Thursday, October 28, 2021

What is Topps doing?

Topps Update releases this week, and when I first saw the checklist, I lapsed into a series of frustrations and concerns that basically funneled themselves into a single question - what the hell is Topps doing??

Longtime readers may know that I've been somewhat of a Topps Update fanboy over the years. I've been willing to overlook many of its glaring problems, still bought pack after pack after pack. But even I can't turn on the blinders anymore, because if you're anything like me and have seen the 2021 Update checklist, you might've noticed just how many things are painfully wrong this year. Sure, 2020 Update was weird and dull and just not great - but at least Topps had somewhat of a viable excuse with the pandemic and everything. 

Topps was thrown a softball with Albert Pujols's early-season release and subsequent signing with the Dodgers, and he rightfully has a spot in this year's Update - though he's already had at least one other Dodger card in a (somewhat) mainstream set with Topps Fire.

Apart from that, however, almost no other 2021 transactions are documented in the madness that is 2021 Topps Update.

None of the deals from the Cubs trade-deadline fire sale are shown in this year's set (my first painful Rizzo Yankees card had to come from Topps 206, of all sets). No Max Scherzer, no Joey Gallo, no Jorge Soler. Nothing from any of the guys who switched teams and, you know, needed updating. This has been a problem for a couple years now, and for the life of me I can't understand it. My only guess is Topps has an early-season deadline to get these to the presses. And if that's the case...then just push the deadline back. I don't mind if Update comes out in November rather than October, and I don't think anyone else would, either.

I've said this before, and it seems obvious enough to not need repeating, but here goes - the set is called Topps Update! SO UPDATE US! 

There's even a good amount of guys in 2021 Update who aren't even on the teams they're "updated" with in this year's set.

I had false hope that Jake Arrieta's return to the Cubs might actually work out, but he had a dumpster fire of a season and was DFA'ed in August. He caught on with the Padres, was somehow even worse for them, and was DFA'ed again. Yet there he is in the 2021 Update checklist as a Cub(?).

This kind of thing is fine for earlier-season sets like Gypsy Queen or whatever, but there's no excuse for it by the time Update comes around.

I can't help but fawn over the glory days when my high-school self was marveling over my first Brewers card of CC Sabathia in, you guessed it, Topps Update!

I don't know whether this is good or bad, but a trade doesn't really feel like a trade to me until I get a card of a player on a new team - some physical, nine-pocket evidence that Javier Baez played for the Mets, Kris Bryant for the Giants, etc., etc., and 2021 Update completely fails me in that regard.

But that's not all, because there aren't any All-Star cards in 2021 Update, either.

Listen, you and I both know that Update's All-Stars have been horribly bloated over the years, with an unnecessarily large fraction of the set being taken over by dudes who may or may not have even played in the Midsummer Classic. But to go completely the other way and get rid of the All-Star cards all together? NO! The All-Star game, like the trade deadline, is an important day of the season that deserves recognition in the final big set of the year. And if you believe 2021 Update, it didn't happen at all.

Another failure.

And oh by the way, Nick Madrigal has a "Rookie Debut" card in 2021 Update.

Problem there is he debuted in 2020, more than a year before this set ever existed. He even has a rookie card way back in Series 1, right there for the world and everybody to see. So not only is Topps refusing to update anything that happened in 2021, but they're still insisting on telling us about the 2020 baseball season.

This I really can't explain - an oversight at best, pure laziness at worst.

I used to buy a hobby box of Update every year for right around $60, a sum that usually fit nicely within my card budget.

Here in 2021, you can't touch a box for under $100, flaws and all. Why? ROOKIES, of course! What I'm fearing with Update (and I know I've been saying this a lot lately) is that Topps is siphoning all the personality of this set in favor of cramming as many rookies as possible into it. If rookie cards of Trout, Betts, Soto & Co. are any indication, Update is seen by a lot of people as an investment chip to hoard. And I wouldn't mind that if it didn't cause the quality of the product to suffer, while also pricing me out of the fun at the same time.

Will I buy any Update if a miracle happens and I actually see some at Target? Perhaps, more for novelty's sake than anything, and not out of the excitement I once had for this brand. It's stuff like this that steers the hobby into dangerous waters, while at the same time making me wonder if the impending Fanatics takeover might, just might, not be the worst thing in the world.

And so after all that, I...still don't have any answers, and the question remains - what the hell is Topps doing??

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Origin stories

Why do we collect the things we do?

A seemingly innocuous question with billions of different answers. Whether it's a team, a player, a set, or anything else, there had to have been that one A-HA! moment when the lightbulb lit up and we decided, yes, that's something I want to devote my time and money towards. But for as many different things as I collect, I'm sorry to say that I haven't retained a ton of those frozen moments in time, those origin stories.

I recently received a king-sized package from Bob of "The Best Bubble" that a gluttony of different things I collect - namely, a new Mark Grace card! I've mentioned many times that Mark Grace is my mom's favorite baseball player, but while that's the main reason he's a top-tier guy for me, I don't think that's why I started chasing his cards in the first place.

I'm sure I saw him excel in a number of games on WGN as a young Cubs fan, but sadly I can't remember 

Sure, I collect bigger names like Frank Thomas, Paul Konerko, and Bill Mazeroski, but a lot of the time my most vivid origin stories generally cling to the more obscure - because there can only be so many reasons one would start collecting Todd Pratt.

(For what it's worth, Pratt's a callback to my days of playing a card game called MLB Showdown, had a weirdly good card one year for some still-unexplained reason.)

Mini-collection origin stories are a bit vague - I've been hoarding cards with throwback jerseys for as long as I can remember, but I don't recall the exact moment I decided to consciously devote a corner of my collection to them.

I can't even tell you why I'm a Cubs fan with 100 percent certainty - I actually come from a pedigree of Sox fans on my dad's side.

It doesn't seem like a ton of bloggers have had the desire/opportunity to open many packs this year, so it was a nice treat to see Bob take down some of 2021 Stadium Club needs.

(Adell and Rickey have to be Card of the Year nominees.)

More 2021 Stadium Club, including a terrific Kirby Puckett sighting and a rookie of one of my new favorite Cubs with Nick Madrigal (thanks, Sox!).

Always up for a weird and wild trip through the world of minis.

I also don't remember when I discovered how great it was to collect cards from Canada, and that seems especially painful.

John Kruk is one of those weird guys I've always liked, but never devoted much binder space to until recently.

Part of the beauty of having this blog is being able to freeze moments in time -  because of that, I know precisely when and why I decided to start collecting Jim Walewander.

But even then, I didn't think someone like Bob would come along and send me a framed signed photo of the guy(!!!). It answered the initial question I had of why an otherwise standard-sized stack of cards showed up in a huge box.

It also makes me remember the value of a good origin story, and an indicator how special my Jim Walewander collection is turning out to be - signed photos and all.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The COMC order I thought would never come

Last week, I woke up to an email that, against all odds, my COMC order had actually been shipped, and a big box arrived on my doorstep a few days later.

Like a lot of other people, I've been waiting on these cards for A LONG TIME. Four months, to be exact. So you can understand why I was starting to think this day would never come. On the one hand, I can only imagine COMC's massive backlog these days, and I get why things would be slowed to a crawl. But on the other hand, I'd probably be fired if I took four months to fulfill an order at my job. As a conscious customer, but also someone who wants all my cards, it's hard to know what to feel.

For what it's worth, I'm still shopping at COMC - I've already added a handful of cards to my next order, whenever that may happen. And, much like my other pandemic COMC package, I'd forgotten about a lot of the cards I bought here, so the long wait time kinda allowed me to experience everything in there like it was fresh and new again. Because in the end, I've yet to come across a card site that offers the variety and sheer fun you'll find at COMC.

The first thing that fell out of the box was my first Project 2020 card with this Koufax, which I got for a song thanks to some unfortunate handling at some point in its life - after all, I'm buying the card, not the case!

My second Project 2020 card slid out shortly after - this one uncracked and just plain beautiful.

I never planned on owning anything from the Project 2020 craze - I don't like most of them, and even the ones I do like aren't worth anything close the $20 retail tag. Their allure to the masses mostly remains a mystery to me. This Gwynn was the only one I saw that checked the "cool" (palm trees!) and "cheap" (three dollars!) boxes. (I'm not particularly enthralled with the art on the Koufax, but it's SANDY KOUFAX and it was way too cheap to ignore.)

I will say these are way thicker than I thought they'd be, and I'm a bit disappointed there - I was planning on cracking these out of their ugly plastic shells and displaying them in my binders, but I don't know if I have any pages flexible enough for their girth. 

One of my main uses for COMC is plucking singles from recent online-only and/or exclusive sets I'll probably never see in the wild.

I'm a big fan of this Super '70s set Topps quietly released last year for many reasons - not the least of which being it finally gave us a card of Goose Gossage in shorts(!).

The tragedy here is that Topps's online stuff is more inspired and just plain better than a lot of their main sets, which is why I'm so keen on tracking them down on the secondary market.

If a regular ol' Topps base set had any of these designs, I'd most certainly buy it in gobs.

More Topps online-only stuff - can't remember the last time Ed Kranepool had a card in a modern set, and those Flagship 3-D cards have no reason to exist but are still mighty neat.

Really the only online offering I've even thought about buying directly from Topps are their Throwback Thursday sets, mainly because I love the odd mashup of baseball players on non-baseball designs.

For now, I'm content with buying cheapies on COMC, but I feel like I'm gonna eventually have to cave and give Topps my money one of these days.

But my COMC shopping isn't all high-and-mighty exclusive stuff - I love finding stuff for my long-standing player collections, too.

That SI for Kids Ichiro catapults me right back into my youth, and I never knew how much I wanted a card of Anthony Rizzo wearing a scarf until I found a card of Anthony Rizzo wearing a scarf.

Mini-collection hits!

(The Phillies really need to wear those throwbacks more often.)

Always here for legends in weird uniforms.

I love cheap photo variations.


Given that most photo SPs are pretty tough pulls, I'm constantly shocked how affordable they are on COMC - I don't think anything from the huge stack of 'em I bought cost more than $1.25 or so.

Cardboard is cool, but have you ever seen cards made of water or silk???

Buying minor league cards I want on COMC is tough - I have to wade through piles and piles of Low-A guys who never sniffed the majors to find dudes I like.

I'm particularly pleased with that early minor league issue of perennial "Obscure Guy I Collect" Todd Pratt, and a card of RECYCLEMAN! - the Marvel superhero we never knew we needed.

COMC's good for a nice mix of miscellany as well - I want all the bubble refractors, and that Torres is my first (painful) card of his zero-year tenure with the Cubs.

These Golden Age box bottoms are absolutely brilliant, and yes, I tore the perforated edges and divvied this up into three individual cards, the way god intended.

Horizontal goodies, including baby Kershaw and another Cubs zero-year card with that Dontrelle Willis.

Digging through this order was really like an early Christmas.

Smaller than your average cardboard, but every bit as great.

Food-issues or otherwise, it's hard not to fall in love with the late '70s/early '80s world of oddballs (Super Joe!).

But don't sleep on the rest of the '80s and '90s, because there's quite a few goldmines there as well - that Mattingly becomes one of the rare full-family shots in my "Cards with Kids" mini-collection.

Greatness aside, oddballs also be educational - without COMC, I would've never known Stouffer's, of all brands, made pull-tab oddballs in the '90s.

Some snappy vintage here - you'll have to take my word that the Palmer & Thornton are OPCs, and the Blair is a treasured alternate-universe Burger King oddball.

But the unquestioned jewel of this particular COMC order was a real, actual '59 Koufax!

Pretty much everything that could go wrong with this particular card has already happened - it's scuffed, taped, off-center, and written on. Add this all up, however, and you get a previously dream-worthy card that was actually in my price range! At a whole $25, it was lightyears ahead of anything in this order, but also quite a bit cheaper than any '59 Koufax I've seen. I highly doubt I'll ever own all of Koufax's Topps cards (might need to sell a kidney to fund a '55 rookie), but each one I manage to find feels like an improbable David-and Goliath-like victory.

After all that, I guess I'll see you in about a year when my next COMC order arrives - which I suppose is okay, because it might well take a year for me to properly admire and salivate over everything that came in this treasure chest.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Wish you were here

There was a time when I wondered why anyone would ever just stop blogging. 

Why not keep doing this? Isn't it fun? Don't you want to? I see now the naivete of this train of thought, spoken like a true teenager with a lot of time and energy on his hands. Of course people want to blog, but there's a little thing called life that gets in the way sometimes. Heck, I stopped blogging for a little while there a few years ago, and these days I'm lucky if I get my customary one post a week up. It happens.

There are, admittedly, a few boarded-up blogs whose absence have left a little bigger gap in my blogging heart - one of those was a blog you fellow veterans might remember named "Playing With My Cards" by a guy who went by EP and enjoyed a lot of the same Random cardboard happenings I did. That blog hasn't been active for (checks notes) seven years now (seven years?!), and it sadly entered into the long line of blogs I once loved that have since gone defunct.

So you can imagine how surprised - and glad! - I was to get an email from EP recently saying Hi Nick, it's been a long time.

The rust of seven years was brushed away in the stroke of a single email - we quickly got to talking about Random cards, general life goings-on, and, yes, sending cards to one another!

It wasn't long after that I received a re-introductory PWE from EP, one that had a Dime Box Dozen need (Nelson), an excellent custom (Sojo), and a goofy minor-league masterpiece (Noce) that gives Keith Comstock a run for his money.

While I selfishly wish every blog in existence would stay active and churn out card content for all of eternity, I realize the blogosphere is a forever-shifting world, with people coming and going every day. 

To be clear: EP wants me to emphasize that he isn't planning to relaunch his blog anytime soon, but still, it's nice to know that people I long since assumed had left the blogs are still out there, still reading and lurking.

He also let me know that he came into a large amount of '71 Topps recently, and asked what I still needed from the set - though I'm sure there's a bunch of frankenset-worthy shots waiting for me, I was surprisingly down to a grand total of two needs for my player collections (zero now, I guess).

Ah, but the world of Random isn't limited to just baseball.

After a few emails back and forth, EP hit upon a fun trading concept/game/strategy - he asked me to send him names of guys I collect, any and all that popped into my mind, and he'd send back photos of extras from his collection that I could choose from.

This, to me, was the best of both worlds - it's like digging through a dime box specifically crafted and curated to fit my tastes.

I started out with some obvious names like Tony Gwynn and Tim Raines, and EP came through with a bunch of new ones (aren't OPC Expos the best?).

The majority of the names that I sent along were '80s guys I didn't start collecting until a bit later, thus leaving a bunch of obvious gaps in my collection - guys like Doc Gooden, for instance.

(Highly recommend the recent "30 for 30" series on the '86 Mets if you haven't seen it yet.)

I feel like a bit of a bandwagoner with my Orel Hershiser collection - EP and numerous other Dodger collectors have been raving about this guy since I've been on the blogs, but only recently have I begun to chase his cards.

The beauty of trading with someone who collects a certain player is getting the hand-me-downs from that person's collection - oddballs, OPCs, and obvious cards alike (how did I not already have that '86 Topps?!).

A collecting rule I've only recently started to follow: you can never have too many Kirby Puckett cards.

Dale Murphy mastering the bat-on-shoulder pose, and a couple Big Hurts that have me further wondering why it took me so long to start collecting him.

South Side legends.

Big names on weird teams.

More stuff to fuel my oddball fandom, including what I believe EP said was a New York magazine insert with that Piazza.

I admire people like EP who can not only keep their collections organized, but their extras as well.

If someone asked me to do something like this, I'd have to go rifling through my closet and search through 15 different boxes of cards to come up with anything, and by then both of us would've lost interest.

But little did I know that our little trading game would only be the beginning of this trade, because nestled next to all the cards I'd selected through our emails was a batch of surprise customs from EP himself!

One of the many things I've been floored with during my time around here is how many people are creative and savvy enough to not only pull off their own customs, but do them well.

I'm not joking when I say the customs I've seen around the blogs are better than about 99 percent of what Topps puts out these days, and EP's are no exception.

I sometimes fantasize about what it would be like if Topps (or Fantatics, in the future) handed the reins of the over to the real, actual collectors out there, and not just a corporate syndicate out to make a quick buck.

My guess is that the card industry would absolutely flourish with not only well-designed cards like these, but cards of players so often ignored in the industry, the Don Newcombes and Ted Kluszewskis of the world.

(I like that Dock Ellis has gotten a couple trippy cards in the "Project 70" set, but the dude did do more than just pitch a no-hitter on acid, you know.)

A couple things I learned from EP's customs: 1) The Mariners used to deliver their relievers to the mound in a giant boat, and 2) Don Newcombe pitched in Japan after his MLB days were over.

I knew that David Ortiz began in the Mariners' system - I like to imagine a timeline where he became a Seattle legend - but to my knowledge no cards were made of his tenure there...until these customs, of course!

Had no idea Chet Lemon started out with the A's organization, though (or that he was originally a third baseman!).

And if the Virdon really is a Topps stock photo, I think they missed out on making a truly legendary baseball card out of it.

There are many alternate realities to explore here - David Ortiz as a Mariner, bloggers getting to make their own mass-produced card sets, and, of course, EP continuing his blogging career all those years ago, and being able to see him pop up my blogroll night in and night out right now.

Alas, things change. I'm grateful to still be blogging, no matter how inconsistently, and that a few of the blogs I've been reading since the beginning are still here. It's a testament to the staying power of the blogosphere.

But it's also gratifying to know that, even if their blogs have gone by the wayside, some of my earliest blogging buddies of mine are still around, reading from the sidelines.