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.