Wednesday, April 18, 2018

An American Dream

One of the amazing things about sports is the way that memories become like nesting dolls, one contained within another.  There's the story of the game - the late inning homer, the big putt, the perfect thrown pass.  But then there's our story.  Who we watched it with.  Where we were when we heard the call.  The memories WE make in our own lives over a sport.

Even when the outcome is predetermined.

When I saw the news earlier this morning that former WWF champion Bruno Sammartino passed away, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Bruno is a Pittsburgh icon, not to mention one of the most well known wrestlers of all time.  But my connection goes far, far deeper than that.  Bruno's story is intertwined with my own, both close yet distant.  Bruno Sammartino came to the States in 1950 at age 15, where his father had already been since before the war.  In 1928, my grandfather came to Pittsburgh from Italy.  He was 17 years old, made the long journey by boat alone before joining his father, who had been here for a few years, in a dusty mill town outside Pittsburgh.

Before the days of selling out Madison Square Garden, Sammartino got his start on a small local wrestling show in Pittsburgh called Studio Wrestling.  The way my dad tells it, it was must watch tv for my grandparents, dad, and uncles.  It was about more than just wins and losses, flips and punches.  My grandfather worked construction, hard, backbreaking work that was supposed to lead to a better life than what was possible in the Old Country.  The neighborhood was full of Italian families, mostly from the same cluster of towns in Apulia on the eastern coast of Italy.  It's the little spur above the heel of the boot jutting out into the Adriatic sea.

Like my grandfather, many of the immigrants came to the States speaking little or no English.  They took jobs in the nearby mill or working construction, the wave of Italians instantly becoming the low man on the totem pole.  My dad insists he and his three brothers grew up wanting for nothing.  But life was hard, and pleasures were simple.  My Nana loved bingo.  My dad and his brothers played ball in the local fields, and whenever possible to go see the wrestling cards.

Bruno Sammartino wasn't just the main attraction.  Bruno was the embodiment of the hopes and dreams that brought them to America.  The American dream of opportunity.  The boy from the Old Country making good.  His success was, indirectly, their success. 

Thirty years later, I made drives with my dad to the old neighborhood.  I was young - 4 or 5.  Most of the steel mills were long gone, though you could still see the impressive pillars of smoke rising from the mill near my grandparents' house.  The neighborhood had changed.  The main drag was filled with boarded up storefronts, gates over the windows.  My grandfather had had a stroke a year or two earlier, before I could remember.  He had lost the ability to speak or have much movement.  My only memories of him are feeding him cheese curls. 

They didn't have the money for proper medical care, so the three brothers took turns stopping by once or twice a day to check in on their parents.  They were always in the living room at the back of the house, my pap in a chair and nana sitting on the couch.  The only things I ever remember being on tv was televised mass or wrestling.  Bruno Sammartino had long since retired, but I think the familiarity was comforting for them.

I remember being plopped in front of the tv with the KFC we always brought for them while my dad would probably be busy doing what they needed and cleaning up the house.  And that's where I fell in love with professional wrestling, or studio wrestling as it would always be for Nana.  I lost interest in my teenage years until I started watching again over the last couple years, but growing up all those hours watching wrestling with my grandparents made me a huge fan.

So for me too Bruno Sammartino meant something more than just a wrestling champion.  He was indirectly my connection to grandparents I never knew as well as I'd like.  And for a generation of Italian-American Pittsburghers he was the shining example of what the American Dream could bring them.  It makes me appreciate the hardship and sacrifices my family faced so that I can have a relatively comfortable life.  And even though he's gone, Bruno will always be my world champ.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Taking on the Roster

I wanted to show off the other little custom project I'm working on this season.  I'm a little surprised it's taken me so long to act on the idea.  I've kicked around the idea of creating a team set for a few years, and even actually made most of the cards for one a few years back.

To some extent, it's a no brainer.  I was so excited for Topps Total and Upper Deck 40-Man.  I loved the idea of getting into all the nooks and crannies of the team's roster.  As I was working through some custom designs for what ultimately became my #DocumentaryNOW project, I ended up with a couple different designs I liked, but didn't want to use for that project.

For DocumentaryNOW, I liked the idea of using a design that had a more vintage feel.  But for a living team set?  I thought a more modern looking design was a better fit.

I guess I took some cues from two of my favorite Donruss sets here - 1990 and 1991 Donruss.  I'm going to slowly work my way through this team set, trying to find the best possible photo for each player.  Some, like the Polanco below, might get recycled from DocumentaryNOW.  But how cool is a play at the plate in the SNOW?  That's not something you see on a card every day.

 Even just taking my initial pass through the set, it's already clear that relievers are going to be trouble.  They don't get photographed much, and when they do the photos tend to be shots that are a better fit for a horizontal card.  My plans are to keep this set all vertical, which might result in some odd cropping.  We'll see how that goes throughout the season, and I may add in a horizontal design as well.
I'm also going to be making a Highlights subset, probably around 10-15 cards.  I'm still working on finalizing the design for that card, but I'm hoping to find a way to make it stand out from the DocumentaryNOW cards.  Even though they're technically two separate "series" I want to keep things as fresh as possible for my own stake if I'm going to keep this up for 162 games.

For those interested, Pirate DocumentaryNOW cards for the first 12 games are up on Twitter (you can follow the link earlier in the post).  We're still less than 1/10th of the way through the season, but I'm having a lot of fun with the set so far.  

I'd love to hear any thoughts or feedback, and of course it's not too late if any other teams want to jump on the bandwagon!  If you have access to Photoshop and the most minimal skills to change text/photos, I'd be more than happy to help create the card template if anyone is interested in joining in.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Very McCutchen Mailday

Even though the 2018 season is in full swing, it's still a little bit of an adjustment to see Andrew McCutchen not on the field for the Pirates.  Cutch was a fixture on the field, but also sort of carried the spirit of the team.  As I catch up on 2017 cards and the first few releases of 2018, I'm savoring the Cutch cards that come in, knowing they'll be the last releases in black and gold until he inevitably pops up in Archives sets hopefully mans seasons down the road.

I've had a steady stream of packages from bloggers and my team collector pals coming into the mailbox, so much so that I've been having trouble keeping up.

It's been fun seeing what I missed out on while taking a little hobby vacation.

Seeing Topps Gallery make a comeback brings out some mixed feelings.  I typically love art-driven products, and it always seemed a little odd that Gallery *wasn't* an art set in its early years.  Heck, on of my favorite pieces in my collection is the original painting from Jack Wilson's 2002 Gallery card.

 But these cards?  My feelings are split.  I love the clean white borders, which is a nice change of pace from Topps' usual hyper-busy design.  The art though?  Meh.  The McCutchen looks alright, while the Josh Bell leaves a lot to be desired.  I think it's the colored pencils that are making it tough for me to love these cards.  They just don't have the smoothness of a painted set.  The art in Topps' Living Set shows what these cards could have been.
 The package also had an auto of Bucs top prospect Mitch Keller.  Hopefully Keller can rise up the ranks successfully and avoid the Tyler Glasnow fate or imploding in the majors.  This is my first autos of his, so I'm glad to have this one queued up whenever he hits the bigs.
 One of the things I love about our team collector group is the sheer variety of cards that come in.  Some guys are box/blaster/case breakers and will dump the latest releases on you.  Others, like myself, are more likely to resupply for the other teams at a show.  I had a nice stack of inserts and early 00's refractors that I was able to scoop up at the show this weekend to fill out packages for the other teams.

Now it's just a matter of carving out some time to sort through all these cards and start building my 2017 and 2018 binders.

Monday, April 9, 2018

I Went To a Card Show, Just Not the One I Planned

Sometimes the best plans are mistakes.  Or at least that's what I'm going to tell myself.  See, I was at the grocery store a couple months ago when a guy stopped me.  I recognized the face, but couldn't quite place him until he said, "you collect cards, right?" 

He's one of the old school dealers in the area that only rarely sets up at shows, but I've bought off him at shows in the past.  He told me there was a show coming up in April - a small church show right down the street from my house that I've been to before.  April 7th.  My phone was almost dead, but I put it in my calendar.

Weeks rolled by and as we were coming up on this weekend, I realized the show was coming up.  Saturday was looking to be a packed day.  There was the card show and Kate had a roller derby bout.  The game wasn't until 7, but with setting up for the game and some things with ticket sales that she's involved with we were going to need to be out the door around 5pm.  I checked Beckett's show calendar to make sure I was leaving myself enough time for everything.

There it was, April 7th.  But the show was listed at a different venue about 5 minutes further than where I had though it would be.  Not a big deal obviously, and I assumed they had just switched venues.  I hopped in the car and headed over to the show.  It looked pretty unassuming when I walked in.  Maybe 10 dealers, only maybe half of which had anything even worth looking at as I scanned the room.  There was a guy who always has one table with about 20 signed baseballs, all well overpriced.  A video game/NASCAR diecast dealer, and a guy with tables of common Pirates bobbleheads I already have.  So those were easy passes.

But there were enough boxes that there was at least a good chance I'd be there for a few hours.  Oddly I didn't see the dealer who I had run into at the store who told me he was putting on the show.
 I'll be the first to admit that sometimes I buy out of sheer boredom.  I recently eclipsed the 19,000 unique cards mark in my collection.  It's tough to find cards at shows that I don't already have, and I often go in assuming the worst.  But it's usually made a little easier when you have an entire group of other team collectors to pick up cards for.
 The first dealer I walked up to had a decent array of $.25 boxes.  Being out of collecting for almost a year means that a) I had the itch to buy cards and b) my stockpile of nicer stuff to send out to my other team collectors in our group has run pretty low.  I was able to grab some decent cards for the others at a good price, and also snag a few fun inserts for my own binders.
 If you can't find current Pirates, the next best thing is a former Pirate.  And how often can you find a pitcher play at the plate card?

It's no shocker that when you find a seller with a good quarter box, you can usually bet that they'll have solid dime, $.50, $1, or whatever else boxes.  And while I didn't want to spend too much time digging, knowing that Pirates would be few and far between, I was able to dig out some fun cards for my binders.
I found a great run of 90's inserts and higher end base cards.  The Denny's Grand Slam cards were some of my favorites of the era, and about the only reason I would voluntarily eat at a Denny's these days.  I saw on Twitter that Denny's is doing some sort of Star Wars card promo with Topps - $3 for a 2 pack?  Meh.

But if they bring back the holo cards, I'm all in.

I get frustrated with modern cards because it gets tough for me to tell one year from another.  Show me inserts from Heritage or Opening Day and one year easily bleeds into the next.  I love how distinctive 90's cards are, but also how often they jumped through ideas.  Full borderless painted cards with some trippy themes from Fleer, and just a couple years you have some crazy holograms from UD.  The variety is what kept me interested as a collector.  And that's something that just feels like it's missing today.

Most of my pickups were impulse purchases.  I picked up a few Marino cards for my collection, some Steeler dime inserts in addition to the ones above, and some cards from sets I might like to tackle some day like the '93 Diamond Kings insert set.  But overall it was pretty unfocused.

But I didn't spend all my time in dime boxes.  The same seller had some game used and autographs out at 2/$5.  Usually these boxes are a pass for me unless they seem to be pretty high quality, since most of those cards can be found on COMC for half the price.

But as I flipped through the cards, I noticed this base relic from the '06 All Star Game.  I've been working on the game jersey insert from that year here and there since the game was hosted in Pittsburgh, and these base relics are a little tougher to come by.

And with my burning itch to buy, what the heck.  I found a Brandon Phillips autograph for my second card.  When we were living in Ohio, I really gained a new appreciation for Phillips as a player.  I got to meet him at Reds Caravan event and got his Expos 2000 Topps RC signed, so this was a good excuse to add a Reds autograph to my collection.  The Goudey design is great, an on card auto, and maybe best of all the Griffey Says section isn't too distracting or out of place on the card since they're on the same team.
And keeping up the 90's nostalgia, I also plucked an Eric Karros auto for $1 from the same seller.  At one time this would have been a pretty hot card, but not today.

It wasn't a total shutout on the Pirate front.  I did find about half a dozen new cards, including this great Promo version of the 2005 UD Classics card.

As I was wrapping up with the seller, I asked if he is doing any other shows coming up.  He said he has one on the 27th right down the road.  I asked if he knew where exactly it is.  And then he named the church where I THOUGHT the show would be.  Turns out the show was the 27th, not the 7th.  But there were two shows in the same month, 20 days and about 2 miles apart.  Talk about an odd coincidence.  Crazier yet, the other show isn't in Beckett.  So I probably would have missed it if I hadn't gone to the wrong show!

The rest of the tables looked like duds - either nothing worth buying or prices that weren't worth paying.  But I did make a stop at one table where a guy had some binders of autographs.  We got to talking and he is a local autograph hound.

He primarily collects hockey, but also had some baseball autographs.  I told him I'm working on getting autographs of every Pirate player, and as often as possible in a Pirate uniform.  Turns out he's doing the same thing with the Penguins.  I've met some baseball collectors working on similar projects, but never anyone from another sport.

It was fun swapping stories of tough signers or the frustrations of trying to find a photo in uniform of a guy who may have only played a handful of games with the team.  Despite having a small baseball collection, I surprisingly came across two autos I wanted.  Terry Harper has been a toughie for me, and while I have a Doug Mientkiewicz signed 8X10 as a Pirate, I couldn't pass up adding a card.  At $5 the prices were a little steep, but neither are common Pirate autos.

As we were talking, I started flipping through his hockey autographs.

Mixed in with plenty of no-names were some cards that I couldn't pass up. 
 I know some people prefer not to deal with IP autos, and with the number of certified autos out there I can certainly understand that perspective.  But I usually feel comfortable buying autographs, especially when the signatures of lower end guys all check out and there's some provenance.  I felt confident with this guy's autographs that I was willing to take a chance, even if the prices were a little higher than I usually pay for IP autos.
It didn't hurt that another collector I know in passing came up to tell the guy that he a Jerome Bettis auto he had bought from the dealer a few months earlier was certified by PSA before he gave it to his daughter as a birthday gift and that she loved it.

I ended up paying $20 on the 5 autos.  This is my 3rd IP Jagr auto and probably the most confident I am in any of the 3 being real with the backstory.  Jagr has played for so long and his signature is usually so rushed it's tough to be completely confident, but I'm happy with the pickups.

It was a small haul, but I picked up some nice additions to my collection.  I'm hoping at the next show I'll have a little more luck with Pirates and now that the itch to go to a show, any show, has passed I'll be a little more selective in my buying later this month.

Thursday, April 5, 2018


This hobby is a funny thing.  Sometimes it feels like it's standing still, resting on the laurels of ideas that came about ten, twenty, sixty years earlier.  Other times, it speeds by so fast you think somebody hit the fast forward button.

I had been slowly dropping out of blogging when ToppsNOW first started up, but was still actively collecting.  If you'll remember, then-Pirate Francisco Liriano was the first card in the "set."  There wasn't much time to think over whether I cared for the cards or not - I had a couple hours to order or not order the first Pirate card.  Ultimately I decided to pass.  The idea of instantly capturing the biggest moments in the game seemed great.  The price didn't.

I don't regret the decision.  It's a cool novelty, but not worth the price to me.  A similar price can nab me most autographs of Pirate HoF'ers Ralph Kiner or Bill Mazeroski.  I could add some low numbered parallels.  Heck, most 1/1 press plates sell for less these days.  And with many print runs higher than a Topps Gold, I think we'll see a lot of these Topps Now cards popping up in dollar bins at shows in 3-5 years. 

But maybe the biggest driving force is the fact that I have all the tools to make those Topps Now cards myself right within an arm's length.  Literally.  I've been making custom cards for years, and have gotten pretty comfortable.  I have a printer, and have a printing process that produces a card that's actually a thicker stock than the flimsy Topps cards (though I do skip card backs - just personal preference).  Why shell out $10 to Topps when I can make something more memorable and special to me right at home?

When Topps announced their Living Set money grab concept, some conversations started up in the collecting communities I'm in.  In my Team Collector group, we discussed the idea of making our own Living Set.  And on Twitter (@battlinbucs) the a few different collectors and bloggers who make customs started kicking around the idea of doing a Topps NOW style set for our teams.

The conversation kicked in a few different directions - a highlights set, a 40-man type set with highlights, using the Rookies app, printed versus digital cards, and if it was possible to have a common design shared across teams.
Ultimately the conversation sort of petered out.  And apparently everyone went back to their corner of the internet and went to work.

Over the next few days the conversation picked up again.  It turned out that a number of collectors, including myself, had run with the idea.  But we all went in completely different directions.  Be sure to check out Summer of '74 and Matt's (@mjpmke) late 70's inspired set.  Meanwhile Nick ( ) went for a '93 Upper Deck design.

And me? 

 This is what I came up with.  I'm very excited to show off my 2018 DocumentaryNOW cards, based off of the 1960 World Series Highlights subset in '61 Topps.

It made sense to me.  First, the '60 World Series is such an iconic moment for Pirates fans, and the highlights cards are some of my favorite from that era.  Second, I don't print card backs on my customs.  So I was looking for a design that would feature the critical info I wanted - game, score, and memorable moment - without being too busy. 

I found it really cool that each of us picked three very different designs (or in my case, a modified design) from completely different eras of collecting.  Hopefully a couple other custom card makers get on board - it would be a lot of fun to see as many teams as possible represented this season.

I loved the 2008 Documentary set, and initially was trying to build a design that played off that set.  Documentary was the most excited I've been about a card set in ages.  I loved the idea of commemorating each game of a season.

But UD's effort fell well short.  They recycled the same 8 or 10 players and six players through every card in the set.  And the "highlight" sounded a lot more like a random piece of info picked from a box score.  When you have thousands of cards to design, it's not a shocker.  But I wanted to capture everything I hoped Documentary would be in a set - photos from each unique game and flavor text that included something memorable. 
I'm cautiously optimistic that I'll be able to keep this up for a full season.  I'll be posting the set daily (or close to it) on Twitter with the hashtag #DocumentaryNOW and hopefully some occasional updates on the blog.  I hope you'll check out the awesome work myself and other collectors are putting together throughout the season.

Oh, and remember how I said the idea of doing a 40-man style set was kicked around as well?  Check back in the next few days.  I may be working on something on that front as well that's a little less retro-inspired.

Monday, April 2, 2018

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

There's something special about springtime and baseball.  Baseball is back.  Winter's browns and whites gives way to green.  And for lucky Pirate fans, we got to enjoy gorgeous weather while the Bucs were rained out twice in Detroit only for the team to return for today's Home Opener with an inch of snow on the ground.

Guess it can't all be good. 

This time of year always brings out the collecting warm and fuzzies in me too.  It was in the spring that I went from "kid with baseball cards" to "baseball card collector." 

I've written before about how opening packs of Opening Day and Topps in my Easter basket in 2000.  It was the first time I felt absolutely enamored with cards, and kept couldn't get enough of either set.

There was something so cool about Opening Day, with the giant foil stamp.  In the days before Opening Day being overloaded with inserts, the best it had to offer was a preview of some cards in series 2.  I mean, there were autographs.  But your odds of being blasted to the moon were better than hitting an auto.

Today Opening Day is a fairly lazy, kid-friendly set.  We get the same mascot cards year over year.  Two of the insert designs this year are exactly the same as the freaking base cards.  Remember when an insert was called that because it was...different?
 But in 2000 Opening Day had all I could ask for.  The set offered a rundown of the game's top stars.  They even included cards from the Magic Moments subset featured at the top of the post and the three player prospect cards.  It was a nice touch that added a nice touch.  You had all the biggest names in the league, but here are a few players to watch out for as well. 
 And of course what would a set be without some quirks.  Two Astros cards.  But notice anything different?  The 'Stros logo change must have caught the designers at Topps off guard.  Not only to we get to see the same color scheme with two very different logos, Mike Hampton would also make his appearance in the regular 2000 Topps set wearing a Mets jersey.  Griffey also gets the retro uni treatment, appearing as a Mariner in the set.

It's some of those fun subtleties that make it more than just a lower end clone of Topps.  And that's a glorious thing in this collector's eyes.  While Opening Day is getting a little too formulaic for my liking the last two or three years, phoning it in with recycled insert concepts or oddball stuff like ballpark food, nearly 20 years later it's still my first go-round with the set that has given it a special place in my collecting heart.
So happy home opener for those the teams kicking off their season today.  I'll be watching on tv this year, glad I'm not trudging through snow.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Opening Day-iversary

I hope everyone can excuse the lack of cardboard related posts lately.  I actually have a backlog of packages and mail to show off, but there have been some other topics that I wanted to knock out first.  

Regardless of what happens in today's game, Opening Day 2018 is a special occasion for me.  It's my Opening Day-iversary.  See, in February of 2008 I met this girl.  Later that month we went on our first date, and things took off from there.  A few months later, baseball season started.  On the scale of "deciding relationship factors," "Going to a Pirates game" ranks ahead of taking her home to meet the parents or introducing her to my friends.  If I'm taking a girl to a baseball game, you know things are getting serious. 

I already had my season ticket package for the 2008 season, and the home opener was always one of my favorite events of otherwise uneventful Pirates seasons.  We were both in college, and a short 15 minute walk from PNC Park.  I'd rather not own up to how many classes I cut to attend day games.  Let's just say it was for the best I was in Pittsburgh and not Chicago.  The Cubbies day schedule would have flunked me out of school.
Our first baseball game.  Please excuse the atrocious late 00's fashion.

The home opener was Monday, April 7th.  I asked her if she wanted to go, and plans were made.  Kate had only gone to a handful of Pirate games before we met.  And by a handful I mean like 2 or 3.  Her family has zero interest in sports, despite their daughter being a D1 athlete at the time.  I still can't totally comprehend the concept to this day.  Heck, there were plenty of home series where I went to more than 2 or 3 games.  So this was going to be a big test in my eyes.  It's impossible to be around me and not have some sort of Pirates related topic or reference slip into casual conversation.  So dating someone who isn't interested in the Pirates?  That would be a deal breaker.

The game went on in typical Pirates fashion, giving up one run in the second before the Cubs put up a 6-spot in the 3rd.  Losing 7-0?   Sounds about right.

I think I spent the better part of the first few innings explaining what was happening.  At the time, she didn't even know the names of any of the other teams.  The Cubs are from Chicago.  No, I don't know why the bear is blue.  Just go with it.  It would be into the next season before she would finally have all the teams down, and probably a while after that before she could finally embrace that yes, there are Giants in both baseball and football, no they are not from the same city, but yes, they used to be.  Oh and the football ones don't actually plan in New York.  Maybe this sports thing is tougher than it looks...

The Bucs put out their best and brightest for the home crowd.  Doug Mientkiewicz was at first.  The Pirates had a lengthy period where they thought any catcher or first basemen who at least one working knee could handle the hot corner.  Luis Rivas was the shortstop, and actually managed two hits on the day.  I think they were the only ones he that entire season.  Pre-IHitaTonofHomers Jose Bautista played third.
The Pirates responded with 5 runs in the 4th, and suddenly we had a game again.  The Pirates knotted it up in the 7th at 8.  We had an Opening Day shootout, and I was in heaven.  If you are going to your first baseball game with a non-baseball fan, a high scoring game definitely helps move things along.  I don't know that things would have gone nearly as well in a 1-0 pitchers duel. 

With all of the scoring, the game had dragged on.   The 1:30 start time had now into dinner time.  As I said, I didn't mind skipping a few classes in the name of baseball.  But Kate had a once a week evening class.  I think it was from 5-8 or 6-9.  Not fun.  The professor had some sort of policy that you could miss one class, and after that your grade dropped.  Or you failed.  Something ominous happened.  And young love be damned, Kate wasn't going to burn her one missed class on a baseball game.

She looked at the time and said she needed to get going so she could walk back to campus and get to class.  Leave?  A baseball game?  Opening Day no less?  The concept was still working its way into my 20 year old brain.  It's a tie game! 

I'm a little ashamed to admit that instead of doing the sweet thing and leaving the game to walk back to campus with her, I stayed and watched the end of the game.  It's a tie game on Opening Day!  The Bucs would go on to lose 10-8 in extra innings.  Neither her clear lack of commitment to the National Pastime nor my less than stellar date etiquette were apparently a deal breaker.

Ten years, three states, a wedding, and a house later, leaving Opening Day is still something I hold over our head during the occasional argument.  I guess we have some real knock down, drag out fights.  But that's love, when the worst thing you can hold against someone is leaving a baseball game of a 95 loss team a decade earlier.

Anyone else have any good game stories with their significant other?  To everyone else whose game got rained out yesterday, happy Opening Day!  I promise I'll get back to actual card-related content this weekend!