Monday, January 18, 2016

The best sets of 2015

Even though it's the middle of January here in 2016, I still want to sneak in my Sets of the Year countdown for 2015 on the blog.

The rules here are simple: In order for a set to qualify for this list, I had to have bought at least one pack of the brand and/or picked up an ample amount of singles elsewhere. While I may have snagged a small amount of cards from sets like Museum Collection and High Tek, I don't really have enough to form any kind of opinion on them. So they won't appear here.

Also, in the interest of time and space, I've consolidated most of the offshoot brands (Bowman/Bowman Chrome, Heritage/High Numbers, Flagship/Opening Day, etc.) into one entry on this list.

In the end, ten different sets qualified for the countdown, and we start, once again, with the three-time reigning Worst Set of the Year.

#10 -- Donruss


#9 -- Bowman/Bowman Chrome

As far as just Bowman is concerned, this actually isn't a half-bad design.

But even a fair Bowman set is still a subpar offering in the grand scheme of things. As usual, there's unnecessary foil and unreadable nameplates. As usual, the design isn't much of a standout. And, as usual, the singles seemed to flock to the dime boxes the day after the set hit the shelves.

It's not like anyone buys Bowman for the veterans anyways.

#8 -- Finest

I've still never actually opened a pack of Topps Finest, but I do seem to find them in the discount bins fairly easily.

The last two years of designs for the brand were surprisingly impressive, but 2015 was a big letdown as far as I'm concerned. I think Topps was trying to go for some kind of shattered glass effect, but I don't think the final product ever quite got there.

It reminds me of that weird, futuristic room in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

#7 -- Gypsy Queen

Gypsy Queen remains the one set I just can't wrap my head around.

A lot of other collectors seem to rave about this brand, but I've never seen it. I will grant that the 2015 edition was probably my favorite since the debut 2011 design, but, like Bowman, that doesn't mean a whole lot.

Though it was prone to sparse amounts of greatness -- like this Mike Leake (what is that in his pocket, anyways?) -- Gypsy Queen still struck me as a rather bland (especially the backs) and uninspired effort in 2015.

I always thought I'd come around on GQ one day, but, at this point, I don't think that day's ever going to come.

#6 -- Diamond Kings

Here's the only debut brand that qualified for this list.

I didn't buy a single pack of Panini product in 2015, but they hit the discount bins by the bucketload. That was especially true with Diamond Kings, which I found odd since a lot of people seemed to like this brand.

To tell you the truth, I'm still not 100-percent certain how I feel about these. I was never a big fan of the '80s Diamond Kings, but I do enjoy the canvas-like feel with the 2015 edition. And I've been awestruck by a select few singles I've found, like this dandelion-yellow Paul Waner.

But, for whatever reason, the singles seemed to run together after a while for me. I don't know if it was the lack of logos or whatever, but I tired of the design pretty quickly. But I'm not sure if that's a comment on my brain or the cards themselves.

Like I said, I'm still working out my thoughts ample time, this set could move either up or down on my list.

#5 -- Allen & Ginter

I don't have much to say about 2015 A&G.

It was a step down from last year's surprisingly nice design, but still an average effort overall. I think 2015 was the first time I didn't buy a single pack of the stuff in the brand's ten-year history (though, like so many other sets, I found scores of them in dime boxes).

For what it's worth, A&G wins the Most Average Set of 2015 award for me.

#4 -- Archives

Last year was, for me, comprised of The Big Four.

The most surprising member of The Big For was Archives, a set that, admittedly, was met by lukewarm reviews by Dime Boxedonia upon its release early on in 2015.

But then a funny thing started to happen. Like that AHA! moment of realization in a movie romance, I began to realize...holy cow, I think I'm actually starting to LIKE these after I began to dig up more and more from the dime boxes. I began to ask myself just why I was so meh about Archives in the first place and I couldn't come up with a good answer.

I'm always crying for more old-time posed shots...and Archives has nostalgic old-time posed shots (the '57s were especially well-done). I'm always crying for more reincarnations of my favorite designs...and this year's Archives featured three of my favorites with 1957, 1976, and 1983 (all of which made the Top 20 of my Topps set countdown). It's all there.

I just want to take a moment to apologize to Archives for all the bad things I said.

#3 -- Heritage/High Numbers

Heritage has the most at stake when it's featuring a design I'm not all that wild about.

There was no pressure in 2014. I knew I'd like Heritage then because it was featuring my all-time favorite Topps design ('65). Last year was a different story, because I've never considered '66 Topps to be anything more than average.

I'm happy to report that Heritage passed with flying colors in 2015. They even earned themselves a few bonus points by reintroducing High Numbers to retail shelves. There were many points in 2015 in which I went back and viewed some of the real '66 Topps cards in my collection because of how well I thought Topps pulled it off last year.

That's really all I can ask out of Heritage.

#2 -- Topps Flagship/Opening Day/Chrome

Many years from now, we could be looking at 2015 Topps as the set that changed it all.

Last year's Flagship was the first that dared to stride away from the annoying overuse of foil that Topps -- for whatever reason -- has been adamant about giving us. In fact, 2015 featured the first non-foil nameplate in a Flagship set since 1994.

The lack of foil was a breath of fresh air, and I absolutely loved the color-coded borders. They gave a sleek, new look to Topps. It's a modern design that's not trying to be too self-consciously futuristic. And that's not even mentioning the expanded checklist. (There were 1,100 cards spread out between the three Flagship checklists this year. 1,100!)

We already know that 2016 Topps will also be another non-foil set, so maybe 2015 will indeed be the year that ushered in a new era for Topps Flagship.

#1 -- Stadium Club

Was there ever any doubt?

By unanimous decision, Stadium Club captured its second straight Set of the Year crown in 2015. Last year's edition was even better than the 2014 release, which I honestly didn't think was possible going into 2015.

I'd say the 2015 Stadium Club theme was "Even Better." Even better mix of legends and current stars. Even better player selections -- fan-favorite-types like Ron Gant and John Olerud made appearances, to name a few. And, most importantly, even better photography. You know it's good when this drool-worthy George Springer couldn't even crack the Top Ten.

Perhaps the best thing about Stadium Club is that it's indeed a high-end set at a fairly low-end price. I had almost no trouble finding singles for loose change in 2015, and it's still cheap enough that I can buy a retail pack of the stuff on impulse here and there if I so choose.

O almighty Stadium Club, we collectors bow down to you.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Latest and greatest

I'm really not much of a "latest and greatest" person.

The type of phone I own is probably sitting in many dumpsters and landfills right now. I have no clue what qualifies as Top 40 music these days. I don't keep up with the hot new sitcoms on the telly. Celebrity tabloids? Forget it.

When it comes to baseball cards, I like to think that I'm not much for the latest and greatest, but, in reality, I am. Vintage is king -- because I'm still an old soul -- but, at the same time, I get excited when the new Topps sets come out, or when someone throws a bunch of newer cards at me in a trade package.

The latter happened with a mailer I received from Kerry of the great "Cards on Cards" blog recently. This Pujols insert actually arrived in a separate PWE, and I love it because it features cameos from both Joc Pederson and Joc's brother Champ, who is diagnosed with Down syndrome -- a disease that is one of the main focuses of Pujols's foundation.

Last year's Home Run Derby was actually pretty memorable (when's the last time you could say that about a Derby?), and this was one of the reasons why.

The initial package that Kerry sent was filled with latest-and-greatest cards for many of my latest-and-greatest player collections.

I probably shouldn't like these shiny Heritage gimmicks of Matt Harvey and Adam Jones. I mean, refractors weren't a glimmer in anyone's eye in 1966...but I have to admit that they're actually kinda cool. 

I feel like I'm going to be exiled from the vintage circle by saying that, but it's true.

Gotta love the giant Rookie Cups, and, hey, there's another Heritage shiny.

I received this package before The Toddfather was dealt to my hometown White Sox, which means that I'm even more excited to be collecting this guy now.

I often wonder why I get so giddy when I get "latest and greatest" cards, like this sweet Craig Kimbrel base/refractor combo from 2015 Chrome.

I think it's because I have this weird feeling that if I don't get these cards now, then I never will. Like everything from 2015 (and before) will suddenly fall off the face of the earth when the 2016 cards start coming.

I sure hope people don't forget about 2015 in about a month or so, because it really was a great year for cardboard.

Unlike most of the longer-tenured players I collect, most of the guys Kerry sent are fairly new additions to my binders.

My Stanton collection has eclipsed the 100-card mark despite the fact that I've been collecting the guy for barely over a year. I now own about a dozen Jake Arrietas, and I expect that number to rise at a painfully slow pace because he's a hot commodity in the Chicago card market now.

Actually, probably the nationwide market, too, now that I think of it.

My McCutchen collection also hit the century mark recently, but both of these Heritage singles were new to me.

I still say he needs to bring back those dreads.

Ah, but Kerry didn't forget about my oldest and most extensive player collection with Vlad here.

The Topps Attax card is actually a sunset issue featuring Guerrero's brief time with the O's that I never thought to track down.

I should really learn how to that game works one day...and then I can join maybe the two other people that actually remember how to play Topps Attax.

This trade was born out of the fact that I claimed these two Update throwbacks on Kerry's blog.

This is one of the coolest "latest and greatest" innovations I've seen in a while, because, when you get down to it, I'm definitely not a "latest and greatest" guy when it comes to today's uniforms.

Throwbacks rule, and always will.

I also specifically claimed this pair of "First Home Run" inserts from Kerry.

One features a guy who blasted over 500 dingers as a Cub, and the other features a guy who I hope equals or exceeds that number one day.

But, you know, no pressure, Kris.

But through it all, Kerry's grand finale was a sacred piece of vintage.

This '79 Bruce Sutter was a "Dime Box Dozen" need prior to this package, and one I was shocked to find out I didn't already have. (I think there might be a gigantic Bruce Sutter hoarder out there, because I also have yet to see a copy of his '77 Topps rookie in-person.)

I love both vintage and modern cards, but I could never see myself being exclusive towards one or the other. I could never collect just vintage because I'd feel out of touch with the current hobby. But, at the other end of the spectrum, I'd probably get bored being a pure "latest and greatest" type of guy. This package had the best of both worlds.

For me, the hobby is best with a healthy combination of old and new.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Best. Belated. Christmas. Ever.

My dad and I both had to work on Christmas this year, which, frankly, sucked.

Spending quality time with the family is one reason I still have a gushy love for the holiday season, and it didn't quite feel like Christmas without hanging out with my dad. Our schedules didn't match up until last Sunday (the same day I hit the recent card show), and I was counting down every single day leading up to it.

Holidays, as I've learned with age, are about much more than gifts, but the fact of the matter is that my dad does have a penchant for masterful Christmas presents. You may remember the T206 Fred Merkle I received last year. So when my dad said he'd found something that'd blow that out of the water, well...I just couldn't wrap my head around what could be better than a T206 Merkle.

But more on that in due time. Meanwhile, my dad started out his array of Christmas gifts in a familiar place with The Bird here, a perennial favorite of both of ours.

I've had the standard copy of Fidrych's 1978 Topps card in my binders for a while now...

...but my dad upped the ante by tracking down the OPC version of it, adding to (what I like to believe is) my Fidrych supercollection.

He did this despite his incredulity towards my OPC fanaticism. My dad and I see eye-to-eye on most hobby topics, but this isn't one of them. They're the same cards!!!!!, he often says. No, Dad, I say, they're the same cards with FRENCH ON THE BACK. That's everything!

Parents just don't understand.

My dad climbed aboard the Fidrych OPC train once again by nabbing the French version of The Bird's 1977 League Leaders card.

Sorry, John Denny, but anyone paired up with Mr. Fidrych is an afterthought to me.

I'm paraphrasing my dad here, but he's said to me on a few occasions that the 1971 OPCs are really the only ones that matter.

The yellowed, floating-head backs are what do it for him, and he backed up that claim with these Sweet Lou and Red Schoendienst Frenchies. I'm in unanimous agreement with him that '71 OPCs are the best OPCs.

But I'm not giving up on converting my dad into a full-on OPC devotee...yet.

My dad's belated Christmas gifts basically culminated into The Big Three.

Actually, more like The Big Two and then The BIG, BIG, BIG, BIG, BIG One...but, again, I'm getting ahead of myself.

My dad came out firing with Yogi here. This is only my second real Topps card of the late great, and my first of him in the Yankee pinstripes. (The other being his legendary Short Term Stops/sunset issue as a Met in '65 Topps.)

You know it's a heckuva present when Yogi only gets the bronze medal.

For a while, I thought this was the big card my dad had been promising, and, had that been the case, it most certainly would've fit the bill.

This 1952 Red Man of Stan the Man is a thing of beauty, one of those cards that you might admire from afar but never actually dream of owning. It's vintage, it's an oddball, it's Stan Musial. It hits all the checkpoints of a grade-A Christmas present.

But I can honestly say that it was a distant -- and I mean distant -- second in the voting this year.

So what came in first?

Oh, you know, just a real, actual baseball card of Dizzy Dean, that's all.

Now, I'm not the type of person who curses very much, and I certainly wouldn't hurl a string of obscenities in front of my dad, but I came very close to doing so once this fell out of the wrapping paper. I mean, just look at this thing. Can you blame me?

If Mark Fidrych was the first guy my dad told me stories about, then Dizzy Dean was probably the second. Much like my dad did, I've idolized Diz since an early age (one of the family cats is named after him) for his southern twang, his quotable quips (second only to perhaps Yogi), and, of course, his gift of being one of the best pitchers baseball has ever seen.

And, as if this card needed any incentive to be even better than it naturally is, it comes from the 1934 Goudey checklist, a year in which Diz, at his pinnacle, led the famous Gashouse Gang St. Louis Cardinals club to a World Series victory over the Tigers.

I'm still honestly in shock knowing that I now have a real Dizzy Dean card in my collection, but I know one thing: my best binder page needs revising. I now see why my dad was bragging about this gift in the days preceding our belated Christmas.

But, as Diz himself once said, It ain't braggin' if you can back it up...and, boy, was he ever right.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Showtime 2016, Pt. 2: Gut reactions

It can be tough listening to my gut at card shows, because my gut tells me to buy everything.

I don't think of myself as an impulsive guy when it comes to money. Apart from necessities like food, water, etc., I spend almost nothing on anything besides baseball cards. I guess card shows are my brain's strange way of compensating for that.

I've gotten better at controlling myself when it comes to card shows (part of that is due to the fact that my budget isn't nearly large enough to allow me to buy everything I want), but, since the money I was spending at this past Sunday's show wasn't mine in the first place, I decided to let my gut take the wheel at various times during the afternoon.

Example: This Kyle Schwarber, now the first big-league card of his I own. It set me back four dollars, my most expensive purchase of the day.

I probably overpaid a bit for it, but a) I'll have to get used to that living in Chicago and all, and b) my gut told me to.

These were all fifty-centers, and I think my gut made some darn fine choices here.

Addison Russell may be the one young Cubs star that I can actually afford to collect, because Lord knows I'm already priced out of the Kris Bryant market. One of the fringe benefits of collecting Russell is that he has some zero-year cards as an A to chase, seeing as he never played a game in Oakland prior to his trade to the North Side. 

(Thanks again, A's!)

I think my gut is drawn to the new crop of young Cubs, but I need to remind myself that the Sox have some impressive youngsters in the works right now as well.

I quadrupled my Carlos Rodon collection in one fell swoop on Sunday. The USA card was a surprising dime box find, the Rookie Performers was another fifty-center, and the Chrome refractor and Heritage short-print were a buck per.

Once again, I think my gut did good.

I wouldn't look at this card too closely, because it's bound to hypnotize you.

Like everything I've shown in this post so far, I stayed local in getting my first taste of the newly revitalized Topps Tek with this one of hometown star Jose Abreu.

I was never a huge fan of the original Tek, and I wouldn't pay the price that boxes now are going for, but I'm happy to welcome crazy cards like this one into my binders for fifty cents.

Like most shows I attend these days, I was able to knock out a hearty portion of my remaining 2015 needs on the cheap.

I think everything in this page cost about a buck-fifty all together. That's not even mentioning the other 100-plus 2015 singles I bought, the vast majority of them at a dime a pop.

Makes me wonder why I ever buy retail anymore.

The vendor quoted me a dollar on this one when I asked for a price on Mr. Gattis, reminding me that it was a short print.

I said that was fine, and -- because my gut felt compelled to clarify -- I mentioned that I collect Evan Gattis. Unless you're specifically searching for cards of a certain player (which I'm usually not), it isn't a great idea to tell a vendor you collect somebody. They're sure to try and sell you something of said player, as this one did with the handful of Gattis auto/relics/clumps of hair he had.

I understand where vendors are coming from here, but I just find it incredibly awkward when someone tries to sell me a card that I know I'm not going to want.

My gut almost got me into trouble there.

Dimes and quarters for a slew of 2015 insert needs.

The only halfway pricey member of this bunch was the Prizm "Fireworks" Jose Abreu insert, which was a buck...wait, did I just pay a whole dollar for a Prizm card? (Gut: "Hey, it's a nice card, what can I say?")

I think my gut, for whatever reason, may have just been drunk on Jose Abreu, because...

...a lot of my biggest finds of the day ended up featuring Mr. Abreu, including this incredibly beautiful GQ insert.

Featured here is the masterful skyline of the city I know and love so much, which, I think, made this a steal at only a dollar.

Here's another pair of recent inserts of hard-hitting contemporaries.

The Shoeless Joe was a quarter, and The Babe -- a dollar -- is yet another example of the beauty GQ can have when it puts its mind to it.

I have a feeling I'm not going to remember that either of these guys played for either of these teams in a few years.

Heck, I'm already starting to forget that Bobby Abreu was ever a Met, though that blue-bordered beauty refreshed my memory. Jon Lester didn't get many cards as an A (I only owned one other one before Sunday), so I jumped at the chance to secure his shiny Heritage parallel for fifty cents.

Not bad for a couple prime Short Term Stops nominees.

Gut reactions, in order:

Fresh Prince cameos, YOU GOT WHAT I NEEEEEED, Roger Dorn, Kenan & Kel theme song (Hey, I lived on Nickelodeon when I was a kid), Winnie Cooper, ATTICA!, I MUST SAY, Donna, and, of course, Urkel.

And all for just ninety cents!

But back to baseball, and, specifically, some of the game's all-time greats.

I had to make two separate trips to one guy's dime boxes because of the traffic at his table. I don't know why, but my gut was telling me that there was something, something good in the boxes I didn't get to dig through that first time around. I strolled around the room and hit some other tables while I waited for the table to open up.

It finally cleared about a half-hour later, and I found that my gut was indeed right. During the return trip, I dug up a giant stack of these early '80s TCMA singles, which, as I've noticed over the years, are tough finds. There's lots of guys in this checklist -- like Chief Bender and Jack Chesbro -- that you don't often see.

And, just when I thought one new Hoyt card was enough...

...a second one popped out of the dime box, along with another big stack of colorful TCMA greats.

Like the other TCMAs, you won't find cards of Kid Nichols and Dazzy Vance very often. I very nearly went out and bought that Frank Robinson after seeing it on Night Owl's blog not too long ago, because you can probably count Frank Robinson's Dodger cards on one hand.

In hindsight, I guess it's a good thing I waited.

But the dime box surprises weren't over just yet.

The last dime dig of the day resulted in something I'd actually been hoping to find for a while now, a near-complete (sans maybe two or three cards) 2005 Topps World Series White Sox set.

Topps issued the commemorative checklist following the South Siders' World Series crown in 2005.

This was a special season for me, as it's the only championship a Chicago baseball team has won since 1917. I was in 8th grade at the time and remember going nuts with my fellow baseball-fanatic pals the day after they won it all.

Many of the cards, as seen here, highlight some of the team's best moments during both the regular season and the playoffs.

What I like most about the set is that it features a lot of the bench players/reserves who made that team so special, guys who wouldn't normally get recognized by Topps.

Sure, you've got the big stars, the Pierzynskis and the Konerkos, but you've also got the Carl Everetts, Chris Widgers, and Pablo Ozunas. (As well as the baby-faced Brandon McCarthys.)

To this day, I collect otherwise obscure guys like Cliff Politte because of their presence on that championship club, which was why I was so excited to see these fall out of a dime box.

Another set popped one at a time out of a dime box earlier in the day, and this one was 100% complete.

I finished off the 120-card 1985 Topps Pete Rose checklist in one go on Sunday. Charlie Hustle might not be the most pleasant guy around, but he played the game the way it was meant to be played.

For that reason, I collect him, which made it almost a reflex to pick this set up when the opportunity presented itself.

Single-player sets can be iffy, and, yes, there are a lot of cards of Pete Standing Around, Pete Squinting His Eyes, etc. in this set.

But single-player sets can offer a glimpse of a guy you wouldn't see anywhere else, which is why I snapped this one up.

See: Pete Hugging Marge Schott, Pete With A Horrible, Horrible Goatee, and Pete With A Horse, among others.

Expos Pete!

A Short Term Stops legend.

I especially enjoyed this time-lapsed mini-series of Hit #4,192 Pete.

Note the Steve Garvey cameo in the bottom-right.

My favorite of the bunch, however, was Pete Barreling Into Ray Fosse.

This perfectly-timed image -- see the exact moment Fosse's shoulder separated! -- is the first I've seen of the (in)famous Rose-Fosse All-Star Game collision on a baseball card. Surprising, considering how iconic of a moment it's become in the history of Charlie Hustle.

I didn't need my gut to tell me to pick up this Pete Rose set, but, all in all, I think my gut did a fine job in guiding me through Sunday's card show.

Maybe I should start listening to it more often.