Friday, October 30, 2020

Topps NOW 2020 Post-Season Minnesota Twins Team Set


The Topps NOW post season set arrived today in the mail, let's catch up and see how the Twins did!

oh. oh no. They did not do well.

The bad news started before the games even began, with Josh Donaldson aggravating his calf injury during the final week, and not being named to the post season roster.

Byron Buxton played Game 1 despite lingering issues from a concussion suffered during the final weekend of games, then missed most of Game 2 save for a pinch running appearance where he looked visibly groggy. He was picked off first to end a possible scoring chance late.

The good news? Well, the Twins did have a much better starting rotation in 2020, allowing the 2nd fewest runs in the AL during the shortened season. The only problem? The starters don't pitch all nine innings, and they don't field every position either. Maeda and Berrios combined for 10 innings and just 1 run allowed. The bullpen, on the other hand, gave up 6 runs in 8 innings.

Game 1 was a very close contest until Jorge Polanco's error - he fielded a ground ball cleanly, but his throw to Luis Arraez at second pulled him off the bag, resulting in no outs. Houston took advantage and once they saw a small crack of daylight, they pounded down the door on the bullpen, some of the damage was self inflicted (a bases loaded walk by Sergio Romo). 

Luis Arraez was playing on a bad knee, just like 2019 nursing an injury that came late in the season at the worst possible time. He went 0-6 with a pair of walks. Sano, Kepler and Rosario went a combined 1-19, with the icing on the cake coming with Rosario getting himself ejected from Game 2 arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire.

The Twins set a record for futility by failing to win a game, extending their streak to 18 games lost, which is almost beyond comprehension. 

A "sign" that things were not to be this year? Topps did not offer an autograph version of the Twins team set, despite offering auto versions of most of the other 16 post season teams. That's fine, I saved a little money. 

Did your team make the playoffs this year? Would you like to see 16 teams again in 2021, or should it be returned to just the division winners and a pair of Wild Card teams? 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Trans-Atlantic Triple Break: 2020 Diamond Kings

Matthew and Kevin and I have been sharing hobby boxes for a few seasons now give or take, and one box that always proves to be a fun break is the Diamond Kings brand from Panini/Donruss. Matthew did the honors and broke a 2020 box, with each of us taking two divisions. 

I selected the NL West and the AL Central (gotta chase those Twins!). Diamond Kings comes with a base set of 100 cards and an additional 70 short print base cards. all have the canvas texture and oil painting treatment seen above. As is common for Panini, there are no MLB team logos as the Topps Company has exclusive rights with MLB. The cards are all most likely based on existing photographs, then photoshopped to create that distinct look. 

The card backs this year eliminate the stat line completely - no yearly or career totals are provided. Instead, each card has a short paragraph about the player, usually providing some statistical information along the way. 

Diamond Kings is known for vibrant and inserts, usually featuring a theme that celebrates the visual arts. "The 3000" is a series all about members of the 3,000 hit club. 

I always say a successful break is when we can send all the hits away to each other. I was the lucky winner of the relic in the hobby box, and it is none other than the early front runner for World Series MVP and two-time Doritos Locos Taco Champ, Mookie Betts! Bat Kings is a very matter of fact name for this insert set, which features Bat relics for players in the Diamond Kings set. Bat + Kings = Bat Kings. 

And of course, I have to share the Twins! This is "late career Twins" Bert, with the thick beard he grew in  Pittsburgh and kept throughout the 80s. His first several seasons in MN in the 1970s featured a fresh face. Also, each team in the league had an "All-Time Diamond King," and this year it fell to Harmon Killebrew, who was previously featured as the puzzle in 1991 Leaf packs. They might consider bringing the puzzle back, that might be fun? Or even as an insert set- they could be regular cards, but with jigsaw designs superimposed like a completed puzzle? Overall, I like Diamond Kings, and I just wish they would take these concepts a little further. Sometimes the ideas for the set and the inserts seem unfinished, like the bottom left corner of all of the base cards... All in all a fun break!

Matt never stops there though,  and this time he brings out the big guns, helping me build my fledgling Barry Sanders collection with this awesome patch card! LaDanian Tomlinson is great too. The last time I won a fantasy football league he was on my team...

Last but not least - Big Papi! Sorry for the blurry image, I scanned this without taking it out of the one touch holder. I have lots of autos of "little Papi" (fellow former Twin Kennys Vargas) - but this is my first solo David Ortiz signature. Big Papi will be on the HOF ballot starting in 2021, and it's too early to tell if the rumors of PEDs will keep him out, or if the % of his career spent solely as a DH will hurt his candidacy, but he certainly will get a lot of discussion!

Thanks Matt for another great break!

Do you like 2020 Diamond Kings? If you were making an insert set for Diamond Kings (or Topps Gallery), what would it look like?

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Twins in the World Series!!


Uh, well, former Twins anyway. The Rays and the Twins have been mutually poaching each other's coaching ranks and bullpens in recent years, with Rocco Baldelli coming from TB to MIN, and a series of arms heading south to Tampa. Aaron Slegers was a 5th round pick by the Twins, known mostly for his height as a prospect and his high velocity. The Twins lost him on waivers to the Pirates before the 2019 season, and he was picked up by Tampa when the Pirates tried to keep him without adding him to the 40-Man roster. So far this post season he's appeared in 3 games, and held opponents to just 1 run and struck out three batters.

John Curtiss was picked by the Twins one year and one round later than Slegers, though made their MLB debut for Minnesota in 2017. Curtiss reached career highs in appearances and innings this year in Tampa. He left the Twins in 2019 in a trade with the Angels for a low A infielder prospect, Daniel Ozoria, who may or may not have continued to develop in 2020... Curtiss came to Tampa as a free agent. He had a rough time against the Yankees in the ALDS, but bounced back with 4 appearances in the ALCS, allowing just 1 run on a solo homer while striking out 4 batters in 4.1 innings. 

The Twins losing Nick Anderson hurts. The Twins signed Anderson as a minor league free agent in  2015, and he climbed the organizational ladder from Low-A Cedar Rapids up to AAA Rochester, showing impressive numbers at each stop along the way.

There was a roster crunch following the 2018 season, Anderson could have been added to the 40-Man roster but instead the Twins opted to trade the Minnesota-born reliever to the Marlins. They gave him up for another lower level prospect, like the Curtiss trade. Hard to know if the return, infielder Brian Schales, with develop the promising power from his final year in the Miami org. Schales played in three different levels for the Twins in 2019 including AAA, but appeared in just 52 total games. Nick Anderson, on the other hand, was ready to make a big league impact and was a Topps All-Star Rookie, thanks to a 110/18 K/BB rate. Anderson led the Rays in saves in 2020, and had a 0.55 ERA for the season in 19 appearances. his ERA+ was 780. That's not a typo, seven hundred eighty. 100 is league average. Anderson came to Tampa in a mid season trade with the Marlins, that sent the Rays "Opener" specialist Ryne Stanek across the state.

Just one former Twin on the L.A. side, righty fireballer Brusdar Graterol. He originally was going to Boston in a three team deal, the Red Sox were getting Graterol and Alex Verdugo for Mookie Betts and David Price, and the Twins were going to get Kenta Maeda. Instead, Boston decided there was something they didn't like in Graterol's medicals, so they opted to complete a trade with LA that left out the Twins. Lucky for everyone involved, the Twins and Dodgers did come to a separate deal, with the Twins adding Luke Raley, and the Dodgers adding Jair Camargo. Raley was making a homecoming of sorts, as the Dodgers originally drafted him in 2014. Camargo will be a 22 year old catching prospect in 2021. 

Graterol has provided one of the most entertaining highlights of the postseason. Pitching against the Padres, Brusdar avoided a big inning and celebrated the final out by launching his glove and hat at his own dugout and pointing to the heavens. This prompted some spirited debate from former Dodger Manny Machado, who had just made the final out of the inning. Graterol responded to Machado's Machismo by blowing him kisses on the way back to his dugout, and ultimately cooler heads prevailed. 

Graterol made a one appearance in each of the first 3 rounds without allowing a run, but had a little trouble in the NLCS, allowing 3 runs to score in Game 4 while recording just one out. Other than that blip, he's tossed 6.1 shutout innings for the Dodgers in the post season.

I would be sad about that trade (and maybe I still will be later), but I think Twins fans should agree that it was worth it!

Monday, October 12, 2020

1998 Topps All-Star Rookie Outfielder Mark Kotsay


In College, Mark Kotsay was the Big Man on Campus, starring for the Cal State Fullerton Titans in the 1995 College World Series. In 1998 with the Marlins, he looked like he might be a fish out of water. Young and unproven, Kotsay was given the tall order of taking over Right Field in place of Gary Sheffield. He finished the season with more games played than any other Marlin, and was near the top of the list in most of the team's offensive leaderboards. His 20 outfield assists were the most in the National League. You better believe that was enough to make Mark a member of the 1998 Topps All-Star Rookie team.

Kotsay found success at every level of play - in 1994 he played in the Cape Cod league following his freshman year at baseball powerhouse Cal State Fullerton. 1995 saw him set a record with a .517 average in the 1995 College World Series. His team would win their 3rd straight CWS, and he walked away with the Golden Spikes award. In 1996, he was selected by the Marlins as the #9 Overall pick in the June draft, played on Team USA in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, and made his pro debut for the Kane County Cougars. By 1997, he had made it all the way up to the big leagues for a two week cup of coffee in July. The Marlins organization had big plans for Kotsay - little did he know that the team would win it all in 1997 - then blow it all up for the next season, totally re-making the outfield from the season before.

Kotsay would play 3 full seasons for the Marlins, playing a combo of Centerfield, Right, and 1st base. He didn't have the power numbers he displayed in college, but he definitely still had the contact skills. Kotsay was used near the top of the lineup and he piled up the hits. In the field, he continued to show off a cannon for an arm, leading the NL in assists in his rookie year and again in 1999. He would be traded to San Diego just before the 2001 season began. 

The Padres made Kotsay their everyday Centerfielder, and he continued to display line drive power to the gaps and excellent contact numbers. His outfield assists dwindled down to just 4 in his first season in San Diego, but that was mostly due to the word getting around that trying to take the extra base against him would usually end in embarrassment for the runner. From 2002 through 2004 he would again lead the league in assists as a Centerfielder, surpassing double digits each year. 2002 would also prove to be one of his best offensive seasons, hitting .292 with 17 homers and a 122 OPS+. Following the 2003 season, Kotsay was on the move again, as the Oakland A's traded Terrance Long and Ramon Hernandez to make him their leadoff man and centerfielder. 

Kotsay responded with a career high 190 hits, which was the most by a lefty in Oakland in more than 40 years. He also set a career high batting average, hitting .314 despite playing half of his games with the huge foul territory in Oakland, known to suppress those stats. One reason he was so successful in Oakland was his ability to limit strikeouts. In 2005 he struck out at a rate of once per 11.4 ABs, which was the 2nd best K rate in the American League. He'd get his first taste of post season play in 2006, hitting a home run against the Twins in the ALDS, and adding 4 more hits in the ALCS in a losing effort against the Tigers. The injury bug bit him in 2007, playing in just 56 games and a career low .214 average over that span. 

Kotsay was on the move again after that lost season, traded to Atlanta in January. He'd have a rare highlight for Atlanta in August of 2008, going 5-5 and hitting for the cycle. With Atlanta uncharacteristically out of post season contention, Kotsay was dealt again mid-season, going to the Red Sox to help their playoff push. Kotsay was happy to join Boston, as he listed playing in a World Series as his few remaining goals. He was quoted as saying after the trade "the respect of your peers is what you play the game for, and nothing else." He was eager for another shot at a championship with a talented team. He provided depth in the outfield and a valuable bat in the post season, hitting .300 in the ALDS and adding 7 more hits in the ALCS, but the Red Sox were bounced out by the Rays. He would be used as a reserve in 2009 by the Red Sox, then was dealt at the trade deadline again to Chicago. With the White Sox, he would spend more time as a DH than at any time in his career, and was no longer the everyday player he once was. His reputation was that of a "grinder / gamer" but at this point his goal was to provide leadership and defense when called upon. He'd get another post season shot in 2011 with Milwaukee reaching the LCS again, but falling just shy of the World Series.

He'd finish out his career back in San Diego, closer to his wife and kids in Southern California. He had been not so subtly hinting at a reunion for the past few years with the Padres, stating in an interview that he would call the team himself and inquire about an opening in the offseason. The veteran leadership would segue perfectly into coaching. He would retire in 2014, then return in 2015 as the Padres new hitting coach. He would move on to Oakland in 2015 as a bench coach, and recently has been one of the top names for managerial jobs in Boston, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh recently. Another spot opened up today on the South Side, could he be in line again for the role?

For his MLB career, Kotsay had 1,784 hits, scored 790 runs and drove in 720 more. He had 123 outfield assists, and was widely regarded as one of the better outfield defenders in the league by his peers. He was named to the Omaha (College World Series) Hall of Fame in 2014, and was named College Baseball's Player of the Decade for the 1990s. 

Do you have any Mark Kotsay memories? I'd love to read them in the comments below. 

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, October 11, 2020

I Love the 80s - 1982 New York Yankees

This is a series of posts on a 1980's Frankenset. Each page features a different team, with 9 of my personal favorite cards from that year's team. You might find players repeated, you'll definitely see brands repeated, but hopefully you'll agree that there are some interesting selections from the 1980s!

George Steinbrenner found a way to alienate just about everybody with his drive to win championships. The fact that he wanted to win was understandable-  the way he went about it drove the people that were tasked with winning those championships to the edge. In 1981, the team had a pair of future Hall of Fame superstars. One was in the final year of a historic contract, the other had barely seen the ink dry on his. Intentionally or not, Steinbrenner spent the summer of 1981 driving these two stars apart. He effusively praised the newly signed Dave Winfield, while slamming the proven post-season hero Reggie Jackson throughout the regular season. When the team, loaded with talent on offense and on the mound, made their way to another fall classic, victory was in the grasp of Steinbrenner again. However, Winfield's bat had gone cold, and Jackson was inexplicably left out of the lineup for 3 of the 6 contests. 

Steinbrenner's tactic then was lambast them both, driving Reggie out of New York and making Dave Winfield miserable just one year into his ten year deal.

1982 was the end of the "Reggie" era, and Mr. October took the postseason with him. 1981 would be the only World Series appearance of the decade for the Bronx Bombers. The decline of the 1982 team can be traced to Steinbrenner as well - he was more than willing to admit it. The team had three different managers, five pitching coaches, and four hitting coaches. They made a whirlwind of transactions throughout the season, making it difficult for the team to establish any kind of rhythm. The team was no doubt talented, with many of the same veterans forming the core of the prior AL championship roster. They finished 1982 with a losing record, the franchise's first since 1973- which as it happens was the year Steinbrenner first took ownership of the team. Their 9 game losing streak during the season has not been topped again by a Yankee team. One bright spot for the team saw the debut of 21 year old Don Mattingly, who would become the team's captain for the next decade plus. 

The Cards:
Fleer #53 Aurelio Rodriguez - The 1976 Gold Glove winner at third base was certainly known more for his defense than his hitting prowess, but the original A-Rod put on quite the display in the 1981 World Series. His .417 average (5/12) was better than most of the Yankee lineup. During the regular season he was a seldom used utility player, though he did hit a career best .346 when called upon. In the 70s he was a regular at third for the Tigers, and had it not been for playing the same position as Brooks Robinson, he might have had a few more trophies to display. He was regularly among the top ranked 3rd baseman in Range Factor, putouts, assists, double plays turned, and defensive WAR. After his MLB career, he returned to Mexico, where he continued his career as a player then manager. He was elected to Mexico's Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995, and the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012.

Topps #553 Dave Winfield - In 1982, Winfield hit a career high 37 homers, won his 3rd Gold Glove, his 2nd Silver Slugger, and was named to the All-Star team for the 6th straight season. And yet, the season was viewed by Steinbrenner as a failure. Winfield had been playing with a chip on his shoulder after being christened as "Mr. May" by the Yankees owner, but the abuse had yet to reach its apex. Winfield would continue to perform well on the field throughout the 80s, but the team as a whole was not able to make progress towards the ultimate goal of another World Series win. Winfield of course was just as hungry for it as anyone else-- maybe even more so given that he had only made one post season appearance in his career, and it went about as poorly as it possibly could have. Although he never finished higher than 3rd in the MVP balloting, Winfield was a complete player and a star for his entire big league career. He had over 3,000 hits, over 1,800 RBI, and combined 465 homers with 223 stolen bases. He would reach the World Series again before his career ended, winning it all with the Toronto Blue Jays. His 2 run double in the top of the 11th inning of game 6 proved to be the series clincher, making the long journey that much sweeter. 

Fleer #30 Bobby Brown - One of the first of a flurry of trades made by the Yankees in 1982 involved sending Bobby Brown along with three others to Seattle for Shane Rawley. Brown had a rough 1981, playing in just 31 games for the Yankees, and hitting just .226. But speed never slumps, and in Seattle he would crack the league leaderboard with 28 stolen bases. This was doubly impressive given that Brown was used as the team's fourth outfielder. He came to the Yankees from Toronto, and in 1979 was the International League MVP. His best MLB season came the following year, when he hit 14 homers and stole 27 bases. He was also part of the 1984 NL champion Padres squad, and was asked to fill in for the injured Kevin McReynolds. Brown had just 1 hit in 15 at bats in the World Series, then hit just .115 for the Padres in 1985, his final MLB season. He started an ice cream shop in Atlantic City with Jerry Mumphrey after he retired. 

Topps #301 Reggie Jackson -  There was very little action in New York for Reggie Jackson in 1982, as the team failed to extend his contract. George Steinbrenner told Reggie he was too old, so it was not a difficult decision to return to California, now with the Angels. Jackson immediately elevated the team's status as a post season contender. He led the AL in homers, out pacing his former teammate Winfield by a pair of round trippers. He also led the league in strikeouts for 5th time, but that was not concerning to Reggie, he was more focused on the bigger picture. He helped the Angels to a division title (the second in their franchise history), and would keep the team in contention for the next 4 years. He wasn't exactly joining a rag tag bunch of losers, but "The straw the stirs the drink" was the missing piece for a division championship. He joined 1979 MVP Don Baylor, 1977 MVP Rod Carew, 1975 MVP Fred Lynn and the criminally underrated foursome of Brian Downing, Bob Boone, Doug DeCinces, and Bobby Grich. The 82 Angels were a very good team!

Donruss #199 Rick Cerone - Rick was the prototypical journeyman/backup/platoon catcher, playing for 8 different teams in his career. New York was his most frequent stop, as a favorite of Steinbrenner in particular, despite blurting out a hearty F-bomb directed at George following a post season defeat in 1981. Cerone was the primary catcher for the Yankees that year, and again in 1982 prior to the trade for Butch Wynegar from Minnesota. He had his best season in 1980, when he hit 14 homers, drove in 85 runs and finished 7th in the AL MVP balloting. He was a first round pick in 1975 by Cleveland, and made his MLB debut that same year. For his career, he had 998 hits and 59 homers. He founded the independent Newark Bears baseball team in 1998, and sold them in 2003. 

Topps #569 Willie Randolph - Even though the Yankees had a rough stretch in terms of championship teams in the 1980s, where oh where would they have been without Willie Randolph? Willie was the unsung, unspoken leader of the team. Sure, Reggie was the big personality in the late 70s when Randolph was acquired from the Pirates, and Dave Winfield was the big name free agent after Reggie left, and Don Mattingly was the official team Captain after that. But Randolph was the real igniter of their offense, the stalwart of their defense, and the team's best base runner (well, in the years without Rickey Henderson anyway). In 1982, Randolph was the team leader in hits, runs, stolen bases, and games played. That would be a theme throughout his tenure in pinstripes. While he only had one season in which he led the league in anything (walks in 1980), he was a regular top ten finisher in OBP, walks, runs, and stolen bases. He was a six time All Star, which is probably low, and had 4 seasons in the top 10 in defensive WAR. 

Donruss #387 Yogi Berra - Donruss was hard at work to get some big names in its set that Fleer and Topps did not. That meant pulling from the coaching ranks. Yogi Berra had been coaching even before his playing career officially ended in the 1960s. When Billy Martin had him re-join the Yankees as a bench coach in 1976, I'm sure he could have never guessed that he'd see such a tumultuous revolving door of skippers until his own hiring and firing in 1984 and 1985. He'd seen the whole carousel revolve from Billy Martin through Gene Michael, Bob Lemon and back again. Berra's messy divorce from the Yankees in 1985 kept one of the greatest baseball minds away from his rightful home for nearly 15 years. Joe Torre was able to convince Berra to return in 1999 to the delight of the Yankee faithful. He remained a constant presence and a near-infinite source of wisdom and wise cracks until his passing in 2015. Berra, of course, was one of the greatest players of all-time - he captained 10 World Series winning clubs, won 3 MVP awards and was an 18 time All-Star. 

Topps #505 Graig Nettles -  Nettles was 37 in 1982, and appeared to be in the declining phase of his career. He would play one more season in New York before being traded to San Diego just prior to the start of the 1984 season. He had a resurgence in sunny So-Cal, helping the Padres to their first World Series appearance. Nettles of course was a key contributor to the Yankees' success in the 70s, winning a pair of Gold Gloves at third base while providing better than league average production for a position that still rarely included offensive prowess. Even pushing 40 years old, Nettles could still play well at the hot corner - he was in the top 5 in range factor, assists, and fielding percent every season from 1975 to 1985. 

Donruss #409 Tommy John - Is there a more famous baseball player than Tommy John that is eligible but missing from the Hall of Fame? Of course stats should count first and foremost when evaluating the candidacy of a player, but whose name comes up more often during your average MLB broadcast - Tommy John, or Robin Roberts? Eppa Rixey? Burleigh Grimes? Early Wynn? These are all Hall of Fame pitchers (and they happen to have had among the 10 most similar careers to Tommy's). Tommy John's willingness to do something no one had ever attempted before, undergo a risky procedure followed by a painful and arduous rehabilitation for the chance to pitch again . . . that has to count for something. How many careers today have been extended thanks to "Tommy John"? In 2014, nearly a third of all active MLB Pitchers have had Tommy John surgery. Heck, I think Dr. Frank Jobe should be in the Hall of Fame too - he devised the procedure (and also did a reconstruction of Orel Hershiser's shoulder in another unique and previously un-tested operation.). But Tommy John did the work of pitching for 14 seasons after being given a 100-1 shot at every pitching professionally again. By 1982 he was 7 years removed from the procedure. He was in the middle of his sixth season with double digit victories of those 7 when the Yankees traded him to the Angels. The waiver deadline deal gave California a veteran "ace" for the playoff push. He pitched well in game 1 of the ALCS, but got knocked around in game 4. The Angels would drop the decisive game 5 the following day despite a good start and a lead heading into the 7th inning. Tommy John finished his 21 year career with 288 victories and over 2,200 strikeouts.

What is your favorite card of a Yankee from 1982? Doesn't have to be one of these...

Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 9, 2020

Flashback Friday with Throwback Thursday


Topps releases a new set once a week online that they call Throwback Thursday. The set mimics designs from past Topps sets, and not just baseball. A recent set caught my eye, featuring some of the fastest players in MLB both today and yesterday. 

I liked the set so much, in fact, that I decided to grab a lot from eBay of the original design the set was based upon - the 1954 Topps "World of Wheels" set. I thought it might be fun to match up the baseball player with a car from the original set. I picked the "Durable 24-Hour Champion" for Mike Trout. Even though he hasn't had post season success yet, he is a perennial MVP candidate and has the kind of popularity that has critics gushing over his sustained excellence.

Luis Robert is a still unproven but exciting prospect that has made an impressive debut. The Belly Tanker is a re-purposed, modified hot rod made from leftover airplane parts. Robert certainly packs the power and speed of a small aircraft!

Byron Buxton is a rare talent, but sometimes can be hard to find in top condition. The Excalibur J is one of the more rare and sought after vehicles. Only 3 were made before new Excalibur models began production in the 1960s. But when you saw one in action, man, there's nothing quite like it!

When I think of Rickey Henderson, I think of an unparalleled all-time great. He's a record breaker of a variety of skills - stolen bases of course, but also walks, runs scored, lead-off home runs... Rickey, it has been argued, could be split in two and both of those players would have Hall of Fame careers. The 300 SL was named the "Sports Car of the Century" in 1999. When the car was put into production for the general public, it was the fastest production car of all time.

Few players combined speed and talent and style like Ichiro. There was something immediately identifiable about him- from his batting stance, to the meticulous care paid to his uniform and equipment, Ichiro was cool and collected at all times. Founded in 1910, Alpha Romeo survived both world wars, and when racing returned after WWII, the car maker began to dominate the field of a new kind of racing, formula one. And they did it with vehicles that performed beautifully with impeccable style. 

You need a centerfielder? A Second Baseman? A Shortstop? A guy that can hit for half a season with broken hand? Trea Turner is your guy. He'll take the extra base, he'll steal a base, he'll hit it over the fence. He's tough, durable, dependable. You know, like a Jeep! Similar to the belly tanker, the Jeep was a product of military engineering. A vehicle that could excel in almost any condition. 

As is often the case with these sets - I think Topps did a pretty good job with the big picture, but missed the mark on the little details. They churn out a new set like this every week, so it may be asking a bit much for some stats on the back or a little narrative blurb. How cool would it have been to have something like sprint speed, or 1st to third times? Or maybe going further into the past to include some speedsters from the 1950s? Like Richie Ashburn, or Luis Aparicio, or Willie Mays, or Minnie Miñoso? I get that they need to sell this thing, but that's just my opinion..

Have you picked up any Throwback Thursday sets? What do you like/dislike about them?

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Page 11 At the Bat Rack Frankenset

 PAGE TEN (with links to pages 1-9)

Rules -
9 different players
9 different card sets
9 different teams
player is at the bat rack (or bat pile) in or near the dugout
Have fun (most important)


and the backs . . .

91 - Joe Carter 1994 Upper Deck
92 - Justin Upton 2015 Topps Update (image variation)
93 - John Blanchard 1962 Topps
94 - Jim Longborg 1975 Topps
95 - Larry Walker 1993 Topps
96 - Orel Hershiser 1985 Fleer Star Stickers
97 - Carlos Lee 2004 Donruss Team Heroes
98 - Jerald Clark 1994 Stadium Club
99 - Wade Boggs 2019 Stadium Club 

Had to use another Comiskey cop-out with #97. Pretty much any regular card with a shot of a batter in Chicago will show a bat rack in the background. Hopefully I will replace that one at some point. Upton and Blanchard are not exactly at the bat rack, but I'll allow it!

I think the Hershiser sticker is my favorite of this bunch, just for the novelty of it. It was fun to have not one, but two pitchers at the bat rack for this page. Fun fact about Johnny Blanchard - he was born in Minneapolis! This card shows him following his best season in the big leagues. He had career highs in almost every offensive category, playing in 93 games for the Yankees. He had an OPS+ of 168 for the season!

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

A NEW (to me) Kennys Vargas card and a Rosie Relic Rainbow!


"2019 New Face" is an old friend for this blogger. Kennys Vargas spent last season trying to adjust to baseball in Japan, and had a rough time. He hit just 1 homer for the Chiba Lotte Marines, and was even sent down to their minor league affiliate for some time. The front of this card is super sparkly and shiny in the light.

Here's the back - I think all those Cs and Ds might be letter grades for his various skills... ouch. This year, Vargas was poised to be that 26th or 28th man at the end of the bench for the Tigers and his former manager Ron Gardenhire, but he didn't make the squad out of spring training. COVID wrecked any chance for him to impress in AAA action, and he was left of the alternate site squad as well. Hard to know at this point where he will land, but I expect him to play in the Puerto Rican winter league again this off season, and who knows?

These relics are from 2020 Series 1 - Eddie's base card was in Series 2, so I mostly ignored these relics until finding them more reasonably priced on eBay.

The gold is numbered to 50 - both the black border and gold border offerings seemed to be the plain gray swatch variety - I haven't seen any yet that were more colorful.

The red bordered parallel is /25, is probably 3X thick, and has a nice patch that incorporates part of the jersey with a letter on it. Not sure if there are more variations, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a 1/1 at the bottom of a warehouse somewhere. 

Do you have a player collection of a guy that's still active, but not in the major leagues? 

Thanks for reading!

Monday, October 5, 2020

1998 Topps All-Star Rookie Short Stop Mike Caruso


The White Sox made a big trade with the Giants at the trade deadline in 1997, with 9 players changing uniforms. The big names at the time all moved out West - the Giants acquired Danny Darwin, who would finish his career in San Fran the following season at the age of 42. Wilson Alvarez, who became a free agent and signed up with the expansion Devil Rays, and Roberto Hernandez, who took the same path to free agency to Tampa. For a pair of rentals and a savvy veteran, the Giants sent 6 prospects to Chicago. It was dubbed the "White Flag" trade, with the Sox just 3.5 games behind Cleveland at the time. Fans felt that trading your ace and your closer in the middle of a pennant race was giving up, and they probably are not wrong. 

Mike Caruso was the player to make the most of it all - he turned a vacancy at short (Ozzie Guillen left for free agency) into a Topps All-Star Rookie Cup!

The trade makes more sense when Caruso made the team out of Spring Training in 1998. His previous highest level was single A, but the Sox didn't have a better answer at the position. The team needed a boost to their prospect pool, and Caruso was diving off the high dive with a cannonball. He swiped 22 bases and hit .305 his rookie year. That was good enough for 3rd in the ROY balloting, and he was the answer to several trivia questions - the youngest ChiSox player on Opening Day since 1959, the first rookie to hit .300 or better for the team since Minnie Miñoso, and made many onlookers ready to compare him to a "young Ozzie Guillen."  

Caruso was born in Queens, NY, but attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL (yes, the same high school that later was the site of an infamous shooting). He was a 2nd round draft pick of the Giants, and immediately made an impact in his first pro season. Playing for Single A Bellingham, he made the All-Star squad, stealing 24 bases and hitting .292. Baseball America had him in the top 50 prospects (#34) the following year. He started his second year hot - A .333 average before the trade to Chicago. He hit just .227 in 28 games for Winston-Salem after that, but his contact and speed tools were very advanced. With Ozzie Guillen departing following the 1997 season, the SS position was wide open.

So... what happened? He hit over .300 his rookie season, plays a primo position, and still is just 22 years old. It turned out that 1999 would be his final full season in the big leagues. His average dropped to .250 and he was caught stealing more times than he was successful. The fact was that at 22, his defense wasn't fully polished either - he had 35 errors his rookie season, and 24 in 1999. He would be supplanted at short by veteran Jose Valentin, and would be sent down to AAA to work on the finer points of middle infield defense.

He would play several years in the minors for the Sox, Rays, Royals, and Reds. He would even get one more crack at the majors, going 2-20 with the Royals towards the end of the 2002 season. He was out of baseball completely for two years after that. Caruso then made a comeback attempt in the Independent leagues and played for various teams throughout the independent minor league circuits until 2009. Here's a great article from the Lancaster County Paper, which details the journey of Caruso from phenom to journeyman, written in 2008. "I didn't realize what I did until it was over."

Do you have any Mike Caruso memories? I'd love to read them in the comments below. 

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, October 4, 2020

I Love The 80s - 1982 Pittsburgh Pirates

 This is a series of posts on a 1980's Frankenset. Each page features a different team, with 9 of my personal favorite cards from that year's team. You might find players repeated, you'll definitely see brands repeated, but hopefully you'll agree that there are some interesting selections from the 1980s!

In 1981, the Pirates were now twice removed from their last World Championship. The 1980 season ended with a September swoon, and 1981 never really got off the ground. The team was 5.5 games out of first place in the NL East when the strike began in 81, and there was optimism that a fresh start was just what the veteran ballclub needed. They needed a bit more than that, as they slipped even further in the standings in the 2nd half, trailing 5 other clubs. They would have the 4th best record overall that year in the NL East, finishing the season with a 46-56 record. 

During the 81 season,  the team added Jason Thompson to take over at first base for the great Willie Stargell, whose production had fallen off. Thompson and Bill Madlock made up the vast majority of the offense for the Pirates, with former MVP Dave Parker slowed by injury and added insult from media, fans, and the front office. Pittsburgh fans moved on to the college ranks early to follow the exploits of a young Dan Marino, who led Pitt to a national #1 Ranking for most of the season. Their lone loss came at the hands of in-state rival Penn State.

In 1982, it was Madlock and Thompson again leading the way, the team actually had the 2nd most runs scored in the NL. The team's pitching was not keeping up with the offense, however, and they would end up right where they were in 1981. Another 4th place finish, fueled by a late season fade like 1980. They did however greatly improve their record, going 84-78 for the year, and improvement of nearly 60 points worth of winning pct. The early 80s would not be kind to the Pirates in the NL East, as other younger teams would rise and flourish before Pittsburgh could rejuvenate their roster for the tail end of the decade.

The Cards:
Fleer #490 Tony Peña - An All-Star in 1982 in the National League, Peña was just 25 but establishing himself as one of the best receivers in the Senior Circuit. He threw out his fair share of base runners, but at the time he display even more value at the plate. In his rookie year, he hit an even .300 and finished 6th in the ROY balloting. 1982 was his sophomore campaign, and he nearly hit .300 again while also starting a string of 5 straight seasons with 10 or more homers. Peña was a 4 time gold glove winner and had a tremendous season in 1984 with 5.9 WAR, nearly half of which came from his defense. Peña would be the main prize in the trade that brought Andy Van Slyke to the Pirates from Saint Louis. In the 1987 World Series, he hit .409 over the 7 games, driving in 4 runs and stealing a base against the Twins. 

Fleer #488 Steve Nicosia - Backing up the young star Peña meant plenty of time for chewing gum and blowing bubbles. Nicosia caught in 39 games and was a solid replacement when called upon, hitting .280 for the Pirates in 1982. As a rookie in 1979, he platooned with Ed Ott and even saw action in 4 World Series games for the Fam-A-Lee. His work during the regular season in limited duty was enough to make his the 1979 Topps All-Star Rookie Catcher. He would continue his role as a backup behind Tony Peña and then in San Francisco. He hit .303 in 48 games in 1984, but also had a nasty collision at home plate with Mike Scioscia that resulted in a pair of broken ribs. We would finish his MLB career catching for both Montreal and Toronto during the 1985 season. 

Fleer #481 Mike Easler - The 1982 everyday left fielder was proving to be a late-blooming success, making his first All-Star team in 1981,  having a career year for the Pirates in 1980 at the age of 29. Originally drafted and signed in 1969 by the Astros, Easler had a long and winding path through the minor leagues, finding the road to the show blocked by happenstance and the misfortune of crowded outfields on his way up. By the time he made his first significant foray as a reserve for the Pirates during the 1979 season, he had already played in nearly 10 different uniforms in the minors, majors, and winter leagues.  He didn't display much speed in the big leagues, but was a solid defender and could hit for power. His best season would come with the Red Sox in 1984, when he hit .313, socked 27 homers, and drove in 91 runs. He also played a pair of seasons in Japan, and went on to coach and serve as a hitting instructor for several minor league and big league teams.

Topps #106 Enrique Romo - Romo was the setup man for Kent Tekulve in 1979 and 1980, while briefly assuming the closer role in 1981. He came to the majors in 1977 for the expansion Mariners having already established himself for years as an elite hurler in the Mexican League. He led his team in Mexico to three league championships as a starter including a season as a 20 game winner in 1976. Soon after joining the Mariners, he was converted to the bullpen, which allowed his mix of off-speed pitches to play up against MLB hitters. He and Mike Easler played together in the Mexican Winter League following the Pirates World series win. His signature pitch was a screwball, which he taught to Bobby Castillo, who in turn taught it to Dodger great Fernando Valenzuela. Romo was inducted into the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003. 

Topps #343 Dave Parker - In 1982, Dave Parker was 31 years old, and had appeared in just 73 games for the Pirates, hitting .270/.330/.447 - well below the MVP pace he had set in 1978. Pirates management, along with the local media and fans, took the injury history of Parker and opted instead to accuse him of laziness. He had been signed to a lucrative contract extension just prior to the 1979 season. His performance in the All-Star game, including a laser throw to prevent a run late in the game, had given evidence that it was worth it. He was named MVP of the contest, and the Pirates would go on to win the World Series thanks in no small part to his .345 average and 4 RBI. That's what made the next few years so painful for everyone involved, as Parker's production began to go into a tailspin following a series of leg injuries suffered on the astroturf of Three Rivers Stadium. He would resurrect his career in Cincinnati, and go on to provide veteran leadership for a young and hungry Oakland A's franchise, including another World Series win in 1989 to add to his resume. Parker is on a very short list of players that have not yet been called to Cooperstown despite multiple championships and yearly awards to go along with impressive career totals. He was a 7 time All-Star, won 2 batting titles, 3 Gold Gloves, 3 Silver Sluggers, and finished his career with two "DH of the Year" awards. 

Topps #618 Tim Foli - I chose this card for the black on black uniform variation - The Pirates had Black Tops with Yellow pants, Yellow Tops with Black Pants, all Yellow, all Black, and white pinstripe variations at any given time in the early 80s. Foli departed from Pittsburgh for California prior to the 1982 season, in a trade for catcher Brian Harper. Foli was the everyday Shortstop for the Pirates in 79, 80 and 1981. He was a slick defender, and was extremely tough to strike out. He led the league 1979, 80, and 82 with the highest ratio of ABs to Ks each of those seasons. He was originally drafted by the Mets, then traded to Montreal in the Rusty Staub deal. With the Expos, he was the starting SS from the beginning. He was the first player in Expos history to hit for the cycle, and consistently ranked near the top of the league in several fielding categories. 

Donruss #653 Bill Madlock - In 1981, Madlock won his 3rd batting title with a .341 average for the Pirates. He would finish 2nd in the league in 1982 then win it all again in 1983. He would actually finish with more batting titles than All-Star appearances, so if you're trying to come up with underrated players, don't forget Bill! His mid season acquisition by the Pirates in 1979 certainly tipped the scales in their favor to make the post season and his .375 batting average during the Fall Classic was instrumental as well. Madlock took on the roles of "professional hitter" and "savvy veteran" for the Dodgers in 1985 and again for the Tigers in 1987. He had 3 homers for LA in the 1985 NLCS,  and hit .279 over the 2nd half of the 1987 season helping the Tigers take the AL East pennant. 

O-Pee-Chee #188 Willie Stargell - No real reason for picking the OPC version of this card, it was what I had handy. "Pops," as he became affectionately known, was a 21 year MLB veteran in 1982, having played his entire career with the Pirates. Stargell was a member both the 1971 and 1979 World Championship teams, forming a bridge to the Roberto Clemente era. By 1981 and 82, he was more valuable as mentor to the younger generation of players than anything he would provide on the field. The 1979 season was his grand finale - he was league MVP, as well as MVP of both the NLCS and the World Series. Much like Clemente's performance in the 1971 series, Stargell took the team on his back and willed them to victory. He hit an even .400 with 3 home runs and 7 RBI for the series. Unlike Parker (Who had 500 more hits than Willie) or Bill Madlock (whose career average was more than 20 points higher), Stargell had no trouble getting into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot. His 475 career homers and 1,540 career RBI were at the top of everyone's mind, as was his heroics during the 1979 post season. 

Donruss #311 Kent Tekulve - "Teke" still ranks in the top ten in games pitched with 1,050 career MLB appearances. He saved 184 games over the course of his career, which may not seem like much compared to the closers of the current era, but he was used in a much different way. He was every manager's not so secret weapon, coming into the the game whenever outs were needed the most. He saved 3 games in the 1979 World Series, appearing in 5 of the 7 games total. He made the All-Star squad just once, in 1980, but was among the most called upon and most trusted bullpen arms for 16 seasons in the big leagues. His career ERA is 2.85 and ERA+ is 132. He didn't have the K rates like Kimbrel or Josh Hader, but he was incredibly stingy with the homer and rarely walked batters. He featured a sinker, a slider, and curveball; all delivered submarine style.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Bob Gibson 1935-2020


"Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher in baseball. He is always pitching on days when the other team doesn't score any runs." - Tim McCarver

Bob Gibson battled childhood ailments such as rickets, hay fever, pneumonia, asthma and a heart problem. He survived not only those illnesses, but also the deeply rooted racism of the 1930s and 40s in Nebraska. His brother Josh, 15 years his senior, coached him in baseball and basketball (and was credited with coaching several other players in Nebraska like Gayle Sayers, NBA vet Bob Boozer, 1972 Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers, and Marlin Briscoe - the first black Quarterback in NFL history.). Josh saved his toughest drills and workouts for his little brother, hoping that Bob could follow in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson.

The intimidating stare was intended to frighten opposing players, but also to keep at a distance anyone who would challenge his rightful place on the field. As Gibson puts it - "Anger came from racism. Of course it did. But racism was a way of life. It was something I had to deal with on a daily basis."  Anger, intimidation - they were Gibson's way of competing, but also his way of dealing with the world around him. "I wasn't trying to intimidate anybody, are you kidding me? I was just trying to survive, man." Then again, Gibson often brushed off the claims that he was glaring at all. Gibson wore glasses when he wasn't pitching, and has said to many that "the Glare" was really just his way of squinting to see the catchers' signs. But if you ask opposing hitters, they'll tell you it worked no matter what the reason was that he did it.

Early in his career, A Sports Illustrated essay called "The Private World of the Negro Ballplayer" featured a tightly cropped photo of Gibson and teammate George Crowe in the clubhouse with the caption: In a dressing room empty of Whites, pitcher Bob Gibson consults Crowe. Gibson would later tell Roger Kahn that the photo was manipulated to look like the two were alone, but in fact they were seated next to several white players. The article had given the impression of a segregated Cardinals team with that photo, not to mention the text of the article itself that further alienated Gibson such that he did not agree to another interview or article about him in SI for nearly 50 years. 

Segregation was still a part of daily life in the South while Gibson was pitching. When the Cardinals played in the Grapefruit League for spring training, Black players would have had to stay at different hotels and eat at different restaurants - - until Cardinals' owner Gussie Busch purchased a hotel for the team to use, creating an integrated atmosphere for the players. 

The August 8th, 1959 game referenced above was not quite a glimpse of greatness as much as a test of Gibson's determination and endurance- he gave up 8 walks in the start, but pitched 10 innings and surrendered just 2 earned runs. He also struck out 8 Phillies batters. He did not factor in the decision,  but the Cardinals would win in 11 innings. 

Throughout his career, the prevailing thought was that Gibson was "mean" - but more than that, Gibson was a dominant and well-rounded athlete. He won so many games and struck out so many batters because he outpitched his competition. He also often out hit them - over his career he hit 24 regular season home runs, and 71 extra base hits total. There were 26 times where he personally drove in more runs than his opponents. Then there was his skill as a defender -- Gibson was awarded the Gold Glove at his position 9 times. He was the Cy Young winner in 1970, after posting a 23-7 record which included 3 shutouts and 274 strikeouts.

That paled in comparison to 1968, when he was the Cy Young winner and the league MVP. Gibson that season alone had 13 shutouts, and for the year had an ERA of just 1.12 over 304.2 innings. 28 of his 34 starts were complete games. He led the league in ERA, FIP, WHIP, WAR, strikeouts, shutouts, and was 2nd in victories. Gibson led an army of pitchers that so thoroughly dominated the league that the rules were changed to give the hitters a chance. The mound was lowered following the 1968 season, and the strikezone was made smaller (returning to the strike zone used in 1962 and earlier). Even with those changes, Gibson would again win 20 games, lead the NL in FIP and complete games, and sported an ERA+ of 164. 

Gibson saved some of his most memorable performances for the post season. He pitched in 9 World Series games, 8 of which were complete games. He was 7-2, with 2 shutouts, and struck out 92 batters in 81 innings of work. In 1964, pitching on two days rest, Gibson allowed a game-tying 2 run homer to Tom Tresh in the bottom of the ninth in Game Five. He was allowed to finish the inning, and the Cardinals came back to score 3 runs in the 10th. Gibson came back out to pitch the bottom of the 10th, and retired the Yankees quickly. Manager Johnny Keane was asked about the decision to stick with Gibson and he said "I had a commitment to his heart."