Future Stars: Seldom Stars, Sometimes Not Even Future

They say you can’t predict baseball, and the folks who make baseball cards surely agree. Off and on for the past several decades, Topps has made a practice of predicting which players would be future stars and slapping the “Future Stars” label right on the cards. Sometimes they do a pretty good job — Cal Ripken and Tim Raines are among the Future Stars who became Hall of Famers — and sometimes they don’t — just ask Bob Bonner, Jeff Schneider, Roberto Ramos, and Bobby Pate, the four guys who shared those Future Stars cards with Ripken and Raines.

bo-jackson-tim-pysnarskiThe same year that Topps nailed it with Gary Sheffield and (to a lesser extent) Sandy Alomar Jr., they also dubbed Steve Searcy and Mike Harkey as Future Stars. I’ll see your 1987 Bo Jackson and raise you Tim Pyznarski.

So anyway, the point is that predicting which baseball players will become stars in the future is a losing game. That’s why I have so much respect for Upper Deck, who in the mid-2000s made a bold decision: If the Future Stars hardly ever turn into “Stars,” they reasoned (I assume), then why are we so beholden to the “Future” part of the equation?

I recently came across the 2007 Upper Deck Future Stars set. It jumped out at me because I was surprised to see Johnny Damon and Matt Cain in the same Future Stars set. It turns out I was right to be surprised.

I won’t go through the entire checklist, but let’s highlight a few of the players who, in 2007, Upper Deck was willing to go out on a limb and predict stardom for, along with their career accomplishments before they were named Future Stars.

Miguel Tejada. Age 32. Winner of the 2002 American League Most Valuable Player Award. Four-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, and receiver of MVP votes in each of the previous seven seasons.

Andruw Jones. Eleven-year veteran. Nine-time Gold Glove winner. Five-time All-Star.

Chipper Jones. Age 34. National League MVP in 1999. Five-time All-Star. MVP votes in nine different seasons.

Manny Ramirez. Eight consecutive top-ten MVP finishes. Nine straight All-Star appearances. 470 career home runs.

Ken Griffey Jr. American League MVP in 1997. Twelve-time All-Star. Ten-time Gold Glove winner. 563 career homers.

Okay, this is just getting tedious at this point. Others in the set include John Smoltz, David Ortiz, Curt Schilling, Jim Thome, Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, and Greg Maddux, among (many) others.

In 2007.

griffey-sheffieldI’m sure there was some rhyme and/or reason to this set. They did a similar set the year before, and they obviously didn’t think they were actually fooling anyone. I’ve looked at several of the cards, trying to find a wink or a nod or some indication that they’re messing with us, but it’s not on the cards themselves. There doesn’t appear to be any “throwback” aspect to the set — Johnny Damon is pictured as a Yankee, Griffey as a Red, Sheffield as a Tiger, etc.

It can’t possibly be true, but it seems, at least to the eye of the casual observer who happens to come across some of these cards ten years later, as if Upper Deck just really wanted to make sure their Future Stars set included some actual stars.

To be fair to Upper Deck, the set also included several players you would traditionally find in a Future Stars set. You know, rising stars like Mike Schultz, Sean Henn, and Jamie Vermilyea. For every Andrew Miller or Ryan Braun, you have a Rocky Cherry or an Other Ryan Braun.

Once you get past the first 100 cards, most of which feature established stars, there’s the usual hit-and-miss assortment you’ve come to expect from Future Stars sets. And now Zack Segovia and Devern Hansack will be able to tell their grandkids they were in the same set as Greg Maddux and Derek Jeter.

Hispanic Heroes: A Seattle Mariners promo card set

In 2005, the Seattle Mariners gave out a nine-card set featuring their Latino players as part of their annual “Salute to Hispanic Béisbol”.

The cards featured an action shot on the front with the player’s name and position listed in Spanish.  Cool, right?  The flip side showed a smaller player photo with bilingual information and the player’s home country’s flag.

When the set was released in mid-September 2005 commemorating Hispanic Heritage Month, I joked with the Mariners marketing manager about the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags.  You will note that the Cuban flag includes blue and white stripes with a white star in a triangular red field, while the Puerto Rican flag includes red and white strips with a white star in a triangular blue field.  I smiled and told him he got right.  He smiled back with a sigh of relief!

While the Mariners, of course, have given away cards sets in the past, this was the very first time that they released a set in Spanish featuring their Latino players.  A cultured observer, however, will note that two of the nine cards include the player’s last name correctly spelled with an “ñ”, while several of the cards are missing accent marks.  The set includes:

PLAYER POSICIÓN HOME COUNTRY
Adrián Beltré tercera base Dominican Republic
Yuniesky Betancourt campocorto Cuba
Eddie Guardado lanzador zurdo USA
Félix Hernández lanzador derecho Venezuela
Raúl Ibañez jardin izquierdo USA
José López segunda base Venezuela
José Mateo lanzador derecho Dominican Republic
Joel Piñeiro lanzador derecho Puerto Rico
Yorvit Torrealba receptor Venezuela

I’m hoping that the team will look to release a new bilingual set September 2017.  Felix would be the sole member left from that 2005 squad.

The Other Mike Cameron: A 2009 Topps Mini-Mystery Sorta Solved

Like many card collectors, I have a touch of what R. Crumb called “compulsive series syndrome.” That is, the need to create a collection that is not only complete, but organized in a specific way. As a Milwaukee Brewers collector, that means lining up the flagship team set every year – base cards arranged by last name followed by subsets by number, then the traded or update series organized in the same fashion – in nine-pocket bindered pages. It’s a nice way to capture a season, but the last decade or so of Topps flagship sets has often been frustrating. Series one usually contains  handful of guys no longer with the team while series two begins to roll out off-season additions. Unlike the clean single-series sets of yore, it leaves a sort-of two-season amalgamation of players. It also resulted in one of the true quirks of my flagship Topps Brewers collection – the twin 2009 base cards for Mike Cameron that sit side-by-side in my “2004-Present” binder.

cam

Before the 2008 season, the Brewers signed Cameron to a 1-year deal with an option for a second. Cam was to take over in center field for an over-matched Bill Hall and, after serving a 25 suspension for amphetamines, was one of leaders of a team that won 90 games and broke a quarter-century playoff drought for the Brewers. Cameron had a good season, but he wasn’t an all-star, got no MVP votes, and led the league in nothing. He was certainly significant enough to get a spot in the upcoming Topps set… but two? So far as I know, the only other player honored with TWO base cards with the same team in a single set was Ted Williams, who was both the first and last cards in the 1954 set. (I need to make clear here, there may be other examples of this… I just don’t know of or know how to search for them. If you know of others, please mention them)

cam2

So what gives? Well, the series one Cameron card is unremarkable. But the series two card offers a clue. While the series one entry correctly states that Cam was acquired as a free agent on 1-11-08, the second series card says “ACQ: TRADE WITH BREWERS, 12-15-08.” On December 11, 2008, it was reported that the Brewers were very near to a deal to send Cameron to the Yankees for Melky Cabrera. The Brewers had just picked up Cameron’s option year, but were looking at cheaper alternatives in center. Meanwhile, the Yankees were seeking a veteran upgrade from the 23-year old Cabrera. The deal was nearly official before the Yankees asked the Brewers to help pay part of Cameron’s salary. By December 17, it was reported that the deal was dead.

Piecing all this together, we can assume that Topps was finalizing its series two checklist right around the time of the rumored trade and prepared a Cameron-as-Yankee card. When the deal fell apart, they inexplicably kept Cam on the checklist as a Brewer, forgetting to change the ‘how acquired’ line. Why he wasn’t replaced altogether on the checklist remains a mystery. Several players who changed teams around the same time Cameron nearly did appear in series two in their new uniforms, so it’s not as though Topps did not have the time to make significant alterations to the series. And then there is the matter of CC Sabathia, who, like Cameron, was featured in the first series as a Brewer. Sabathia was the that off-season’s top free agent prize, and signed with the Yankees on Dec. 20. While Topps included a number of players who changed teams after Dec. 20 with their new clubs, they ignored the Sabathia signing – and any other player in series one who changed teams – until the update series. So, again, we’re left with to wonder what was so special about Mike Cameron.

So, in my quest to learn why my perfectly-aligned 9-pocket page had two Mike Cameron cards right next to each other, I ended up with as many questions as answers. Can anyone think of other two-base card players in Topps history? Does anyone have any similar petty-yet-maddening card mysteries?

Follow me on Twitter, @mjpmke and check out my blog on Brewers history.