While in Portland a couple weeks ago I was lucky enough to have lunch with SABR president/author/mensch Mark Armour and baseball author/analyst/commissioner extraordinaire Rob Neyer. Despite our gawdy SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee resumes, Rob was able to completely stump us with some baseball card trivia he may turn into an article soon, so stay tuned.
Following lunch, Rob had to go back to work (THE WEST COAST LEAGUE DOESN’T RUN ITSELF!) while Mark and I proceeded to hit up a card shop in the Portland suburbs. Our eyes were mainly drawn to the shop’s vintage racks, but I also thought it would be fun to try something I hadn’t done in nearly 30 years: buy a pack of baseball cards from a current set.
In fact I bought two, one for Mark and one for me. In contrast to many of today’s buyers there was no big “hit” I was after or set to complete. Mostly I just wanted to re-live the thrill of opening packs and bring my baseball card knowledge at least a little bit more up to date.
What follows is a recap of my pack buying and opening experience, including my reflections on the cards themselves. I know the whole “what I got in my pack” sub-genre of baseball card blogging is pretty saturated already, but perhaps my contribution will distinguish itself by its utter lack of current knowledge.
I wanted to buy whatever pack felt closest to the “good old days” when you could get 15 cards for 30 cents or so. Of course there was nothing among the 2019 offerings that fit that description, though I suspect the shop owner still had some leftover 1991 Donruss he might have let go at that price.
The next best thing appeared to be 2019 Topps Series One or Series Two, but Mark already had complete sets of each. Ultimately we landed on the much pricier 2019 Topps Update, which I think had only been out a week or two at the time. Coincidentally, I had just the day before seen an article Ryan Cracknell published for Beckett that had cool looking cards of Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson, so I had at least a couple players I could hope for as I opened my pack.
The $5 price tag was at first hard to swallow, but then I remembered how I used to pay $3 per pack for Upper Deck high numbers in 1989 back when $3 was a lot more money in my life, so what the heck. Unfortunately, neither Mr. Mays nor Mr. Robinson made it into my pack, but the 14 cards I ended up with did exactly what I’d hoped they would do. They were fun to flip through, and they gave my ancient baseball card knowledge a much needed Update.
The cards in my pack fell into seven categories. This was in contrast to the two categories (rookies, team changes) I remembered from the last Topps Update product (1984 Traded set) I ever purchased. All this variety felt overwhelming to me at first, but it probably made some otherwise ho hum cards seem more exciting. Here is how my pack broke down.
My four team change players were Adam Ottavino, Jordan Lyles, Anibal Sanchez, and Yonder Alonso. Sanchez had just pitched a postseason gem, and I knew Ottavino mostly from his Babe Ruth commercial. Alonso was of course the wrong Alonso to pull this year and kind of reminded me of pulling a Kevin Bass vs Kevin Maas back in 1990 or a Tommy Boggs vs Wade Boggs in 1983. Of this group, the player I was thrilled to land was Jordan Lyles (not to be confused with his near namesake), who I’d written about in an earlier SABR Baseball Cards blog post.
With the season now over I can provide a quick update on where Jordan Lyles now sits in relation to the all-time worst career ERA record. When I wrote my original article in July, Lyles had an ERA of 5.29 through 851 innings, and the record stood at 5.37 for pitchers with at least 1000 IP. In other words, Lyles would not only have to get a little worse but also keep his career going another 149+ innings, neither of which seemed impossible.
Well, an amazing thing happened the day I published my article. Jordan the Pirate who had gone 5-7 with a 5.36 ERA became Jordan the Brewer (that very day!) and managed to go 7-1 record with a miserly (and record jeopardizing) 2.45 ERA. As a result he now sits at 5.11 with 909.2 innings in the books and may be a longshot to break the record unless he can somehow recapture his early season unmagic and carry it forward to 2020 and beyond.
Thanks to a recent innovation, love it or hate it, I didn’t have to think hard to identify the five rookies in my pack. There was an MLB “rookie card” shield in the upper right or left corner of each of the cards. The players themselves were Harold Ramirez, Elvis Luciano, Darwinzon Hernandez, Oscar Mercado, and Devin Smeltzer.
At the risk of sounding unqualified for my co-chairmanship here at SABR I’ll admit to not knowing who any of these players were. (Feel free to let me know if I landed a huge hit and can pay off my mortgage now.)
What I did note was that all but one of the players had Latin names. Flipping the cards over, the four Latino players were born in Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and (yes I know it’s in the United States…) Florida. Likewise, none of the five rookies were African American.
While sample size here is fairly small, my pack at least hinted that the historic dearth of African Americans in MLB is not on the verge of changing. In reality, I would only expect to see the trend reverse when teams invest as much in our inner cities as they do in Latin America. I’m not holding my breath.
Finally, I had to at least check to see if any of the players were born in (gasp!) the 21st century, as if I needed anything more than aching knees and a giant bald spot to remind me of my advancing age.
Sure enough, my Elvis Luciano not only listed a February 15, 2000, birth date but indicated in the bio that Luciano was in fact the first player born in the 21st century to appear in the big leagues!
Party-poopers will no doubt impugn the coolness of my card and the quality control at Topps by noting that the 21st century did not technically begin until January 1, 2001, but are we really gonna go there?
Home run derby
Though I tend to root against the Astros as part of my 2017 World Series grudge, I was happy to pull an Alex Bregman Home Run Derby card. Before he was an Astro Bregman was an LSU Tiger, which makes me a fan at least by (imminent) marriage. He’s also just a damn impressive baseball player.
Perhaps as testament to my poor memory, it took this card to make me realize these guys don’t wear helmets when they Derby. I also wondered if Topps had somehow enhanced the veins popping out of Alex’s arm or if one of the game’s smaller players (at only six feet, 180 pounds) was really that jacked.
all-star game, part one
The “normal” ASG pull from the pack was Brad Hand. Without recalling the entire rosters of both leagues, I have to imagine Hand would have been among the 3-4 players I would have been least excited to pull. In fact, he had a helluva first half and pitched just fine in the Midsummer Classic. I’m just enough of a curmudgeon to view relief pitchers in the same way many fans view designated hitters.
All relievers do is remind me of how much I miss the old days of complete games and having no idea what a guy’s pitch count was. I know and respect all the arguments for why today’s game has evolved toward increased bullpen use. I just miss the old days from an entertainment perspective and because missing the old days is what old guys do.
What can you do though? Sometimes life just deals you a
Brad bad hand.
all-star game, part two
The other All-Star Game card I pulled was of Twins ace Jake Odorizzi, who gets his own category due to the card’s gold-ish (but non-metallic) border and serial numbering on the back.
Now I can’t say I was as excited to pull this variation as I was in 1979 to pull a Bump Wills or (especially) in 1981 to pull a Craig [sic] Nettles. Still, the hobby shop guy was pretty stoked for me and even busted out a penny sleeve so I could protect my investment.
My high school Social Studies teacher used to tell a story that inflation was so bad in postwar Germany that a guy had to bring an entire wheelbarrow full of money to a hardware store to buy a hammer. Evidently the clerk told the man he’d take the wheelbarrow but had no use for the money.
I just assumed Mr. Johnson made the whole thing up, but then I just looked it up and found the exchange rate in 1923 was one trillion Deutschmarks to the dollar. Shows what I know, but I guess that’s why I went into baseball cards and not history or economics.
Oh, so what was the point of this detour? Right, the penny sleeve. Crazy as it sounds I’m happier to have the penny sleeve than the card! Behalt Dein Geld! Ich werde die Schubkarre nehmen.
2019 season highlights
Continuing the theme of “worst in class” cards for these categories, my 2019 Season Highlights card celebrated Albert Pujols and his 2000th RBI. Were I a modern fan you might imagine that my objection to the card was the now popular belief that RBIs are overrated and nearly meaningless. Nope! On the contrary, I LOVE RBIs, and you’ll never take that away from me.
Mainly, and perhaps unfairly, I tend to see Pujols as a juicer, rendering his numbers and achievements (in my mind) meaningless and empty. Beyond that the card kinda sucks in that the back is simply a too small to read checklist for cards 61-120. While I needed checklists back in the day, I have to imagine nobody actually uses them these days. First, the full checklist is always on the internet, and second, we’ve all been trained not to take a pen or marker to our cards anymore. As such, I’d much prefer to read about a highlight, however cheap, than see a bunch of tiny names and checkboxes, including the unchecked box for this very card, which is kind of funny when you think about it.
Finally, it’s hard to recall Pujols and his RBI totals without being reminded of the oddball recalculation of Babe Ruth’s RBI numbers. Hey, it’s one thing to turn Hack Wilson’s 190 RBI into 191 for accuracy’s sake, but it’s another to subtract hundreds of RBIs from the Babe just because the stat itself wasn’t yet official. Please, Baseball, do you even think about how long some of us spent memorizing all these stats and records as kids? I’m gonna say 4,191 hours!
none of the above (I think)
My Miguel Castro card didn’t seem to fit any of these other categories in that there was no special logo (e.g., Rookie Card, Home Run Derby) nor had Castro changed teams since 2017. Without looking anything up I’ll simply assume that Castro didn’t quite make the cut for the base sets, hence was still available to fill a slot on the Update set roster.
Perhaps making up for the card’s undistinguished status in the set, the card may well be the most attractive pull from my pack. Check out the bird peeking out of his jersey and the chains flying, along with what are either earrings, long hair, or really long ear lobes forced back by the strength of his motion.
My main goal here was to open a fresh pack rather than actually add new cards to my collection. As such, anyone who does trades with me over the next few months will likely find themselves with one or more of these cards added to the envelope.
In the meantime, I’ll have to wrap my head around the fact that more than 40 years after starting my prized baseball card collection my rarest card is…
Good God, this can’t be right, can it?
Holy smokes, it is!
…a 2019 Topps card of Jake Odorizzi!