Sunday, July 30, 2017

Going Clubbing (Part 1: Base Cards)

This just in: I still love Stadium Club.

The midsummer release of the premium set is as good as ever, and I was fortunate to find a blaster at my local Target recently. I scored some nice hits, as you'll see in part 2 of this post. But the key aspect of this set is the stellar photography, lovingly selected by Sooz herself.

While all you Chicago-area dwellers are having a grand old time at The National, (I know Nick picked up a few cards for me at the show), I'm just soaking in the glory that a $10,000 camera setup can capture.

2017 Stadium Club #231a Giancarlo Stanton
Horizontal cards look particularly good in a full-bleed design like this, and Giancarlo Stanton, the 2016 Home Run Derby champion, is shown grabbing one at the wall in Marlins Park, the same wall he clears so many times with his bat. Stanton is now sitting at 33 home runs this season, tied with Aaron Judge, who hasn't done much since the break.

Stanton hit a home run earlier this year that just cleared the center field wall at his home park, and it's about the sweetest sound you ever heard a bat make while contacting the ball. Have a listen.

Capturing a sound like that on cardboard is about all they could do to improve this set. Unless they slashed the price a little. Granted, these photos aren't cheap to license, but it is a pricey set to collect.

2017 Stadium Club #170 Ryne Sandberg
As beautiful as it is, another plus to this set is all the retired stars that make appearances, often with photos we haven't seen before. A relatively young-looking Ryne Sandberg is shown in the ageless Wrigley Field, with what looks to be a Phillies catcher off to the side. Pretty tough to say for sure, but assuming this image is from Sandberg's MVP year of 1984, which is the subject of the paragraph on the back, that could be Ozzie Virgil with a cameo.

The Phillies, of course, was where Sandberg spent his rookie season in 1981, playing in just 13 games before being traded to the Cubs. He finished his career in the Windy City, retiring in 1994, then returning in 1996 to play two more seasons.

Interestingly, I have a very specific memory of Sandberg's first retirement announcement, which happened on June 13th, 1994. That was the day I purchased my very first factory set, 1994 Topps, after calling every card shop in the Denver area Yellow Pages to find the best price. That was an all-day project back then, as opposed to about a five-minute task today. Anyway, on the car ride back after transacting the astronomical sum of $45 for a box of cardboard awesomeness, Sandberg's retirement was mentioned on the radio.

Judging by the late spring date of June 13th, I wasted no time that summer vacation in lining up a baseball-related activity to keep me occupied. And while it is nice for $45 not to feel like the jackpot on a game show anymore, having three straight months of perfect weather and no obligations sure sounds nice right about now.

2017 Stadium Club #49 Masahiro Tanaka
Even though Sandberg looks great in Cubbie Blue, they're not the only team to wear pinstripes. The Yankees are probably the team most associated with that, and Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka displays them perfectly. Tanaka was the winningest Yankees pitcher last year, and seems to have found his groove following some elbow problems earlier in the decade. He even took a perfect game into the 6th inning yesterday, helping the Yankees take first place in the AL East. It's like my dad always says, "You don't have to check where the Yankees are in the standings until about August."

2017 Stadium Club #17 Didi Gregorius
Didi Gregorius concurs, and is clearly thrilled to be following in the footsteps of great Yankee shortstops like Phil Rizzuto and Derek Jeter, both of whom are mentioned on the back of this card. It's a bit unusual to read "Rizzuto" and "Wins Above Replacement" in the same paragraph, but Didi had 2.7 last year. And he's been way better than Brandon Crawford on my fantasy team since I picked him up, helping me squeak out a 10-point victory in an extended week following the All-Star break.

The Dutch-born player has a long way to go to stay in the same breath as the Monument Park legends, but if the Yankees hold on to first place, he's sure to get a chance to play some October baseball, just like so many of his predecessors.

2017 Stadium Club #70 Ken Griffey, Jr.
Albert Pujols recently reached the rarefied air of the 600-home-run club, leaving him perhaps a season or so short of passing Ken Griffey, Jr. on the career home run list. Pujols is also the next in line to reach the 3,000 hit club, which Adrian Beltre just joined today. But the next group of active players have hundreds to go to tie Griffey, so we might not see another player join the 600-homer club for a very long time.

I'm guessing that this is a pre-Interleague photo, right when Griffey and Frank Thomas were dominating the Beckett Hi/Lo columns. But I can't figure out which stadium Griffey is playing in. The yellow railings are distinctive enough, but it's not ringing any bells. Before interleague play, I pretty much never saw an AL game other than during the playoffs.

2017 Stadium Club #283 Willie McCovey
Stadium Club is a treasure trove for mini-collection hits, and those who like the batting practice shots ought to track down this one of Willie McCovey. He's leaning on a particularly narrow bat behind the cage, which is really little more than a chain-link backstop. The game has certainly changed, as my sister and I both played on fields about like this. Patchy grass in front of the plate, the grass by the fence in need of a weed whacker, bats lying around, etc.... It's almost like we have a glimpse into a Hall of Famer's little league career. The 1959 Rookie of the Year and 1969 NL MVP played almost his entire career in the National League, save for an 11-game stretch in Oakland at the end of 1976. What a great unfamiliar uniform card that would be.

2017 Stadium Club #99 Paul Goldschmidt
Autograph seekers are after Paul Goldschmidt in another mini-collection candidate, including one fan holding a slightly creepy poster off to the right. I don't go to great lengths to seek them out, but I've only gotten one autograph on the sidelines, and that was Rockies pitcher Kevin Ritz, a starter who is 7th on the Rockies all-time Wins list. I came pretty close to getting Ben Petrick, too, but he headed back to the dugout just before my spot in line came up. A friend of mine got Edwin Jackson before a Cubs game a couple years ago, and if there's one thing I've learned, it helps to have your own pen.

2017 Stadium Club #175 Mark McGwire
There's not a lot of Mark McGwire love in the Cardsphere these days, as he's pretty much the poster child for steroid use in baseball. Still, the 1998 home run race made for a pretty exciting season, PEDs or not. There always seem to be asterisks attached to that record, whether it was McGwire's PED use, Barry Bonds' PED use coupled with his elbow armor (I can't blame him—getting hit on the elbow hurts!), or Roger Maris taking 162 games compared to Babe Ruth's 154, coupled with hitting just ahead of Mickey Mantle. And I've written about this before, but as part of Ken Burns' The Tenth Inning follow-up to his Baseball documentary, Chris Rock pointed out that Babe Ruth had 714 "affirmative action" home runs, noting that Babe Ruth didn't play in an era when guys like Torri Hunter were "snatching home runs out of the sky."

It's definitely a feat, hitting over 60 home runs in a season. When you think about it, of course there will be unusual circumstances surrounding it. Otherwise it would be a lot more common.

Asterisk or no, it's still a great mini-collection card on a couple fronts: dugout shots, and throwback uniforms. I wish I could nail down the date of this card, and if the lineup card posted on the dugout wall was legible, I'm sure that would have been a much easier task. Maybe McGwire even hit a home run on that day.

2017 Stadium Club #9 Greg Maddux
As powerful as he was, belting a home run was never known as "hitting a McGwire". But Greg Maddux has an unofficial stat all his own, a complete game shutout with 99 pitches or less. Maddux threw 13 of those in his career, and may have been on his way to one here. He was a master on the hill, and it was a sign of doom when he was slated to start against your team. You always hoped Maddux's spot in their five-man rotation skipped your three-game series. And the Braves, more than any other team, gave the Rockies fits in their early days. You don't hear the phrase "season sweep" very often, but that's exactly what the Braves did to the Rockies in 1993.

I guess the font on all the Stadium Club cards this year have a little extra flourish on the final letter of the last name, but I didn't really notice it until Maddux's card. The "E" on McGwire's card looks a bit overwrought, but it works very well with the unusual "X" on this card.

2017 Stadium Club #245 Chris Sale
This looks like a modern interpretation of a Studio card to me. With image stabilization, ultra-fast telephoto lenses, and ever-improving low-light performance, not to mention improved printing methods, action shots are relatively easy to obtain these days. Outside of retro sets like Heritage and Allen & Ginter, posed shots are pretty uncommon on cards. That makes this one of Chris Sale, bathed in the warm red glow of his new team in Boston, stand out even from the rest of these cards. It's just another reason why I keep reading bloggers who say they're considering abandoning Flagship entirely and just pursuing Stadium Club.

2017 Stadium Club #254 Maikel Franco
And I can't say I blame them. I'm pretty far from that point, but I do wish it was easier to find this set in larger quantities. Despite my obvious fanboy feelings about this set, I've yet to complete any of the four in this latest rebirth. I did find a full 900-card set of 1992 Stadium Club at a card show, and I completed Series 2 of the inaugural 1991 set thanks to a hobby box and a few Eight Men Out successes, but unlike Bowman, this brand tends not to show up in discount boxes.

Maikel Franco has been putting up some pretty consistent performance for the Phillies the last few years. Not great, but consistent. And whatever happened on this card, it looks like he made quite a defensive play. Probably not like what Nolan Arenado does on a daily basis, but anytime you end up on the tarp, you can safely assume you went above and beyond.

What particularly caught my eye in this photograph are the three young fans watching this play unfold right before their eyes. I've never had front-row tickets down the line before, and even after a two-hour rain delay in a 10-1 game, the best I could find was somewhere in the fourth. But these young ladies look quite curious about the play that just transpired, and don't seem to be shielding themselves from a potential impact. And that curiosity about the game doesn't seem to be terribly common among kids anymore. When I hear about what kids are up to, whether its Minecraft, fidget spinners, slime, or Snapchat, baseball doesn't seem to be high on the list.

2017 Stadium Club #159 Johnny Bench
All-time great Johnny Bench, perhaps the best catcher to ever don the gear, looks rather alarmed in this close-up. It was one of my favorite cards in the whole blaster (notice the lack of a throat guard), but I can't help but tie it to my concern about the future of baseball.

It's no secret that the current baseball card hobby is pretty much made up of middle-aged white men, myself included. But not that long ago, I was trading cards with the neighborhood kids and my schoolmates, playing on a little league team, watching the Rockies most Friday and Saturday nights, riding my bike to Wal-Mart to buy trifold hanger packs of 1993 Fleer (and Micro Machines), and getting 89-cent packs of 1991 Score at Toys R Us, whose card backs were practically short stories.

Of course, there are many more ways to nurture a love of baseball than through cardboard, but I don't know that the current game is translating that well among kids. Having a star like Griffey helps, and there isn't necessarily a fan-friendly superstar like that in the game today. Bryce Harper, for example, seems to be much better at losing his temper and getting ejected than engaging with fans. And Mike Trout, as good as he is, comes off as rather dull.

Distribution is a big part of it too. When I was growing up, all the Rockies games were on broadcast TV, Denver's channel 2. They shifted to cable many years ago, and with the growing rise of cord-cutting, being able to watch your local team is a whole lot tougher these days, and reserved only for those families who are both willing and able to pay the ever-growing prices for TV packages. Sure, there is MLB.TV, but you're still blacked out of watching your hometown team's live games, regardless of where they're played.

And I think this has a lot to do with why the NFL is so popular. Concussion risks aside, you can tune to your local CBS or Fox affiliate and see your city's football game every Sunday in the fall. And all the playoff games too. Monday and Thursday night games have migrated to cable, so it's a little tougher to see what's going on around the league, but your local affiliate will carry the feed if your city's team is playing in a cable-only game. Bottom line, it's free to follow your local NFL team, assuming you have a digital TV and an antenna. All else equal, why would fans pay extra for hometown baseball when what's already the nation's most popular sport is a channel flip away? I do, but that's partially because I could watch it for free when I felt like Scrooge McDuck spending my $45 at a baseball card shop.

MLB's recent move to broadcast games on Facebook, blackout free, is one of the smartest things they've done, distribution-wise, in a long time. This week's matchup between the Phillies and Braves wasn't fantastic, but its a step in the right direction. And if they're not blanketing Snapchat with top plays from the highlight reel, they're missing an entire genertaion.

I'll hop off my soapbox and enjoy these beautiful cards. I'm just saying, in a sport that still sort of feels like it's being played in black-and-white at Ebbets Field, it seems like they're taking the current level of interest for granted.


  1. McCovey and Bench are two of my favorite cards from this years Club. Perhaps Sooz can work her magic with other Topps' products. I know many of us are tired of seeing the same photos reused multiple times in one year. Tiger fans in my area usually have access to the game. If it's blacked out on local Fox, you can always find the game on one of our smaller local channels. Perhaps blocking access would have lessened some of the pain this year as it's not been an easy season to watch.

  2. The blackout rules are tough. Live sports is about the only reason people keep cable these days. In order for me to watch I have to buy a package. The cable market will eventually bust for good so I hope MLB is prepared for it when it happens.

  3. The Bench was one of the few that I didn't find in the giant 20-cent box of Stadium Club I found at the National. I'll have to keep an eye (or two) out for it.

  4. I hadn't seen that Didi card yet. Very nice! Shows him having - gasp - fun.

    The photography in this year's set is the best I've seen in a while. Not a knock on previous years, but just seems to have really stepped up this year.