Monday, September 30, 2013

The Big Boppers

The 90's came and went in Pittsburgh.  And while fly balls went zooming out of most ballparks, the steroid era never really touched the Burgh.  As name after name and report after report have surfaced in the following decades, the Pirates managed to remain pretty squeaky clean.  And for good reason.  Home runs were few and far between for the club.

So the home run explosion was watched from afar, and much of the awesome cardboard that went along with it remains absent from my collection.  But it was always nice to hit something of those 90's stars when I used to rip wax.  This dual gu of two of the biggest stars of the time came out of a box of '05 Reflections, and the cards did look awesome.  Neither guy is in the jerseys I'll always think of them in, but still a nice little piece of baseball history.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Going Intenational

Baseball has always been a game that spanned oceans.  But with the exception of some WBC cards, it seems that card companies have largely ignored that issue in recent years.

Panini's recent Cooperstown release brought back the international feel with their International Play insert set.  It was a nice surprise to find the well-traveled Bert Blyleven pictured as a Pirate (well, it is a Pirate jersey, under all there).  Ok, so maybe Bert isn't the greatest example of an international star.  But how often do you see the Netherland's flag on a piece of cardboard?

Though the card is pretty heavy on graphics, it's still a cool recognition of the continued global feel to the game.  Say what you will about the lack of logos, but Panini has left me a happy camper after this release.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Some Kind of Reverse-Psychology, Voodoo-Curse, Anti-Reds Thing

The Pirates are heading into a huge series with the Reds that will determine home field for the wild card game.  It's pretty simple: whoever wins two of three gets home field.

I spent the first half of the season about two hours outside of Cincinnati.  I like Reds fans, and sincerely enjoyed watching the team the last few seasons.  And my experience at Redsfest was great this winter.

But with that said...I think the Bucs are well overdue in the karma department here.

New Address, New Mail

Now that the moving is done, apartment is unpacked, and wedding is just around the corner, there's only one thing to do: open mail.  I still have a few stragglers waiting for me at my parents' house, but my most recent purchases are finally coming directly to me. 

And while my buying has been scaled back quite a bit since leaving Ohio, I managed to fit in a few low cost, high awesome pickups.

My only ebay win in

quite a while, I had been after this one for quite some time.

I won the card for a mere $1.50 shipped.  I knew I'd be getting the PWE treatment, which I don't mind.  But it can be hell on gu cards.  Lucking, this beauty showed up in a toploader in pristine condition.  The sorting machine gods smiled favorably upon me. 

I've fallen dreadfully behind on new releases.  But while checking out some of my favorite online opium dens, I found a brand-spanking new Wandy Rodriguez auto from Prizm for a mere $3.  It's his first (and quite possibly only) auto as a Pirate (albeit with airbrushed logos), so I had to snag it.  And while I'm at it, why not add some cards from 2013 Panini Cooperstown to get me up to the free shipping threshold.

I found it amusing that while it seems pretty clear Wandy is in the Bucs Sunday '71 throwbacks, they swapped out the gold hat for an airbrushed black version. 

But the real gems were the Cooperstown cards.  Goose Gossage spent one fantastic season with the Bucs, but was spurned in his one shot to make it on black and gold cardboard.  Though I have his auto in a Yankees uni, it's just not good enough for me.

So I was downright thrilled that he made it onto a card (well, sort of) as a Buc (well, sort of)

These disc cards are awesome (though they bring back some bad 90's memories of Pogs), and the player selection is great.  You'll be seeing a few more of these in the days to come.

One of the real gems of last year's Cooperstown release were the Crystal cards.
Though they certainly have some 90's feel to them, they're perhaps one of the few new additions to the hobby that are relatively new.  Well, not that I'd call foil cards new.  But the pattern is part foil, part Atomic refractor, and all around awesome.  The Crystal Reds look great this year.
But the Blues appear much darker this year than last, and I'm not crazy about the look.  Though I am excited to see a Pirate card of HoF'er Burleigh Grimes.

Unfortunately the newest Crystal addition this year, Green, really fell short of expectations.  Again the coloring on the cards is very dark, and I had trouble telling the difference between the blue and green coming out of the bubble mailer.
With that said, these additions blow 90% of the Topps cards I added this year out of the water.  Panini did a very nice job designing the cards and selecting photos that still looked great without logos.  Perhaps they should pass along some design tips to the design teams for their MLBPA releases.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Extended Playoff Thoughts

I've had a full 24 hours to reflect on the Pirates clinching a playoff spot yesterday, but my feelings haven't evolved all that much.

This is something that I have waited for all of my life, quite literally.  I'm 25.  When the Sid Bream crossed the plate, though I was a living breathing ability to process any kind of sports was pretty limited at best.  I've been a season ticket holder since 2001, and during that time I have been to more games than I can count.  If I wasn't at the game, I was unquestionably watching the game on tv, the radio, or checking box score updates online.  That isn't to qualify my fandom, or try to one up other Pirate fans (well, maybe the bandwagon ones).  But most people who casually know me, but aren't particularly close to me know two things about me: I'm sarcastic, and I love the Pirates.  When your fandom becomes a defining aspect of your personality, it either means you've totally lost it, or it's really important to you.  Personally, I hope I can walk a fine line between those two.

But what does playoff baseball really mean.  I don't think we can really answer that until the regular season ends, and perhaps even after the post-season.  There is a lot to analyze about this team, and a lot of questions moving into the coming seasons.  Much of the rotation is made up of veteran acquisitions - can they be replaced internally or externally when the time comes?  Will Pedro Alvarez age gracefully in what should be his coming prime years, or will his contact issues make him unserviceable?  Will Jeff Locke bounce back from this end of season collapse?  Can some of the other young pieces continue to develop?

What I'm saying is that this could be the first step towards a run of division titles.  Or it could be a glorious season that ends up being the high water mark of the club.  Or somewhere in between.

But that doesn't matter right now.  For the first time in a long time, this isn't about what next season can look like.  It's about each and every game for the next week, and hopefully for a while after that.  Each pitch, each at bat matters.  And it's that sense of purpose, of no longer "waiting til next year" that make this experience magical.  This is a good team doing great things.  And no matter how the ride ends, it's been a great one.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Playoffs? Playoffs!

I'll write up a more composed post when I'm...more composed.  Right now, I'm going to go back to running around the apartment hollering like I'm seven years old.

Hell. Yes.

Pirate Autograph Project: The Mayor

I think I may have finally found a new favorite autograph in my collection.

The Pirates have a "guest bartender" during Friday home games.  This basically consists of a former player sitting at a bar area signing autographs for an hour or two.  It's always great to meet Pirate legends, though most of the attendees are the same group of players that live in the area.

But occasionally you get a fun surprise.  Like this past weekend, when ex-Red Pirate Sean Casey was signing.  Casey is a Pittsburgh guy, and though he spent most of his career in Ohio, he made it back to the Steel City in '06, before a mid-season trade to Detroit.

The Bucs were playing the Reds, so it was a fitting guest, and sadly there were more Reds fans in the very short autograph line than there were Pirate fans.  The recent bandwagon jump-ons aren't particularly well versed in franchise history.

The line was only 5 or 6 people deep, and when I got to the front of the line Sean was all smiles.  I handed him my 8x10, and mentioned that I had been holding onto it since he attended Piratefest right after he signed with the Bucs prior to the 2006 season.

Sean was only signing on Friday of the 3 day event, back when Piratefest was still held in early January.  I had been in his autograph line, which was promptly cut off two people in front of me.  At the time, I was crushed.  Casey was the latest, greatest great 1B savior to come to the team, and by far the best track record of any player on the club.

So into my box of unsigned 8x10's it went, waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting.  Sean appeared at Piratefest two years ago, but never made it into the season ticket holder section.  Last year, I was at Redsfest.  But Sean wasn't.

As I told Sean the story - a far more brief version - he laughed and said I should have just grabbed him.  He was super friendly, and lived up to all the great things I've heard about him over the years.  As he was signing, I noticed him adding something extra.  But I was caught up in the moment, and didn't really give it a second thought until we were in the ballpark and I was putting away the signed cards and 8x10.

And then I took a look at the photo.

Sean hit the first homer at PNC Park in 2001 during the opening series against the Reds.  Obviously he wasn't playing for the Bucs at the time, but if a non-Pirate player had to hit the first homer in the park, I couldn't think of a better guy.  And the photo goes perfectly with my inscribed John Wehner photo of the last HR hit in Three Rivers.

The game inside didn't go so well.  But until the blown save in the 9th, I had a grin on my face from my experience with Sean during the entire game.

Byrd is the Word

I've had this card in my collection for quite a while, but now it serves a dual purpose, checking the newly acquired Marlon Byrd off my Pirate autograph list.  Of course I can only hope there will be an updated Pirate version coming in the near future.  But for the time being, this is one nice looking placeholder.

I picked this card up as an impulse combined shipping purchase somewhere around 2005.  I think the card ended up costing me something like $1.50.  At the time Byrd's stock was pretty low, and he looked like a failed prospect.  Not that he's set the world on fire since then, but he has had a solid major league career.

I've always been a big fan of the Donruss Recollection autos, and this is no exception.  The on card signature looks great, and the 2001 Donruss Elite set was a fantastic release.  Now if only Marlon could work on the signature a bit...

A Changeup?

Now that I'm finally back to blogging on a more regular basis, I've been thinking about the way my blogging life is set up.  Up until now, I've been using this blog pretty exclusively for my team collections - Pirates, Penguins, Steelers, and the occasional WVU and/or Pitt post. 

There's only one problem with that: my collection, my PC, is so much more than that.  And similarly, most of my favorite blogs to read aren't the ones that stick specifically to one topic or theme.  Like most bloggers, my collection is, frankly, all over the place.

Up until now I had been using my secondary blog, Returned to Sender, to give myself an outlet for writing about those "other" aspects of my collection.  But I haven't put as much effort into the blog as I'd like, and simply put the blog didn't generate as many readers as I had expected.  Vain?  Sure.  But until I'm teaching again, my so called profession is "writer" (no, now just blogs, thankfully).  And I would think anyone would want their writing to reach the largest audience possible.  Not to mention how annoying it can be to try to keep up with comments, trades, and general upkeep on two separate blogs on pretty similar topics.

So, dear readers, my proposal is this:  I'll begin moving some of that non-black and gold content over to Battlin Bucs.  Not too much; perhaps a couple posts a week.  I figure most people would enjoy a little break from reading about Steve Buechele and Jonah Bayliss with some more...recognizable names and faces every so often. 

So what do you guys (and gals?) think?  Two separate blogs?  Combine them?  Shut up and show me pretty pictures?

Minor Matters: Jeff Andrews

Much is made of the road players take through the minor leagues to the majors.  But it's often easy to forget that with rare exceptions, most coaches travel a similar path on their way to the big league bench.

I can't imagine what the journey must being like - working for years to reach the majors or upper minors, only to retire and have to work your way back up the ladder in an entirely new aspect of the profession.

Jeff Andrews spent one year as the Pirates pitching coach, coming away with decent success for the group of players he had to work with.

But prior to that, he worked his way through the Bucs minor league system, entering the organization as the AA Altoona pitching coach before being bumped to AAA for the 2006-07 seasons. 

Making it to the major league staff in 2008 had to be a professional dream come true (and no more bus rides!), but that would be short lived.  In 2009, he would be back to AA, this time with the Rangers organization.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Is it over yet?

Talk about a rough day in the wide world of sports.  The Bucs got trounced, and the Steelers are looking to make it a double dip on the North Shore as the Bears kick them around.

Jeff Locke is one of my favorite players on the team, at least partially inspired by an extended conversation we had about my beard at Piratefest.  But it has become pretty clear that he needs more than just an extra day or two of rest after rough start after rough start.  The starting rotation is quickly thinning out, even if the Pirates did make it out of the Wild Card round.

But with the way this weekend has gone, I'm not feeling great about the chances of seeing a home playoff game.  And it isn't just about the way the Pirates haven't performed as much as it is about how the Reds have. 

Living in Ohio for the better part of this season and last, I got to see the Reds on a daily basis.  It's a good team, and it's a team that has experience late in the season.  That matters when you hit this point in the season.

Hopefully the club can finish strong, let the playoffs take us where they may, and field a team that can do it all over again next year.  But after saying "wait til next year" every single season, it sure would be nice to see a strong finish.

Hopefully this should end the raving essays, and we can get back to pretty pictures of baseball cards for the rest of the week.  And by hopefully, I mean assuming the team doesn't continue to implode their way out of the division race.

Home Finale

The Bucs wrap up their regular season home games this afternoon against the Reds, clinging to a one game lead for the top wildcard spot.

It's really strange to be heading to the park today not knowing if I'll be back again this season or not.  The schedule was always set, and then when the home games were over they were over.  I know I sound like a broken record, but this whole playoff thing is weeeeird.

It's pretty crazy to look at the composition of this team compared to the '92 club that was one out from the World Series.  Granted I don't think this team looks like a World Series team...but anything can happen in the playoffs, particularly with strong pitching.

Cutch has been getting MVP chants at home since the All-Star break.  And he definitely warrants some votes.  But I haven't seen either the exceptional individual performance or the ability to carry the team on his back that you want to see from an MVP.  Don't get me wrong, I'd be thrilled if he won.  But I'm not waiting with baited breathe. 
The Bonds/McCutchen parallels are unfortunate, since Andrew seems like a genuinely fun guy, good teammate, and active member of the community.  Barry...well, not so much.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Man Overboard

Last night was a rough one to be a Pirates fan.  I've written a lot about the odd, awkward experience of playoff baseball, or playoff implications, being so incredibly foreign to my fandom.

Well last night it finally hit home.  As I sat in PNC Park and watched the team fall apart in the 9th, things quickly reverted back to those feelings that became all too familiar over the past thirteen seasons.  Billy Hamilton pinch running?  He's going to steal second and there's nothing we can do.  Next pitch - there he went.  And then I knew it.  This game was over.  I had seen it dozens of times before, year after year.  This is how, in the most unlikely of fashions, we could find some way to lose.

When Pedro Alvarez misplayed a hard grounder and both runners scored, the more casual fans around me groaned.  Or swore.  Or just stared silently at field.  But I knew it was coming.  I felt it coming.  New, novel ways to lose winnable baseball games.  That is what the last twenty years has been about for me.  Except this was different.

See, I've always been able to brush off those losses.  "Shit, at least they're creative."  It's not that I'm a naturally laid back guy.  I'm not.  But when something like that happens, what can you do but laugh.  Except last night.  Last night, it felt like every year, every game before.  The losing the unlosable?  Been there, done that.  Except last night, for the first time I can really recall, it hurt.  I couldn't laugh.  I couldn't make some wisecrack.  I just...sat there and stared at the field.  Until it was time to go home.

If that is what watching a contender feels like, I feel like there should be some kind of warning label involved.

Friday, September 20, 2013

I (Don't) Love the 80's

You know all the great things I've said about 90's cards?  Well I feel the complete opposite about the preceding decade.  The 80's were a cardboard wasteland for the Bucs, capped off by the Pittsburgh Drug Trials and the Pirate Parrot dealing coke out of the dugout tunnels.

Speaking of which, we also had Lee Tunnel, adding insult to injury.

Still, there were some gems that came from the decade.  And they've been sadly under-represented on here to this point.

But this '83 Fleer card of Pops really captures the essence of the guy that was the heart of the team throughout the post-Clemente 70's.  And after he left, it's not really all that surprising that the entire franchise fell apart.

I love this photo - vintage warmup gear that looks more like it's straight off the department store rack than today's super duper high end on-field gear.  Add in the upper deck of Three Rivers, where Stargell dumped many a ball, and it only adds to the card.  For a set that didn't offer much aesthetically, this card is a real gem.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Topps Team Set Countdown, 50-46

Installment three of the countdown, and now we're well beyond the terrible sets.  What separates 48 from 47?  Not all that much.  But each set has its perks and drawbacks.

And away we go.

50) 1992 Topps

The '92 set featured some unique photography that largely still hasn't been replicated in style.  I love the dugout shots.  But when you get into the live action shots, the set gets pretty weak.  The photos aren't as crisp as they could be, and the sizing and cropping is terrible.  Add in a less than spectacular design, and the dugout photos and horizontal photography are really what save the set.

49) 2009 Topps

The 2009 set largely gets lost in the sea of late 00's white bordered sets.  There are some nice photos, but the player selection was unspectacular.  The Pirate roster certainly wasn't all that spectacular, but the checklist omitted quite a few players who played significant roles on the team.  Luckily the Heritage release from that season picked up the slack where Flagship left off.

48) 1969 Topps

There's no purple.  That alone moves this set up the rankings.  But the photography makes some nice strides for the time, including some warm-up jacket photos and some more interesting posted shots.  Of course Topps manages to backtrack again in '70.

47) 2011 Topps

The Topps sets from the last 5 years or so really do run together.  They're all fairly similar aesthetically, and the photography has shifted towards using an image service rather than unique photography.

The 2011 set just feels very mechanical to me.  The circular logo at the bottom feels like a cog, and though I appreciate the minimalist text, the baseball logo feels like distracting overkill.

46) 1957 Topps

Our oldest entrant to date, the '57 set isn't a bad set.  But it does pale in comparison to its more colorful counterparts.  The design highlights the photography.  Which would be great if the photos were at all interesting.  This set won't hold its weight on nostalgia alone.

Preparing for the Playoffs

I've always been a big fan of highlights cards, whether capturing a special moment during the season or recapping the playoff happenings.  It's disappointing that Topps seems to have moved away from those more unique cards, and their inclusion in Heritage is entirely dependent upon what year is being reprinted.

Some of the 1961 cards of the '60 World Series are among my favorite pieces of vintage cardboard.  But the Bucs weren't always on the winning side of highlights.

The 1970 NLCS didn't go well for the Bucs, getting swept in 3 games by the Reds.  Still with the rarity of Pirate playoff appearances, it's cool to have postseason cards in the collection, even if they're a bit bittersweet.  Hopefully the postseason goes better for the Bucs this year, with the magic number down to 4 to clinch a playoff spot.

And of course you can't feel too bad for the '70 Buccos.  Things turned out much better in '71.

Before They Were Bucs: Clint Hurdle

 Clint Hurdle has pretty quickly endeared himself to the city of Pittsburgh.  Even before this season, he was a fan favorite.  His outgoing, personable personality is a big departure from the more rigid managers we've seen in recent years.  And while I'm not always a fan of his management style, I think overall the team has been handled well.

But few fans seem to realize Hurdle was once a highly touted prospect whose major league career never really materialized.  And of course he had a fairly successful sting managing the Rockies before heading to Pittsburgh.

Both these cards were signed during his time in Denver, and it was simply cool to get a card signed by a manager who I honestly had no idea had ever played in the majors.  Since coming to the Steel City I have since added quite a few other Hurdle autos to my collection, including the complete run of his manager cards from Topps sets.

But I sure do like the looks of a young Clint in those KC power blues.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Topps Team Set Countdown, 55-51

After a move, some Pirate excitement, and then looking foolish against the Padres, I'm back to continue the Pirate team set countdown.  Maybe these countdown things are a little more fun than I thought.

For those that missed it, Part 1 can be found here.

Now...back to the counting.

55) 1989 Topps

Topps made improvements from 1988 to '89.  Marginal improvements. 

The design was a little less painful.  The photos got were a little more interesting.  But as a whole the design is better lost to history, which is something that can probably be applied equally to the latter part of the decade entirely.

54) 1967 Topps

Pretty much every statement made about the '80's above can be applied to the releases of the late 60's as well.

The '67 set offers an underwhelming design and a glaringly out of place purple font.  The cards lack the action photography that would make it into the early 70's sets.  I've never been a huge fan of Topps' white bordered sets to begin with, but if you're going to go with the white border there at least needs to be something to add some character to the release.  This set has nothing even close to that.

53) 2002 Topps
The 2002 release isn't a bad set.  But it certainly pales in comparison to many of the other releases that year, not least of which was Stadium Club.  The photos used in the flagship set just felt like the leftovers after the Stadium Club team had their pick.  The result was an underwhelming set emphasized by a border color and foil stamping that are just too close in color for my liking.

This Giles card is a great shot.  But it pales in comparison to the photo used for his Stadium Club card.  And that's the legacy of the 2002 set.  Nice, but just not enough.

52) 1994 Topps

The 1994 set offered some nice photos of a team that had fans hopeful the team could soon return to their winning ways.  But there's just a lot going on here, and the design feels more like the Saved By The Bell set than a baseball card design.

Lines, lines, lines.  The strip on the bottom feels very reminiscent of the much cleaner 1993 Donruss design.  And the yellow line and green fill give an interesting baseball diamond effect without taking away from the photo.  But there's just too much going on.  And what's up with that font?  It looks like it would work best as a neon sign.

Nice try guys, but no thanks.

51) 1984 Topps

For all the complaints I have about the '94 set, the '84 release did a great job making the most of a clean, simple design.

I love the prominence of the team colors in the card design, which really accentuates the photos.  Perhaps the corner headshots could have been a little big smaller (especially with the number of mustaches on the team), but it adds a nice feature to the card.  There is a lot going on in the margins, but nothing in the design pulls you too far away from the main photo.

The (Football) Bucs, Throwback Uniforms, and a Soapbox

Many of you have probably seen the story already, but the Tampa Bay Bucs are scrapping a planned throwback night due to a new uniform policy that apparently teams had missed the memo on until now.

I love throwback uniforms, but the questions at hand here have much less to do with football or uniforms.

We live in a revisionist culture.  The tide of public opinion shifts rapidly, and so do the views those to stand to lose or gain from their stances on those issues.  And when there are billions of dollars at stake, those positions become even more meticulously crafted.

It does not and should not come to a shock to the NFL that football is a dangerous game, and that concussions probably aren't as good for the body as a hefty pile of spinach.  But it wasn't a shock to baseball that players who saw there home run total jump by 40 from one year to the next may have had some added assistance, or to tobacco companies that perhaps smoking wasn't the best way to extend your life.  It's about plausible deniability, and assessing the cost/benefit ration of those choices should it all come crumbling down.

And let us make no mistake about it: the economic empire of the NFL was built upon detrimental health risks to its players.  But $765 million dollars is a nearly inconsequential amount to a league that has nurtured multi-billion dollar revenue streams through marketing and developing a game that is inherently violent.  Any changes to the game are again coming as a calculated move, and while their outcomes may indeed improve player safety and minimize longterm risk, it would be foolish to believe these are wholly unselfish actions.

But perhaps we should give credit where credit is due.  The NFL is implementing these helmet restrictions recognizing that its member clubs will be losing out on significant revenue from the jersey sales and marketing that these uniforms offer.  Some teams, like the Bucs, simply have no other throwback alternatives, and will be forced to sell and market their primary jerseys only.  But how do we weigh that concession?   Could a few million dollars in jersey sales outweigh the positive publicity the league will generate from this newfound commitment to player safety? 

Won't little Joey be just as likely to have mommy simply buy him a different jersey for Christmas?  Meanwhile, the added media attention, not just on sports media outlets but also in stories on your local and national news for the next couple days, make Mommy feel far more at ease signing Joey up for PeeWee football next year?  He plays the game, he follows the game, and he buys the merchandise.  Not just this Christmas, or next year, but for the rest of his life.

So yes, I'm thrilled that athletes may have a small layer of added safety while playing the game at the relatively inconsequential cost of fans not getting to see some throwback uniforms this year.  But it would be foolish not to think about the larger implications of why this is happening.  And if wearing a secondary helmet during the season was so inherently dangerous, why didn't teams put an immediate moratorium on throwback uniforms in the middle of last season.  Or two years ago.  Or five.

The idea that getting hit in the head repeatedly is dangerous is not a novel concept.  But neither is the idea that a business would make decisions based upon what makes it the most money, rather than what makes people safe.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Streak: Lovable Losers Countdown, 5-1

Unlike VH1 countdowns, I'll spare you the annoying commercial interruptions between each and every entry during the last five.  I mentioned this, but I think it bears repeating.  And if any of the Pirate fans in the blogosphere disagree, I'd certainly love to hear that as well.  But when your team is consistently, historically, and predictably bad for a time frame longer than the lifespan of most household pets, it changes to mentality with which you watch games.

The players listed on this countdown weren't ever the best player on the field (in fact, I'd dare say some of these guys never were, t-ball through the bigs).  But they were the guys you loved watching play game in and game out, even when you knew your team had no shot.  When you know your team is going to be on the losing end far more often than not, you find other things to appreciate.  The small things.  And sometimes the big moments felt even bigger.  A walkoff win felt like you had just won the World Series.  A great defensive play could make the game, even if it came in a 6-1 loss. 

This team, hopefully with a nice playoff run, will be remembered by casual fans and diehards alike.  The average Yinzers will integrate A.J. Burnett and the Morneau trade into their sports lexicon for years to come.  They will inevitably misquote the details A.J. Burnett will become a free agent signing (rather than a salary dump trade by the Yankees).  Morneau will become "a trade with the White Sox or somebody."  They'll become casual fan factoids dropped into casual sports conversation by people completely and utterly talking out their ass who want to sound informed (I've spent the better part of two decades hearing about how Bobby Bonilla was traded to the Mets, which I knew to be factually incorrect by age 6 thanks to the back of my 1993 Donruss card).  But the guys on this countdown?  They probably won't ever get the recognition or appreciation they deserve.  A lot of these guys were just looking for a shot - the uniform or city probably didn't matter to them.  It was just a chance to play in the bigs when they probably wouldn't have for most other teams.  But for those of us who sat through game after game after game, any excuse to cheer and get excited was all we were looking for.

And with that said...

5) John Wehner - 1991-96, 1999-2001
No player embodies The Streak more than the original Pittsburgh Kid, John Wehner.   The Carrick, PA native defined term role player for Jim Leyland.  He came up as rookie when things were good, and spent most of the early rebuilding years bouncing between the majors and AAA.  You can't fault the guy for following Leyland to Florida in '97 where he picked up a ring.

And then it was right back to the Burgh.  He fittingly hit the last homer at Three Rivers Stadium, and logged 43 games with an atrocious team in 2001 before calling it quits.  From there he managed in the Pirates system before taking his thick yinzer accent to the broadcast booth as the team's 5th member, calling road games in place of Steve Blass.

Everything about him screams Pittsburgh, from the accent down.  He's the kind of guy who probably had no business being in the majors to begin with, yet somehow managed to log 461 games across a decade for his hometown team.

4) Evan Meek - 2008-2012
Speaking of the underdogs, you can't beat going from Rule 5 pick to All-Star.  Meek came to the Pirates from the Rays in the Rule 5 draft, was returned, and then purchased back by the Bucs. 

His early time with the team was rough, and he really only took on mopup duty.  Not that the '08 team was exactly loaded with talent.  But he made enough progress to stick in the pen in '09 before an absolutely wicked 2010 season.  He was the Pirates All-Star representative in Anaheim in '10, but was still one of the most personable and fan-friendly guys on the team despite his success.  Unfortunately 80 innings over 70 appearances took its roll, and he ended up on the DL the next season.  It's been a rough road back, including time as a starter for the Rangers' AAA affiliate.

But I haven't met many players that were more likable than Meek, and his sense of humor and interaction with fans was priceless.

3) Zach Duke - 2005-2010

Flashes of hope.  That's all we really had for two decades.  And nothing flashed brighter than Duke's 14 brilliant starts in 2005.  The lefty pitched to an 8-2 line with a 1.81 ERA (and an astounding 233 ERA+).  Along with a talented crop of starters, there was hope even if only for a short time.

Duke was a better starter than his stats indicate.  Never close to his '05 form, but he had some very good starts.  On a team that would regularly have the starter knocked out in the 5th, he pitched 6 complete games during his 6 years in Pittsburgh. 

And while he lost a lot more often than he won, I can't help but wonder if he might have looked a lot better with a stronger infield defense behind him.

2) Kevin Polcovich - 1997-98

Can you get a scrappier, more working class name?  And Polcovich certainly played the part well.  The light hitting shortstop never slugged higher than .382 in the minors despite playing in some hitter friendly leagues.

He wasn't fast.  He didn't hit.  He wasn't even the smoothest fielder at short.  But there he was, shortstop on the unlikely contenders during '97's Freak Show year.  In 84 unlikely games, he managed to hit .274 with a .396 slugging percentage.  The unlikeliest of heroes.

By the next season he had turned into a pumpkin.  But I don't know if I can think of any player who in name alone personified the emotions and experience of Pirate fans.  He was a guy you just couldn't not cheer for.

1) Rob Mackowiak - 2001-2005

That's really all you need to know.  On May 24, 2004, Rob Mackowiak and his wife had their son Garrett.  Later that day, the Pirates played a double header with the CubsMackowiak was unexpectedly in uniform, belting a walkoff grand slam to win game one delivering a 9-8 victory.

Capping off the day, Mackowiak delivered a game typing pinch-hit homer in the bottom of the 9th in game two, which the Bucs would eventually win.

I vividly remember watching both games, and screaming like a crazy person after both blasts.  It was a warm spring night, and I remember going absolutely crazy around 10:30 or 11 when the second game ended.  With my bedroom windows open, the neighbors must have thought I was crazy, and my parents certainly did.

Frankly I have no idea what a playoff win will feel like.  I don't know how I will react or respond.  I don't know what kind of emotions to feel, waiting so long for something that always felt so far away and now suddenly is right in front of me.  I don't know if the years of losing will make it even sweeter, or make me almost numb.  But I know that if it feels anything even close to how I felt watching Mackowiak hit that home run, it will be one of the greatest non-personal moments of my life.  It wasn't a playoff game.  There was nothing on the line beyond two W's or L's.  But the elation from that moment is unquestionably one my favorite moments in sports. 

That one hit sums up the entirety of what being a Pirates fan has meant to me.  Learning to cheer when nobody else can understand why you're that excited.

I Love the 90's, An Addendum

I don't always post regularly, but when I do, I prefer the 90's.

My I Love the 90's posts have become a semi-regular feature here, mostly because a large portion of my additions have been 90's cards.  But it's great to see some other blog-love for the decade that gave us Pogs and Furby.  Nick and his wonderful Dimebox wrote up a great post on some of the great cardboard that came out of the 90's.

Aside from my love of all things autographed our collecting tastes are pretty much in sync, so it didn't surprise me to see him write the post.  But I thought I'd delve a little deeper into why many collectors view it as a lost decade, and include some additional points illustrating (pun intended) why they're dead wrong.

One major trend I've noticed among the 90's Deniers is that most of them either fall into one of two camps: either they didn't collect during that time, or they collected heavily and got burned.

The hobby, and baseball as a whole, were in a major transitional phase.  Insert sets blew up in the early 90's, while simultaneously the burst of the investment bubble that had fueled the 80's collecting (read: prospecting) market and baseball's strike drove collectors out of the hobby in droves.  The result is that the hobby quite literally shifted over night, moving from a relatively passive collecting landscape with limited numbers of sets and inserts in '93 and '94 to a boom in both inserts and numbered cards in '95 and '96.  Hot base cards, which had once driven products, were now largely secondary to the insert craze and rare serial numbered cards.

Add in autographs and later in the decade the white hot game used cards, and the hobby landscape had changed rapidly in just a couple short years.  And simply put, some people don't like change.

The business model as a whole changed, with companies moving from producing just a handful of sets in insanely large quantities to the model we see today, where there are more releases printed in much smaller quantities.  Again, some people loved the added competition and added variety, where companies tried to offer something for every type of collector, while others preferred the old "3 sets a year" days.
Some releases, like Metal Universe, were unique approaches to expand the market.

But there were also a lot of one-and-done sets.

Though they gave us some quirky releases, like 1998's New Pinnacle.  Not to be confused with the regular release of Pinnacle the same year.

But we can't avoid addressing the elephant in the room any longer.

Why do a lot of people think 90's cards are junk?  Because they got burned.  Bad.

The mid to late 90's were still largely operating on the shop/card show model, where you could really only find a card if it somehow magically found its way right in front of your face, or if you pulled it from a pack.  While there were collectors, traders, and sellers online, the online card community was very small.

And the cards that were coming out were very rare.  This wasn't an 84 Topps Mattingly, where if you passed on one there would undoubtedly be three dealers with the same card at the next show.  These cards were tough pulls, and they were numbered to tell you just how few of them were out there.

It's hard to fathom, in these days where numbered cards fall out of boxes by the stack.  But you could bust boxes of a product and not even hit a single card numbered to a few thousand.

People paid hundreds or in some cases thousands of dollars for rare cards.  Those cards are still rare.  And they're still valuable.  But those rare cards that sold for $800 at a show in '98?  It might sell for $95 on ebay now.  The growth of the online sales market opened tons of doors for collectors and radically reshaped the way we value (and the values of) cards.  If a card was numbered /150, seeing it at a show was no longer a once in a lifetime buy or pass situation.  Odds were that someone, somewhere would be selling that same card.  And at some point that card would make its way online.

And of course there was a trickle down effect.  It wasn't just the deep pocketed collectors that got burned. 

There were the guys who were able to sell common inserts of star players for $3, or parallels for $1 who just can't seem to admit that those same cards probably belong in the $.25 box now.  You know the type.  There's at least one at every show or flea market, trying to peddle their 1992 Frank Thomas Score cards, Don West style, telling you what a great buy it is for just $2.

To top things off, the entire rookie crop for the decade absolutely imploded.  Maybe that 89 UD Griffey you spent $50 on stings a little, but it's still.  But it's still an iconic card or one of baseball's greatest players.  And you can laugh at that stack of Danny Tartabull rookies you paid $1 each for. 

But that Kerry Wood Bowman Chrome you spent $45 on?  That still burns.  Ben Greive, Karim Garcia, Kris Benson, anyone that came out of '99 Bowman.  The mid-late 90's rookie crops are a virtual prospect grave yard.  And it's not just the prospects that flamed out in AA.  ROY winners.  Guys that spent a couple years fast tracked for stardom and then...poof.  The cards built, and built, and built.  The hype pushed prices up and up for year after year.  And now the cards are worth pennies on the dollar.  It's not that collectors had never been burned on bad investments before.  It's that the 90's burned collectors in ways that I don't think any group of rookies ever had or has since.

And I can't totally blame them (laughing, meanwhile, is a different story. That I can do with ease).  A lot of people spent a lot of money on cards that just weren't nearly as rare or special as they wanted to believe.  Some people just got left in the dust of the changing hobby landscape.  And some collectors, as always seems to happen, just continue to move on to the newest, shiniest trend, considering anything that isn't that "thing" to be worthless simply because it isn't what they want.

So feel free to continue to ignore cards from the 90's.  My collection sincerely appreciates it if you do.  But as they say, don't knock it til you tried it.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Streak: Loveable Losers Countdown, 10-6

The Bucs turned back into a pumpkin tonight against Andrew Cashner.  They looked lost at the plate, wasting a strong outing by A.J. Burnett.  Sometimes 2009 doesn't feel all that far away.

Anyhow, back to our main event.  We're getting into the good stuff.  Or bad stuff, depending on perspective.

10) Warren Morris - 1999-2001

Morris was a shooting star, rising quickly from College World Series hero to a very strong rookie campaign in 99, finishing 3rd in ROY voting.  From there, his average and power numbers fell off significantly.  He is one of my favorite players, and a super nice guy.  My dad took me to a free signing he was doing at a local card show back in 2000.  It was the first time I had met a pro athlete, and he couldn't have been any nicer.
It was a shame that his career tailed off so quickly, but for a while he made things fun.

9) Tike Redman - 2000-01, 2003-05

Redman again falls into the shooting star category.  He got cups of coffee in '00 and '01 before delivering a blistering .330 average in 56 games in '03.  But it was all downhill from there.  He put up a solid .280 average in his first full season, but his lack of on base skills and power made it clear he too would not be the answer in center.

I'll remember Redman most for his absolutely terrible routes to flyballs.  He would manage to cover more ground on a routine fly than anyone I've ever seen, breaking back before realizing it was a shallow fly in front of him.  Or vice versa.  Those years were a comedy of errors, and he was bringing the house down.
8) Joe Beimel - 2001-03, 2011

The pride of St. Marys, PA, Joe has a special place in my collection.  He graduated from my alma mater, Duquesne, before being drafted by the Bucs (and will be the last Duquesne alum to reach the majors, since they cut their baseball program in 2009).  He pretty quickly made the jump from school just a 15 minute walk from PNC Park to the actual field.

He made a nice career for himself as a lefty reliever, but unfortunately most of that came after leaving the Pirates.

7) Joe "The Joker" Randa - 1997, 2006

Honestly, The Joker could have made the list twice.  He was a fan favorite during his two stints in Pittsburgh, but was a very different player on two very different teams each time he was here. 

He came to Pittsburgh from KC in the Jay Bell/Jeff King Rebuilding Take I trade, and had a very good season for the '97 freak show team.  So the logical thing to do would be to leave him unprotected in the Expansion Draft, right?


So there went The Joker, off to have a very productive career for the next decade.

Enter the free agent spend-a-palooza that was the 2005 offseason.  Randa, Jeromy Burnitz, and Sean Casey teamed up to form the 2002 Pittsburgh Beer League All-Star team.  Randa started the season as the starting third sacker, despite blocking promising youngsters Freddy Sanchez and Jose Bautista.

But veteranosity!

Randa left the team to go on the bereavement list, Sanchez filled in, and absolutely tore the cover off the ball.  Joe never got his starting job back, while Freddie went on to win the batting title.

Yep, a true Pirate tale.

6) Doug Mientkiewicz - 2008

What Mientkiewicz had lost in skill he more than made up for in entertainment value during his season in Pittsburgh.  Before coming to Pittsburgh, Mientkiewicz had logged exactly one inning at third base in the majors.

He worked at the position in spring training in hopes of making the squad, and would make 30 starts at the hot corner in black and gold.  And he made some pretty nifty plays while doing so.

But the highlight of Dirty Doug's time in the Burgh was a screaming match with Randy Johnson where the two players had to be separated.  To say the Pirate teams of the late 00's lacked fight would be a grand understatement.  The teams were akin to a kid who would just roll up in a ball and take a beating.  Not simply not fight back.  But in fact just sit there and take the licking.
Doug brought fight and spirit to a team that had previously had none.  I was never a real believer in the whole "clubhouse leader" or "veteran leadership" argument.  Watching Mientkiewicz on that team changed my mind.

Simply put, it was awesome.