Saturday, August 26, 2017

At least the cards are getting older, too.

I celebrated a birthday some months ago, and I'm just now getting around to writing about what I unwrapped that day, mostly cards I picked out at a card show in late February. A lot has gone on since then, including my recent overnight trip up to Nebraska to see a particular celestial event.

I'm not sure how many of you had the good fortune to see the mind-blowing spectacle that is a total solar eclipse, but it is a wondrous sight to behold. I'm glad the stars aligned (pun not intended) on Monday, offering me cloudless skies and an opportunity to stay with some wonderful hosts not far from Chimney Rock, right along the Oregon Trail.

Rather than brave the apocalyptic traffic back to Denver right away, I elected to explore a few more sights in Western Nebraska, still close enough to my home state that most everyone is a Rockies and Broncos fan. Before I headed back, I stopped in a local bar for a bite to eat, and ended up chatting with a regular who used to know Richie Ashburn. He also mentioned the name Zane Smith, who went to North Platte High School, just a bit north of there. Eclipses and baseball are the great unifiers, offering two total strangers plenty of conversation material in a mostly empty agricultural downtown.

1965 Topps #510 Ernie Banks
One of those Nebraskans shares some space in Cooperstown with Ernie Banks, depicted on this beautiful 1965 Topps card. Mr. Cub's career was winding down a bit by this point, but he still had a few All-Star selections left. A cute cartoon of a bear on the back is holding a sign with Banks' then-total of 376 career home runs, on his way to 512.

This card has a little ding along the left edge, but it's from perhaps the most iconic Topps set of the 1960s, offering us an interesting profile shot of Banks.

1962 Topps #139A2 Babe Ruth Special 5 (No Pole variant)
All the cards in this post came from the same vintage dealer as these cards, a nice older gentleman named Roy (Ray?), whose table has become one of my favorite stops at the monthly card show. He has a terrific selection of vintage at all price points, and if any of you are in the Denver area on the last Saturday of a month, I urge you to take a look. You won't be disappointed, especially when you can pull Babe Ruth retrospectives from the famous woodgrain set of 1962 Topps for just a couple bucks. Over a half-century after this card was printed, and darn near a hundred years later, Babe Ruth is still revered as one of the best home-run hitters of all time. The 60 home runs he famously hit in 1927 (while earning a whopping $70,000 salary), remains, in the eyes of many, the asterisk-free home run record.

Aaron Judge has cooled off significantly, instead striking out in a near-record 37 consecutive games, but Giancarlo Stanton has been going on an absolute tear after the Derby, getting his season total up to 49 with over a month left to play. Maybe, just maybe, Stanton will give us fans the asterisk-free home run record we've all been waiting 90 years to see broken.

I didn't know this until I looked it up on Beckett, but apparently there is a version of this card out there that doesn't show any dirt in the home plate area, and also shows a pole in the left-hand area of the image. Not sure which is more scarce, but even in the early 1960s, Topps had some work to do after the printing process started.

1955 Topps #85 Don Mossi (RC)
It wasn't just Hall of Famers in the vintage bin, each one safely tucked in a toploader. I managed to find one of Don Mossi, one of the Cardsphere's favorite mid-century players. This one is my first-ever from the 1955 Topps set, and it's really surprising how sharp and vibrant this card still looks after all these years, especially the back. That card back mentions that Mossi moved to the bullpen for his 1954 rookie season, after pitching as a starter during his previous seasons in the Minors. Mossi and his Cleveland Indians even won the AL pennant in 1954, which is where he made his only postseason appearance. The New York Giants won that Series, a team that Monte Irvin played on, whose card I also purchased from the same dealer.

This one and its 1955 Bowman counterpart are considered Mossi's rookie cards, and I couldn't have paid more than a couple bucks for this one either. It's a great choice to finally give 1955 Topps a home in my collection.

1956 Topps #99 Don Zimmer
Same goes for 1956 Topps, again setting me back just $2.00. '56, of course, marks the first appearance of action artwork on a Topps card, and it really makes it come to life. That famous blue "B" of the Brooklyn Dodgers appears in a couple spots, and let's not forget that this card was printed the year after the Dodgers finally won a World Series, the only time they'd do so in Brooklyn, thanks in part to Don Zimmer's "timely hitting". They won it all again in 1959, giving Zimmer his second ring as a player, but that was after the team moved to Los Angeles and found lots more success on the West Coast. The way things are looking for them this year, there's a strong possibility they'll bring home another title.

Topps, of course, was founded in Brooklyn, and to have the team ripped away just a few years into the company's unbroken run of baseball card sets must have been traumatic. Yet they helped bring baseball to a new generation of Americans, and I can picture buying a pack of these for a nickel in the drugstore that surely once occupied the dusty main street in Nebraska I recently found myself on. 

1954 Topps #9 Harvey Haddix
Going back another year to the three-border 1954 set, we have a card of Harvey Haddix, right in the middle of his three consecutive All-Star appearances. This one was a bit pricier at $5, but I couldn't pass up the player who famously pitched 12 perfect innings yet lost the game in the 13th. Anyone who saw Rich Hill's last outing must surely understand how frustrating a lack of run support is.

As you can see, these are all a little off-center, the corners are all a little fuzzy, and there's a touch of paper loss here and there. But all in all, none of these were used in bicycle spokes, and that's good enough for me.

1955 Bowman #160 Bill Skowron
I added to my 1955 Bowman collection by acquiring a card of Bill "Moose" Skowron, the longtime first baseman of the New York Yankees. Like most players in this post, Skowron's career was just getting started when this card was printed. He had yet to win his five World Series rings (four as a Yankee), but already turned in an impressive .340 batting average in his rookie year of 1954, continuing the sharp Minor League hitting this card tells us about. 

That's two woodgrain cards added to the collection, and at an extremely affordable price.

I can't help but chuckle a little bit at the "Color TV" label underneath the painting. This card was prophetic, as Skowron and his Yankees faced off against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1955 World Series, which was the first World Series broadcast in color. Now it seems like a given, of course in color, but also in ultra-sharp high definition. We're all pretty much surrounded by screens now, TVs, phones, tablets, and of course the screens on which we type out these blogs (except for the occasional handwritten post).

My mom generously purchased all the above cards I picked out as a birthday present, but I did drop a little extra cash on one more 1954 card.

1954 Topps #239 Bill Skowron (RC)
Continuing the Yankee show, Roy offered me Skowron's rookie card for $40, which I accepted. 1954 is my favorite set from the 1950s, and the general design gave me my first quasi-exposure to vintage, thanks to the 1994 Topps Archives 54 set. My local Wal-Mart carried packs of that set, out of which came my greatest pull ever, and my dad had an interest in the same set, often leafing through cards on display when he took me to the baseball card store. But I still have a hard time spending that much on a single card. Only the 1962 Al Kaline and the famous 1962 Mantle in my collection cost more. But it's still in great shape, and who knows, my dad may have had a card just like this.

And it's still way cheaper than those Griffey Gold Medallion parallels that occupy space in The Junior Junkie's vault.

Incidentally, having purchased two cards of a single player, I noticed that at least one of these had an error. This 1954 card lists Skowron's birthdate as December 30th, 1928, but the Bowman card says December 18th, 1930. Babe Ruth's 1927 single-season home run record was in place regardless, but Bowman is the one who got it right.

Sadly, of all the players in this post, only Don Mossi is still with us. These cards are pretty old, but as I look back on my 33rd birthday, it's a good reminder that time does pass by quickly, and, unlike when I first started collecting, the feeling that I have my whole life ahead of me is in the rear-view mirror.

All the more reason I had no intention of missing the solar eclipse, that rarest, most fleeting, and most amazing of events.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

BUNTing into the shift

It was a successful shopping trip to Target when I checked the shelves a second time for Topps Bunt 2017. This purchase was actually made prior to my blaster of 2017 Stadium Club, a set I chose to feature first, partially to keep my content more relevant, and partially because it pretty much blows any other Topps product out of the water.

2017 Topps Bunt #51 Chris Archer
Regardless of whether I buy Stadium Club or Bunt, I've been pulling plenty of Chris Archer cards this year. Archer, a strikeout master who earned his second All-Star selection this year, is still hovering around a .500 win percentage, about the same as when I last wrote about him.

I've been much less active in the Topps Bunt mobile app than in past years, but I still log in from time to time. I even got a 5-card pack of National Baseball Card Day virtual cards, which share the same design with the cards that were handed out at card shops across the country yesterday. But as they did last year, the Bunt base cards inside the app vary a little bit from this printed product.

2017 Topps Bunt #96 Marcus Stroman
Marcus Stroman, one of my fantasy team members this year, took a no-hitter into the 7th inning during the World Baseball Classic final this spring, where he teamed up with Chris Archer to bring the title home for Team USA. This card says he has a "sunny future", and based on this day-game image, the photo selection for this card ties right in. Even that double stripe in the background seems to evoke some sun rays, shining down on Toronto's ace.

I don't know if we're giving names to non-flagship Topps sets these days, but I'm offering up "the racing stripes set" for 2017 Bunt, which looks just like what you'll find on the fender of a Corvette Grand Sport.

Yes, I'm a car guy, in case you couldn't tell from that and yesterday's Jaguar reference.

2017 Topps Bunt #41 Jason Heyward
Jason Heyward, or J-Hey, as he'll be known on his Player's Weekend jersey, is decked out in Cubbie Blue at the plate. This color-coded set matches his jersey very well, and we get a glimpse of the jaw extension on Heyward's batting helmet, which he started wearing after suffering a broken jaw in 2013. Giancarlo Stanton, Keon Broxton, and many others throughout the league have been opting to wear a bit of extra protection when coming to the plate, and rightly so.

I took a little league pitch off the elbow once, and it remains some of the worst pain I've ever experienced. Taking a Major League fastball off the face, or worse, a line drive back at your head, is easily the scariest moment that can occur in a ballgame. Helicoptering broken bats are dangerous, but you usually have lots of time to get out of the way. It's dangerous enough out there, with a slippery base nearly destroying Bryce Harper's knee last night, to a hit-by-pitch today that caused Nolan Arenado to immediately remove himself from the game for a hand x-ray. Baseball should do all it can to avoid potentially life-threatening head injuries.

2017 Topps Bunt #155 Noah Syndergaard
Noah Syndergaard, aka "Thor", perhaps overdid it a bit with his training and conditioning, by his own admission. He's been out for most of the season with a torn muscle, adding to the Mets' injury woes that have plagued them for much of the past couple seasons. Somehow, they're still in third place, despite having one of the best rotations in the league stuck on the disabled list. But there are still long, flowing, blond locks everywhere you turn, accented by the Topps BUNT Racing Stripes.

By the way, Mets, you can't have Jon Gray.

Game of Thrones spoilers to follow.

Despite his injury (well, likely long before it), Syndergaard still found time for a cameo appearance in last week's Game of Thrones episode. In a medieval world where baseball does not exist, I'd probably pick a fireballer like Thor to be my chief spear-thrower. All seemed to be going well in the battle until a dragon showed up and char-broiled everyone to ash. That's not an injury you're likely to recover from, and even if there are dangerous flying objects, I vote for living in a time where competition on an open field is done with bats and balls rather than swords and spears.

2017 Topps Bunt Blue #194 Mike Moustakas
I pulled a few of the Blue parallels in this value pack of Bunt, but this one of Mike Moustakas looked the best. The Royals have so much blue in their logo and uniform, you can hardly tell this is a monochrome card. It almost looks like a cyan printing plate. In this insert set, I also pulled now-Rockie Jonathan Lucroy, and Thor's long-haired rotation mate, Jacob deGrom. Moustakas was the pick, partially because I wanted to throw his awesome Instagram handle out there again, @MooseTacos8.

This third baseman has two All-Star selections and a World Series ring to his name, and he needs just a few more long balls to take the Royals' season record, which currently stands at a surprisingly low 36. Even the great George Brett never had more than 30 in a season. They are an expansion team, and the winner of the only World Series ever between two expansion teams, but they've played almost fifty seasons. You'd expect someone to at least have passed 40 by now.

2017 Topps Bunt #195 Jorge Alfaro (RC)
Blue, blue, blue, blue, and a blue parallel. That's a lot of blue, so I felt the need to throw in a random Phillie I've never heard of, just to break up the monotony. Alfaro, apparently a top prospect in the Phillies organization, joined the farm system as part of the Cole Hamels trade. He hails from Colombia, a somewhat rare origin for a Major Leaguer, compared to Venezuela, which borders it on the west. I'm not sure whether this is a posed shot, or perhaps from batting practice, but I find it surprising that Alfaro is just wearing a backwards cap here, as I'm pretty sure catchers are required to wear a helmet when behind the plate.

2017 Topps Bunt Infinite #I-KM Kenta Maeda
I got a nice variety of insert cards in this value pack, starting off with another mostly-blue card, this one of Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda, who hails from Japan. According to the card, Maeda idolized Ichiro as a boy, which Vin Scully had a bit to say about last year. In their first meeting, Maeda retired Ichiro three times, holding his idol hitless, which is all the more impressive when you remember that Ichiro has amassed thousands and thousands of hits in his career, helping pave the way for more guys like Maeda to even play in the MLB in the first place.

There's a faint photograph of Dodger Stadium layered over Maeda's bust, bringing to mind the card backs of 1992 Topps. I don't really know what makes this "Infinite", unlike the very obvious Power Zone insert card from this year's Stadium Club. But it's a nice enough card.

2017 Topps Bunt Perspectives #P-RK Ralph Kiner
I'm definitely not liking that this year's insert cards aren't getting numeric card numbers, as that pendulum seems to be swinging the wrong way again. But this yellow Pirates card gives us another color to look at, and the only horizontal card in the whole pack.

I hate to admit this, but I don't really know that much about this Hall-of-Famer. Thanks to this card, I now know that he was an avid golfer, and frequently played with celebrities like James Garner and Jack Lemmon. Thanks to my other research, I discovered that he was a Navy pilot in WW2, led the National League in home runs during several consecutive postwar years, and even hit 54 home runs in 1949, the highest mark seen in the National League between Hack Wilson and Mark McGwire.

Kiner had to retire at 32 due to a back injury, but not long after that, he began a long career as a broadcaster for the New York Mets. Other than his final season in 1955 as a Cleveland Indian, Kiner didn't have much to do with the American League during his long life. He passed away in 2014 at the age of 91. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975, making it in by the skin of his teeth, thanks to a single vote in his favor on his final ballot. He never missed an induction ceremony after that.

2017 Topps Bunt Programs #PR-OS Ozzie Smith
Unlike Kiner, this Hall-of-Famer isn't so far before my time. I saw him in person on August 26th, 1995, during my first-ever visit to Coors Field. Ozzie went 0-4 that day, but the Cardinals rallied in the 9th to scratch out a win at 20th and Blake. I don't remember if The Wizard dazzled us with one of his trademark backflips, but he was one of many players now in the Hall of Fame that I got to see as a boy. And a few more that should be.

Bunt Programs are pretty much the same as last year, giving us a close-up action shot on the front, and some cleverly worded story titles on the back, complete with fake page numbers. Ozzie gets gems like "Conjuring up 'The Wizard'", "Ace in the Hole," and from his 1985 NLCS walkoff highlight, "Go Crazy, Folks, Go Crazy."

I doubt that Topps has the editorial staff to actually build articles behind these tantalizing headlines, but I'd love a QR code or something where I can quickly find out what these features are referring to, especially for other colorful characters found in this insert set, like Goose Gossage, George Brett, Johnny Cueto, and Bartolo Colon.

This pack couldn't have cost me more than $3, and even if it's not quite as awesome as Stadium Club, I think Bunt has a real place in the market. I hope they keep it around, even if it's just so I can open current product at a low price point when the urge arises.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Going Clubbing (Part 2: Hits)

Here it is National Baseball Card Day again, and like last year, I have a stack of Stadium Club to write about. I had a pretty good batch of base cards in the blaster I recently purchased, but the insert cards and parallels didn't disappoint.

2017 Stadium Club Scoreless Streak #SS-FH Felix Hernandez
Leading things off with a card that looks like a die-cut but isn't is King Felix, whose Mariners are in the hunt for a Wild Card spot. Felix Hernandez has been toiling away for a team that's been out of contention for his entire career, despite being a stellar pitcher. He even threw MLB's most recent perfect game back in 2012, which this Scoreless Streak insert card neglects to mention. Rather, it tells us about his 2007 Opening Day start just before his 21st birthday, the youngest Opening Day starting pitcher that baseball had seen in two decades. In his very next start, he took a no-hitter into the 7th inning. 

I like the Mariners as much as the next guy, and it would be nice to see an ace like Felix Hernandez get to play some October baseball. If Seattle gets that far, hopefully Felix returns from the disabled list by then. With Hernandez and now James Paxton out for a few weeks, the Mariners will need some magic to fend off everyone else in the hunt.

2017 Stadium Club Power Zone #PZ-CS Corey Seager
Corey Seager, whose brother Kyle plays third base for the Mariners (and isn't afraid to remind everyone who his brother is), is basically guaranteed to win the NL West as a member of the Dodgers this season. The bases-clearing, lead-changing double he hit as I write this is part of the reason for their historic success, even giving the Dodgers a shot at breaking the season wins record. As this card tells us, Corey and Kyle became the first set of brothers to each hit over 25 home runs in the same season, a feat they could both repeat this season. And with a swing like this, that's hardly surprising.

Seager and his Dodgers are clearly in the Power Zone right now. That full extension of his home run swing makes for a perfect horizontal card, lining up just right with the fiery explosion that is a key part of this design. The font at the bottom would fit pretty well on a 1990s card, and it doesn't interfere with the photo one bit.

2017 Stadium Club Beam Team #BT-MT Mike Trout
These insert cards all vaguely look like they could be part of the same insert set. But I did pull one card from each of the insert sets found in Stadium Club this year, certainly a well-rounded blaster. Mike Trout's "Beam of Might", as described on the back, was his 150th career home run, which, when combined with his 500+ runs scored by his age-24 season, puts him in the company of the Hall of Famers he's usually mentioned with, like Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, Ken Griffey Jr., Jimmie Foxx, and a few others.

Trout's greatness is undeniable, and he's sure to appear on many more insert cards in the years to come. I may even have a chance to find his expensive rookie card from 2011 Topps Update, one I've yet to even spot in the wild. I'm not sure which of these three insert cards I like best, but this one of Trout reminds me of a wire wheel, the type you'd find on a 1960s Jaguar roadster. It's a mesmerizing pattern, one that pulls your eye away from Trout's nonchalant greatness.

2017 Stadium Club Contact Sheet #CS-CC Carlos Correa
The Contact Sheet insert set returns from last year, which faintly retains the filmstrip theme, but goes for more of a street art look this time around. The AL West is very well-represented in this batch of insert cards, and the Astros (I remembered their new division!!) are running away with the division this year. Who knows, we might end up seeing a Dodgers-Astros World Series, which wouldn't be much fun for East-coast TV viewers, but would certainly be a great matchup. Corey Seager and Carlos Correa, two exciting young shortstops, could put on quite a show this October.

Correa, the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year, is already the Astros career home runs leader for shortstops. Unfortunately, he's been injured for several weeks, but should make his return sometime in September. Like Mike Trout, Correa had to have thumb surgery this season, but if Trout is any indication, these pro ballplayers can recover from a procedure like that without missing a beat.

2017 Stadium Club Black Foil #138 Renato Nunez (RC)
Unlike the insert card stars that regularly appear on the highlight reel, I've never heard of Renato Núñez. A young Venezuelan, he played a handful of games for Oakland during last year's September call-ups. He's been doing quite well in Triple-A, already up to 30 homers for Nashville this season. With stats and hair like that, a starting job in the Majors can't be far behind.

This bat barrel mini collection candidate is a Black Foil parallel, which can be found in 1:8 packs. Beam Team cards are a bit rarer at 1:24, but pretty much all the rest of these can be expected in your average blaster. It's easy enough to identify this as a parallel, which was actually fairly difficult when this brand famously returned in 2014.

2017 Stadium Club Sepia #285 Orlando Arcia (RC)
Even easier are the Sepia parallels, which have a very Upper Deck-friendly copper foil. Orlando Arcia, another Venezuelan, is shown mid-throw, perhaps even throwing out his former Twin brother, Oswaldo. The Arcia brothers are not twins, it's just that Oswaldo used to play for the Twins. He's a Diamondback now.

That pun would have worked better if Oswaldo were still a Twin. Clearly, no one in the Minnesota front office ran that one by me.

Anyway, this parallel isn't my favorite. The pin-sharp photography this brand is known for gets lost in this format. Even the Rookie Card logo doesn't get the familiar red, white, and blue treatment. I suppose there are only so many colors to choose from when making these colored parallels, but I think Topps channeled a bit too much Upper Deck on this one.

2017 Stadium Club Gold Foil #21 Randy Johnson
Easiest of all to pull, there was a Gold Foil parallel to be found as well. Like current Mariner Felix Hernandez, Randy Johnson is also on that very exclusive list of pitchers who threw a perfect game. The Big Unit's came in 2004 against the Braves, making him the oldest pitcher to throw one. This photo is not from that game, as it came on the road, but Johnson was clearly in his usual form of striking out batters left and right, judging by that K-meter over his shoulder in Chase Field. Only Nolan Ryan has more career strikeouts, with Johnson punching out 4,875 batters in his Hall-of-Fame career.

Based on this jersey, I'm guessing this one is from Johnson's second stint as a Diamondback from 2007-2008. And his towering 6'10" height certainly comes across on this card, well-framed despite the lack of a border.

I didn't pull any autographs, variations, or rare parallels, but this blaster still has one more trick up its sleeve. Remember how I said I pulled a card from each of the insert sets? The four common ones you've already seen, but there is a fifth.

2017 Stadium Club Instavision Gold #I-KB Kris Bryant /50
That moment when Kris Bryant scooped up a grounder to make the final out of the 2016 World Series is about as unforgettable as baseball moments come. And it's a perfect moment to showcase on this rare Instavision card, whose theme represents the colored pixels on a modern HDTV. The inset image has a rainbow finish, the gold foil marks this as a parallel, and oh yeah, there is a /50 serial number!

This Instavision gold card is listed as a mind-bogglingly rare 1:2,286 packs, and I could easily flip this for more than I paid for the whole blaster. I'm planning on keeping this one in the collection, as it's definitely one of the best hits I've ever found in a blaster, except maybe that Dee Gordon printing plate.

They might be pricier than loose packs, but I tend to have good luck with blasters, and they're certainly a deterrent to pack searchers. Who knows, I might find one marked down next summer when I go hunting for Bunt again.