Thursday, April 4, 2013

Covering the Bases, Pt. 5: Best of Upper Deck

There's no denying it.

After its inception in 1989, Upper Deck singlehandedly managed to change the world of baseball cards in monumental ways.

Now, whether those changes were for the better or not is a whole other matter. I still have quite a few problems with their practices, especially after reading the book Card Sharks. (A definite must-read for all my fellow collectors, by the way.)

For now, though, let's focus on the upsides of Upper Deck.

Although there are quite a few, none were more crucial than the "game-changing" photography throughout Upper Deck's history.

Had UD not come along, there's a decent chance we'd still be seeing the same bland, uninspiring photos that graced the fronts of '88 Donruss and '90 Topps.

Heck, the shots on the backs of their cards beat out most of other companies' fronts in their day. This not-so-subliminal advertisement on the back of Bert Blyleven's 1991 Upper Deck issue is one of my personal favorites.

Tonight, I thought I'd count down the five best sets in Upper Deck history. Careful readers of this blog probably know what #1 is already.

The other four slots proved to be a bit of a challenge, though.

#5 -- 2002

The designs during Upper Deck's tenure were a bit all over the place.  

They produced some absolutely atrocious sets (I've never liked the '96 design), yet, at the same time, they created some absolute beauties.

As I found, there wasn't a lot of middle ground in UD's history.

Personally, I've always felt that Upper Deck's 2002 release deserved to be placed in that upper tier. 

Although I've never seen it get much fanfare, you'll find a whole lot of terrific photography if you look closely. This Burnitz has to be one of the more "heroic" cards I own.

The design is fairly clean as well. I've always had a weakness for team-coordinated colors, as 2002 UD featured with those stripes on the bottom half of each card.

When I initially came up with the idea for this post, I never thought this set would make the list.

In the end, though, 2002 Upper Deck pulled off the upset.

#4 -- 2008

I have vivid memories of Upper Deck's 2008 release.

Since Topps flagship wasn't anything spectacular that year, I probably wound up buying more packs of UD in 2008. 

I'd bet that's the only time Upper Deck edged out Topps in my spending department.

Besides producing one of the greatest cards ever, 2008 UD sure had a lot to offer.

Like 2002, '08 featured a very clean and extremely unintrusive design. Upper Deck has always placed an emphasis on photography, and these do a fantastic job of showcasing that very fact.

Besides, they managed to crank out one of the all-time greatest "sunset" cards of Mr. Lofton here.

Any set that can do such an awesome job with that is okay in my book.

#3 -- 2006

I still rate 2006 Upper Deck as one of the more fascinating sets ever created.

Between its Series 1, Series 2, and Update checklists, the release totaled an unheard-of 1,250 cards in all.

My heart goes out to all the set builders who actually tried to hand-collate that set. (Yes, there were SPs within the checklist, too.)

Although the sheer size of the checklist alone might've granted 2006 UD a spot on this list, it's far from the set's only redeeming factor.

Again, there's a whole lot of excellent photography featured within its boundaries. I came home with another couple dozen new ones from my recent card show, including this "play at the plate" shot of Johnny Estrada.

More than that, though, 2006 Upper Deck helped re-introduce me to the baseball card side of things after I'd taken a season-long hiatus during the previous year.

I busted retail pack after retail pack of this stuff that year. Since the checklist was so large, I always seemed to pull new ones.

Because of that, 2006 Upper Deck will always have that special something to me.

#2 -- 1997

If we're talking about underrated Upper Deck sets, then '97 has to top the list.

Although it doesn't get much recognition these days, I've always viewed it as one of the more revolutionary checklists in hobby history.

There seems to be a huge obsession with "dating" cards in the blogosphere. Having dipped my toes into the process a few times, I can tell you that it's quite an exciting task.

I'm not sure everyone knows that Upper Deck once created an entire set based around that very concept, though. Nearly every single card in UD's 1997 checklist is centered around a specific moment in time.

As the footnote on this terrific shot of Scott Brosious says, this photo was snapped after a wild pitch on Independence Day of 1996 at the Oakland Coliseum.

If I ever did decide to get into the set building business, this may well be the first one I'd try and complete.

After all, every shot contains a story.

Few sets have emphasized that more than 1997 Upper Deck.

#1 -- 1993

In the end, the top slot of this countdown was never really in much doubt.

For as long as I collect, 1993 will always be my absolute favorite Upper Deck set.

In fact, you could say that it's the greatest modern set, period. And I wouldn't give you much of an argument.

I love reading all the set-based blogs in the blogosphere. One of these days, though, I'm hoping someone starts a blog revolving around the '93 UD checklists. That would definitely be an awesome read.

Once I get started talking about this set, it's hard for me to stop. For starters, I'll point you to this amazing binder page I posted last month.

As far as my collection goes, this Ozzie Guillen has always been one of the more "iconic" pieces. I've had it for a long, long time. As far back as I can remember.

Somehow, in that one shot, Upper Deck told you everything you needed to know about Mr. Guillen.

Now that's an accomplishment.

If you've paid attention to the cardboard news lately, you might already know that the MLBPA recently granted Upper Deck a new license to produce baseball cards again.

Because of the Topps monopoly, though, they'll have to do so without the benefit of logos, much like they did in 2010.

While I'm interested to see what Upper Deck does in their "grand return", I think it's safe to say that their heyday in the world of baseball cards is pretty much over.

They sure had a good run, though.

Without Upper Deck, we'd be part of an entirely different hobby these days.


Backstop Cards said...

'93 Upper Deck > most other sets

From the 90s, there isn't a better set, in my opinion. There are others that I still FAVOR more, but only for sentimental reasons ('91 Fleer, '92 Topps, '92 Pinnacle). But if you had to grade 'em on a rubric (and I do that a lot as part of my job), '93 Upper Deck beats 'em, and it's not really close.

I'd really like to see a "set blog" that was around when I was collecting, something early 90s. I dig the vintage stuff (especially Night Owl's '71 blog), but not knowing most of the players, while sometimes a cool learning experience, makes it hard to relate to.

Jeff Wilk said...

I had totally forgotten about 97 UD. That would be a nice set to complete. But you are right - 1993 has to be one of the best looking sets. 2008 comes in a very close second, though. If they dumped the foil names on 2008 (and no - not First Edition), I think we would go into OT between the two years.

arpsmith said...

It is hard for me to disagree with your choices, I think you did a nice job. I don't think I would have had 1997 on the list as high, but I have gained more appreciation for it as I have read more blog posts about specific games captured on cards.

Also, I was one of the idiots who decided to work on the 2006 and I actually did complete it. The update set was a beast with all the SPs, I have tons of duplicates if there are any cards you might need!

Swing And A Pop-up said...

Not only was the photography excellent in their baseball sets, I also thought the photography in their hockey, football and basketball sets was groundbreaking as well.