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.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

All-Star Weekend

It has been a very long time since I've blogged about cards the same day I acquired them. But we can restart that clock, because I swung by the Topps booth at the Play Ball Park earlier today and picked up a few packs of 2021 Topps Series 2.

The Play Ball Park is basically what MLB used to call FanFest. To coincide with All-Star week, they filled the huge Colorado Convention Center in Downtown Denver with all sorts of baseball-related activities and exhibits. It's running for several days until the All-Star Game itself occurs on Tuesday. Tickets were free, and I happened to snag one a few weeks ago. It was quite an experience for me, because I haven't been in a crowd even approaching that size since long before the pandemic started.

Some of the highlights of the Play Ball Park included a display from the Hall of Fame, which had historic items ranging from Hank Aaron's 714th home run ball to Jose Canseco's batting helmet to Larry Walker's Spongebob shirt. A separate exhibit gave us a look at some of the various trophies bestowed upon star players, like the Silver Slugger bat and the Roberto Clemente award. The Negro League Hall of Fame had an exhibit too, with glassed-in "lockers" for legends like Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, and two-way player Martín Dihigo. All sorts of kid-friendly activities like a softball diamond, batting cage, and more were there too.

But the main highlight for me and my first destination was the Topps booth. They had lots of Series 2 for sale, along with an offer of an event-exclusive card if you bought three packs at $4 each and turned in the pack wrappers. As I was slowly reminded of how expensive it can be to venture into public, I was greeted by the shiny 70th Anniversary seal on each of the base cards. But before we get to that, let's have a look at that exclusive card.

2021 Topps Big League All-Star FanFest #ASFF-3 Trevor Story

Unless you've seen the sell sheets, I'm assuming this is your first look at the delayed 2021 Topps Big League design. They picked a half-dozen upcoming Big League cards to make this special set, and I picked the lone Rockie on offer, Trevor Story. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, to be honest. These aren't even on Beckett yet. I'll try to get a blaster once these actually hit the market, but it's appealing at first glance. It's not too overdone, and vaguely reminds me of something like 1993 Donruss or 1993 Pacific.

The back specifically mentions Story's two previous All-Star appearances, which included a home run in his 2018 All-Star debut. He didn't get selected to the roster this year, although he will be participating in the Home Run Derby on Monday evening. He's matched up with Joey Gallo in his bracket pairing, and it's sure to be a great show. They're not using the humidor at Coors Field for the Derby, so we can expect at least a few baseballs to be put into orbit. 

Around Jupiter, that is.

Unfortunately, the card back has a bit of damage. There's a strip a couple millimeters wide across the whole back that looks like heat damage or something. Like the gloss was melted. I've heard Topps has been having some quality control issues lately, and maybe this is a similar example of what other collectors have been seeing. 

2021 Topps #541 Corey Dickerson

At least the base cards themselves looked fine. As expected, the design is basically the same as Opening Day, except the Opening Day banner is replaced with a seal of silver foil in the upper left. Topps has been at this for seventy years, which sounds like quite a bit more than the forty they were commemorating on the 1991 set nearer the start of my collecting career. 

Trevor Story might not be an All-Star, but Germán Márquez is, and he's the lone Rockies representative. Márquez made his way to the Rockies via a trade with the Rays, and Corey Dickerson was the primary return piece. He's been a journeyman since, playing for both Florida teams, both Pennsylvania teams, and was traded to the Buffalo/Toronto Blue Jays a couple weeks ago.

2021 Topps #616 Alex Dickerson

Corey Dickerson is not to be confused with Alex Dickerson, the Giants outfielder. No relation between the two, and only Corey has an All-Star appearance. Both have had great games in Coors Field, though. Corey played for the Rockies for three seasons, and Alex has spent his whole career in the NL West, frequently getting chances to use the Coors Field launching pad. As the card back tells us, he did just that on September 1st, 2020, hitting three home runs for sixteen total bases during a 5-for-6 day at the plate.

As you might imagine, the Giants won that one, 23-5.

2021 Topps #641 Nick Markakis

As the Dickerson not-brothers continue their Major League careers, Nick Markakis decided to end his. He retired after fifteen seasons with the Orioles and Braves, getting up to 2,388 hits. That makes this 2021 Topps card a sunset card, showing us his complete career record going back to 2006 with Baltimore. He wasn't known for great power, and dropped into single-digit home runs for several of his later seasons. But he was a reliable player, a one-time All-Star, a Silver Slugger, and a three-time Gold Glove winner.

And fans will never forget that time he took strike one.

2021 Topps #582 Dwight Smith Jr.

We're very much in the age of second-generation Major Leaguers. Tatis, Guerrero, Bichette, Biggio, Bellinger, Gordon, and many more. I recently found out that Ke'Bryan Hayes is the son of former Rockies third baseman Charlie Hayes. And anyone who completed an overproduction-era set would probably also recognize the names McCullers, Varsho, Romine, and Mondesí. 

I guess it's always been this way, with the Boones and the Alous and the Griffeys and so on, but following this game long enough to see two generations come through feels a little unsettling.

Dwight Smith, Jr. is also on that list, the son of former Cubs outfielder Dwight Smith (Sr.). I haven't followed his career much, but he did get a good Tatooine card in 2021 Topps. I noticed a few of these in just a small stack, including Eric Hosmer's card. This generally requires the photographer to have a higher angle on the field of play, and that's something you'll probably see a bit more often on cards with 2020-vintage photos. Teams across the league didn't allow photographers in the well next to the dugout in 2020, instead stationing them five or so rows up in the seats.

Of course, Dwight Smith, Jr.'s face mask makes this an obvious relic of the 2020 season, but knowing what was happening behind the lens that year gives further confirmation if you know what you're looking for.

2021 Topps #486 South Side Strength / Yoán Moncada / Yasmani Grandal / José Abreu / Eloy Jiménez

Once upon a time, Topps used to cram 132 card numbers, an entire sheet's worth, onto a single checklist. They've trimmed that down significantly, fitting just 33 onto the back of this one. That's basically a fourfold increase in the number of checklists needed, approximately 21 cards in a 700-card set. I enjoy these fun photos as much as the next guy, but that's half a team worth of players that aren't represented in the main set. Couple that with almost 100 fewer cards in the set, and four more teams than we had prior to 1993, that squeezes a lot of players out of having their own card.

In any case, this four-player card shows (left to right) Yoán Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, Eloy Jiménez, and José Abreu. Both sides of the card tell us that these four guys hit four consecutive home runs, which happened on August 16th, 2020. That date was a purple visited hyperlink for me on Baseball Reference, and I had previously looked it up because of Carter Kieboom's commemorative Negro Leagues patch from his Opening Day card. You'll notice that these White Sox are wearing that same patch, pinpointing this to the actual date of the feat. The only slight inaccuracy is that Jiménez and Abreu should swap places to match the actual batting order that day.

2021 Topps #341 Franmil Reyes

That checklist pretty much has to have a horizontal orientation, but this one of Franmil Reyes could go either way. This photo looks like he might have just hit a walkoff home run, and in fact he did just that a couple days ago, a long shot over the tall left field wall in Cleveland.

I saw him play during his last few weeks as a Padre when I visited San Diego. The (loud) fan near me announced his "Franimal" nickname before each at bat. July 2019, the first series after the All-Star break. That was the last time I was on a plane or outside my home state of Colorado. At the end of that month, Reyes was traded to the Indians, which is where he's been ever since.

2021 Topps Rainbow Foil #421 Mark Mathias

Three packs, three inserts. On average I did just fine. I pulled this Rainbow Foil parallel of Brewers outfielder Mark Mathias, whom I have never heard of. It is his Rookie Card, and who knows, maybe in a decade this will be worth thousands of dollars, just like Mike Trout's 2011 Update parallels. 

Or not.

He actually hasn't played in 2021 yet, but this is a really shiny card. Even shinier than these rainbow cards are inside the Bunt app.

2021 Topps '86 Topps Autographs #86A-NN Nick Neidert S2 (AU)

My biggest hit of these three packs was a Marlin. It's an on-card autograph of rookie pitcher Nick Neidert. He pitched as recently as Thursday, so he's still getting his feet wet in the Majors. I hadn't heard of him either, but I have now.

The card back only congratulates me for pulling an autograph, but the front is very true to the 1986 Topps design. It's the logical evolution of the 35th Anniversary insert set that we saw in the previous post, and this color scheme works well for the Marlins. If Topps keeps this cycle up, next year will bring us back to the iconic 1987 set. I'm not sure how they'll handle that, since they featured that set heavily in 2017 when they decided a 30-year anniversary was more to their liking than 35.

2021 Topps 70 Years of Topps Baseball Series 2 #70YT-40 Bryce Harper

In any case, the Topps designs of my childhood are still fairly common in current packs. For their 70th anniversary, Topps felt that it was time to do another retrospective of all their base designs one-by-one to make a 70-card insert set. If you remember the 60 Years of Topps set from 2011, it's basically that again. A year-by-year look at each of the main sets Topps has released, some featuring current players and some retired stars. This one has Bryce Harper on the 1990 Topps design, and the card back tells us about the set itself rather than the player. 

This set "ushered in a new decade with pizzazz", explaining the various color schemes and gradients, and I can confirm that these green and white borders are period-correct. It also mentions that 792-card checklist that sounds so correct to me, along with some Nolan Ryan highlight cards and the famous Frank Thomas rookie. There is no mention, however, of the even-more-famous Frank Thomas error card. It's a card so famous my mom knows about it, and has bought 1990 Topps packs for me to check.

Trevor Story has his work cut out for him in the Home Run Derby. Tune in to ESPN Monday night at 6pm Mountain to see how he fares against Ohtani, Gallo, Mancini, and the rest. And if you find yourself at a Topps booth at a future Play Ball Park, open some packs! It's fun for all ages.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

What a Difference a Year Makes

I don't really remember when I bought it. It was most likely shortly before the seismic shift we all experienced in early 2020. But whenever it was, I've had a single value pack of 2020 Topps on my card table for quite some time. I bought the factory set last year, as I always do, and a few have trickled in via trade, so sorting through one pack was pretty low down the priorities list compared to everything else that's gone on since then.

2020 Topps #99 Dan Vogelbach

All this time, Dan Vogelbach's smiling face has been looking up at me, and by now this card has etched itself into my memory. I know no bigger fan of his than Tom at Waiting 'til Next Year, and I've seen quite a few variations of this card pop up in my blog feed thanks to him. The stocky player has been on my radar a lot the past few weeks, as he's now on the Milwaukee Brewers. The Rockies played the Brew Crew seven times since mid-June, losing five, which is partly the reason why Milwaukee was on an 11-game winning streak heading into Sunday.

Sadly, Vogelbach experienced a hamstring injury while playing in Arizona, and is out for six weeks. Lucky for him, he managed to score on the play anyway, thanks to some lackadaisical defense on the part of the last-place Diamondbacks.

2020 Topps #212 Mike Fiers

Mike Fiers is still with Oakland, but he's suffering from an elbow injury and has only made two starts this year. His facial hair is a lot more normal in this photo compared to what he's tried to pull off in the past. He's quite well-known for blowing the whistle on the Astros cheating scandal, but he's also thrown two no-hitters in his career, which this card back tells us. One of those came against the Dodgers, the other against the Reds. 

One of those teams has been no-hit so far in 2020. Surprisingly, it's not the Reds. 

The card back concludes by telling us that Fiers is one of only 35 pitchers with multiple no-nos, certainly an elite club. The list of those with three or more is far more exclusive, as mentioned by Justin Verlander when he threw his third in 2019. Nolan Ryan leads with a whopping seven, likely an unbreakable record, even with the way they've been piling up lately.

2020 Topps #262 Anthony Santander

I haven't followed Orioles right fielder Anthony Santander much during his career, and this card doesn't tell us anything beyond his Major and Minor League stats. Still, this card definitely caught my eye thanks to Santander's special alternate jersey which includes the dazzling design of the Maryland state flag on the sleeves and shoulders. 

Camouflaged on his right sleeve is the number 20, a memorial patch the Orioles wore in 2019 for Frank Robinson. Robinson played for the Orioles from 1966-1971, winning an MVP award and two World Series rings. He became the first Black manager in MLB history as a player/manager for Cleveland in 1975. You might find him in your 1991 Topps set and other overproduction-era boxes back when Topps still gave us manager cards.

2020 Topps #86 Hyun-Jin Ryu LL

We lost a lot of baseball legends in 2020, but sadly plenty more passed away in 2019, too. Don Newcombe died in February 2019, and the Dodgers honored "Newk" with a #36 patch, which you can see on Hyun-Jin Ryu's right sleeve.

As noted by the yellow banner on the card, this is actually a League Leader card. You have to flip the card over to find out which stat is being profiled here, and it happens to be ERA. Ryu's 2.32 edged out Jacob deGrom's 2.43, although deGrom is practically a lock to win that title this year. deGrom has been slipping a bit, but it's still below 1.00. And in any case, Ryu is playing for Toronto now. He switched leagues, but technically hasn't switched countries yet, as the Blue Jays are still playing in Buffalo for the time being.

And Don Newcombe still isn't in the Hall of Fame.

2020 Topps #121 DJ LeMahieu

Counting those Blue Jays, it's been over sixty years since there were three MLB teams playing their home games in the state of New York, and almost a century since the Yankees finished a season as the worst of three. It's a technicality, I'll grant that, but it just goes to show what a dominant franchise The Bronx has had for longer than anyone can remember.

Generally speaking, the Yankees don't do memorial patches the way most other teams do. There are occasional patches, often guided by whether a Yankee has had their number retired, but they're more known for wearing black armbands instead, as we can see on DJ LeMahieu's left sleeve. Gio Urshela has another example of this. This particular one was for longtime Yankees All-Star and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.

After getting good looks at both the 2020 and 2021 Topps sets, I'm not sure I have a clear favorite. Both have lots of angles and parallelograms, but I do appreciate how much more readable the 2020 set was. I'm still finding myself squinting at 2021 Physical Base cards in Topps Bunt, and my eyes aren't getting better with age, let me tell you.

Nor is my back, but at least that's better than it was a couple posts ago.

2020 Topps #613 Isiah Kiner-Falefa

Sharp-eyed collectors will notice that this Rangers card of Isiah Kiner-Falefa is actually from Series 2. I didn't pull any Rangers in this pack, nor did I find any Rockies. The latter was because of a little bad luck, but the former was because I didn't manage to locate the one single Rangers card Topps added to Series 1. At the time. the card world was abuzz with speculation about why the Rangers were basically omitted, and I've since read that Topps was waiting to add the Inaugural Season logo for the team's new home at Globe Life Field. Nick Solak, the lone Rangers representative in Series 1, didn't have that logo on his card, but it's visible here in the lower right.

I guess it ended up being unintentionally accurate, since the ballpark wasn't able to officially open until late July 2020.

Kiner-Falefa has transitioned away from catching in favor of the left side of the infield, but catchers in full gear always make for a great card, and Topps made excellent use of the horizontal orientation here.

2020 Topps '85 Topps #85-18 Roger Clemens

You can always count on an insert or two even in the smallest of packs, and this pack came through with a couple pitchers. First up is another non-Hall of Famer, Roger Clemens, pictured with his original Red Sox team. Topps continued their Anniversary theme into 2020 by dusting off the 1985 design. We've seen this for quite a few years now, as we saw similar sets using the 1987, 1983, and 1984 designs.

Even though this young-looking Clemens is on the 1985 design, complete with red stirrups, I believe the photo itself is from 1990. The Red Sox have their own history of wearing black armbands, and I believe this one is what they wore in 1990 following Tony Conigliaro's death. I highly doubt I'd have been able to place this photo without that feature.

Topps reproduced the period-correct lime green background color on the card back, and considered Clemens's total career record when telling us about his massive counts of strikeouts and wins. Despite that, somehow they couldn't squeeze his full annual stats onto the back, cutting off five seasons prior to 1989. Not even his MVP year of 1986 is listed.

2020 Topps Turkey Red '20 #TR-33 Matthew Boyd

My other insert from this pack came from the again-resurrected Turkey Red set. It doesn't have the special texture it did back in 2005 and 2006, but it should still be familiar to collectors who have been around Topps brands for a while. I saw a Rockie arrive last year from Chavez Ravining, but this pack made sure I had both leagues covered. 

I don't know much about Matthew Boyd. After a quick glance at his Baseball Reference page, it appears that he led the AL in home runs allowed in both 2019 and 2020, but he seems to have settled down a bit this year. What I can tell you is that the knee sock style looks perfect on a retro design like Turkey Red.

2020 Topps Turkey Red '20 #TR-29 Nolan Arenado

I didn't pull this final card from a pack. Rather, it came to me from Brian at Highly Subjective and Completely Arbitrary. It was actually part of a prior trade, but I felt that this particular insert would fit better in this post. These must have been somewhat plentiful, as it's the second Turkey Red I've seen sent by a fellow blogger.

Nolan Arenado, noted as all Turkey Red subjects are as a "Prominent Base Ball Player", has his usual accolades and superstardom documented on the card back. "Defensive brilliance", "astonishing range", "annual fielding awards", and so on. This is not news. What's news since this card was printed is that now he's doing it for St. Louis.

It was a big weekend for him. The Cardinals were in town, marking Nolan's first return to Denver since his offseason trade. Denver-area fans gave him a warm standing ovation before his first at-bat, and it was an emotional moment for all. I didn't attend any of the games this weekend, but it looked a lot like Troy Tulowitzki's first return here in 2016.

It just so happens that Arenado was up to bat in the 8th inning as I wrote this. He grounded out to Ryan McMahon at third who made a play that looked a lot like many plays Nolan made himself at the hot corner.

Having your favorite player switch teams is never a fun experience. It's one of many ways in which a sense of stability is not something I particularly expect any longer. And the world has changed in far more profound ways than that since these cards were printed. But in another sense, things are as predictable as ever. This post's title is intentionally ambiguous, but after all is said and done, Nolan Arenado is still the starting third baseman for the National League in the upcoming All-Star Game here in Denver, and he's still making great plays out there (again, as I write this).

I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

The Start of a Strange Season (Part 2: Inserts)

It wasn't that long ago that I was regularly pulling three or four Blue Foil parallels out of a single blaster of Opening Day. Unless my luck has changed, I'm more likely to just find one with today's level of production. 

2021 Topps Opening Day Blue Foil #177 Gleyber Torres

And here it is.

No need to hit the panic button just yet. We're still far away from the days of 1991 Donruss Elite, an insert set which you'd be lucky to find within four cases, despite a 10,000 print run. But still, it's getting harder and harder to find what you're looking for. And I'm not even sure these have a limited print run anymore.

In much the same way, the Yankees are having a hard time finding wins this season. They're in a tough division (and they usually are the ones making it a tough division), so their 31-28 record is only good enough for fourth place. The twice-no-hit Mariners have scored more runs this year. 

Gleyber Torres isn't really to blame for that, since he missed some time due to COVID protocols, but he has since returned and I'm sure he's just aching to play a few games against Baltimore to get his bat going. The card back shows his full professional statistics, so there's no room for a fun paragraph, but it would be a perfect spot to mention his 13 home runs against the Orioles in 2019.

For the first time in a while, the date listed on the front of these Blue Foil parallels was truly Opening Day, league-wide. No overseas exhibition games a week early, no big-market rivalry matchup the day before. Everyone simply began April 1st at the starting gate, as it should be.

2021 Topps Opening Day Mascots #M-3 Mr. Met

The actual Opening Day has been in flux for a while, as have the insert sets found in the set itself, but Mascots are always there to delight us. This insert set is a big reason why I keep coming back to the brand.

For 2020, mascots didn't have fans to entertain nor many games to work, so most of these card backs mention their efforts in the community, such as working with MLB's Play Ball program or area nonprofits. All while properly masked, of course. Seeing mascots wearing masks reminds me a little of the airplanes that did too.

2021 Topps Opening Day Mascots #M-7 Sluggerrr

Sluggerrr of the Royals also masked up, and he looks a lot like I looked for most of last year. Wearing a mask, shielding his eyes to see into the distance (part of my new birding hobby), and holding a sign that says "Food". This mascot is reaching right out to me.

He's also surrounded by cardboard cutouts, and my single favorite mascot moment from the strange 2020 season was Blooper of the Braves pumping up the cutouts, motioning for them to get on their feet. 

Yes, Blooper fully embraced his role last year.

I showed these cards to my girlfriend, and she remarked at how strange it was that Sluggerrr's crown is a fully-formed structural part of his head. In truth, these aren't that different from a giraffe's actual horns. But Sluggerrr is supposed to be a lion. King of the Jungle and all that. He shares uniform #00 with Mr. Met, Dinger, and Carmelo Anthony of the Portland Trailblazers, who we watched a lot last week during the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Nuggets, whose mascot is a similar-looking mountain lion named Rocky, advanced to the second round.

2021 Topps Opening Day Mascots #M-16 Mariner Moose

As usual, Mariner Moose popped up for me as well. Seriously, I have an uncanny gift for pulling Mariner Moose cards. Someday I'd like to convert that into seeing a real one in the wild.

Mr. Moose looks exceptionally casual in this shot, throwing out the first pitch while wearing a pair of board shorts. Interestingly, I had a dream last night where I was on my way to throw the first pitch at a Rockies game. Somehow, I was identified as the one millionth fan at the gate, and was led as a VIP all over the stadium. I woke up before the actual ceremonial moment, but I'm pretty sure that's what they had in mind.

Somehow, I had the presence of mind while in the dream to question what the big deal was about being the one millionth fan. Even the lowest-attended teams pull in more than that during a season, Marlins excluded.

2021 Topps Opening Day Legends of Baseball #LOB-2 Roberto Clemente

Next up and new to the Opening Day insert family is the Legends of Baseball set. I'm pretty familiar with these from seeing them in the Bunt app, but it's nice to also have a physical copy. Each one has their place, and I'm starting to view it a bit like the physical book/e-book debate. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, but electronic cards save you the trouble of having to buy sleeves and pages and binders. I can carry lots of "cards" around in my pocket that would otherwise require expensive and hard-to-find supplies to store. 

So I effectively have two copies of this Roberto Clemente card. Say what you will about digital cards, but no one will argue that he's a Legend of Baseball. A frequent Gold Glove winner, an even more frequent All-Star, and a beloved figure in Pittsburgh. He's an undisputed legend, and we'll sadly never know how much more legendary his numbers could have been if not for his tragic death in 1972.

2021 Topps Opening Day Legends of Baseball #LOB-23 Rickey Henderson

On the other hand, unlike Clemente's 3,000 hits, we can be reasonably certain that Rickey Henderson's 1,406 stolen bases was about as high as that number could go. Rickey played well into his forties for any team that would take him, and he added just three steals to that number in his final season.

A career that long will bridge different eras of baseball, from the speedy early '80s into the power-heavy early 2000s. As we know, stolen bases are an endangered species these days, but Rickey was on the cutting edge of the latest movement to disregard the old unwritten rules. Rickey would often bolt for second (or third) regardless of the count or the score. And judging by how White Sox manager Tony La Russa is (publicly) handling his own players swinging away on a 3-0 count, I have to wonder how he and Henderson ever got along all those years in Oakland.

2021 Topps Opening Day Legends of Baseball #LOB-10 Derek Jeter

With all the Yankee greats we've seen over the years, including Lou Gehrig who now has his own special day in the MLB calendar, it's surprising that they had a single-digit number left to give to Derek Jeter, another obvious legend. With Jeter's number retirement in 2017, not to mention his imminent Hall of Fame induction, every number from 1-10, and many others, have been retired in the Bronx.

Each of these card backs picks a few key statistics that confirms their legendary status, and of course there's enough for each of these players to fill volumes. Jeter's card tells us that he reached the Hall of Fame in 2020 with 99.7% of the vote, without quite saying that he was one vote shy of unanimity.

2021 Topps Opening Day Opening Day #OD-1 New York Mets

Across town, the New York Mets have a lot more of these numbers still in circulation. This Mets outfield crew celebrating a win on Opening Day 2020 are Brandon Nimmo, Jake Marisnick, and Michael Conforto. Nimmo's #9 is no longer worn in the Bronx thanks to Roger Maris, and Marisnick's #16 (obscured by his glove) was retired for Whitey Ford. Only Conforto's #30 is still available in both boroughs.

All three of these guys look really happy to be in the Win column, a feeling they hadn't known for a long time due to the shortened season. As expected, staff ace Jacob deGrom pitched the season opener, and as expected, the Mets gave him next to no run support, relying on a solo shot by Yoenis Céspedes to win the game 1-0. That's still continuing this year, despite deGrom's sub-1.00 ERA putting him in the conversation with 1968 Bob Gibson. I just looked up his WHIP and it is 0.569. His ERA+, an advanced stat based on the league-average ERA, is a statistics-breaking 624, with the league average defined as 100.

I mean, this guy's WHIP looks more like a slugging percentage. This is all unheard of, yet he has a 5-2 record with two no-decisions.

Typical Mets.

2021 Topps Opening Day Outstanding Opening Days #OOD-4 Bryce Harper

There are a few other insert sets with long odds that I didn't pull, but I had good enough luck with the rest. Outstanding Opening Days is the last of the plentiful sets, and a young Bryce Harper is the lone representative I found from this 10-card insert set.

You might think this is from Harper's debut game in 2012, but his career didn't begin until late April that year. His first taste of a true Opening Day came during this game in 2013, where he hit two home runs against Ricky Nolasco of the Marlins. Those two solo shots were the only runs scored all day, during a game that barely cracked the two-hour mark.

We're well into June by now, with the season a bit beyond one-third over. In fact, this is about as long as the regular season lasted in the shortened 2020 year. The season is still pretty young, and the Rockies are planning on taking Coors Field to full capacity on June 28th for a day they are calling "Opening Day 2.0". 

Perhaps I'll blog about my 2020 Opening Day blaster by then.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Start of a Strange Season (Part 1: Base)

Max Scherzer looks like he's seen some stuff.

2021 Topps Opening Day #182 Max Scherzer

As have we all the past year or so.

It's been a while since I've picked up the proverbial pen to write about baseball cards. Things have gotten, uh, a bit out of hand lately. A few days after my previous post, Google decided that continuing to support email subscriptions in Feedburner was just too much trouble for a multi-trillion dollar company to bother with, so that led to an hours-long project of migrating all five (5) of my email subscribers onto a new platform.

That led me down a lengthy path of other computer projects, such as transitioning more of my digital life off of the Google platform. I know all too well who owns Blogspot and I won't be the least bit surprised if I need to do a sudden migration to Wordpress one of these days. That was followed by reorganizing my bookmarks, cleaning up old photos, tagging the last year or so of my Photoshop library, and so on. Pair all that with gingerly venturing back out into the world.

And then the back pain got bad. But that's a different story.

Suffice to say, it would be difficult to find time to write about cards even if it were easy to acquire them. Which, as you know, they no longer are, and that was before Target pulled the plug on the whole thing. So I ended up ordering my annual Topps Opening Day blaster from an eBay user. I paid the same price as Dave & Adam's is currently charging, and got free shipping. So it goes, I guess.

All that to explain why Max Scherzer's expression is just so appropriate, even if the photo isn't quite sharp enough to spot his heterochromia. 

2021 Topps Opening Day #189 Kyle Lewis

For the aforementioned reasons, I haven't bought a pack of this year's Topps base as I usually do by now. This is my first in-person look at the new design, and it's not my favorite. I wholeheartedly agree with the readability issues collectors have pointed out with the player's name. As a collector who grew up in the '90s, that's not entirely unfamiliar. Lots of the early gold foil sets among the Studio and Flair-type brands suffered from this, but it was usually easy enough to just flip the card over and see it on the back in a much more readable typeface.

That is not the case here. It's the same typeface on the back, just a tiny bit larger.

And in the Topps Bunt app, where the actual size on screen can be smaller than a postage stamp? The whole readability situation is quite a bit worse. I do like the hexagons, but they take such a back seat to the many other design elements, and I didn't notice them until leafing through the stack quite a few times.

The familiar Topps Rookie Cup gets a spot on Kyle Lewis's card, and deservedly so for the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year. This is a good photo selection, as we can see Lewis about to rob a home run.

2021 Topps Opening Day #205 Trent Grisham

It's been a strange season so far. We've seen a no-hitter basically once a week. We've seen unexpected injuries, a league-wide average lower than it's been in decades (with the Mariners scraping the bottom of the sub-.200 barrel), and young guys dragging MLB kicking and screaming into a new age, all while Tony La Russa puts more stock in the old unwritten rules than the new actual written ones.

Also, these guys all seem to be wearing these little sliding mittens while they run the bases, meant to shield their hands from hard tags and jammed fingers and accidental spikes. I'm pretty sure that's what's sticking out of Trent Grisham's back pocket as he lays out to make this outfield catch, about to land on the Future Stars banner that is larger on the card than his actual name.

2021 Topps Opening Day #102 Nick Solak

Topps says Nick Solak is a Future Star too, but what I really noticed on this and a lot of other cards in this blaster was the sheer volume of commemorative and memorial patches. A lot of teams had something special (or somber) on tap for 2020, such as the inaugural season of the new Texas Rangers park, Globe Life Field. It's where the Rockies began their shortened 2020 season, and where the whole thing wrapped up as a neutral site for the 2020 World Series. The patch on Solak's right arm shows the new stadium and its retractable roof.

2021 Topps Opening Day #104 José Berrios

Powder Blue uniforms are continuing their comeback, as we see José Berríos sporting the Twins alternate jersey in front of a largely empty stadium. In general, Topps went to great lengths to avoid showing empty seats with their photo selection this year, but a few cards do show the undeniable strangeness of the 2020 season. 

You have to look a little more closely to spot the patch on this one, as it's actually on the hat, not the jersey. It was the 60th Anniversary of the Minnesota Twins, marking a surprisingly long time since the first Washington Senators franchise migrated northward in 1960.

2021 Topps Opening Day #210 Chadwick Tromp (RC)

This one's a bit harder to spot, but on Chadwick Tromp's right sleeve, part of the "20 at 24" patch is visible, which marks the two decades the San Francisco Giants have spent at Oracle Park. 24 has nothing to do with Oracle or the many telecom companies that once held the stadium's naming rights, but rather it's an homage to Willie Mays. The Say Hey Kid wore #24 during his career, and the street address of Oracle Park was set to 24 Willie Mays Plaza in San Francisco.

2021 Topps Opening Day #22 Keston Hiura

Other anniversaries around the league included the 50th Anniversary of the Milwaukee Brewers, as shown on Keston Hiura's right sleeve. They began play in 1970, and yes, this calculation does omit the one year the franchise spent as the Seattle Pilots.

2021 Topps Opening Day #152 Dylan Carlson (RC)

2020 also represented the centennial of the Negro Leagues, or at least the centennial of when they reached a certain level of organization and talent with the formation of the Negro National League in 1920. Regrettably, segregation in organized baseball goes back basically as far as the game itself, to the mid-1800s, so saying 1920 really doesn't paint the full picture. In any case, Dylan Carlson of the Cardinals wore a special patch when he took the field one day last year.

2021 Topps Opening Day #61 Carter Kieboom

That patch was actually worn league-wide on August 16th, 2020, and you can see the same patch in the same spot on Carter Kieboom's uniform, placing him in Baltimore and Carlson on the South Side of Chicago. Kieboom being on base allows us to pinpoint this to the 5th inning that day. You can also get a better look at one of those sliding mittens on Kieboom's left hand.

2020 Topps Opening Day #118 Yoan Moncada

The patches continue with this period-correct throwback uniform worn by the White Sox. That patch on Yoan Moncada's left sleeve isn't very recognizable, but under magnification, it's the 1983 All Star Game patch, which the White Sox hosted that year. In fact, that's the same All-Star Game that we all wrote about back on April Fool's Day. I love the attention to detail necessary to make these throwbacks that perfect.

2021 Topps Opening Day #57 Santiago Espinal (RC)

Sadly, it wasn't all celebration and anniversaries last year. Quite a few of these patches were of the memorial variety, honoring those many baseball personalities who are no longer with us. Rookie Santiago Espinal has a black 1 on his sleeve, the number worn by Blue Jays All-Star Tony Fernández, who passed away at just 57. None of us are getting any younger, but it's especially tragic when a guy who was in all the overproduction sets dies, a guy whose contemporaries are still in managerial roles throughout baseball.

2021 Topps Opening Day #159 Dane Dunning (RC)

Dane Dunning of the White Sox, who's wearing a more contemporary Sox uniform, has a little diamond "Farmio" patch on his right sleeve, clearly visible in his follow-through motion. That's the nickname of Ed Farmer, who spent some time as a closer in Chicago, but was much better known as part of their broadcast team, spending almost thirty years behind the microphone.

2021 Topps Opening Day #155 DJ LeMahieu

These memorials cover off-the-field losses, too. DJ LeMahieu has an "HGS" included with his iconic pinstripes. That's for Hank Steinbrenner, part owner of the Yankees. In the Bronx, they usually wear a black armband for this sort of thing, but that honor may just be reserved for players.

2021 Topps Opening Day #142 Salvador Pérez

With the amount of loss we suffered last year, I'm sure there are more black patches to be discovered in this checklist, but the last one I found is the DG patch, worn by one of my favorite catchers, Salvador Pérez of the Kansas City Royals. Those are the initials of David Glass, the former Wal-Mart executive who owned the Royals and ran the team in much the same way as the stores. Lightning did strike in 2015 with a World Series championship, but winning seasons were few and far between during his ownership tenure.

In any case, Salvador Pérez in full catcher's gear makes for a great baseball card.

2021 Topps Opening Day #101 Andrew Benintendi

As is common with Topps cards released early in the year, players are often pictured with their previous year's team. Andrew Benintendi is now sharing the field with Salvador Pérez in Kansas City. Jackie Bradley, Jr., the cameo player in the dugout, is now on the Brewers for their 51st year. Their days of playing in an empty Fenway Park appear to be over.

2021 Topps Opening Day #69 Trevor Bauer

Bauer is on a new team, up to his usual antics as a Dodger.

2021 Topps Opening Day #5 Yu Darvish

Darvish is on a new team, and if he doesn't throw a no-hitter as a Padre this year, maybe it just won't happen for him.

2021 Topps Opening Day #42 Charlie Blackmon

Blackmon is still a Rockie, but that foreground cameo player, uh, isn't anymore. Nor is the GM that traded him away.

2021 Topps Opening Day #89 Albert Pujols

And finally, not that Topps had any way of knowing this in advance, Albert Pujols was unceremoniously DFA'd by the Angels in the final year of his contract, and is now playing for the injury-riddled Dodgers. He now has a home run in Dodger blue, inching ever closer to the 700 mark which he's unlikely to reach.

Pujols has seen more Opening Days than any other active player, whose career goes all the way back to his Rookie of the Year-worthy 2001 season, the same year that Cal Ripken, Jr. retired. I saw him play as a Cardinal, and though his performance has dropped off precipitously in recent years, he's one of the greatest players ever, and certainly one of the greatest to play in my lifetime.

I don't dare to guess what else this year has in store, but I'm fairly confident we'll see another no-hitter. Saying "I hope my back heals before the next no-hitter" doesn't sound quite as hopeless in 2021 as it would in almost any other season.