Saturday, February 18, 2017

Top Five: Mark Grace

I think it's about time I focused on a hometown Cub in my weekly Top Five series.

The Cubs have a particularly sparkling stable of stars to choose from: Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, etc. Any discussion regarding the North Siders is bound to involve such greats of decades past.

Maybe it's just a product of the era I grew up in, but to me, Mark Grace is one of those rare All-Time Cubs. He patrolled first base at Wrigley for virtually an entire generation, played on good teams and bad, did pretty much everything you could possibly do as a major leaguer...all while sporting that famous eye black in the process.

He also has the distinction of being my mom's all-time favorite ballplayer, which has earned him special prominence in my own collection (which currently stands at 380 different cards) and the spotlight in this week's Top Five.

#5 -- 1995 Pinnacle #371 Mark Grace

Mark Grace, first and foremost, was a leader and a beloved figure at Wrigley.

This crowded -- yet fantastic -- Pinnacle card shows that more than any other I've seen of Gracie, presumably featuring the celebratory aftermath of some kind of game-winning hit.

If you're a fan of cameos and/or the Cubs, then this is a card for you.

#4 -- 1994 Collector's Choice #114 Mark Grace

I've always loved this one because it provides a clear look at the ivy and the basket at Wrigley -- an angle of the ballpark you don't often get to see on baseball cards.

One of the many gems Collector's Choice provided in the brand's relatively short lifetime.

#3 -- 2002 Topps Total #566 Mark Grace

I'm still conflicted over seeing Mark Grace as an Arizona Diamondback.

Don't get me wrong, I'm infinitely pleased Grace finally won it all in 2001 after years of misery with the Cubs. And he seems to have found a second life in Arizona as well: he's making a return to the broadcasting booth with the Diamondbacks this year, in fact.

Still...holy cow does Mark Grace look awkward in a D'Backs jersey, although that doesn't get in the way of my love for this awesome shot of him with a giant Coke bottle in the backdrop.

#2 -- 1989 Topps #465 Mark Grace

Mark Grace seems to be one of those players destined for the Hall of Very Good purgatory.

I'm not saying he's a surefire choice for Cooperstown, but I'd definitely argue that he deserved better than the 4.1 percent of the vote he received in his first (and only) year on the ballot in 2009. The credentials are there for all to see: a .303 career average, four Gold Gloves, nearly 2,500 career hits -- including the single most hits of any player during the 1990s.

Yet here's Gracie just as his illustrious career was getting underway, wearing the unfamiliar #53 (which he never wore outside of spring training) while flanking a Topps Rookie Cup, looking up and out at the greatness awaiting him in the decade to come.

#1 -- 1988 Donruss #40 Mark Grace RC

Baseball cards are portals, and few of them represent that fact better to me than the one you see above.

I can't say for sure what the first card I ever owned was -- and I envy those who can -- but this was, at the very least, somewhere within the first batch of cardboard I welcomed into my collection as a young, pre-adolescent baseball fan. It's one of those select few pieces of cardboard I can't help but attach personal meaning to.

I see this card and I think of my childhood. I see this card and I think of Little League. I see this card and I think of the way I would sit on the floor of my room, sorting my "good" cards into a little blue binder which was always being retooled and reorganized.

I see this card and, even all these years later, I see my absolute favorite piece of my Mark Grace collection.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The first card show of 2017

I hit my first card show of the new year with my dad this past Saturday at a (semi) local village hall gathering about an hour away from my house.

It couldn't have come at a better time, because I hadn't had much card-related activities going on thus far this winter. Not a lot of packages coming in and out, no new cards on the shelves, not much interaction with my collection in general. Between that and the fact that I was set to meet up with Tony for the first time, I found myself looking forward to this show more than any I can remember in a while.

The night before the big day, I decided to spice things up a bit by adding a new player collection to the fold: Nolan Arenado. The Rockies aren't very well-represented in my binders to begin with, and Arenado is one of the best sluggers in the game, so the choice was a no-brainer. It gave me a little pet project to chase the following afternoon.

Card shows are a great place to get a player collection going in a heartbeat. One of the first tables of the day, in fact, added the centerpiece to my sparkling new Arenado project: this rare pink parallel (numbered to 50) from last year's Update.

Not a bad way to get things up and running.

My one big hope for Saturday's card show, however, was a simple one: find cheap 2017 Topps.

One lap around the village hall revealed no visible signs of this year's Flagship. I wasn't able to concentrate on much else during the time I was touring the place. I'd been counting on this show to knock out the vast remainder of my needs from 2017 Topps.

Thankfully, I asked one vendor who had some new Topps inserts on display if he had any base singles from the set, and he pointed me to a few large stacks of cards at the far end of his table, all 2017 Topps. I actually said the word Awesome! when he did this, something I almost never do (in public).

I did away with about 95 percent of my remaining needs at what turned out to be just a dime per.

A vendor a few tables down took care of a large chunk of my 2017 insert needs on the cheap, as I got a stack of about 50 for $9.

The "Salute" inserts work best when they focus on uniforms and, with the four I purchased on Saturday (not pictured: Harold Reynolds), I'm now more than halfway done with finishing off the "MLB Network" series.

Sometimes card shows can shine a new light on something you've previously ignored.

I was, at best, lukewarm about this year's '87 minis upon my first samples of 2017 Topps, just because of how often we've seen the wood-grain design in recent years. After picking up an ample amount of '87s on Saturday, however, I have a new appreciation for it. Yes, the design is overused, but these are still darn fine cardboard specimens and a fun insert set to chase.

That Ozzie Smith has to be the Card of the Year so far.

I also picked up my four most pressing "First Pitch" needs from 2017 Topps, though my favorite of the bunch is most likely John Goodman.

It's a league game, Smokey.

With 2017 Topps out of the way, I was able to focus on the most important part of the card show experience: the random stuff.

The very first table of the day featured as perfectly random of a dime box as you could ever hope for, which got this much-anticipated show off on the right foot. At one point, I unearthed something you rarely see: dime Kellogg's.

This Jack Clark was the only keeper of the lot, but I did find a few others to distribute in future trade packages.

Card shows may be invigorating due to this dive into the unknown, but, even with someone as consistently random as myself, there's still some dime box cornerstones I seem to dig up at every gathering.

As usual, Vlad and Ichiro came out to play on Saturday.

As usual, I couldn't resist the allure of some dime box shiny.

As usual, dime box minis were on full display.

And, as usual, I found myself making all sorts of new cardboard discoveries thanks to the uncharted paradise that is a card show.

That's the first I've seen of E-X's (awesome) jersey-shaped inserts, and it turns out the already-geeky Orel Hershiser sported an even more Revenge of the Nerds look in his college days.

These two horizontals cost just 35 cents together: a quarter for the Stooges (spread out!) and a dime for that beautiful Joe Morgan (with a Vida Blue cameo).

It always warms my heart to find high-end base cards in a dime box.

Though 2017 may have been fresh on my mind on Saturday, I managed to mop up a few remaining 2016 needs on the cheap as well.

Among my favorites are the "First Pitch" Craig Sager insert (RIP), the National Baseball Card Day Arrieta, and the Wal-Mart-exclusive Abreu snowflake parallel, which I was surprised to find in a dime box about halfway through the show.

I guess some vendors buy retail just like the rest of us.

Archives is notorious for its tough short-prints, but that didn't stop these two from winding up in a dime box.

This particular show has been light on the mini-collection hits the last couple times I've attended, but Saturday changed that in a flash.

These were all a dime each, and the finding "Unique Unis" Halladay for an FDR made me feel stupid about dropping a dollar per on a couple inserts from the same set at my LCS.

The last dime box I dug through was an all-retired dime box from a vendor I've seen on a few occasions at this show.

While it does extract a bit of the random factor, I think it's smart to separate out the current and non-current guys to cater to certain collectors. It makes a simple dime box dig feel like a history lesson.

I certainly get a kick out of digging through stacks and stacks of all-legend cards, and I'm particularly enthralled with that Pee Wee Reese insert.

Some cool Fan Favorites from the all-retired dime box, though I'd be lying if I didn't say that Bob Sheppard didn't spook me a bit.

A couple legendary quarter box gets.

Tony was actually the one who found the Ott insert as we were digging and asked if I needed it, so full credit to him on that one.

This same quarter-box vendor gave myself and the other shoppers at his table the equivalent to a two-minute warning late in the afternoon: he was about to pack up for the day, so there was only a short time left to pick out whatever you wanted to buy.

At that point, I began rifling through the 50-cent bins. I'm normally picky when it comes to anything over the quarter, but I started pulling cards left and right. I'd been way under budget most of the day and decided to treat myself to some "high-dollar" purchases.

Mega-box parallels, gold parallels, high-end parallels, Yaz: all were deemed worthy of their 50-cent price tags.

Out of the vendor's two-dollar box came what is (surprisingly) my very first sabermetric short-print.

Finally, between All-Star Whitey...

...and the Duke, I saved a couple sacred pieces of vintage from the vendor's three-dollar box with just minutes to spare.

I've always thought this "Baseball Thrills" subset was criminally underrated, as I almost never see them mentioned anywhere around the cardboard community.

What started out as a tongue-in-cheek quest has become a foreseeable reality: I am on a mission to obtain every Seattle Pilots card ever made.

I made a couple major strides in realizing that goal at Saturday's show thanks to a vendor with all sorts of vintage scattered around his table, many of which were tough high-numbers. I actually collect Ted Kubiak -- a reserve infielder on the Swingin' A's teams of the early '70s -- and I didn't know he had a Pilots card until recently.

For three bucks, I scored this pesky high-number (#688) and semi-zero-year card: Kubiak never played for the Pilots, though he did suit up for the Brewers when the team moved to Milwaukee in 1970.

But here's the biggest Pilots acquisition I've made in a long, long time: the only team card ever produced of the doomed Seattle Pilots.

Again, its high-number status (#713) had prevented me from adding it to my collection at a reasonable figure. In fact, I'd never seen it cheaper than the price the vendor had it marked at on Saturday: five bucks. Most copies I'd tracked previously went for twice that, and the vast majority of those were in far worse shape than the one I bought on Saturday.

Talk about a bargain.

My birthday is coming up, and, as an early gift, Dad was generous enough to float me $20 to spend however I saw fit.

I spent $12 of that on the aforementioned Pilots cards and this '51 Bowman Richie Ashburn, originally priced at five bucks though the vendor let me have it for $4. Ashburn has long been a favorite of mine -- has there ever been a better baseball name? -- and this beauty is now the oldest card of his I own.

Even with that trio of vintage heaven, I still had eight bucks to play with...

...and I used it to track down a card I've been chasing for what seems like forever.

You may have heard the story behind these before: leading into the '74 season, the Padres seemed all but sold to investors who wanted to move the team to Washington. McDonald's mogul Ray Kroc swooped in and bought the Padres at the last minute, keeping the franchise in San Diego -- though not before a handful of Topps cards slipped out of the presses with "Washington -- Nat'l Lea." listings on them, which were soon pulled and corrected.

Like my Pilots project, my quest to chase down the full set of "Washington -- Nat'l Lea." variations from '74 Topps once seemed like an impossibility. But eight dollars later, the toughest part of that goal has been reached: Willie McCovey is now mine. Maybe it's not so absurd after all.

Turns out that the insane amount of fun I had on Saturday might just be the powerful intro to a continuing saga of this particular card show, because, wouldn't you know it, they're holding it again this coming Sunday, the 19th. Also known as my birthday.

It seemed silly to think of at first. Two card shows in two weeks? No way. But: I took the day off work, I'll have a few extra bucks, I'll have the whole morning free, and, come to think of it, there were a few stones I left unturned this past Saturday...

I think a second trip to the card show is in order, birthday style.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Top Five: Derek Jeter

I hit my first card show of 2017 this afternoon.

The cardboard gods were, once again, good to me -- I'll be documenting my spoils in an upcoming post -- but the highlight of the day for me was meeting up with the fabled Tony Burbs of "Wrigley Roster Jenga" fame for the first time.

It was great to meet Tony since he and I keep in touch fairly actively on each other's blogs, and we both gifted each other some cardboard. Tony's stack included this new Derek Jeter for my "tip of the cap" mini-collection, a card which I'd actually seen (and passed on) from an all-Jeets 50-cent bin earlier on in the show.

I haven't been collecting Jeter for very long but, thanks to some inspiration from Tony, I've decided to show off my five favorite Jeets cards this week.

#5 -- 1997 Topps #13 Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter might well be the most famous player of my generation.

Other stars may have put up better numbers than him (and I still think he's a tad overrated overall) but, celebrity-wise, Jeets was at the very top of the game. No baseball player was more recognizable in his era.

Complete with a double dip/rookie cup combo, this '97 Topps issue documents the beginning of Jeter-mania, an exciting card on an otherwise bland Topps design.

#4 -- 2000 Pacific Backyard Baseball #NNO Derek Jeter

I was never a big gamer guy, but Backyard Baseball was a huge part of my childhood.

I played it day and night and still wax nostalgic about the talents of imaginary heroes like Pablo Sanchez and Pete Wheeler. The 2001 edition of the game featured kid versions of then-current big league stars and, better yet, the box set came with a pack of exclusive Backyard Baseball cards.

Just like in real life, Derek Jeter was one of the kings of Backyard Baseball.

#3 -- 1993 Topps #98 Derek Jeter RC

This was, oddly enough, among the first Jeters I owned.

I made a forum trade for it shortly after getting back into baseball cards, and it's been one of the more hallowed rookie cards in my collection ever since.

It's also a great representation of one of the more inadvertent benefits of the overproduction era: even rookies of the very biggest names -- even Derek Jeter -- are still attainable.

#2 -- 2015 Topps #1 Derek Jeter

We go from first Topps card of Jeets to his last.

You couldn't write a script better than the one baseball wrote for Derek Jeter to cap off his final home game. With always a flair for the dramatic, Jeter notched the game-winning hit in his final at-bat at Yankee Stadium, receiving this gallery-esque sunset card documenting the moment as a result.

With what we've seen from Flagship the last couple years, I find myself missing 2015 Topps more with each passing day.

#1 -- 2007 Topps #40 Derek Jeter (w/George Bush & Mickey Mantle)

One of the goofiest cards of my baseball adolescence remains one of the best.

Back when Topps still had a sense of humor, they inserted this card into random packs of 2007 Topps. On the surface, it seems like your run-of-the-mill Jeter...until you notice Mickey Mantle lurking in the dugout and George Bush looking on from the stands.

This wacky piece of history received much hype in its day and was pulled from the presses and "corrected" not long after the set hit the shelves. I myself bought an entire blaster of 2007 Topps for the sole hope of pulling it, and wouldn't you know it, the hallowed Jeter fell out of the very first pack.

If I had to sum up my crazy collection with a single card, this one might very well be it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The global pastime

As you might already know, the 2017 World Baseball Classic is right around the corner.

I have some problems with the tournament: most notably, the scheduling. Not only does the WBC have to compete with other sports like basketball and hockey, but with Spring Training kicking off in a couple weeks, it basically pits baseball against baseball.

That aside, I do enjoy the WBC, but not for the reasons everyone is talking about. Sure, I'm excited to watch the big guns -- Team USA, Dominican Republic, Japan, etc. -- but what I love most about the tournament is getting to see all the countries where baseball is far from the premier sport.

A few PWEs I received from my buddy Brian of the "Highly Subjective and Completely Arbitrary" blog reminded me of this, notably this rookie card of the One At-Bat man himself, Adam Greenberg.

Greenberg is famous for other reasons now, but one lesser-known fact about him is that he suited up for Team Israel in the 2013 WBC (and Israel will once again be competing in this year's tournament).

Due to Spring Training, many current stars understandably passed on the opportunity to represent Team USA in the WBC, but Adam Jones will be manning the outfield for the Americans this year.

Anthony Rizzo won't be participating in the 2017 WBC, but -- as if I needed any more reasons to be a fan of the guy -- he won a major place in my heart by joining Team Italia in the 2013 WBC and propelling them to a surprising run in the tourney.

The vast majority of my family hails from Italy, so you know I'll be rooting for Team Italy in a few weeks, Rizzo or no Rizzo.

I needed both of these '85 Canadian Leaf variations of ol' Sarge -- the focus of one of Brian's player collections -- though one is obviously a lot flashier than the other.

That reminds me: keep an eye on Team Canada in this year's WBC, because when else are you going to see guys like Ryan Dempster and Eric Gagne come out of retirement again? Or watch Russell Martin play shortstop?

A long-awaited former Dime Box Dozen need of the best pitcher in the universe demonstrating why he is the best pitcher in the universe.

Brian's second PWE included some Chromies for a couple of my favorite player collections.

I do admit that the 2016 smoke works better with Chrome, but unless Topps wants to stop charging $3 for a four-card pack of the stuff, I won't be buying them with any consistency.

Here's a couple from Panini's version of Topps Chrome: Donruss Optic.

Still not a fan of these, though the purple borders on the Hosmer insert works well with the Royals' colors.

Brian's PWE barrage took down a second Dime Box Dozen need with Mr. Zobrist here.

This is, as far as I know, the only card to depict Zobrist as a member of the 2015 World Champion Royals, which made it a prime target for my new player collection of his.

A third PWE from Brian saw a flurry of new Zobrists fly my way... well as yet another autograph card I was excited to receive.

Despite what my scanner is trying to tell you, this is actually a shiny refractor auto of Alex Liddi, a one-time prospect in the Mariners' chain who was in the Mexican League last year. So why collect a failed young star who hasn't played in the bigs since 2013?

Because, as I've mentioned in the past, Liddi was the first (and, to date, only) major leaguer born and raised in Italy. He suited up for Team Italia in the 2013 WBC and will once again be part of the team's roster this year.

It's sad that Liddi never panned out in the bigs -- he put up some monster seasons in the minors -- but collecting his cards is a great reminder that this game is truly a global pastime, and that good baseball can come from anywhere around the world.

Even Italy.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

2017 Topps: Technical difficulties

Yesterday, during a bit of slow time at work, I reread a few random chapters from Josh Wilker's excellent baseball card-themed book, Cardboard Gods.

One thing that particularly grabbed me this time around was the way Wilker detailed the excitement of discovering the shiny new designs Topps pulled out with each passing year. This triggered a new -- yet painfully obvious -- observation on my part: thanks to the Internet, I've never gone into a new year of Topps without already knowing what the design was going to look like months in advance.

Case in point: I knew what 2017 Topps was going to look like five months ago, despite the fact that the set was released just last week. I'm always excited for the dawn of a new card season, but the fact that I already know what to expect with each passing year does diminish the element of surprise a bit.

Sometimes I wonder if Topps would be better served in taking a page from Wilker's day and not revealing their new Flagship design until the actual release date.

I will say, however, that the blogs always inject a great amount joy into the beginning of the card calendar with the numerous different takes on the new year's Topps design.

All the posts made me even more excited to get my own hands on some 2017 Topps, which finally happened this past Saturday. My dad grabbed me a few rack packs, and I myself shot the retail works by buying a blaster, a hanger box, a rack pack, and a loose pack.

I usually stay away from blasters -- why spend $20 on 100 cards when a hanger box gets you 72 for $10? -- but the promise of five exclusive Jackie Robinson Day inserts was enough to get me to pull the trigger since the "42" jerseys happen to be a mini-collection of mine. I did pull the expected amount of five, but the Sano and Betts are underwhelming since you can't, you know, see the actual 42 jerseys.

Kind of defeats the purpose there, Topps.

As usual, 2017 Topps features an overload of insert sets.

The "Salutes" are separate from the JRD inserts, yet the design is exactly the same, which is a tad confusing. The '87s are well-done and have a nice glossy finish to them, but I think I've seen enough of the '87 design for a lifetime by now. The awards inserts are retail-exclusive, and I pulled a particularly sad one with the 2016's NL Comeback Player of the Year: Jose Fernandez (RIP).

The "Five Tool" series resembles the "Fire" checklist we saw in last year's Update and is just as hideous.

I feel obligated to show of the "hits" I pulled, which are both up for grabs if anyone wants them.

The Springer came from one of my dad's rack packs, and the Machado was the blaster-exclusive bonus card which, despite its theme, doesn't feature a photo with an actual 42-themed jersey visible.

Here's something Topps wants me to believe is a "hit" but is actually just a card you can find in a landfill near you, only this one has an ugly gold stamp on it.

Is it wrong that I find it kind of hilarious that a few Donruss cards apparently managed to slip into this "Rediscover Topps" promo?

The Jackie reprint contains nothing but ads on the back and is little more than a shill for the whole aforementioned "Rediscover Topps" business.

I like the meta baseball-card-on-a-baseball-card concept of the Then & Now inserts, though the design is a bit Bowmany (is that a word?) for my tastes.

Now these I like, and I'll probably be chasing the set.

I don't watch much TV these days, but when I do, it's usually MLB Network.

The popular "First Pitch" series is back in business for 2017 Topps, and I was lucky enough to pull a couple notable names.

Jon Lovitz is an SNL legend, and Freaks and Geeks ranks only behind Seinfeld as my my all-time favorite TV show and featured Apatow's first major behind-the-scenes role.

Parallels are difficult to pull off without borders, and I missed that the deGrom was a gold parallel until the second viewing.

And finally we've arrived at the main attraction of 2017 Topps: the base cards.

By now, you've probably already seen what these look like and have heard many different opinions on them. I don't have much to add to the discussion at this point, so I'll just say this: I like the design much better than last year's, but it's still a little too TV-graphicy for me and I can't say I'm much more than lukewarm about the look.

I worry that Topps is trying too hard to make their cards look "modern." Modernity can very easily lead to apathy if forced. I thought 2016 Topps was forcibly "modern" and look how forgettable that set turned out to be.

I see something like this and I wonder: twenty, thirty years from now, will I be able to instantly call up the 2017 Topps design in my mind, the way I can with, say, 1980 Topps? Or 1991 Topps?

Much has been made by people like myself about the lack of career stats on the back, and having them in hand has done nothing to lessen my disappointment about that.

I will say, however, that the different-colored backs certainly grab the eye and strike me as having an aquatic feel to them for some reason.

While still far from perfect, the photos in 2017 Topps are a bit more zoomed-out than last year's and, on the whole, much better.

These were some of my personal favorites of the vertical variety...

...though the horizontals were not to be outshadowed.

The stunted stat lines robbed us of complete year-by-year totals on the back of Big Papi's sunset card, but Topps still managed to grant him a fine farewell.

And here's a moment I'll never tire of seeing on my baseball cards.

This year's design shows that 2016 was no fluke: the looks of today's cards are definitely being influenced by current technology, whether that technology be TV graphics, Twitter handles, or whatever else. I think 2017 does it in a way that's a bit more accessible, but the presence is still overwhelmingly apparent.

I don't consider myself anti-tech (though I'm no staunch supporter, either), but I'm left to wonder if such a tech influx does more harm than good in some cases. Maybe, as I've thought about in the time removed from my partial rereading of Cardboard Gods, people would be more receptive to the year's cards if they didn't know what they looked like so far in advance.

There's no way to "Rediscover Topps" when that discovery doesn't exist in the first place.