Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Second Annual Obligatory Super Bowl Post

Are you ready for some football?!

It's that time of year again - the "big game" (I don't want to get sued) is less than a week away and the anticipation is quickly mounting.  Well, not especially so for me, since I hold no loyalties or true interest in either of the participating teams; but, the anticipation is building for other people, I'm sure.  Until the day when the toothless Monsters of the Midway and their front office figure out what the heck they're doing and right their ship, this Bears fan just won't feel intrigued the playoffs or Super... "big game."

It could be a while.

However, this Sunday is still a good excuse to hang out with some friends, consume some junk food and critique some super-expensive commercials.  Plus, admittedly, I'm curious to see how Lady Gaga's halftime show will go.  Oh... and there's football too... almost forgot.  However causal it may be, whenever I watch ANY sporting event, I feel like I have to pull for some involved party.  Since I'm often blase towards either SB team, in years past, I've examined the rosters and chosen the team with the most former Bears under contract to gift with my temporary allegiance.




Let's start with the team that America loves to hate - the New England Patriots.  This team has a real "Evil Empire" Yankees aura and enough drama attached to make any reality show director jealous.

On their 53-man roster, the Pats have a couple of familiar names to Chicago Bears fans.  Unfortunately, their names are familiar for all the wrong reasons.  Shea McLellin, a head-scratcher of a first round pick in 2012, never found a true position on the Chicago defense.  Meanwhile, Martellus Bennett, a truly unique individual, openly bad-mouthed the franchise and his teammates during his final year here and was once suspended for slamming Kyle Fuller to the ground in practice.




Furthermore, while currently on IR, there is one more player with Windy City ties in the NE organization - Greg Scruggs.  That said, the ties aren't very strong with either franchise.  Scruggs played in just four games over two years with the Bears (2014-15) before being released after the 2016 preseason.  Scruggs caught on with the Patriots as a backup tight end, but was only on the roster for one game (inactive) before being placed on injured reserve with a knee injury.

Mr. Scruggs hasn't seen much NFL action in his career and, thus, doesn't seem to appear in any major trading card sets.  Thanks to the Rookies App, we have a capable stand in.

That covers all the Second City connections for New England, so now it's time to head south and examine the roster of the upstart Atlanta Falcons.




 Here we have another pair of athletes without much of a cardboard presence - thanks again, Rookies App!

Eric Weems is a 10-year veteran who has transitioned from a bottom of the roster wide receiver in Chicago to the regular kick and punt returner for Atlanta.  Perhaps he learned a few things from two seasons (2012-13) of playing behind Devin Hester?  Meanwhile, LaRoy Reynolds serves as a defensive lineman for the NFC champions, much like he did for his lone season in Chicago (2015).

...and that's it:  only two guys with Chicago ties are rostered by the Falcons, two guys who blew through Chicago in quick fashion, without much notability.  Therefore, by my usual strategy, that would mean that I should be rooting for the Patriots to win the "big game" on Sunday.  However, in researching this particular post, I came across one story that threw a wrench into the mechanization of my method.




Tevin Coleman is part of the running back rotation for the Falcons and has become a regular contributor to the team since he was drafted in the third round of the 2015 draft.  He may never have played for the Bears, but he is from nearby Oak Forest, IL and attended high school in the same district as I did.  We weren't there at the same time (in fact, we just missed), but the fact that he has such deep local ties makes it exceptionally hard not to root for him and his squad.  We don't produce a lot of pro athletes in our district.

Also, as you can see by the COMC watermark above, I don't have any cards of Tevin either.  So, if anyone has one lying around, I'd love to talk trade.


OFvsTinley 013

Tevin during his days as an Oak Forest Bengal


In summation, while the Patriots have one more ex-Bear than the Falcons do, the Falcons have a local product on their roster, in addition to the two former Monsters of the Midway.  Plus, they don't have Tom Brady, who I have a slight distaste for solely because my college roommate was a U of M nut who kind of drove me up a wall, when it came to all things Michigan sports.  My feelings have nothing to do with deflating balls or resentment for his greatness.

Therefore, I suppose I will be throwing my support to the Atlanta Falcons for the 2017 Super Bowl.  Crap - I said it.  If I disappear from the internet in the next few days, you'll know why.

Regardless, do you know what my absolute favorite thing about the Super Bowl is?  The moment it ends.  Why?  Well, that means that football season is officially over and baseball's spring training camps are just days away from opening their gates.

Until then, go Falcons!


Monday, January 30, 2017

The Invitation

We're just about two weeks away from hearing those most magical words of excitement and hope - "pitchers and catcher report."  That's right after a seemingly endless and grueling winter, Major League Baseball will soon be on our sports horizon once again.  Though the official report date varies from club to club, the Cubs officially begin their spring preparations in romantic fashion, on February 14th.  From there, the first full-squad work out will take place on the 18th.  Baseball is nigh!

While most of the focus in Mesa will be on the conditioning of the stars of the stacked roster of the defending World Series champs (deservedly so), there will be a plethora of prsopects, journeyman veterans, reclamation projects, etc. jostling for the spotlight in their audition with the organization. With that in mind, the front office recently released their full list of non-roster invitations to MLB camp. 




As far as I am aware, there is no actual, physical, invitation to a Major League Spring Training camp; however, if there was, I imagine that they'd look something like what I've whipped up above.  Coincidentally, it would also make a nice template for a kid's birthday party, as well.  I hope everybody on the list got their RSVP in - we don't want to upset Theo Epstein's parents!

So - who made the coveted invitation list?  Let's take a look, shall we?





Year in and year out, a group of top prospects get the invitation to Major League camp to show off their progress.  While these promising youngsters are all but guaranteed assignments to various levels of the minor leagues; however, ST makes for a great opportunity to see how they stack up against Big Leaguers and be evaluated by the big brass and receive some pointers from the MLB coaching staff. 

Look for Ian Happ to begin the year at AA, but the advanced, college bat is expected to move up quickly.  Eloy Jimenez has the most exciting bat in the system and is widely considered the team's toop blue-chipper the system, but the 20 year old is still a few years away.  Meanwhile, Mark Zagunis could easily be the first outfielder called up, in the event of an injury and, should he prove his health, Ryan Williams could the first pitcher.

Also in this category, but not shown are James Farris, Taylor Davis, Chesny Young and John Andreoli.




Speaking of Minor Leaguers, every year there's a batch of minor league free agents and organizational depth pieces who cross their fingers and hope that this is the year they finally get a chance at sticking in the Bigs.   For instance, Daniel Corcino has toiled in the Cincinatti and Los Angeles farm systems since 2008, even earning a brief cuppacoffe with the Reds in 2014.  In the same vein, Gerardo Concepcion was a significant international signing out of Cuba in 2012 who nearly washed out of the pros, until a conversion to the bullpen resuscitated his career.  Both hope to re-establish themselves in 2017.

Joining them in this category are Andury Acevedo, Seth Frankoff, Jhondaniel Medina and Conor Mullee.





Josmil Pinto has nothing to do with the Cubs, but his "roomate" on that 2014 Topps Heritage Rookie Stars card and Casey Kelly represent the reclamation projects portion of the NRI list.  Theo, Jed and Co. have a long history of buying low on guys with good potential, but have their flaws; this is especially so when it comes to pitching depth. 

As a lefty, Zac (not Zach) has the breaking ball to become a top-notch LOOGY; but, after a rough 2015 campaign, he missed all of 2016 with a lingering shoulder injury.  He's well past the prospect stage - hopefully, his shoulder is all healed up and he gets the chance to prove his worth.  Meanwhile, Casey is an arm that has long captivated the mind of GM Jed Hoyer, who acquired him during his time with Boston and San Diego, as well.  The righty has the pedigree of a first round draft choice, but Tommy John surgery and inconsistent control have kept him from putting it all together.  Perhaps a change of scenery and some "Bosmosis" is all he needs.





Finally, you've got the long sub-section of Major League veterans just hoping to extend their career by another year.  These guys have been in the league for a long time, they've bounced around, and they may very well be nearing the end of their career.  Just like Jake Taylor and his bad knees in Major League, "here's to at least one more good year in the sun."

These vets are likely ticketed to AAA to serve as depth in case of injury - if they stick around past March, that is.   Even fan-favorite, Munenori Kawasaki.



Other names that fit under this definition include Chris Dominguez and Fernando Rodriguez.

Throughout the life of this blog, in the lead-up to Spring Training, I've done a ranking of the non-roster players and their likelihood of moving north with the Big League club.  However, coming off of a World Series victory without a lot of player movement means that the 25-man roster is mostly set - there just doesn't appear to be room for any surprise players to make the cut, without a rash of injuries.

If pressed, I would say that, with the fungible nature of relievers and bullpen construction, any of those arms stand the best chance of cracking the 25-man for Opening Day.  As far as position players go, as I mentioned earlier, Mark Zagunis would be the first outfielder to get a call if an injury occurs to any of the regulars.




Time will tell if any of these men will be lucky enough to be added to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection; well, besides the guys who have already made a cameo in the Windy City, anyway. 

Also, regardless of whether or not you were lucky enough to be invited to Cubs Spring Training Camp (I think my invitation was lost in the mail), you're all welcome to start getting excited about baseball season's impending arrival.

Just 13 more days!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Cardboard Date




Ah c'mon - that's not the kind of cardboard date that I'm talking about.

I know you're probably all sick and tired of hearing about it my now, but my wife and I just got married a little over a week ago.  Time and time again I'm reminded that it's a damn good thing I locked her down because she is probably the coolest life partner that a guy could ask for.  After all, on one of our few and precious weekends where we are both off work and are otherwise unencumbered, not only did she allow me to sneak over to the card shop, she actually wanted to come with me. So, we had ourselves a little cardboard date.  This is the kind of thing that I dreamed about, as a kid.

Ever the documentarian, thanks to her, I now know exactly how I look when I peruse my favorite storefront:



Behold,  me with my awkward T-Rex arm, opening the portal to the land of treasures - Baseball Dreams and Memories in Crestwood, IL.  Of course, I allowed my wife to enter this cave of wonders first - chivalry ain't completely dead, after all.




Here I am, in deep and total concentration, as I gaze into each glass case in search of new cardboard rectangles to add to my various collections.  Also, apparently my wallet is about to burst out of my back pocket; I can say for certain that is not because it is fat with stacks of cash.  Rather, I think it's time for me to start breaking in a new pair of blue jeans.

At this point, my personal paparrazo ceased her following and put her camera phone away to do some questing of her own.  You see, she too collects cards - which is something you might know if you've been reading Wrigley Roster Jenga for a while - just not the same way that I do.  More on that later.  First, I'd like to show off what I discovered during our little card shop date:




The first round pick out of the 2014 draft has been something of a disappointment in his first year of NHL action - in 32 games played, the center has just 7 points an a +/- rating of -3.  He's even been demoted to the AHL for a bit.  However, you have to consider that the 20 year old was skating with the University of North Dakota last season; he's got plenty of time to develop.  In fact, it wouldn't be hard to argue that he was brought up a touch too early.

Regardless, I still needed a card of the rookie for my All-Time Blackhawks collection and this single from the Walmart exclusive 16-17 Parkurst release will fill Nick's slot quite nicely.  Now, I also need to track down the Tyler Motte rookie, for the very same purposes.




The only other card that I was able to track down during our little adventure was this 2016-17 O-Pee-Chee card of short-term Hawk, Tomas Fleischmann.  The left winger was acquired prior to the trading deadline last season,  along with Dale Weise, as reinforcement for their playoff run. Unfortunately, that trade didn't work out particularly well, as Tomas contributed just 5 points, along the way, before becoming a free agent.  As of yet, he has yet to see further professional action.

I can say, with certainty, that this is (and will be) his only Chicago Blackhawks card.  Honestly, I'm fairly surprised that he got one at all, but here we are.  The OPC will be replacing the following card in my Blackhawks binder:



This Upper Deck single makes use of a phenomenal goal shot from Tomas' time with the Florida Panthers; nevertheless, Indian head sweaters will always take priority in my collection.  Plus, I prefer to use cards where you can actually see the player's face.  

Meanwhile, I made mention earlier in this post about how my wife spent a good amount of time sifting through cards, herself; you see, she too collects.  While I focus on the Cubs, Blackhawks, Bears, Bulls and NASCAR, she focuses all of her collecting energy on Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids:




It makes sense - she's a huge fan of biting social commentary and plain, old fashioned, juvenile humor.  What other trading card products blend those two qualities as well as GPK and the Wackies? We both agree that the answer is none.

We also both agree that the "Frisk Me" airport security sticker on the left was the best of the bunch; even if it has taken on a whole new meaning. this weekend.  Meanwhile, the "Franken Bury" isn't particularly clever, but the strawberry, monster cereal is her very favorite breakfast treat.




Some "Punkin' Donuts" to start your day off right - I especially enjoy the white pastry in the right front, sporting the Misfits' devilock, doing it's best Jerry Only impression.  I think I can also spot of Joey Ramone look-a-like in there.

Anywho, with as often as she runs to the real place for her morning coffee, I'm not surprised that she was attracted to this Dunkin parody.




Apparently, my sister-in-law has a compulsive issue when it comes to washing her hands and is a borderline germaphobe. In all of the years I've known her, this is something that I was not aware of.  But, my companion says it's true and that she bought the Wacky Pack on the left, just for her.  I wonder if I have to learn about the rest of my in-laws' quirks from old stickers?

Lastly, we have the only Garbage Pail Kid of the bunch, Mr. Tommy Gun, which is fairly self-explanatory.  I guess it's only appropriate for a Chicago resident to have a card featuring a Capone era gangster.




With that, we had finished exhausted our interests in the purveyors stock, so we payed the kind man and went about the rest of our day.  Of course, we had to pose for a picture with our spoils, in the parking lot, before we could do anything else.  Pics or it didn't happen, right?

In short, let me just say that I can't believe how lucky I am that I found a partner in crime who not only supports my, admittedly, somewhat childish hobby, but openly partakes in it herself.  Of course, that is just one in her long list of countless qualities that make her my favorite person in the world, but it's one that cannot be underestimated.  Is anyone else out there lucky enough to share this hobby with their significant other?

All I know that any day spent with my wife is a good day - add in a trip to the card shop and it instantly becomes a fantastically great, super awesome, fun day.






Friday, January 27, 2017

Double the Z, Double the Flavor

For the second consecutive month, a Chicago Cub has shown up in the perforated panel included within the pages of Sports Illustrated for Kids.  Working for a school district does have it's advantages.  Last month, Kris Bryant made an appearance on the sheet, hot off of his selection as the National League's Most Valuable Player.  This month, another MVP has been honored with his own SI card:




World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, that is.  Gosh, it still tickles me that the Cubs have a World Series MVP.   I'd say this free agent signing worked out pretty well for Chicago.

The image used for the front of the card appears to be after hitting a key double in the postseason; however, it isn't the 10th inning double that won the Cubs their first World Series in over a century.  As we know, Game 7 took place in Cleveland and Zorilla is sporting the home pinstripes on second base.  So, let's do some sleuthing and see if we can figure out when this image was captured.



First, a quick glimpse of the back - just in case they made mention alongside his biographical information and vitals.  It doesn't appear to be included in the text; that said, it does make specific mention of his WS winning double for the Cubs and his four doubles to help push the Royals over the Mets last season.  The man is a two-bagger machine.

To Baseball Reference!

One thing I noticed in this picture is that Zobs has a "Postseason" patch on his right sleeve; therefore, this photograph was snapped before the Cubs clinched their first pennant since 1945.  With that in mind, in both previous rounds of the playoffs combined, Ben smacked three doubles, only one of which was at home.  It immediately followed these key plays:






After Montero and Fowler nearly caused a joyful destruction of Wrigley Field in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the NLCS, Zobrist continued the rally with a bases-empty double.  No runs were scored on the play (and I can't even track down a video of it); however, after what had just happened moments before, I think we can all understand why he's so fired up on the photograph in question.  I know that I was too.

It's a shame they cut the top of Zobrist's head off though - it seems like some careful re-positioning or re-sizing of the image could have prevented that partial decapitation.

Of course, the Illinois native wasn't the only athlete included in the January issue - a full panel comes with each monthly:






SI for Kids is famous for the diversity of subjects and sports that they include on their card panels.  I mean, where else can you find trading cards of collegiate volleyball right side hitters (Kelsie Payne) or LPGA rising stars (Ariya Jutanugarn)?  That said, you get a fair amount of "traditional" sports, as well.  However, the variety is the spice of life, after all.

Not many of these names move the needle for me, though the star power is there - D'onta Freeman is a pretty good running back prospect Kawhi Leonard is a bonafide NBA star and Bobby Wagner finished the 2016 season as the NFL's leading tackler, while being named to his third straight Pro Bowl.  With all that being noted, it was a different card that caught my attention:




An Auston Matthews rookie makes for an awfully nice get - he is the only player to ever make his debut in the NHL with a four goal performance.  Eat your heart out, Connor McDavid!  I don't collect much hockey, outside of Chicago Blackhawks cards, but this one definitely brought a smile to my face.

Overall, I'd say this was a pretty neat panel.  However, to this Cubs homer, any panel that includes a Northside baseball player has an unfair advantage.  This is especially so when that sheet features the World Series MVP, doubles machine, Ben "Zorilla" Zobrist; it really enhances the "flavor."


  


Will the Cubs be able to make it three in a row with Sports Illustrated for Kids, next month?  We shall see.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

It's Music to My Cards - WRJ's Album Challenge



It began with Gavin at Baseball Card Breakdown and became an official challenge thanks to Night Owl - the latest challenge to hit the blogosphere has been the "album challenge."  The goal in mind is to take ten musical albums from your younger years, albums that had a great affect on your personal growth and musical tastes, and match them with baseball cards.  As a former radio DJ who collects vinyl and band t-shirts, I couldn't help but take up this challenge.  Any opportunity to blend two of my passions is one that I'll immediately jump on.

Unsurprisingly, it seems that many a blogger is almost as passionate about music as they are collecting baseball cards.  It's been fun to read all of the comparisons drawn, thus far.  On the other hand, personally, it's been quite difficult to narrow the list of albums down to ten.  I could have easily doubled this amount and still had LP's on the cutting room floor; but, modern attention spans wouldn't be able to handle that.  In fact. this is probably pushing it.

On that note, without any further ado, allow me to present to you my ten most influential albums (from my teens/early 20's), in no particular order, since cropping the list down to ten was tough enough:



1)  Infinity on High - Fall Out Boy




My high school/college days were right in the thick of the pop punk/emo explosion that took place in the alternative music scene, during the 2000's.  Add in the fact that I'm from Chicago and it was almost inevitable that Fall Out Boy would become one of my favorite bands.  While many "scene kids" would cite the emo/punk From Under the Cork Tree as FOB's most influential album, it was the variety of sounds woven into 2007's Infinity on High that sealed my fan-hood.

Strains of hip hop, pop, electronic and R&B were spread throughout the track-listing, with songs such as triumphant "Thriller" (ft. Jay-Z),  the Maroon 5-ish, tragic love song "I'm Like a Lawyer.." and the string section-augmented "Thnks Fr th Mmrs" blaring on MySpace pages across the internet.  However, it was the heavy stomp and Motown sound of "This Ain't a Scene, It's An Arms Race" that inspired the most (terrible) dashboard karaoke from me.



The cards that I've chosen to represent this album are these 2007 Heritage singles, featuring Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis.  While the song itself is truly about the rapid development and in-fighting of "the scene," baseball has always been something of an arms race itself - a literal arms race.  That off-season, GM Jim Hendry entered that race in an attempt to "restock" his battered pitching staff.  He even finalized Lilly's contract while lying in a hospital bed, after after an angioplasty.





2)  A Hangover You Don't Deserve - Bowling For Soup



Keeping with the pop punk, next up, we have the perpetual jokesters known as Bowling For Soup and a track listing that doesn't have a single dud.  I purchased this CD, used, from a local FYE after hearing "1985" come through a friend's car radio while driving around on some sunny, weekend afternoon.  That number steals all the attention, but there isn't a single bad track on the album.

A Hangover You Don't Deserve features that iconic, stuck-in-the-past tune, but it also contains underrated gems such as the anthemic "Shut Up and Smile," a story of what could have been in "Almost," and a drunken roll call of Texan celebrities in "Ohio."  Plus, only BFS could write a touching love song about a man and his trucker hat.



This was an easy pairing to make, as Ozzie Timmons is sporting a Cubs trucker hat on his 1993 Bowman appearance.  Why?  No affiliate that I'm aware of ever used trucker hats.  I've always found this to be strange and fairly amusing.





3)  Boston - Boston



Moving backwards in time, quite a bit, while I immersed myself in pop punk during the second half of high school, I grew up on a steady diet of classic rock.  As my father always said, you can't appreciate what you have without knowing where it came from.  With that in mind, I started my musical, rock n' roll exploration with the Elvis years and moved my way forward.

From eight grade through sophomore year, I was obsessed with 70's arena rock:  Styx, REO Speedwagon (more on them later), Cheap Trick, Foreigner, etc.  However, the best album put out by any of those bands was easily Boston's self-titled debut.  The studio project by guitarist Tom Scholz was a surprise smash and it's smooth production, guitar solos and big choruses had me hooked from first listen.  I loved it so much that I bought it on vinyl, cassette, CD and downloaded it in MP3 format.



Coming up with a comparative card was quite a task here, as there is no single song on the album that I like more than the rest - it's truly a piece of art, start to finish.  Thus, without that jumping off point, I felt a little lost.  I might have to invoke creative license here, just like Tom did in his fictionalized account of Boston's rise to fame in "Rock and Roll Band."  Boston never even played a show before Scholz recorded this album - heck, they weren't even a band yet.  Similarly, Keith Comstock never played for, nor was ever associated with the Cubs franchise, despite what this error card might claim.





4)  Moving Pictures - Rush



Rush was another band that I discovered during that time of arena rock infatuation - while they definitely lean more towards the progressive side, I don't think it's hard to hear the cross appeal.  After all, AOR was essentially born out of the progressive movement.

This is an album that I moved backwards on - I first discovered Rush through their dystopian future, album cut, "Red Barchetta."  I recall it being on one of my earliest mix CD's and listening to that track on repeat, with my yellow, portable CD player, as I laid out on the top of the storage shed in our backyard.  It was a few years before I picked up the full LP in the discount bin of my record store and discovered that Moving Pictures also had "Tom Sawyer," "Limelight," "Witch Hunt," etc. to offer; at that point, Geddy Lee's lyricism had me spellbound.



In the automotive industry, the term "barchetta" is used for a two-seat car without any kind of roof and is correctly pronounced as "bar╦łketta."  In the Rush song, Mr. Lee sings it with a "ch" sound - a common mispronunciation.  Likewise, longtime Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez's first name should read as "ah-RAH-mis;" yet, throughout his 18-year career, countless sportscasters and fans alike insisted on calling him "air-AH-mis."  Barchetta, Aramis... words are hard.




5)  Never Mind the Bollocks - The Sex Pistols




The first time I heard the Sex Pistols, I immediately slammed my laptop shut because their sound scared me, outright.  The sneering punk rock sound was not something this kid used to classic rock and the FOB sound was used to.  Despite this initial shock, I decided to give "Anarchy in the U.K." another go and stick with it all the way through.  Before long, I had fallen in love with the entirety of Never Mind the Bollocks, thanks to the pointed social commentary found in "Holiday in the Sun," the fearless bad mouthing of their former record label with "EMI" and the three-chord attitude exemplified on "No Feelings."

In the run-up to the Pistols first album, several delays were encountered along the way.  One of the most well-known incidents was with Bill Grundy, the host of the British talk show Tonight.  the foul-mouthed punks didn't sensor themselves in their interview, throwing f-bombs around with little care.  The exchange got particularly heated when Grundy made a lewd comment about fellow guest Siouxsie Sioux, after which the Johnny Rotten and company really let him have it.



Obviously, the parallel between the potty-mouthed punks on television and the infamous, profanity laced tirade given to reporters by former Cubs manager Lee Elia should be easy to draw.  Grundy was suspended for two weeks and Today was cancelled two months after the Pistols incident and, while Elia initially survived calling Cubs fans every nasty word under the sun (several times over), he was eventually fired after another run-in with the front office, before the 1983 season was out.  You might say that he too was cancelled.




6)  Abbey Road - The Beatles



It always felt like cheating to say that the Beatles were my favorite band - there's something for everyone to like in the discography of the most important musical act of the 20th century.  Nevertheless, then and now, the four lads from Liverpool have been my utmost favorites since I truly discovered them in high school.  My love for their work has gone through many moods - at times, my choice album has been the psychedelic masterpiece Sgt. Pepper's and at others, it's been the evolving soundscapes of Rubber Soul; but, at this time, I was all about Abbey Road.

It's not their most ambitious piece of work; in fact, it reeks of incompletion and tension.  With that in mind, it was the very last album that the Beatles would record together (Let It Be came out last, but was already canned before Abbey).  Nevertheless, the tight harmonies of "Because," the hard-rock stomp of " I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and the throat-tearing vocal performance of "Oh Darling" still kept me coming back for more.



The world's most influential rock band went out with an all-time classic album with downright iconic cover art, as only they could.  In the same vein, one of the pioneers of the modern trading card industry, Bowman, closed out their independent run with design for the ages, as well - the "color TV" set from 1955.  I don't think I have to explain why these are wonderful - just feast your eyes!  In 1956, Topps would buy out Bowman and, just like the Beatles, their run of "hits" was over far too soon.




7)  American Idiot - Green Day



Green Day were almost passe in the first half of the 2000's, after they had lit the world on fire with their pop punk masterpiece Dookie in 1994.  Each of their next three follow ups were less successful than the last and, by 2004, they were afterthoughts in the music scene.  So, what'd they do?  The reinvented themselves by finding their political voice and writing the first punk rock opera - American Idiot - which has since become their defining LP, launching them back into the stratosphere.

Without getting too political here, this album and I were in the same head-space when it came out.  As a frustrated freshman in high school, I too was just beginning to find my voice, and Green Day's ode to lemming culture in "American Idiot," their anti-war anthem "Holiday" and forlorn sense of loneliness on "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" caught me by the ears.  Like many kids of the time, I bought in on Green Day's transformation.


 

Like Green Day, many bands and artists have had to re-invent themselves, sometimes several times over, in order to regain their cultural foothold.  Likewise, many a baseball player has had to reinvent themselves in order to stay in the game; for instance, Sean Doolittle.  As you can see above, Mr. Doolittle was once a well-regarded first base prospect.  But, two knee surgeries robbed him of his power, so he reinvented himself into an All-Star bullpen arm.

*This 2008 Tristar PROjections, green reflective parallel is the only card to appear on this list without a Cubs connection.  However, seeing as it's rare cardboard appearance for the local Kane County Cougars, I've been dying to show it off.



8)  Sounds of Silence - Simon and Garfunkel



There are few songs that continue to move me every time I listen to them, long after I first heard them on the airwaves.  The haunting melody of "The Sound of Silence" is one of those rare musical pieces that makes me examine myself and the world around me, even after playing it for the 457th time.  It's that powerful.

However, it wasn't until I attended a random rummage sale, shortly after graduating from college, that I discovered the entirety of the album.  The sale was a flat price for a filled bag of junk and I noticed a cassette version of the record nestled among the stained clothes and tchotchkes.  Since my '96 Ford Escort had a cassette player, I figured I could use some new tunes.  On the way home, I popped it in and was immediately hit hard in the chest by "Leaves That Are Green" and "Blessed" and I knew that I'd been missing out.



I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song/I'm twenty-two now but I won't be for long/Time hurries on/And the leaves that are green turn to brown... This forlorn tale of a young man coming to terms with the quick passage of time really struck me when I first heard it. After all, I too was 22 years old, just out of college, without a purpose or direction in a rapidly changing world. The sentiments expressed by Paul Simon back in 1964 are reflected by the beloved ivy on the Wrigley wall as each year comes and goes - And they wither with the wind/And they crumble in your hand.



9)  Hi Infidelity - REO Speedwagon



The very first band that I saw in concert was REO Speedwagon - I truly was the coolest kid in my high school...  It was a lonely experience having REO as my favorite band as a twelfth grader in 2006; but, be that as it may, I was in the thick of my arena rock phase and Hi Infidelity was the base around which that was built.  My grandfather was frontman Kevin Cronin's parent's handy-man, so I was lucky enough to get tickets and backstage passes whenever I wanted.  It was only natural that I'd take to them.

While it was mocked as soft at the time and it hasn't necessarily aged well, the "soft arena rock" sounds of REO's most successful album drew me in more and more with each listen.  Yes - you've got the cheesy power ballads in "Keep on Loving You" and "Take it on the Run," but there also some underrated, mid-tempo rockers, like "Out of Season" and "Don't Let Him Go."  Most importantly, this album contains my wife and I's song - "Tough Guys."  Yea - I'm a big, ol' softy.



Additionally, the 1981 album also includes a bouncy, break-up number entitled "In Your Letter."  This, of course, sounds extremely dated - who writes letters any more, let alone breaks up with them?  Anyway, what does any of this have to do with this 1999 Fleer Skybox Premium Spring Fling single?



Well, on the back, it's formatted like a postcard - how cool is that?  A postcard is a letter, of sorts.  This isn't a breakup letter; but, it is close enough for me to consider this a connection between baseball cards and Hi Infidelity.




10)  Lunatic - Kongos



I'm going to fudge up the time frame a little bit here with my last selection.  Instead of sticking to the past, I'm going to chose a more recent release to close out this challenge.  Kongos are a South African band who have been around for about a decade, but only recently came to prominence in the U.S. thanks to their infectiously catchy track, "Come With Me Now."  As great as that little number is, this band has so much more to offer.

After catching them do a set at the Firefly Music Festival a couple of summers ago, I was stunned with their sound.  Playing mostly from 2014's Lunatic, songs like "Sex on the Radio," "This Time I Won't Forget" and "Escape" interwove strains of rap, rock, folk and electronic flawlessly.  How many rock bands can pull off an accordion?  Kongos can.





Much like how Kongos self-titled album injected some new life into the rock scene, Topps Bunt also did the same for baseball cards.  Not the app, mind you - the actual cards.  The cheap price point, the no-frills nature of the set, the big team logos and simple design provided a much-needed, low end product to appeal to the non "mega mojo hits" crowd.  What Kongos did for my hopes about rock's future, Bunt did for baseball cards.

With that, we've reached the end of my album challenge.  In the words of the immortal Jerry Garcia, what a long, strange trip it's been.







Music and baseball - my two strongest passions, blended together. 

This made for a fun and challenging exercise.  Coming up with the list, somehow narrowing it down to a measly ten, finding at least one card to make a connection (sometimes tenuous, at best)... I spent way more time on this than I probably should have.  I regret nothing.  Plus, if you haven't done so yet, I encourage anyone reading this to attempt this challenge too.


What albums shaped your life?