Sunday, March 31, 2013

Adios, Astros

Finally, it's time for some baseball.  The Bucs don't take the field until tomorrow, but the Astros are kicking off their AL life tonight.

From a fan's standpoint, I'll miss having the Astros in the NL Central.  I always enjoyed watching their teams, good or bad, and the Killer B's ear 90's club is one of my favorite teams.  And I'm loving their new uniforms this year, though we'll still get the chance to see them in PNC Park thanks to interleague play.

From a competitive standpoint, trading the very winnable games against a weak Astros team over the next year or two for added games against much stronger Cards and Reds teams isn't great.  But with the stocked 'Stros minor league system, I don't think I'll be too heartbroken in a few years.

I picked up this Wandy Rodriguez auto along with the Robinzon Diaz card from a few days ago.  For a buck, it's a nice placeholder until I can get a Pirate card signed. 

So long 'Stros, at least for a few weeks.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Steel City Signers

Thus far the offseason hasn't been particularly kind to the Steelers.  With the upcoming NFL Draft, hopefully they can restock the depth of the team and find a couple future starters.

Much of the Steelers' success has been built on success with sleeper players, both in the late rounds and with rookie free agents.  Both of these recent TTM returns fall into that category.  Four time Superbowl champ and two time All Pro Mike Wagner came to Pittsburgh in the 11th round of the 1971 draft. 

Dick Hoak was a local product who came to the Steelers in the 7th round in 1961, making the Pro Bowl once as a player and serving as a coach from 1973-2007.  Hoak's tenure with the team encompasses just about every significant moment in franchise history, coaching under Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher and having involvement in every playoff victory in franchise history up to his retirement.

Rounding out the Pittsburgh sports news, the Penguins won their 15th straight, while the Pirates are looking decidedly mediocre against their AA team in the final tuneup before Opening Day.  Perhaps I need to change to focus of my collection to Pens/Steelers...

A Little Detective Work

I love unique card photography, and it's always a nice added bonus when the card shows some identifiable in game action.  The tight action shots of a pitcher or batter are all well and good, but I prefer photos that can be associated with a specific game or moment.  Sometimes that moment is historic, like some of Topps' season highlight cards.  Other times, it's far more ordinary.  And for one of my recent pickups, a little of both.

I recently picked up this Robinzon Diaz signed '10 Topps card.  I already had a Pirate auto of Diaz from 2008 UD Documentary (the card pictures him in a Jay uniform, but with the catching gear it isn't really noticeable), but for $1 I figured it was worth updating to a true Pirate shot.

The card caught my eye; clearly this photo is something more than just your ordinary action shot.  Next thing you know out come the deerstalker hat, monocle, and magnifying glass (I prefer the Sherlock Holmes look over the Dick Tracy garb when doing my sleuthing). 

The case was fairly open and shut.  The card shows Diaz rounding third after a home run, meaning he either hit the homer or was on base when one was hit, with the former being far more likely.  Diaz hit exactly one home run in his career and only scored nine runs during his time with the Pirates, meaning I had a fairly small range to focus on.

The game was clearly on the road against a red-wearing team.  Unfortunately, that's about all the clues I had to work with since the Cards, Reds, and Phillies have nearly identical ballparks, though the Phillies could be ruled out due to their blue seats down the baselines.  There is a logo on the guy's cap right above 3B coach Tony Beasley's head, but it's too blurred to be conclusive.

Off to the game logs I went!  And there it was - Robinzon Diaz's sole career home run, on May 7 on the road against the Cardinals.  Just to be thorough, I checked Diaz other 8 runs scored on the season, but none came against red-wearing teams on the road.

So there it is - the lone big league homer of a guy whose only noteworthy accomplishment was being traded for future HR champ Jose Bautista, captured on cardboard.  I suppose there's some fitting irony there.  The solo shot came in the top of the 7th with one out.  The Pirates lost 5-2, managing only 4 hits on the day.

Friday, March 29, 2013

My New Blog

I haven't been at this blogging thing for long, but I'm finding I absolutely love doing it.  The process of thinking up the next post - and admittedly some are more inspired than others - is fun for me, and it's been great to connect with a community whose interests (and dare I say collecting quirks) are as varied as mine.

And in that same vein, I've loved reading a range of blogs, from team collectors like myself to the more eclectic blogs like Nick and his Dimebox finds.

I have a bit of a confession - this whole team collecting thing is a relatively recent development in my collecting lifecycle.  I've only been focusing on the Bucs since around 2006, and even then at a much more low-key pace than the pace my collection has grown from 2010-today.  Before that my collection was all over the place.

And I mean that in a good way.

I have always loved adding a wide range of cards that, simply put, caught my eye, whether because of the jersey, photography, design, or player.

I've also been an avid autograph collector since 2004, mostly collecting through the mail and occasionally graphing minor league games.  Though Pirate cards make up a big chunk (around 20%) of my 4000+ autographs, I've found myself wanting to find a way to showcase some of these less categorized aspects of my collection.

I tried out a new feature here, Buc Battlers,to feature those other aspects of my collection, but I don't think it fit with the overall tone of this blog and I'd rather not be constrained to trying to make my 1993 Donruss Carlos Baerga post try to somehow relate to the Pirates. 

So instead, I'm starting up a second blog, which you can find at  Don't let the TTM centric name deceive you. I'll be posting on a range of collecting topics that strike my fancy, from autographs, to throwback jerseys, to cool 90's inserts, and just about anything that falls in between.  I honestly don't know how frequently posts will appear (I still plan on this being my primarily blog, and hope to continue posting more or less daily), but I'm sure the format will work itself out over time.

So if you're interested, follow the new blog.  I will try to get a fairly steady stream of posts up over the course of this weekend to kind of set the tone for where I would like to take it.  But if I've learned anything from my blogging experience thus far it's that these things tend to take on a life of their own, so I look forward to seeing what else I can do with this new project.


ps Bonus points if you managed to read this entire post without a singly pretty picture in it!

Black and...Orange?

More often than not, being a team collector is fun.  A nearly endless array of cards to pick from to fit any and all collecting preferences.  Buy them all, or buy only your favorites. 

But sometimes it's just downright annoying.

My Pirates all-time roster autograph project has allowed me to dig through the team's history and uncover some unique stories and take a second look at some forgettable favorites.  But the down side is the hundreds of autographs I still need - many of which are guys who were alarmingly successful at avoiding a camera while with the Bucs.

See Penn, Hayden.  Hayden Penn pitched a whopping 3 games for the Pirates in 2010, giving up 8 runs in less than 3 innings.  Not a memorable performance.  He didn't appear on any cards as a Pirate (surprising, right), and  though there do appear to be a few photos of him available from his brief time with the team, they don't really do me much good since Penn has been playing in Japan since the Pirates released him.

When a Pirate photo can't be found (or simply if the price is right), I have had to turn to non-Pirate autographed cards to serve as a placeholder.  Sure, I'd love to upgrade to a Pirate uni autograph, but in the mean time an autograph is an autograph, right?  Ish?  Or maybe I just like the gratification of crossing another player off of my master checklist...

Either way, I was pretty happy to find this beauty in a 3/$5 box at a show last month. 
I almost passed on it since the sticker isn't particularly well centered in the cutout box.  But the card is /25, and at that price it's a nice placeholder until (if?) Penn returns stateside. 

Even though it's not ideal, the card still has a place in my non-Pirate autograph collection, which is something you may be seeing more of in the coming days.  But I'll have more on that later today [dun dun dun].

Thursday, March 28, 2013

(The Other) Opening Day

Opening Day used to be my favorite card set.  And when I say used to, I don't mean it has been somehow usurped; it's just not something I come across anymore since I stopped breaking wax years ago.  Opening Day just doesn't seem to find its way into card show dime boxes or even the occasional trade package (maybe the blogosphere will be different?), and I just can't justify spending $20 on a blaster to get one or two cards for my collection when I could spend that money to come up with a small bounty of far more rare Pirate cards.

But for a few years, my collecting brain thought Opening Day was the coolest thing in the world.  And in a lot of ways, it's the product that I have to thank for the beautiful monstrosity of a collection I have today.  As a kid, my collection consisted of the occasional trip to the local card shop's dime box (I still adore my 1998 Glenn Rice SP Authentic) and whatever rack packs my dad would grab for me on my way home from work.  But by the late 90's, my interest in cards had been replaced by other things.  Backyard football, pro wrestling, Legos, and the pressures of a 4th grade workload meant my cards were retired to their place under the bed and largely forgotten.

I just figured that like most kids, card collecting was a phase I had grown out of.  In all honesty, I think there is a very likely alternate universe where I become just another person who outgrew their interest in cards and gave them away to a friend or sold them at a garage sale for a couple dollars. 

But that isn't how things worked out.  And the thousands of cards piled, boxed, and bindered up around me wholeheartedly echo that.

On Easter morning 2000, I woke up to what was - and still is - a typical Easter morning for my family.  Ham and eggs, an Easter egg hunt, and my Easter basket.  Being an only child has its perks.  Inside my basket, amongst the jelly beans and Peeps, were a few packs of baseball cards.  I hadn't opened a pack of cards in two years (1998 UD Choice football), and my card-loving days were well behind me  I was a mature adult of 12 years of age, and well beyond my card collecting days.  At that age, two years felt like it had been a world away, some faint reminder of a bygone past.

And then I opened them - 2000 Topps Opening Day.  The design just seemed so crisp, the silver borders accentuated by the big silver, foil Opening Day stamp on the card.  From those 3 or 4 packs, I vividly remember pulling a Francisco Cordova card, his gray pinstriped road uniform fitting in perfectly with the card's design.  Thanks mom and dad, but I'm over cards.  Nothing to see here.  Move along.

As I spent the rest of the day pouring over every square inch of the cards, reading every mundane fun fact and stat line, analyzing the photos to microscopic detail, displaying a level of neurosis that seep into every sentence of this blog.

It would be too easy be too easy, too simple, to say the set brought me back to the hobby.  Before I was just a kid who had some baseball cards.  Who enjoyed cracking a pack of Collector's Choice during a trip to the grocery store.  In the two years away, the hobby changed and I changed.  I was hooked.  I was a collector. 

I asked my mom a few years ago why she picked up the packs.  She has an uncanny ability to always find great, and completely unexpected gifts, for every holiday.  But she undoubtedly knew I had little interest in cards at the time, and it just seemed like an odd thing to give me.  Her response was simple, straightforward:  "I needed something to fill up your basket, and I thought you might like them."  And as my parents spent my early teens driving me to card shows, stopping at little hole in the wall card shops on vacations, funding my collection, my collection grew, but so did the memories behind each of those cards.  So yes mom, clearly I liked them.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wait, When Did He Play There? Wednesday

As I mentioned earlier today, the Pirates have a less than stellar track record with free agents over the last 20 years.  Aside from a collusion-filled 2002-03 offseason where the Pirates picked up Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders, Jeff Suppan, and Matt Stairs at rock bottom prices, the typical offseason additions are a list of past their prime corner outfielders and no-hit backup shortstops. 

So a list of the top FA pickups is bound to be unimpressive.  But the fact that Danny Darwin could be the top Pirates free agent signing during that period?  Yeah...

It's not that Danny Darwin was a bad pitcher.  He spent 21 seasons in the majors working almost exclusively as a starter in every season (never winning more than 15 games).  But when the Pirates signed Darwin for the 1995 season, he was 40 years old.

Arguably the Pirates best free agent pickup since genie pants were in fashion was a 40 year old pitcher. 

Still, Darwin pitched admirably in 17 starts, compiling a 7-9 record and 3.02 ERA.  Most importantly, he pitched well enough to get dealt to Houston for future Pirates closer Rich Loiselle.  Of course upon arrival in Houston, Darwin's numbers imploded in a fashion that even the Astrodome couldn't salvage.  Still, Darwin managed to pitch another 3 years in the majors before finally calling it quits.

But when people think of Danny Darwin, they will undoubtedly remember his 15 seasons spent between Texas' two teams.  Few will recall one of the greatest Pirate signings of the past quarter century. 

And maybe that's not a bad thing.


It's no big secret that Pittsburgh hasn't exactly been a #1 destination for free agents over the past two decades.  If it weren't for some collusion before the 2003 season, we might be discussing Danny Darwin as the Pirates most successful free agent pickup since the start of the Clinton administration.

So it brought a smile to my face when I saw this atop MLB Trade Rumors.  No, not the headline.  "[I]f the 36-year-old decides to keep playing, he might only consider an offer from the Pirates for next season."  That's the kind of comment you expect to hear from a one team only kind of player.  Or a guy who's been in one city forever.  Or the guy that signed with a team to be closer to home.  Not from the Texan who's only spent one season in the Steel City.

But from early on last year A.J. seemed to really resonate with Pirate fans, and perhaps more importantly he seemed like he was having fun.  When he made a surprise appearance at Piratefest this year, I had heard Burnett was not the most personable of guys.  And that he hated signing autographs.

So I was stunned when I was wandering around the floor and noticed a line of people in front of a table.  This isn't surprising, since Piratefest is a place where hoards of screaming kids convince their parents to spend an hour standing in line to play the duck pond game.  What was more surprising was the guy sitting at the table wearing the Burnett jersey happily signing anything and everything put in front of him.

I quickly jumped in the line, and was at the front within a few minutes.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a guy who was smiling from ear to ear, happily chatting with fans.  I have honestly never seen a player enjoy Piratefest as much as A.J. did over the weekend.  He could be found all over the event, signing autographs, chatting with fans, and even putting down his own money so kids could take free turns in the batting cages.

I'd love to see A.J. finish his career in black and gold.  I'm just hoping it's not after the 2013 season.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Throwback Tuesday

In 1945, Branch Rickey helped break baseball's color barrier, in turn setting in motion the wheels of a deep farm Dodger farm system that would keep the Dodgers in the pennant race into the next decade.

In 1950, the Pirates hired Rickey as their general manager.  Despite Rickey's historic position as a pioneer in capitalizing on the large population of untapped black talent, the Pirates did not field their first black player until the 1954 season (and a certain Puerto Rican would join the club in '55), only furthering the Pirates cellar dweller status throughout the decade.

Of the historic names that led the integration of baseball, Curt Roberts is one largely lost to history.  Roberts played four seasons for the Kansas City Monarchs before transitioning to the affiliated minor leagues, where the Pirates purchase his contract in 1952. 

The Pirates faced significant pressure from the black community in Pittsburgh to integrate, but Rickey seemed to be in no hurry to introduce the club's first black player.  Whether this was a talent based decision (which is unlikely, due to the wealth of Negro League talent who had either played in Pittsburgh previously or lived in the area), none of the players met Rickey's extensive list of qualities for groundbreaking black players, or some other factors were at play, the fact remains that the Pirates were falling behind in baseball's biggest talent grab.

On April 13, 1954, Curt Roberts became the first black player to suit up for the Pirates, and would finish the '54 season as the team's starter at second.

After a slow start in '55, Roberts would bounce between the majors and AAA for the next two years, but wouldn't get any more extended playing time.

It is debatable whether Roberts got a fair chance with the club - some,including former Pirates player/broadcaster Nellie King, have argued the slick fielder simply needed more regular at bats for his hitting to develop.  However, his career arc may indicate that Roberts major league showing was a fair approximation of his skill.

Roberts died tragically at age 40, killed in a roadside accident while changing a tire.  His place in both baseball and Pirates history has been largely underscored, overshadowed by the struggles Roberto Clemente experienced in overcoming both racial and ethnic discrimination.

But it is undeniable that Roberts set the stage for the black and Latin players that would follow, marking a significant, and overlooked, chapter in the team's history.

Remembering Virgil Trucks

Virgil "Fire" Trucks was a damn fine pitcher.  But his abilities on the baseball field didn't come close to the quality of person he was. 

I was deeply saddened (and I don't use that phrase loosely) to learn that Virgil passed away three days ago as I was paging through the sports section today.  I hadn't seen the news posted anywhere online, and though he was 95 years old and had been in bad health recently, it still came as a shock.

Trucks is best known for throwing two no-hitters in 1952, but many card collectors know him as an incredibly generous person who was a true friend of collectors.

Virgil was a legend among autograph collectors - an unfailingly automatic autograph signer up until the last few months, Trucks signed anything and everything sent to him, but also took the time to write lengthy responses to the baseball fans he was corresponding with.  At one point I read that he spent at least 3 hours a day reading and responding to fan mail.  Every day.  At 90+ years old.

In looking through my scans, I can't find any of my signed Trucks cards, though I probably have around a half dozen.  But my favorite piece from Virgil never found its way to cardboard.

Trucks spent the 1960 season serving as the Pirates pitching coach.  That year is kind of a big deal for Pirate fans.  I sent the above photo to Virgil a couple years ago, and it came back signed beautifully.  It's one of my favorite "oddball" pieces in my collection.  But even more special to me was the accompanying note - a fairly one lengthy one at that - talking about his experiences with the '60 team and how much he enjoyed coaching in Pittsburgh after spending his entire playing career in AL cities.

The game lost yet another of its great ambassadors, collectors lost a great friend of the hobby, and Virgil's family undoubtedly lost someone very special to them.  But we were all lucky to have such a generous and personable man around for as long as we did.

Inserts? Who needs 'em!?!?!

Thanks to a moderate snowfall, I had some extra time on my hands today.  I took advantage of the time catalog some new arrivals, listen to Van Morrison, and work on converting all my of my non-Pittsburgh PC cards to team-organized binder pages while watching Buffy.

As I paged through the various "stuff" I've accumulated over the years, I'm always struck by all the great looking insert sets the Bucs were left out of.  I can't argue against excluding the likes of Al Martin or Jason Kendall from many of the great looking late 90's insert sets.  But you'd think they might have made it into a couple here and there, just for some diversity.

Maybe that's why the parallel craze never bothered me all that much.  Excluded from insert sets, parallel sets were the one place you could be guaranteed to find some fun looking Pirate cards.  Do all the foil color variations get irritating?  Yes, though I was never as frustrated as I am with Topps' baker's dozen versions of the same card.

Still, the world of parallels have their pros and cons.

On the positive side:
-base cards often offer the most unique photography, and can often be enhanced by foil/refractor/border color changes
-it's always fun to complete the "rainbow" of a card, no matter how easy or difficult that task may be
-parallels can often be more price-friendly than insert sets, game used, and autos
-parallels allow for more expansive collections of those middling players who would never, ever make it into an insert set

And the cons:
-you see the same card design over.  And over.  And over. And over.
-parallels, particularly ones that aren't numbered, tend to dry up quickly on the secondary market because many dealers view them as not being worth their time
-while there are some great looking parallels, insert sets are far more likely to feature die cuts, more intricate designs, etc
-Did I mention the redundancy?                                                                                                                  
Still, parallels are some of my favorite cards to collect, particularly since the start of the Topps monopoly.  They add a lot of color and variety to my collection, and nothing looks better than a complete team set of a flashy parallel.

Don't get me wrong - I like inserts.  A lot.  But for the better part of the last two decades Pirate collectors have had to make due with what has been given to us.  Hopefully the emergence of Andrew McCutchen and wave of high end pitchers in the high minors may mean some more Pirates make their way into future insert sets.

But that won't change all the great looking card sets that will never occupy a space in my Pirate collection.  Unfortunately the time has come and gone for those cards to exist in black and gold, and the card companies certainly aren't the only ones to blame. 

But I suppose that's the nice part of having two far more (recently) successful teams in town.  As much as I may lament the exclusion of Al Martin from some '99 Fleer Mystique inserts, I can undoubtedly find Jerome Bettis or Kordell Stewart in their football counterpart.  A small consolation prize, perhaps.  But I'll take it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Bonds Away

Memory can be a funny thing.  To some, Barry Bonds will be remembered as one of the greatest players to ever play the game.  But that number is likely to be far smaller than his career numbers or on field accomplishments would dictate.

The accomplishments on the field and Bonds' less than stellar relationship with the public at large is ultimately an issue that will likely be debated by the baseball community and Hall of Fame voters for quite some time.  And like any good blogger, I'll stick that conversation in my back pocket and save it for a day of writer's block.

Instead, I'd rather look back at a different Barry Bonds.  One who couldn't be farther removed from a HoF conversation, let alone steroid debate.

Heading into the late 80's, Bonds gave Pirates fans something to look forward to after a largely lost decade.  As his relationship with the city soured in the early 90's, Bonds became a villain to many Pittsburgh sports fans.  And because of this, long before home run records or hat sizes became the topic of conversation, Bonds, undoubtedly one of the game's most dominant players, was written out of the collective sporting memory of most Pirate fans. 

But these shots, from '88 Fleer and '89 Topps respectively, are unaware of all that is to come.  It's simply about a team looking to get back on track, and a player looking to step out of his father's shadow.

I rarely see Bonds cards at card shows anymore.  Maybe dealers don't even bother throwing them in their boxes, waiting for the day collectors again take interest in Barry, or assuming nobody wants them.  But Bonds is an unavoidable piece of baseball and Pirates history, good, bad, and otherwise.  A true and honest appreciation of that history means at least temporarily setting aside the latter two to recognize how important that "good" is.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Back in Black (and Gold)

What can I say, I'm a sucker for nostalgia.  I've always had a great deal of respect for players who spend their whole career in one city, whether it's a Hall of Fame player or somebody a little more under the radar.  But in today's game, that simply isn't a reasonable expectation except in the most extreme of cases.

The next best thing, to me, is a player who comes full circle, returning to a team in the twilight of his career.  Something about seeing a player back in a familiar uniform (or in some cases an unfamiliar one after a jersey redesign) gives some closure to a game that often offers us anything but.

Gene Freese reached the Pirates the majors with the Pirates at age 21.  A product of nearby Wheeling, WV, got semi-regular work for the Pirates at 2B and 3B between '55 and '58.  Freese would go on to have his best seasons from 1959-61, playing for a different team in each season.

In 1964 and '65, he would once again find himself back in the Steel City, but a sharp decline in his numbers from his peak years just prior limited his playing time, and a mideseason trade in 1965 sent him off to the White Sox.

Between Freese's debut and his second go-round with the club, quite a lot changed for the Bucs.  Freese came up in the height of the Pirates down years, picking up playing time on a team struggling to find its direction and/or win games.  By the time he returned, the team fielded a much stronger club featuring three future Hall of Famers.

John Candelaria was the anchor of the Pirates rotation from the mid '70's through mid '80's, and perhaps one of the franchise's greatest pitchers.  The Candy Man was a fan favorite who spent a decade in Pittsburgh, including a strong season for the 1979 World Champs. 

In August of '85, a Pirate team desperate for talent shipped the Candy Man to the California Angels in exchange for a trio of players led by then-starter Bob Kipper.  Kipper bombed as a starter, but would find success as a reliever for the Bucs through the early 90's.

Candelaria would pitch as a starter for the Angels and Mets through the '89 season.  At age 35, he shifted to a bullpen role on a stretch of one year runs with a number of teams. 

After the '92 season Candy hit the free agent market, signing a one year deal with the Pirates for the 1993 season to give some veteran leadership to a club that had just been gutted of superstars Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek due to free agency.  There didn't seem to be any magic left in the Candy Man, who pitched to an 0-3, 8.24 line in 24 appearances before being released on July 9.

Things seemingly had come full circle for the team as well.  When Candelaria left in 1985, the team would be on their way to a 57-104 record in the middle of the Pittsburgh Drug Trials.  Manager Chuck Tanner would be replaced by Jim Leyland for the 1986 season, and the Pirates would scrape their way back to respectability throughout the rest of the '80's. 

By the time Candy reappeared in '93, the team was coming off of two straight heartbreaking NLCS appearances.  But 1993's team, managed by the now iconic Leyland, would be headed towards an unprecedented losing streak the end of which has yet to be seen.

Additionally, the Pirates had gone through a pretty significant jersey change.  Gone were the mix-and-match pullovers of 1979, replaced by a more basic white/gray rotation.

The evolution of his career, from '75-85, and returning in 1993, marks the ebb and flow of a club who reached the highest of highs (at times a bit too literally in the mid 80's) and the lowest of lows.  In '75, the Pirates were a talented team looking for direction just two seasons after the loss of franchise icon Roberto Clemente.  The would find that leader in Pops, and would again be left rudderless by the mid 80's. 

After a resurgence in the early 90's, Candy would return to a team lacking any real direction and stripped of its most talented players.  But at least by then he had ditched the creepy mustache.  Because when your team is this bad, it's the little things that bring you comfort.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Buc Battlers

I'm introducing a new feature here at Battlin' Bucs in hopes of keeping things fresh around here, and breaking up the black and gold monotony.

In addition to my hometown teams, I'm also an active TTM collector, as well as having a propensity for picking up anything and everything that catches my eye.  The end result?  A few thousand cards that really have no place in my collections proper.  And after all, I can only come up with so many creative Pirate-themed posts before I start spewing out an endless parade of base cards.

So hopefully this semi-regular feature will meet both those needs.  Buc Battlers will feature players that suited up for the opposing side.  Sometimes the posts will include those players who were a thorn in the Pirates side (see Fielder, Prince), other times it will most likely just be something that strikes my fancy.
The 1960 Wold Series is one of, if not the, most poignant moments in Pirate history.  The finish of game 7 can arguably considered the most dramatic moment in baseball history.

But let's take a look at things from the flip side.  Suiting up for the Pinstripes was Hector Lopez, appearing in three games in the series: once as a starter and twice in pinch hit appearances.  Getting the start in Game 1, Lopez delivered an unimpressive 1-5 performance in a 6-4 Yankees loss.

That would be his only start of the series.  He appeared as a pinch hitter in Game 5 and the deciding Game 7, delivering pinch hit singles in both at bats.  However, both games would ultimately end in Yankee losses in the David vs. Goliath matchup.

Lopez was a great TTM signer whose autograph I had wanted for a while.  I finally found this card in a discount vintage box at a show and for $..50 it was in my collection and off to the mailbox the next day.  Though '61 was Lopez worst season in the majors, he shined in the postseason racking up 3 hits with a HR, 3B, and 7 RBI in 9 at bats during the '61 series. Needless to say, I'm glad he put up less impressive numbers against the Pirates.

A Lazy Saturday

I enjoy spending time taking a look at some of the lesser known names in Pirate history.  There are often some interesting stories to be found behind those sometimes brief stat lines.

Other times, there isn't much of a story at all.

Don Gross won a World Series ring in 1960.  He may also be more notable for what he cost the Pirates than what he contributed. 

Gross came to Pittsburgh in 1958 from the Reds.  Though he had primarily been a starter in Cincinnati, the Pirates stuck him in the pen with unimpressive results.  His workload steadily decreased in '58 and '59.  By '60, the future world champs would stash Gross in the minors, appearing in only 5 games with the big club in what would be his final major league action.

The Pirates gave starter Bob Purkey in exchange from Gross.  Purkey would go on to pitch for almost a decade primarily for the Reds, winning 113 games, making 3 All-Star teams, and finishing third in Cy Young voting in 1962.  All that for 113 innings of relief pitching.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

What If?

Alright, I'm over this Topps thing.  I swear.  Ish.

But it did get me thinking a lot about what the hobby has been missing out on the past few years, and the cards we won't see in the future.

But this isn't the first time the topic has come up.

I like the idea of cards that never were.  The "what if" factor allows the imagination to stretch its legs and think of how very different things could be, whether in the most minute or most overarching of senses.

And luckily for collectors, Donruss wasn't ready to leave these things simply to the imagination.  Donruss issued two "what if" themed subsets in the early 2000's that are among my favorite non shiny, non written on, not too vintage-y, plain old pieces of cardboard. 

In 2001, Donruss reentered the hobby after a two year absence.  Upon their return, they wanted to make up for lost time (and get some more mileage out of some really nice base card designs), inserting a second "pack" of one card in either the 1999 or 2000 style inside of packs of 2001 Donruss.  Double thepackripping fun! 

Donruss built upon the idea in 2002's Donruss Originals set.  The base set included current players in even yeared vintage Donruss designs (similar to Topps Archives; presumably an odd year follow up set got canned), with a series of What If? inserts that came up with time-travelling pre-1981 card designs and rookies that never were.

The concept and execution of the cards is really cool, and I'm a big fan of the hypithetical 1978 design.  Who doesn't love the Cobra in head to toe gold?  It would have been cool to see a Pirate in a 1979 design for their World Series victory, but I can't be too picky.  Well, maybe I can.  It's also worth noting the Bonds 1986 Rated Rookie shows Bonds in the latter stages of his Pirate career (most likely 1991 or '92), rather than picturing him in the pillbox hat and awkward fitting pullover jersey of his rookie season.

But these cards offer a little snapshot of what could have been that is both fun and a little bit depressing.  Who knows what direction cardboard history could have gone had sets been released those years.  Who knows what other inserts Donruss might have had in store for '99 and '00.  Ultimately we'll never know.  But perhaps that's part of the fun.

Monpopoly Money

In case you were wondering, yes I am aware these are football cards.  In a post about Topps' baseball monopoly. 

So what do a bunch of 90's football cards have to do with Topps' exclusive MLB contract that will make them the sole producer of licensed baseball cards into the next decade?  Everything.

Last weekend we were back in Pittsburgh doing some wedding planning, and coincidentally (cough cough) there happened to be a card show going on at a mall in the area.  At one dealer's table, I stumbled across a box of 90's inserts and parallels from all three Pittsburgh teams.  Sure, there weren't any Donruss Crusade cards or super rare inserts, but I picked up some great looking and underappreciated cards for the insane price of 7/$1 (I'll be posting more of my finds in the coming days).

As I flipped through the cards, the thing that stood out to me wasn't just how awesome the 90's cards looked, but how many different companies were producing cards during the decade, and perhaps no sport had a more diverse marketplace than football.

Topps, Fleer, DLP, Pacific, Pinnacle, Edge, Scoreboard, and dozens of offshoot brands kept products fun and unique behind rookie classes led by the likes of Moss, Manning, and Tim Couch.  Ok, maybe not Tim Couch.


 Each company had a distinctive flair (or in Fleer's case, literally Flair).  I can still identify any Edge card just from a quick glance at the design.  But perhaps more importantly, the crowded marketplace forced manufactures to both be creative in branding themselves and fostering their market share, but also in coming up with something creative, engaging, and unique that collectors would want in what was probably a far too crowded marketplace.

Setting aside the potential ROI on recent Topps products, and to a certain extent even the overall product quality, let's look at the Topps brand.  The Flagship set last year was recycled a dozen times: Topps 1,2, and Update, Opening Day, Topps Pro Debut, and Topps Mini.  And let's not forget the approximately two dozen parallels from those collective sets.  Heritage is inherently a recycled design, then spun off again into Heritage Minors and Heritage High Number.  Same for Ginter and Gypsy Queen and Archives. 

As Upper Deck continues to hit paydirt with their Fleer Retro products, it poses the question:  What iconic designs from the Topps monopoly will we look back at in 15 years?  There have undoubtedly been some great designs and sets released over the last few years, but those isolated cases are few and far between.  The point remains that much of Topps catalog is built upon recycling their iconic library rather than producing new benchmark cards/sets.

The argument isn't about whether Topps has produced strong products since acquiring the exclusive.  The argument isn't about whether Panini/Upper Deck/Leaf specifically deserve a license.  By committing to an exclusive contract, MLB has crushed any opportunity for a current or future upstart company to produce engaging or innovative MLB-licensed cards.  And it discourages significant innovation on the part of Topps, since their larger concern can be trained towards expanding their market in a broad sense, rather than expanding their market share among existing collectors.
At the end of the day, I just can't see having a range of options as a bad thing.  But clearly the decision is neither up to me, nor the very vocal collecting community.  At the end of the day, money talks.  And I anticipate much of my collecting budget going to MLBPA licensed cards like Panini and now Upper Deck or being refocused towards other sports.  If there are years and years worth of football and hockey cards that look like this that my collection is missing, can you really blame me?