paraphrase.

As one of the few Rockies fans in this community, I'm glad I have the chance to put a candidate forward for that list. Here's what I came up with:

1997 Bowman International Best #BBI7 Larry Walker
This one checks all my usual boxes. Rockies card. Shiny card. Topps card, the brand that leads off every one of my annual binders. Granted, Bowman falls toward the back of the pack in the Topps section, mainly because I've never been able to keep the designs straight, and because the numbering system is far too counterintiutive.

Bowman's Best, on the other hand, gave us designs that I consistently enjoyed and can recall from memory better than the base Bowman sets. And in 1997, both the base and Best sets included the inaugural version of International parallels, where the card background was modified in some way to match the player's country of origin. The 1999 set channeled the card backs from 1993 Leaf by including photographs of local landmarks. But in 1997, International cards simply had the flag of the player's home country. I have the normal version of this card, but because Walker is just the second-ever Canadian to reach the Hall of Fame, after Fergie Jenkins, choosing the parallel containing the flag seemed especially appropriate.

We strongly associate this red maple leaf on a white background with our neighbors to the north, but it's really a relatively recent creation. Prior to 1965, the Canadian flag included the Union Jack with a red field, as well as a coat of arms. Quite a Canadian form of rebellion against the British Empire, if you ask me. No wars, no riots, just a polite, "we'd like a new flag, please."

Anyway, on the card back, underneath a United Nations-esque banner of various flags, there's a small paragraph featuring Walker's best season, for which they selected 1995. He hit 36 home runs and had 101 RBI, stole 16 bases, and slugged .607. He also led the NL in outfield assists, and his arm was truly something to behold. Just ask Metal Universe. Those 36 homers were also a record for a Canadian-born player.

Of course, he'd break his own record just a couple years later. Bowman couldn't have known it yet, but 1997 was undoubtedly his best year. As I mentioned before, he won the NL MVP, and led the Majors in home runs, on-base percentage, total bases, and slugging percentage. He was second in batting average behind the great Tony Gwynn, and third in RBI behind Jeff Bagwell and Andres Galarraga, his own teammate who took the league lead.

Like his shirt said, he ain't no ordinary sponge.

As amazing as that season was, if he had managed to eke out just a dozen or so more hits, he might have won the Triple Crown, which would have completely changed the conversation about his Hall of Fame candidacy.

Congratulations are of course in order for Derek Jeter as well, a nearly unanimous inductee and one of the many greats to wear the Yankee pinstripes. Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller will join them, thanks to the Veterans Committee.

I doubt I'll be able to witness Walker's induction speech in late July, but I do plan on seeing the Rockies retire his uniform number 33 prior to the game on April 19th. Todd Helton blazed that trail in Rockies history, and here's hoping he'll also get the call before too long.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Gift Cards

At least once a year, and twice if I'm lucky and get a birthday bonus, I can count on my mom to check my Eight Men Out list and gift me a few cards around the holidays. This year a trio of cards slipped out of an envelope on Christmas morning, and fortunately they were not blown away by the whirlwind of gift-opening that my two-year-old nephew led.

2016 Topps Chasing 3000 #3000-60 Ichiro Suzuki
In 2016 Topps Update, Topps managed to squeeze in the final half of a 60-card insert set counting down Ichiro Suzuki's progress toward the 3,000 hit milestone. It led off with card # 3000-1 in 2016 Topps Series 2, culminating with this card #3000-60 in Topps Update. That final card does indeed commemorate hit number 3,000, which he hit on August 7th, 2016 at Coors Field, and which I had the great fortune to witness.

I purchased the Topps Now card documenting the event, but I also wanted this insert card in my collection, because it's not every day you can collect a card from a game you attended, let alone one about such a milestone.

Keep in mind, that was 3,000 Major League hits. He had well over a thousand more in the NPB before arriving in America, putting him well beyond Pete Rose in all-time professional hits.

By the way, if you're a subscriber to The Athletic, you should be reading Joe Posnanski's series, "The Baseball 100". It's a well-written countdown of the 100 best players in history, one player a day until Opening Day. The series began with Ichiro at #100.

1993 Topps Gold #396 Rich Sauveur
The Eight Men Out list has allowed me to finally complete a six-card subset I've been chasing for a really long time. It's not truly a subset in the strictest sense of the word, but it's as good a term as any. As you may have realized, you've never seen a Topps Gold checklist from 1992-1994. That's because Topps replaced those with cards of players that had been snubbed from the main set. Six each in 1992 and 1993, and four in 1994. This card of Royals pitcher Rich Sauveur completes the 1993 subset. It was a real team effort over the years. I pulled two myself, two came from gcrl, and two from mom.

As best I can tell, this is absolutely the only Major League card that Rich Sauveur ever had. There are some minor league cards, and he spent a little time on big league rosters for several teams throughout the years, pitching a grand total of 46 innings, but no one besides Topps ever gave him a card. He gave it a valiant effort, appearing in his final MLB game at age 36, but his career sadly never panned out. He is currently a pitching coach in the Diamondbacks organization, and can be found on the short list of Strike-era "replacement players".

Next, on to 1994!

1992 Upper Deck #HH2 Ted Williams Hologram
Do you remember that shiny Hank Aaron Upper Deck card from a few months ago? The one that was entirely a hologram and basically a one-card insert set advertising Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball exhibition games? Well, turns out Upper Deck brought it back in 1992, unbeknownst to me. It's numbered "HH2", clearly in sequence with that Hank Aaron card, but from one year later. I still have no idea whether the Heroes of Baseball games ever actually happened.

The card back gives a quick overview of Ted Williams's great career, mentioning his two Triple Crowns, his .406 batting average in 1941 (the year two "unbreakable" records were set), and his 521st and final home run in 1960. He remains the all-time career leader in On-Base Percentage, with a staggering .482. That's as close to half as this game will ever see. Even Babe Ruth was a few points behind, at .474. One interesting note on that statistic is that eight of the top nine are lefties, as are most of the top 30.

Ted Williams will unquestionably be on The Baseball 100 list. Probably even in the top ten.

Kudos to mom for unearthing this gem. I might never have known it existed otherwise.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The First Update of the Decade (Part 2: Inserts)

When I was born, the 1984 Topps set was on shelves. It's famous for Rookie Cards of Don Mattingly and Darryl Strawberry. Topps brought it back for one of their Anniversary insert sets, which happens to coincide with with my age-35 year. The 1987 Anniversary cards have appeared around here with regularity, and the following year's 1983 Anniversary cards have a place, too. Topps kept the theme going for 2019, and in Update, I found a quasi-Rookie Card of Will Smith.

2019 Topps Update '84 Topps #84-37 Will Smith
Not that Will Smith, the one with an award-winning TV, film, and music career. Not the other Will Smith, either, the All-Star Giants closer. This is Will Smith, the young Dodgers catcher who already has Postseason experience under his belt and is a divisional rival of Closer Will Smith.

This Anniversary insert has the Rookie Card logo, but isn't considered by Beckett as a true RC. I really don't know what the rules are on the use of that logo. It does have a nice silver seal in the upper right, and it's consistent with Anniversary cards of the past few years. The card back is pretty accurate to the original 1984 design, just more vibrant since 1984 cards were still printed on cardboard. Just picture a Traded card and you'll get the idea. There is a "Dateline" paragraph, mentioning that Smith debuted on May 28th, 2019, and just a few days later hit a walk-off home run in Dodger Stadium.

Lots of players go their whole careers without a walk-off homer. Smith did it in his first week.

2019 Topps Update Gold #US252 Austin Riley RD /2019
Home runs are more a part of the game than ever, so it should be no surprise that the rookies emerging into the league are great at hitting them. Aaron Judge's rookie home run record didn't last but two years before Pete Alonso broke it. And Austin Riley of the Braves came pretty close to challenging Trevor Story's 2016 debut performance. Riley launched nine homers in the first eighteen games of his career, including a home run for his first big-league hit. His Rookie Card is one of many in the 2019 Update set, and you might notice this one is of the Gold variety.

For all I know, he's hitting one right in this photo.

2019 Topps Update 150th Anniversary #US16 Martin Maldonado
To go along with the "MLB 150" patch that I keep pointing out, Topps made a special parallel set to match. This one has gold foil instead of the usual silver, plus a "150 Years" logo inside a home plate shape. No serial number on this one, but it takes me back to the days of the original Topps Gold. Come to think of it, why hasn't Topps been using gold foil on the actual Gold cards these past several years? Austin Riley's card would be that much better, and in this era where the border is taking more and more of a back seat in Topps designs, it would go a long way in signifying what you're actually holding in your hands.

Martin Maldonado has been on a whirlwind journey since mid-2018, and Topps Update can't come close to keeping up. He was traded to the Astros in July 2018, just in time to help them to the Postseason. He signed with Kansas City during the offseason, giving us this Royals card. That didn't last long, as he was traded to the Cubs straight-up for Mike Montgomery. Just a couple weeks later, he found himself right back in Houston for another Postseason run as part of another 1-for-1 trade deadline deal.

If Topps had just given him an Astros card in 2019 Series 1, it would have ended up being correct. He re-upped with the Astros shortly before Christmas, so look for actual Astros cards of Maldonado in 2020.

2019 Topps Update Perennial All-Stars #PAS-43 Yadier Molina
Unlike Maldonado and many other of his Major League colleagues, Yadier Molina has stuck with the same team his whole career. He's profiled here in the 50-card Perennial All-Stars set, one of the most patriotic-looking sets ever to come out of Topps. He's been to nine Midsummer Classics, although was not picked in 2019. Not precisely "Perennial", but still a regular participant.

This particular photo is from his 8th All-Star Game (check the service star!), held in Miami. The colorful logo can be seen on Yadi's right sleeve, a Marlins-themed logo that already doesn't match their current color scheme just a couple years later.

2019 Topps Update Perennial All-Stars #PAS-40 Roy Halladay
The All-Star patch isn't visible enough on this card to tell which of Roy Halladay's eight All-Star selections this is from. He spent most of his career with Toronto, so it's clearly from one of his first six.

It's a nice set, and I always enjoy the All-Star Game, but it's quite soon after Halladay's tragic death to really enjoy this card.

2019 Topps Update 150 Years of Baseball #150-40 Thurman Munson
Not that a tragic death really ever becomes any less tragic; it just fades from memory as time passes. Like Halladay, Thurman Munson perished in an aircraft accident. It's a tragedy that's affected the Yankees organization multiple times, most recently with Cory Lidle.

I suppose this is also a good place to mention the passing of Don Larsen, the famous Yankee who pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series. He was 90. He and Roy Halladay stand as the only two players with a Postseason no-hitter, and Larsen the only one to do so in Perfect fashion. I expect the Yankees to honor him with a black armband that seems to so frequently accompany the pinstripes.

Returning to this insert card, it's in the same vein as the 150th Anniversary parallels, this one known as 150 Years of Baseball. Even though they've given us some enormous insert sets in recent years, Topps decided to cap this one at 100. Of all the 150-card insert sets they've produced, this one seems like it would be the best candidate.

Munson didn't appear in the Perennial All-Stars set, but he easily could have, as he was elected seven times in just eleven seasons.

Topps Update has existed as a de facto Series 3 for quite some time, but it still maintains its own identity to a degree. As each successive baseball season winds down, I may look for this brand more often than I have in past years. There are enough exciting rookies these days to warrant a regular look, and as much as I like Opening Day inserts, no one is ever going to call something from that set a true Rookie Card.

Thanks, as always, for reading, and Happy New Year!

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The First Update of the Decade (Part 1: Base Cards)

2020 brings us to a new decade. The Roaring Twenties are back. But first, I have some 2019 Topps Update to review. I purchased a hanger box at Target last year, and while I was confident it hadn't been searched, the way it was packaged deprived me of the pleasure of opening individual packs. The whole stack of cards emerged from the box tightly wrapped in a single layer of clear plastic. In all honestly, that's marginally better from an environmental perspective, because I do find myself a bit horrified at the waste generated by a box of packs.

And if the new decade has anything to teach us, this is the decade where we need to rapidly figure that sort of thing out.

2019 Topps Update #US5 CC Sabathia HL CL
The horizontal cards in this set are a beauty, and they all came grouped together in that single brick, sort of how the factory sets are packaged. And for this checklist card of CC Sabathia's 3,000th career strikeout, we see him on the mound with the expanse of a big league ballpark before him. I spent far too long trying to determine which stadium this photo depicts, squinting at all the banners. I thought I made out an ad for Gila River Casino on the upper deck, placing this in one of the western stadiums like Arizona or Anaheim.

That was before I glanced down and saw the Diamondbacks logo painted on the back slope of the mound, staring me right in the face, plain as day.

Chase Field. There, I solved it.

That day back in April, Carsten Charles Sabathia became just the third lefty in baseball history to reach that illustrious milestone, fanning John Ryan Murphy of the Arizona Diamondbacks and earning a spot on the first checklist card of 2019 Topps Update. I didn't pull Vladimir Guererro, Jr's Rookie Card, but at least I pulled the checklist referencing it.

2019 Topps Update #US47 Pete Alonso AS
Topps Update has long been known for All-Star Game cards, and 2019 is no exception. One day after winning the Home Run Derby in Cleveland, Pete Alonso came to the plate in the actual game, much better protected against an errant pitch. You can even see his "Polar Bear" nickname on the upper segment of his elbow guard.

Alonso had two at-bats in the exhibition game, so it's unclear exactly when this was taken. He struck out his first time up, then hit a two-RBI single in the 8th inning, driving in David Dahl and bringing the National League to within one run. It wouldn't be quite enough, as the American League prevailed yet again, just as they've done in all but four of the last twenty-three. And that's counting that ridiculous tie in 2002.

2019 Topps Update #US128 Gio Urshela
CC Sabathia was on the road when he got his 3,000th strikeout, so here's a look at a Yankee in full pinstripes.

You know I have an eye for commemorative and memorial patches on uniforms, but the Yankees rarely play that game. Instead, they usually just wear a black band on their sleeve, this one in memory of Mel Stottlemyre.

There were a few Yankees in this pack, but I picked third baseman Gio Urshela for the blog. The Yankees hit a ton of home runs last year (well, most years), and I've become quite fond of announcer John Sterling's clever home run calls. "That Gary is scary!" "Like a good Gleyber, Torres is there!" And, perhaps my favorite of all, "Gio Urshela, the most happy fella!"

2019 Topps Update #US181 Scott Oberg
In just his second appearance on Infield Fly Rule, reliever Scott Oberg was the only Rockie in the box. His first card here was an early Bowman prospects card, but he now has plenty of Major League experience under his belt. He signed a three-year extension with the Rockies, pretty much the only significant move the team has made all offseason.

Please don't trade Nolan Arenado.

Update comes out so late in the season that Topps often has time to use a photo from the same year the set is released. CC Sabathia's card would be one example, from late April 2019. But judging ("All Rise! Here comes the Judge!" Ok I'll stop) by this photo, it's from 2018, as we can see the Rockies 25th Anniversary patch on Oberg's hat and a sliver of it on his right sleeve. On that same hand, Oberg is about to fire in a four-seamer through the thin Denver air.

2019 Topps Update #US33 Josh Harrison
More horizontal goodness comes to us with Josh Harrison's card, who's now a member of the Detroit Tigers. This is a Stadium-Club worthy card, showing Harrison sliding headfirst into home plate, framed between the legs of a Tiger teammate. It might even be Jordy Mercer, his former Pirates squadmate, who both signed as free agents with Detroit prior to the 2019 season.

I didn't know that off the top of my head. It's on the card back.

Whoever he is, he's doing his job of temporary home plate coach, guiding his trail runner what to do when he arrives at the plate. You don't see many headfirst slides, so I doubt there's a signal for that. I'm sure speedster Josh Harrison decided to do that all on his own.

2019 Topps Update #US22 Ian Kinsler
I wasn't overly amazed by this particular photo, although I can spot Petco Park somewhat easily now that I've visited it. I selected this card in honor of Ian Kinsler's career, the veteran second baseman who recently announced his retirement. He finished with four All-Star selections, two Gold Gloves, a World Series trophy with the 2018 Red Sox, one inning pitched, and 1,999 hits.

Congratulations to Ian Kinsler on a great career!

2019 Topps Update #US29 Tommy La Stella
Action shots aren't reserved for horizontal cards. Double-play cards lend themselves quite well to either orientation, with Walt Weiss's 1991 Topps card coming to mind. This time, it's an AL West showdown between Tommy La Stella and Marcus Semien of the Oakland A's. Semien played the full 162-game schedule last season, and led the AL with a whopping 747 plate appearances.

The card back says that La Stella made a tweak to his batting stance upon his arrival in Anaheim, and was quickly rewarded with a flurry of home runs, more than he'd hit in his career up to that point. That improvement led to his first All-Star selection.

2019 Topps Update #US245 Mike Yastrzemski (RC)
With longtime fan favorites like CC Sabathia and Ian Kinsler retiring, the literal next generation of baseball players are taking center stage. We saw a Carl Yastrzemski card a few months ago. Now here's Mike, his grandson. Mike was far behind Pete Alonso's record-breaking rookie home run count, but still swatted 21 in just 107 games last year. With Madison Bumgarner moving to the Arizona desert, Yaz could be the bright spot in the Giants lineup in 2020.

He's displaying good form running the bases, and that dirty uniform shows that he plays hard. The cleaner parts of his uniform show a pair of memorial patches, honoring #44 Willie McCovey and Peter McGowan, a former Giants executive. Add to that the MLB 150 logo, and the right sleeve of the Giants uniform was a crowded piece of real estate last season. Which is quite appropriate for San Francisco.

2019 Topps Update #US39 Cavan Biggio (RC)
With the demise of every other card company, Topps Update has become the place to go for rookie cards. Mike Trout's 2011 Update card commands exorbitant prices, and Charlie Blackmon's rookie card can be found in that set as well. 2013 gave us RCs of Nolan Arenado, Christian Yelich, Gerrit Cole, and Anthony Rendon. I believe I have all but Rendon. 2017 had Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger as the main attractions. Vlad Jr. is card #1 in this year's set, and Yaz and Cavan Biggio could also become coveted cards in the coming years.

Cavan, of course, is the son of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, and along with Vlad, Jr. and Bo Bichette, is part of an exciting young Blue Jays team with plenty of familiar names. If their careers blossom the way their fathers' did, we're sure to see them follow up these Rookie Cards with plenty of All-Star Game cards in Update sets yet to come.