Sunday, September 19, 2021

The World's Champions (Part 1: Full-sized Baseball)

Along with Stadium Club and Heritage, Target has been keeping me well-supplied with blasters this year. Add to that list a blaster of 2021 Allen & Ginter that I got last month, plus the 2021 Factory Set that arrived a few days ago. I'm not really into Gypsy Queen or Fire, but Target has those for sale right now too.

Variety! Availability! I almost forgot such things existed.

2021 Topps Allen and Ginter #4 Eddie Murray

Right off the bat, we can see the design for 2021 A&G is evolutionary. It's unmistakably Allen & Ginter, and it's clear there's a limitless variety of border styles Topps can produce for this brand without deviating from the overall look and feel.

The backs are even more familiar, with the same "spell everything out like you're writing a check" style, and a very slight difference to the frame around the card number at the top. It's right below the prominent "The World's Champions" banner that inspired the name for this post.

I found myself more interested in the players I pulled rather than the design, mainly because I found a ton of Hall-of-Famers. Neither Larry Walker nor Derek Jeter were among them (although they are in the checklist), but congratulations to them both for entering Cooperstown. The other members of the 2020 Hall of Fame class were Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller, although they're in very few recent sets.

I did find legendary switch-hitter Eddie Murray from his early days with the Baltimore Orioles. He was the 1977 AL Rookie of the Year, World Series Champion in 1983, and is the all-time career leader in sacrifice flies, with 128, just one ahead of his longtime teammate, Cal Ripken, Jr.

Baltimore abandoned the smiling bird logo you see on Murray's cap for a while, but it's back now as the team's official logo. The anatomically correct Oriole logo we knew for a few decades is gone, but it can still be spotted in the wild on occasion.

OK, that's actually an Orchard Oriole, not a Baltimore Oriole, but you get the idea. They're a rather rare sighting. Colorado is outside the range of the Northern Cardinal, but Blue Jays are quite common here, and they'll let you know it, loudly.

2021 Topps Allen and Ginter #127 Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas briefly played for one of those bird teams, the Blue Jays, but he's mainly remembered as a member of the White Sox. That's the team he chose for his Hall of Fame plaque, but this photo is from earlier in his career. He looks generally younger than he does now during his broadcasting gig with Fox Sports, and I think it's from 2003. The Chicago White Sox hosted the All-Star game that year, and you can spot part of the commemorative patch on his right sleeve.

Unfortunately, Thomas didn't get to participate in the Midsummer Classic the year his team hosted it. He was voted into a string of consecutive All-Star games from 1993-1997, but no others. At his peak, he was amazing. Between '93 and '97, he won two consecutive MVPs, had those five All-Star appearances, won two Silver Sluggers, and had a 184 OPS+.

Oh, and one triple. It's right there in the box score. June 19th, 1994.

2021 Topps Allen and Ginter #78 Barry Larkin

Joining these guys in Cooperstown is Barry Larkin, who spent his entire career with the Cincinnati Reds. An interesting fact I learned during this year's Hall of Fame induction ceremony is that other than pitchers, shortstops are the most well-represented position in Cooperstown. Derek Jeter is now on that list along with Larkin, Ripken, Yount, Ozzie Smith, and plenty of stars that were before my time.

2021 Topps Allen and Ginter #348 Bob Feller (SP)

Moving a bit further down the checklist, we arrive at the short prints. All the card numbers above 300 fall into the short print category, annoyingly. Todd Helton is in the short print checklist this year, so I doubt I'll ever see that one. I'm pointing Bob Feller's card out mainly because it is a short print, not for any other particular reason. 

If Fanatics ends up letting Topps wither on the vine, the short print is certainly one aspect of card collecting that I would love to see vanish. I somewhat understand the desire to generate more buzz and desire by putting intriguing rookies into the short print section, but seriously, who is PC-ing Bob Feller in 2021? There is ample opportunity for collectors to chase limited edition cards elsewhere in the set, but for base cards, please just print them.

2021 Topps Allen and Ginter #339 Nick Castellanos (SP)

And so that'll make it a 4-0 ballgame.

Also up in the short print section, we find Nick Castellanos with a nice bat barrel shot. A first-time All-Star in 2021, he's become a minor celebrity in baseball social media circles by virtue of swatting a perfectly-timed home run last year, interrupting an on-air apology that former broadcaster Thom Brennaman was trying to stammer out after uttering a homophobic slur. It has become quite the meme.

Perhaps invigorated by the accidental social media stardom, Castellanos has eclipsed his season-high in home runs with 29 so far, sometimes even making it a 4-0 ballgame.

This joke just never gets old. See also: Balk Rules (#18).

2021 Topps Allen and Ginter #44 Bryce Harper

Back to the land of long (?) prints, we find Bryce Harper, who is quietly having an excellent season. He isn't making the highlight reels anywhere near as often as the young stars like Tatis and Guerrero, but he has a league-best OPS and OPS+, 33 home runs, and is keeping the Phillies hot on the heels of the NL East-leading Braves. His stats this year aren't far off from his 2015 MVP season, and he is certainly in the running to win that award once again.

2021 Topps Allen and Ginter #105 Daz Cameron (RC)

It was just a couple months ago that I learned Ke'Bryan Hayes is the son of Charlie Hayes. And of course we all know about the new family dynasties of Biggio, Bichette, Tatis, and Guerrero. Well, upon opening this blaster, I wondered if this Tigers rookie happened to be related to Mike Cameron. Sure enough, yes. Daz Cameron is Mike's son, adding to the long list of familiar names that will be populating MLB rosters for some time to come.

2021 Topps Allen and Ginter #166 Germán Márquez

The lone Rockie found in this blaster is their staff ace, Germán Márquez. He took a no-decision on Friday night against the Nationals, a game the Rockies ended up winning. It's highly typical of the Rockies to have a fantastic road trip this late in the season, long after having a terrible time away from Coors Field all season which cemented their hold on fourth place. It's a frustrating pattern nearly as old as the franchise itself.

Maybe next year. Likely without Trevor Story and potentially without Jon Gray.

2021 Topps Allen and Ginter Historic Hits #HH-11 Roberto Clemente

Several days ago, you saw Major League Baseball celebrate Roberto Clemente Day. It falls on each September 15th to coincide with the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month. Clemente's uniform number 21, clearly visible on this insert card, can be worn by certain players across the league. Not everyone gets to wear it like they do on Jackie Robinson Day, only players and coaches of Puerto Rican descent, as well as any past winner or current nominee of the Roberto Clemente Award.

It's hard to pick one particular hit out of 3,000 to feature on a baseball card, but Topps attempts to do just that in the Historical Hits insert set. It's a sizable 50-card insert set. Looking through the checklist, I feel quite certain knowing which Historical Hit is being featured on cards like Aaron Boone, Joe Carter, Bill Mazeroski, Carlton Fisk, David Freese, and Luis Gonzalez. But for others like Ken Griffey, Jr., Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Ichiro, it could be anything.

Roberto Clemente's Historical Hit was his last one. On September 30th, 1972, Clemente got hit number 3,000, reaching a milestone that will always remain the mark of greatness. As this card tells us, it was a double in the bottom of the 4th inning. Unlike all of those previous highlights, I don't think I'd ever seen the actual footage from this one before. It really got me when he tossed the ball to his coach for safe keeping, because we all know now that Clemente would tragically die in a plane crash on a humanitarian flight to Nicaragua before the next season could begin.

2021 Topps Allen and Ginter Historic Hits #HH-17 Kirby Puckett

The second Historical Hit card from this blaster is of another player who left us too early at just 45, Kirby Puckett. He didn't pass away during his career, but it too was was sadly cut short due to a sudden eye disease that forced his retirement at 36.

But before that tragedy, he was a beloved star for the Minnesota Twins, leading them to two World Series titles. The second of those came in 1991, thanks to his heroics mentioned on this card. In an extra-innings game on October 26th, 1991, Puckett hit a walkoff home run to force a Game 7, which the Twins would win. This was a little before I was following baseball, so I don't have any specific memory of it, but here's the highlight anyway.

2021 Topps Allen and Ginter T51 Murad Reimagined #MR-32 Ernie Banks

An equally-sized insert set found in 2021 is T51 Murad Reimagined, which are horizontal cards done in the style of an early 20th century tobacco set. The T51 designation signifies that it was originally issued by a tobacco company, the same classification as the famous T206 set. All this was devised by Jefferson Burdick, author of the American Card Catalog in which those classifications could be found. Burdick later went on to donate his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and spent a decade and a half cataloguing it for the museum.

One man quite literally spent a lifetime collecting and cataloguing what were mostly pre-war baseball cards. The hobby long ago ensured that it would grow far beyond what one person could handle in a lifetime. Sometimes I toy with the idea of putting my collection into a database, but it would truly be a massive undertaking and I simply can't imagine finding enough time to even put a dent in it.

In any case, Ernie Banks was one of the players selected for the T51 set. He shares the card front with a brownish-gold border, a circular Cubs logo, and a pennant that graces the front of all cards in this set. It's a design element that works particularly well for a Wrigley Field-dwelling Cub. On the back, we're told about a Historic Hit of sorts, Banks's final walkoff hit on April 13th, 1969, a bases-loaded single.

2021 Topps Allen and Ginter Mini Framed Relics #MFR-CYE Christian Yelich

I'll save the minis and non-baseball topics for Part 2, so I'll end with this quasi-mini relic card of Christian Yelich. It's a tobacco-sized mini sealed within a full-sized frame, and I do recall getting one of these via trade once before. Topps hasn't changed the design of these since 2008, as it still has the same little window so you can feel the actual relic.

It's small, but you can see part of the 50th Anniversary patch the Brewers wore last year. Just look down and left of the Nike swoosh. None of that made it to the actual relic.

The Brewers just clinched their fourth straight postseason appearance, and while they won't roll over the Rockies in three games like they did in 2018, they have a strong team, with or without the recently-retired Ryan Braun who did not play this season.

I've had a soft spot for Yelich ever since I got his foul ball way back in 2014. It's nice to have a relic to go along with it.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

A Very Late Opening Day

For as long as I've been watching Major League Baseball, Opening Day happens in early spring. Topps built a whole set around it, and they helpfully list the date right on the Blue Foil parallels. 

2020 Topps Opening Day Blue Foil #168 A.J. Puk

March 26th, 2020. That's when the season was supposed to begin.

Earth had other plans.

It ended up happening four months late, kicking off in late July 2020. I could be cheeky and call this A.J. Puk card an uncorrected error (along with all the rest in this parallel set), but really it's just disappointing and tragic.

I suppose it's fitting that I'm just now getting around to blogging about this hanger box of 2020 Topps Opening Day, after a year and a half of it sitting on my card shelf. They got the season started on time this year, but a springtime Opening Day isn't something that's carved in granite, and isn't something you can always rely on, even though you always thought you could.

And now, so it goes with Topps as a whole. Ever since the early 1950s, collectors could count on having Topps baseball cards available for purchase. Over the years they've been for sale for as cheap as a nickel or as much as hundreds of dollars a box, and everything in between. But there was a seismic event in the baseball card world a few days ago.

On Thursday, it was announced that Fanatics, a sports apparel and memorabilia company with a less-than-stellar reputation, will have the exclusive license to print MLB trading cards starting in 2026. Even more shocking is that Topps will lose their MLBPA license to use player names and likenesses after 2022. 

There has been much speculation in recent days since this news hit the wire, not to mention the sudden implosion of the deal Topps had with a SPAC to go public at a valuation of over $1 billion. That's off the table now, replaced by a gaping void of uncertainty.

Using their MLBPA agreement, Fanatics can step in as soon as 2023 with unlicensed player-only cards like we've seen from Panini for most of the past decade. But as I understand it, that's an exclusive license, leaving Topps in the awkward position of being able to use MLB team names and logos but no players. 

I can't imagine the powers that be will allow airbrushed cards from Fanatics to coexist for three years with, I don't know, Topps cards of nothing but batting helmets and stadiums and mascots. As it stands now, I believe that scenario would be contractually possible, but that certainly isn't what anyone has in mind.

My prediction is that either Fanatics will buy the rights to the existing MLB license from Topps, kicking off this transition even earlier than we had expected and leaving Topps to fend for themselves with little more than their various soccer and pro wrestling products, or my preferred option at this point, they'll just buy Topps and their vast stable of brands outright, albeit at a far lower valuation than Topps was supposedly worth just a few days ago.

Business is war. 

And monopolies are double-edged swords. Surely we all wouldn't be so concerned about the future of card collecting if Upper Deck had been able to compete with Topps since 2010.

In any case, here's how I feel about it:

2020 Topps Opening Day #122 Jorge Alfaro

Just add this whole saga to the ever-growing list of Things We Can't Count On Anymore.

Let's also not forget that the prospect of another labor dispute is clouding the waters. But regardless of what will happen in the future, Topps has quite a history, and it kept going all throughout 2020.

2020 Topps Opening Day #89 José Altuve

"'José's the heart and soul of what we do,' says Astros manager A.J. Hinch", or so says the card back of José Altuve's 2020 Opening Day card. It would turn out that Altuve and other Astros were at the heart of the cheating scandal from 2017 and beyond, something that got shoved to the back burner by the pandemic, along with everything else. As you might imagine, there remains some pretty bad blood between the Astros and Dodgers, but all in all, it didn't really make the waves it might have during a normal season. A bunch of the players involved have since moved on to other teams by now anyway.

2020 Topps Opening Day #14 Alex Verdugo

Alex Verdugo wasn't on the 2017 Postseason roster, so he didn't get to see the Astros cheating scandal firsthand, but he did suit up for L.A. that year, and traditionally, that's enough to earn a ring. Despite being on some extremely talented teams, he has yet to appear in an actual Postseason game. That might change this year depending on where the Red Sox finish in the standings, which is where Verdugo plays now.

2020 Topps Opening Day #28 Mookie Betts

In fact, he was part of the trade that sent Mookie Betts to Los Angeles. Consequently, as a Rockies fan, I've been seeing a lot more of Betts than Verdugo these days. It always surprises me how well I find myself knowing the Dodgers lineup. They play the Rockies a lot, they're often on the nationally-televised games, and they make the Postseason constantly. Like it or not, they're a force to be reckoned with.

And they have become the New York Yankees of baseball, according to A-Rod.

2020 Topps Opening Day #48 Francisco Lindor

Those Yankees are not to be confused with the crosstown New York Mets, which is where Francisco Lindor is now playing. His career has taken a significant downturn, much to the chagrin of the new Mets owner.

The card back mentions that Lindor was an All-Star in four consecutive seasons, but that's a streak that was snapped this year. In future years, we'll have to remember that there was no All-Star Game in 2020, so seeing a gap in the list of All-Star seasons isn't necessarily indicative of a broken streak. Notice that Lindor is wearing the official Indians All-Star patch on his left sleeve, the one with the Rock & Roll-themed guitar.

This would be a good place to mention the new Cleveland team name, the Guardians. That will go into effect next season. I like the name, I understand why they're changing it, and the detail-oriented side of me appreciates that they'll keep their place in line on an alphabetical list of team names. I'm sure that was the lowest of priorities when choosing their new name, but maybe keeping the last four letters in place was intentional to maintain a degree of connection to their history.

Here's the Tom Hanks-narrated video of their new identity, named for the Art Deco-style Guardians of Traffic statues on the Hope Memorial Bridge in Cleveland.

2020 Topps Opening Day #162 Max Kepler

I found some nice horizontal photos in this box, such as this one of Max Kepler's home run trot. I haven't said much about the 2020 design, and didn't really even post about the 2020 Topps base set until last month, but I have to say it works better in horizontal orientation than it did in 2017, when the design covered up a lot more of the photo.

It's worth mentioning here that Topps has already released images of the 2022 set design, and while it's certainly more readable than this year's set, I don't know how well I'll be able to differentiate it from most of the Bowman sets we've seen in the past decade.

Anyway, I like how the Twins are clearly making the most of all their scoreboard graphics. It leaves little doubt as to what just happened on the field. Kepler hit a career-high 36 dingers in 2019, so I'm not even going to try pinpointing this photo.

2020 Topps Opening Day #131 Eddie Rosario

During what was definitely a different play, Eddie Rosario slid into home to put another run up on the board for the Twins. I can't tell who the blurry third baseman is in the background; if I had to guess I'd say a Kansas City Royal. If that's correct, you're looking at the only two active teams I haven't seen in person. 

Eddie Rosario has since switched leagues, joining the Braves in return for Pablo Sandoval. It was a weird trade, because Rosario is currently on the IL, and the Indians promptly released the Kung Fu Panda the same day they acquired him. Really all Cleveland was trying to do was offload Rosario's contract. 

Incidentally, Eddie Rosario was involved in one of my all-time favorite heads-up plays, where he scored from first on a single to short left field. That isn't the play pictured here, but the clip did feature current Rockies first baseman C.J. Cron at the plate.

2020 Topps Opening Day #127 Kirby Yates

I used to go to a lot of games. Eight or ten a season was common. I haven't been to a regular season game since the pandemic hit. Yes, there was the All-Star Game and Home Run Derby, and I do have tickets for one game in September, but that has been a serious adjustment. 

I used to even fly to other cities to see games once in a great while. That also has not been happening, nor do I have any idea when it will again, but I did see Kirby Yates pitch for the Padres in San Diego in July 2019. He was asked to come in and get a six-out save, which he was unable to do. The game went to extra innings, and even though the Padres loaded the bases down two runs in the 10th inning, they had no choice but to send a pitcher in to pinch-hit with two outs. That ended the four-hour evening in predictable fashion, at which point I began hunting all over the Gaslamp Quarter for a late-night bite to eat.

I also used to eat in restaurants. It was nice.

As far as Kirby Yates, he's recovering from his second Tommy John surgery, and is out for at least the 2021 season.

2020 Topps Opening Day #33 Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.

Holding all else equal, which is a bold assumption these days, Yates will be teammates with Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. once he returns to the mound. Those Blue Jays are an exciting young team, currently sitting in fourth place in the AL East despite having a solid winning record. Vlad shares the infield with Bo Bichette, who sings his praises on this card back. 

On the card front, the design is graced with the Opening Day logo, the well-deserved Topps Rookie Cup, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. wearing a monogrammed elbow guard. That's when you know you've arrived.

2020 Topps Opening Day Opening Day #OD-14 Toronto Blue Jays

On to the inserts. I found four in this hanger box, plus the blue parallel shown at the top of this post. This one is from the redundantly named Opening Day insert set, documenting the actual outcomes of the first day of the 2019 season. The Blue Jays hosted the Detroit Tigers at the Rogers Centre on March 28th, 2019, losing 2-0 in 10 innings.

Speaking of the Tigers, Miguel Cabrera, who went 0-4 that day, was right back in Toronto today and hit his 500th career home run.

2020 Topps Opening Day Opening Day #OD-15 Washington Nationals

Fresh off their improbable World Series championship in 2019, Topps gave us a look at how that historic season began for the Washington Nationals. They opened at home, facing off against Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets. The Mets took game 1 of 162, part of what led to the Nationals starting off with a frequently-cited 19-31 record. As we know by now, they turned things around dramatically to win the first World Series in franchise history.

2020 Topps Opening Day Spring Has Sprung #SHS-20 Rafael Devers

Opening Day is obviously preceded by Spring Training, and Topps gave us a look at that portion of the baseball season with this Spring Has Sprung insert set. 

Spring usually springs a bit later than March in most parts of the country, hence why teams fly south to Arizona and Florida to shake the rust off. The set describes how certain players approach the preseason, such as Rafael Devers of the Red Sox joking around with teammates in between heavy training sessions. We're told he hired a personal trainer during the offseason, and he "showed up ready to dominate".

2020 Topps Opening Day Mascots #M-8 Bernie Brewer

I'll close this Topps Opening Day post as I usually do, with a Mascot card. I didn't find Dinger, or even the Mariner Moose, but I did at least get one Mascot card, a mustachioed Bernie Brewer, nowhere near his yellow slide in left field.

I was shut out of the other insert sets, including Team Traditions and Celebrations, Sticker Collection Previews, and a few others that have depressingly long odds to pull.

I read in Joe Posnanski's column recently that "The very best version of baseball is how the game was played when you were 10 years old." I think the same is true for baseball card collecting. 1994 Topps Black Gold, for example, ranks up there as one of my favorite insert sets of all-time. It was rare but possible to actually finish. There weren't a zillion of this, a zillion of that, 1/1s, things you'd never have any hope of seeing, especially as a 10-year old. On the other hand, collectors older than me might look at 1994 and cringe at how many sets there were, how some cards looked like a multicolored windbreaker got caught in the printing press, foil, and how even then there were parallel sets like Stadium Club First Day Issues that no one had any hope of completing.

Of course, there are no guarantees that Fanatics won't take everything we dislike about the current hobby right now and make it even worse. Availability issues, high pricing, short prints, far too many variations and sets to collect, excessive focus on rookies, quality control, and so on.

Sometimes it feels like we'll be lucky to have cards at all in 2026. Not that I really have room for more anyway, and even if Topps collapsed tomorrow, I'll still have enough cards to keep this blog going for a lifetime, and I think that's true for all of us.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Gold Medal Club (Part 2: Inserts)

I wouldn't have to split my posts up into multiple parts if Topps didn't pack their blasters so full of blog-worthy cards.

Or if I didn't find myself writing at least 1,500 words every time I put a stack of cards together.

Either way, Stadium Club kept me interested for another year with fun inserts, new and old.

2021 Stadium Club Greats #SCG-23 Roger Clemens

If you dig out your old 1991 Stadium Club box, you'll find a card of Roger Clemens that looks nearly identical to this. The photo on this Stadium Club Greats insert is the same as on the 1991 original. The only difference you'll find is gold foil instead of silver, although it's less likely to be centered quite as well. That was a common issue with early TSC, the foil not lining up all that well with the rest of the design elements. This is a sample size of one, but it appears that they've made great strides in that department over the past thirty years.

Thirty years, yes, that's how long it's been since Stadium Club first hit the shelves. It's been on-again off-again since then, but I continue to enjoy its renaissance.

This isn't a straight reprint, as the card back has an entirely new theme. Instead of the green back with the so-called BARS System and a little image of the player's first Topps card, we get a lengthy write-up of the Red Sox portion of Clemens's career. It mentions three Cy Young awards, four times he led the league in ERA, and his massive career strikeout total that has him in third place behind only Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson. It skips over additional awards earned during rest of his career with the Blue Jays, Yankees, and Astros, and makes no mention of his lengthy campaign to get into the Hall of Fame.

2021 Stadium Club Virtual Reality #VR-7 Ronald Acuña Jr.

For the 1995 set, Topps debuted a partial parallel set called Virtual Reality. It attempted to project the final full-season stats for 1994, which was cut short by the infamous strike. Sadly, the current state of the world gave Topps an opportunity to trot this theme out one more time, although that's one aspect of Stadium Club I would have preferred to never see again.

According to the Topps prognosticator, if the 2020 season hadn't been pandemic-shortened, Acuña would have finished with 124 runs scored, 38 homers, and a .250 average. His actual numbers during the 60-game season were 46 runs, 14 homers, and still a .250 average.

By running a bit of math, it appears that Topps really didn't forecast anything beyond multiplying his actual stats by 2.7, which is simply the rate of how much longer a full season would have been than the shortened season. There was no factoring in a hot spring, a late-season surge, a midsummer slump, or the actual difficulty of schedule the Braves would have faced if they played the rest of the divisions. It's an interesting exercise, but take these numbers with a grain of salt.

1995 Stadium Club Virtual Reality #94 Joe Girardi

The 1995 Virtual Reality set didn't take things quite so linearly. In looking at the back of Joe Girardi's '95 VR card, Topps had some faith that Girardi would bump up his average with a "late-season rush", and would put together a nice four-game hitting streak in an alternate-universe Labor Day weekend of September 1994. Which, as we know, is quite typical of how Rockies seasons go.

They also thought Barry Bonds would tie Roger Maris's single-season home run record of 61. Clearly they put some thought into this project back in the mid-'90s rather than just put =[cell]*2.7 into a spreadsheet and filled down.

2021 Stadium Club Sepia #43 Evan White (RC)

My haul of colored parallels was right in line with stated pack odds. I felt like I got a nice mixture of what was on offer, starting with Evan White's rookie card in Sepia form. The young first baseman already has a Gold Glove to his name, but his promising career is on hold for right now while he recovers from hip surgery.

2021 Stadium Club Black Foil #183 Joc Pederson

Back to the world of full color, here's Joc Pederson pictured (very briefly) as a Chicago Cub. Pederson only spent the first half of the 2021 season in the Windy City before becoming an early casualty of the Cubs rebuilding program. He was traded to the Braves in mid-July, shortly before most of his more well-known teammates were sent elsewhere.

The first game Pederson played as a Brave was against the Tampa Bay Rays, but that was a home game. He never played the Rays as a Cub, so I'd guess that this shot of him with a Mike Zunino cameo was actually taken during the 2020 World Series when he was still a Dodger, then given the Photoshop treatment.

This card is one of the Black Foil parallels, which is somehow even less shiny than you'd expect.

2021 Stadium Club Red Foil #38 Cal Ripken. Jr.

The Red Foil is much more striking, and is reminiscent of early Stadium Club sets like 1994. Of course, both Cal Ripken, Jr. and cameo player Wade Boggs were in that set, and between the two, we're looking at two Hall of Fame plaques, thirty-one All-Star appearances, sixteen Silver Sluggers, and more. Add to that a Rookie of the Year award for Boggs, and two MVP awards for Ripken, which is mentioned on the card back.

2021 Stadium Club Red Foil #77 Jesús Sánchez (RC)

Jesús Sánchez is clearly amazed by those accolades.

2021 Stadium Club Autographs #SCBA-JM Julian Merryweather (AU) (RC)

I was lucky enough to pull an autograph in this blaster, an on-card signature of Toronto Blue Jays rookie Julian Merryweather. He's appeared in twelve Big League games thus far, but has been recovering from an oblique strain for most of this year. When he does return, he'll pitch in Toronto for the first time. His home games thus far have only been played at his team's temporary homes in Buffalo and Dunedin, FL.

He's on the older side for a rookie, as he'll be turning 30 in just a couple months.

2021 Stadium Club Oversized Master Photos #OBPDG Deivi García

Concluding this 2021 Stadium Club blaster is the first card I found in it, the Master Photo box topper. It has unusual dimensions of 3 3/8" x 3 3/4", and is significantly smaller than past Master Photos I've seen from older Stadium Club sets. Compared to that, I'm unsure what makes this "Oversized".

I don't know much about Deivi García, who is probably the least well-known name in the entire collection of Master Photos, but it is nice to see an unfamiliar player on the 1993 Stadium Club design. There isn't much to be found on the back. It's mostly white like an old photo print. One of the corners is a little dinged, and there's also a little damage on the back of Sánchez's card. I escaped the worst of it, but I definitely heard some tales of woe regarding quality control of this beautiful set. I'm sure this not-quite-square thing would have gotten damaged eventually wherever I found a place to store it, but it's concerning.

I'm continuing to keep an eye on Target's website for Topps product, and it's actually somewhat consistently available. You have to be quick, but not as quick as when flippers were running rampant in the card aisle. They have A&G, Gypsy Queen, and Series 2 blasters available as I write this, so act fast if you want some!

And keep your fingers crossed for good quality control.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Gold Medal Club (Part 1: Base)

Despite all the chaos and disruption around us, one thing remains constant. 

I still love Stadium Club.

Thanks to Target's recent policy of taking baseball cards out of their stores, I've actually been able to grab a couple products from their website at regular pricing. One of those was a blaster of 2021 Topps Stadium Club, and it's worthy of at least a podium finish in the 2021 Set of the Year race.

2021 Stadium Club #57 Ronald Acuña Jr.

As usual, the set is full of baseball's brightest young stars, including the Venezuelan sensation Ronald Acuña, Jr. He was having a great season until about a month ago, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Sadly, that also meant he had to miss out on playing in the All-Star Game, though he did attend.

When he's not on the field, he's usually enjoying his time off it. His dreadlocks and #13 chain are on full display in this borderless photo. Obviously, the picture was shot through the screen, which detracts slightly, but getting such a candid shot of Acuña that's different from so many other action shots is refreshing.

About a half-century ago, action photos first started appearing in baseball card sets. That artform has advanced so dramatically that us collectors take special notice when a card doesn't have one. Almost every card in the Topps flagship set is an ultra-sharp closeup of a player batting, pitching, fielding, diving, leaping, etc.... Just hanging around on the sidelines has become a rare sight.

2021 Stadium Club #172 Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Not that perfectly-cropped action photos are boring. Far from it. I think we just like more variety. A set like Stadium Club needs shots of the All-Star Game MVP snagging a ball in his blue glove as much as any other. And that's not even what Vladimir Guerrero Jr. does best. He is second on the home run leaderboard for 2021, just three behind Shohei Ohtani.

2021 Stadium Club #241 Joey Bart (RC)

As young as they are, both Acuña and Guerrero have some service time under their belts by now. But there are lots of fresh rookies in the Stadium Club checklist, like Joey Bart of the Giants. Ostensibly the eventual replacement for Buster Posey, the former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket is ranked #15 on the list of top MLB prospects. He got a little playing time in 2020 while Posey opted out of the season, but he's appeared just twice in 2021.

In any case, whether they're rookies or veterans, photos of catchers in full gear are great every time. Design-wise in 2021 Stadium Club, there is little to distract from the photo. There's just a little black banner in the lower left with the player's name in silver foil and the color-coded team abbreviation. The Stadium Club logo is in the upper right, and the Rookie Card logo in the lower right. That's about it, which makes the Nike Swoosh stand out that much more.

And clearly he's a catcher, even though this design doesn't explicitly tell us the player's position.

2021 Stadium Club #41 Ian Happ

The ivy wall at Wrigley Field also always looks good on cards, and here's Ian Happ tracking down a daytime fly ball for the Cubbies. The friendly confines have stood for well over a century, but Ian Happ's surroundings have changed dramatically in the past couple weeks. He's now part of a drastically different Cubs team, with stars Rizzo, Bryant, Kimbrel, Báez, and others traded to a variety of contending teams for a massive haul of prospects. Most of them, you'll recall, were part of that magical championship team in 2016.

We'll see what happens with the Cubs and their new prospects in 2026 or so, but the Cubs front office had to make sure that their fans were still intimately acquainted with heartbreak.

2021 Stadium Club #205 Kyle Lewis

It's only fitting that I get to blog about my favorite set on National Baseball Card Day. Of the many synthetic holidays that now fill the calendar, it's one of my favorites, right up there with International Chicken Wing Day, National Potato Chip Day, World Whisky Day, and of course Look For Circles Day.

And I found one, right behind 2020 AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis.

In all seriousness, this is an excellent photo. It would require a lot of patience to get a snapshot of an outfielder right in front of his team's logo. It's definitely a shot the photographer prepared for. And if you look closely, you can see just how perfect the pocket is on Lewis's glove. The only way this could be any better is if the ball were in frame.

2021 Stadium Club #185 Kirby Puckett

Moving on from the current young players, we come to the retired legends that populate the Stadium Club checklist. It's been a while since I pulled a Kirby Puckett card out of a pack. And because players like Puckett built such a solid career, it's easy for us to forget that they were once young players with a promising but uncertain future. We've loved watching Acuña these past few years, but that ACL injury definitely puts a question mark or two out there.

When I first started watching baseball in 1993, the Twins were wearing pinstripes and had moved away from the "TC" lettering, so this photo is certainly from early in Puckett's career, maybe even from his rookie year of 1984.

2021 Stadium Club #116 Greg Maddux

More difficult to place in time is this clubhouse celebration photo of Greg Maddux. He's clearly wearing a shirt that says the Braves were National League Champions, but that happened numerous times throughout the '90s, both before and after Maddux's arrival in 1993. The Yankees won more World Series that decade, but the Braves had a longer streak of reaching the Postseason. 

Greg Maddux, one of the greatest control pitchers of all-time, was there for most of it, and his Braves came away with the ultimate prize in 1995. As the card back tells us, he had a 2.84 ERA throughout the 1995 Postseason, part of which came in the NLDS against the Rockies.

2021 Stadium Club #262 Frank Thomas

Of these retired stars, Maddux is mostly out of the spotlight, and sadly Puckett is no longer with us, but Frank Thomas is still well-known to current baseball fans, as he's part of the Fox broadcast crew. David Ortiz is usually the one who is up to the most mischief at the postgame desk, but Thomas is a commanding presence.

Once upon a time, he was known as The Big Hurt, and he was as big a name as they came in the early '90s. The two-time MVP was a fearsome hitter, and it appears that he is using an actual piece of rebar to warm up in the on-deck circle. Apparently, he used this throughout his career, and it allegedly came from the demolished Old Comiskey Park.

If he could actually swing this thing, I'd love to see how far he could hit a baseball with it. 

2021 Stadium Club #123 George Brett

George Brett appeared in this blaster too. His career wrapped up in 1993 along with Nolan Ryan's, so I didn't end up seeing any of it. Neither Brett nor Ryan made the All-Star team or the Postseason in 1993, and that was before Interleague play, so all I knew of them was from their legendary status, and in the case of Nolan Ryan, that orange and blue Pacific set.

On the card back, there's only a single line of stats for his career totals. Active players got another stat line for their 2020 season, but these retired players just have their gigantic numbers jockeying for position on the vertical card back. Brett's 10,349 at bats. Thomas's 4,550 total bases. Maddux's 999 career walks (!). Only the greats can stick around long enough to get that high up the leaderboards.

2021 Stadium Club #51 Willie Mays

As impressive as those numbers are, a few players have true numbers that are even higher. Late last year, the Negro Leagues were elevated to Major League status, so that means some players, like Willie Mays, actually have statistics that aren't really what we thought they were. The card back says that Mays had 1,903 RBI, but thanks to six more that we know about during his 1948 season with the Birmingham Black Barons, that total is now 1,909 as per Baseball-Reference.

It remains to be seen what Topps will do with Negro League stats in future years on cards of Mays and Monte Irvin and Elston Howard and so many more, whether their traditional National League and American League stats will be used for the totals on card backs, or whether we start to see a more complete representation of what actually happened in their careers.

I'm also curious to see whether we'll start seeing more cards of players whose careers ended before Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It's been a while since I've pulled a Kirby Puckett card, yes, but I most definitely have never pulled a Martín Dihigo card. I'd like to see Topps change that.

2021 Stadium Club #184 Jackie Robinson

Our final card today is Jackie Robinson's, one that I've seen frequently on the blogs this summer. Lots of bloggers have pointed out that this photo was colorized incorrectly, as the Dodgers have never worn red numbers on the back of their uniforms. The small numbers on the front are red, but the backs have always been blue. I wish Topps would just use the original black-and-white photos like they did in earlier releases of Stadium Club.

As the Tokyo Olympics draw to a close, I wanted to share a fun fact about the Robinson family and the Olympics. Due to World War II, Jackie never got a chance to compete in the Olympic games, though he was certainly talented enough. He was a multi-sport star at UCLA, and excelled in Track & Field. So did his older brother, Mack. 

Surely you know about Jesse Owens, who famously won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. One of those races was the 200m, which Owens won in 20.7 seconds, setting what was then a world record. 

Just a few tenths behind and winning the silver medal was Mack Robinson.

We'll never know what Jackie might have done in the 1940 or 1944 Olympics, had they occurred as planned. But we'll remember for all time what he did for baseball, and what his legacy is still doing for baseball. It's just worth remembering that to a degree, he was following in his brother's footsteps.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

All-Star Week

Now that the All-Star break is complete, the second half of the MLB season is underway. Even though we call it the halfway point, the true midpoint of the season falls around the end of June or beginning of July, but I'm sure the players don't split hairs like that. I'd bet a lot of them, especially those on contending teams, would perceive the midpoint to be around the trade deadline at the end of July, or even later.

It's a long season.

Traditionally, I use the All-Star Break as an excuse to do some entertaining at my home, but this year I had the rare opportunity to attend the festivities in person. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, I hadn't been to the ballpark since the final Rockies home game of 2019. It was a bit weird to be back among a crowd of that size (or really to see Coors Field that full in general), but it was a fun experience.

2021 Topps Heritage #31 Pete Alonso

Pete Alonso was the big winner Monday night at the Home Run Derby, and he took home the trophy for the second consecutive time. For that occasion I sat in the Rockpile at Coors, the distant bleacher section in straightaway center. A former coworker of mine had an extra ticket and invited me along, which is exactly the same way I got a World Series ticket back in 2007. It really helps to be the first baseball guy everyone thinks of.

Normally, the Rockpile is far, far away from the action, but it was actually a pretty solid seating area for the Home Run Derby. Anything that was hit over the center field wall was out of sight for me, but for the tape-measure shots landing in The Rooftop or on the left field concourse, I had a surprisingly good view. Sort of like being in a control tower.

To make sure fans got a good show, none of the balls used in the Home Run Derby were kept in the humidor, where game balls are usually conditioned for a month. This ensured that souvenirs reached the deepest parts of the park, both in batting practice and in the tournament itself. One BP ball landed directly on the concrete fifteen feet or so behind me when I was standing on the concourse eating a burger. I lost an inch of beer as a sea of humanity suddenly closed in around me.

Nowhere was safe.

My friend stayed in that area for the entire tournament hoping to catch a ball, and a couple of Pete Alonso's shots were right in his vicinity. 

This 2021 Topps Heritage card is pretty much how Polar Bear looked all night. No batting helmet, admiring a long home run in his post-swing pose. Repeat 74 times throughout the evening, walk away with $1 million. 

Incidentally, Alonso has made more money winning two Home Run Derby tournaments than he's made from his regular playing career so far.

2020 Topps Heritage #346 Trey Mancini

Trey Mancini was Alonso's foe in the final round, and while he put up a respectable 22, it wasn't enough to take the title. But he beat Matt Olson and hometown favorite Trevor Story to get all the way to the final.

If you've watched this tournament since they changed it to a timed format, you'll know that distance equals time. That is, if you hit especially long home runs, you'll earn a little extra time to keep hitting dingers. In past years, players had to hit two homers beyond 440 feet to qualify for bonus time. This year, the distance to qualify was increased to just one beyond 475 feet. Almost everyone got it. 

It was a quite a show. And it was inspiring to see Trey Mancini do so well, because he was being treated for stage 3 colon cancer little more than a year ago. The back of this 2020 Topps Heritage card tells us that he almost went into medicine, like a few of his close family members. Last year, he got a closer look at the healthcare system than he intended, for several reasons.

2020 Topps Big League Roll Call #RC-25 Shohei Ohtani

I raided a few piles on my card shelf to find most of these, and this insert is from a blaster of 2020 Topps Big League that I have yet to blog about. Big League is growing on me more and more, and this is the second consecutive post containing that crossed-bats "BL" logo. The Roll Call insert set tells us a lot about how the players interact with their fans and how popular their merchandise is. Apparently, the Angels simply can't keep Ohtani gear in stock.

And judging by the buzz around Shohei Ohtani, I believe it. Coming into the Derby, he was the league leader in home runs, and showed everyone in the ballpark why. Fans that would usually be much too far away to catch a ball were in striking distance. If you're visiting The Rooftop or sitting just below it, normally you can enjoy your snacks, take in the Denver skyline, and perhaps enjoy a sunset if the weather is just right. But on Monday, the fans up there needed to keep their eyes peeled. Juan Soto, who ended up beating Ohtani in the first round after an exhilarating series of tiebreakers, hit the longest homer of the night up there at 520 feet.

A surprising number of Derby participants, including Trevor Story and both finalists, weren't even on the actual All-Star Game roster the following day. But Ohtani most definitely was, and he made history by being both the starting pitcher and leadoff hitter. Seeing him play will definitely be a story to tell someday.

2018 Stadium Club #241 Aaron Judge

I've been going to games since I was a kid, and I've still never seen the Twins or Royals play. So to have a chance to see all the superstars in one place on one day is pretty amazing. For Tuesday's All-Star Game, I sat in right field near the foul pole. I was in the first row of the third deck, several rows below The Rooftop. And I had a great view of Aaron Judge throughout most of batting practice and for the first few innings

As each session of batting practice winds down, players often toss balls to fans in the first few rows of the lower sections. But Judge took aim at the second level of the Rooftop, basically the very top of the stadium and approximately where the purple row would be. I saw him fling four or five balls all the way up there, at least as high as the foul pole. All the while he had a huge smile on his face.

I am now an Aaron Judge fan.

Batting practice was effectively a continuation of the Home Run Derby itself. I'm not sure who was up at the time, possibly Joey Wendle, but during BP a few balls came screaming into the third deck. One landed nearby about three or four seats to my left, and at a terrifying velocity. I didn't end up with that ball either, but I didn't really bother trying. I was ten feet away and I knew it was a hopeless endeavor, as it was snatched up in a split second.

Sure got my heart racing, though.

Of course, there was a special pre-game tribute to the late Hank Aaron, with a video on the scoreboard and specially-commissioned artwork presented to his widow. His uniform #44 was mowed into the right field grass, and all players wore that number during the Home Run Derby.

2019 Topps #602 Germán Márquez

As the game itself got started, Nolan Arenado got a great standing ovation, a continued show of appreciation from Denver-area fans. I missed the series a couple weeks ago when the Cardinals came to town, so I had to wait until the player introduction ceremony and his at-bats to voice my support.

Germán Márquez, the lone current Rockie on the All-Star roster, pitched the 4th inning and got quite the ovation of his own as he struck out the final batter.

2019 Topps Base Set Photo Variations #700D Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. /Fielding 

Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. was the ultimate star of the show, hitting a Derby-worthy solo home run in the third inning, eventually being named the game's MVP as the American League won the Midsummer Classic yet again.

Also, apparently Chevrolet doesn't give away a car to the MVP anymore? Did I miss that announcement? I told the kids sitting next to me that Vlad was about to get a free Corvette C8 or something. Disappointed them for no reason.

2021 Topps Opening Day Mascots #M-2 Wally the Green Monster

In any case, there was a lot to do all weekend. I already did a post about the Play Ball Park, but I missed the Futures and Celebrity games, and didn't make it to see the Red Carpet show. I didn't watch much of the Draft either. It's a jam-packed schedule. But there's a little more to tell.

On the first-level concourse, near the alarmingly long line to get into the merchandise store, many of the team mascots were keeping the fans company. Among the sightings were Mr. Met, Rosie Red, Stomper, Fredbird, Orbit, the Phillie Phanatic, and Wally the Green Monster. The All-Star Game is truly a place where all the greats are brought together.

Prior to the Derby, my friends and I stopped into the Hall of Legends, a temporary memorabilia display in the new McGregor Square complex across 20th Street from Coors. The showcase consisted of jerseys, bats, and other memorabilia from Marshall Fogel, a local Denver-area collector. You might remember something similar from the Play Ball! exhibit several years ago.

And there was one other thing.

1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle (PSA GEM-MT 10)

One of three known Gem Mint 10 examples of a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle.

This has gone on display on rare occasions in the past, but what better way to celebrate All-Star week than to let the public have a glimpse of this ultra-valuable baseball card. A PSA 9 recently sold for over $5 million, so this one is likely worth around $10 million.

Sometimes I wonder if the entire production run of something like 1988 Donruss is worth that much. That's a question for another day, I suppose.

The last time Denver hosted the All-Star Game was in 1998. At that time I was in no position to attend, and I'm glad I was able to this time around. It's a once-in-a-generation experience to take part in the festivities, and I'm excited to look back on this decades down the line to see how many of these guys ended up in the Hall of Fame.