Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The All-Time Upper Deck Countdown: 22-15

Sometime last week, a thought hit me: How come we never talk about Upper Deck's designs?

Maybe it's just me, but I don't often hear people talk about UD sets with pride or debate about which UD design is better. True, Upper Deck gets a lot of airtime in the hobby, but most of it seems to center around the imprint and legacy they've left on the industry (for better or worse). It seems to me that what often gets ignored in the discussion of Upper Deck are the cards themselves. 

I stop to wonder why this is. Perhaps it's because UD was simply produced in a different generation -- designs maybe weren't as central to the overall enjoyment to the hobby as much as someone who grew up collecting vintage Topps. Or perhaps it's because, from the year of their inception in 1989, UD has been more concerned with photography than design. 

I personally think it's more the latter, and that's a shame because while, yes, UD designs aren't as iconic and crucial to the hobby's timeline than those of Topps, UD's long history in the baseball card market deserves discussion, or (cue lightbulb)...a list! And so as a tribute to Upper Deck, I've ranked each of their 22 base designs, which I'm ecstatic to share with you over the course of three separate posts.

Unfortunately, however, we start where all countdowns must begin: the bottom.

#22 -- 2000 Upper Deck

The dubious honor of the Worst Upper Deck Set of All-Time goes to 2000 UD.

This is the set that I most often forget about when running through Upper Deck's designs in my head. Even when preparing my rankings, I came to 2000 and said to myself: wait, what the heck does 2000 UD look like again? [internet search] Oh, yeah...THAT one.

It's just not particularly well-designed or memorable in any way. The foil is awful and the nameplates are 98 percent last name and two percent first name for some reason. The fronts feel cluttered. Blue is my favorite color, and yet this design somehow manages to screw that up, too. I really can't think of anything good to say about it.

Safe to say Upper Deck didn't ring in the new millennium with style.

#21 -- 1994 Upper Deck

Even I'm a bit shocked that '94 UD came in as low as it did on this countdown -- I mean, it's sandwiched between two of Upper Deck's all-time classic designs (not to give too much away).

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that 1994 Upper Deck is pretty much a template for how NOT to design a baseball card. It's historic in that it was the first UD design to feature foil. But that's about all it has going for it.

First (and perhaps most importantly) of all, the gold foil on a black background is absolutely AWFUL. You have to get the light just right to even read it. And talk about a cluttered card front -- the weird shrunken black-and-white box serves no purpose and obscures the main photo on a lot of the cards in this set. Plus I don't know which way to orient the card backs -- should it be vertical for the photo or horizontal for the stat line?

Who knows, who cares.

#20 -- 1999 Upper Deck

Ah, the infamous "salad tongs" of '99 UD (a genius description first sighted on Night Owl's blog many moons ago) -- aka the Most Use of Foil on a Single Card Design.

Admittedly, there was a time when I actually kinda liked the salad tongs. But no longer. The cards themselves are distracting and might actually feature the most boring photography of any UD set, which is saying something given how consistently good UD's photos were during most of their reign. Also the backs are basically one big shill for this newfangled Internet thing.

I'll pass on the salad tongs at the Upper Deck buffet.

#19 -- 2001 Upper Deck

I want to rank this one higher because I have fond memories of opening large amounts of 2001 Upper Deck as a kid.

I vividly remember pulling the Ichiro rookie from this set from a pack in the backseat of my mom's car one balmy summer night. But the memories are all 2001 UD has going for it, sadly. The foil nameplates have an odd, hard-to-read font and (like many of these bottom-ranking UD designs) obscure the photography, which is central to enjoying most UD sets. The backs have more negative space than about any other card back I can think of offhand.

I'll always treasure the memories, but they're not enough to boost 2001 UD any higher on this list.

#18 -- 2005 Upper Deck

Now we're into perhaps the most difficult area of any comprehensive list: The Glut of Indifference.

I simply don't have a lot of feelings one way or the other towards a lot of the sets in the next few spots on this countdown, 2005 Upper Deck included. Like many others I'm sure, I have a whole lot of indifference towards most of UD's releases from the early-to-mid 2000s. You don't see cards from that era a whole lot, and not much excites me when I do.

It seems like 2005 UD is one of those sets that's almost perfectly dull: I'm sure very few people have strong feelings about it one way or the other.

#17 -- 1998 Upper Deck

I tend to enjoy UD's mid-to-late '90s stuff more than most people, but '98 Upper Deck admittedly doesn't belong to that fold.

The design is clean enough, and the backs have those cool "Date in Time" descriptions, but there's simply not a lot to get excited about with this set -- so let's save some time talking about it and just move on.

#16 -- 1992 Upper Deck

In contrast to most other brands, Upper Deck's early years (1989-93ish) are sometimes regarded as its Golden Age.

The biggest outlier of the bunch to me, however, has always been 1992 UD. Again, it's just bland. It did away with the kinda cool baseline-themed borders of UD's first few designs and replaced it with...nothing? I've noticed too that a lot of the back pictures of 1992 Upper Deck are better than the ones on the front. I'd have to go through some of my singles from this set again to see just how prevalent that phenomenon is, or whether it's all in my head.

By and large, UD has been at its best when letting its photos do the talking, and I guess '92 Upper Deck does that...but so many other UD designs do it better.

#15 --1996 Upper Deck

We close tonight with the set that, for a long time, was my absolute least-favorite in UD's wide catalog: 1996 Upper Deck.

I don't know why I disliked it so much. Maybe it's that the Victorian-ish name plates didn't seem to mesh all that well with UD's mostly forward-thinking vibe (I feel like everyone in this set should be named Aristotle or Chester). But looking at it now, I don't think 1996 UD is all that bad. Sure, it's far from my favorite, but it has its high points. It certainly stands out in the grand scheme of UD's designs, more than a lot of other brands' mid-'90s efforts did.

It's not quite worst-to-first, but all things considered, 1996 Upper Deck should be proud to hold the #15 slot on this countdown.

And the good news for all of you now is that the tough part is over: the bottom-of-the-barrel of Upper Deck lore has been spoken for, so join me next time when the stuff on this list starts to get a bit more exciting (I promise).

Monday, May 28, 2018

Buyer vs. vendor (or, pontificating at the flea market)

Though I've often wanted to, I've personally never set up as a vendor at a card show, flea market, or anything like that.

The closest I've ever come was selling Hot Wheels and board games at my uncle's garage sale when I was about ten or eleven. Ever since then, I've long been fascinated by what an afternoon of selling (rather than buying) cards must feel like. The many questions I have for sellers were rolling around in my head as I strolled through the flea market yesterday hunting, as usual, for cardboard.

First and foremost, I can't help but wonder from a physical standpoint how the heck people (many of whom are more than twice my age) set up at the flea market.

It's a loooooong day -- and that's not even considering the fact that it was close to 100 degrees here yesterday at high noon.

My local flea market opens at 6 AM, and some vendors have told me they get there around 4 in the morning to set up. The place closes at 3 PM. That's almost twelve hours of sitting there, putting items out and/or waiting for customers (the heat, again, notwithstanding). The vendors in the first few aisles probably get there even earlier than that, as was the guy with cards I stumbled upon in the very first aisle yesterday.

I've seen this guy many times before, but had never seen the quarter boxes he had on display prior to yesterday -- not much of note, though I did manage to salvage a few gems from it (including the D'Backs Grace at the top of this post, a sight which will never look right).

I also bought this complete set of Line Drive Babe Ruths off him for $5 (a good price since, his words, It books for ten...facepalm).

Not the steal of the day or anything, but still nice oddballs I'm glad I bought since I doubt I would've ever seen them again if I passed -- if nothing else, I wasn't ready to let a new Braves Babe Ruth card slip through my fingertips.

I also wonder how vendors decide to price their inventory.

If I were to set up at a card show, flea market, etc., most of my stuff would be dime-box material (surprise, surprise). I don't have many extras worth more than that. One new guy I came across at the flea market had complete sets sorted across his table by price -- the cheapest stuff was $2 and went up to around $15-20 on the high end. But, oddly enough, his $2 stuff was by far the best.

True, I got a bit skunked with this 2008 Kannapolis Intimidators set -- which I bought because Gordon Beckham (a guy I collect) was on the front -- because it turns out Beckham was the only one I needed, though that Strength & Conditioning Coach card is good for a laugh.

My other $2 purchase was far more fruitful: a complete 30-card "Oh Atlanta" insert set from '99 Skybox Molten Metal (one of the many '90s brands absolutely no one remembers).

In one of the more ingenious insert designs I've ever seen, each of these cards are shaped into the italic A of the Braves' logo. And while jagged edges and pointy corners don't often cooperate with nine-pocket pages, I don't care: these things are just plain awesome.

I saw that Lofton centerpiece (note the throwback jersey!) on Twitter not long ago, and remembered thinking at the time: well, there's another one of those impossible '90s inserts I'll never own -- spoke too soon, I guess.

The other thing I wonder with vendors (perhaps more so at card shows than flea markets) is just where the heck they get all their cards from.

One of my regular guys was back at the flea market yesterday, which isn't surprising: he's there every week. But somehow he always has entirely new cards each time -- in fact, I don't ever remember seeing the same card twice from him.

And while the price of his stuff changes every week, this time his cheap cards were 3/$1, making this Mookie Betts throwback variation an absolute steal.

I know a lot of people just have boxes and boxes of stuff in their garages and alternate what they bring with each passing show/flea market.

But with this guy it's kinda puzzling because from what I can gather he's not a huge card collector, yet sometimes, like yesterday, he'll have mostly newer stuff on display. It doesn't seem like he's buying all these packs by himself...or is he? Or does he get them secondhand from a box-busting buddy? Or does he just buy other people's collections?

Maybe I'll have to ask him one day -- all I know in the meantime is that I was all over these two beauties at three for a buck.

I also wonder just how much vendors make at this flea market.

I'm sure they turn a decent profit since they keep coming back every week. The card guys seem to draw pretty good crowds. I had to squeeze in between a couple collectors who were around my age(!) at this particular table -- in fact, I saw the guy next to me buying quite a few cards I wanted (curse him!).

But I can't much complain, as I still managed to walk away with quite a few cheap gems, including this quartet of 3/$1 goodies.

While most of his inventory was centered around recent cardboard, the guy did have a few vintage and oddballs on display yesterday.

The Ruth is actually an ad for a consignment firm (still a card to me, though), and even though I have no idea who Gail Hopkins is, I knew I had to have that oddly beautiful image in my frankenset.

3/$1 minis.

Rookies and parallels at three for a buck -- yes, please!

This same vendor also had a separate dollar box on display which I'd never seen before.

A person less careful than I could've easily dropped a mint on these boxes, and I admittedly started to get carried away before remembering that these were, in fact, a dollar each -- not willy-nilly dime box material. And so the hemming, hawing, and ultimate whittling-down began.

In the end, I settled on about a dozen must-haves from the dollar box, including these four early cards of current stars (including a zero-year Wil Myers!).

A couple Bronx Bomber SPs, and a continuation of the Ruthian theme that seemed to dominate yesterday's purchases.

And then a bunch of nifty dollar parallels and/or low-numbered inserts of dudes I collect -- that Killebrew (numbered to just 50 copies) comes from something called Topps Legacies of Baseball, a set I'd never even heard of before yesterday.

After an unremarkable stroll through the remainder of the flea market, I went back to my regular guy's table to buy a card I'd been eyeing from his higher-priced glass case.

Though I've never been an avid Greg Maddux collector, I always enjoy adding Hall of Fame rookies to my collection. And for three bucks (haggled down from the vendor's original $5 price tag), I managed to complete my Maddux rookie triad, as I now own his Donruss, Fleer Update, and (now) Topps Traded '87 rookies.

I would love to one day set up at a card show and/or flea market and experience the role of such a setting from the vendor's point of view -- for now, though, I'm happy to be on the buyer's side of things, because, well, it's just a whole lot more fun.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Second Overproduction Era

For the first time since I started collecting, I'm seriously worried we've begun to enter into another overproduction era.

Those of you on Twitter probably know this by now, but everyone and their moms are going ballistic over 2018 Bowman. First came the freak-out about how no one could find any, shortly followed by the freak-out when all their Targets/Walmarts seemed to simultaneously restock them (along with new retail-exclusive Mega-Boxes -- I'm still not clear whether they were planned by Topps all along or created in response to such high demand).

Okay: if people want to spend fistfuls of dollars on a wildly outside shot at an Ohtani auto (because you know that's what they're chasing), then let them. It may not be the way I'd personally spend my own money, but so be it. I'm not trying to come off as some curmudgeon here.

But I'd be lying if I didn't say this retail insanity didn't leave me just a bit worried about the future of our hobby.

I wasn't around at the time to witness it, but what's starting to happen now reminds me a lot of the tales I heard about the dreaded Overproduction Era of the late '80s/early '90s.

High demand produces high supply. Though I have no proof, it certainly does seem like more cards are being printed these days. And if that's the case, then something has to give -- either demand or supply. Eventually (I would think), Ohtani is going to cool off and/or people are going to stop plunking down hundreds of dollars with no big hitz to show for it.

Honestly, I have a hard time fathoming buying that much retail in what is basically the pursuit of a single card. To each their own, as they say -- but I'll stick to trading as my main source of cardboard. I sit here at home, my cash in the bank, and still I get cards I need from people like John of "Johnny's Trading Spot" fame who recently dropped some Christmas in May packages around the blogosphere, one of which found its way to my humble abode.

Among the goodies were the Pokey Reese at the top of this post (a collection to which John has contributed more than anyone else) and these two parallels above -- the Olerud (numbered to just 25) now becoming the rarest item in my collection of his.

Because I'm so behind in posting trades, I actually had some cards I received from John earlier in the year sitting in my scan folder before his Christmas in May mailings.

Included in that first package was a card that takes its place as one of the older Pitchers at the Plate in my collection with this elusive '75 SSPC Sample of former Met hurler Harry Parker.

A couple superstars for my Awards mini-collection.

While they won't win any points for excitement, stamped parallels are indeed different than their original counterparts, so into the binders they go.

Who leaves a country packed with ponies to come to a non-pony country?

And finally comes an awesome new card from the First Overproduction Era with this Senior League gem of one-time Bradenton Explorer DH, Al Oliver.

Normally, I don't encourage people to send me overproduction-era cardboard because the name of the age itself should tell you that I have most of what I need from those years by now. But these Senior League singles seem to be some of the best items from the time that are a) cool in an offbeat way, b) not massively produced, and thus c) still welcomed in my collection here in what could be the start of the Second Overproduction Era here in 2018.

I only use the term semi-seriously, but yes, a part of me is actually scared that we're entering into that Second Overproduction Era now -- I only hope it doesn't get to the point where, years from now, people are saying: Remember when we bought all that 2018 Bowman and thought we'd be able to retire on that Ohtani guy's autograph? What fools we were!

Monday, May 21, 2018

Thanks, Mookie! (A card show report)

I went to a card show yesterday, and I have Mookie Betts to thank for that.

Please allow me to explain: remember when I said that the rookie card craze finally hit Dime Boxedonia in the form of a Bryce Harper rookie I found in my doubles box? Well it hit again, this time much more fruitfully, thanks to, yes, Mookie Betts himself.

Last week, after catching wind of the crazy prices Mookie rookies were commanding, I sold three different 2014 Update Mookie Betts parallels I'd been sitting on for a while. Although I collect Mookie, the decision was a no-brainer...because I sold them for over $200 combined. Even more staggering is the fact that I paid exactly 60 cents for the trio at a card show a couple years ago. (Better yet, I still own the base versions of both rookies.)

With more than $200 of house money in my pocket, I naturally did what any sane collector would do: I made a spur-of-the-moment visit to the local card show.

I did buy a few Mookies -- it was the least I could do for the guy, and besides, I still collect him -- but the money I got for those '14 Update parallels (with an ample amount of cash still left over) went a long way in providing the awesomely random experience I so much enjoy.

Among the highlights: unexpectedly bumping into Jeff during a dime box dig, spending the day in the company of fellow card collectors (even despite the handful of Card Prospector Bros who attend this show), and easily fulfilling the only specific goal I had in mind yesterday -- knocking out a good chunk of my 2017-18 needs.

I checked off a good 75 percent of my remaining 2018 GQ/Donruss base wants, got almost all the Diamond Kings singles I needed without having to buy a single pack, and sampled my first of last year's Chrome Negative Refractors (which I still can't decide if I like or not).

I always enjoy attending card shows immediately after I decide to start new player collections because almost everything I see of said players is new to me, as these four dime box gets of New Binder Inductees were.

But the thrill of finding new cards of guys I've long since collection never wears off (especially the Ichiro, a tough Turkey Red SP from the dime box).

Mini-collection hits, which reminds me: I decided to go the spreadsheet route for now in regards to the cataloging crisis I documented on the blog last week.

One of these minis is not like the other...and is a lot more awesome than the others -- it's that Campy of course, even though I have absolutely no clue what exactly it is.

Few things in life get me more giddy than finding Fan Favorites at card shows.

Your regular helping of dime box shiny.

As I've said on the blog before, this particular show is my favorite in terms of the overall balance of good cards, fun environment, and just plain fine people.

Case in point: a vendor who I see regularly at this show beckoned to me during my dig through his dime boxes, said Hey, you can have this if you want, and proceeded to hand me this GQ Glassworks Corey Seager box-topper.

All I can say is this thing looks absolutely stunning in person, but even more stunning is the fact that the guy just simply gave it to me out of the kindness of his heart (and he didn't even know I collect Corey Seager!).

I can't say I'm strongly either pro- or anti-SP, but I'm really Pro-Finding-Short-Prints-in-Dime-and-Quarter-Boxes, because talk about a thrill.

These proved to be the most expensive modern cards I purchased yesterday, but they were well worth the cash (besides, it was all on Mookie anyways, remember?).

While it's not the '85 Fleer currently sitting on my "Keep Dreaming" wants, the '85 Donruss Puckett rookie was still a coveted card for me, and I bit at the $5 price tag on it (though I basically got it free with something else I bought from the same guy). The '88 Score Traded Grace, meanwhile, has been a surprisingly elusive overproduction-era card (the last one I needed to own every Grace RC) and an overall thorn in my side for the last few years.

A mere two dollars put that longtime need to rest.

An observation: I'm astounded by the number of card show vendors who leave their tables unattended for long periods of time.

I guess that speaks to the communal feeling of the overall clientele at this card show, but still, if I set up at a show, I wouldn't feel comfortable leaving my stuff out like that. But in this case it actually worked to both mine and the vendor's advantage. I found over 300 dime cards at the very first table of the day, but I stood around for a good 10-15 minutes waiting for the vendor to come back so I could pay for everything.

With nothing else to fill the time, I started absentmindedly picking through the guy's quarter boxes...and instantly found two cards I've been wanting for ages: a nifty minor league Mark Grace (the first of its kind in my 400+-card Grace collection) and a minor league Jeff Bagwell, the latter a treasured semi-zero year card(!) given he never played for the Red Sox.

Vendor of the Day honors, however, might well have to go to a guy I'd never seen at this show before: his selection was so great that I made two separate trips to his table, in fact (once by myself, once with Jeff).

His cheap boxes were a quarter each or 100/$20 -- I had absolutely no problem getting to that threshold, helped in large part by the brick of Topps Tiffany singles I found (which just about quadruples the number of Tiffany cards I'd owned prior to this show).

The guy had a good half-dozen cheap boxes display, and every single one of them was Oddballs Galore.

Better yet, he had some of my very favorite oddballs ever with stuff like Baseball Card Magazine (aka Heritage before Heritage) and SI for Kids singles (and yes, I'm counting that Scottie Pippen as a baseball card, and you can't stop me).

Also among the 100/$20 goodies were oddballs of yesteryear as well, including St. Louis Brown floating heads and that Don Larsen, courtesy of SkinBracer aftershave (wow!).

All I'll say about these (from that same vendor) is TCMA RULES!

This show isn't really vintage-heavy, but depending on when you go and what vendors set up on any given day, you might fall into pockets of of older stuff.

Apparently I picked a good afternoon to go (thanks again, Mookie!), because there was quite a bit of vintage on display -- including this '76 Robin Yount off my "Keep Dreaming" list, which I believe now means that I own all Yount's Topps cards.

These two and the '76 Yount came from a $5 each or 3/$10 box, and I didn't even notice the 3/$10 part until the vendor told me to pick out another one when I was about to hand him just the Yount and '68 Carlton seen above.

Good thing he did, because I somehow missed the '70 Seaver sitting in that very same box the first time around -- not bad for free!

Another vintage guy had a few pages of '51 Topps Red Backs which were $3 each or 2/$5 (combo deals were apparently in vogue yesterday).

The Valo is superb, but it turns out I had the Kiner already (my memory isn't what it used to be) -- still, that one's actually an upgrade over the copy I'd already owned, believe it or not.

More random vintage gets, including a pair of Nu-Scoops singles, a set which my brain is subconsciously trying to get me to build (dammit, brain, I'm not a set-builder!).

Another reason I enjoy smaller shows like this one is that vendors are more apt to cut deals -- that '71 Alomar (a high-number short-print, aka the Vintage Kiss of Death) was originally priced at $4 but the vendor basically gave it to me for a buck.

As if those 100/$20 boxes weren't good enough, that same vendor also had a whole helluva a lot of vintage on display as well, including an absolutely loaded $2 box which I have to thank for this terrific quartet.

The same guy also had some dollar binders/boxes out, much of them lined with vintage and even some of the oddball variety, like these two Post stars.

Somehow these ended up in the dollar box as well(!!!).

The guy's table was basically organized by price -- everything at the far end of the table was a dollar, then went up incrementally from there up to around $15-20 being the most expensive if I remember right (the 100/$20 boxes were separate from the rest of his stuff).

Only one of the cards I bought from him cost more than two dollars, but it was a doozy -- this '66 Jim Palmer from the $10 box takes care of another big "Keep Dreaming" want, along with granting me the rare thrill of adding a HOF rookie to my collection.

Finally comes what was my most expensive purchase of the day and yet another "Keep Dreaming" want -- I shelled out a whopping $12 for this '62 Topps Curt Flood, a dreaded vintage high-number (#590).

It came from a vendor who I always see at this show, and whose inventory mostly consists of higher-grade vintage far out of my price range. But in the end, I decided to bite the bullet and pay a bit more than I'd usually do for this one (though I got the aforementioned Puckett rookie as basically a throw-in to the deal), which completes my 1958-71 run of Flood's Topps cards and is in rather fine shape, though I don't usually care about that kind of thing.

I'm still having trouble believing that three cards paid for an entire afternoon at yesterday's card show -- while I try to grapple with the insanity of that, please join me in thanking Mookie Betts for a wonderful day at the card show, won't you?