Thursday, March 31, 2016

Have Your Pencil... and Scorecards Ready

Longtime Wrigley Field PA announcer Pat Pieper, from 1916 to 1974, used to begin every game with his trademark drone, "Attention! ... Attention, please! ... Have your pencil ... and scorecards ready ... and I'll give you... the correct lineup ... for today's ball game."  I can only assume his trademark pauses were for dramatic effect.

For the first time in a long time, the roster for the Cubs looks like a bonafide contender as we break camp (last year's surprise notwithstanding).  As the club set their final 25-man list a few days ago, several names who would have been shoe-ins in years previous were left on the outside looking in.  Such is progress.

Let's take a look at those who manager Joe Maddon will bring north to start the 2016 season for the Chicago Cubs; first, the starters in the infield:


Hot damn!  An already potent lineup from last season looks downright Murderors Row-like with the winter additions of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

Definitely, not a weak bat among the starting 8 position players.  Of course, there are some defensive questions when it comes to Schwarber in left field and Bryant's hot corner prowess still must be proven.  However, opposing pitchers aren't going to be looking forward to coming to Wrigley Field this year.

Who do we have coming off of the bench?:

Jorge Soler was forced to take a seat, courtesy of the late signing of Dexter Fowler; however, there's no doubt he'd be a starter on most teams.  Here's hoping that the young Cuban plays more like he did in last year's playoffs (.417 BA in 12 PA) than he did in the regular season (.262 w/ two DL stints) and earns some more regular playing time.

Meanwhile, the other two guys had to prove themselves this March to earn their spots.  La Stella gets the call for his relative youth and his ability to pinch hit, with Maddon going so far as to say he could wake up at 3am and hit anyone.  Plus, infield depth is a little low courtesy of someone's injury (more on that later).

As for Szczur, though the outfield picture is quite crowded already, he's the best defensive player the in the bunch (not named Heyward).  Additionally, he's out of options and the brass didn't want to risk losing him on waivers.

While the offense looks strong, the old adage says that pitching wins ballgames.  Let's take a gander at the 2016 pitching staff:

The starting five look exceptional... but, there are a lot of ifs.  If Jake Arrieta can prove last season wasn't just a fluke, if Jon Lester can out-pitch his defensive woes, if John Lackey can keep beating Father Time, if Jason Hammel is fully recovered from last year's leg ailment and if Kyle Hendricks can take another step forward.

That said, if all men pitch up to their potential, they'll make for a more than adequate rotation.  They're not the New York Mets, but then again, who else is even close?

How about the bullpen?


 Lots of versatility here, as all of Wood, Warren, Cahill and Richard are former starters and have been stretched out to go multiple innings if need be.  Additionally, all four also proved to be effective as late-inning options during the 2016 season too.

We also have our main set up men in Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop, who both had some troubling hiccups at points last year.  On the other hand, when they were on, they were darn near unhittable.  Consistency is the main thing to watch for here.

Rondon now has two years worth of proven success as the closer.  He's making a good case for being the best Rule 5 draft choice ever made by the Cubs.

The final man in the pen is Neil Ramirez - not only the final man in the pen, but the final guy to make the overall cut.  The 25th man had an exceptional 2014 campaign, but was rarely healthy last year and is still trying to recover his velocity after that myriad of shoulder issues.  He was effective in the spring at 93-94mph; but, if it doesn't continue to climb back to his 98mph peak, he may be in trouble.

Additionally, like Szczur, Ramirez was also out of options, which factored into Theo and Co.'s decision to roster him over an extra infielder.  This decision would have been a much easier one if SOMEONE didn't get hurt:

Javy Baez will begin the season on the 15-day disabled list after jamming his finger making a highly inadvisable headfirst slide into first base in ST game.  Seeing as he broke his finger and missed a large chunk of time last year doing this same thing, you'd think he'd have learned.

When he does return though, he could become the best super utility man around.  He looks destined to become Joe Maddon's new Ben Zobrist (who will stay mostly at second in Chicago).

This is the first time that I can remember where an NRI didn't make the team - again, the result of a much healthier franchise/farm system.  However, that doesn't mean there weren't a few who took it right down to the wire:

These men were the final three roster cuts, with fan-favorite Munenori coming especially close to making it thanks to a strong offensive presence (.381 in 50 PA with 7 XBH) in camp and Baez's injury hurting the IF depth.

All three were released and subsequently resigned in the same day, so as to avoid their veteran's clauses.  Muni and lefty-specialist Parra will head to Iowa and be ready to grab a shuttle at a moments notice.  Meanwhile, Victorino will stay in Arizona to rehab a hamstring injury; his next course of action will be determined as he regains his health.

I would not be the least bit surprised to see all three in the Windy City this summer; as such, I'm ready to add the above cards to my CATRC as needed, except for Kawasaki, which as you can see was borrowed from COMC.

He'll be a media sensation in a market like Chicago

There you have it, your 2016 Chicago Cubs as they'll look when they open the season on Monday on the Angels' turf.  Of course, they could look completely different after a couple of weeks - so goes life on the bottom portion of an MLB roster.

I for one cannot wait for the regular season to begin (I'm certain that I'm not alone in that feeling) and I am obviously excited about this year's bunch.  If they live up to expectations, it's going to be one helluva summer in the Windy City!

"Have your pencil ... and scorecards ready ..."

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Ultimate Trading Cards of Ultimate Destiny

When it comes to baseball card sets, some of my favorite products have been those that shine the light on oft-forgotten subjects from the sport's vast history.  I'm not talking about getting 10 more cards of Babe Ruth or Cal Ripken every year, I mean sets like Conlon Collection, Hometown Heroes, any of TCMA's Greatest Team sets, etc.  The players featured therein rarely appear on cardboard anymore, if ever.

Therefore, I guess that it shouldn't be surprising that since I've started collecting hockey/Blackhawks cards, one of my favorite discoveries thus far has been The Ultimate Trading Card Company's Original Six checklist.

Originally released in 1992, the concept behind this set is pretty straightforward - the checklist is made up entirely of significant players from the Original Six era of NHL hockey.  For a lot of these men, good but not necessarily great, most of the cards they might have on the market are vintage and vintage hockey cards are not falling off of trees around these parts.  Thus, this set has been invaluable when it comes to filling out my Blackhawks All-Time Roster Collection.

Thus, I was thrilled when I won a small lot of these cards on Ebay a few days ago:

The front is nice and simple, letting the player photo dominate the design and lacking the foil and other decorative features that would come to dominate the decade.  However, in my opinion, it's the backs that are really the star.

Maybe it's just the fact that I studied journalism in college, but I absolutely adore the newspaper-style write-up; for a while there, I didn't even realize that instead of "Chicago Tribune," the title reads "Chicago Tribute."  Also found on the rear is are color, publicity photographs taken of the player in the present, sporting the 75th anniversary throwback jerseys for their respective franchises.

That is, unless of course you're Bill Mosienko; in which case, you get the modern day photographs on both sides because Ultimate must not have had a license for a vintage still of the "Pony Line' member.  Looks like that man could still handle the puck in his old age though!

Makes sense, because he sure as hell could handle it in his prime. I mean, he did record the fastest hat trick in NHL history when, in a 1952 game against the New York Rangers, Mosienko scored three goals in 21 seconds.  As if that wasn't enough, he also managed ANOTHER shot on goal just seconds after that.

Good gravy!

Looks like Moose is going to have himself a nasty headache in the morning.  Interestingly, despite this apparent head shot, "Moose" was one of the rare birds to have never lost any of his teeth during his NHL career, despite the obvious lack of mouthguards or helmets in his playing days.

Also of note, Vasko was one of the few players of Slovak descent in the NHL's younger years, something which is so very commonplace today.

The last card included in the lot was this single of John Wilson, a Stanley Cup Champion with the Detroit Red Wings who had a two year cameo with the Hawks in the mid-50's.  Turns out that I had already purchased this card at my LCS several months ago; but I'm not going to fret about it.

Each card shown above only cost me 11 cents; not technically dime box fodder, but close enough.  I don't think I'm going to lose any sleep over the accidental John Wilson double up.

Speaking of which, along with the Wilson, I also purchased a couple more of these Ultimates along with him that first time through.  However, I never did get around to showing them off; how about we take care of that right now, since we're on the subject?:

Excellent spray!  This is just an expertly timed photo of a man who was actually donated to the Blackhawks... that's right - not traded, not sold... donated.   At the time the Chicagoans were struggling to survive as a franchise and the league governors decided to help the team remain viable; thus, they had the Montreal Canadiens donate the first-year player in 1954.

After that, all Ed did was win the Calder Trophy. play in the All-Star Game, post three consecutive 30-goal seasons and get named Captain of the team in 1957. He capped off his Blackhawks tenure with a Stanley Cup title in 1961. I don't think there was a lot of struggling there.

Another well-timed photograph on the front of this one too, as it appears Gilles is in the midst of being checked by a Maple Leaf on open ice.  

Unfortunately for Chicago, Marotte is probably best remembered for being a part of one of the worst trades in franchise history - he was acquired as one of three players from Boston in exchange for Phil Esposito.  Oops.

With that, I've run out of Ultimate's Original Six trading cards - however, I'm sure I'll be adding more of these beauties to my binders in the future.

The Ultimate Trading Card Company was one of several start ups in the waning days of the junk wax era.  As far as I can tell, the only other license they held was for the original incarnation of the World League of American Football, which would eventually be known as NFL Europe (much less of a mouthful).  

Looks like they went belly up shortly thereafter; however, details are scant.  What a shame - they truly did a great job with their Original Six product.

In closing, every time I read the name of this particular card manufacturer, I can't help but be reminded of one of the earliest viral videos I can remember - way back in the dinosaur year of 2008.  All sarcasm aside, with as fast as content on internet shuffles and moves, 2008 might as well be 1492.

At any rate, I guess the Ultimate Trading Card Company did not survive the Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The King of Rock Meets the King of the Dimebox

We all know that there is only one King of the dimebox in the baseball card blog, one who can seem to pull amazing cards which fit aspects of every blogger's collection for 10 cents a pop.  That King, of course, is the one and only Dimebox Nick.

Thus, it was only appropriate that affixed to my most recent PWE from Nick was a stamp featuring a head-shot of another King:

The King of Rock n Roll meets the King of the Dimebox - this is gonna be good.

A chance to dig through dimeboxes with their unquestioned master?  Sounds like a pretty good experience to me.  Also, thanks you for the kind words!

Now, the contents of this PWE were definitely enough to bribe this southside resident to take the trip north to Rosemont.  However, before I show them off, I figured that the King of the Dimebox deserved something a little more than just your pedestrian trade wrap up.  Courtesy of that Presley stamp, I'm pairing up the cards found within with some songs by the Elvis the Pelvis that I'm reminded of.  

Well it's one for the money... two for the show... three to get ready now go, cat go!:

I love a good cover and Elvis was definitely a big fan of performing them in his later years.  As an musician, I can only imagine how amazing it would feel to see and hear him performing one of your songs.  Said Paul Simon of the King's recording of Bridge Over Troubled Water, "It's just a pleasure for me that Elvis Presley recorded one of my songs before he died."  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and it doesn't get much more flattering to hear the voice of a generation crooning your lyrics.

Much like a good cover song, Topps Heritage is paying tribute to the past by re-presenting a beloved card design of the past for a new set of eyes:

Here we have a couple of former "chicken and beer" era Red Sox starters.

Thanks to Nick, I now have my first card of John Lackey as a Chicago Cub - into my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection binder this goes!

Next up, we have the most iconic song from my favorite of Elvis' mostly awful movies:  Viva Las Vegas.  I may like this movie more for the warm memories of watching this quite often on family movie nights and the big racing scene at the end, but the soundtrack on this one is no slouch either.  

As with any movie about Las Vegas, it's all about glitz, glamour and big time money, all of which are evoked in the titular song.

So, what cards would be more fitting than some glitzy, glamorous and shiny parallels?

This Bowman Chrome refractor of Donald Hood was found in a dimebox because Mr. Hood never got above AA.  This will easily make for one of the nicest cards in my failed prospects collection!  Meanwhile, that Cashner parallel is also beautiful, but I'm honestly lost as to what type it is... any help?  No matter what though, it's going to rep Cash in my CATRC binder.

One of my personal favorite Elvis tracks is this number called Rubberneckin', about having to stop and look twice.  It hails from the last Elvis movie filmed, "A Change of Habit," in which he co-starred with Mary Tyler Moore.

With young, blossoming star Kris Bryant cards being such a premium around this town, picking any up on the cheap is certainly notable.  When not one, but two Kris cards fell out of this envelope, I certainly had to stop and look twice:

My LCS still wants five bucks for Kris' standard Topps base cards and Nick is finding them in dimeboxes... his powers never fail to amaze me.

I believe Nick told me that this Superstar Celebrations card actually came out of a blaster he'd purchased rather than a dimebox.  Funny, because I too just recently bought a blaster of OD and pulled this insert too.  No matter, it's a still an excellent still-frame and I'm never going to be able to turn down those baby blues.

Alright, when an artist is as culturally influential and pervasive as Elvis Presley and has a discography as deep and stylistically rich as his, it's damn near impossible to narrow it down to one iconic song.  However, I think if you pressured most people to name one Elvis song, it would be Blue Suede Shoes.

Well, I have to wonder if these next two Cubs are as passionate about their blue shoes as Mr. Presley:

God bless Stadium Club - what a beautifully framed image of Mickey Morandini covering first we have here.  Also, God help that runner if she steps on those blue shoes coming down the base line!

2001 Pacific is awfully toned down compared to the rest of their releases from the period; however, it's corresponding team colored name plate has always kept it appealing to me.  What can I say, blue and red Cubs cards almost always look great.

Speaking of iconic songs, here's another of Elvis' most legendary cuts.  Heartbreak Hotel has been credited by artists ranging from John Lennon to Keith Richards to Robert Plant and much more as being one of their most influential and life-changing listening experiences.

Therefore, it's hard to deny just how legendary and important this eight-bar blues progression is.  Similarly, here are three legendary Cubs whose play, no doubt, influenced generations after them:

Ever since Panini shuttered Hometown Heroes, I think we can all agree that their best looking product has been the canvas-feel Diamond Kings set.  Not to mention, it's just much easier to ignore the lack of logos on a photo of an ultra-vintage player such as Chance.

Meanwhile, Sweet Swingin' Billy Williams truly was a rarity; specifically, so was the natural cycle (single, double, triple, homer) he pounded out on July 17, 1966 that this card honors.  

That said, my favorite of this bunch is definitely the narrow, team issued Ryne Sandberg on the bottom.  An oddball card of a hometown Hall of Famer in a dimebox?  You've gotta be kidding me!

 Elvis must have had a thing for race cars, seeing as three of his movies have plots revolving around auto racing:  the previously mentioned Viva Las Vegas, Spinout and the stock car thriller Speedway.  As a kid, NASCAR was actually my favorite sport for a while; so, naturally, this young Elvis fan gravitated towards the latter and it's title song was one of the first songs I sought out downloading illegally...

ermmmmm... I mean through iTunes of course...

At any rate, like racing, here's a card that also needs quick motion to be fully appreciated:

Sport Flix from when they were actually known as Sportflics in the late 80's show up all the time in repacks and such; however, I rarely come across their latter day issues  Therefore, there was no question, this Rick Wilkins example was both new to me and a welcome surprise.

Now the real question - was Orestes Destrade out or safe?

Our final song is another movie soundtrack piece, this one for a flick known as "Loving You."   The song itself, (Let me Be Your) Teddy Bear is much more well known today than the film is - of course, I guess you can say that about most Elvis movies.

Anywho, I chose this little number for the last card due to a recent Joe Maddon stunt:

This is my very first Pride & Perseverance insert and I hope it's not the last either (because this should be a recurring set).  It's sometimes easy to forget that Rizzo had to defeat Hodgkin's Lymphona before he could reek terror on the National League.  But, that's not why I made this card/song pairing.

A few days ago, manager Joe Maddon pulled another one of his team-bonding stunts.  Having previously introduced magicians, mimes, costumes and the like to the clubhouse, this time he opted just to add more Cubs... actual bear cubs that is:

Rizzo seemed to bond with the furry creatures exceptionally well.  Of course, it seems as though the baby bears eventually got a little too comfortable with their new buddy:

Oopsy... and on white pants too.  Poor clubhouse attendant.

With that, we've reached the end of Dimebox Nick's Elvis themed PWE spectacular.  He truly is the dimebox whisperer -  thank you very much for your generosity Nick!  Rosemont might have to be added to my travel plans in the near future.

I'll close out this rock n' roll festival with my favorite Presley song, one that I could not figure out a way to tie in with the excellent cards seen above for the life of me.    Now that this post is done, I'm just going to go ahead and get lost in Elvis performances on Youtube now - see ya later!