Thursday, January 28, 2021

Levels of absurdity in Heritage High Numbers

It's no secret that Topps's last few releases of 2020 were, let's just say, rushed.

Update was mostly a last-minute disaster brought upon by the weirdness and uncertainty of the 2020 season. Basically a Monty Python-esque non-sequitur of a baseball card product. Update's insanity has already been well-documented around the blogs. But another set snuck onto the market late in the calendar that, for my money, might well be more absurd than Update: Heritage High Numbers.

From what I can gather, the design and production of HN got so screwed up that it was never even sold in retail stores. In the snap of a finger, a retail staple became a hobby-only product, which means I'd never open any because I haven't bought packs from a card shop in about a decade. Thankfully, I was able to find a Sportlots dealer who had pretty much every base card I needed for a mere 18 cents a pop.

But as I flipped through the cards I bought, I realized High Numbers had so many levels of absurdity that it deserved its own scale -- a scale which I'd like to detail for you here tonight.

Level 1 -- Kenta Maeda

Heritage High Numbers is basically an old-school version of Topps Update -- its job is to properly address all the transactions and general goings-on from that particular baseball season.

So the inclusion of guys who played for new teams in 2020 (like Kenta Maeda) isn't absurd at all, and gets to the heart of what HN should be.

Level 2 -- Salvador Perez

Late-season checklists are chiseled in my head as guys-on-new-teams sets, so I'm a little taken aback when I see guys like Salvador Perez in the same uniform they've always worn.

But while he didn't change teams, Perez is a solid candidate for this set -- he missed all of 2019 due to injury, but came back to play a fair amount in 2020, which makes his appearance in a set of "updates" reasonable.

Level 3 -- Corey Kluber

Corey Kluber pitched exactly one inning of baseball in 2020, but I can't really fault Topps for including him in their sets this year since his season was abbreviated due to a shockingly quick injury no one could've seen coming.

This is actually my eighth card of Kluber with the Rangers, and his presence in that binder will always be weird to me given his whopping one-inning stint in the uniform.

Level 4 -- Hunter Pence

Now we're starting to veer into the truly absurd.

Hunter Pence retired after being released by the Giants shortly into the 2020 season, and probably isn't the most deserving candidate for these end-of-year roundups, but here he is.

Level 5 -- Cameron Maybin

Keep in mind that, despite their general weirdness, I voluntarily bought all the cards you're seeing in this post -- because my player collections don't listen to those does this card REALLY need to exist? cries of absurdity.

This includes guys like Cameron Maybin who didn't even finish the 2020 season with the team they're pictured with in HN -- the Tigers traded him to the Cubs midway through the year, apparently too late for Topps to get the memo.

Level 6  -- Jonathan Lucroy

This is one of the strangest HN inclusions to me -- Jonathan Lucroy wasn't expected to be much more than a fringe player (at best) with the Red Sox this year, and he proved it by playing in exactly one game with them in 2020.

Lucroy's entire season consisted of two innings behind the plate, and he never even made a single plate-appearance in Boston, yet he'll always have that lonesome spot in my Red Sox binder.

Level 7 -- Michael Kopech

Still, whether it was a full season or a single game, everyone I've shown thus far can at least say they played baseball in 2020 -- a fair amount of dudes who showed up in HN don't even meet that criteria.

White Sox phenom Michael Kopech was still recovering from Tommy John surgery this year, and decided to opt out of the season regardless of whether he was ready to pitch or not -- yet here he is with a late-season "update" card in 2020(?).

Level 8 -- Felix Hernandez

King Felix was another opt-out candidate -- but what makes his appearance in HN a bit more absurd is that he did so without playing a single inning for the new team he'd signed with for the 2020 season.

So, yes, I already have a few cards of Felix Hernandez in my Braves binder, but there's a very good chance he'll finish his career without that stint ever actually appearing on his stat sheet (also, I don't know what number the Braves were trying to make him wear here, but it sure doesn't look like his famous #34).

Level 9 -- Carlos Gonzalez

When I first saw the HN checklist, I thought this was the most absurd card of the lot.

I honestly didn't even know that Carlos Gonzalez was ever involved with the Mariners. A quick search explains why: Seattle released him in June, before the 2020 season even started. But for whatever reason, he's got a card with the Mariners in a set that was released a couple weeks ago. Either the final blueprints for HN were turned in a long, long time ago, or someone seriously dropped the ball here.

Yes, I'll always treasure this as a hallowed zero-year card, but I'll also be the first to admit it probably shouldn't have existed in the first place.

Level 10 -- Ben Zobrist

Upon further review, however, the most absurd member of 2020 High Numbers has to be Ben Zobrist.

Ben Zobrist never signed a professional contract in 2020. He was granted free agency at the end of 2019, and stayed a free agent. I don't think Zobrist ever officially announced his retirement, but his career looks to be just about finished right now. So why in all hell is he getting a card in a 2020 "update" set?! You tell me.

Heritage High Numbers leaves me with so many questions, questions that'll probably always remain unanswered, never solved. An end-of-year set filled with guys who retired, guys who played single innings, and even guys who never played at all. It's puzzling, head-scratching, all the question-mark adjectives.

But now that I think of it, maybe a weird set like High Numbers is exactly what we deserved in 2020 -- an absurd year wrapped up in an equally absurd bow.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Sets of the Year: 2020

One of the questions I've never heard in the constant save some for the kids! howl against retail flippers is whether any of us should want to be buying the cards that came out in 2020.

Normally, I'd chuckle at the people getting all bent about not being able to find any butt-ugly Prizm or something at Target...if I wasn't a bit guilty of this exact thing myself. Example: aside from a strange five-card preview pack I found in a rack pack of Topps Chrome(?), I still haven't seen any 2020 Topps Fire in the wild -- and to my surprise, I'm a bit aggravated by this. Am I so desperate that I'm getting bummed about not finding any Topps Fire? Come on, Nick. 

True, the weird retail boom kinda forced me into developing some good habits this year -- i.e. buying more singles online rather than blowing cash on packs that are 95 percent doubles/discards. It's been at least two months since I've opened a pack of baseball cards, which I can't remember the last time that happened. And as I was creating my annual Sets of the Year list for 2020, I honestly don't think I'd label it as a bad year for cards. More of an inconsistent year than anything else. 

A few sets did indeed capture my heart, but as you'll soon see, it was a year filled with a lot of ugliness and general indifference -- but unlike 2020 itself, there were a few pleasant surprises tucked inside, waiting for me.

#10 -- Donruss

Aside from the fact that I actually bought a blaster of the stuff earlier this year, Donruss remains a perennial bottom-feeder on my Sets of the Year lists, mostly because it makes everyone look like they're playing in suburban beer-league softball games.

#9 -- Bowman, Bowman Chrome, etc.

I actually liked 2020 Bowman a bit more than the last few years, but even a halfway decent Bowman design isn't gonna get very high on this list.

#8 -- Gypsy Queen

As I was in the process of making this list, I found I'd already forgotten what 2020 Gypsy Queen looked like, which should tell you everything you need to know about my feelings here.

#7 -- Topps Flagship, Opening Day, Chrome, etc.

It's a sad day for Topps -- I don't think a Flagship design has ever finished this low on my Sets of the Year lists in the history of this blog.

If the 2021 Topps previews are any indication, it appears we've lapsed into a Flagship Dark Age where random slashes and sudden angles and general lack of color are en vogue -- basically everything I don't wanna see on a baseball card design. I can't assign any verbiage to 2020 Topps because it just doesn't look like anything. I didn't like it when I opened my first packs last winter, and it hasn't grown on me at all now.

Whether it speaks to me or not, a Flagship design should be memorable, and 2020 Topps is already destined to whimper away into the past -- dull borders, boring photographs, and all.

#6 -- Topps Stickers

The only qualifying rule for this list is that I have to have bought enough of a set or otherwise accumulated enough singles to form an opinion on said set -- and for the first time ever, Topps Stickers met those qualifications.

Week in and week out in 2020, I'd walk into the Target card aisle with high expectations. And week in and week out, there'd only be that lonely box of Topps Stickers staring up at me. At some point I caved, and actually took a few packs with me to the checkout line out of sheer desperation. 

But get this: I discovered these sticker things...are actually kinda cool. Seeing different players featured on the fronts and backs is a bit jarring -- some are featured front-side first in my binders, others back-side, which is weird -- but overall there's a good amount of color and general intrigue here that's missing from most Topps sets these days. 

That first handful of packs of Topps Stickers wasn't my last in 2020 -- and maybe there was a silver lining to all that pack-hoarder madness after all.

#5 -- Allen & Ginter

I don't have much to say about A&G other than I pulled a Darin Erstad out of a pack of 2020 baseball cards, and I'm still not totally sure how to process that.

#4 -- Archives

Topps Archives had reams and reams of creative flubs and general inattentiveness strewn across its checklist...and it still managed to come in at #4 on this list.

That should give you an indication of how 2020 was for cards. It's still weird to say that my favorite part of 2020 Archives was the 2002 Topps subset, given that, in reality, 2002 Topps doesn't light a candle to the other two designs featured this year (1955, 1974). But the others were so boring and/or ill-executed that the '02 Topps cards, which do indeed look a good deal like the originals, ended up shining through by default.

I never thought I'd say this, but honoring 2002 Topps, of all sets, turned out to be the lone saving grace for 2020 Archives.

#3 -- Heritage

As far as I'm concerned, baseball card sets in 2020 were basically narrowed down to The Big Three.

Heritage is the third of the three-headed monster, and a turning point in its rundown of the Topps saga. For one thing, it ended a string of vintage Topps designs (1966-70) I'm not all that wild about. And it's the starting point of a long stretch of '70s designs I desperately love. So 2020 Heritage had a lot going for it before I even opened a single pack of the stuff.

But the set itself was darn good, deserving recognition for more than its simple placement in the Topps canon. I thought these stayed quite true to the actual '71s, which is my main point of judgment for Heritage. A lanky action shot like this Scherzer would be right at home in '71 Topps. Just a beautiful example of how striking Heritage can be.

It's further fuel for what I so much want to believe -- that the people at Topps actually know and treasure the long history of the company they work for.

#2 -- Stadium Club

Oh my lord, it actually happened.

Ever since its rebirth in 2014, Stadium Club has been the perennial #1 on my Sets of the Year list, and most of the time it hasn't been particularly close. But not in 2020. This isn't Stadium Club's fault -- it was still its usual fantastic, often jaw-dropping self, letting baseball's photography do the talking, and once again reminding me how fun collecting baseball cards can be.

But I have to be honest here, and admit to myself that Stadium Club just wasn't the best set we saw in 2020, which believe me was no easy feat.

#1 -- Big League

This is the culmination of a love affair that's been brewing for a long time now. 

Big League grabbed me when it first came out in 2018, very nearly toppled Stadium Club last year, and finally, after a long-fought battle, knocked the king off its perch here in 2020. As hard as it was to break Stadium Club's dynasty, I know in my heart of hearts this is the right decision, because in a year of so much turmoil and general meh, Big League was 2020's Set of the Year, plain and simple.

I said it when it came out, and I'll say it again: Big League might well have saved modern baseball cards for me. I was never in danger of completely shunning current cards and sets, but I was in danger of becoming hopelessly jaded towards it all, what with everything we saw (or didn't see) in card aisles in 2020. 

But then Big League came along and reminded me that, yes, Topps can make a set that's designed to be appreciated, and not merely flipped. It's got a quietly awesome design, it's got great photographs, it's got a general feel that still excites me many months after I first saw it. That's a lot of corny clich├ęs to throw at a set, I know, but they're all true. So maybe there's still a light here somewhere.

Yes, friends, Big League, and not Stadium Club, is my Set of the Year for 2020 -- that thud you just heard was Goliath falling.

Monday, January 18, 2021

These tough guys appear

Here's the story of how a seemingly insignificant decision I made a couple years ago had a gloriously rippling effect on my entire collection.

A refresher for anyone who missed the first thousand times I've mentioned this on the blog: I've been fascinated by Jim Walewander, a one-time Tigers cult hero, for a long time now, mostly because of his well-known fandom of The Dead Milkmen (the only band I've seen live more than once). But only recently did I learn that Walewander is actually from my hometown, and went to the same high school as my mom.

And the only reason I found out Walewander hails from my tiny suburb is because I decided to flip over a random minor league single of his I plucked from a dime box on a whim.

I could've easily gone the rest of my life knowing Jim Walewander only as "The Dead Milkmen Guy," and not having a clue about his hometown ties.

I also could've gone the rest of my life thinking I was the only person in the card world who cared in the slightest about Jim least, until I saw a guest post pop up on Gavin's blog late last year, written by a blog-friend of Gavin's named Alex whose Walewander fandom completely blew mine away. The post detailed a fantastic TTM project Alex set up with Walewander himself -- in addition to a few standard autographs, Walewander inscribed the full lyrics to a Milkmen song called "Dean's Dream" (one of my personal favorites) across a series of his playing-day cards.

I commented on Alex's post detailing my own Walewander fandom, and I thought that would be that.

But Alex didn't let that happen -- because a few days later, I got an email from him, saying he'd read and knew about my Walewander post, and had me partially in mind as the gears to this project were turning.

Turns out Alex set aside a few of Walewander's TTM autographs for me (including the custom at the top of this post), and even further than that, had a few spares of the lyric-inscribed cards he was willing to send me. There's a strange line in "Dean's Dream" that goes These tough guys appear... and it's always been a favorite lyric for reasons I can't quite explain, so I was ecstatic to hear Alex had a spare one of those Walewanders available.

The simple fact that Jim Walewander took the time and care to do something like this is incredible on its own -- and given the personal ties (not to mention the homage to one of my favorite bands), I can say with 100 percent truth that these cards are completely unlike anything else in my collection.

Safe to say my card collection already owed Alex a major debt.

But Alex decided to take things about a million times further and send me almost every minor league card ever issued of Jim Walewander! Before this, my Walewander collection before this consisted of his handful of overproduction-era big-league singles, with a couple random minor league cards sprinkled in. Now in the blink of an eye I had a formidable Walewander collection, almost doubled in size thanks to a buffet of obscure oddballs covering his early Tigers days to his later organization-depth years in the Marlins' and Angels' systems.

It's hard to explain just how thankful I am here, because there's a very good chance I would've gone the rest of my life without owning any of these cards, so let's all give a great round of applause to Alex and...

Hold on -- I'm being told this post isn't over yet, because for some reason Alex decided to stash more stuff away for me.

In addition to an excellent bread-loaf oddball came a never-before-seen minor league single from Jim Abbott's comeback attempt with the White Sox -- significant because Abbott went straight to the majors after being drafted in 1989, and didn't play in the minors until said comeback attempt.

And how about a couple thirtysomething-year-old rack packs showcasing two of my favorite dudes front and center?!

(But yes, I opened these, because I just can't keep unopened stuff lying around -- not even 1989 Topps or 1990 Fleer.)

Alex and I have swapped many emails over the past few months, and he's regaled me with a whole lot of fantastic stories of both baseball and baseball cards alike.

Also, if you haven't figured it out already, he's a big fan of TTM autographs and minor league cards.

Alex even sent me a couple complete minor league sets, just because they included rare early glimpses of a couple of my bigger player collection projects.

The Lofton and Kile were obviously the main draws, but they weren't the only jewels hiding in those minor league sets.

(I included GM Bob Neal here because he looks like the villain in a children's novel.)

It got to the point where I almost couldn't believe one person was sending me all this top-flight cardboard.

Included in the mania was a TTM of another semi-local guy with Lance Johnson (he attended a community college not far from where I live), a Starting Lineup Jim Thorpe oddball (probably the only track-and-field card I'd ever get excited about), and a '78 Topps Bill Russell (a former Dime Box Dozen need!).

And without Alex, I wouldn't have known who Andre Keene was, or more specifically, I wouldn't have known I knew who Andre Keene was -- he plays a bit part as a hulking White Sox slugger in Major League II.

Alex also sent me a complete 1988 Tigers Pepsi set, because while it features all the notable Tigers of the era like Sparky and Sweet Lou Whitaker...

...the real jewel is the presence of, you guessed it, one Jim Walewander.

And if you can believe it, everything I've just talked about is only Part 1 of the saga I'm calling Why I'll Forever Be In Debt To Alex.

Part 2 begins with something that quickly became obvious in my emails with Alex -- he knows a lot more about minor league cards than I do.

To me, minor league singles have always seemed like rare delicacies, sparsely savored or seen. Alex's showed me that isn't really true -- minor league cards are still produced in fairly large quantities, and can sometimes be sitting right in front of your face if you're looking hard enough. His travels have put him in contact with a few of the bigger minor-league card dealers in the hobby, and he was nice enough to pass some of their info to me, and act as a go-between in a couple cases.

I thought long and hard when Alex asked me if there were any particular minor league sets I'd been holding out for, and these two were near the top of my list, though none of these cool cards were the reason why.

That Columbus Clippers set had yet another Walewander I needed, among the few Alex didn't have a spare copy of, but one I was able to get at a ridiculously fair price thanks to Alex's card-dealer ties.

The other set I had my eye on was the 1999 Multi-Ad Iowa Cubs team set, for the pure and simple fact that it features the only card I know of documenting Hideo Nomo's brief three-game(!) tenure in the Cubs' system that seems like something out of an alternate universe.

I also grabbed a few recent Cubs minor league sets from Alex's dealer buddies, since good number of the guys in here eventually wound up being part of the 2016 team that I seem to recall did something special.

Some minor league sets make everything on the major-league level look bland by comparison -- like the time the Albuquerque Isotopes had every guy on their roster pose with very good doggies.

This isn't even the only time the Isotopes have done this -- but there's a very specific reason why I wanted the 2017 set above the others.

Yes, that's Glenallen Hill posing for a baseball card with...a tarantula!

There's a bit of an in-joke here -- Hill (in)famously once wound up on the DL after sleep-running through a glass table during a nightmare about, you guessed it, tarantulas. Points to him for conquering his fears, and better yet, allowing that magic moment to be displayed for all to see on a baseball card. 

(Even more points to him because god knows I'd never let a tarantula walk on my arm.)

So that's the story of how one innocent little dime box find set my collection on a whole new path of Dead Milkmen fans and hometown heroes, minor league treasures and great big tarantulas -- and, most of all, how it put me in contact with a great, great person in the process.

I have nothing more to say than the obvious: THANK YOU, ALEX!

Monday, January 11, 2021

Online card shopping can be fun, too

I suppose a part of me has always distrusted the Internet.

I didn't quite grow up with it -- I was already around ten years old or so when my family got an AOL account with all the dial-up tones and screeches. Even then, I rarely used it. I didn't see the need to get my first cell phone until I was a senior in high school, and I was probably one of the last people in my generation to join Facebook, Twitter, etc. I also know and understand almost nothing about technology -- I've never gotten why people would ever choose to "upgrade" their phones every year.

I prefer in-person card shopping over the Internet, too. To me, it just doesn't feel like I've truly bought a card until it's physically in my hands. I can purchase and shovel as many cards into a virtual cart as I want, but you don't get that quick pleasure of actually having those cards until a while later. This is why I circle card show dates on my calendar -- they're unmatched as far as pure, unfiltered baseball card joy goes.

Obviously, all that changed in 2020.

The last card show I was able to attend was almost a year ago now -- which means that the vast majority of my hobby purchases in 2020 took place on the weird wild Internet.

A strange thing's happened since then -- I've actually started noticing that online card shopping edges out card shows in more ways than I ever realized, a fact that's highlighted by an order I received from Card Barrel (aka Just Commons) a couple weeks ago.

Card shows are reliable as far as finding latest-and-greatest stuff, but buying new singles online saves me the slog of digging through stack after stack of cards I don't need in search of the few I actually want -- tracked down most of my 2020 Update wants in record time on Card Barrel.

I highly doubt that online card shopping will ever replace card shows in my post-pandemic life (whenever that may be), but in the meantime I'm expecting orders from COMC, the Online Dime Box, Sportlots, and another Card Barrel stack to arrive at some point this week (I swear I didn't plan it that way).

Given that -- and the spoils I'm still filing away from my last Card Barrel order -- it's shaping up to be a fun few days around Dime Boxedonia HQ, and yes, I have the Internet to thank for it.

Online card shopping can even help you find Hoyts in 2020 products that somehow passed you by(!).

There used to be a time where I'd feel the need to knock out every single base card I needed from every current set as quickly as possible.

I'm more content to let stuff sit on my want list for a while these days, but this order took care of a few I didn't feel like waiting for any longer.

I'm glad Card Barrel had some 2020 Bowman Chrome singles for sale, because god knows I'm not gonna buy it retail (not that I'd be able to find any in the first place).

Two prime frankenset contenders here, and I didn't even know they existed until more recently than I'd like to admit.

Online card shopping can help you take care of the gremlins, too.

I could've sworn I had this card already -- I thought my 2020 Topps base needs were long extinct, because only inserts remained on my want lists. So you can imagine my surprise when I opened one of my Dodgers binders recently, saw the Opening Day version of this Bellinger...without the standard Flagship card next to it. Oh, the horror! I flipped through page after page, thinking there had been some mistake. But the truth soon became clear: I didn't have it.

A few clicks later, though, and the gremlins had been defeated once again.

Online card shopping makes player collecting a whole lot easier -- I've never seen a specific "Kenny Lofton" section in a card show dime box or anything.

Mini-collecting, on the other hand, is a bit tougher in the digital world, but it can be done.

Card Barrel doesn't have the randomness I enjoy out of other Internet sites, but I did manage to find an excellent '78 Burger King JR Richard I needed, which looks a whole lot brighter next to the raggedy regular '78 Topps Richard I've owned since I was a kid.

If you've collected long enough, I'm sure you've had the HOW DO I NOT ALREADY HAVE THIS CARD?! feeling many times over.

Happens to me regularly. Fernando Valenzuela is one of my top player collections, but somehow that regular ol' '86 Topps Record Breaker card slipped by me this whole time. Into the Card Barrel cart it went, discreetly mixed in with a few other scattered needs, without anyone being the wiser.

Well...until now, anyways.

A weird paradox of card collecting: overproduction-era stuff is so common that I almost never see it at card shows.

Granted, I can't imagine people would flock to a table filled with 1990 Donruss, but I honestly wouldn't mind digging through an entire dime box of 1993 Upper Deck or something -- because apparently I still need a few cards from a set I thought I'd already seen ten times over.

Here's a page from my Second Dime Box Frankenset -- Page 69, #s 613-621, to be exact.

But why am I showing this now, you ask?

Because up until this order arrived, it featured the lone open slot in my frankenset -- that dastardly #618.

But thanks to the simple trick of plugging the number "618" into a card database, and seeing if any frankenset-worthy cards showed up, the internet helped me accomplish something I've been wanting to say for a long time now: the Second Dime Box Frankenset is now complete! 

Makes sense that this fun in-motion card from '93 Upper Deck would finish things off -- '93 UD is a photographic masterpiece, and probably the single largest contributor to my frankenset. I'll still upgrade/change cards as I see fit, of course, but I can sleep a little easier knowing all 666 frankenset slots are finally filled (although now I'm fighting the temptation to start a third frankenset). And okay, I might as well just say this, no matter how begrudgingly -- I have the Internet to thank for it.

I miss card shows as much as any collector would, but if nothing else, the pandemic months have shown be that online card shopping can be just as fun.