Let’s begin the annual dive into analysis, estimates, and hunches, with the National League West:
Los Angeles: In the original classic version of John LeCarre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” Alec Guinness as George Smiley corners Bernard Hepton as the treason-enabling Toby Esterhase with a telling colloquy:
Smiley: Ever bought a fake picture, Toby?
Esterhase (smiling): Sold a couple once.
Smiley: The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt its authenticity.
The Dodgers have the talent to win the National League West twice this year. But they probably won’t win it at all, and that’ll probably unleash a disaster in which the General Manager and Manager both get fired, because they’re sticking to the truth behind that quote. The new ownership will stick with the high-end counterfeits they saddled themselves last year simply because they bought them, and they bought them simply because they cost so much.
1. The Dodgers invested in the useless-in-a-pennant-race Zack Greinke, the untested Hyun-Jin Ryu, and traded for the finished Josh Beckett, and will start them while burying or trading the useful but unspectacular Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, and Ted Lilly. Among the eight possible Dodger starters, Beckett should be ranked eighth.
2. For two months or more, the Dodgers will attempt to replace the injured Hanley Ramirez with Nick Punto (or maybe Juan Uribe) instead of Dee Gordon. How much must they hate Dee Gordon? It’s remarkable enough that they chose to bet on a journeyman minor league lifer who got lucky last year (Luis Cruz) over Gordon, but to be forced to take a second bite of the apple and still bite your own tongue is amazing. Gordon is young and made lots of mistakes in the field and on the bases, but unlike Punto he can hit Punto’s weight, and unlike Uribe, in the field he doesn’t resemble a potted plant.
3. Brandon League – who has blown 29 percent of his career save opportunities – looks like he’ll be the closer. If my calculations are correct, six of these 84 opportunities have come during pennant races. I realize Kenley Jansen has these disturbing heart problems, but if that’s somehow a factor, how on earth are they letting him out on the field in the first place?
4. This is an Andre Ethier slash line: 23/89/.292/.368/.493, 3.2 Offensive War, -0.2 Defensive War. Those aren’t career numbers, or a forecast for 2013. Those are his stat-by-stat highs since his “breakout” season of 2009, which in retrospect looks like his high water mark. And yet the Dodgers and much of the L.A. media still think him a Golden Child who should be batting fifth. I believe this could be called “The Wes Parker Effect,” which was while I lived there the only portion of the dismissal of Southern California as superficial that I found true. For nearly a decade the Dodgers thought first baseman Wes Parker was it, because he looked like he was it. Graceful, good looks, dashing. His career slash was .267/.351/.375 – and his career defensive WAR was minus three. For a first baseman.
Ethier looks like he’s a great player. He’s not. He was an above-average guy with one pretty good year who is well into his post-age-28 decline and is just not going to get any better now (and have a hard time staying even this good). And he will play every day while Yasiel Puig – the closest thing there is to ‘this year’s Yoenis Cespedes’ – goes to the minors.
5. Even more amazingly, until Carl Crawford is ready to play every day in left field, the Dodgers will have Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston Jr fill in, and not Puig. This presumes, by the way, that when Crawford is ready to play he actually will play well, and not be consumed by the panic that destroyed him in Boston. And the Dodgers’ rationales for ignoring in Puig what might be their best athlete this side of Matt Kemp? Incredibly, they are a) blaming Dee Gordon (somehow he forced them to rush him and even though he played terrifically when they brought him up in 2011, because he didn’t last year, that’s a reason to send out Puig), and b) they are crying poverty or at minimum preaching economy. The team that assumed $261,000,000 in Dead Sox contracts on one sunny day last year is actually reported to be worried about Puig’s service time and the acceleration of his free agency and arbitration eligibilities.
6. Even if you think this line-up (A.J. Ellis/Gonzalez/M. Ellis/Cruz/Punto/Schumaker/Kemp/Ethier) is actually the best one the Dodgers can put on the field, my old ESPN colleague and figure filbert deluxe David Punto argues that the way Don Mattingly has ordered it will generate about half a run less than it could.
The only threat the Dodgers should face in this division is from themselves. Unfortunately it seems like a mortal one.
Arizona: So apparently Justin Upton, Chris Young, Trevor Bauer, John McDonald, Henry Blanco, Chris Johnson, Sam Demel, Takashi Saito and a bunch of other guys just weren’t the ‘right types’ for somebody in the Diamondbacks’ hierarchy. Kirk Gibson? GM Kevin Towers? Owner and T206 Wagner trimming scandal victim Ken Kendrick? Who knows, and, frankly, who cares?
The purging of players by dint of character or philosophy or whatever may have once been a productive means of shaping a team. But in the modern game, what it gets you is…the Colorado Rockies. I don’t know what personality trait is shared by the incoming Acceptable Diamondback Personality Types like Eric Chavez, Martin Prado, Heath Bell, Cody Ross, Brandon McCarthy, Eric Hinske, Cliff Pennington, Randall Delgado and Didi Gregorius (although everybody likes McCarthy and Ross, nobody likes Bell, and in terms of defensive prospects Gregorius might be the best one in the game). I only know that engineering a line-up based on anything other than talent is madness and usually results in big “Kaboom” sounds and incendiary lightning strikes.
The one pure baseball consideration in the off-season clean-out also didn’t go well. Chris Young (the centerfielder, not the pitcher) was moved in part to make room for Adam Eaton (the centerfielder, not the pitcher). While the latter may not be quite the prospect Arizona thinks him, it was a defensible argument. Until Eaton got hurt.
The team isn’t bad, per se – just ‘meh.’ The pitchers are mostly A.L. refugees (McCarthy, Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, J.J. Putz, David Hernandez, Tony Sipp, the injured Daniel Hudson). There are some pretty good position players here and there but absolutely nobody you’d point to and say “All Star!,” which is an irony by itself given that the coaching staff behind Gibson (Alan Trammell, Matt Williams, Don Baylor, Charles Nagy, and now Steve Sax) is illustrious.
Fortunately when they finish a distant third the Specially-Selected Quality-Character D-Backs will all be good sports about it, I guess.
Colorado: Wanna hear something sad? In my fantasy baseball league, based solely on the NL, we had gone 140 players into the auction with every position player having inspired at least two bids (somebody opens for $1 and then another says $2 or $20 or whatever). Then Todd Helton was nominated.
Todd Helton cost $1 in our fantasy league.
The Rockies’ franchise he represents isn’t that bad, nor that sad. There is a disturbing fragility about its superstars (Cargo, Tulowitzki, and from the in-residence emeritus department, Helton) and just when the franchise seemed to be on the verge of recovering from the same kind of Character First nonsense Arizona will now suffer through, somebody decided to reinvent pitching. It’s well-intentioned (pitching has already been reinvented while pitching staffs have merely been enlarged and categorized) but seems to have incorporated only the worst of the old (four man rotation!) and the most dubious of the new (perpetual pitch counts and Vice Presidents of Pitching Developmental Personnel Evaluation Coordination).
There is this to consider, of course. The Rockies don’t have one outstanding pitcher right now, in the rotation or out of it (maybe Rex Brothers or Rob Scahill will become that, but not yet). And yet you don’t hear about that, do you? You only hear about The Executive Director of Coloradoean Pitching Prowess And Succor.
Clever diversion. It still means last place, but it’s clever.
San Diego: What, exactly, did the Padres get out of trading Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs? Oh yeah, Andrew Cashner (possibly not hurt this year) and outfielder Kyung-Min Na (he hit .155 last year). And, oh yeah, this gave the Pods an excuse to pack Mat Latos to Cincinnati for yet another first base prospect, Yonder Alonso (slugged .393 last year) and crack catching prospect Yasmani Grandal (Team Biogenesis; see you in June).
Occasionally the Pods hold on to somebody whom they should’ve given away for a bag of magic beans (Chase Headley) but, not to worry. He gets injured, the team’s faint prospects for a wild card slide back into the ether, and the happy, becalmed residents of San Diego continue to come out in sufficient numbers to keep this somnambulant franchise alive.
It’s really a shame. Hall of Famers Jerry Coleman, Ted Leitner, and Dick Enberg are among the Padres’ announcers. The impeccable Buddy Black is still the manager. And the weather is soooo nice. Shouldn’t somebody be complaining about fourth place?
San Francisco: OK, I admit it. Even after watching the Tigers melt the Yankees in the ALCS last year I had this sneaking suspicion that a good team with fewer stars but better defense, which could execute on both sides of the ball, might destroy the Tigers in the World Series. And then I looked at the San Francisco lineup and I just couldn’t go with my hunch.
I feel great shame.
Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean just don’t make mistakes (well, Sabean shouldn’t have run his mouth when Buster Posey got planted in ’11, but I mean more pertinent-to-the-job mistakes). The rotation may get a little thin as early as Tim Lincecum and I’m not convinced Sergio Romo is the long-term answer in the bullpen. But in a doctrinal division, Giants management is non-denominational. The Dodgers throw money at everything. The Padres throw money at nothing. The Rockies tried religious tests. The Diamondbacks got rid of the ‘bad’ guys.
Bochy and Sabean (and coaches Dave Righetti and Mark Gardner) tried…everything. They did not hesitate to go to Plans B, C, D, or E when their Plan A failed. There were five closers last year, and somebody was invested in all the ones who weren’t Romo. Yet they changed, and changed again, and changed again, and finally were willing to go into the post-season with a closer who had pitched in 276 major league games but seen only 23 save opportunities.
The 2010 championship was won by midseason pickups like Cody Ross. 2012’s was sparked by Marco Scutaro and the finally at-home Hunter Pence. Who will make the difference for the 2013 Jints? Somebody Sabean goes and gets in July (although this year there are some actual farm products who could play a role, like outfielder Gary Brown, starter Kyle Crick, or closer Heath Hembree – who looks like one of those walk-the-bases-loaded-then-strike-the-side-out types).
And oh yeah, the Giants have Posey and Panda and the emerging Brandon Belt.
But mostly they’ll get 100% out of what they have while the more talented and monied Dodgers seem intent on getting 50%. I think they’ll have to keep the pedal down all season to beat L.A. and it might still be close around September 1, which is when the Dodgers will fold for good and finish 4-to-8 games out.
Division: Giants, Dodgers in a pennant race second, Diamondbacks not competitive in third, Padres struggling to fourth, pitching-free Rockies fifth.
Tomorrow the NL East.
In 1991, I got a call from my friend Matt Federgreen, the proprietor of the Beverly Hills Baseball Card Shop and my co-host for a little segment I did on each of my half-hour-long Sunday night sportscasts on KCBS-Channel 2 in L.A.
Matt had been approached by Bruce McNall, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings and at that time the rising figure in hockey ownership and L.A. sports moguldom. McNall had made his millions buying and selling (and as the jury later agreed, often selling and re-selling and re-re-selling) antique coins, and he was fascinated by the upcoming auction of the Jim Copeland sports memorabilia. Big-money auctions were nothing new to the baseball card world, but this one was being handled by Sotheby’s, meaning the hobby was being mainstreamed into investment-grade collectibles.
The centerpiece of the Sotheby’s Auction was an unbelievably pristine copy of the 1909 American Tobacco Company card of Honus Wagner, hardly the scarcest, but handily the most famous, card in the landmark series we collectors call by its catalogue number “T-206.” McNall and a then-unidentified partner (who proved to be his star player, Wayne Gretzky) wanted the card and they wanted Federgreen’s expertise. The card looked brand new. It bore no earmarks of being a clever counterfeit. But it also bore no signs of nearly 92 years of aging. Unless somebody was standing at the printing press when the card was finished drying, and stuffed it between the pages of a book, and kept the book in a climate-controlled room from the opening days of the Presidential administration of William Howard Taft, and had only taken it out after the inauguration of George H.W. Bush, something seemed wrong.
Something was very wrong. I couldn’t go with Matt to the inspection of the Wagner that McNall had arranged for him. But Matt took a bunch of pictures, and the next time he came in to the studios he brought them.
Matt has a sly smile that usually gives him away. “Whaddya think?”
I took one look at the photos and said “It’s been trimmed.”
Matt laughed. “That’s what I told Bruce. He said thanks very much, he said he thought so too, he said he’d probably buy it any way, and he walked me to the door, and he paid me a very generous fee, and I left.”
I asked him to show me the photos again. They had rung too loud a bell. “I’ve seen this card before.”
Matt’s eyes lit up. By the following Sunday I had found in my rabbit’s warren of card-related stuff, photos of a Wagner that had been offered for sale in the early ’80s by a fellow who owned a baseball card store on Long Island outside New York City. I had no doubt and neither did Matt. Between his photos and mine we were looking at before-and-after shots of the same card.
Before and after somebody with the guts of a burglar and the skills of a circumcision specialist had trimmed the thing.
In its previous state the Wagner was an anomaly. It had very large white borders, and the card was thus perhaps 10% bigger than the average T-206. It looked like it had been hand-cut from a sheet of cards, and not done by a machine. Some of the corners were stubbed and worn from age. But the “face” of the card, the player’s image, the bright yellow background, the lettering, were shiny and virtually perfect. It had been handled, and handled an appropriate amount, since 1909. But whoever had done the handling had been very, very careful not to touch the face.
And then somebody bought it and actually cut away all the damage on the sides and sold it to Jim Copeland who had turned it over to Sotheby’s which would shortly sell it to Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky for $451,000. When McNall was exposed as a crook who would sell the same priceless coin to several different collectors (throwing in secure storage of it for a small additional fee – so that it was always around for him to show it and re-sell it to another collector even though he didn’t own it any more) Gretzky got full possession of the treasure and sold it off to Walmart as a publicity thing, basically at a break-even figure. The price has gone up and up and up, and “the” Wagner was finally sold to Conservative political figure and Arizona Diamondbacks’ owner Ken Kendrick, who five years ago paid $2,800,000 for it.
It’s not a fake. But it’s also not an original.
And for years, collectors and experts have murmured about the process by which a really nice Wagner had been altered, and the alterations hidden from the public (even receiving the stamp of approval by the presumptive “final word” of a card authenticating company which got enormous publicity – and undeserved credibility – for encasing the card in the first of its plastic “slabs”), and the card became the image of the sports memorabilia hobby.
But who was behind this? And, Heavens, who cut the card?
Now we have the answer, courtesy the FBI…
According to the indictment, in advertising portraying Mastro Auctions as the premier seller of valuable items, including the world’s most expensive baseball trading card, a Honus Wagner T-206 card, Mastro allegedly failed to disclose that he had altered the Wagner T-206 card by cutting the sides in a manner that, if disclosed, would have significantly reduced the value of the card.
The “Mastro” in question is Bill Mastro, who I have known since we were both teenagers. At age 19, he had bought a Wagner for $1,500 and thus completed his T-206 set. Those of us whose own massive collections might have been worth a total of $1,500 were aghast. My friend and mentor Mike Aronstein told me that some of Mastro’s relatives had actually gathered together to consider what we would now call an “intervention” or forcing him to seek psychological help. It was believed that no Wagner had previously sold for more than around $250. At the left is how this startling development was contemporaneously covered by a monthly publication I used to write for called The Trader Speaks.
Mastro was already buying and selling cards that were not intended for his own collection. By the ’80s he had gone from card dealer to the founder of one of the first sports memorabilia auction houses, Mastro Auctions, and would regularly work the phones to try to drum up publicity for his auctions.
It eventually became a $50,000,000 business. And now it’s gotten Mastro and some of his colleagues indicted. And not just for the deception regarding the Wagner.
More from the Department of Justice’s press release:
CHICAGO — Online and live auctions of sports memorabilia and other collectibles conducted during the 2000s by the former Mastro Auctions, which was based in suburban Chicago, routinely defrauded customers, according to a federal indictment unsealed today. William Mastro, who owned the former business that once billed itself as the “world’s leading sports and Americana auction house,” together with Doug Allen and Mark Theotikos, both former executives of Mastro Auctions, were indicted on fraud charges for allegedly rigging auctions through a series of deceptive practices, including so-called “shill-bidding,” designed to inflate prices paid by bidders and to protect the interests of consignors and sellers at the expense of unwitting bidders.
In short, if you bought from Mastro, you stood an excellent chance of bidding against people who were there only to drive up the price.
For that part of the story, I refer you to the whole press release at the Sports Collectors Digest website. The New York Daily News has even more detail on the extraordinary tale of “the” Wagner, which after two decades of whispering, we can now shout: has been deceptively altered.
Just for fun, I should note here that the entire story of what originally made the Wagner card scarce in the first place also doesn’t add up. The timeline is so messy that it has the card being withdrawn at Wagner’s behest (supposedly because he didn’t want to be involved in selling cigarettes to kids) after he saw an advertisement for it in a national sports magazine. But the ad didn’t appear until July, 1909 and the card was supposed to have been withdrawn in March, 1909. But I’ll save that tale of what might’ve been the first card made deliberately scarce, for another time.
Also, this isn’t the scarcest card of all time, nor even in this set (there are at least 75 of them; there may not be as many examples of the T-206 card of an A’s pitcher named Eddie Plank, and there are only three or four copies of a rare T-206 variation of a Yankees’ pitcher Joe Doyle, and there are unique examples of eight minor league T-206 ‘proof’ cards featuring players who never got into the issued set, and based on recent developments there may yet be a 525th card to add to the checklist). More on that some other time.
Lastly, if you’re ever actually talking about Honus Wagner – the immortal shortstop or the card or now the FBI Fraud Case – the name doesn’t rhyme with “bonus.” Honus was short for the Germanic version of John, Johannes. So he answered to “Honnis,” not “Ho-nus.”
Sometimes – whether you merit it or not – you seed the Publicity Storm Cloud just right with the chemicals and you get eight inches of rain.
Such it was yesterday when a respected memorabilia auction house put out a story about the discovery of some hundred-year old baseball cards in an attic in Ohio. I have a little less than 400,000 followers on Twitter and it feels like half of them sent me a link, wondering if I would be buying what each and every article described as three million dollars worth of cards. As near as I can tell, the story was picked up by ABC, CBS, NBC, ESPN, Fox, AP, Forbes Agence France Presse, TASS, and Pravda. As I washed my face before bed last night and flipped on the radio, the story was on the CBS hourly newscast.
I’ve dealt with the auctioneers – Heritage – for years with nothing but professional results, and I’m accusing them of nothing but professional success here, but boy oh boy oh boy did they hype this thing.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Finding 1909-10 baseball cards in pristine condition in an attic at Defiance, Ohio, is a wonderful story and the cards are worth a lot of money. But comparisons to unique artwork (“It’s like finding the Mona Lisa in the attic,” said the finder) and the three-million dollar pricetag are ludicrous.
There are 30 cards in the set, issued by an anonymous candy manufacturer during the baseball card craze of 1909-11. Labeled within our hobby for cataloging purposes as “E-98” (the “E” is for “Early Candy and Gum”) the cards are scarce compared to other more plentiful issues of the time (yet there are 15 of them available right now, in lesser shape, on eBay). They also just aren’t that popular. In an era in which the candy companies produced extraordinarily beautiful lithographs of players stylized to look like Greek Gods with blazing sunsets behind them, E-98’s are pretty bland colorized black-and-white images set against one-color backgrounds. The set is also full of careless errors (if you look at the card of “Cy” Young, lower left, you’ll notice it shows a lefthanded pitcher. Cy, who only won 511 career games, was a righthander. The photo actually depicts a very obscure contemporary named Irv Young).
Here’s what I mean about relative attractiveness. The Mathewson and the Wagner below are from the E-95 set issued by Philadelphia Caramel in 1909. Find me 700 copies of them in superb condition and we’re talking.
:Nevertheless, baseball card price guides agree that a full set of all 30 E-98 cards should be valued at about $125,000 in near perfect condition. The 37 cards that the auction house, Heritage, plans to sell next month, are the best of the bunch, real beauties with sharp corners, the kind investors love.
The problem is that there’s only one thing that investors react to more than beautifully conditioned old cards. That would be the sudden “find” of a large lot of previously hard-to-find cards.
From the time it came out in 1953 or 1954, a Dormand Postcards issue of Gil Hodges of the Brooklyn Dodgers was wildly scarce. In the days when regular cards from the series fetched a dollar or two and even a Mickey Mantle cost only $5 or $10, Hodges was “worth” $400. Then a few years ago somebody found a stack of them. I mean, like 750 of them. Like, however many they made and didn’t distribute for whatever reason back in the ’50s. Right now on eBay you can get your average Dormand postcard for $25 to $45. Hodges? Well, you can buy-it-now for $750. That’s $750 for 42 copies of the Hodges card (some poor guy, meanwhile, is still trying to sell his one pristine-looking Hodges for $2,000).
If you read the entire story of the “attic find” in Ohio you’ll notice that what they discovered wasn’t just 37 old cards, but 700 of them. The family and the auction house aren’t saying specifically what the rest of them are, but the way these things work, if there weren’t a lot more of the E-98 cards (presumably in lesser condition) than they’d be auctioning them off, too. If they were more valuable, or more intriguing, or just from a more collected or beloved set of cards, they’d be publicizing them.
So, congrats to the owners of the “find.” The estimate for what an auction next month at the national collectors’ gathering in Baltimore – $500,000 – might be a little high, but it’s probably in range. Investors will invest in anything, especially if they’ve read about it in the news. But even some of the news articles indicate that there are less than 700 of these E-98’s registered and encased in plastic (as in the illustration) with an unknown larger supply in “raw” (that is, not encapsulated) condition. If you introduce 700 new ones into the market, the price will initially go up, and then way, way down.
The family and the auction house have a stack of 700+ cards from a set nobody really collects and which investors might begin to doubt.
Don’t forget to wave to the Gil Hodges Dormand Postcard when you pass it.
UPDATE 5 PM EDT: A tweeter raises an important point. Javier Cepero writes: “Doesn’t the guy have a Honus Wagner 10 rated card?”
Yes. But not the Honus Wagner. The Honus Wagner – from the American Tobacco Company 1909 set called “T-206” has been sold for $3,000,000 by itself (in perfect, albeit altered condition) down to the $300,000-$400,000 range for the crappier ones.
This morning I got a fun tweet from a reader:
Reading @KeithOlbermann’s BBNerd Blog, remembered a dream I had where I was @ a ball game and the batter broke and ran 4 3rd.
That was no dream! It was a past life experience!
Baseball historians have never been entirely comfortable with saying with absolute certainty that this happened, but the anecdotal and circumstantial evidence suggests that on April 27, 1902, Chicago pitcher Jimmy St. Vrain – the youngest player in the majors – grounded to Pirates’ immortal shortstop Honus Wagner and as the astonished Wagner threw to first, St. Vrain ran to third.
Davy Jones of the 1902 Cubs told the late historian (and top economist) Larry Ritter the story and Ritter put it in his seminal book The Glory Of Their Times (which you must buy now if you have not already done so):
He was a left-handed pitcher and a right-handed batter. But an absolutely terrible hitter — never even got a loud foul off anybody.
Well, one day we were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates and Jimmy was pitching for us. The first two times he went up to bat that day he looked simply awful. So when he came back after striking out the second time Frank Selee, our manager, said, “Jimmy, you’re a left-handed pitcher, why don’t you turn around and bat from the left side, too? Why not try it?”
Actually, Frank was half-kidding, but Jimmy took him seriously. So the next time he went up he batted left-handed. Turned around and stood on the opposite side of the plate from where he was used to, you know. And darned if he didn’t actually hit the ball. He tapped a slow roller down to Honus Wagner at shortstop and took off as fast as he could go … but instead of running to first base, he headed for third!
Oh, my God! What bedlam! Everybody yelling and screaming at poor Jimmy as he raced to third base, head down, spikes flying, determined to get there ahead of the throw. Later on, Honus told us that as a matter of fact, he almost did throw the ball to third.
“I’m standing there with the ball in my hand,” Honus said, looking at this guy running from home to third, and for an instant there I swear I didn’t know where to throw the damn ball. And when I finally did throw to first, I wasn’t at all sure it was the right thing to do!”
The story sounds great, it has a quote from Wagner, and Jones’s eyewitness account. The only problem is, as noted here, while Jimmy St. Vrain pitched against the Pirates on April 27, but witness Jones didn’t join Chicago until May 13. St. Vrain was only in the bigs for 12 games, so there isn’t a lot of wiggle room. He did start again against the Pirates in Pittsburgh on May 30 before returning to the bushes, but as most historians note, you would think something as bizarre as a batter trying to run the wrong way around the diamond would’ve been mentioned in the usually labyrinthine newspaper articles of the time – but the Jones story is the only contemporary account.
For years, as part of my moonlighting as an unpaid consultant for Topps Baseball Cards, I have engaged in a ritual involving a few company executives and a few (brand new) boxes of that year’s Topps set. The first box to come off the production line is ceremonially opened, either on television or at Topps HQ, and then we quietly pillage through whatever’s available pack-wise.
Today we turned it into a happening.
This started when I ran into my colleague and fellow collector Greg Amsinger at MLB Network two weeks ago. Greg is giddy enough about cards that I once almost distracted him from a Yankee Stadium live shot by advising him that my collection included three Honus Wagners. When the Topps gang and I set the “ripping of the first packs” for today, I asked if I could invite Greg along.
Greg brought a camera crew, Topps put up a display including blowups of the cards of Pujols and Reyes in their new unis and the one-of-a-kind gold card inserts, they assembled the entire 2012 Baseball Production team, I dressed up in my Matt Moore First Win Game-Used uniform, they fitted up a conference room full of unopened boxes, and pizza, and I had to give a little speech, and half of the staff snapped photos on their phones and their tweets out even before I finished talking (insert your own joke here; I actually had to be brief for a change as I’m still under doctor’s orders to not try to ‘project’ with some severely strained vocal cords and throat muscles).
Suddenly we went from four guys sitting in a room going “nice shot of Braun” to a veritable orgy of pack opening. It felt like snack time at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and I must say, for something that was made ‘bigger’ than in years past at least in part to utilize the presence of a tv camera, this organically and spontaneously turned into a really fun ninety minutes in which the pride of the employees – to say nothing of the imminent promise of spring and another MLB season – were in full bloom.
Before we get inside the packs, and a really exceptional effort by Topps this year (to say nothing of a sneak peek at their next issue, 2012 Heritage) a couple of fun images.
The Topps production team all signed the first box that was part of the ceremonial presentation depicted above. They do it at aircraft factories and they do it on the first production runs at Apple – so why not? And on the right is that display I referenced complete with the Pujols and Reyes blow-ups. I have no idea how poor Amsinger, Cardinal diehard that he is, got past this graphic testament to the fact that Albert has surrendered his legacy in St. Louis and is now tempting the curse of Almost Every Angel Free Agent Contract Ever (Amsinger, when I pulled a Mark Trumbo card today: “It should say third base on his card. Where else is he going to play for them?” Me: “First. After you-know-what happens.” Amsinger: shakes head dolefully).
Over the last few years, Topps has been steadily improving the photo quality of their base set, but this year a great leap has been made. The photos are better sized and framed, more interesting, more innovative, and with the ever-increasing improvements in the mechanics of photography, crisper and more compelling. The embossing makes the names difficult to scan but the shots here of David Robertson and Jose Altuve are really terrific and virtually every square quarter-inch of the card frame is filled and filled cleanly. There’s a design decision here, visible in the Altuve card, to sacrifice the tip of his left foot to minimize dead space – and I think it works wonderfully.
And then come the fun cards. There are SP’s (single prints, if you’re not a collector – cards that you know going in are much scarcer than the regular 330 cards) that include Reyes and Pujols sent by the magic of computers into their new uniforms. When you consider that as late as 1990 Topps was still airbrushing the caps of traded players – literally hand-painting logos over the original one, not on a photograph, but on a negative measuring 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inches) – let’s give the computer a round of applause.
The flatfootedness in the Reyes card makes it a little clunky but it gives you a pre-Spring Training hint at how the new Miami uniforms are going to visually ‘feel’ once the rechristened club takes the field.
Two years ago the theme of the SP’s were the Pie-In-The-Face celebrations, mostly enacted by the Yankees’ A.J. Burnett. This year the premise is celebrations and mascots, and in the case of the former, particularly the Gatorade Bath:
Butler, caught just as the orange goop explodes but before he’s lost under it, is a classic card. But, to my mind, the SP version of Mike Morse’s card 165 and its suspension-of-the-wave is an instant All-Time Great:
But 48 hours after the cards reached dealers and collectors, most of the publicity has surrounded the short print of #93 Skip Schumaker.
The Cardinals’ second baseman is said to be ticked off – and I happened to see Kevin Millar, serious for the first time in months, take unnecessary umbrage at the St. Louis Rally Squirrel squeezing Schumaker out of frame – but remember, for every one of those cards, there are several hundred of the regular one on the right here. Happy? Nice boring five-cent card compared to one that’s rather crazily being bid up to more than $200 on eBay?
Players take the baseball card photo a lot more seriously than they would have you believe. Several inscribe cards bearing particularly unflattering pictures with notations about how much they hate the photo. On occasion players won’t even sign their cards based solely on the choice of image.
The real trick for the Schumaker SP 93 will be not to get the player to sign it – he’s noted for a good heart, I’m sure the charity possibilities will be raised to him and he’ll sign a bunch. The problem is going to be getting that Squirrel to sign the card. Incidentally, the squirrel isn’t a Topps first; a card of “Paulie Walnuts,” a squirrel who occupied a foul pole at Yankee Stadium, was issued in 2007.
I promised a preview of Topps Heritage 2012 and that’s coming – but one more aside first. I thought I’d pay off the day I scared Greg Amsinger with my Wagner boastfulness by bringing the famed T206 scarcity to Topps to link up the past and the present. He didn’t know it was coming, which is why he’s been caught mid facepalm on the right.
And lastly, Heritage. They’ve done another meticulous job matching up the set celebrating its 50th anniversary, the vibrant 1963 design, in which the glowing colors of ’60s Topps were first evident: A lot of star players on this sheet – and forgive the waviness of the photo: it’s a sheet.
Two cards in particular jumped out at me: Reyes again in what looks like a photo actually shot at the news conference announcing his move to Miami (although that could easily be a little misdirection) and C.J. Wilson in Angel garb.
One note on deadlines: Chris Iannetta is shown with the Rockies in the Topps set, but has already been updated to his new Angels’ uniform in the Heritage issue.
Had the pleasure of joining Brian Kenny on MLB Network’s Clubhouse Confidential yesterday (more on that below) and as we batted back and forth the necessity of electing Gil Hodges to the Hall of Fame, Brian mentioned that if he gave me a chance I could drop a lot of 19th Century Cooperstown-worthy players. I had time to say only “look up Herman Long.”
I’ll detail his Hall credentials in a moment. But first: for all of the weird HOF elections of the first 75 years, he is in the middle of the weirdest. Take a look at the results from the first-ever Veterans’ Committee vote, conducted in 1936:
- Buck Ewing 39.5 Votes, Elected 1939
- Cap Anson 39.5 Votes, Elected 1939
- Wee Willie Keeler 33 Votes, Elected 1939
- Cy Young 32.5 Votes, Elected 1937
- Ed Delahanty 21.5 Votes, Elected 1945
- John McGraw 17 Votes, Elected 1937
- Old Hoss Radbourn 16 Votes, Elected 1939
- Herman Long 15.5 Votes
- King Kelly 15 Votes, Elected 1945
- Amos Rusie 11.5 Votes, Elected 1977
- Hughie Jennings 11 Votes, Elected 1945
- Fred Clarke 9 Votes, Elected 1945
- Jimmy Collins 8 Votes, Elected 1945
- Charles Comiskey 6 Votes, Elected 1939
- George Wright 6 Votes, Elected 1937
So there were 78 ballots, 60 different players got votes, half of them eventually wound up in the Hall, but the guy who got the eighth most, who finished ahead of 23 future Hall of Famers, not only never made it but never again got significant support? I mean, in the 1937 Veterans’ Committee ballot, Long got one vote.
Something is very, very strange here. I mean, while we think of the stars of the 19th Century and the early 20th as having played in some kind of baseball version of the Pleistocene era, consider who the 1936 voters were. If this were January, 1936, Bob Costas would’ve made his NBC baseball debut in 1907, I would’ve covered my first World Series in 1900, Peter Gammons would’ve broken in with The Boston Globe in 1893, and Tim McCarver would’ve started with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1883.
In short, the 78 members of the Veterans Committee of 1936 saw most of the antediluvian names on that ballot play either professionally or as kids (let’s just play with that again: if this were 1936 I’d have seen my first MLB game in 1891 and I believe Peter’s first would’ve been in 1882). These guys thought of Herman Long in the same breath with the most famous player of the 19th Century (King Kelly), the man who won 59 games in one season (Hoss Radbourn), and the man who played or managed 14 pennant winners (John McGraw). For further context, there were six players to whom the first Veterans voters gave exactly one vote each, who wound up in Cooperstown and to some degree in the baseball public’s awareness, like 342-game winner Tim Keefe and the inventor of the curveball Candy Cummings. And Herman Long got 15 times as many votes.
So who was this guy?
Herman Long was the great shortstop of the Boston Beaneaters’ dynasty of the 1890’s. He produced four consecutive years of an OPS of .800 or higher, had two 100-RBI seasons, six 100-Run seasons, and in a time without home runs, he hit 91 of them over 13 seasons including a dozen in each of two years. He stole 537 bases (that’s still 30th all-time) and scored 1,456 runs (77th all-time). In that measure of what an individual player’s offense and defense was “worth” to his team, “WAR,” Long finished with 44.6 (his Hall of Fame teammate, third baseman Jimmy Collins, finished at 53, and his Hall of Fame teammate, centerfielder Tommy McCarthy, finished at just 19). And despite having made more errors than anybody else in history, he has the 122nd best Defensive WAR+ among all position players ever. Boston’s two spurts – at the beginning and end of the 1890’s – produced five pennants and Long was the shortstop on all of the teams.
His nickname was “The Flying Dutchman.” When they began to use it late in the 1890’s for a kid named Honus Wagner, it was a tribute to Herman Long. More trivially, he would later play only 22 games there, but he was the first shortstop of the New York Yankees (then the Highlanders).
Is Long a Hall of Famer? I’m not sure. But he was considered the 8th best player among the “Old Timers” in 1936, and then fell into a black hole. It wasn’t even a matter of public scandal or diminished rotation – Long had been dead since 1909. He certainly merits consideration.
Remind me to tell you later about Bobby Mathews.
SPEAKING OF OLD TIMERS
Returning to the topic of my visit to MLB Network, if you didn’t know, that’s where my erstwhile employers MSNBC were headquartered from 1996 until October, 2007. I worked in this very building from September of ’97 through December of ’98, and then again from February of ’03 until we moved out. Yesterday was my first day back and it was mind-blowing. Baseball invested a reported $54,000,000 to upgrade the facility with rebuilt studios and state-of-the-art technology.
But they changed almost nothing else.
Not the carpets. Not the desks. Not the chairs. Not the make-up rooms. Not the cubicles. Not where the large clusters of desks are. Not the cafeteria. Not the offices. Not the office door plates. Not the “Employees Must Wash Hands” signs in the bathrooms.
Going into it was like one of those dreams you’ve probably had where you walk into some place totally familiar to you – your childhood home, or where you live now, or go to work, or school – and in the middle of it your unconscious has placed a nuclear reactor or a jungle or something else utterly incongruous, without changing even one other thing.
You think I’m kidding? My old offices, the one from 2003 and the one from 1997, are still offices, with the same doors, windows, nameplates, and televisions. The newer of them is occupied by an old colleague of mine from Fox Sports named Mike Konner, and to my amazement I found that on what is now his wall was a poster from MSNBC’s 2004 Campaign Coverage. I remembered this one distinctly, because there was controversy over some of the people shown in the back row (somebody wasn’t under contract, or somebody was left out, or something), and the thing was immediately replaced by a revised version with somebody else’s body swapped in. As I saw it hanging on Mike’s wall I remembered I had left the rare “uncorrected” version in a pile of junk when I left.
So why was it on Konner’s wall? I asked Mike where he found it. “It was here when we moved in. In a pile of junk.”
You probably could not make up an All-Star team of them, but you might stock a couple of rosters, with active major leaguers who have a true interest of some kind in the history of the game. Adam Lind is an expert on Brooklyn Dodgers’ ace Carl Erskine, the other hero from their hometown of Anderson, Indiana. After a couple of generations of disinterest, nearly all players revere the memory of Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leaguers before and after Robinson broke the color barrier. Manager Joe Maddon of the Rays sat in the dugout on a sweltering day last summer at Yankee Stadium to watch the entirety of the Old Timers’ Day ceremonies and game.
You can include Tim Hudson of the Braves on this list. The veteran pitcher not only has a commendable knowledge of the history of the teams for which he played (coincidentally the only three-city franchises in the game: the Braves and Athletics), but also a reverence for the Hall of Fame that particularly extends to its original inductees. So after a couple of years of talking about it, it was my pleasure yesterday to arrange for this:
Huddy knew the history of this Relic – the 1909 Honus Wagner card, hardly the scarcest baseball card (not even the scarcest one in that series), but handily the best known. Hudson was able to explain to several others on the bench the history of the American Tobacco card set (known to collectors as T206) and why there are, at most, 100 copies of the Wagner known.
He studied it carefully, asked about the trimming of the card’s borders, the scrapbook residue on the back, some of the other key cards in the set, and how I happened to come by it (how else? I bought it. I’ve been collecting this set since I was 11 years old, and as soon as I became a really overpaid adult I reverted to being a really over-excited teenager and was able to scratch off the last T206 on my want list).
I have to confess I was genuinely surprised by the interest in the card in the Braves’ dugout. Even Chipper Jones was shocked to see it. I’ve known him since he was a rookie and his sangfroid – his amazing calm in the most charged-up of circumstances – was once illustrated when in the middle of a conversation with me his back once went into full spasm and he basically pitched over into his locker. All he did was say “And you know what else? I think I’m going to have to have this back looked at.” Yesterday, even Jones’ eyes widened at the sight of The Wagner.
Some were even more effusive. Phil Falco, the Braves’ Strength Coach and himself a collector (autographed ’57 Topps Football cards are his joy), arch-collector and Media Relations Director Brad Hainje, and broadcaster Joe Simpson were closer to the dropped-jaw stage. I only wish I had done this last year: Bobby Cox would’ve loved to have seen that card.
Incidentally, remind me to explain some time why I don’t believe either the theory that the card is scarce just because Wagner objected to his likeness being used to sell cigarettes, or even the alternate one I proposed nearly 30 years ago that as one of the few players of his era who was aware of the value of his own likeness he was actually holding out for money. I have lately come to believe that the timelines don’t add up, and that to some degree the rarity of the Wagner card was deliberately created, or at least enhanced, by the manufacturer.
For now, just seeing baseball players gape at a baseball card was a great deal of fun.
One of the Baseball Prospectus authors was doing one of the group’s astonishingly pervasive and well-coordinated publicity-generating interviews yesterday (they show up as guests everywhere but the Olympics and Entertainment Tonight) and was asked “why is Keith Olbermann killing your book?”
Now if somebody thinks I killed “The First Fall Classic” by Mike Vaccaro… yeah, pretty much (see below).