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.
You remember Bob Wolcott, right?
One of the seminal figures in modern Post-Season history. A key to an exciting playoff series, a dramatic interjection into the–
Bob Wolcott made six indifferent starts for the 1995 Seattle Mariners. In the exhausting first-ever American League Division Series against the Yankees, he watched from the bullpen, an utter afterthought in a brilliant competition that marked the end of Don Mattingly’s last hope to reach a World Series. He was the last man on the staff, happy to be in the playoffs without having to buy a ticket.
And then Lou Piniella decided to give his overtaxed staff an extra day, and start him in Game One of the A.L. Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians. Frankly, nobody – least of all the Indians – knew what hit them. Wolcott pitched seven innings of eight-hit, five-K ball, gave up a homer to Albert Belle in the last frame, and left a 3-2 lead to the bullpen. Jeff Nelson and Norm Charlton hung on, and the Mariners had a 1-0 lead over the favored Indians. Not that they did anything: the Mariners’ rotation of Tim Belcher, Andy Benes, Chris Bosio, and Randy Johnson each lost a game and Wolcott never even got a second shot as a reliever. After a decent 1996 in the M’s rotation, he was dealt off, hurt his arm, went to college (Oregon State for mechanical engineering) and practices his craft in the northwest.
But the prospect of starting a mystery man against a team that had never seen him before – in the opening game of a playoff series – proved plausible. And in this case, Bob Wolcott was not the game’s top pitching prospect.
Matt Moore is. And Joe Maddon of Tampa Bay tonight decided to open him against the Texas Rangers in Game One of the ALDS. It is, to descend into the only appropriate vernacular, one of the ballsiest post-season managerial moves and Maddon will live or die by it – but why not? The other best option, Jeff Niemann, has been sharp lately after weeks of playing the role of the Rays’ Mr. Dynamite – the pitcher who gets into the box out in centerfield before the game and then gets blown up by the opposing team.
Moore has a shorter track record even than Bob Wolcott. He has just one Major League start, but in it, at Yankee Stadium, his heavy lefthanded fastball pulverized New York: eleven strikeouts and just four hits in five innings. He had come off a minor league season split between the Southern and International Leagues in which he finished just eight K’s short of leading all the minors in strikeouts – for the third consecutive season.
And not one Texas Ranger has ever crossed paths with him. Not in his brief stint in the majors, not in AAA, not in AA, nowhere. There is admittedly righthand power to be concerned with in the Texas lineup – Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre – but Moore only gave up eleven homers in 155 innings in the minors this year and if he just ties up Josh Hamilton, the Rangers could be stymied (ask last year’s Giants about that).
Remember what K-Rod did as a very, very late-season addition to the Angels’ roster in 2002? The Yankees had never seen him. The Twins had never seen him. The Giants had never seen him. Results? 18-2/3 post-season innings pitched, 28 strikeouts, and in eleven appearances: five wins and two holds – and Frankie Rodriguez wasn’t even the closer.
But Matt Moore is more than just a power pitcher. One of the most astute judges of pitchers I’ve ever known gushes about his composure, his tendency to greet trouble not with panic or fear but with anger, his ability to unintentionally elevate with the fastball so that the batter is eventually swinging at balls at his neck, and lastly a change-up that’s brilliant and that Moore is only beginning to understand the value of. “It has two-plane depth,” my guy explains. Two-plane depth, I ask, sweetly? “It moves through two planes: as in downward, and tailing to the left.”
Can you imagine what that does to a lefthanded hitter, especially one assuming a fastball at his letters? I’d retire immediately.
The advice to the Rangers from my eyewitness: “Swing at the first good heater you see.” The advice from him to Moore: “use the change-up… if I’m hunting fastballs— and the Rangers historically are— making them guess heater or change will set up the hammer, which is devastating.”
What exactly does Moore have to buy the Rays for this to work? A win – in Arlington – would be dandy. Six good innings – win or lose -in which they don’t have to run through the entire bullpen and they establish Moore as a new weapon in the arsenal that Texas might just have to face again in a Game Five, or Hamilton might have to face all by himself in any of the remaining games, would be a great second prize. Five innings that don’t devastate the bullpen is enough to keep Tampa alive until James Shields takes the mound in Game Two.
Maddon’s decision – and how many managers would have the cajones to do this – was enough to make me trash the prediction I made on the air tonight: a good, safe assumption that a gifted but no doubt exhausted Rays’ team could not hold a candle to the rested Rangers. I like this call on so many levels: I like Moore against them, I like Moore as a potential part of the rotation, I like Maddon saying to his team “we have a secret weapon.” Until tonight, the Rangers had been the beneficiary of the madness of the Wild Card race. Now they may have become its victim.
I also note my Matt Moore scout sums it up this way: “Matt is advanced and his stuff, though not pin-point, is better than (David) Price’s.”
I like Tampa in five, I like the Phillies possibly as quickly as three games (hats off to the Cardinals, but they are running on fumes here), and the Brewers, probably in five. And I particularly like the Tigers over the Yankees, quickly. Lost in the tumult of the Red Sox collapse and the Rays spectacular (you do realize that home run was Dan Johnson’s first major league hit since April 27th, right?) is the fact that after August 21st, the Yankees won just 20 of 37 games, and, after September 6th, the Yankees won 10 and lost 12. They didn’t win the American League East: the Red Sox fell past them like the meteor they keep telling us will some day crash to earth and kill us all (the usual caveat: if the Tigers or anybody else give the Yankees four outs an inning, the Yankees will win – they are vampires).
We’ll look at the Championship Series and the World Series after we see how Matt Moore does. But I gotta tell you: I also like those Brewers.