Friday, August 27, 2021

Only cards make me brave the flea market

At this point in my life, I've long accepted that baseball cards hold a certain power over me.

I may have once made a conscious decision to start hoarding cards way back when, but by now I know that street has become two-way. I collect because I enjoy collecting, of course, but also because my collection is simply a part of my being. I literally can't imagine my life without baseball cards. I will make significant detours from my comfort zone if it might end in baseball cards. I probably put up with way more disappointment from cards than in any other area of my life - because as much as I complain about this group of bros or that uninspired design, I keep coming back, don't I?

I can't think of a place that better exemplifies this dissonance than the flea market. It combines so many things I don't particularly like - mornings, crowds, blazing heat - and somehow mashes it into the countless afternoons I've spent there over the years. How is this possible, you ask?

Cards, of course!

I like to tell myself that I'd still go to the flea market if there was no possibility of finding cards, but deep down I know that's not really true - I might otherwise go once or twice a year for the novelty of it, but cards keep me coming back week after week.

There's no way I'd brave the heat and masses and 8 AM exhaustion for anything other than my beloved cardboard. That's why I made yet another trip to the flea market a few weeks ago. And the moment I saw the grand return of a particularly choice dime box vendor I thought might never come back, it made all those other inconveniences worth it.

Still having a hard time believing I found a '77 OPC Dave Winfield for a dime (good thing I flipped it over), but that's the flea market for you.  

I will brave crowds of billions if it means I can find top-tier oddballs of huge names like these for a dime.

(I actually already have the Yount, but it looked so lonely sitting there in a suburban dime box all greasy and unloved.)

Leaf cards don't excite me quite as much as OPCs, but for ten cents I'll take all the Canadian cardboard I can find.

I'll take "Cards I Can't Believe I Don't Have Already" for $200, Alex.

These dime boxes are run by a father and son who look about the same age as me and my dad - it always warms my heart to see other father-son duos in the hobby.

They had a few of these neat '94 Dodgers Police sets scattered around their table, and they basically gave me one as a throw-in after I'd paid for my dime box finds (team-issue oddballs rule!).

More stupendous oddballs - and only now am I realizing how many cool Robin Yount cards I picked up here.

Hard to beat minor league dime box fun - including a new card of Obscure Guy I Collect Todd Pratt, and just an all-around wonderful card with that Hartenstein (including a fire extinguisher cameo!).

I've said it before, but finding minor league singles of dudes I like is still one of my most supreme hobby thrills - I'll take these over regular ol' rookie cards any day of the week.

(Where have you gone, Brett Lawrie?)

Ah, who am I kidding - dime box rookies are cool, too.

A dime box with new mini-collection hits is a dime box for me.

Guys I collect, famous and not.

Bryan LaHair was DFA'ed the same year he was an All-Star (2012), which should tell you how truly inept some of those circa-2010 Cubs teams really were.

Can't decide what's more prevalent on stuff from around 2000 - legends on weird teams, or card designs with unnecessary silver/sheen finishes.

Two dime box finds I love for two very different reasons.

I suppose the one thing I judge any given dime box on is the sheer variety of cards inside - and as you can probably tell by now, these overwhelmingly made the grade.

I can only look through so much 2017 Bowman Platinum or whatever until my eyes start to glaze over - but if I'm pulling a Duke Snider oddball one minute and a 2021 Heritage insert the next (which I needed for the throwback uniform, of course!), that'll keep my attention for eternity.

Many people seem to wonder how I can stay at a single dime box for so long, how I look through all those cards, and the easy answer is just variety - the sense of not knowing what's coming next keeps me alive and alert.

That's why I made it through a good hour digging through these dime boxes under the Sunday sun at the flea market, and didn't regret a single minute or cent I spent.

Which is good, because my regular card guys didn't have a whole lot for me during this particular trip.

The 50-cent binder guy from past trips didn't have much new stuff, which meant I had to settle for stuff I'd missed and/or passed over during previous sojourns.

Another vendor had some loose '80s & '90s packs/box sets that were just a smidge overpriced - not egregiously, but not enough to get me spending wildly.

In the end, I settled for this Fleer "Heroes of Baseball" box set because it was only $4, and except for one or two cards they were all new to me.

Bought a few of his loose packs too for a buck or two a piece - I basically only grabbed these for the sheer joy of ripping packs from the mid '90s, so getting stuff I actually want (Geoff Blum!) is icing on the cake.

My main guy's dime boxes had been mostly picked through by the time I got to his table - understandably, since I spent over an hour perusing the aforementioned father-and-son dime boxes - so there wasn't a lot left for me.

I did manage to find a few vintage frankenset contenders, however, like Science Teacher Dan Coombs and a sneaky bit of Coca-Cola advertising from '75 Topps I'd somehow never seen before.

My main guy did have one biggie waiting in his glass case that ended the afternoon with a final flourish - a '68 Lou Brock for five bucks!

I'm working weekends at my new job, which, of course, is gonna put a bit of a damper on my flea market runs for the remainder of the summer. I'll still try to sneak in a pre-Sunday shift trip here and there, but for the most part I'll probably have to live with the cards and glories of past afternoons. It's a sad but expected evil of the workaday world.

Sure, that means I won't have to wake up at 8 AM or a sunburnt neck after forgetting to put on sunscreen for the umpteenth time - but the truth is I wouldn't trade any of that in, because every card I've ever bought from the flea market contains a deep and meaningful memory.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Best of the unlicensed

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last 24 hours, you've probably heard by now that Topps lost its MLB licensing agreement to Fanatics, effective at some point in the next 4-5 years.

I hesitated to even mention it on the blog because it seems like the card community has already lost enough of its mind discussing it. I also wasn't sure what to write about it because, after an understandable initial groundswell of questions, my present opinion's simply too soon to know. Topps losing its licensing agreement does sound bad. This does seem like yet another MLB middle-finger cash grab. Fanatics could completely wreck the card industry. But right now we just don't know - the MLBPA agreement doesn't even take hold until 2023, and the MLB one three years after that.

A lot of this is simply still too unclear. It remains to be seen if Topps could and/or will keep making cards without a license. My gut tells me that I hope they do. I don't miss the days of eight different brands on the shelves, but I've also never liked the unchecked world of one, single licensed company force-feeding us. I give Panini a lot of crap, but in the long run, it's nice to at least have the option to buy their stuff, if for no other reason than to take a break from the constant flurry of Topps branding.

That said, I can't honestly sit here and say unlicensed cards are anything revolutionary. Most unlicensed sets get a rap of being dull and boring because, well, most of them are dull and boring. Oddballs with blank hats are good for a novelty here and there, but they're not cards I fawn over when I'm going through my binders. If Topps does decide to go forward with unlicensed sets in the future, chances are they'll be a step back from their glory days. But it doesn't necessarily have to be that way.

In the end, the route I've decided to take in writing about this watershed moment is to make a list (shocker) of the top 5 unlicensed brands/sets out there - mainly to show that the strange world of blank hats and jerseys doesn't always have to equate to eyesores.

#5 -- 1994 Yoo-Hoo

Simply one of the best-looking unlicensed sets out there - even though there's no escaping the lack of logos here, these show you don't have to just throw your hands up and surrender to a quiet, unmemorable design without a license.

(I also have still never tried Yoo-Hoo.)

#4 -- 2010 Upper Deck

I'll go out on a limb and say that 2010 Upper Deck might well be the strangest set ever made, and for that alone it's always held an odd place in my heart.

If I had to predict what Topps might do in the future without a license, I'd venture a guess that it'd look kinda like what UD did in 2010 when they lost their license. And if Topps is the vengeful sort, maybe they should take notes, because 2010 Upper Deck is basically like a huge F-YOU! to Topps. Lots of these cards only half-heartedly try to hide their logos, which (unsurprisingly) resulted in a lawsuit effectively ended UD's baseball card days. (I've heard that UD had planned a Series 2 release that never came to light because of that lawsuit.)

Granted, this isn't a particularly thrilling set by any means, but it's still an endlessly fascinating rage quit to look back on and wonder.

#3 -- 2013 Panini Cooperstown

Panini Cooperstown was great because it showed that you can still honor baseball's legends without simply shoving Babe Ruth and Nolan Ryan into every single gosh-darn set.

The overproduction of the Seavers and Cobbs of the world has meant that quite a few dudes with plaques in Cooperstown have basically been given the shaft by the card industry. Panini Cooperstown found a terrific niche in the hobby also giving the Burleigh Grimeses and Rabbit Maranvilles their rightful places on modern cardboard.

Plus, as this excellent Negro Leagues Roy Campanella should show, they found a way to be creative with the lack of logos, rather than seeing it as an unassailable demerit.

#2 -- 2009 Tristar Obak

I love Tristar Obak for the simple reason that I've never seen a set that digs so deeply into the ignored and forgotten minutiae of baseball history.

To use a popular saying I'm quite fond of, I need another card commemorating Cal Ripken Jr.'s 2,131st game like I need a hole in the head. Not that it wasn't a monumental achievement, but it's been shown over and over and over on baseball cards. Instead, Tristar Obak gives us glossed-over pioneers like Jackie Mitchell, the first female in history to sign a professional baseball contract. Or you've even got Jim Bouton recognized not as a World Series pitcher, but as an inventor of Big League Chew - the list goes on and on. (The brand itself lasted for a few years, and the designs are all interchangeable, but I'm choosing '09 here because it has my favorite player selection.)

The only complaint about Obak is that the photos aren't great, but that's more of a testament to how far into the rabbit hole they dug - there simply aren't a lot of photographs (much less clear ones) of some of the forgotten greats they chose to celebrate.

#1 -- 2014 Panini Golden Age

I still have dreams of Panini Golden Age.

It's a brand that, for my money, so clearly outdid Topps in every single attempt to honor both baseball and pop culture history. When A&G said here's another card of some dumb podcast bro, Golden Age was giving us cards of Joey Ramone. When Topps made their 2,744th Don Mattingly card, Golden Age was giving us cards of Sleepy Bill Burns(!). It's just such a joyous brand, and 2014 Golden Age was my easy favorite of the lot because of the groovy design.

Without a license, it's just too hard to make a modern set that can compete with the fully-licensed gods. People aren't really gonna want cards of Gleyber Torres in a blank hat when the full-logo ones are right there. But Panini, like most of the other sets on this list, did it right here - they chose to look backward, and not forward, and outdo Topps's meager attempts to paint a full picture of a sport that does a lot of business in looking to the past. 

As I said earlier, I'm thinking an unlicensed Topps set, if it comes to light, will look more like 2010 Upper Deck than anything else on this list. But if I'm talking about what I think should happen, I'd love to see Topps go back and make something like Golden Age. I don't know the official laws and stipulations licensed companies have to follow as far as copyright/estate rights, but not having a license does seem to open up some avenues as far as not having to fill every modern set with the generic roster of greats. You've got the leeway to feature the Oscar Gambles and Eddie Gaedels of baseball lore, room to close those obvious gaps of baseball lore. The gaps they had to leave Panini to fill.

In the meantime, though, I suppose all of this is just a roundabout way of saying we'll simply have to wait and see, because I'm still waiting on that crystal ball.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Back in business

Good news from Dime Boxedonia: I'm employed again!

I am, once again, gonna be working at a bookstore here in the Chicago area - tomorrow's my first day. This'll be my first job with an independent bookstore vs. the chains I've been at in the past. I'm happy to report that this was probably my easiest job hunt yet - I basically got the first job I applied to - and makes me feel even more validated for leaving my last poisonous workspace. I never really intended to build a bookstore career, but here we are. Doesn't hurt that I've built up a good six years of experience in the field now. Plus it sure beats the hell out of the six months I spent working at Panera Bread many moons ago.

Until I can land that mythical card shop job, it looks like the bookstore remains the home of my employment future, and I'm perfectly okay with that.

To me, working in bookstores is a perfect balance of being interested in my work without having to take the work home with me (for the most part). 

Whether this is a good or bad thing, I don't know, but I've never launched into the job market with the intentions of building a bonafide career - all I really ask is that it pays decently and supplies enough relaxation for me to do the things I wanna do on my own time. Namely: collect baseball cards, of course! Because I'm sure gonna need a lot of time to admire the trio of photo-variation SPs that Kevin of "The Diamond King" blog recently gifted to me.

I'm still not quite sure why I love photo variations so much - they have no reason to exist and are often a pain to track down - but they're always banner adds to my binders (there's a whole heap of 'em in my latest COMC order, if/when that ever shows up).

Those variants would've been more than enough to make me happy, but Kevin sent a few friends along for the ride.

Always love the odd thrill of transparent baseball cards, and that Ichiro is some kind of team-centric oddball I would've never otherwise seen in a thousand years.

Watching the Cubs lately has been about as fun as getting shampoo in my eye, but against my better judgment I'm still a fan & still want the cards!

Bo of "Baseball Cards Come to Life!" recently reached out to let me know he had this 2006 Topps Larry Walker off my Dime Box Dozen list, which kicked off another nice trade between the two of us.

Not only is this a hit for my broken bat mini-collection (notice the knob in Walker's right hand), but it's always Walker's sunset card - probably not the image he'd want captured on his grand finale, but I still love it.

Bo also dug up a couple more mini-collection hits for me, including a Kerry Wood card that rolls so many things I love into one tidy baseball card: a weird semi-licensed '90s oddball, a pitcher hitting, and an error (Kevin Wood?!).

A few hometown names from Bo - once again, I'm forced to admit I do collect failed Cubs prospects like Hee Seop Choi and Josh Vitters, for some doggone reason.

Oddballs and others here - the Maris is a reprint, but the Richert is a very real & very welcome addition to my defunct teams collection.

I also struck up a nice little card exchange with Jay of the "Card Hemorrhage" blog recently, but never did I think it'd wind up with him sending me a Vida Blue oddball as sweet as this one...

...much less a whole gaggle of others from that very same A's-centric set!

I'm not exactly sure how or when these were issued, but I found the Bert Campaneris in a dime box a long, long time ago, and had never seen another one until Jay sent this stack my way.

I never did see a single pack of 2020 Topps Fire in the wild.

It's not anything I'm too upset about, but there are cards from this set I need - thankfully Jay tracked down a few of the throwback jersey Fire sightings for me.

A few other random gems from Jay - that Ichiro is actually an Archives reprint, and why are we reprinting cards from 2008 again?

Finally comes a package I received from Tom of "Waiting 'til Next Year," a fellow Cubs fan (for now) and a longtime friend of the blog.

I must've mentioned I collect Jesus Aguilar at some point in this blog's history - either that, or Tom's a mind-reader, because this mini-Big League Aguilar rainbow was definitely a special treat!

An excellent assortment of randoms from Tom, but let's be honest - you and I both know Will Clark steals the show here.

It's happened so many times: I go to put a new card into my binders, only to find that, what's this, I already have this card?! (Sigh.)

But here's one of the rare instances of the inverse of that phenomenon: for whatever reason, I was almost positive I already had this Hostess Johnny Bench that Tom was nice enough to send me. Nevertheless, I took a desultory look through my Reds binder, and I'm sure glad I did - because this card was nowhere to be seen. And as we all know, a Hostess card I need is among the greatest things anyone could ever send me. Just one of many reasons I'm infinitely thankful for having not only the outlets and means to collect baseball cards, but also the time to myself to actually enjoy my collection.

So for now I bid adieu, and only ask for prayers that I can keep my first-day screw-ups at the new job to a minimum tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Confessions of a player collector

This will not be news to anyone who reads this blog, but I often struggle with how to define my collection.

There's a bigger philosophical question at work here - one where I wonder if a card collection needs to be defined at all. I don't necessarily think so, but I think it's worth trying to put a label on my great big mass of baseball cards sometimes. It's a way to try to convince myself that there is at least a little bit of conventional sanity at work here.

I've always said that I am, in essence, a player collector who collects about 400 different players. But even this isn't exactly right. I'm not the type of player collector who goes out and tries to get every single card of, say, Vladimir Guerrero or Ichiro, including all the insanely scarce parallels numbered to 23 or something. And for the most part I don't even specifically search for their cards on eBay or wherever else, scouring lists to find the cards I need.

The way I define and rank my player collections, as I've come to realize, basically revolves around how much sheer joy I get out of getting a new card of any given player, however I may get that card.

There's a flip side to that - sometimes I realize how important a player collection is to me when I feel the horror of not having a fairly obvious card of said player.

There's a large group of guys who I happily collect, but don't necessarily agonize over having super intricate or well-rounded pages of their cards in my binders. Names like Stephen Strasburg and Will Clark come to mind. But when I discovered I didn't already have the '95 Pinnacle Rickey Henderson at the top of this post, it instantly went on my Dime Box Dozen list - it's a great card on its own, and anything I don't already have of Rickey excites me.

Thankfully, it wasn't a need for long - Jeremy of the (hopefully shortly!) hiatused "Topps Cards That Never Were" blog included it in a heaping box o' cards he sent me recently, along with a couple other Rickeys from his later years that seemed to span 27 different teams.

Simply put, I guess, my most important player collections are the ones that excite me the most.

I may not go for every single parallel of guys like Ichiro or Paul Konerko - I don't have the time, money, or interest to chase infinite copies of the same card - but anything new of these guys is sure to put a smile on my face.

But that isn't to say I don't have a soft spot for parallels of guys I collect, like this instant Kevin Kiermaier rainbow Jeremy graciously sent me.

My player collection moniker gets a bit more convoluted with my weird quirk of only collecting some guys on certain teams.

I don't hoard Carlos Baerga cards with anything approaching regularity, but show me a card of his forgotten Red Sox days and I'm there.

I've collected Ron Santo for a long time, and it was awesome to see him pop up on a Turkey Red insert on 2020 Update since he doesn't get many cards anymore.

But while the collections I've had since I was a kid will always be near and dear to me, it's been a blast adding new guys to the catalog in recent years - including all the Mo Vaughn and Ozzie Guillen cards I should've been chasing a long time ago.

My mini-collections throw an even bigger wrench into trying to define my collection - whether it's Frank Thomas or some rookie I've never heard of, I want any and all throwbacks in my binders ASAP (special nod to the excellent Washington Senators uni at the center here).

Oddballs earn extra points if they happen to feature guys I collect, like these spectacular regional Expos oddities from Jeremy of a couple stalwarts in my player collection canon.

But oddballs don't have to feature my favorite players for me to enjoy them - in a way I collect the brand more than the player sometimes.

I seem to have accumulated a ton of Juan Gonzalez cards without ever really collecting him, but that Hamburger Helper card is one of the few that's grabbed my attention, if for no other reason than I didn't know cards were ever issued with Hamburger Helper (though I still find the food itself disgusting).

More nifty oddballs from Jeremy - I'll admit that despite the numerous Seinfeld references I make, I've never had a Drake's Coffee Cake (do they still make those?).

A few horizontals here, including the sight of Eddie Murray in an Angels uniform that'll never, ever look right to me.

I opened a surprisingly ample amount of 2020 Topps Update, but somehow the coveted Randy Arozarena rookie didn't fall out of a single one of those packs (meanwhile I was pulling five or six copies of some other cards).

Jeremy put an end to that painful gap as well with this unexpected gift that was a hot commodity on the flipper market at one point. I haven't heard much about Arozarena since his Ruthian playoff run, and I don't know if people care much about his cards anymore, but I still want them. Along with the scores and scores of other players I joyously collect. And oddballs. Oh, and throwback jerseys, too. Oh, and...

I guess it's no wonder, then, that the question I hear the most at card shows is the one I can never answer: So, what do YOU collect?