Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Drink It In, Man

Leave it up to me to manage to get sick right when the weather turns nice.  I know the "put your coat on or you'll catch a cold" stuff isn't supposed to be true.  But here we are, every single year.  Nice day, leave coat at home, boom.  Sick, laid up in bed the last couple days.

So forgive the delay in posting.  Nothing beats feeling like garbage while rays of sunshine and chirping birds frolic just outside your window.

I've been reflecting a lot less on what I collect but how I collect.  This isn't going to be one of those "completely changing my collecting focus" posts, so don't worry.

But one thing that I've found over the last few years is that I find it harder to appreciate cards.  And when I say appreciate, I think I mean obsessively dissect.  I can describe, in vivid detail, every line, curve, and blade of grass on Ken Griffey, Jr.'s 2000 Topps card, his first as a Red.  Those little red league leader italics in the stat line are burned into my brain.  And I can quote the back of cards like it's a holy text.

And I'm sure I'm not alone.  I poured over my cards, taking in the fronts and backs time and time again.  Now, I add cards to my collection that are probably twenty times cooler, look them over, enter them in a spreadsheet, add them to the appropriate binder, and flip by them ever so often.
 And sure, there are a lot of reasons for that.  Not being 12 is one of them, for sure.  I think the wife would have me chopped up in a wood chipper if I spent my evenings re-reading baseball cards instead of cutting the grass or washing some dishes. 
 But there's more.  There are just SO MANY CARDS.  Seriously, take a look at some checklists.  According to Beckett, Randy Johnson had 365 cards in 1999.  In 2017, he had 344. 

There were 1,324 Pirate cards in 2000.  Last year there were 7,304 released, and 1,148 under the Bowman banner alone.
 And as much as I slow my collecting down, paring myself down to just the cards that I really, truly appreciate, the chase still feels never-ending.  And in a lot of ways, it should.  We're simultaneously in the golden age and dark ages of cardboard.  Look how freaking cool baseball cards can look right now!

But the center of the hobby universe continues to reside in taking the same autograph or patch, numbering it 600 different ways with 600 different tints of blue foil, and telling everyone their card is one of a kind.
 But seriously.  Look around.  Look what is out there, and tell me that if you had seen that exact same card in 1985, or 1995, or hell, even 2005, it wouldn't have had you foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog.

And that is where the catch comes in.  Or maybe just some fever induced madness.  I'm not staking a claim one way or the other right now.

I don't know what the answer is, or if there's a good one.  Because instead of opening a pack or two with 11 cards per pack, I pull packages from my mailbox a hundred cards deep.  Times have changed, and a lot of that change is fantastic.

But to borrow a line from Ferris Bueller, this hobby moves pretty fast.  If we don't stop and look around once in a while, we could miss it.

Friday, February 23, 2018

2017: What Did I Miss?

The last year I was truly, fully out of the hobby was 1999.  The sixth grade must have been an especially taxing year.  And when I came back the next year?  It was pretty easy to figure out what I missed.  After all, my upper threshold on packs was about $2.  And a quick flip through the latest issue of Beckett gave me a pretty good idea of what players and sets were hot, and the price guide had plenty of photos to see, in all their black and white glory, what had come out the last year.

Jump ahead nearly two decades and it feels like I was out for a month with mono and just came back to class the day of the final.  Considering how formulaic card companies have become with their releases, it should be easy to pick up where you left off.  ...Shouldn't it?

I've been browsing COMC, taking a look at CardboardConnection here and there.  But the reality is that this hobby isn't nearly as digestible today as it was in 1999.  The checklist for Bowman Chrome is probably as long as it was for the entirety of baseball releases in 1999.  And that doesn't even count Bowman with Chrome, Bowman Chrome Draft Picks, Topps Online 5X7 cards with eighteen different color variations, and the tens of thousands of commons that had a stamp added and were thrown in just for good, confusing, measure.

The hobby has changed.  Some of those changes are for the best.  A lot of them are for the best.  Autographs of Hall of Famers are readily available.  The are cards on vintage-ish stock, and cards on acetate - something for everyone.  And boxes now cost as much as a mortgage payment.  Well, maybe that last one isn't so good...

But there is a big chunk of me that misses being able to spend 15 minutes flipping through a few pages of a magazine and have a handle on the state of affairs.  More game used cards.  Nolan Ryan reprints.  This Rick Ankiel guy must be one heck of a pitcher, and always able to consistently throw baseballs over home plate.  Alright.  Ready, set, go!

And maybe that's where we went off the rails.  Or at least I did.  Because in 2014, 15, 16, the hobby didn't feel like a hobby.  For me a hobby was something I could do for pleasure in my spare time with my spare brainpower.  Collecting felt like it became its own second job, just to keep up with what releases came out, what cards I needed, where to find the cards.  What had for decades been a fairly straightforward proposition: here are the cards, pick what you like, now became this complex game that involved a slide rule and triangulation to figure out which end was up.  Are Topps Chrome autographs part of the base set?  Are they an insert?  They look like base cards.  But the numbering is different.  Why is the numbering different?  Do Bowman with Chrome prospects go with my Bowman set, or my Chrome set.  How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

Maybe I'm alone here.  And while I keep repeating my collecting mantra of "buy what you like," I'd be lying if I said I don't feel cannibalized by my own hobby.

So all of that - all of THAT - is to say point me in the right direction, friends.  What did I miss in 2017?  Any products that are "must see?"  Any new inserts or technology that knocked your socks off?  Any big changes?  Are gold refractors suddenly numbered to 250?  Because this ain't 1999, and if they even still sell them in stores, I don't think Dr. Jim Beckett is gonna help me out these days.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Mail Call: Purple Rain

It's a weird feeling, being out of the hobby for an entire year.  The last "collecting year" I missed was 1999.  But I was still a wee tike back then, and my "collecting" never ventured above the $1.50 a pack range.  It's a little weird being completely out of touch with the hobby.
But on the plus side, it should make adding 2017 cards pretty easy.  No pesky remembering what I already have, or if I have the blue sparkle ice diamond refractor parallel of said card.  It has 2016 stats on the back?  I need it.  Easy peasy.
 The other week I sent out a few mini packages to some collectors in the team collector group I've been a part of for the last 6 or 7 years.  It's a great group, and I've been woefully slacking not just in my collecting but in my friendship over the last year.  Taking a break from collecting meant there hasn't been a lot new I have picked up to send out.  But it also meant that some new collectors joined the group for teams that had previously been unclaimed.
 Time to unload some cards!  I sent out a small batch of packages, and our new Reds collector dropped some goodies in my mailbox in return.
 As luck would have it, all 2017!  Refractors are easy enough to figure out.  Heritage is purple, and Chrome is pink.  Got it.  Foil?  No problem.
 These Bowman...something cards?  Bowman Platinum?  Are they base?  Ice?  Something else?  I could search Beckett, and probably will when I get them entered into my spreadsheet.  But if anybody can id these cards for me, you get some instant karma. 
 One thing I've realized over the last couple years is that Chrome without borders makes for some weird cards.  Sure, you can mostly tell what color a refractor is without much work in most cases.  But the colored borders really made the cards pop.  The colored backgrounds just don't do it for me.  Maybe I'm in the minority, but I do miss borders.
It was a great package overall, and slowly starts chipping away at my woefully empty 2017 collection.

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Little Late to the Party: 2018 Topps

Considering I missed out on collecting all of 2017, I think it's a fair accomplishment to only be a couple weeks on jumping into 2018.  Pitchers and catchers reported today, and it only seemed right to grab a couple packs of Topps while at Target last night.

Topps has been pretty predictable the last few years, and their formula for the flagship product was unlikely to change this year.  I haven't been a fan of the changes since day one, but I've accepted them for what they are.  

Topps seems to have at least backed down a little bit from their dystopian deus ex machina designs that they've been beating collectors over the head with the last few years.  

This years design has softened a bit from the the futuristic designs of previous years.  And that's a welcomed change.  The name and team bars in team colors are a little more classic, and the flourish under the team logo is a nice callback to 2014 Topps.  It's crazy how much the card designs and look have changed since just 2014, but that's a whole different topic.

I could do without all of the artificial glare and the team and name bars randomly disintegrating at the ends.  But compromised must be made, I suppose.  The borderless cards still feel out of place in Topps.  It's something that I always considered the hallmark element of Stadium Club, and with both products existing concurrently it feels like they're stepping on each other's toes a bit.

But overall I don't hate this design.  And after the last couple years had brought outright rage in me, that's a huge step forward.  But the photo selection?  That's another story.

I think it was somewhere around 2010 that Topps started using Getty images rather than the Topps photographers they had contracted with for years.  It was a major shift.  Topps had gotten cheap, lazy, or all of the above.  Cards in Update and Series 2 would have Spring Training photos.  Regular season shots were a rarity.  Pulling from Getty's large photo selection resulted in some awesome action shots.

But like all good things, it can run its course.  The photo style for Flagship is tight cropped, borderless action photos with some photo retouching to pull out the contrast.  The end result can best be described as "blech."  The photos look articial to me, like we're looking at these poses in a wax museum.  And while Getty grabs some great shots, the tight cropping lends itself more to more routine photos.  In two packs I pulled 5 cards of pitchers in almost identical mid-windup poses.

But there were still some fun cards in the bunch.  I love these mashup uniforms the Mariners started wearing that pull together the early and mid 90's into one surprisingly clean and snazzy looking set of duds.

And over a decade in, the rookie logo is finally starting to look a little less intrusive.  I barely noticed it on the cards I pulled.

I'm still not interested in Topps' messy Photoshop cards.  Isn't this the same design as Fire or Triumph, or one of the other two-syllable brands that I can't tell apart and a box costs as much as a car payment?  This card could have passed for a Diamond Kings insert for how well Topps masked the logos.  

The real gem of the packs wasn't a card at all.  It was a filler.  I don't know much about this Home Run Challenge contest.  It's probably a huge disappointment.  But for a minute I had excited flashbacks to Collector's Choice Crash the Game cards.  And that alone was worth the price of admission.

Overall verdict?  This year is less bad than the last few.  I still want borders and untouched photos.  But if history tells us anything Topps tends to design sets in multi-year runs of similar designs.  Hopefully this run is nearing an end.  But it should be interesting to see how this design plays in Chrome.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Starting Nine: Detriot Tigers

On Sundays, we take a trip into a random binder page from one of the 29 teams that isn't the Pirates...

My "other team" binders are hit or miss.  Teams I casually follow, like the Mariners or Marlins, come pretty close to filling their own binder.  On the other hand, the whole NL West fits in one 1 inch binder.  Call it East Coast Bias. 

The size of these other teams pages are usually determined by two major factors: A) did they have 90's stars who hit lots of homers and B) do they have cool uniforms and/or logos.

B is a major factor.

And in the case of the Tigers, their classy and classic uniform and color combination is to be commended.  But not celebrated in the pages of my collection, apparently.  They're smushed into a binder with a dominating Indians collection.  The Tigers?  Aside from autographs, they only make up a couple pages.  But hey, quantity not quality!

And a '91 Elite Series card?  That's come quality.  I think I picked this up at a show or flea market for $1.  I can safely say I spent way more than that on packs of '91 Donruss hoping to pull one of these.  But I'm one of those sickos that like the '91 Donruss design, so it wasn't a total loss.

 No matter the team, I end up hanging on to a lot of refractors.  Gold refractors are tough to beat in my opinion.  Add in a rookie cup and we have a winner.
 Speaking of which...occasionally I come across a card that is...less than binder worthy.  I loved '05 Champions, and the blue parallel on blue background is a nice look.  But I couldn't for the life of me tell you anything about Roberto Novoa.  Google says he spent 3 years in the majors, 2 of them with the Cubs.  So I probably even saw the guy play.  Huh...oops.
 The late 90's were a strange time for pitchers.  Justin Thompson made the All-Star team as a 24 year old in '97, had two rough years, went to Texas as a major piece in the Juan Gonzalez trade, and then his shoulder imploded.  He and Tony Saunders were early lessons on "don't bet on pitchers."

I should get that on a damn poster on my wall.  Kris Benson, Luis Heredia, Stetson Allie, Sean Burnett, Bobby Bradley, John Van Benschoten, and Gerrit Cole later...
 Donruss/Leaf/Playoff Donruss was decent while it lasted.  But original Donruss?  That was the stuff.
 One of the things that I really miss in modern cards is the willingness to take a risk, both in design and on players.  This Rookie IPO insert is fun, even if the design is a little less inspired than maybe it could have been.  But they tried it, it was ok, and then life moved on.  Topps seems to trot out the same insert sets each year, with the same general checklist.  Am I the only one that gets bored.
 It's interesting to see how the hobby goes through cycles.  Today's hot player is tomorrow's answer to a trivia question. It's hard not to get caught up in the hype, but also sort of fun to see what cards you can score for pennies on the dollars years down the road.  Dean Palmer's most similar batter on Baseball-Reference is Jay Bruce.  I bet Bruce cards are selling for a fair penny more than Dean is right now.  By my math, I can probably get my first Jay Bruce auto somewhere around 2022!
 Most of the cards that make it to a binder make it on sheer willpower - they're sparkly, or shiny, or have a cool throwback uniform on them.  But on occasional there's a merit based selection.  One of my collecting pals used to work for the Disabled Veterans as a writer.  He worked on all kinds of cool projects, from documentaries on ex-players who served in the military to DAV sponsored card sets that would be given out at stadiums.  He always speaks highly of Mike Maroth, and how he was one of the most generous and kind players he met in his career working around the game.  And that alone was enough to earmark at least one slot in the binder for a Mike Maroth card.  But being shiny didn't hurt...

I finally dipped my toe into the water on 2018 Topps.  I'm a bit late to the party, but I'll have some thoughts up tomorrow.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Russ

editor's note: This post had to wait a day because I wanted to share share my memory of Tito Francona yesterday.

Sometimes life just works out in funny ways.  Did you know that Russell Martin and Johnny Cueto share a birthday?

Know what else they share?

Yesterday was the birthday of one of my favorite Pirates, and the pitcher who owned the Pirates until one chilly night in October.

The 2013 Wild Card game was the greatest moment of my baseball life, and from my seat in the upper deck, right behind home plate, I couldn't have asked for a better view.  I still remember going crazy, so crazy that my body was pulsing from adrenaline when Martin sent the ball over the left field wall.
So I hope you'll excuse me if I yet again show off my favorite custom card, and one of my favorite pieces in my collection...

The 2013 season was pure magic, and to me Martin brought a toughness and coolness to the team that just oozed the feeling of "no, we haven't been there before.  But we got this."

Martin's 2 year, $17M signing is still the club's largest free agent signing (it's topped by a 3/$39 contract signed by Francisco Liriano, but he was re-signing with the Bucs so I don't count it as a true free agent addition).  Considering that there more than 25 players making that this season alone...well, that tells you what it's like to be a Pirate fan.

But for two years Martin brought something in the field and at the plate that the team desperately needed.  He's one of those players who was only with your team for a short time, but it felt like much longer.
So February 15th will always be Russell Martin day here at Battlin' Bucs.  

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Tito and My First Card Show

When my phone rang last night and I saw my dad was calling, I had a good idea why.  The first words out of his mouth were "Maybe you can help me remember something."  I didn't even need him to finish the sentence to answer.

"Yes, it was Tito Francona."

It was the summer of 2000.  I had just gotten back into card collecting after an extensive one year absence.  When you're 12, a year seems like a long period of time. 

I had gotten a few packs of 2000 Topps for Easter, which quickly evolved into multiple trips each week to the local card shop 10 minutes down the road.  I think it's there that we learned about a card show that was coming up at a local ice rink. 

The date was circled, and anticipation built.  I had started feverishly collecting Dan Marino a couple months earlier, and was excited for the wonders that awaited.  My only frame of reference was photos of card shows I had seen in Beckett.  Hundreds of people, rows and rows and rows of dealers where you could find any card you had spent weeks drooling over in the latest Beckett.  Yeah, that was the National.

We got to the show, paid a nominal admission fee, and walked into...a dimly lit ice arena with a few dozen dealers and quite possibly fewer buyers.  I learned years later that this ice rink show had been a major show earlier in the 90's.  But that boom had faded, and as far as I know this was the last show held at the venue.

We walked by tables asking if anyone had Dan Marino cards without much luck (or at least prices my mom was willing to spend on a hobby I had picked up a couple months earlier).  Towards the side of the venue, someone, probably the promoter, approached us and asked if we wanted an autograph from Tito Francona.

My dad looked at me and asked if I wanted his autograph.  I was 12, and I couldn't have told you Tito Jackson from Tito Francona.  Neither of them registered in my world.  But my dad pushed and said he was one heck of a ball player.  And with typical 12 year old deadpan, I was still unfazed. 
There was no line, and we walked right up, handed him a baseball card that my dad had run to a nearby table to buy, and had it signed.  I'm pretty sure my dad was the one lit up like a 12 year old, talking to a player from his childhood.

As soon as my dad called, I knew what he wanted to ask.  Was that Tito Francona we met at a card show?  He gushed over the phone just as excitedly as he did almost two decades ago - "he was one heck of a player, I think his son played too."

I still have everything from that show.  My first show.  The Tito Francona autograph.  A Dan Marino pennant and a Starting Lineup figure, the only Marino items we could find.  And a team set of 2000 Fleer Tradition, a few of which would get autographed at future autograph signings.

My dad said next time he's over he'd like to see the Tito card, and some of the other autographs we got together at Piratefest and when he would take me to games.  And then it'll be my turn to gush like a 12 year old, showing off my baseball cards to my dad.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Unsolved Mysteries: Part 1

As I get back into the swing of blogging (semi) regularly, I'm trying to find some ways to spice up my postings both to keep myself engaged and to offer something to the readers that's more than just a look inside my binders and mailbox.  One of my favorite and least favorite parts of collecting has always been untangling the mysteries behind some of the hunks of cardboard in my collection.  I love stumbling across a card or set that I'm not familiar with and tracking down its origins.  But it can also lead to some real head-scratchers.

Over the coming weeks I'm planning to feature some of stranger, unexplored, and occasionally unanswered when it comes to the hobby.

And the first entry starts right in my own back yard.  I wrote over three years ago about an unsolved case that I came across in one of my dime box digs.  I found these two cards in a dime box at a show, and they caught my eye.  Something seemed different about them, so I tossed them in my pile and kept flipping through the box.

When I was doing my post-mortem on my show pickups, I took a closer look.  They're identical to the base cards in 2006 Upper Deck, except they lack the foil logo and player name of the set.  One reader suggested UD's Special F/X release, but those cards hard a Chrome-like finish.  These are plain, glossy base cards.

I posted on all the major forums with no leads.  I was stumped.  I looked through Beckett, Trading Card DB, and other online resources with no further luck.  There were no photo matches out there.

And then I got a bite.  Just minutes after this segment aired, a call came into our Unsolved (Cardboard) Mysteries call center.  One of my the collectors in my Team Collectors group had a lead.  The cards were part of a promotional giveaway in 2006.  As part of a kids' day giveaway, they gave out a binder with a 9 card set of Pirates inside.  I've been unable to find any of the sets available anywhere online, but have seen a few of the binders pop up for sale.  The Mariners also participated in the giveaway that year, though I'm unsure if any other teams did as well.

Join us next time when an uninvited guest gets mixed up with a high end card.  *spooky music*

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Starting Nine: Baltimore Orioles

On Sundays, we take a trip into a random binder page from one of the 29 teams that aren't the Pirates...

Up this week are the Orioles.  As a kid whose baseball "coming of age" was in the mid to late 90's, the Orioles were one of my favorite teams.  Their color scheme?  Awesome.  Logo?  Unique.  Plus they had that Ripken guy.  And the Orioles were a loaded team in the late 90's.

Taking a trip to Baltimore to see a game was always at the top of my "where we should go on vacation this year" requests each summer as a kid.  It never happened, and I actually still haven't been to Camden to see a game despite it being a relatively modest 3 hour drive.  Guess it's something to add to the "one of these days" list.
 But the Orioles have remained a team that I still casually follow, and along with the Mariners are probably my favorite AL teams.  So my Orioles binder is a little thicker than most teams, desipite having pulled all of my modest Ripken collection into a separate binder with a few other mini player collections. 

I love when I come across non-Pirate cards that hit more than one of my collecting interests.  I genuinely had no idea Fernando Valenzuela played in Baltimore, so this one was sure to make the binder as a short term stop.  But add in the throwback jersey back when throwback games were still a novelty and we have a surefire winner.
 The same goes for this Summit insert.  It's lacking in star power compared to the trios you could have put together at other positions during that era, but not bad to have two Hall of Famers and one guy who forgot how to throw a baseball 50 feet.  I really like the cutouts superimposed over the diamond at the top of the card.

 But the page isn't all 90's nostalgia.  This page covers a pretty nice timeframe.
 I really enjoyed the Finest retro cards that Topps put out for a few years.  It's always fun seeing modern players on classic designs (even if even that concept is starting to wear thin) and Chris Davis' light tower power has made him one of my favorite current players.
 Of course the page wouldn't be complete without a little throwback love.
 This card is one of my favorite photos on a vintage card.  Action shots were a rare commodity even into the 80's, but when they did pop up they're well worth the price of admission.  I love the cameo from Thurman Munson.  Somebody is going to get messed up real good on this collision.
And to bring it all full circle, here are the same jerseys 40 years later.  Sans the collision.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Beauty in the Base

One thing that my yearlong hiatus from collecting has helped me realize is to appreciate the small things.  I've never been a collector that chased high dollar cards or got my highs from breaking wax.  But I always felt like I was racing against something.  Trying to hit as many tables as possible at a show.  Trying to accumulate as many Pirate cards.  Always pushing for more.  And while I love my collection and have no plans on changing course or selling down, one thing got lost in all that rush: THE CARDS.

I would go to a show, come home with 100 or 200 new cards, enter them into my spreadsheet, add them to my binder and then...that's it.  I flip through my Pirates binders fairly often, so it's not like the cards are utterly ignored.  But I guess I just don't appreciate them as much as I'd like.  And as much as I love refractors, and foil, and autographs...base cards are still probably my favorite.

The base card has become a lost art.  Not that I can be mad about it.  The hobby has changed and moved and evolved.  But...look at these things!  The artistry behind the first decade or so of Diamond Kings was some of the best sports art I've seen.  Dick Perez created masterpieces that could and still can be had for pennies.

 And it's not like it's a totally foreign concept these days.  Topps has revived the concept from time to time, but unfortunately seems to have found a happy middle ground with the cheaper art-style photoshopping of photos found on sets like Allen & Ginter and Gypsy Queen.
 There's just something to me about how a baseball card captures a moment in time - the aesthetics of the design, the photo, the style of the card.  You can't help but look at a '75 Topps and have it scream out the themes of an era.  Or look at some of the early 90's sets and wonder why we all loved zebra stripes, zig zags, and neon colors so damn much.
 Cards tell a story.  They're my defacto mental reference point for rosters (because believe me, if not for Topps I would not remember Rafael Belliard on the 1987 Pirates).  Some of the action shots I can place to a specific game or memory.  Not something exciting like a no-hitter or World Series game.  Just an unspectacular 1995 Steelers/Lions game that I remember watching in the living room at a birthday party for one of my parents' friends that popped up on cards in 1996.
While Topps has gotten a little better with photo selection in recent years, I miss seeing more unique photos on cards.  Ultra was always one of my favorite products - they always had to have a lot of unique pre-game and goofy dugout shots.
But the thing I miss the most?  Store exclusive sets.  Sure, there are still some retail-exclusive Target and Walmart retail cards.  But nothing beats the logo-centric store boxed sets of the 90's.  I still miss Hills stores, which was always my top spot for finding Starting Lineup figures as a kid.  After all, it's the small things that are the best.