Friday, July 20, 2018

Warming Up the Stove

Now that the much anticipated Manny Machado trade has finally been completed (never a sure thing when the Orioles are involved, after all), the constipated July trade market looks to be open for business.  After all, the very next day, the Padres gave up their Hand in order to acquire Francisco Mejia from the Indians.  Now, contending teams are lining up at the doors, trying to get their hands on a Brian Dozier, Chris Archer, or an ace from the imploding New York Mets.  Even the Orioles aren't done selling yet- word dropped that Baltimore’s “barreling ahead” with it's Zach Britton trade talks, per Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com.  Lord knows that any team with postseason prospects could always use a little extra reinforcement in their bullpen.

The Cubs are known to be major players in that auction, especially with their closer, Brandon Morrow, recently hitting the DL for the second time in 2018.  With that in mind, last night, Theo and Jed went out and got themselves a reliever to help shoulder the post-All Star Break load.  However, Britton remains an Oriole (for now); this particular trade, is only warming up the hot stove:




Jesse Chavez has carved out a nice career as a swingman for the Pirates, Braves, Royals, A's, Blue Jays, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers over the last eleven years.  Seeing as the Cubs rotation has been in flux for most of the 2018 campaign (thanks to the Darvish injury and Chatwood walk problem), having someone who can step in and take an emergency start or two isn't a bad idea.  Plus, with the bullpen being slightly overworked (courtesy of the starters not going deep into games) before the Morrow injury, having another relief option must be a welcome sight for Joe Maddon.

The well-traveled journeyman had been manning the mound for Texas this year, posting a 3.51 ERA and 8.0 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 in 30 appearances (exclusively in relief) for the Rangers.  As a groundball specialist, with Javy Baez and Addison Russell playing behind him, that ERA is bound to decrease.  

One more fun fact about Chavez - this isn't his first association with the Chicago National League Ballclub.  Although he played his first professional ball in the Texas chain starting in 2002, Jesse was actually drafted by the Cubbies the year prior, in the 39th round, back when Andy MacPhail was still the Northside GM.  The high school graduate neglected to sign though, choosing instead to attend community college and re-enter the draft the following summer.  

So, it took 17 years and several front office shake-ups, but the Cubs finally got their man!





In order to secure Jesse's services, the Cubs were forced to part with last year's seventh-round draft selection, Ricky Tyler Thomas. During his first full year in the Cubs system, the pitcher has turned in impressive results, twirling 75 innings of 2.88 ERA ball for the South Bend Cubs.  However, being that those numbers came in low-A ball, Thomas represents nothing more than a lottery ticket for the Rangers.

While that lottery ticket could be scratched and find Thomas sitting comfortably the middle of the Texas rotation in a few years, this is the kind of depth deal that contenders make.  In short, it's well-worth the risk to shore up a World Series contender's pen.




Luckily for me, I just so happened to have this 2013 Topps Update single sitting in my trade stacks.  Now, it will shift from that dusty box to my marquee Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  Seeing as Chavez is signed to only a one-year contract, it seems unlikely the his stay in the Windy City will last long enough to earn a true, blue Cubs card (unless he does something Now worthy), this particular pasteboard could serve as his CATRC representation for a long time.

Anyway, here's hoping that Chavez can sop up some quality innings this summer and fall, be it from the bullpen or the starting rotation.  The Cubs are roaring out of the All-Star Break with a key five-game series with the Cardinals, that includes a double-header - the pitching staff is going to be tested right away.

Welcome to Chicago and to my CATRC binder, Jesse Chavez!  Now that the hot stove is pre-heating, maybe somebody will soon be joining you.  Zach Britton?  Dylan Bundy?  Jacob deGrom?!  We shall soon see.




Sunday, July 15, 2018

Posting About Post




Throughout the last month or so, football has been the center of the sporting world's attention.  Of course I'm not talking about the gridiron, I'm speaking to the sport that we Americans have branded soccer for some reason.  While, for many years,  the narrative has been that Americans don't give a damn about soccer/football/futbol, the tide seems to be turning somewhat.  Despite not having a dog in the fight this time around, my timeline was filled with people discussing the international game, bemoaning flopping, and parsing the action in this morning's early morning final match.

Concurrently, interest in our country's domestic soccer league also appears to be on the rise.  Major League Soccer has added five new clubs to their roster since 2015, with three more expansion teams on their way.  That being said, the average broadcast of an MLS game only brings in about 30,000, a modest total when it comes to pro sports.  Thus, the organization still has some work to do when it comes to promoting their rapidly expanding league.

On that note, while walking through the aisles of my local CVS yesterday evening, I noticed MLS's latest initiative to further their brand:




Post Cereal is apparently the official breakfast cereal of Major League Soccer.  As an devoted lover of all things breakfast cereal, I'm actually kind of surprised that I didn't already know this when I came across this box of Honey Bunches of Oats.  This brand just so happens to be one of my favorite brands of the breakfast staple.  

I went into that corner drug store in need of twenty dollars in cash to blow at a poker game; but, with no Chase Bank ATM nearby, I opted to just buy myself a small treat and get cash back on the transaction.  When I saw the back of this cereal box, I instantaneously knew what my evening snack was going to be.  Yea, I munch on dry cereal as a snack - I wasn't kidding around when I said that I love breakfast cereal.




Now, to be honest, I'm not much of a soccer fan.  I've attended one Chicago Fire game in my life and I ended up leaving before it ended in a 0-0 tie, which just seems wrong to me.  However, I am a fan of the concept of oddball trading cards on the back of cereal boxes!  Considering the situation at hand, this was a no-brainer purchase, in my eyes.

Seeing as Post is the official cereal of MLS, the two entities partnered with Topps to offer up panels of trading cards on the backs on certain cereals.  The four cards you get vary on the kind of cereal you purchase - for example, Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds will always net you the four players that you see above, while HBoO w/ Banana Bunches will feature an entirely different panel.  Other brands that are participating in the promotion include Fruity & Cocoa Pebbles, Oreo O's, and Honeycombs.  I was hoping to find a box with a Chicago Fire player included; but, sadly, CVS didn't carry any of those other kinds.

After scarfing down a bunch of bunches and losing all of my poker money (rather quickly), I made sure to "ask a grown up to help me cut the cards out of the box," as instructed by the box.  But, since my wife could only roll her eyes at me, I had to do it myself.  Don't worry though, all of my fingers are still attached.






Like I said, I'm not much of a soccer fan; thus, I don't know much about the players depicted on these oddballs.  Although, the name Jozy Altidore does ring a bell.  As it turns out, that makes sense, as the Toronto FC forward in one of the more accomplished players in North American soccer history.  The New Jersey-born player has been on the professional scene since 2006, playing in the MLS, as well as across the globe (including the Premier League), and representing the United States in many international tournaments.  

I guess I have subconsciously absorbed some soccer awareness at some point.

The cards themselves feature a sleek, angular design that keeps everything nice and simple.  It's not bad, though I would prefer that the blue triangle which contains the player name, number, position and team be a tad small, as it ends up blocking out nearly a third of the photograph.  Additionally, there is an abnormally large "Topps" logo in the upper left corner - there will not be any questions as to who was behind the creation of this set!





As for the backs, well they're blank - so, I won't be getting any stats or biographical information to educate myself on the players or the game.  I suppose that's a necessity of the manufacturing process; I can't  imagine it would be easy to print on the outside AND the inside of the cereal box.
All in all, the cards are decent and the concept is pretty nifty.  Of course, this is not Post's first venture into the world of trading cards... far from it.  In the early 1960's, the cereal company cemented their place in hobby lore by using the back panels of their cereal boxes to print up baseball and football cards that sports-loving children had their parents pulling out their hair over trying to find the right boxes.  You'll see these much-ballyhooed cards appear on the blogosphere from time to time and I even have a few myself:






Then, the breakfast giants revisited this concept in the early 90's, including cello-wrapped cards inserted into the boxes throughout the first half of the decade.  In fact, it was through one of these promotions that I acquired my very first baseball card, a 1994 Post Mark Whitten card that I still have kicking around somewhere today.   Unfortunately, I cannot find it at the moment, otherwise I would include a photo of it in this post.  Please settle for Mark Grace and Ryne Sandberg from the 1991 & 1992 editions, respectively:





Anyway, it's nice to see that Post is getting back into the trading card game.  While soccer cards are nice and all, I can think of a certain other sport that is having some difficulties when it comes to marketing their game to children.  What better way is there to reignite interest in baseball among the youth of America than through the backs of the cereal boxes? After all, think of how many kids down a bowl of cereal every morning before school.

C'mon Post, make it happen!  Now that Topps seems to warm to the idea and they have reaffirmed their exclusive MLB license, this seems like a perfect promotion to me.  Hopefully these soccer cards move some units, then the old bubblegum company might actually be interested in expanding the promotion.

Do you think it would work?





Tuesday, July 10, 2018

When a Card Show Isn't Really a Card Show




What's better than going to a card show?  How about a a pair of ballgames combined with a baseball card show?  Does that move the needle for you?

I don't know about you, but when I saw that one of the local ballparks was hosting a card show on the concourse during one of their traditional Sunday doubleheaders, I nearly leapt out of my chair and immediately circled that date on my calendar with thick, red ink.  Okay, more like proverbial red ink; after all, it is the 21st century and I made this notation through the calendar application on my smart phone, which is not Sharpie compatible.  Anyway...

When I saw this listing on the Beckett Show Calendar, my heart started pulsating with excitement.  After all, any excuse to go to the ballpark is a good excuse, especially one that revolves around my favorite hobby.  Plus, I used to work just down the street from this particular stadium and never got around to attending a game there, although I apparently did claim a pocket schedule back in 2015.  Hence, this was the perfect excuse to kill two birds with one stone - it almost seemed too good to be true... and you know what they say about THAT.

The warning signs were there - there was no advertising for the show through the park's social media channels, it did not appear on their official calendar, and the information on Beckett was vague.  Nevertheless, I chose to plow through these signs in a blissful ignorance, laser-focused on making the half an hour drive to attend a perfect pairing of my two favorite things to do on a sunny, Sunday afternoon.

Of course, I mean attending baseball games and browsing through... a comic book show?





Or perhaps this Simpsons-themed meme is more appropriate:




Out of the 10 or so booths that were set up throughout the concrete walkways of Standard Diamonds Park, all of them mostly focused on comic books, with a few also dealing in similarly themed toys and memorabilia.  Two - just two - had any trading cards and those were nothing of substance or significance.  Needless to say, my bliss was immediately shattered and I felt immensely let down.  I listlessly wandered about, asking myself, how could a show at a ballpark have barely anything to do with America's pastime?  The irony!

As I mentioned earlier, I saw the warning signs and I chose not to open up my eyes.  I should have listened to Ace of Base on the drive over.

Even though this "card" show turned out to be quite the pumpkin, all was not lost.  I mean, worst case scenario, I still got to watch some live baseball and that's not a bad silver lining!





Standard Diamonds Park at Oil City Stadium is a little, neighborhood ballpark in Whiting, IN.  It's beautiful, red brick facade and placement in a charming downtown setting (immediately next to an old railroad siding) evoke memories of baseball's past and make for a wonderful place to take in a game or two.  The venue plays host to the Whiting HS Oilers and the nearby Calumet College of St. Joseph Crimson Wave ballclubs, as well as a Midwest Collegiate League franchise in the Northwest Indiana Oilmen.  It was this latter team who would be starring in that Sunday doubleheader.

Thus, after coming to terms with the card show mishap, I made my way to the grandstand, found myself some real estate on the third base side, near home plate, and plopped down for an afternoon of entertainment.  What better way could there be to distract me from my disappointment?





Just beyond the outfield fence, you can see the place where I used to work and the namesake for the Oilmen - the local BP plant.  For a few years, I worked as an environmental contractor at the facility and often, maybe while perilously perched on one of those tall towers, found myself wishing I was at the ballpark across the way instead.  Well, it took me until two and a half years after I switched employers, but I finally made it!  Better late than never, right?

For as displeasing as the card... err... comic book show was, the show on the field was just as entertaining.  In game one, both the Oilmen and the visiting Joliet Generals took a dueling no-hitter into the late innings.  The home team eventually won by a score of 5-3, with the game ending on a slick defensive play that would have otherwise resulted in the tying run being scored.  As for the second game... as enthralled as I was, the heat was starting to get to me due to temps in the mid-90's and there not being a sliver of shade in the stadium.

Nevertheless, I was sufficiently entertained by the first tilt; so, at least I got some value out of my Sunday afternoon trip.



Oh and even though there wasn't really any cardboard to be had, I did end up with a nifty souvenir anyway.  I scooped the above foul ball out of the grass just outside of left field and near the lot where my car was parked.  That made for a pretty damn cool way to end a day at the old ballpark - it looks great nestled on my dresser next to my Frontier League and Carolina League balls.

But wait - that's not where this story ends.  Just so you know, this is where I'm going to get extremely braggy about my better half.

During the breaks in action on the field, I spent some time texting with my wife, who opted to use her Sunday for "me time" instead of baking in the sun.  Of course, I let her know all about how I had the rug pulled out from underneath me and the card show turned out to be an unfortunate misnomer.   This wonderful woman shared my dismay and immediately took it upon herself to do what she could to make up for my flustering.  Later that evening, when I arrived back at our apartment, I found my beautiful wife with this in her hands:




"I know this set has been out for a while and you probably have everything you need from it, but I just wanted to do what I could to make up for the show."

At the moment, my smile could not have fit on a highway billboard.  There are billions of "fish in the sea" and I somehow was lucky enough to find this perfect person.  I honestly could not have cared less about what was in the pack - it could have somehow been filled with nothing but 1991 Fleer, for all I cared.  The only thing that mattered to me was how she cared enough about me to go out of her way and try to make me happy.  Look, I could go on and on, but I write a blog about baseball cards, not Hallmark cards. 

With that in mind, I guess that's enough of the lovey-dovey stuff... you probably just want to see the contents of the pack anyway.  First, the inserts:



As you can see, this pack came from Target, as the Cody Bellinger insert set is only available at the red bullseye.

Next, the Cubs contingent:




One that got away in the form of Christian Villanueva.  I'm glad to see that he's thriving in San Diego - he's always had the potential, but was never going to get past Kris Bryant.

Moving on, here's some base:



Nothing too notable here.  Although, admittedly, one of these could very well be a photo variation or short print or what have you... I didn't dot my i's or cross my t's here.

And finally, we'll conclude with the horizontal heroes portion of my surprise pack of 2018 Topps Series Two:





I'm usually not one for horizontal cards as they upset my sense of cardboard OCD; however, I must admit, these are some eye-catching images.

So, as you can see, the cards themselves weren't too notable.  However, that's not what's important here, as this pack was all about the gesture.  This show of affection from my caring wife completed the transformation of the day - while it started out as lackluster, it ended up becoming absolutely wonderful in the end.  Although the card show was a comic show in disguise, I got to see an exciting ballgame in a ballpark that I had long been meaning to check out, I made off with a foul ball, and - most importantly - my awesome wife surprised me with a pack of baseball cards to try and cheer me up.  Add all of that together and you end up with one happy Burbs.

Although, I do have to ask myself, has anyone else ever been duped in the manner that I was on that Sunday afternoon?  Did you ever go into a venue expecting a card show and end up walking into something else entirely?  Please feel free to talk about the experience in the comment section below.

Meanwhile, in the future, I'll be sure to pay attention to those previously ignored warning signs.  I simply can't afford to let my wife buy a pack of baseball cards every time I do something dimwitted - we'd go bankrupt!





Monday, July 9, 2018

We've Got (Nor)wood!

The Cubs are sporting some serious wood... no, not that kind of wood.  Get your mind out of the gutter, folks.

On their current 40-man roster, the Cubs now have Tyler ChatWOOD tenuously gripping a spot in the starting rotation, Duane UnderWOOD biding his time in AAA after a brief MLB trial, and now James NorWOOD riding the shuttle from Iowa to the Chicago bullpen.  I'd say that this team is sporting an impressive amount of wood...




Anyway...

Yesterday morning, the Cubs made a roster move to freshen their thinly-stretched pitching staff.  With short starts abound for Chicago moundsmen not named Jon Lester, including the aforementioned Chatwood, some reinforcement was absolutely necessary.  Appropriately enough, the front office didn't have to look too hard for building material, as there was some excess "wood" lying around Principal Park in Des Moines.




Pictured here with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, James Norwood continues his rise through the Cubs system, officially making the ultimate ascent after Anthony Bass was placed on the 10-day DL for an illness.  A seventh-round pick in the 2014 draft, James becomes the first hurler from that pitching heavy draft to make it to the Big Leagues, ahead of more heralded names like Jake Stinnett, Carson Sands, Justin Steele, and Dylan Cease.

James' development had shifted into high gear since making a full-time transition to the pen.  Starting 2017 with the A-level Pelicans, James blew through hitters in the Carolina League before earning a promotion.  After 39 games with the Tennessee Smokies, Norwood punched his ticket to Iowa, where he only had time to twirl 5.1 AAA innings before his services were needed on the MLB roster.  Propelling him through this rapid ascent were his 95 mph fastball, plus secondary offerings, and strikeouts (career 9.2 K/9).

However, James did not make an appearance in yesterday's exciting win over the suddenly surging Reds and his initial stay in Chicago is likely to be brief in nature.  That said, James has the potential to be a part of the bullpen picture for years to come.



Norwood working on the mound for the South Bend Cubs, circa 2016.



As I alluded to earlier, Norwood was not the most-hyped pitcher selected by the Cubs in his draft class.  As a result, he has not appeared in many mainstream baseball card products.  While the other arms selected by the Cubbies have ended up in licensed sets, such as Bowman, Pro Debut, and Minor League Heritage over the years, James has only popped up in Panini's Prizm Perennial Draft Picks and Elite Extra Edition and nothing since 2014.  The jokes on those guys though, as they're still stuck in the bushes.

Luckily for me and my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection, I took a trip to the Myrtle Beach area last fall for a wedding.  Of course, while I was in town, I made sure to stop by TicketReturn.com Field (without missing the nuptials, of course).  Though minor league season had ended by that point, it was quite the exciting side-trip and I made sure to grab a copy of the 2017 Pelicans team-set from the gift shop.  As mentioned earlier, Norwood spent the first half of that season with MB and, thus, this set had "wood."




Despite the fact that this set is based a round an A-ball team and is slightly less than a calendar year old, you might be surprised to know that Mr. Norwood is not the first player from it's checklist to make the Majors.  That honor belongs to one Dillon Maples, who's meteoric rise from Myrtle to Chicago after nearly giving up the game was one of last season's best feel-good stories.  Maples has also appeared in a handful of games as part of the bullpen shuttle and is most certainly not letting his frequent rider membership expire.

Furthermore, Norwood isn't even the second person from the cello-pack to make the ultimate ascent.  This past winter, Pedro Araujo was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the Rule 5 Draft and the prospect defied the odds to make the Bird's MLB roster out of spring training.  Thus, for now, Pedro's Pelican card resides in my "Coulda Been a Cub" binder, owing to Araujo's 20 games in black and orange.  However, this could change, seeing as he must remain on the 25-man roster for the rest of the season or be offered back to Chicago - his performance (7.71 ERA) indicates that he is on unsteady (at best) ground.






Of course, the O's are historically bad this year and Pedro is hardly hurting their chances to compete.  We'll see what happens.

In summation, this 2017 Choice Myrtle Beach Pelicans team set has already produced three Major League Baseball players, two of which have suited up for the Cubs and have been added to my CATRC.  That's not bad for an impromptu vacation souvenir purchase!  I highly doubt that's where the fun will end either, as several other guys in this set are on MLB tracks, including - but not limited to - Thomas Hatch, Eddy Julio Martinez, Oscar de la Cruz, and more.  Not to mention, there's Adbert Alzolay, who would likely have already become the fourth Big Leaguer from this pack, if not for suffering a season-ending lat injury in May... le sigh.

At any rate, this purchase continues to pay dividends towards my main collecting goal.  Who will be the next player from it's depths to earn themselves a cuppacoffee?






One more note about our "lumbering" hero, James Norwood, before I call it quits on this post - before he's even tossed a pitch at the game's highest level, the young hurler has already made a bit of baseball history.  With his call-up on Monday, the former Billiken became the first St. Louis University product to make it all the way to the Major Leagues in nearly fifty years.  Before Norwood, the most recent SLU alumnus to do so was Len Boehmer, who played from 1967-71 with the Angels and the Yankees.

That's not a bad feather to add to the proverbial cap.

Anyway, welcome to the Majors and to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection, James Norwood.  Here's hoping that Norwood's tenure in the Bigs lasts far longer than four hours!





Friday, June 29, 2018

A Time of Shuffling Rosters

It's getting to be that time of year - as the mercury rises, so does the likelihood of major transactions.  Come July, players will be trading uniforms like we do baseball cards as teams try to lock and re-load their rosters in order to boost their playoff chances.  Every summer, we fans wait with bated breath to see where the big names end up and find out if our favorite teams did enough to reinforce their rosters for the grueling schedule to come.

Of course, I'm talking about the official opening of the free-agent period in the NHL.  What - you thought I was referring to the MLB trade deadline?  Oopsy, my bad.

Anyway, while Theo Epstein and crew figure out whether they need to acquire a reliable reliever, an offensive boost, or a starting pitcher more for the dog days of summer, Stan Bowman has already reportedly plugged a hole on the Blackhawks' roster.  If Chris Johnston of Sportsnet is to be believe,  Cam Ward will be bring his mask and pads to Chicago to serve as Corey Crawford's back-up for the 2018-19 season.  The free-agent signing period doesn't actually open until July 1st, but it's believed that the one-year, $2.5 million contract is all but official.




The Hawks were a major disappointment last season, failing to make the playoffs for the first time in nine years.  After nearly a decade of being the dominant force in the Chicago sports market, the current dynastic window appears to be nearly closed.

While all phases of the game can be blamed for their rapid decline, their performance between the pipes was a major contributor.  Crawford's murky injury issues kept him off the ice for most of the campaign and his replacements simply could not fill his skates.  Anton Forsberg, Colin Delia, JF Berube, Jeff Glass, and literal guy off of the street, Scott Foster, posted a combined .902 save percentage and a 17-30-8 record.  This simply was not getting the job done and, with Crow's health still a big question mark, a reliable, veteran presence was needed in the net. 

Enter Cam Ward.




The longtime goalie of the Carolina Hurricanes is certainly no longer in his prime.  Far removed from his days as a playoff MVP and Stanley Cup winner in 2006, the 34-year old has been in something of a platoon, splitting time with former Blackhawk, Scott Darling, last year.  On the season, Ward contributed a 23-14-4 record with a 2.73 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in 43 games. 

Here's hoping that, at the very least, Ward can provide a steady presence on the roster and find a way to lock the revolving door that led to the net in 2017-18.  Ideally, a recovered Crawford will keep Ward from seeing too much time on the ice anyway.

Luckily for me, I had a pair of Cam cards stashed in my hockey trade box, which you can see above.  I'll wait until July 1st to add him to my Blackhawks All-Time Roster Collection, just in case the deal falls through before the official signing period begins, but it sure looks as though these previous bits of trade bait came in handy.  Perhaps I'll be able to mine that box for more cards once the free agents begin moving in earnest come Sunday?  The Hawks sure could use a forward and a defenseman or two and Bowman and company actually have some cap space to work with - Ward's modest deal did not change that.  We'll see what happens.

In the meantime, welcome to Chicago, Mr. Ward!  Oh... and Theo... maybe you can bring in a rotation arm to eat some innings or a bench bat?  That roster-shuffling period will be here before we know it.





Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Great Smokies

As I alluded to in yesterday's post, last week I was on a desperately needed vacation.  The wife and I joined the rest of her side of the family and rented a large, rustic cabin in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where we spent the whole of the weekend hiking, hanging out, grilling, sampling moonshine and whiskey, riding chair lifts, and drinking beer while doing our best to avoid bears.  Seriously though, a black bear did walk almost right up to our deck - you don't get that sort of nature in Chicago!

Speaking of which, that wasn't the only bear that we found on our trip - also encountered were some Cubs in the form of the Tennessee Smokies.

Being as big of a Cubs homer as I am, when I discovered that the team's AA affiliate was located just a half an hour from where we were staying, I knew there was no way that I'd miss making a quick visit.  Unfortunately, the club was not in town during the weekend we were in-town - of course, we were probably too busy to fit in a ballgame too - their souvenir shop was still open for business.  So, just like on our trip to Myrtle Beach, on our way back home, my amazingly patient wife and I swung by the stadium to pick me up a souvenir or two.





This actually isn't the first time that I've made a pilgrimage to Smokies Stadium:  back in 2010, some college friends and I also rented a cabin and stayed nearby for a few days.  That time, we were able to finagle a game into our itinerary.  However, I don't recall too much about the contest, and being the poor college kid that I was, I didn't have the scratch for gas home AND souvenirs, so I have nothing to commemorate that visit.  This time was going to be different.  In fact, I had a specific target or two in mind.

Spoiler alert:  they were all baseball cards.

Minor league team sets are notoriously marked-up on the secondhand market and I was hoping to add a few names for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection straight from the source.  Sadly, the stadium shop didn't have any sets left on the shelves from before 2016 (so no Felix Pena) and, since the 2018 edition has not yet come out, last year's set has yet to be marked down; thus, my options were fairly limited, especially since I didn't feel like plopping down $15 just to get a David Bote single.





I was a tad bit frustrated, although I knew I wouldn't walk away completely empty-handed, thanks to the complimentary pocket schedule I grabbed on my way in.  I don't usually collect these card-like objects and I highly doubt I'll be back around for a game this year; but, I wanted to ensure that I had something to remember the Smokies by.

Luckily for me, the Smokies did something unique last summer.  Instead of offering up just a single, yearly team set in 2017, the Smokies also put out a secondary, update checklist later in the season.  Granted, I don't have a lot of experience with such things, but this seems like a pretty rare occurrence in MiLB baseball - teams usually seem to be content with their one, block issue, player movement be damned.  Being that this update set was smaller, so was it's price tag.  Even better, it included at least one player that I needed for my precious CATRC.





The recently recalled Dillon Maples was the cover card for the cello-wrapped, 2009 Topps-inspired set and I made sure to grab him and his friends for my official Tennessee trip souvenir.  There was not going to be a repeat of 2010!

Mr. Maples was not the only Major Leaguer to be found within these confines either.  In fact, this minor league issue had a surprising amount of star power in it's checklist:




A World Series MVP and the 2016 NL ERA leader?  You don't see that too often in such an issue!

In a move that I'm surprised that more minor league clubs don't pull, the Smokies decided to include rehabbing Major Leaguers in their amendment.  Both Ben Zobrist and Kyle Hendricks briefly blew through town while recovering from injuries last season and, therefore, ended up in the set.  These oddballs will look awesome in my "Nothing Major" binder, made up of minor league cards featuring Major League Cubs.



Oh... and so will Brett Anderson, but his appearance is far less exciting.  No offense Brett, but your stint in Chicago didn't go particularly well.

The final Major Leaguer found in the cellophane wrapper was actually the main target in this acquisition.  Unlike Zorilla, the Professor, or Brett, this guy was not an established Big League veteran visiting the Great Smokey Mountains.  In this case, at the time of this card's printing, he was a newly acquired, flier of a prospect, who had yet to put it all together as a professional.  Now, he's on the Cubs roster and looks to be a factor in the future of the MLB bullpen:




While it's nifty that Justin Hancock is sporting a Star Wars Night uniform, I wish a better picture was used for this reliever... maybe a little brighter and an actual view of his face.  That said, bush league teams can't exactly go to Getty for their photographs.


Hancock might be on the disabled list, but his fastball has him on track to be part of the pen for years to come.  Ever since the Cubs moved him to the bullpen, after they acquired him from San Diego in the Matt Szczur trade, Justin has done nothing but impress.  An uptick in velocity upon that switch (up to 97mph) is a major factor.

While Hancock was an intriguing lottery ticket, he was never seen as a blue chipper.  Thus, unfortunately, he never made it into a prospect-driven set like Bowman, Pro Debut, Contenders, etc.  This has made finding a card for my CATRC quite frustrating, with my only option being those aforementioned, marked-up team-issues.  While I did have to pay ten bucks for the privilege of tracking down Justin, I also got this whole update set with him.  Online, it probably would have been a ten spot just for the single card!




I suppose we might as well take this opportunity to examine the reverse - it's pretty standard with a vitals, a couple years of stats, and a quick blurb about the player spotlighted.    We also get the guy's jersey number, a head-shot, and a team logo too.  Grandstand and their rival company, Brandt, handle the vast majority of minor league card sets, so there's a fairly consistent look and format.




The rest of the set was made up of, big surprise, minor leaguers.  Hopefully, within the next few years, some of these prospects will be making the leap into my CATRC binder and, if they do so, I will be prepared for their arrival.  Jose Rosario and Craig Brooks are a pair of intriguing relievers and, owing to his 40-man roster spot, the former could appear in Chicago as soon as September.




Oh Adbert.... if it weren't for his season-ending lat injury he recently suffered, he'd likely have already taken a turn or two in the Cubs' starting rotation.  *Sigh* here's hoping the club's top prospect comes back completely healthy and raring to go for 2019.




Kevin Cornelius and Daniel Spingola represent the last of the player-portion of the update set.  Like I said, it's a small supplement.

It doesn't appear particularly likely that either of these men will be making the Major League roster anytime soon.  Spignola, a 31st round draft pick in 2015, was demoted back to A-ball for 2018 after a weak showing in the foothills.  Meanwhile, Cornelius, a Rule 5 selection from the Yankees chain, is no longer a member of the Cubs' farm system - for 2018, Kevin has been plying his talents north of the border for the Trois-Rivieres Aigles of the independent Canadian-American Association.

Anyway, like I said, that's it when it comes to players.  But, what's a minor league set without....



..coaches...



...broadcasters (with a nice Zobs cameo)...




...trainers and mascots?  I don't think it would even count as a "real" minor league set without these wide-reaching inclusions!

All in all, I was rather happy with my souvenir find - knocking off a major need for my CATRC, adding some marquee names to my "Nothing Major" binder, and stashing some big prospects for the future is nothing to sneeze at!  However, I'm not entirely materialistic and my visit wasn't solely about buying things to remember our vacation by.  Additionally, I wanted to see the ballpark itself and take in my surroundings - I mean, who knows, it might be another eight years before I get back again!




The park itself is oddly nestled among a shopping center, tucked just behind an expressway.  In fact, I thought it was a Bass Pro Shops or a strip mall before I realized we were approaching the Stadium.  That's not to say that I don't like the facade, it's just that it was a bit easy to miss.  Although, I love the fact that the official address of the ballpark is on Line Drive, *ba dum tiss*.
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Like I said, the Smokies were actually out of town during the time of our visit.  However, baseball was still going on via a high school-level baseball tournament.  On the plus side, this meant that I got to see what the park looked like in action.  On the negative end, the paid admission meant that I did not get to walk around and explore the facility like I did in Myrtle Beach.  Although, the gift shop staff generously allowed me to step outside their door to get a glimpse and snap some photographs. 

From what I saw from that perch, it sure looked like an excellent place to play and spectate.




As much as I wanted to, we just did not have time to stick around and take in a game - we were already staring down an almost 10-hour drive back home to Illinois.  Just thinking about this 568 mile trek made us preemptively tired and sore.




So, after getting a few good pictures, my wife and I paid for our wares (she also grabbed a t-shirt for her troubles) and bid adieu to the Volunteer State.  I can't thank the Smokies staff enough for being so informative, helpful, and kind; even if our visit lasted only about a half an hour or so, their warm and welcoming attitude made it feel like we could have stayed for hours.  Maybe there is still such a thing as southern hospitality?

All in all, the entirety of our sojourn to the Great Smokey Mountains region was a massive success and I cannot wait to make a return trip.  I truly believe that we will be making that trek again in the not-so-distant future - we may have been there for four days, but I feel like we only got through a quarter of the things we wanted to do.  Next time, I want to do some hillbilly golf, go for a long trail run, and take in the tranquil waterfalls among other things on our lengthy laundry list.

And, heck, maybe I can swing an actual Smokies game this time!