Thursday, June 21, 2018

The All-Inept Team (Cubs edition)


Matt of "Bob Walk the Plank" recently partook in a fascinating exercise by composing a roster of the most inept players in the history of his beloved Pirates.

I loved the idea and earmarked it as a future post to write on the Cubs, who (as many know) have had their fair share of ineptitude over the years. While remembering the worst of the worst of one's favorite team may not be a whole lot of fun, it makes me a lot more thankful for the success the Cubs have had as of late.

I've seen the Cubs win the World Series (which instantly qualifies me as among the all-time luckiest Cubs fans) but I did have to suffer through quite a few awful years there -- so here tonight is the bottom of the barrel, the All-Inept Cubs Team.



Pitchers


LaTroy Hawkins (Played for Cubs: 2004-05)

Part of the reason I was eager to undertake this exercise was to see how true my memory really was of certain guys I always think of as inept.

I remember LaTroy Hawkins being absolutely horrible during his year-and-a-half as the Cubs' closer. But a look at the stats reveals that, at least on the surface, he wasn't bad: he posted a 2.76 ERA and 29 saves in Chicago. Certainly nothing to sneeze at. And could he really have been all bad? I mean, the dude pitched in the bigs until 2015.

But the memories I have of Hawkins's ineptitude with the Cubs mostly involve blown saves, and in that department I'm right: he blew nine saves in just 34 chances during his only full season with the Cubs ('05) -- yikes.




Rich Harden (2008-09)

I remember being really excited when the Cubs traded for Rich Harden in '08, mainly because he was always one of those doomed but talented pitchers, the quintessential if-he-could-only-stay-healthy guy.

Early returns were good on Harden: he went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA after coming to the Cubs at the '08 deadline. But his only full season in Chicago was a letdown: 9-9 with a 4.09 ERA over 26 starts. He stayed healthy and still kinda sucked. Harden walked as a free agent after '09 and was out of baseball two years later.

Joke's on me, I guess.




Kyuji Fujikawa (2013-14)

As will become painfully apparent throughout this post, the Cubs have had little success in scouting foreign talent.

Kyuji Fujikawa is the most recent of those overseas busts (at least as far as I remember). Fujikawa was already 32 years old by the time he came to the States after many successful years in Japan. Injuries shut him down early and often, and he only got into a combined 27 games over two seasons with the Cubs, posting a 5.04 ERA in the process. Here and gone in the blink of an eye.

Fujikawa went back to Japan following an aborted stint with the Rangers in 2015, and is actually still pitching there to this day.



Catcher


Geovany Soto (2005-12)

Geovany Soto's a bit different than most of the guys on this roster, in that he did actually have some success with the Cubs.

He seemed to be the backstop of the future in Chicago after putting together one of the greatest seasons I've personally ever seen a catcher have in 2008, capturing an All-Star berth and the NL Rookie of the Year award in the process. While he had another decent year in 2010, Soto never really lived up to the long-term potential expected from him and was done as a Cub by 2012.

He did manage to hang around as a backup until 2017, but he never came close to duplicating the success he had in his early years as a Cub.



First Base


Hee Seop Choi (2002-03)

Here's the earliest of the Cubs' many foreign busts in my baseball lifetime: the dreaded Hee Seop Choi.

I vividly remember the hype surrounding Choi when the Cubs signed him out of Korea and developed him through their farm system. But as became a theme with the Cubs in those years, it wasn't to be. The first baseman of the future quickly became the first baseman of the past: Choi hovered around the Mendoza Line in his two years with the Cubs (.210) and was out of the bigs by 2005.

Ineptitude at its finest.



Second Base


Arismendy Alcantara (2014-15)

I don't think Arismendy Alcantara was ever one of the Cubs' top-tier prospects, but he was at least supposed to be a serviceable big-league player.

The guy wasn't even that: after a promising start, Alcantara wound up with a whopping .194 average across two seasons as a Cub (including a hapless .077 mark during a brief trial in 2015).

Needless to say, Alcantara was out of Chicago by the time I learned how to spell his name.



Shortstop


Nomar Garciaparra (2004-05)

I don't think I've ever seen a player go from prime to past-prime quicker than Nomar Garciaparra.

Looking back, Garciaparra's numbers didn't take a huge hit with the Cubs (he was a .289 hitter with the team), but his ability to stay healthy certainly did. My only Cubs memories of Nomar involve him getting hurt -- he only played in 105 total games in his year-and-a-half here -- and the hubbub surrounding his coming to Chicago died out pretty quickly.

He just wasn't NOMAH anymore.




Third Base


Josh Vitters (2012)

I'm convinced Josh Vitters was nothing more than an actor the Cubs hired to perform as a high-level prospect in an time when the team didn't actually have any.

If his .121 career average is any indication, he certainly hit like one.



Outfield


Corey Patterson (2000-05)

Corey Patterson was the grand Failed Cubs Prospect of My Youth, and might be the worst everyday ballplayer I've ever seen.

He couldn't hit. He didn't walk. He was a horrible fielder. He looked nothing like a 3rd overall draft pick, and he never struck me as a guy who should be anywhere close to the big leagues. And yet he stuck around for six seasons with the Cubs (although maybe that's more of an indictment of the Cubs of that era than Patterson himself).

How he managed to hang around the big leagues for 12 seasons is beyond me.




Kosuke Fukudome (2008-11)

Ah, here's probably the grandest failed foreign experiment of them all: Kosuke Fukudome.

Truth is, I still have a soft spot for Kosuke. But he was a bust in every sense of the word -- and don't let his '08 All-Star appearance fool you: that was on the fan vote. He never hit with much regularity and was out of the bigs by 2012 (though he is still active in the Japanese League).

I'll put it this way: the feat documented on this card was probably the pinnacle of Fukudome's career...and that came in his very first game in the States.




Milton Bradley (2009)

I don't ever aspire to be one of those fans who gets up in arms over every single decision their team of choice makes (I just want to grab those people by the neck most of the time).

But fact is there was a brief period of time in which I was wholly convinced that I could do a better job than the Cubs' front-office. And I probably could have. I know I wouldn't have signed Milton Bradley, for one thing -- much less given him the three-year, $30 million contract he got from the Cubs.

Bradley was one of those instances as a fan where I just knew things were going to go south, and fast. He was never the most popular guy in Chicago and indeed turned out to be a complete bust, so much so that the Cubs ate most of his contract and dealt him to the Mariners the following season.

Between Bradley's performance and the Cubs' decision to sign him in the first place, he may well be the Most Inept Cub of All-Time.



Manager


Dale Sveum (2012-13)

The all-inept team needs a manager, and that dubious honor goes to Mr. Dale Sveum.

Sveum is, by all accounts, a good baseball guy. And perhaps he got the short end of the stick here in Chicago. Considering the talent (or lack of) Sveum had to work with, it's hard to hold him accountable for the 127-197 record he posted during his time as the Cubs' skipper (I mean, Josh Vitters was the starting third baseman for a while, for god's sake).

But even during those awful years, it was obvious he wasn't a good fit for a rebuilding team. He made questionable decisions, lost patience with young players rather quickly (really the one thing you can't do under those circumstances), and didn't seem to fit the mold of what the Cubs needed in a manager at the time. So in that sense he's the perfect man to guide this team, right?

And so there you have it: the rich and often painful journey into the Cubs' long history of ineptitude.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Proliferation


In a paradoxical way, I'd say it's both easier and harder than ever to be a player collector in the current hobby.

The sheer proliferation of cards available these days makes it quite simple to start a player collection, and continually add to that collection. But on the downside, I can really only ever hope to own a tiny percentage of any of the guys I collect, thanks to all the insanely rare parallels and high-end sets I never see. This isn't the old days where kids had one Gates Brown card to chase every year and that was it.

My Kris Bryant collection, for example, is already more than 80 cards strong at last count, a number which was boosted by a couple PWEs I recently received from frequent trader and overall good dude Mr. Shlabotnik of "The Shlabotnik Report."




Bryant debuted in 2015, which means that with about 80 total Bryants in my binders, I've managed to add about 20 new ones to my collection per year, on average -- a pretty steady clip, I think.

But even crazier is the fact that, according to Beckett, Bryant has a grand total of 5,786 cards to his name (no doubt helped by the entire retail-exclusive insert set devoted to his likeness earlier this year). This means I own just over one percent of all the Bryants in existence, and I've been collecting the guy for about four years now.

So which is better: being excited knowing that 99 percent of Bryant's cards are still out there, or getting a headache knowing that all my efforts have amounted to one percent of the guy's total output?




I don't really have an answer to that -- I can see both sides of the equation.

I, for one, enjoy the colored parallels Topps inserted into its products way back when, and would like them to come back if for no other reason that it might help crowd out some of those all-Bellinger/Judge/Bryant insert sets.




Granted, a return to said parallels would mean even more cards of my favorite players to chase, which defeats the purpose in some ways.

To me, though, parallels were (and still are) a joy to track down, which makes me happy Mr. Shlabotnik was nice enough to send this small flood of Target Reds my way.




In years past, Opening Day has basically functioned as a duplicate version of Flagship, but I've noticed Topps finally changed a lot of the photos between OD and Series 1-2 this year...as both Joe and I are pleased to see.




Insert adds for the player collections.




And in the end Joe closed things out with -- you guessed it -- another Bryant!

Only 98.7 percent of his cards to go!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Getting high (numbers) at the flea market


Yesterday, Dad and I braved nearly 100-degree temperatures to spend Father's day at the local flea market.

We're both avid collectors, as I've mentioned many times before (the fact that we willfully subjected ourselves to sweltering heat for hours at a time should prove that). My dad was on the hunt for one thing yesterday: records. I, of course, wanted cards. Dad, unfortunately, was largely shut out on the vinyl front. And while I only found one table with anything good (courtesy of my regular card vendor), what a table it was.

For starters, I paid just $25 for what should've been more than $35 worth of cardboard, which means I got this 2010 Bowman Chrome Altuve -- his first major-brand card and a heckuva tough find these days -- for free, despite its original $5 price tag.




One reason I like my regular card guy is that he has a lot of newer stuff on display, which is a bit shocking since most flea markets don't seem to have anything made after 1970 (and I'm not just talking about cards here).

These Heritage needs were just a buck a piece, an especially sweet deal in the case of the Mookie SP.




Never in my life did I think I'd find Aaron Judge cards at the flea market -- but here these were, a buck a pop.




My card guy also had a fun 4/$1 box on display, mostly stocked with recent cardboard.

Among the gets were these Heavy Metal Snowflake thingies (aka the ones with the glitter).




Both of these are player collection needs, and I was happy to purchase them because of that.

But my god: Ziploc > Foot Locker, a million times over.




More miscellany from the 4/$1 boxes -- that Scherzer (an SP variation) was an especially fun find since I saw it in this same vendor's dollar boxes the last time I attended the flea market, and was kinda kicking myself for not buying it then.

Good things come to those who wait, as they say.




But the biggest surprise waiting for me was the giant box of 2/$1 vintage my card guy had on display.

Cheap vintage is hard enough to find at flea markets, much less vintage of the cheapness and quality of what I found yesterday. Whether at card shows, flea markets, or wherever, discount vintage boxes are usually a wilderness of no-name low-numbers. If you get lucky you might find a minor name or a semi-high number thrown in.

But almost never do you find uber-high numbers like this beautiful '72 Gene Michael In-Action (#714) in cheap vintage boxes.




Getting high (numbers) with a few terrific action shots and/or otherwise masterful vintage I'd never seen before for the frankenset.




The immaculate beauty of these cards almost has me wishing I played catcher for more than one inning in Little League.

Almost.




Another quartet of excellent 2/$1 finds.

The Joe Schultz was especially exciting: he's the only manager in the history of the Seattle Pilots and one of the last suspects I needed in my quest to acquire all the 1969-70 Topps Pilots cards (I think I'm only four or five away at this point).




Now this is just absurd: it's one thing to find random goodies and frankenset fills at the flea market, but it's quite another to find high-numbers I've been targeting at shows (to no avail) for many years, like these two.

I almost bought a similar-conditioned copy of that '72 Koosman (#697) for $5 at the last show I attended -- the decision to pass on it is looking pretty good right about now.




And so Father's Day at the flea market ended with this '70 Topps Gaylord Perry, originally priced at $5 but basically a freebie with the aforementioned Altuve (at least from how I choose to look at it).

While I really wish things could've turned out a bit better on the vinyl front for my dad, it was still a thrill to patrol the aisles of the local flea market with him yesterday. As it will always be.

Safe to say I had myself a good Father's Day, and I'm not even a father.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The All-Time Upper Deck Countdown: 7-1


And so it's come to this: the top tier of Upper Deck's long and storied history.

After all was said and done, I'm glad I decided to compose this list if for no other reason than it forced me to cast a more careful eye on UD's designs, which isn't something I can say I'd devoted much brain space to before this series of posts. And that's really the main reason I blog, when you get down to it: to think about things I might not have ever thought about otherwise.

But as much as I enjoyed writing these posts, here we are at the inevitable end: here, in all their glory, are the best of the best from the Upper Deck annals.





#7 -- 1991 Upper Deck

This was a bit of a dark horse candidate, as I didn't think '91 UD was anything more than a ho-hum set going into these posts.

It seems to me that '91 Upper Deck is the inverse to a lot of other UD designs (and a lot of sets in general), in that I like this one the more I see it. It perfectly wraps up the baseline-themed borders of Upper Deck's nascent years (notice the team logo inside home plate), and the photos are some of the best of early UD.

Given all that, I'm not sure why this set never really clicked with me until now -- but that's why we make these lists, isn't it?





#6 -- 1995 Upper Deck

I'm not sure any Upper Deck set has grown on me more than 1995 has.

This would've been a bottom-feeding design for me had I composed this list a couple years ago. And while my appreciation for '95 UD began before these rankings, I didn't quite think it'd climb as high as #6 on my list.

Again, it's hard to see why I was so down on it in the past. Perhaps I thought the design was a bit too minimalist back then. But that's exactly what I've come to like most about it these days: the photos are left for us to enjoy with almost no distraction (and the photos are good enough to back that up).

Perhaps '95 Upper Deck could be a Top Five UD set if I revisit this list a year or two from now -- but for now I think it should be darn proud to be #6.





#5 -- 1989 Upper Deck

What I'm about to say may sound crazy considering this set came in at #5 on my list, but...I think 1989 Upper Deck is overrated.

I seem to remember something happening on Twitter recently where people were voting bracket-style on the all-time best baseball sets, and I think the final round came down to 1956 Topps vs. 1989 Upper Deck if I'm remembering right. Geez. Come on, people. Let's not go THAT far.

Look: I like '89 UD quite a bit, and you can't argue the impact it had on the hobby (both short- and long-term). The first "high-end" set, the first to feature front-and-back photos, the Griffey, etc., etc. And fact is Upper Deck's inaugural design is quite clean and well executed, probably more so than any other brand's debut in baseball card history.

But fact is that -- while I do enjoy the design and can appreciate its historical impact -- '89 Upper Deck isn't even in the same ballpark as '56 Topps, Griffey rookie or no.





#4 -- 2006 Upper Deck

I doubt many other people would put 2006 Upper Deck as high as I did on this list.

But in the end, '06 UD is just one of those sets I always find myself going back to and admiring. The design isn't wildly stand-outish (if that's a word), and I feel like it gets lost in UD's catalog sometimes. Fact is, though, a lot of the reason 2006 Upper Deck is so high here doesn't have much to do with the looks of the cards themselves -- it's the sheer size of the set that I enjoy so much.

Without looking it up, I'd bet that 2006 UD's 1,250-card(!) set is the largest they ever made. And it's not just that there's a lot of cards in it: it's the fact that they used those 1,250 cards to create a wide and varied checklist, one of the best of any Flagship set ever. Backups and/or obscure guys I collect (like Todd Pratt) are galore in 2006 UD. It's kinda like if Topps Total became a base Flagship brand (think of it!).

Sets like 2006 Upper Deck gave the Todd Pratts of the world their moment in the sun.





#3 -- 2008 Upper Deck

I don't know that I have much more to say about 2008 Upper Deck other than what's already been said by countless others -- I mean, it's the best UD design of my collecting lifetime.

It checks off all the boxes for what a good Upper Deck set should look like: clean design (check), terrific photos (check), wide checklist (check), fun to collect (check). I can't think of many other sets that provided more pure pleasure on a pack-to-pack basis than 2008 UD.

With such a great and widely loved set like this one, it's a bit hard to believe that UD would be out of the baseball card business just two years later.





#2 -- 1997 Upper Deck

I'll go out on a limb and say that 1997 Upper Deck might well be not only the most underrated UD set, but the most underrated set...ever.

I love everything about '97 UD, but what really puts it over the top for me is the fact that every single photo is tracked to a specific date (and there really are a lot of awesome photos throughout the checklist). As someone who's, shall we say, obsessed with trying to track down the exact moment certain baseball card photos were snapped, this set does all the work for me.

A lot of the fun of card collecting for me is being able to hold specific moments of baseball history in my hand and, in turn, preserve those moments in my mind -- I can't think of a set that does that better than 1997 Upper Deck.





#1 -- 1993 Upper Deck

Looking back, perhaps a big reason why I never thought to do an Upper Deck countdown until now was because I knew it wouldn't be much of a contest: it's 1993 UD at the top, and then the rest of the field way far behind.

I'd argue that '93 Upper Deck is the most well-made set in baseball card history. UD's execution is simply off-the-charts here. The design is fantastic. The photos are some of the best I've ever seen. The backs are probably even my favorites in the Upper Deck catalog. Few sets get closer to sheer perfection than 1993 UD, vintage or modern.

I'll put it this way: I'm not a set builder, nor have I ever aspired to be, but often I find myself quelling the urge to complete 1993 Upper Deck. The cards in it are just that consistently spectacular (I honestly can't remember seeing a bad card from it, and the set's 840 cards strong). And as each day passes, the more and more I start to worry that one day I just won't be able to fight that urge any longer. That's how much I like 1993 Upper Deck.

And so that's a cap on it: all 22 Upper Deck sets, ranked -- much thanks to everyone who came along for the ride.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Painful memories


For all its pluses, the hobby can be just plain painful sometimes.

As a Cubs fan, I still feel a slight twinge of sadness whenever I see a Marlins card from 2003 or a Mets card from 2015 (slightly less so since 2016, though). Fans of certain oh-so-close teams now are often in especially painful territory with the sheer volume of cards out there these days -- case in point, the large number of Dodger collectors here in the blogosphere having to see cards commemorating last year's World Series.

I did, admittedly, take advantage of this pain with one Dodger fan in particular -- Greg of the immortal "Night Owl Cards" -- who had the unfortunate luck of pulling this rainbow parallel of none other than George Springer, your 2017 World Series MVP and a dude I collect.




Understandably, Greg was all too happy to unload the Springer -- and nice guy that he is, he packed some other needs of mine with it.

You could argue that there's a slight downside to your team winning it all, too: cards of guys on that team start getting produced by the gross, like the entire insert set devoted to Kris Bryant in this year's Topps (overkill much?).




I seem to have awfully good luck accumulating cards of these guys, which is awesome because both Trout and Griffey rule, of course.




More Topps inserts, including another "MLB Network" card which reminds me I should really get back on trying to complete that set.




Reprints of cards I actually remembered pulling from packs like the Gordon and Strasburg make me feel old, which is kinda painful in and of itself.




More inserts, including a rare look at the Cubs' 1907 World Series victory (which certainly would've been a happy memory if I'd been alive 111 years ago).




The '90s remain an eternal goldmine for mini-collection hits.




A Kellogg's rainbow -- is there anything more beautiful on this earth?





Finally from Greg came this 1983 Topps Foldout, which features the lethal combo of Reggie Jackson and Ron Cey front and back (which is the front and which is the back is left entirely to your imagination).

This is surely a dupe from Greg's legendary collection of The Penguin, no doubt a slightly painful one since it features Cey in what I'm pretty sure is an airbrushed Cubs hat following his trade here from Dodgerland. Inversely, the only close equivalent Cubs I can think of are A's cards of Billy Williams or White Sox cards of Ron Santo. Those are just weird and painful.

But that's the risk we take as fans and collectors, I guess -- it's not all peaches.