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.

1 comment:

  1. Great recap of current baseball events...thanks for the Opening Day insert images!