Sunday, April 11, 2021

Little Gridiron on the Prairie

I didn't watch a whole lot of TV when I was young. There were a handful of contemporary shows I followed, such as Boy Meets World, Full House, and Everwood, along with a few others. My dad was a Northern Exposure fan, and it remains a travesty that they can't get the licensing figured out well enough to add it to streaming services. But there was a lot that I missed.

This remains a challenge, because classic TV is one area where I definitely do not have encyclopedic knowledge. I remember a time when a coworker made a Webster reference about a decade ago and it sailed completely over my head.

Much of what I did watch at a younger age were among my mother's favorite shows, like Gilligan's Island, the occasional episode of The Waltons, and quite a bit of Little House on the Prairie.

So when a pair of 1975 Topps Football cards started navigating their way through the blog community, I knew I could come up with a relevant post, despite knowing less about the 1970s Los Angeles Rams than I do about 1970s TV.

1975 Topps Football #525 Merlin Olsen

That's because Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen, longtime Defensive Tackle for the Rams, had a co-starring role on Little House on the Prairie after his football career ended. He played Charles Ingalls's friend Jonathan Garvey for several seasons, filling the void left by the departure of Victor French's Mr. Edwards character. 

For the most part, his role consisted of normal 19th-century frontier farmer things, but there was the occasional reference to his famed NFL career.

One such reference came in the Season 5 episode, "The Winoka Warriors", in which Olsen, as Jonathan Garvey, coaches a youth football team. The episode's final game ended with a play in which the interpretation of a forward pass rule followed the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law.

Not a bad second act for a 14-time Pro Bowl participant.

I've never been all that interested in football cards, but I have a distinct memory of my dad taking me to a mall card show in the early '90s (remember those?), spotting a Merlin Olsen card in one of the glass cases, and pointing out the connection between Merlin Olsen the player and Merlin Olsen the actor. I never ended up owning one of his cards, but this one is briefly in my possession before I send it on to the next participant in this "Living Blog Bat-Around".

1975 Topps Football #60 Jack Youngblood

Accompanying Olsen on his travels is another 1975 card, this one of Olsen's teammate Jack Youngblood. Both defenders are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and both spent their entire careers with the Rams. Beyond that I don't have much more insight to offer, although it's remarkable how different the 1975 Topps sets were between football and baseball. The 1975 baseball set is far more colorful, but that little helmet in the lower right on the football set is pretty great.

Thanks for reading, and if you're interested in seeing Merlin Olsen's acting career, there are plenty of episodes of Little House on the Prairie available on Peacock Premium.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Dawning of a New Age

We're three days into the 2021 season and it is already shaping up to be a wild one. Miguel Cabrera hit the first home run of the season into a blizzard. The Nationals and Mets had to postpone their opening series because we're still in a pandemic. The Rockies had a feral-looking feline visitor on Friday night. And, as I mentioned was a possibility in my previous post, the MLB has decided to relocate both the 2021 All-Star Game and the Draft, opting not to hold it in Atlanta in the wake of Georgia's recently-passed voting law.

A new host city has yet to be announced, although rumor has it that Denver is in the running. Such a decision is not without precedent, as we saw other sports leagues make similar relocation decisions in 2016 and 1991.

Even though it's still Opening Weekend, the All-Star Game is front of mind. The whole Cardsphere just wrote about the '83 Midsummer Classic a couple days ago. Night Owl was a participant in that, and he sort of blew us all out of the water with his post about how Whitey Herzog managed it, which effectively ushered in a new form of the All-Star Game. That, coupled with the news out of Commissioner Rob Manfred's office, got me thinking about the current state of the (almost) annual exhibition game.

Think back a ways to the summer of 2019. Long before the Nationals won that electrifying World Series. Before the pandemic that caused the cancellation of the 2020 All-Star Game. Before the tragic events that led to a rapid increase in our awareness of racial justice issues. Before the legislation in Georgia that led to MLB finding itself in the position of selecting a new city with barely more than three months to do it.

Who was the MVP of the 2019 All-Star Game?

2020 Topps Heritage New Age Performers #NAP-13 Shane Bieber

This guy. Everyone's favorite pitcher not named Justin.

Shane Bieber, featured on this card from 2020 Topps Heritage, part of the brand's long-running New Age Performers insert set, is our most recent All-Star MVP. He won the award in front of a hometown crowd in Cleveland. You can sort of see the commemorative patch on Bieber's hat.

In leafing through the contents of one of several blasters I bought last year, this card jumped out at me. Topps of course goes for a retro look with the Heritage set, but I feel like this card ended up inadvertently being a lot more relevant than they intended.

Because we are kind of in a new age, aren't we? An age where Major League Baseball will move the All-Star Game practically overnight in response to injustice. It wasn't that long ago when anything beyond a press release would be inconceivable. And when the 2021 All-Star Game happens, wherever that may be, we will all find ourselves in a dramatically different world than when we watched the 2019 game.

Shane Bieber might even be on the American League roster again, despite being the one who served up that snowy home run to Miguel Cabrera. Yet, a lot has changed for us all, and there are things that just won't fly anymore.

How many times have we said it? "Baseball is a business." Well, businesses have a responsibility to avoid liability. Surely this will cost the league millions, or at least their insurers. But are we under the impression that the MLB and other leagues aren't going to learn a lesson from this and perhaps be more cautious about site selection for future events? Might it be prudent for them to keep All-Star Games and Winter Meetings and expansion franchises and so forth in locations where the local legislature is less likely to manufacture what could charitably be called a PR crisis?

With similar laws in the works in Tennessee and elsewhere, this might very well affect Nashville's hopes for getting a team. And let's not forget, Atlanta might not have gotten teams in several sports when they did (if at all), had they chosen to continue the practice of segregation.

Just something to consider.

Maybe it feels like this is a brand-new thing, but it's really not. As we can see from the stories of Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Adam Jones, and Masahiro Tanaka, racism is baked into the fabric of America even more deeply than this great sport we all love. It takes different forms, yes. And there's still a long way to go.

What is changing, and what should give us all hope, is who's willing to stand up. There have been great strides made between Babe Ruth, allegedly, to Branch Rickey, to the league as a whole.

In addition to New Age Performers, Topps also includes a News Flashbacks insert set in their Heritage checklists. For the 1971 retrospective, Topps made a few cards about the later years of the Apollo program, the deaths of Louie Armstrong and Jim Morrison, and the advent of Starbucks, NASDAQ, and Walt Disney World.

2020 Topps Heritage News Flashbacks #NF-15 Louie Armstrong Passes Away

In 2070, what will they say about us? Who's getting a card in 2070 Topps Heritage News Flashbacks? Rob Manfred or Brian Kemp?

See you in 49 years.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Finding a Triple Crown Winner

Today is Opening Day.

It's been a while since I've been able to say that in the month of April. In both 2018 and 2019, the season began in the last few days of March, and 2020 was scheduled to do the same until, uh, events happened. Instead we got an Opening Day in late July.

But while much remains wrong with the world, far more than I have the heart to discuss here, at least Opening Day 2021 is in April.

To me, that's normal.

As you may have discovered by now, I and many of my fellow bloggers are participating in a coordinated Scavenger Hunt today, really more for an April Fools' Day prank than for Opening Day, but the two happen to coincide this year.

Last year, Matt at Diamond Jesters had us all write about Phil Niekro's 1988 Score card in honor of Knucksie's 81st birthday, which would sadly turn out to be his last. Niekro was one of far too many Hall-of-Famers that left us in that awful year of 2020, and while I doubt he ever knew about our little activity, it's comforting to know that at least he could have.

This year, things are a little different. Participants from last year's one-day Blog Bat Around were offered the chance to participate in this year's iteration, a complete look at the checklist of a particular 22-card insert set.

1984 Topps Glossy All-Stars #11 Carl Yastrzemski

With that, you can now check Carl Yastrzemski's card #11 off your list of 1984 Topps Glossy All-Stars.

I own none of the cards in this set, so Matt graciously supplied the above image. Consequently, I didn't have much of a claim to write about any one particular card, so by luck of the draw, I was assigned this very famous Hall of Famer. You've seen him on Infield Fly Rule before in vintage form. Many of us know that his grandson Mike plays for the San Francisco Giants, but in my research, I learned that Carl is second all-time in games played, trailing only Pete Rose.

As is usual with the nature of cards predating the existence of Topps Now, this set documents the prior season. In this case, that's the '83 All-Star Game. It was held in Chicago's Comiskey Park, and it was the last of eighteen that Yaz participated in. He looks weathered here at 43, and is listed as an "Honorable Mention" on the front, and an "Honorary Member" on the card back. Those have the same initials of "HM", but it seems that either Topps or MLB were a little indecisive about what that actually stood for. 

Presumably, he didn't get in via balloting, but was granted a spot anyway as part of a farewell tour. His only at bat resulted in a strikeout in the 7th inning.

As has happened throughout much of my baseball fandom, the American League was the victor in this one. As the home team, they won by a score of 13-3, thanks in part to the only grand slam in All-Star Game history. Whoever ended up with Fred Lynn's card #7 will surely tell you all about that.

I'm glad I have the chance to participate in this scavenger hunt. It's also a good reminder that there is such a thing as the All-Star Game, because that is one of many events that did not occur in 2020. At this point, it's still on for 2021, although where it will be held is perhaps up in the air. It was supposed to happen at Dodger Stadium last year, but we'll have to wait for 2022 for L.A. to get that chance again.

If you didn't already know this Blog Bat Around was happening, I hope you're pleasantly surprised. And if you've just now discovered Infield Fly Rule while hunting for #11, welcome!

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Weekend Roundup

I've obtained a grand total of two new cards so far in 2021. I still have piles of 2020 cards everywhere, but at this point I'm taking on a bit of a LIFO inventory model just to stay somewhat relevant. No new trips to Target because they're not offering cards as part of their pickup option, no orders from Dave & Adam's, no assorted packs. I've mainly just been watching the hobby get crazier and crazier, with NFTs and seven-figure rookie cards and Topps making a pretty insensitive blunder.

Topps Bunt has been taking up a lot of my time and attention, though. 

I do a lot of my writing when I can watch sports in the background, but even those opportunities have been few and far between. Spring Training isn't really capturing my attention, I didn't bother filling out an NCAA bracket for March Madness and didn't even know that my alma mater was participating until about three hours ago, and the other things like golf and such just haven't spoken to me. Yes, the NBA and NHL seasons are continuing, but it's quite difficult to legally watch my local teams due to the ongoing impasse between the RSN and the cable provider, which has lasted nearly two years and shows no signs of improving.

In short, sports has drifted pretty far down my list of interests, and likewise, so has collecting. In fact, my first purchase of 2021 has nothing to do with sports.

2020-21 Topps Now Election #21 Bernie Sanders Attends 59th Presidential Inauguration Ceremony /91,169

We're now two months into the Biden Presidency, and vaccine rates have improved dramatically. As of yesterday, I'm now considered eligible, and am keeping my fingers crossed that I'll be able to find an appointment soon. But we had to formally begin this Presidency with an Inauguration, and along with Amanda Gorman's wonderful poem, one of the highlights of that event was this now-famous photo of Senator Bernie Sanders ready for a New England winter.

Some people knitted his mittens. Some people crocheted a little figure of Sanders himself. Some people pointed out that a person only needs one good coat, after noticing that he's wearing the same coat from his "I am once again asking" meme. A friend of mine bought a coffee mug with this image and "The Man, The Myth, The Mittens" next to it.

I bought the Topps Now card. A lot of people did, as it smashed the record for a Topps Now print run, coming in at 91,169. That far outpaced Dr. Fauci's first pitch card at a mere 51,512.

I quite enjoyed reading the photographer's take on it, too. You can never plan something like this. You just have to be ready.

In addition to the occupant of the White House, a lot more has changed in the past year. But one thing that hasn't is that my mom still checks my Eight Men Out list for birthday gift ideas. 

2015 Topps Mini #62 Nolan Arenado

Unfortunately, Nolan Arenado is no longer a Colorado Rockie. But he was back in 2015, and he'll forever be pictured as a Rockie in '15 Topps. This Arenado is the penultimate one I need to finish the team set from 2015 Topps Mini, with only a three-player League Leader card remaining. Julie from A Cracked Bat sent almost the entire team set a little over four years ago, and because the League Leader card doesn't have the same border, I've now added the maximum possible amount of purple to that binder page. 

It's strange to think this set came out six years ago, and this photo of a youthful-looking Nolan is from all the way back in 2014. It's a solid Coors Field card showing him following through on a swing, even though he's better known for his fantastic defense. None of us should have been surprised at his eight consecutive Gold Gloves. 

That said, I certainly didn't think Arenado would be playing for the Cardinals by the time this Eight Men Out need came in, but the world is an unpredictable place. This is why no one has ever done a perfect bracket, for example. But even in an unpredictable world, come what may, things will always feel at least a little bit normal if I keep getting baseball cards for my birthday.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Farewell, Nolan

This is not a post I ever wanted to write. It's a post I've been putting off writing for over a week. Less than two years ago I thought it was a sure thing that Nolan Arenado, my favorite player to ever suit up for the Rockies, would remain in Denver for many years to come. Maybe for not the full eight years of his contract, but at least until his opt-out kicked in.

As we all know by now, it was not to be. Last week, the Rockies traded their generational talent (and around $50 million) to the St. Louis Cardinals for a flotilla of mid-ranked prospects. I had heard of precisely zero of them, and only one, LHP Austin Gomber, has any Major League experience.

Predictably, the Rockies have been getting torn to shreds over this one in the press, with one Athletic sportswriter charitably giving Colorado a grade of "D". And, yeah. This is bad.

Really bad.

Every team makes bad trades; it happens to the best of them. Dodgers fans know it. Yankees fans know it. Red Sox fans know it. Even Cardinals fans know it. But this is more than a bad trade. This is an indication of a systemic problem in the organization. Because in the last half-decade or so under Jeff Bridich, their current General Manager, hardly any transaction has panned out. Corey Dickerson to the Rays for German Márquez has pretty much been the lone highlight.

There's no need to recount the whole thing, but it's been done quite exhaustively by a particular reddit user if you'd like the gory details.

Long story short, Nolan Arenado simply said all along that he wanted to win, either in Colorado or elsewhere, and it became clear that the Rockies were no longer a good fit.

As a longtime fan, that's heartbreaking. I and a lot of fans like me have stuck around for it all, after the Tulowitzki trade, after the failure to ever win the division, after all the free-agent busts, after having to perpetually defend the team and the ballpark which much of the league considers a laughingstock, after learning why Arenado even had an opt-out in the first place.

I stuck around because there was always a glimmer of hope. There was always something to build around, like Todd Helton or the latest batch of young homegrown stars (e.g. Troy Tulowitzki). There was the occasional wild card. More recently, there was a solid rotation, playoff appearances in two straight years, and an infield that was as good as it's ever been. There was always possibility. There was always potential.

But now?

2013 Topps Update #US259 Nolan Arenado (RC)

Now it just seems like Nolan Arenado will just be yet another former Rockie that finds success (or at least more Postseason appearances) elsewhere. Like Larry Walker, Matt Holliday, Tulowitzki, DJ LeMahieu, etc.... And he's taking a huge amount of that potential with him.

It's very likely we'll see Trevor Story add his name to that list. He'll be a free agent after the 2021 season, and he just watched his legendary teammate sixty feet to his right get shipped off. Why would he stick around knowing he'll have to carry the whole left side of the infield?

Once upon a time, Arenado made his own splash as a Major League rookie, documented on his Rookie Card in 2013 Topps Update. It took him a few weeks to find his footing, but he rapidly became known throughout the league as an elite defender and a consistent hitter. 

Watching him play is magical. He's electric to watch. His defense is absolutely jaw-dropping in every single game. He's a great hitter, a perennial MVP candidate, and found himself atop the leaderboards regularly. As you likely know, he's won a Gold Glove every year he's been in the league, and the Platinum Glove four years running. And he plays the game with fierce intensity. 

You might have seen his walk-off, cycle-completing home run on Father's Day 2017, which, looking back, probably marked the high point of Arenado's tenure in Colorado. A month or so before that, I saw him play in a game against the Dodgers, and I remember him lining a rocket to third that Justin Turner managed to spear to end the inning. That was definitely an RBI chance, and everyone in the ballpark could tell that Nolan was pissed. He makes that play on batters day in and day out, but expected of himself that he could beat it from the other side.

That's what I'll miss.

And back in 2013, there was so much hope. Along with Christian Yelich and Anthony Rendon, he's one of the key rookie cards in 2013 Topps Update. I honestly don't know where I even got this one. It's easily one of the most sought-after recent cards in my collection, and I probably pulled it out of a commons box at a card show not long after its release. I also found the Yelich, but not the Rendon. That clearly visible number 28 became iconic in Rockies history, and the team really ought to retire it anyway. They should do so to honor the best player they've ever had, and as a reminder of mistakes made.

So where does that leave me as a die-hard Rockies fan? Honestly, I'm not sure. I'll definitely be tuning in to more Cardinals games this year. But I did see a tweet (or Reddit comment, or news quip, who can remember?) from another long-suffering fan of an NFL team who threw in the towel, saying, "I didn't give up on the team. The team gave up on me."

And while that's probably taking one's fandom a bit too personally, I'll say that I'm not expecting to find myself at the ballpark anytime soon. That's largely because of the pandemic, for sure, as I have no desire to add 35,000 people to my bubble, but also because my favorite player very conspicuously won't be there anymore.

I wish him well, and hope he gets to experience the pinnacles of baseball stardom that he's so clearly worthy of.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Trading Post #165: Night Owl Cards

Well, the mail system seems to be stabilizing somewhat. I'm sure it will be a while before it returns to being a thing that just works, but it's working well enough for Night Owl and I to complete a trade in a reasonable amount of time.

Shortly before Christmas, a particular Cody Bellinger card from one of my 2019 Topps Big League posts caught his eye, and I packaged it up along with a couple older Bills and Sabres cards that I happened to have. Mere weeks later, a return arrived in my mailbox with some 2020 needs and a few other goodies. 

2000 Upper Deck Hitter's Club #42 Todd Helton

As the years go by, Upper Deck cards grace the pages of our various blogs less and less frequently. It's been over a decade now since UD lost its license, which really is a shame. They made great cards year after year. Not everything was a masterpiece (pun intended), but you could count on some nice designs. That includes this Hitter's Club card of Todd Helton, part of a small 90-card set. 

The lefty's card has silver foil elements all over the card, including the set name, Helton's position and uniform number, the UD logo, various accent lines, and ".320", representing his prior year's batting average. 

Upper Deck picked well in fleshing out this small set as the millennium changed, as 2000 would be Helton's best season. The card back says that his "offensive potential is unlimited". It also has a tiny graph labeled Career Projection, which is mathematically useless. The Y-axis is unlabeled, the X-axis is scaled unevenly, and the so-called chart of his career (up to the year 2000) is a white line that more or less looks like a square root sign. 

This set would have been fine without it. I can confirm that it's different on each player's card, at least.

Elsewhere in the small checklist, there was a 17-card subset called Hitting The Show, which featured a unique mint-green foil. I've seen it twice over the years, but this is the first time the actual base set has appeared on the blog.

2019 Topps Walmart Holiday Photo Variations #HW165 Nolan Arenado (candy cane bat)

Jumping forward almost two decades into Rockies superstar history, we come to Nolan Arenado. This is one of the holiday parallels that Topps has been doing for a few years now, and looks quite similar to what Nick sent me during the 2020 regular season. Same holly and ivy elements on the 2019 design, same green and red colors, but you might happen to notice that Nolan Arenado's bat is actually a festive candy cane.

Which led me to think that I really should take my wreath down. It's almost February.

2020 Topps Fire #121 Nolan Arenado

We now come to 2020, and since buying cards at retail has pretty much been out of the question for almost a year, I've become much more familiar with their digital equivalents in Topps Bunt. I have this card in Bunt, but I'm glad to have a hard copy of it, too. It just has an extra presence, especially a design-centric set like Topps Fire.

The card back tells us about Nolan's torrid August 2019, in which he hit a dozen home runs. Only Tulowitzki's September 2010 was better among Rockies, who hit fifteen.

Arenado has an amusing pose on this card, likely one of the extra base hit celebrations that players often use when gesturing back toward their teammates in the dugout. We saw lots of that with the Nationals in the 2019 Postseason. They had a Baby Shark gesture for each hit, which varied in intensity and enthusiasm depending on whether it was a single, double, or triple.

2020 Stadium Club #98 Sam Hilliard RC

Sam Hilliard is doing the same thing on his 2020 Stadium Club card, apparently standing on third base I believe inside Oracle Park. I'm not quite sure what this gesture is supposed to be, and I don't recall seeing any Rockies player do this during the 2019 season. I'm guessing it's meant to represent a moose or deer or bighorn sheep. One of the many ruminants that roam the Colorado wilderness which some of these guys probably hunt. What I am sure of is that I didn't pick up on what Arenado was doing until I saw the same thing on Hilliard's Stadium Club card.

Stadium Club is awesome as always, and Topps found a great way to color-code such a minimalist design with a series of colored bars in the lower left. Silver foil nameplate, silver foil Stadium Club logo, add in a Rookie Card logo for Sam Hilliard. It's masterful, frankly.

The color coding is carried over to the back, where the vertical bars migrate to the upper right and serve as the backdrop for the card number. There's a nice posed headshot on the back, one year of stats (Minor League stats for Hilliard), and a short write-up.

Truly, if I could collect only one set a year, it would be Stadium Club. I know Nick just named Big League as his 2020 set of the year, which is reasonable, but I enjoy the photography and design too much to let TSC lose its crown.

2020 Stadium Club #261 Charlie Blackmon

Charlie Blackmon's entry into the 300-card 2020 Stadium Club set reminds us why horizontal cards must always exist. The composition here is just perfect. I particularly like the out-of-focus player in the bullpen just watching Blackmon's heroics in right-center at Coors Field.

This could be a Nike ad, you know. Look how perfectly you can see the Swoosh on the sole of Blackmon's shoe.

The card back gives us a disappointing reminder about the 2020 season, telling us that Blackmon has appeared in three consecutive All-Star games. Technically that streak is still alive, but that was one election that didn't end up happening last year.

2020 Stadium Club #120 Nolan Arenado

When Rockies hit extra base hits and perform defensive heroics, what often follows is a chance for the Coors Field scoreboard operator to flash the "Rockies Win" graphic up on the banner, which is what you can see beyond Arenado's left shoulder. I saw it on September 29th, 2019, the final game of the 2019 regular season, and my most recent trip to Coors Field. Little did I know how much that moment was worth savoring.

One day I'll be back, and might even get to see Arenado get doused with the Powerade cooler after such a win, which is what's being documented here.

2020 Stadium Club Red Foil #12 David Dahl

Of course, there's no guarantee that once I finally get a chance to safely return to Coors Field that Arenado will still be there. David Dahl won't be, as he's moved on to Texas. But he did have four injury-shortened years as a Rockie, giving him the chance to get some great Coors Field cards. He had a similar on-deck shot in 2019, and this one gives us a slightly different angle of right field, right about where Charlie Blackmon would have been when he made the catch in card #261.

I have stories about this part of the park, too. Behind the warning track, those are luxury field-level boxes, offering a more immersive experience than the "normal" suites found above the Club Level deck in foul territory. I've never had the chance to catch a game from the warning track, but somehow I do have a lapel pin from these suites. 

Above them, you'll find the out-of-town scoreboard that I frequently use to pinpoint the date of a photo. I can see that the Yankees were hosting the Diamondbacks that day, and the Mets visited the White Sox. Add in some scores and pitcher uniform numbers (the white numbers to the right of the score), and we come up with July 30th, 2019. The Dodgers were visiting that day, and won 9-4. That would mean that the #28 cameo at first base is Tyler White, who appeared in twelve games that year and scratched out a single hit. He did not play in 2020.

Continuing our tour of Coors Field, we can see the right field seats, which is where I sat during my first trip to Coors in 1995. The concourse behind those seats is part of the continuous path around the stadium, and in that area you'll find one of the funnel cake stations which smells pretty good, the interactive fan area where you can practice your hitting and pitching (or tee-ball, for the little ones), and during part of the 2019 season, a replica of Neil Armstrong's spacesuit, which made the rounds to a handful of ballparks to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the first moon landing.

One deck above that is where my sister likes to sit when she takes her little kids to see the Rockies, as it's relatively distant from flying objects. It's also usually pretty well shaded if you sit high enough. The drawback of sitting in this area is that the height of the out-of-town scoreboard makes it impossible to see any action that happens at the base of the wall.

Finally, out of frame and above where the parallel red foil Stadium Club logo is, you'll find The Rooftop. It's a fun place to visit, offers spectacular views of the mountains and the sunsets, and as my friend discovered a couple seasons ago, happens to be where you can get $3 Coors Lights before first pitch.

Maybe this is why Stadium Club remains my favorite set year after year. No other set reminds you of being at the ballpark quite as much as this, and it can bring me back even in the dead of winter.

Thanks for the trade, Night Owl!

Friday, January 22, 2021

Hammerin' Hank

When Al Kaline died in April 2020, I wrote these words: "Given the current state of the world, these kinds of posts might sadly become a bit more common in the months ahead." 

Sadly, that prediction has continued to prove all too true, and far too many times since then. The number of baseball greats who have passed on since Don Larsen died on New Year's Day 2020 is truly staggering. Kaline, Seaver, Brock, Gibson, Ford, Morgan, Niekro. And those are just the Hall-of-Famers. Jimmy Wynn, Dick Allen, Larsen, Johnny Antonelli, fan favorites at least, and maybe even borderline Hall-of-Famers.

Hell of a lineup, though.

2021 has given us no reprieve, as we've lost Dodger greats Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton, and it's only the third full week of January.

And today, I woke up to the news that Henry Aaron died at 86.

1994 Topps #715 Hank Aaron 715 HR

We know him for much more than his most famous moment, when he hit his 715th home run on April 8th, 1974 off of Al Downing, breaking Babe Ruth's home run record. Vin Scully had the call that day. His 4th inning shot was the culmination of a long marathon of chasing Ruth's record, a period in his career when he both guaranteed his place as an all-time baseball great and suffered awful hatred and racism for doing so.

For the occasion of the 20th anniversary of this feat, Topps gave him card #715 in the 1994 set, which is easily one of my favorite cards released that year. As I've mentioned before, it was the first complete set I ever bought, twenty-seven years ago. And what's really interesting to think about is that only twenty-seven years separated Jackie Robinson's debut and Hank Aaron's record-breaking home run. It really isn't that much time.

Aaron went on to wrap up his career with the Brewers a couple years after this, finishing with 2,297 RBI which remains the best in history, 6,856 total bases which remains the best in history, 755 home runs, and 3,771 hits. A Reddit user today pointed out that even if Aaron never hit a single home run, he'd still have over 3,000 hits, practically guaranteeing a spot in the Hall of Fame. 

A stat like that puts him right up there with an all-time hockey great, Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky had so many assists in his career that even if he never scored a single goal, he'd still be the all-time NHL points leader. Sure enough, Aaron finds himself as #5 all-time in position player bWAR, with an incredible 143.1.

He truly was a legend.

And he's a legend in my baseball card collection, too.

Let's go back to 1994, shall we? I was ten years old, and frequently found myself in the card aisle at my local Wal-Mart. I had been collecting for a little over a year, and had kind of had my fill of the 1991 Topps, 1992 Fleer, and 1993 Fleer Ultra that seemed to perpetually be available. I had a year of collecting under my belt, plus that fancy 1994 Topps Factory set. Right around then, Topps released the 1994 Archives '54 set, one of my dad's favorites since it took him back to his own childhood. Wal-Mart had this product for sale, and I had enough money from my weekly allowance to buy a pack or two. 

Pack selection was a very important thing when buying a whole box was entirely out of the question. I must admit that I wasn't above the strategy of pressing the translucent cellophane against the top card to try to see what was inside. To this day, I've never tried bending, weighing, or otherwise manhandling a pack, cardinal sins in the card aisle. But I do realize the cellophane trick does stray somewhere into the neighborhood of pack searching.

Judge ten-year-old me as you will, but I was able to discern a card inside one particular pack of Archives '54.

1994 Topps Archives '54 #62 Eddie Robinson

That was this card. Eddie Robinson, a New York Yankee. I didn't really know him, but I could see he was a Yankee, and being the son of a Yankee fan, this was the pack I picked. 

Eddie Robinson, by the way, has outlived all these guys, as he recently celebrated his 100th birthday. He's the oldest living MLB player. A four-time All-Star, he won a World Series with the 1948 Cleveland Indians. He was on site to watch Cleveland play in the 2016 World Series.

I don't remember which other cards were inside this pack, but I did find something special. Really special.

1994 Topps Archives '54 Gold #128 Hank Aaron (AU)

A gold foil parallel of Hank Aaron's 1994 Archives '54 card, signed on-card in the lower right.

It is the crown jewel of my collection.

I've never shown this card on the blog before, but I did share it many years ago as part of Nachos Grande's Better Know a Blogger series, so longtime followers might have seen it once or twice.

I can unequivocally say that this Hank Aaron autograph is the greatest pull of my life. It will never be topped. Pulling a card like this from a pack you bought at Wal-Mart at the age of ten is an amazing experience. This was a Golden Ticket, and I felt just like Charlie Bucket. I can't imagine anything I could realistically pull out of a pack ever again that would dethrone the Home Run King.

A Hank Aaron autograph!

I still have the pack wrapper. 1:1,263 odds.

RIP, Henry Aaron. You'll always be #1 in my collection.