Wednesday, July 26, 2017

(Honus) Bonus Track Edition

One of the most common gripes that I see on the blogosphere is in regards to today's era of exclusive licenses in sports cards - MLB has Topps, the NFL and NBA have Panini, the NHL has Upper Deck and so on and so forth.  While this was no doubt done so that the leagues could get a bigger share of the pie and have more control over their image and product, markets with only one option aren't known for their creativity and innovation.  As a result, many products come across as uninspired, repetitive, and bland.  Furthermore, as we've seen especially so with Panini, these products are also ripe with production errors; is this carelessness due to there being no other options anyway?  With this in mind, many of us, including me, pine for the days when Topps, UD, Fleer, Donruss, Pacific, etc. dueled with each other, across sports, in a quest to separate their product from the crowd.

Of course, there are unlicensed options floating around out there as well.  A rebooted Leaf has been pumping out niche and prospect sets for the past several years, as has Tri City Sports.  Additionally, Panini has been tapping into the baseball market with their MLPA-licensed baseball products since 2011.  In short, there are SOME sources of competition, airbrushed thought they may be; so, not all hope is lost.  In fact, as of last March, a new face has pushed their way forward through the license-exclusivity wall:  Honus Bonus Partners.

Taking their moniker from one of the most revered names in baseball history and the hobby itself, Honus Bonus Partners certainly has lofty expectations. Again, in this current era of exclusive licenses, HBP was not able to secure official permissions from the MLB powers-that-be; however, like Panini America, they did manage to secure the player's union blessings.  Thus, like with Donruss, Diamond Kings, Optic, etc., we get another baseball card set on the market, sans any team logos.

Unlike previous exploits, HBP has a unique angle to their foray.  They seek to blend two sporting institutions in a way that I'm surprised has not been attempted before: fantasy sports and baseball cards.

Featuring a vast, 500-card checklist (with Career Milestone and Sketch Card inserts), Honus Bonus cards are available as a traditional, pack-based product.  That said, as a fresh face on the market, their list of physical vendors is non-existent; as such, the only way to get your hands on this product is through their online store. Unfortunately, your choices are limited to a 24-pack box or 20-box case - too much of an investment for this cheapskate to sample a product.

The cards feature scratch-off codes on the back which, when entered into their system, unlock that player and their digital card for use on a fantasy roster.  In a bit of a twist, your 30-man playing roster can only feature one player from each team - you can't Bryzzo your way through the league.  Through their official website, monthly challenges are held pitting card collector against card collector. Additionally, since we live in the 21st century, HBP also has digital cards available through their website, a feature which I explored in a blog post last spring.

Personally, I've never been much for fantasy sports - but, if it incorporates cards, it's going to attract my eyes.  Plus, it's something new and different and I'll try anything once.

That's why I was absolutely thrilled to come across a near-complete team set of Cubs... errrrr Chicago cards on Ebay, for the low, low price of $1.25 + free shipping.  The only catch was that the backs were scratched off (as you can see above) so that the original owner could participate in the reindeer games.  Hey, that's fine with me - I've never been much for fantasy sports and I'm really only after the cardboard.

All the big names are here - Rizzo, Bryant, Lester, Schwarber, etc. - and presented in a set design which reminds me of vintage, 20th Century Fox-like, movie theater marquee styling.  Seriously, can't you just picture this same design bordering a poster for the Wizard of Oz, King Kong, or It's a Wonderful Life?  They're quite unique.

Also, the movie borders are exceptionally bright and colorful, with the hue and shade changing from team-to-team and player-to-player, without any seeming rhyme or reason.  I can't say I have very many Cubs cards that make heavy use of the colors green, purple, or teal; but, thanks to Honus Bonus, I can now say that I have a few.

Furthermore, in order to really make them pop (I assume), the player depicted on each single has been gray-scaled, while the background remains in full-color, albeit blurred out.  

Overall, I have to say, the designed is somewhat disjointed and the colors clash.  If I ran the zoo, I would have made the movie theater borders (which I very much enjoy) color-coded by team - I think all blue for the Cubs, all red for the Cardinals, etc. would look much better in a nine-pocket page than random greens and oranges splashing about at random.  Plus, I would have grayed out the background of the photograph and left the player in full color - in other words, the exact opposite of what they've done here.

Still though, I'm being nit-picky and this is not a bad debut offering.  Not to mention that I'm still thrilled to have a new player in the baseball card market.  Here's hoping that they stick around a while and get to improve and build upon Year One.

On the positive side, one major thing that HBP has going for them is the size of their debut offering - 500 cards.  A checklist of this magnitude offers the chance for several players to be spotlighted who would otherwise be ignored by the fellows at Topps.  Relievers and extra outfielders, like Pedro Strop and Jon Jay, are lucky to ever pop up on baseball cards anymore; nevertheless, here they are in Honus Bonus.  I guess in order to accurately simulate our nation's pastime for the fantasy arena, one must have access to a full slate of players.  

As an added... wait for it... "bonus," the lot included a sampling of parallels, as well, because what trading card set doesn't have some kind of parallel to chase anymore?  The since departed Jason Hammel and Miguel Montero bear the special foil HBP badge in their upper corners, instead of the usual, unadorned company logo - these are the Silver Foil base parallels, which fall at 24 per box.  They're not exceptionally rare, they're not all that inspired, but I suppose they do add a little bit extra flair to the mix.

However, all things considered, I think my favorite feature of the Honus Bonus cards is actually found on the back of the cards.  Since the offering is completely unlicensed from the MLB, we know that they cannot feature any team logos or even utter their names (like Beetlejuice, if you say their name three times, a lawyer will immediately show up at your doorstep and demand payment).  Most products with these restrictions simply refer to the city, when it comes to team affiliation and, if there are more than one team per city, add the league as well.  For example, your typical unlicensed Addison Russell card would list him with Chicago (NL).  Not so when it comes to Honus Bonus:

As you can see above, Miguel Montero is notated as being the catcher for Chicago (North), a reference to the Cubs playing on the city's north side.  I can't say for certain, but I know I have never seen a listing like that before... can anyone else think of anything like this?  Now my mind is wandering... how are the New York teams listed in this set?

Overall, that's the only thing interesting about the back.  Otherwise, all we get is a single line of stats, a bar code and scratch off for fantasy use (hey, not all of them were scratched after all - neat), and a bunch of legalese.  None too exciting.

All in all, I ended up with 14 out of the 19 Chicago (North) base cards on the checklist, with the remaining 5 actually being the foil parallels.  Accordingly, while the lot technically might not have been a FULL team set, I think I did pretty well for my investment here.  Maybe I'll chase down the base versions of Hammel, Montero, Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, maybe not - my only priority in this purchase was to see what Honus Bonus Partners were all about and to sample their brand new product.  Mission accomplished!

Has anyone else given these cards a whirl?  Or the fantasy league?  I don't think I've seen them pop up on the blogosphere yet.  Regardless, I'm left to wonder, what are your thoughts on HBP?  Do you think they'll stick around?  Personally, though their maiden voyage was a little underwhelming, I find myself rooting for their innovative brand, even if it's just so that there's at least one more option out there for baseball cards. 

I think we can all agree, license exclusivity sucks.  These cards make for an unexpected, but welcome, "Bonus."


  1. I like these. Grabbed a Bosox set when they first came out

  2. These are neat. I doubt the game will last, but good effort.

  3. Always like seeing a new brand in the market -- especially one with a card/game crossover -- but gosh do I dislike grayscaled photos.

  4. I saw a monster box of these in a card store in Phoenix. It looks like I'll be going back to Arizona in a week or so. Would you like me to look for any of these for you?

  5. I saw some of these on eBay the other day and had no idea what the heck they were. Thanks for shedding some light. I'll have to look for some Pirates.

  6. Montero and especially Schwarber look like they could be Rockies. This all reminds me a bit of 1990 Topps. Lots of color but it's only coincidental if it matches the team.