Sunday, September 25, 2016

Cut Short

"Fernandez's statistical possibilities boggle the imagination."

2014 Topps Spring Fever #SF-20 Jose Fernandez
So said Topps in 2014 about Jose Fernandez, the Marlins ace who lost his life Sunday morning in a boating accident. He was just 24 years old, but already had a Rookie of the Year award and two All-Star appearances under his belt.

This card has appeared here before, marking the Baseball Solstice in the 2014-2015 offseason. No one could know that it would make another appearance under much worse circumstances. Fatal boating accidents have struck active Major Leaguers before, as you may recall the 1993 incident that claimed the lives of Tim Crews and Steve Olin. Even outside the baseball world, 2016 has seen its share of untimely celebrity deaths, including Prince and David Bowie, to lesser-known figures like Anton Yelchin and Christina Grimmie.

My thoughts are with the family and friends of Jose Fernandez, as well as the Miami Marlins organization.

I've had a post in mind for a while that's a bit of a downer, and I feel like today might be an appropriate day to share it. Of course, this is not to take away from what happened with Jose Fernandez, who was one of the most promising young pitchers in the game.

A little over a month ago, I did a Cubs-focused post with cards I had obtained at a card show in early 2015. Those cards, and others from that post, have been sitting on my card table for quite some time. As I went through them recently, a theme started emerging that really wasn't all sunshine and roses, like it usually is on this blog, various lamentations about Rockies' losses aside.

1994 Fleer Golden Moments #5 Bo Jackson
Bo Jackson, a multi-sport star, was poised for all-time greatness, but experienced a hip injury on an innocent-looking tackle in 1991 that put an end to his NFL career. The Royals didn't expect him to return to baseball, either, but the White Sox gave him a chance, as depicted on this Fleer insert card that mentions the injury. "Bo's Back", according to the back of this Golden Moments card, long before Topps made an insert set of the same name. Jackson helped the White Sox reach the playoffs in 1993, which was the first postseason that I remember watching. Wilson Alvarez, Tim Raines, and Bo Jackson were some of the first American Leaguers I ever watched on TV in the 1993 ALCS.

He played for the Angels the following year, but decided to retire from baseball after that strike-shortened 1994 season, yet another player whose career was ended by the strike.

2011 Topps Opening Day Blue #106 Todd Helton /2011
Todd Helton had a stellar career for the Rockies, and he was my answer when I was asked the other night during a business trip to the Dallas area who the best-ever Rockies player was. All those doubles and a World Series appearance count for a lot. He was loved in Denver (though there was that DUI incident), but you can't play this game forever. Helton retired in 2013, leaving a bit of a vacuum at first base, even if he does have a burger stand named after him at the ballpark. And he played in the era in which Topps Opening Day Blue parallels still had serial numbers. In gold, no less.

1982 Topps #781 Pete Rose IA
Ten years after Topps debuted the In Action subset, they used it again in the 1982 set. All-time MLB hits leader Pete Rose got a card that likely depicts one of his 4,256 hits. Like Rickey Henderson, Rose is the career leader in several statistics, which are games played, plate appearances, at-bats, and of course hits. Rickey leads not only in stolen bases, but also runs scored, and times caught stealing.

Rickey, of course, is in the Hall of Fame, but Pete Rose is not, despite his accomplishments. His gambling scandal landed him on the list of players permanently ineligible from baseball, which has kept him out of the Hall.

There are a lot of names on that list, including the names you might expect like Joe Jackson and other Black Sox players, along with players, umpires, and managers from long ago that were involved with throwing games. Clearly, baseball does not look kindly on gambling. If you're in a position to affect the outcome of the game, that's one thing, but even Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were briefly banned in the mid-1980s for the mere sin of representing a casino in a promotional capacity long after their careers ended.

The Hall of Fame can choose to keep out the all-time hits leader (other than Ichiro, sort of), but if they keep that up, as well as snubbing pretty much any steroid user, enforcing their own sense of morality risks cheapening the value of the Hall itself. A baseball Hall of Fame that doesn't include Pete Rose, Joe Jackson, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, etc... really doesn't give you a complete list, does it?

2013 Topps Chrome 1972 Chrome #72C-RB Ryan Braun
Unless that policy changes drastically, here's another guy that won't be in Cooperstown anytime soon, Ryan Braun. He was suspended for about half of the 2013 season after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Whatever accomplishments remain in his career, he's unlikely to get full recognition for them, even if he happens to lead the Brewers to their first-ever championship someday.

Topps is still happy to print nice, shiny cards of Braun in the great 1972 design, so at least Topps knows what the fans want.

2010 Topps Chrome Refractors #209 Daniel McCutchen
It's not just the superstars that used steroids, even players you've never heard of did too. That's why I think steroid use wasn't such a big deal in and of itself. Bonds stood head-and-shoulders above the league even when a large portion of his competitors were using the same compounds. But Daniel McCutchen tested positive as a Minor Leaguer in 2013, and was slapped with a 50-game suspension. He has no relation to the other McCutchen on the Pirates, Andrew, but believe me when I say I experienced a moment of panic when I saw "McCutchen suspended 50 games for positive drug test" on the ESPN ticker just a couple weeks after I selected Andrew as my Fantasy team's first pick.

Daniel McCutchen, despite his use of PEDs, didn't have his performance enhanced that much. He was almost 27 before his Major League debut, and even then, finished with an 8-11 career record over five seasons. He even had an infinite ERA in 2012, giving up two earned runs in one appearance without recording an out. The old divide by zero error doesn't strike many pitchers, so clearly PEDs help some more than others.

All that aside, at least Topps gave him a nice bunting card in 2010.

2014 Topps Archives #175 Yogi Berra
If you've watched any Yankees games this year, you've probably seen a little numeral 8 on their uniform sleeves. That's a memorial for Yogi Berra, the Yankee great who passed away about a year ago. There aren't many players whose count of World Series rings exceeds his uniform number. He was a comedic genius, too, so he'd probably say something along the lines of "I guess I beat the spread" if he were presented with that statistic.

Yogi does look good on the 1989 design in 2014 Archives. I'd say this photo is better than most of what was found in the actual '89 set.

2012 Bowman Sterling Refractors #47 Jordan Pacheco
Even the normal course of baseball transactions leaves some disappointment in its wake. Jordan Pacheco, who appears on a very shiny, serial-numbered Bowman Sterling card, is no longer with the Rockies. He's bounced around the NL for the last few years, but he was one of my favorite young Rockies who came of age as Helton's career was wrapping up.

This card pretty much feels like a Topps Chrome card, maybe a tiny bit thicker. I can't remember if I got it from Christian, my usual dealer at card shows, or from the new guy who bought all of Adam's inventory, the other dealer at the monthly show that I liked to visit. Adam bowed out of the hobby, and as I haven't been to a show since then, I don't know if the new dealer is still active.

2012 Finest #90 Jose Reyes
Jose Reyes was briefly a Rockie following the blockbuster Troy Tulowitzki trade. The Rockies cut him following a domestic violence incident, and he's now back on the Mets where his career began. If the Mets don't choke like they did in 2007, Reyes should make the playoffs again with last year's NL pennant winners. They're tied with the Giants for the NL Wild Card spots, but the always-dangerous Cardinals are definitely in the hunt.

The Marlins, where Reyes played for one season as shown on this color-coded Topps Finest card, are a bit further out, but they've been a factor in the Wild Card race for some time. To lose their ace in such a tragic accident marks a bitter end to the 2016 season. They cancelled their game against the Braves today, and the league observed a moment of silence before each of today's games.

2014 Topps Gold #25 Troy Tulowitzki /2014
More than Pacheco, I really liked Troy Tulowitzki. I've seen this photo numerous times before, and it's a reminder of the days when the Tulo chant echoed throughout Coors Field. Now they do the chant in the Skydome, but he might make the playoffs two straight years if the Blue Jays hold on to a wild card spot in the tight AL East. That's definitely not what would have happened if he stayed in Denver.

CarGo was quoted on the back of Tulo's card, right under the serial number. He says, "When [Tulowitzki]'s not playing, we are a completely different team." Players like Arenado, Story, Blackmon, Gray, and Dahl have helped the Rockies forge a new identity following the trade, but somehow it'll never be quite the same.

Of course, the same goes for the Marlins, and for a much worse reason. It puts things in perspective. When they trade your favorite player, it never feels good. But when an accident like that happens to a 24-year old who made his mark in America after defecting from Cuba, it's a whole different story.

2012 Topps A Cut Above #ACA-17 Tim Lincecum
I don't know. Maybe I shouldn't be writing any of this today. Maybe every one of these words is inappropriate given the situation. But it helps, just remembering that even if things didn't end up that great, there are always good memories to look back on.

Tim Lincecum's career has gone through some tough times recently. He has three World Series rings, but a competitor like that always wants to do the best he can. The two-time Cy Young winner's statistics have been consistently trailing off for years, but he keeps setting his sights on a comeback. The Angels gave him a chance, but he went 2-6 this season. As we saw with Bo Jackson over twenty years ago, hip surgeries aren't easy to come back from.

This die-cut card is from the same set as a Troy Tulowitzki card I got via trade recently, and it shows Lincecum's trademark wild hair. He had a lot to do with the Giants' even-year magic, and without his presence, the streak might come to an end.

2014 Topps The Future is Now #FN-3 Shelby Miller
Shelby Miller has also had a rough go of it. He's back in Arizona's rotation, but he was demoted to Triple-A for a month or so this summer. He's getting things back on track, but went 2-9 in the first half. Zach Greinke hasn't had a great first season in Arizona either. And the trade that brought Miller to Arizona was so heavily in the Braves' favor that plenty of sportswriters could hardly believe it. I was expecting a better season out of Arizona, but maybe that will wait until next year.

2012 Topps Opening Day #189 Mariano Rivera
Lots of iconic players that have been the faces of baseball for the past couple decades finally decided to call it a career. The Yankees are having a tough time succeeding in, let alone making the playoffs since Rivera's retirement in 2013. Rivera set the all-time high-water mark for saves, with 652. And that's not even counting the 42 postseason saves he had in his storied career. Five World Series rings (and oh-so-close to a sixth), a World Series MVP award, and the last player to wear the number 42, the same as his postseason save count.

He appears on this foil-free Topps Opening Day card, but Rivera will always be associated with the last game of the season much more than the first.

2007 UD Masterpieces #14 David Ortiz
Ortiz has been just as important to Boston's recent string of championships as Rivera was to the Yankees. He's up to 37 home runs on the year, which is his final season, or so he says. The Red Sox will be in the 2016 Postseason, so Ortiz still has room for a little more. No one has ever hit more home runs in his final season than Ortiz has now, and there's still a week left in the regular season.

Like Rivera's saves, Ortiz's 17 postseason home runs carry more importance than his 540 in the regular season. He's certainly worthy of an Upper Deck Masterpieces card, and he still had two rings yet to earn when this was printed, one against my beloved Rockies.

2012 Bowman Gold #63 Alex Rodriguez
A-Rod isn't as well-liked as Ortiz or Rivera, but he's still one of the greats. And will probably be in line behind Ryan Braun in the Not-in-the-Hall-of-Fame club. He entered the majors at just eighteen years of age. I knew he was a young rookie, but I checked Baseball Reference to be exactly sure. I thought I had heard seventeen at one point. His first game was on July 8th, 1994. That date looked very familiar, and I collected enough cards back then to remember seeing that date on John Valentin's 1995 cards as the date he turned an unassisted triple play for the Red Sox.

Even weirder, guess who the Red Sox were playing that day? Yes, Seattle. A-Rod was in the hole when it happened, but A-Rod got to witness an unassisted triple play in his very first Major League game. You can even see him in the dugout during that clip. I remember hearing about it on the radio, but I had no idea that a rookie in that game would go on to be such an important figure in the baseball world. Who would know that? The announcers barely realized what happened during the play.

He's known for one of the most valuable contracts in baseball history, and there was talk of him hitting 900 home runs before his career ended. However, he was suspended for the entire 2014 season over his involvement with PEDs. He retired earlier this season with 696 career home runs. He probably wouldn't have caught Bonds or Aaron, but if he played in 2014, I bet he'd have passed Babe Ruth.

1998 Topps HallBound #HB2 Tony Gwynn
Topps was spot-on with this 1998 card of Tony Gwynn, predicting that he was on his way to being voted into Cooperstown. That prediction came true in 2007 on his first ballot. Topps did a pretty good job with these. They picked fifteen players for this die-cut insert set, and all are indeed in the Hall of Fame, or at least they should be. Most who aren't I've already mentioned, which are McGwire, Bonds, and Clemens. The only arguably borderline case in the set was Juan Gonzalez, who did have two MVP seasons, but was one of the main faces of the steroid scandal, which torpedoed his already unclear chances.

Tony Gwynn won eight batting titles in his career, and he was rightly awarded with a plaque in Cooperstown. His career average was .338, and that's the highest any recent player has attained by quite a bit. Come on, he's the only guy in the top-20 with a color photograph.

Sadly, he only got to enjoy that Hall of Fame status for less than a decade. He passed away in 2014 from what he attributed to a tobacco-caused cancer.

2013 Topps Chasing History #CH-55 Ken Griffey, Jr.
Like Gwynn before him, Ken Griffey, Jr. is now a member of the Hall of Fame. He's the highest draft pick to ever make it, and Mike Piazza, his counterpart in the class of 2016, was the lowest draft pick to ever make it. This Chasing History card, one of my favorite insert sets from 2013, told us that Griffey could consistently be relied on for at least 20 home runs a season. Sometimes a lot more. In 1998, while McGwire and Sosa were battling to break Roger Maris' record, Griffey quietly finished in third place with 56, the same count he had in 1997.

Plus he was the guy to collect back in the 1990s, along with Frank Thomas. Those two guys were the blue chips of pre-strike Beckett values.

2007 UD Masterpieces #65 Alex Gordon (RC)
I guess at the end of the day, despite tragedy, misfortune, illness, disappointment, and the simple passage of time, the game carries on. Sometimes it's as simple as this: you get to win a World Series, and your biggest problem is being dropped from the 2006 Topps base set. Cory Lidle, on the other hand, made it into the 2006 Topps Update set, but for a sad reason.

Baseball has been there for this country in hard times. It helped distract people from the depression as soon as they figured out how to light a field. It helped normalize relations with Japan after World War II. And it helped America start healing after the world-changing events of 9/11. It just becomes a little paradoxical when it occurs within the baseball world itself.

And we won't get to hear the legendary Vin Scully guide us through the game after this season, as we have since 1950.

I'm sure we'll see the Marlins wear a memorial patch next week and for the duration of next season. But they lost more than their ace pitcher with amazing reflexes. They lost a bright young athlete who loved the game and who loved life.

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