Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Darvish Whisperer

The other day, I waxed more poetically about a random 2012 Heritage single than had ever been done before.  Today, it's going to be more the same as I delve into the story behind another seemingly unassuming base card that is disproportionately significant to me and to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  This time, we turn back the clocks just a touch - from 2012 to 2011 - and we turn our focus to Topps' Flagship release, rather than Heritage.

Back in 2011, a back-up catcher and super utility player made his debut with the Seattle Mariners, after signing with the club as a free agent the winter before.  Would he go on to do great things in the Emerald City?  To be perfectly blunt, no.  In fact, the entirety of his 10-year career would be spent as a second or third string backstop, riding the shuttle between AAA and the Majors.  Nevertheless, that 2011 season was important because it netted the receiver one of the only two MLB trading cards that he would ever be honored with.





Although I said Flagship, Chris Gimenez technically appears in Update; that said, the sentiment remains the same.

The veteran player played with six tams across a decade in the show and the card you see above represents exactly half of his cardboard footprint.  One of those six teams was obviously the Mariners; however, more importantly (to me, anyway), another one of those half dozen clubs was the Cubs.  Thus, I obviously needed one of those two pasteboards for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection binder and - spoiler alert - I came across the Update single first.  Of course, it sure wasn't easy to come across... more on that later.

In 2018, Theo Epstein and crew signed Chris to a minor league contract and invited him to Spring Training, ostensibly to audition for the AAA-Iowa backstop role and serve as the next man up should an injury occur to Willson Contreras or Victor Caratini.  I say ostensibly because many fans and pundits posited that was another reason why the front office had pounced on the former Texas Ranger and it had to do with a former Lone Star teammate:  Yu Darvish.






The Cubs were known to be wooing the free agent during the winter of 2017-18 and Chicago faithful were absolutely drooling over the thought.  At the time, it seemed like lining Darvish up with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jose Quintana would create one of the deadliest rotations of all-time and the Cubs would become an unstoppable force with their already potent offense.  Coming off of two NLCS appearances and a World Series Championship, the Cubs were a Darvish away from a dynasty.

Of course, that winter was the first under the current labor agreement and the first "free agent freeze out" period, with many of the marquee names waiting until February or later to put pen to paper.  Thus, when the Northsiders inked Chris Gimenez, to a MiLB pact in late January - after nearly three full months of Darvish speculation - news hungry fans let their imaginations run wild and Twitter erupted into a frenzy.  Suddenly, because Gimenez caught 12 games pitched by Yu with Texas, it was all but a done deal that the pitcher would follow his former, sort of personal catcher to the Windy City.  Full proof thinking, right?

Well, spoiler alert, Darvish did eventually bring his talents to Wrigley Field.  Although that first year was a massive dud for the hurler, 2019 marked a return to form.  In fact, Yu was pretty much the only stable presence in the Cubs' starting rotation last year and it's scary to think about what it would look like in 2020 without a healthy Darvish.  Do we have a third-string catcher to thank for this rotation's rock?  Is Darvish in Chicago because Chris Gimenez whispered into his ear and begged Yu to make the journey to the Second City by his side?





Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Chris Gimenez seems to be playing second fiddle in a post dedicated to his own baseball card.  Sorry, Chris - I can't help it.  Thanks to that chilly, Midwestern winter where the only way to stay warm was the crowd around the "hot stove" and wait to see if Yu darvish saw his shadow, I automatically think of Chris battery-mate whenever I see his name.  It's unfair, but the human brain is a confounding thing.

Anyway, as for Chris, his Cubs career was exactly what you would expect out of a third-string catcher.  Called up at the end of May, he had an opt-out clause in his contract that would have tossed him back out onto the open market.  With Willson Contreras entrenched in the starter's role, Victor Caratini was farmed out for more consistent playing time and development in order to make room on the roster.  In fact, to make room on the 40-man, Efren Navarro was designated for assignment, a fact I only bring up because we discussed Efren, in depth, in my last post.

As for Chris' performance on the field, the only word that comes to mind is anemic.  All told, he posted a .143/.219/.143 line in 32 PA's scattered across 12 games.  Granted, you don't expect much offense out of your back-up catcher, but yikes.  As for the Darvish hoopla, Chris only caught him once, making all of that previous rabid speculation seem like a lot of hubbub over nothing... which it likely was anyway.


Chris takes a cut against the Phillies, image courtesy of the Associated Press.


To make matters worse, Chris got himself in some hot water too, for some negative comments made to the press.  The target of his barbs was, ironically enough Yu Darvish.  With the should-be ace already drawing the ire of the Chicago fans and media due to his lackluster, injury-ridden campaign, Gimenez went out and fanned the flames.  As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times:


“I think he thinks that Chicago hates him for going on the DL a couple of times,” Gimenez said. “I’ve tried to portray to him, ‘Listen, they’re going to love you when we get to October and we’re doing the things that we all want to do here, you’re the main reason we’re doing it and we’re riding you all the way through it.
“So don’t worry about them getting mad at you on Twitter in May. Worry about when we get to September, October and they’re chanting your name.”

To me, it feels like Chris was trying to light a fire under his teammate and had the best of intentions, but his comments came off making Darvish look weak-willed and reluctant.   You can draw your own conclusions, but the normally tight-lipped Theo Epstein publicly chastised Gimenez's comments and Chris found himself out-righted to Iowa a few days later.  Shortly thereafter, he was swapped to the Minnesota - in exchange for another third-string catcher, Bobby Wilson - where he wrapped up the season and his Major League career.  It wasn't the best note to close his playing career on, but sometimes that's just how the cookie crumbles.

Quick sidebar: Bobby Wilson is another interesting footnote in recent Cubs history.  When he was acquired by the Cubbies on August 30th, 2018, he was dealing with a nagging foot injury, but it was expected he'd be good to go in short order.  However, Wilson would not be added to the active roster until the Cubs' final series of the season and, ultimately, did nothing but ride the pine.  As such, he is the most recent "phantom" player in team history.  By that, I mean that although Bobby Wilson was officially on the active roster, he is not recognized as having played with the franchise because he never saw game action.  It's a weird little quirk in MLB rostering rules and means that I was forced to pull him from my CATRC tome.





Back to the subject at hand... man, this is going to sound terrible, but it seems like everyone surrounding Chris' story is more interesting than he is (Navarro, Darvish, Wilson, etc.).  Anywho, Chris is still involved in the Major League game and serves on Dave Roberts' coaching staff with the Dodgers.  I'm sure bagging on Yu Darvish's mental fortitude is a much more forgivable offense in Los Angeles than it is Chicago.

Nearly a year and a half after Gimenez was added to the Cubs' roster, I've finally added him to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection and that is sort of strange.  Now, it's not a surprise that the career back-up backstop doesn't have much cardboard, despite a relatively lengthy career - reserve players rarely receive any love from the monopolizing ol' bubblegum company.  The quirky part of the equation was how tough it was to come by this guys's cards on the secondhand market.

For some reason, the only 2011 Topps Update single my LCS was out of stock for was Chris' sophomore card and copies were a little more scarce online than expected.  For instance, as I type this, there isn't a single one available on COMC.  Meanwhile, his only other MLB option - a 2009 Heritage rookie - was short-printed and you know what pitfalls that brings.  Thankfully, a dollar listing with free shipping popped up on eBay a few weeks back and I pulled the trigger.  An overpay for sure, but the peace of mind in crossing Chris Gimenez off of my "most wanted" list was worth the modest price.  After all, I'd much rather focus my collecting cross-hairs on vintage baseballers than modern journeymen.





With the previously mentioned Efren Navarro and, now, Gimenez being acquired, all I need is a Felix Pena, an Alec Mills, an Xavier Cedeno, and a Brad Wieck and I'll be all caught up through 1977.  So, if anyone has a lead on any of those four gentlemen, please feel free to share.

In the meantime, I'm just thankful to finally add Chris Gimenez to my CATRC and that you took the time to read all of the nearly 2,000 words I managed to vomit about such a trivial feat.  Thanks for dropping by!

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Most Wanted Longshot

Yesterday, I heaped massive amounts of praise upon our good friend, Jason German (the creative force behind Hoarding Cardboard), for the generous South Bend Cubs team set he went out of his way to purchase and send to my humble home.  As kind as this gesture was, I still wasn't truly giving him full credit, because I was actually holding something back for it's own post.  That's right, Mr. German also "threw in" a pasteboard from my Most Wanted list.  As if acquiring and mailing a complete set of treasured minor league cards my way wasn't enough of a good deed...

Have I mentioned how awesome this guy is?

Anyway, to be completely honest, this card might not seem like much to most people.  In fact, even a great majority of us niche-frenzied card bloggers might find this particular single to be nothing special.  It's not a hit of any sort, lacking signatures, relics, serial numbering, or parallel designation.  Honestly, as far as base cards go, it's quite unassuming and, dare I say, even a tad but ugly.  Nevertheless, this card brings a big ol' smile to my face, all the same:





That's right, it's a multi-player rookie from the 2012 edition of Topps Heritage, which apes the design from the old bubblegum company's 1963 Flagship design.  The disembodied, floating head rooks of the day aren't for everybody - including me - but, they don't bother me nearly as much as they normally would due to the circumstances surrounding this cardboard rectangle.

You see, one of these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshmen would make their only Major League Baseball card appearance here.  Additionally, that same player would eventually go on to suit up for my beloved Chicago Cubs.  If you've been reading this blog for any significant length of time, you should know why this would pique my interest.  After all, my card collecting habit is nearly completely based around my treasured Cubs All-Time Roster Collection, a tome in which I endeavor to collect at least one card of each athlete to don Cubbie Blue.  With this card being the only MLB option for the ballplayer in question, it shouldn't take a college degree to figure out why it has sat on my Most Wanted List for the past two years.  But, which one of the four is the guy that I've been chasing?  Do you remember any of these guys trying on blue pinstripes?

Quick - before you scroll down - take a guess.  No cheating!!



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Alright, now let's find out if you were correct.  Watch this .gif until it comes to a complete stop:






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So, who guessed correctly??  Be honest now!  Feel free to brag about your triumph in the comment section at the end of this post.  Or, if you knew without even waiting until the end of the .gif, please be sure to let everyone know about your superior knowledge of Cubs roster machinations and claim your Wrigley trivia crown.

Efren Navarro played for parts of six seasons in the Major Leagues, from 2011-2018... ironically enough, 2012 was not one of those seasons.  All told, while Navarro spent most of his modest time with Angels (2011-15: 130 games, .246/.303./.324) and also cameo'ed with the Detroit Tigers and, of course, the Cubs, the fact that he even made the Major Leagues at all is a minor miracle.  You see, Efren was drafted in the 50th round of the 2007 draft.  That's not a typo, folks, he was taken so late in the draft that only three picks remained on the board whatsoever after his name was called.  They literally almost ran out of players to pick before LA finally took a flyer Efren.  Hell, that's ten rounds later than even the MLD draft even goes these days.  Wowza.




Navarro out at first base during the 2018 Cubs home opener. Image courtesy of Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune.



As for Navarro's Cubs connections, in April of 2018, Anthony Rizzo went down with a back injury and the club called upon the off-season minor league signing from AAA.  With Rizz requiring only the minimal, 10-day stay, Mr. Navarro only got into four games, scratching out one hit and four K's in six AB's.  Afterwards, the 32-year old was returned to Iowa, where he stayed until late May, until he was DFA'ed to make room for the "Yu Darvish Whisperer," Chris Gimenez (you'll see that name on Wrigley Roster Jenga again in the next few days).  This marked the end of Navarro's unceremonious Cubs career.

While that remains Efren's last Major League action, it did not mark the end of his professional career.  Since that eventual release, the longshot has taken his talents to Japan, where he has played part-time for the Hanshin Tigers.  Unfortunately, his stat line in the land of the rising sun looks very similar to the underwhelming numbers that he produced stateside - .264/.326/.354 - so, a return to the show does not appear imminent.  That being said, Efren is certainly no stranger to beating long odds!






And that is the tale of Efren Navarro - he destroyed the odds and rose all the up way from the 50th round to the Major Leagues, cameo'ed with Cubs, and continues to pursue his dream.  All in all, he's quite the inspirational figure.

Now, this unsung baseball hero has finally been inducted into my hallowed Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  Efren's lone Major League card might seem like an easy pickup, considering it's unassuming, base classification and the relative insignificance of the players depicted on it's face and the many eBay listings for the pasteboard only reinforces that theory.  However, my penny-pinching ways refuse to let me pay a $1+ for the basic card, plus shipping fees.  Furthermore, my local card shops don't bust Heritage; so, my hands have been tied for a while. 

Barring some incredibly unforeseen circumstances, Mr. German's gift will remain in my big ass binder until the end of time.  After all, it shouldn't come as any surprise that Efren Navarro never appeared on a piece of Cubs cardboard; in fact, I'm fairly certain that he didn't even appear in the 2018 Iowa Cubs team issued set.  That is, except the super legit custom Topps Now card that I whipped up at the time to commemorate his call to Chicago, which I've recently noticed is one of the top hits on Google Images when one searches "Efren Navarro Cubs."






Weird flex, but okay.

With only other franchise's bush league cards available, there is no threat to the 2012 Heritage rookie card being usurped.  Adding in the fact that the long-pursued piece of pasteboard came as a gift from a blogging buddy and, thusly, has intrinsic sentimental value besides the value it holds to my collection, it would have been nigh impossible to take down anyway.  Thank you, Jason, for knocking one of the most frustrating needs off of the ol' Most Wanted list.  Once again, I'll be sure to try and return the favor with an envelope chock full of Reds or Shawn Green/Buster Posey/Matt Mantei cards for your PC's.  I don't know that it's even possible to properly return the favor; it's a longshot, but I'm going to give it my best shot.

If we've learned anything from Efren Navarro, sometimes the longshot pays off.







Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Comin' Up Around the Bend




Back in August, friend of Wrigley Roster Jenga and accomplished blogger himself, Jason German of Hoarding Cardboard fame, took a little trip.  My fellow Midwesterner decided to make the journey to South Bend, IN to take in the local sporting scene.  While most people might expect any such centered trip to revolve around a "modest" secondary school by the name of Notre Dame and their Fighting Irish sports programs, German was not in town to see "Touchdown Jesus." You see, Mr. German made the drive to see some baseball and South Bend just so happens to play host to the Low-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs - the cleverly named South Bend Cubs.

Apparently, Jason works nearby and decided to make a stopover at Four Winds Field after punching out for the day.  Being the generous soul he is, he even contacted me beforehand to ask if I wanted anything from their souvenir shop because he knows I like my minor league team sets.  What a guy, right?

Of course, I took him up on his offer to purchase a 2019 team set so that I might be more prepared for future call-ups to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  South Bend is just far enough away from my south suburban home that it would require a fair amount of planning to make the four hour round-trip trek there on my own.  So, chances of me picking one of these sets or the pocket schedule you see above (that Jason threw in as a bonus) were almost nil.




The lucky guy even happened to time his visit with 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist's first rehab appearance of the year, as he resumed his season after a long leave of absence.  I think that was the baseball gods' way of rewarding Jason's selfless generosity.

Obviously, Zob's was not included on the 2019 South Bend Cubs card set - it was made up solely of members of the eventual Midwest League Champions who were not on rehab assignment.  Now, the Cubs farm system has been famously gutted over the past few years as Theo and Co. desperately try to extend their competitive window; however, the chain isn't completely devoid of talent.  As evidenced by the championship banner now flying over Four Winds Field, many of their best prospects reside in the lower levels of the farm, South Bend included.  With that in mind, maybe I'll be able to sell some of these cards in a few years to pay off my student loans.

Developing homegrown pitching has been an area of concern for nearly a decade now, but there's a pair of arms hanging around the Hoosier State who could flip that narrative in a few years:





Brailyn Marquez exploded onto the scene in 2019, ultimately being named the Minor League Player of the Year.  He posted 102 strikeouts in just 77.1 innings at South Bend and then a 1.71 ERA with 26 strikeouts over five starts when promoted to High-A.  This eye-popping performance came largely on the strength of a triple-digit fastball to go along with plus changeup.  Brailyn is expected to start 2020 at AA and could very well be on the fast track to the Bigs, a September call-up might even be in play.  Thanks to Jason, I'm now prepared for such an ascension.

Meanwhile, Jack Patterson has already made it up to AA but, like Marquez, started last season with South Bend.  The lefty made himself known to talent evaluators on the heels of a 24.1 inning scoreless innings streak in June/July.  Who knows, maybe Marquez and Patterson will be fronting the Cubs rotation in 2021?





Marquez is the highest-ranked prospect in this cello pack - checking in at number four, according to MLB Pipeline.  Meanwhile, Cole Roederer is the second-highest (and highest ranked position prospect) ranked pre-rookie found within.  The outfielder was a much ballyhooed, second-round draft pick in 2018, who didn't play much that season due to a shoulder injury suffered during his senior year of high school.  Most of 2019 was a disappointing grind, though he was able to close out with a strong August.  In the end, his star power was out-shined by the fellow seen next to him here.

Christopher Morel posted a .284/.320/.467 slash line in 2019 and was integral part of the SB offense.  This was somewhat of surprise, as the international signing was something of a wild card when he was first inked in 2017.  His lean build - he’s listed at 6-0, 140 pounds - caused him to go under the radar of many scouts and this is only his first year in full-season baseball.  Chris is certainly a guy to watch over the next few seasons.






Next up, we have another pair of arms with Big League potential.  Jose Albertos' star has faded considerably since the start of the 2018 season.   A bout with the yips in 2018 (65 BB's in just 30.1 innings) led to an astoundingly bad 14.84 ERA and, while noticeably better, a 5.02 ERA in just 14.1 frames (13 BB's) this year did little to assuage fears.  That said, Jose is still only 20 years old and possesses a 95-mph fastball... this lottery ticket hasn't been completely scratched off yet.

As for Riley Thompson, he was in the running for Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors for most of the 2019 campaign and ended the season with a 3.06 ERA in 94 innings and just 31 walks.  He faded out down the stretch, but still closed on a high note, with 10 K's in just five IP during the pennant clinching game.  Thompson and his high-velocity fastball and devastating curveball have been described as nearly Major League ready.  In short, he might be on an accelerated path to the Show.





Lastly, we have the man who (with Morel) carried the offense for most of the year for the Bend, Nelson Velazquez.  The fifth-round draft pick from 2017 posted managed to turn raw strength and bat speed into in-game power and posted a .286/.388/.424 batting line, further solidifying his prospect pedigree.  Hopefully, Nelson continues to blossom with an inevitable promotion to High-A come spring.

There we have the highlights from the 2019 South Bend Cubs factory team set, as produced by Choice.  Here's hoping that at least one of these rubes eventually makes it up to the Bigs and to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.

Now, we've discussed, at length, the players depicted on the cards, but not the cards themselves.  One of my favorite parts of analyzing a MiLB team set is to determine what major sets influenced their designs.  It seems as though the artful minds behind Choice and their peers at Grandstand draw direct inspiration from the likes of Topps, Upper Deck, Fleer, etc.  As for the set that Jason has gifted me with, it appears as though Choice went with the latter, this time:




As you can see, these 2019 cards are little more than rehashes of a fairly well-remembered design from 30 years prior.  That being stated, the only reason any of us really remembers 1989 Fleer is due to the iconic "f*ck face" Billy Ripken error and all of it's various corrections.  The actual design of the cards is rather dull and drab with it's over reliance on the most boring of all colors: gray.

All in all, I'd say Choice's revamp is the superior take on the layout.  Swapping gray for white, granted, is a lateral move; but, incorporating team colors in the framing, text, and design elements (rather than just the picture frame) adds some subtle pop.  Additionally, moving the team logo from the corner to a more prominent place in the background of the player photograph is a nice touch, even if Paul McAnulty - former Padre and Angel outfielder and current SB Cubs hitting coach - makes a better wall than a window.

Overall, if I were to have to chose between the two, I'd say that Choice is the clear "choice."  What say you?




At any rate, my sincere thanks go out to Jason for thinking of me when planning a trip to the ballpark and for sending me this fun set of cards.  Better yet, I haven't mentioned this yet, but Mr. German also included a special bonus card - one of my most targeted needs, at that - along with the minor league team set.  That, however, will get a dedicated post all to itself, as this rambling stream of consciousness is already flowing a bit too long.

Moral of the story, Jason = awesome.  I greatly appreciate your generosity, Jason, and - now that I'm back from my self-imposed baseball brain break - I'll be sure to fire back some Reds or Shawn Green/Buster Posey/Matt Mantei cards for your PC's.  Sorry for the wait!

Here's hoping that some of these cards eventually end up in my CATRC binder.  Lord knows the Cubs' pitching rotation could use a fully-formed Jack Patterson or Riley Thompson right now, with the departure of Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana's inconsistency, and the continuing decline of Jon Lester.  Brailyn would be better, but he's not quite as cooked.

Anywho, we shall see what happens and that's half the fun of minor league cards!





Saturday, November 2, 2019

Ward of the State

Two days ago was Halloween - a happy belated All Hallow's Eve to you all!  I hope I didn't spook you by going silent for a few days after an already lengthy absence; I did not go dark again.  Rather, the day upon which the barrier between our world and the great beyond is at it's weakest is my wife and I's favorite holiday.  Christmas is cool, Thanksgiving is neat, Valentine's Day sucks, but Halloween is tops in our household.  The reason why I haven't posted any baseball card content over the past couple days is because we've been laser focused on the frightful festivities.

Between coordinating parties and trick or treating with my little sister-in-law, carving jack o'lanterns, binging scary movies, building five separate costumes between us (obviously, we go all out), and working around the surprise snowstorm that hit the Chicagoland area, my attention has been drawn elsewhere.

However, the fun is all done and the mounds of candy and apple pie shots are currently working through my digestive tract.  I can now return to Wrigley Roster Jenga and show off a card that sort of makes me think of Halloween.  Shortly before I retreated from the baseball life, I pulled the trigger on a pasteboard that bears the colors most associated with the night of ghosts and goblins:




This orange and black oddball featuring former Cubs outfielder, Ward Miller.  Okay, so this isn't exactly the smoothest segue that I've ever typed out on this blog space; that said, it's certainly not the worst either.  It'll do.

What you are looking at comes from a set recently by Historic Autographs, the people behind the unlicensed, cut autographs that we all love so very much.  For those who might not be good at picking up on context clues, that sentence was drenched with sarcasm.  Their products are usually not particularly easy on the eyes - y'know, the cards that look something like this:





Basically, index cards and cut autographs purchased secondhand, framed with an artistic-looking border, and thrown back out into the market.  At best, HA provides a way for collectors to obtain relatively cheap signatures of athletes and celebrities who would otherwise be far out of their budget.  After all, the bare-bones design, lack of pictures, team colors and/or names, etc. keeps the price down compared to products from standard bearers such as Topps and even fellow unlicensed groups like Panini or Leaf.  At worst, these products cause the destruction and mangling of rare John Hancocks, documents, and autographs - although, it's not like the other guys in the industry aren't sometimes guilty of that transgression themselves.

All told, usually Historic Autograph cards are fall somewhere in the blase middle - boring and decidedly non-flashy cards which don't move the needle very far in either direction.

However, as you can see with the Ward Miller card that this post is centered around, HA has gone in an entirely different direction with this 2019 product - The Federal League - which revolves around the "outlaw" third Major League of the same name from about a century prior to it's release.  These baseball cards look much more like traditional cards - pictures of players, team designation, a distinct artistic design, biographical write-ups on the backside, etc.




As a fun little quirk, those bio paragraphs are inked in the present tense, which adds to the faux vintage aura HA is going for with this product.

Available in select hobby shops across the country, HA Federal League hit store shelves on July 24th and was distributed in boxes which contained 10 packs per unit, and 8 cards per pack.  Obviously, the checklist was built around players who plied their talents in the Federal League, which existed as a rogue third Major League from 1914-1915 and poached many quality ballplayers before legal battles put an end to their uprising.  While it might seem like the short-lived renegade circuit would by perfect fodder for an unlicensed manufacturer to seize upon, Major League Baseball has since absorbed the history and intellectual property of their former rival and, as such, there are still no official team names or logos featured on this product.

Nevertheless, the "Fed" League is a part of professional baseball history that is mostly forgotten in hobby circles.  I can't think of many cards or card sets which focus upon these teams; some subsets in Conlon Collection are literally the only other modern peers that I can think of when it comes to the topic.




The only other cards that I can think of that have broached the subject are the iconic Cracker Jack cards from 1915, which covered the league in real time.  I mean, just look at the checklist above... how many of those guys can you honestly say that you've heard of or that you've ever seen a card - much less, bought - with their likeness upon it's face?  Outside of a few significant exceptions, i.e. Mordecai Brown, Chief Bender, etc., my guess is next to none.

So, with all of that in mind, while Historic Autographs might still be pigeon-holed by MLB licensing restrictions, it looks as though they found an excellent way to stand out from the crowd by tackling subject-matter which has been largely ignored in their market.  As such, I think I actually adore this product and not just because it made a card of a player needed for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection that I might otherwise have to drop big bucks on to acquire.  HA has found a previously unfulfilled niche with The Federal League.





Of course, since it's a modern baseball card set, it has various inserts, parallels, and hits to chase (as noted by the disclaimer on the bottom of the box you see above); that, however, is of very little interest to me.  Here, I'm all about that base.

These cards appear to drawn inspiration from the various "art cards" that can be found on the secondhand market and, in several cases, on this blog.  The simulated artwork, aped vintage design, vintage cardstock all appear straight out of the template procured by the likes of Helmar, Ars Longa, Banty Red, et al.   In fact, when I first saw my Ward Miller single on listed on eBay, I assumed that it was just another one of those fantasy cards... not that I'm above adding them to my collection when I see fit.  That being stated, the fact that Ward hailed from a pack-issued, traditional retail set piqued my interest even more.  Well, that and the fact that it mimicked the design from one of my favorite all-time card layouts - the aforementioned 1915 Cracker Jack food-issue.




It just so happens that Mr. Miller appears in both of these checklists, so let's do a side-by-side comparison.  As you can plainly see, the inspiration is hardly subtle and makes sense with the Federal League through line.  In a sense, HA's option is almost like a infinitely more affordable alternative.

All in all, I've talked an awful lot about the card itself and the associated release; but, I've barely given any mention of the player it depicts.  After all, as much as I like these pasteboards, I would not have bought one if it didn't feature a player that held my direct interest.  As such, it's time that I shift the spotlight from the cardboard to the outfielder who's bust is printed upon it.

Ward Miller is an Illinois boy, through and through.  Born in Mt. Carroll, IL and raised in Dixon, IL, graduated from Northern Illinois University, played for the Chicago Cubs, returned to Dixon and served as the Sheriff of Lee County.  Like I said, the license plates around here should basically read Land of Miller instead of Land of Lincoln.

Although, those early years of his professional career were marred with illness and injuries.  For instance, his baseball career nearly ended before it even began after he decided to play around with a shot put.  The arm injury he suffered plagued him for the rest of his diamond days.  Also, while playing in the bush leagues in 1907, a fever similar to Malaria sidelined him for most of the season.  Furthermore, while playing with the Pirates in 1909 (his maiden season), he only got into fifteen games before being diagnosed with tuberculosis, causing him to be traded away to the Reds by the future NL pennant winners.  Bad breaks all around for Mr. Ward, it seems.



Ward (far right) with some of his Cubs teammates in 1913.


He'd play a year and a half for Reds and spent another year back in the minors before he finally made his date with destiny and returned to the Prairie State, for two years with the Cubbies.  It must have felt inevitable considering all of his Illinois connections. 

As a part-time fly-chaser, "Windy" Ward batted a serviceable, but non-descript, .275 across 166 games.   The most notable contribution Miller made to Cubs history was that he facilitated what was likely the final on-field appearance of the most famous double play combination in the history of America's pastime.  Tinker, Evers, Chance and the rest of the 1912 Cubs came to little, ol' Dixon to play an exhibition game against one of those local amateur clubs; the contest came about at the behest of their teammate, Ward Miller.  Shortly thereafter, Frank Chance would move onto the Big Apple and swap Cubbie Blue for Yankee pinstripes.  But, the famous trio's swan song became the stuff of local legend thanks to the hometown hero.

As you know, Miller eventually made his way to the Federal League and, sadly, it was the Chicagoans that he turned his back on to do so. To make matters worse, before the start of the 1914 campaign, he hopped to the St. Louis franchise, of all places, and he stuck around the Second City's greatest rival for a while. After two seasons with the Terriers, he spent two more with the Browns. It's a minor miracle that he was accepted back in Illinois after those years spent in the Gateway of the West... good thing his roots ran far too deep to be ripped up by a few years astray.

Like I mentioned earlier, after calling it quits, Miller returned home and traded his cleats for a sheriff's badge, serving that role for most of the rest of his life.  He passed away in 1958, at the age of 74, and was laid to rest at Oakwood Cemetery in his hometown of Dixon.


Miller's only Cubs card, a T207

That's the story of Ward Miller - he battled injuries and illness, facilitated the last appearance of he most famous "trio of bear cubs," and was an Illinois boy all the way to the bitter end.  And now, "Windy" is properly represented in my hallowed CATRC binder, courtesy of Historic Autographs and their Federal League set.

Has anyone else on the blogosphere sampled this HA product?  Do you find the idea behind the set to be unique enough to warrant it's existence?  Do you think that this is the start of something greater for the heretofore bland Historic Autographs ?  Or, will they slip back into hocking nothing more than cut autos and index cards with a pretty frame?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

All I know, is that without this set, I would have either had to settle for a cheap reprint or drop big bucks on super vintage in order to get Miller into my collection.  This Cracker Jack-like modern, faux-retro product is about as appealing of an alternative as I can possibly dream of.  For that, I thank you, Historic Autos!

Oh and to close things out, here are some of the five Halloween costumes that were occupying so much of my time over the past few days.  Can you figure out what we are?  I feel as though one of these outfits should be much easier to determine than the other.








Wednesday, October 30, 2019

While You Were Away...

During the nearly three months that I stepped away from baseball, baseball cards, and baseball card blogging, the Cubs tried desperately to stay in the deceivingly tight National League Central chase.  I say "deceivingly" because although the North Siders were well within striking distance of the crown until nearly the bitter end, it never truly felt as though they stood a chance in coming out on top.  The team simply felt flat and flawed while the Cardinals worked their devil magic and the Brewers went on yet another unstoppable September bender.  Of course, that doesn't mean that the club simply mailed it in and gave up the fight; au contraire, they made some roster moves down the stretch that screamed "go home, fat lady!"

Since most of my collecting and writing interests are based around my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection, I will now take this opportunity to show off the cards that were added to my marquee binder as a result of these desperation moves, even if it took me until the last few days to finally get around to physically doing so.  Again, I was on a baseball vacation when all of this went down and the shit hit the proverbial fan at Wrigley this September.

Let's begin with the biggy.  When both of the Cubs starting middle infielders (Javy Baez and *blech* Addison Russell) went down with separate (eventual) season-ending injuries on back to back days in the early days of September, Theo Epstein and Co. were forced to get creative with their roster construction.  Especially seeing as AAA shortstop, Dixon Machado, was already on the MiLB disabled list.  With few realistic options, a "go big or go home" type move was necessary:




Thus, the Cubs' number one prospect, Nico Hoerner became the first member of the 2018 draft class to reach the Major Leagues, barely a year after he was selected in the first round the previous June.  For a franchise that even made Kris Bryant go year-to-year and rung-to-rung on the minor league ladder, this was an exceptionally rapid turnaround.  Of course, for the Cubs, it was either go against their normal development schedule or officially wave the white flag; I must say, it was a pleasantly surprising commitment to competing.

Nico did his part to try and save 2019 - slashing .282/.305/.436 in 82 PA's as the sudden starting shortstop - alas, it was not to be.  However, the move gave us Cubs fans a glimmer of hope and me, specifically, the chance to add this eye-catching blue 2019 Bowman parallel (#'ed /499) to my CATRC.

Welcome to the binder, Mr. Hoerner - the 2020 season will be an interesting one to monitor for you.  Will you force the issue through Spring Training and stick on the MLB roster or will you be placed back on your previous developmental training?  We shall see.






Next up, we have another story of a guy making the best of a bad situation.  

Much has been made about the bevy of talent which came from the 2011 draft - after all, names like Baez, Francisco Lindor, Gerrit Cole, George Springer, Trevor Story, Blake Snell and many others make up the class of '11.  However, that year's second overall selection was one that several pundits thought might be better than them all; a highly-polished college starter with a ace-caliber repertoire.  That man's name was Danny Hultzen:





Unfortunately, years of injuries, arm troubles, and several surgeries kept him from making the Majors.  In fact, by 2017, Danny was completely out of professional baseball and seemed like just another blue chip bust.

However, the Cubs coaxed Hultzen out of semi-retirement in 2018 and, after a full year of rest and recovery, the Chicago front office saw enough in his stuff to promote him straight to AAA-Iowa after just 8 appearances for the Mesa rookie league team.  Then, the lefty made mince meat out of his competition in the homer-happy Pacific Coast League in 2019 (1.26 ERA in 14.1 IP with 0 HR's), which was impressive enough to finally earn him that long awaited call-up to the Show for September.  

During a Cubs season dominated by negatives, Danny's comeback was a welcome bit of wholesome fresh air.  Also, for the record, Hultzen didn't give up a single run in his 3.1 innings of work and looks to have a tangible shot at grabbing a lefty pen role for 2020.  Welcome to the Windy City Danny and, more importantly (to me, anyway) welcome to my CATRC!

Luckily for me, I just so happened to find one of Danny's first mass-produced baseball cards - the 2012 Bowman Chrome Prospects single that you see above - in a discount box at my LCS.  I don't think the owner had realized that Hultzen had become Cubs property and, thus, no home team upcharge!






Lastly, the Cubs did make one further addition to the roster during my blackout period; however, tragically I do not currently have a card with which to represent him in my most treasured binder.  In fact, the young hurler doesn't have a single mainstream baseball card to his name.  Poor me, right? 

Showing just how desperate the team was for a jolt, this pitcher wasn't first called upon at the Big League level (in Chi-Town, that is) until September 1st, he still managed to make 14 appearances before the end of the season.  After showing some early success with his gravity-defying hook, Joe Maddon through this rookie right into the blazing (dumpster) fire.  I mean, he didn't have many reliable options to call upon at this point.





At any rate, the Cubs got a good look at the hulking, six foot nine (tallest Cubs pitcher ever?) lefty that they got from the Padres in the Carl Edwards, Jr. trade.  Even if he was thrust into the thick of things rather quickly, it may have given him an inside track in next year's crowded bullpen picture.  

Speaking of inside tracks, if anyone has such an inroad to acquiring one of Brad's few minor league, team issued cards, I sure would be appreciative if you'd let me know.  Like I said, Wieck has no mass-produced cards on his ledger yet, so these SGA's are my only option, at this juncture.  The 2014 seventh rounder has simply never caught the eyes of the folks at Bowman, Leaf, Onyx, Panini Prizm, etc.  With the lack of love relievers get, in general, who knows if he'll even get an MLB card, in the long run?






With that, I have now covered all the roster moves that I missed out on during my time away from baseball and blogging.  It feels quite nice to be caught up, in that regard, especially with transaction season being just days away... potentially, I could have been buried in an avalanche of tardy CATRC moves.

On that note, here's hoping that there is tidal wave of Cubs roster moves coming up in the next couple of winter months.  After two painful September collapses in a row, I think this team needs something of an overhaul if they want to reasonably compete in 2020.  At least, a new center fielder, second baseman, a starting pitcher or two, and perhaps more still should be on the "to-get" list.

Nevertheless, at this moment, I'm all caught up.  Thanks for digesting my overly tardy ranting and rambling!





Monday, October 28, 2019

High Numbers - Doing Update's Job

One of the last purchases that I made before my blogging blackout was a team set; to be more specific, I pulled the trigger on a Cubs team set from Topps Heritage High Numbers.  Usually, this particular set - which essentially serves the same purpose for the Heritage line as Update does for Flagship -  is one of the releases which most perks my interest.  I can say, unequivocally, that the 2019 edition is not an exception; in fact, it may be the highlight of the year for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.

Unfortunately, this year's aforementioned Update release was a massive dud to this Cubs fan.  It certainly did not do much to "update" the 2019 Cubs Flagship team set, which is it's only true purpose in existing.  For one, there were only four cards featuring the Chicagoans in the checklist, which doesn't leave much space for mid-season acquisitions and rookie call-ups.  In fact, only one - just one - of those cards featured a player who hadn't already been a Cub for at least a year (Craig Kimbrel).  Two are useless All-Star cards, which should be some sort of insert rather than taking up valuable space in the base checklist.  Some "Update," huh?

Luckily for me, the pendulum swung in the complete opposite direction when it come to HHN:




Of the five cards that you see above, four had never been graced with a proper Cubs card before Hi-#'s hit shelves in August and all four of those pasteboards were definite needs for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  Thus, I was absolutely elated when I first saw the checklist on Beckett's website and made sure to not to dilly dally, purchasing a complete team set as soon as I found one in my price range instead of beating around the bush with pack purchases.

Vic Caratini, the Cubs' capable backup backstop, was the one player who had been featured on a handful of previous Windy City-centric cards.  Meanwhile, the following were Cubs firsts:




All I can say about our first example is that it's about time.  Brandon Kintzler was acquired at the trading deadline LAST year and has been a key component of the Chicago bullpen since that July 2018 transaction.  Of course, relievers get very little love from the old bubblegum company and so it took until now for Mr. Kintzler to get his due.  Just in time for him to leave the team in free agency, of course...

Nevertheless, I'm not going to complain about the opportunity to update his card, though the honor might have come later than it should have for Brandon.  He looks much better in Cubbie Blue than Brewer Blue, in my totally unbiased and on the level opinion.




Brad Brach was a slightly more timely selection for the HHN checklist, being an offseason acquisition.  Of course, you'd think the winter signings would be more prudent for Series Two fodder, but what do I know?  After all, by the time these cards hit the shelves, Brach had already hit the pavement, having been DFA'ed by the Cubbies after posting an ERA over six in 42 appearances.  Obviously, Brad's Cubs career isn't one that we Cubs faithful will remember fondly; but, now we can at least remember it properly with this single.

Our next subject was another one of the Cubs' winter free agent acquisitions and, like Brach (and pretty much all of the other players signed that offseason) was an utter flop:




I guess that's we get for inking an ex-Cardinal; that St. Louis pixie dust wears off quite quickly after they move on.

Descalso was brought in to be a swiss army knife infielder with an above average bat, but ended up well under the Mendoza line.  Along with Addison Russell (boo, hiss), this swing and miss was a major reason the Cubs had such a black hole at second base in 2019.  At least Daniel isn't a bag of excrement though, so he has that going for him; he seems like a pretty decent dude.  For that reason, I'm happy to see him pop up here, even if his Cubs career has been less than stellar so far.

Finally, we have the biggest name of the bunch:




Craig Kimbrel was a knee-jerk signing to try and save the flailing 2019 Chicago Cubs and their dumpster fire of a bullpen.  Obviously, he did not save the pen when he was signed mid-season and was, in fact, just gasoline poured on the blaze.  He allowed nine homers in just over 20 innings and had an ERA over 6.50 in that same time... which is, by far, the worst the potential Hall of Famer has ever looked on a Major League mound.  Appropriately, Kimbrel doesn't look particularly good on this card either, with his obviously Photoshopped hat and jersey; however, I'll take what I can get.  Honestly, it could be so much worse.

On the bright side, there's reason for hope when it comes to the final two seasons of Kimbrel's three-year contract.  The home runs can be slightly explained by the juiced ball that Major League Baseball employed last season and it looks like some changes are going to be made with Mr. Spalding.  Also, there's plenty of examples of pitchers signed mid-season failing to find a groove due to the lack of Spring Training and meaningful innings.  Here's hoping that the next two years produce better results and more natural looking Kimbrel Cubs cards!



Actual footage from an examination of the 2019 baseballs.


With that, you can see why I was so happy with the 2019 Heritage High Number set, even if the players included weren't particularly great (for the most part).  Five cards, four suitable "Cubgrades" for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  Rarely - if ever - is one singular release so fruitful for my marquee binder.  Obviously it was the far superior option when it came to "Update" sets in 2019, at least from a North Side baseball perspective.

Each year, it feels as though Topps' Flagship product is getting worse and worse at actually documenting the baseball season at hand.  I know there are print deadlines and other contractual speed bumps that slow down the process of creating up-to-date checklists, but there has to be a way to curb this troubling trend.  Update, in particular, is made up almost entirely of useless filler rather than trade acquisitions and mid-season signings.

Thank you HHN, for picking up the slack and doing Update's job!


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Had One In The Can

Editor's note - this post is several months late, as I started laying it all out just a few days before my blogging blackout.  However, though timely it is not, it is all but ready to go.  So, I might as well just go ahead and fill in the gaps and click publish.  I'd hate to waste it...

Ever since he began to sniff the Big Leagues, the Cubs' Kris Bryant has had a corporate relationship with Red Bull.  Over the years, the star third baseman and the energy drink behemoths have come together for a series of truly fun promotional gags.  For instance, one year Kris punked an entire collegiate baseball team as a "foreign transfer student."  Another year, Bryant had the tables turned on him as Red Bull had Greg Maddux pose as a sound guy with a mean hook.  Whoever the creative minds behind these campaigns are, they are truly earning their presumably hefty paycheck.

Earlier this summer, RB and KB got together again to host a home run derby right smack in the middle of the Chicago Loop:




It's moments like these where I miss working downtown....

Anyway, there's another aspect of the Red Bull/Kris Bryant sponsorship pairing that is becoming something of a hallmark.  The energy drink with the largest market share in the world has taken to spicing up their iconic can design with the faces of prominent athletes and celebrities which endorse their product and other intellectual properties, i.e. pro video gamer, Ninja, Team Red Bull F1 driver, Daniel Ricciardo, the characters from Capcom's Street Fighter video game series, and Pac-Man, among others.  After all, collectors will buy just about anything related to their favorite people and things.

During the outset of the 2018 baseball season, Kris Bryant's face was also sharing space with the dueling crimson bulls on blue and silver cans across the Chicagoland area.  Being the rabid Cubs fan I am with a potentially problematic energy drink habit, you better believe I grabbed one of these bad boys for my knick knack shelf; heck, I even banged out a post about the canister here.  Red Bull must have done pretty well in the Windy City that April, as they trotted out KB cans once again at the Chicago River home run derby, only this time with a slightly different design.  I mean, it's no secret that we collectors have to have every little variation, right?  

Although I was unable to make it to the event in the Loop, these special edition cans soon found their way into grocery stores and filling stations throughout the suburbs and you damn well better believe that I grabbed one... I'm no exception to that "every little variation" quirk, you know.




This is what the Kris Bryant Red Bull can - 2019 edition - looks like.  I included a promotional image from a since lost article, seeing as the photography in this post leaves plenty to be desired.  Of course, I'm not sure how much the admittedly small and pixelated .jpeg is helping.  Nevertheless...

To sum it all up, the design of Red Bull's iconic product doesn't change very much, except that you get to see Kris Byrant's face as he steps up to the plate in a RB cap in one blue parallelogram and his powerful cut in the other.  Also included are an advertisement for a contest to hit the batting cages with the 2016 NL MVP and a faux signature, both of which occupy the silver negative space.  All in all, it's very simple and barely messes with the famous color scheme and design.  Sadly, there's no Snapchat filter/game via Snapcode included on this year's can.  😦

For comparison's sake, here's a side by side look at the 2019 and 2018 RB/KB cans:





Again, poor photography, but you get the gist.  For a full look and review at least year's drink container, you can check out my thoughts right here.  Essentially, it all boils down to this:  same idea, different pictures.

It was after washing out this can of Cubs-themed Red Bull that I realized I had unknowingly dived head first into yet another collection, something which my wife will verify that I already have far too many of in my limited living space.  Now with two Cubbie energy drinks to go along with a pair of Northside baseball themed beer cans, I have a blossoming beer/pop can collection building up on my shelving unit:



In case your curious, you can read about Joe Maddon's  "Try Not to Suck" German-style ale (which doesn't suck, but also doesn't leave a large impression) here or the fantastic sampling of "Ron Santo 10 Ale" - gifted to me by P-Town Tom, of Waiting 'til Next Year fame - over here.

At this point, all I need are some of those vintage RC Cola cans from the 70's and I'll have all the Cubbie beverage canisters that I can think of!  




These two would definitely fit in with the rest of my Cub-cans.

Is there anyone else out there that picks up and hangs onto these special edition cans of Red Bull?  Or, perhaps we have more Monster fans on the blogosphere?  Did anyone else out there accidentally stumble into a side collection in the same manner as I did my can stash?  Does anyone know of any other North Side baseball themed beverages that I should be keeping my eyes open for?  Please feel free to weigh-in in the comment section below; I'd love to hear from you!

In the meantime, after banging out this post, I might need to wander down to the gas station next door and pick up another can and "ride the bull" again just to find the energy to make it through the day.  Grant me sustenance, Kris Bryant!