You say you want a revolution…

For me, Topps Now and Upper Deck Documentary are two of the most promising baseball card concepts that I’ve seen in terms of new directions the hobby could take. I love the idea of having one card per game for each team. And I love the idea of using modern printing technology for small print runs and quick product turnarounds. Marrying those two concepts is something I wish Topps Now would do instead of focusing on the usual big market teams and currently-hot stars.

I know I know, the idea of creating up to sixty different cards each day is a significant amount of work. That’s a lot of photos to pick, text to write, designs to compose, proofs to check, etc. etc. with a one-day turnaround. And yes at $10 a pop there’s no way anyone would collect a set of 162 cards for their team.* But the potential is so compelling I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to have such a set growing as the season grows with a photo of each highlight.

*As an aside, what price point would such a set be something worthwhile? Even $1/card feels high when thought of as a set.

Enter Matt Prigge who late last month dropped a tweet about rolling his own version of these and has since committed to doing this all summer. Matt’s using the Rookies App for this and the results look great so far.

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The Rookies App has a bunch of different templates that just drop photos into. You can add text to the pre-defined text fields and change some of the colors. But otherwise it’s pretty limited. It is a lot of fun and I’ve played with it a bit for photos of my sons in Little League but for a set like this where the text on the back is kind of important, I suspect that the app might get frustrating since you’re stuck entering all the text on your iPhone.

Matt’s doing a modified documentary set of just highlights. But he’s also doing  a complete roster of everyone who appears for the Brewers this season. He’s sourcing highlight photos for the highlights but he’s not limiting himself to this season for the roster images. I like this idea very much since not every game is a highlight and that sometimes there will be multiple highlights in a single game. Also not all players will have their own highlights but it’s nice for everyone to have a card in a set like this.

Bucs

A bunch of us on Baseball Card Twitter have been inspired to try our own version of this project. Battlin’ Bucs has been doing a set of Pirates cards using his own design inspired by the 1961 Topps World Series subset. He’s taken what’s already a notable subset for Pirates fans and tweaked the colors to be even more Pirates-appropriate.

Battlin’ Bucs is only doing single-sided cards so the fact that this design allows for so much text is a big plus. I suspect that he’s also doing these in a Photoshop template and modifying each layer in his template where appropriate before saving everything as a JPG. He’s also going for a full 162-card set (with fingers crossed for more).

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Meanwhile I’ve been inspired by 1993 Upper Deck and am doing a set of highlights and a complete roster like what Matt’s doing. I’m creating these in Indesign since I’m too much a text geek to do everything in Photoshop. This is definitely more work that using the Rookies App but it fits my preferences better.

It’s definitely been an interesting start to the season and has changed the way I’m reading game writeups since I’m now on the lookout for good photos from each game. I’m trying to only use photos of the players from this season as well (I’m missing only a few despite the newness of the season) but we’ll see if I can stick to this.

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The thing about doing all these on my own is that I had to design the backs as well. This was the hardest part of the entire project. I’m pretty satisfied with a line score and one-paragraph writeup. And the Giants even had a 14-inning game to stress test my template to the limit of what it can handle.

By doing fronts and backs I’ve pretty much committed to printing these out. I’m not sure how I’ll be doing that but I’ll probably start with cheap 4″×6″ photo prints that I glue together since that’ll run me 20¢ a card max. If that doesn’t work I’ll figure out something else.

I’m looking forward to seeing how these projects progress over the summer. My fingers are crossed that more bloggers and card twitter people join us since an end-of-season round up of everyone’s sets will be cool to see.

And if anyone else in this community wants to join us but needs help getting started, don’t hesitate to ask. The more the merrier. We don’t need to rely on a company to make the cool yearbook sets that we all see as the promise and potential of Topps Now, we can do it ourselves.

Typesetting ambition

As much as the 1980s is denigrated as the beginning of the decline into junk wax, over production, and, to a certain degree, the ruin of the hobby, it’s also the heyday of the regional oddball. One of the best parts of this hobby is being introduced to new regional oddball sets through people sharing things on twitter, blogs, etc. I’m not one of those people who tries to collect a little bit of everything. Instead I just enjoy seeing how many different sets were out there and the diversity of designs they offered.

A week or so ago I encountered a sample of the Mets Fan Club cards on Twitter. As someone who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, this was something I’d never seen before* and my reaction went from “oh interesting” to “holy crap” as I looked at the photos.

*Mother’s Cookies? Yes. Most other regional oddballs? No.

Especially the one of the card back.

In general, baseball cards backs don’t get the respect they deserve from either card companies or collectors. Yes, many of us grew up and learned our stats from there. But many of us also also stored cards back-to-back in binders and only checked backs to confirm whether or not the card was a rookie card.* Card companies meanwhile know that the card fronts are what move the product;** as a result it’s rare to see a back which has been considered seriously.

*Now get off my lawn.

**This is confirmed by the way modern chase cards have backs which consist of just “congratulations, you’ve found a certified relic/autograph/etc.” and no other useful information.

Oddballs and regionals are frequently extra bad here since the backs often involve branding or demonstrate that the people making the cards have only a passing understanding of what’s supposed to be on a card back.

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My jaw hit the floor when I first saw the backs of the Mets Fan Club cards. They’re good-looking backs just in general. Besides being a strong design thought they’re extraordinary both in terms of their ambition and their execution.

First, the ambition. The text is set in a parallelogram-shaped box with a slanted baseline. The angle of the baseline was selected so that the ascenders on the italic font become vertical again. This isn’t straightfoward to do with computers and I can’t imagine doing mechanically by hand. It’s an impressive stunt on its own.

That this text grid is continued into the statistics panel is what blows my mind. Stats are hard enough to do well as it is. Just getting the numbers to align correctly is something that companies frequently mess up.* Doing it on a grid like this? You’ve got to be kidding me. Whoever laid this out was challenging themselves in ways that go far beyond the expectations for the usual baseball card backs.

*One of these days I’ll write a post about typesetting statistics.

That the execution of the backs is as good as it is is a testament to the skill of the designer and typesetter who put these together. There are still a few weird things like how the bold italic font has characters at a slightly different angle than the text font. But everything else including how the Innings-Pitched statistics head is aligned so that the decimals hang is done to near perfection.

And that doesn’t get into other wonderful things like the use of the Mets’s colors as the two spot colors and the way that the Mets logo interacts with the bare paper in the top box. Even the card numbering with the single non-italic font on screened-back orange ink in a circle that fits perfectly into the corner of the box feels intentional and correct.

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I do have to point out though that while I applaud the ambition, typesetting multi-year stats ended up being too difficult. Davey Johnson’s card is having problems getting the verticals to line up. This also occurs in the text but it’s especially obvious in the stats where everything bends to the right as you go down the columns.

That this card is not nearly as well-done as the rest shows how much manual work went in to making all eight cards in the set. Each card’s type is set slightly different in a way that never happens with computer typesetting.

I love these because of what they intend to do, how they do it, and even the way they fail. It’s exciting to see designs which are inspired by the text itself—in this case the angle of the italic font. I just never expected to see this kind of thing on a baseball card back and I’m glad baseball card twitter continues to surprise me with things I never knew existed.

[It’s been pointed out that I should have mentioned how these are Topps-designed and manufactured despite not having a Topps copyright slugline. That Topps made these does explain how the designers could get away with being this ambitious. At the same time, that many of Topps’s oddballs in the early 80s consisted of slapping a corporate logo (Coca Cola, Burger King, and Nestle being the examples which come to my mind first) on the base design for the year means I didn’t feel like Topps being the manufacturer explained everything.]

Lifers

One of the things I enjoy most about collecting cards is putting together checklists of things that interest me. Sometimes these become projects like the action cards or photographer cards that I try and collect. Other times just the exercise of figuring out the checklist and thinking about the theme is enough.

One such checklist I’ve been working on is about baseball lifers and trying to find cards that reflect the longest periods of time in organized baseball. Many of the cards on this list are unobtainable for various reasons but it’s been a fun project to research. I’ve limited to 45 or more years in the game but moving to 40+ would only add a few more guys like Clay Bryant. Also, before anyone questions my math, I’m counting inclusively.

Jimmie Reese

69 years
1925 Zeenut–1993 Mother’s Cookies

It’s fitting that Jimmie Reese’s first and last cards are both regional issues from the West Coast. I remember fascinated by him as the ancient Angels coach in the late 1980s and he was one of the few (if not the only) coaches who occasionally showed up in regular sets as well (he has cards in both 1991 Leaf Studio and 1991 Bowman).

Casey Stengel

56 years
1910 Old Mill Cigarettes–1965 Topps

Stengel was the obvious standout in this department. He benefits from the sheer number of card releases in the pre-World War 1 era. When I was researching this checklist there were a decent number of guys who debuted in pro ball between the wars but who didn’t get cards until after World War 2.

As with Reese, I really enjoy the difference between his first card and his last card. All the pre-war cards just feel like they’re from a completely different world.

Frank Robinson

50 years
1957 Topps–2006 Topps

Compared to Reese and Stengel, Robinson’s cards are much more familiar feeling. If anything, his 1957 card feels much more comfortable to me than that awkward 2006 design.

Felipe Alou

48 years
1959 Topps–2006 Topps

The first pair on this checklist that I can conceivably acquire. While a Frank Robinson rookie is also something that I could get, it’ll always be out of my price range. But these two, as a Giants collector, are pretty much already on my wantlist as it is.

As with the Robinsons, these both feel familiar although I appreciate how both of them are so of their time while also sharing the common Topps DNA.

Del Baker

47 years
1914 B18 Blankets–1960 Topps

Baker is actually the inspiration for this post. I found a 1917 Zeenut card of him at my grandmother’s house and subsequently acquired his 1954 Topps card. When someone else posted about a different 1954 Topps coach card we started talking about baseball lifers, Casey Stengel’s name came up, and then I started thinking about who else should be on the list.

Dusty Baker

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46 years
1971 Topps–2016 Topps Allen & Ginter Skippers minis

Dusty was actually the first name I thought of when the topic of baseball lifers came up. Sadly Topps doesn’t make manager cards in Flagship anymore. Nor do they appear to be in Heritage either. So Dusty’s last card as a manager is part of an Allen & Ginter mini set which is either so rare or so boring that the only images I can find online are the Topps promotional ones.

I miss manager cards and wish Topps would bring them back. Dusty also hasn’t retired yet so there’s a possibility he could move up this list if he gets another gig and Topps produces manager cards again.

Lou Piniella

46 years
1964 Topps–2009 Topps

Because of Ball Four I always associate Piniella as being a rookie in 1969. But as has been pointed out before, he was one of those multi-year rookie stars and his first rookie card from 1964 gets him into this checklist.

Leo Durocher

 

45 years
1929 Exhibits Four-in-One–1973 Topps

I’m glad I found one lifer whose last card is in the 1970s. As I mentioned earlier, the hardest part here is finding rookie cards in the 1920s and 30s. Which is too bad since the way that Topps includes coaches in 1973 and 1974 means that there was a possibility for more lifers to have last cards.

Anyway I’m sure I’ve missed some guys. I don’t have anyone whose last card was in the 1980s. Nor do I have anyone whose career started in the 30s or 40s. So I look forward to being corrected in the comments here.

Mother’s Cookies

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From 1983 to 1998, Mother’s Cookies released baseball cards both in their cookie packaging and as stadium giveaways. I, as any kid would, believed the these were universal but discussing on Twitter this summer has shown that they’re anything but. This was a distinctly West Coast release of a West Coast brand* which made cards from San Diego to Seattle and East as far as Houston and Minneapolis.

*Formed in Oakland in 1914. My grandfather used to tell stories about being able to go to the factory and fill a pillowcase with broken, unsuitable for retail, cookies for a quarter. By the 1990s it was no longer owned locally although production was still in Oakland until it got subsumed by Kellogg’s and wiped out by the financial crisis in the 2000s (RIP Flaky Flix, my personal favorite). In the 1950s Mother’s also made PCL baseball cards—a completely different beast and project than the 1980s/90s cards in this post. They also released a Presidents set in 1992.

The cards were quite nice. Some of the early Giants releases in 1983 and 1984 were different but, until 1997, the basic design was simple and elegant. A nice glossy full-bleed photograph—sometimes action but most of the time a classic baseball pose showing off the stadium in the background. Crisp white card stock with rounded corners—probably the most distinct design element. Just the player name and team in small Helvetica Bold text. The early cards often used the team logotype—a really nice design touch I wish Mother’s had kept—instead of Helvetica and 1986 had script lettering instead, but starting in 1987 the design was unchanged for a complete decade. And for good reason; it was pretty much perfect.

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Aside from the stadium giveaways you could find single cards in cookie packages. I seem to recall them only in the bags of Iced Animal Crackers but that might only be what I managed to convince my mom to buy. These cards were typically part of four or eight card player-specific sets. Until the early 1990s I only found either Giants or A’s cards—suggesting that Mother’s produced their inserts to cater to the region the cookies would be sold in. In the early 90s Mother’s must’ve simplified their production and I started to find cards of the Griffeys, Nolan Ryan (three different sets for 5000Ks, Seven No-hitters, and 300 wins), and even Tim Salmon instead of local stars.

But it’s the stadium giveaways which I liked best. It was originally for kids only and I made sure to get to Candlestick HOURS early to ensure that I receive my packet of 20 cards. The sets are 28 cards and in the 80s you received a coupon you could redeem for eight more cards in the mail. Eight cards which you’d cross your fingers and hope for the correct ones to come back, It never worked out like that for me. I always got a random extra no-name or two—thankfully the stars were guaranteed in the 20 you got at the park—and all my early sets have a few holes where I’m missing someone like Mark Wasinger or the trainers.

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That’s right, card 28 (and in some years, 27) might include all the coaches or the trainers or the broadcasters. Which was awesome since you never saw them on cards but they were important parts of the team too.

Then, in the early 90s Mother’s changed everything. It was wonderful. Instead of the frustration of the coupon you now received 28 cards in your pack. Not a complete set though. You got the base set of 20 plus eight copies of the same fringe player (or coaches or trainers, etc.). And right there on the outside of the package were instructions to go trade for your missing seven cards.

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So for the hour or so before the game, the stands were crawling with kids calling out who they had and and who they needed. Young kids who were petrified of strangers suddenly came out of their shells. Older kids could coordinate more-complicated trades. The first year this happened I had to walk two very young kids through a three-way swap which completed all three of our sets. I don’t think they fully realized what I did until their sets were suddenly complete.

After the 1994 strike killed my card collecting habit the only set of cards I still collected were the Mother’s Cookies giveaway sets. Going to the games was fun. Trading with other kids—and eventually other adults once the kids-only aspect of the giveaway got dropped—was fantastic. It’s the rare giveaway which not only encourages fan interaction but also manages to capture the soul of the freebie. As I look at the current set of National Baseball Card Day promotions, it appears that the trading card day is not longer about actually trading cards. And that makes me sad.

Rolling my own

1987 was my first full year as a baseball fan. After attending my first Giants game in 1986, despite the ridiculousness of the game—16-innings including the Giants using pitchers as outfielders and switching them between left and right field depending on the batters’ platoon splits—I ended up a hard core Giants fan the following year. That the Giants were actually good for the first time in anyone’s memory certainly helped. As did the fact that 1987 was also the year I got bitten bigtime by the baseball card bug.

That fall when the Giants won the Western Division* my local paper, The San Jose Mercury News, celebrated by printing cartoony baseball “cards” of the entire team on the back page of the sports section. It was a pretty silly thing. Cheap newsprint. The card backs were just whatever was on the previous page of the newspaper. But I was undeterred.

*30 years later I still instinctually think of the Reds, Astros, and Braves as the Giants’ rivals even though they’re no longer in the same division nor, in the Astos’ case, the same league.

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I scrounged some old vertical file folders from my parents, brushed on glue, and carefully laid the newspaper onto cardstock. I still remember carefully brushing the bubbles out before the glue dried. Later in the day once the glue had dried, I busted out my scissors and turned that cheap newsprint into real cards.

30 years later and I’m a bit surprised that these are in as good shape as are. Yes, of course I kept these in binders. But newsprint isn’t the most archival of materials and there was no guarantee I’d selected an appropriate glue. I probably just grabbed a bottle of Elmer’s but it’s not like I knew what I was doing when I was nine.

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The best part of these cards is the backs though. Besides being woefully uncreative—I had, after all, only been collecting cards for under a year—it’s an interesting snapshot into what I felt was important on a card back at the time. Yes, I also remember being fascinated with all the statistics but that would’ve been outside of my lettering ability at the time. But I felt very strongly about knowing a player’s position and recording the team/year information that the card represents.

It’s also very clear that I believed that a baseball card should be part of a numbered set. I have no idea how I chose to number these, but not only did I number them, that’s the order I sleeved them in my album.

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I was apparently not the only burgeoning baseball card collector who received The Merc at home. These cards got such a reception that a few days later they reappeared on the back of the sports page—this time in color and with proper backs. Or, well, sort of proper backs. It looks like something produced by a newspaper whose priorities are creating readable copy using the existing house style. I do however love the optimism of including a line for autographs. Even today I don’t know what pen I’d choose for that task.

Anyway, I went ahead and turned the new series into cards too. Same method only I had to both procure a second copy of the paper and figure out how to register the two sides for gluing.

I wish I could remember how I accomplished the registration.

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The following year when the A’s won their first pennant in over a decade The Merc celebrated the same way. This time though the cards were oversize—closer to the pre-1957 Topps size—and, while they were printed in color the first time around, they never got any backs.

So, as someone whose first exposure to cards the late 1980s with backs that stayed the same year after year, I went ahead and used the same template for my hand-pencilled backs that I’d used the previous year.

Productionwise though I no longer used vertical files. My parents encouraged me to find a cheaper source of card stock so these are, I think, on reclaimed cereal boxes. This resulted in way thicker cards and produced the nice side benefit of encouraging me to use a paper cutter instead of scissors. Where the 1987 cards have all janky hand-cut edges, these 1988s are nice and square.

Alas, The Mercury News never made any more cards. The following year’s Bay Bridge Series had plenty of other things for them to print commemorative back pages of and by the time the Giants returned to the World Series in 2002 the baseball card bubble had imploded. But I’m happy these were around right at the beginning of my collecting and I love rediscovering them both in how they’ve survived and how they suggest possible projects for my sons to try as they flirt with the hobby.

1950s/1960s Oddballs: Spic and Span Milwaukee Braves

When the Milwaukee Braves moved to the midwest from Boston for the 1953 season, the local populace was ecstatic. From 1947 through 1952, thanks to the Milwaukee Brewers serving as the Triple-A affiliate for the Braves, the locals had already had the opportunity to learn the names of many of the Braves prior to their promotion to Boston. The move was an immediate financial success for the club — attendance went from 281,278 in Boston in 1952 to 1,826,397 in Milwaukee in 1953. It didn’t hurt that the Braves went from doormat to a second place finish.

As that attendance jump shows, the Braves captured the hearts of Milwaukee immediately that initial season. As detailed in the September 16, 1953 issue of The Sporting News, the players themselves received outpourings of monetary support from the fans. Wisconsin native Andy Pafko, for example, was quoted saying:

We never knew a player could have it so good. You know, the only thing we have to buy in the way of food is meat. The rest we get free–milk, cheese, butter, eggs, frozen vegetables, cookies and even bread.

These people just can’t do enough for you. The other day the fellow at the parking lot where I leave my car overnight came over and said: ‘I understand you’re Andy Pafko of the Braves. Park here any time you want to and it won’t cost you anything. I’m sorry I didn’t know who you were sooner.

It should come as no surprise, then, that multiple local companies sought to capitalize on the good feelings engendered by the team. One of those companies was Spic and Span Dry Cleaners. As checklisted in the 2011 Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, edited by the late Bob Lemke, Spic and Span issued multiple sets of photos and cards featuring the hometown Braves beginning in 1953 and ending in 1960. Included in this cavalcade of items were cards, photos, and postcards of various sizes and shapes. Here is a list of those issues:

1953 to about 1955: 3-1/4″ x 5-1/2″ cards, 29 total issued

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1953 Eddie Mathews, Courtesy of Bob Lemke’s Blog dated May 5, 2011

1953 to 1957: 7″ x 10″ black and white photos, 14 total issued

1954: 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″ set of 13 cards

1954 to 1956: 4″ x 6″ postcards, 18 issued

1955: 7-1/2″ x 7″ die cut standups (the rarest set) of 18 total players

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1955 Die Cut Lew Burdette, from an auction on the Mears Auction Website, where a complete set sold in 2015 for $7,243

1957: 4 ” x 5″ cards with a total of 20 cards issued

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1957 Hank Aaron, from an auction in 2015 on the Greg Bussineau Sports & Rarities Website

1960: 2-3/4″ x 3-1/8″with a total of 26 cards issued

In addition to these cards, Spic and Span also used Braves players on other ephemera around their business. Specifically, in 2013, a paper dry cleaning bag came up for auction at Mears Auctions, and it sold for $92.

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As the Braves started their decline in the 1960s before they bolted for Atlanta, Spic and Span and other local retailers lost their taste for being involved with the team. Though Milwaukee spent just four seasons without a major league team of its own — really two years if you count the games in 1968 and 1969 that the Chicago White Sox (with help from eventual Brewers owner and Commissioner Bud Selig) played in Milwaukee — Spic and Span was pretty much done with the baseball endorsement business.

As a postscript, despite being a national dry cleaning chain into the 1970s, Spic and Span barely exists with that name today. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cracked down on the dry cleaning industry because of its pollution of groundwater. The solvents that dry cleaners used were loaded with trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene — known, potent carcinogens that dry cleaners often just dumped out the back door. Today, Spic and Span is nearly gone, but its legacy lives on both in baseball memorabilia and far less exemplary areas.

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.