Tuesday, February 27, 2018

My Favorite Season

March is nearly upon us, the mercury is resting comfortably at sixty degrees, and the ground is finally thawing out enough that you won't risk shin splints just walking across your lawn.  You know what that means - track season is nearly upon us! 

Okay, maybe only I and a select few other crazy runner people associate the weather turning spring-like with the dawn of distance running season, rather than St. Patrick's Day, Easter egg hunts, and March Madness, but I'm a happy camper.  After eight years of cross country and track in high school and college, another six years of amateur road racing, and two years of coaching, I can't help but get a certain itch in my legs whenever the snow melts away and the running paths are clear once again.  Now that our track is no longer buried under ten inches of snow, I've officially set our school's track & field tryouts for the middle of next month.  I'm not thrilled that we have to limit our roster in that way, but that's a rant for another day.

At any rate, with running on the brain, it's quite appropriate then that I should make the following discovery in my computer lab, yesterday afternoon:

As I was making a sweep in between classes (to check the equipment), something caught my eye underneath one of the computer stations.  Lo and behold, the flash of white wasn't something boring like an index card or a discarded note between classmates; as you might be able to tell from the image above, it just happened to be an abandoned Sports Illustrated for Kids trading card. I guess I won't be finding these sheets of nine cards each when the magazine rack gets it's regular purge in the next few weeks.

This is the second time in the last month that I've stumbled across dis"carded" cards - of course, in this particular, the found treasure is in much better shape.  Last time it was football, what sport could it be this time?  When it comes to SI for Kids oddballs, it could literally be anything.

If the introduction to this post and the picture which kicks it off didn't already give it away, SURPRISE, it's running! 

While many kids and adults who pretend to be kids for the cards might immediately toss such niche sports to the side (as whoever tore into this panel did), I actually have a binder dedicated exclusively to runners on cardboard.  Shalane Flanagan will slot into this collection nicely, alongside Alan Webb, Meb Keflezighi, Jesse Owens, and crew.  As an added bonus, Flanagan is even a personal favorite of mine, as my collegiate teammates and I binged on the 2008 Olympic games, during our summer training camp, and followed closely when she took home the bronze in the 10K.  Since then, she's also made headlines for being the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon since 1977, among many other victories.

The front of the card features Flanagan as the harrier is just about to break the tape at that historic 2017 NYC triumph - her time was 2:26.53, nearly an hour fastest than my personal best!

As pumped as I was to find come across a card that fits into one of my collections in the most unexpected of places, I was a tad disappointed that this was the only card from that SI panel left behind.  Normally, I curse the name of students who leave their workplaces a mess; but, when that litter is trading cards, I can selfishly make an exception.  Out of curiosity, I had to take to Google in order to figure out what other eight athletes accompanied Shalane on that perforated sheet:

This national cross country champion (2002-03) hails from the January/February issue of the publication, which was built around a preview of the Winter Olympics and featured snowboarded, Chloe Kim, on the cover.  The cards which were inserted into the periodical are shown above - I find it odd that the powers that be did not do a panel of cards built around the upcoming winter games, considering the content of the magazine.  That seems like a missed opportunity to me, especially with the popularity of Topps' Olympics and Paralympics set.

Ultimately, there are no other cards on this sheet which would directly fit in with my collections, it all works out in the end.  I bet that whoever left Shalane behind was after the Jimmy Butler card, even though it features him on the Timberwolves; Butler is still a popular player in the Chicagoland market and basketball appears to be the overall favorite sport of this student body.

In the end, there's no more valuable resource for niche sport collections than SI for Kids - my runners binder has several such singles contained within it's pages, including 2016 NCAA XC Champion, Karissa Schweizer, above (another recent pick up).  Does anyone else on the blogosphere have personal collection built around sports not traditionally immortalized on cardboard?  I'm talking beyond the major games - i.e., baseball, football, hockey, soccer.  Am I the only oddball who collects cards that feature people who run really fast and/or far?  Does anyone else consider themselves a "crazy runner dude or dudette?"  Please feel free to let me know in the comments section below!

In the meantime, it's time for me to dig out my short shorts, moisture-wicking tank top, and Saucony Omnis - Ms. Flanagan has inspired me to hit the trail and start getting back into the regular swing of things.  After all, I can't let my sixth, seventh, and eighth grade pupils get the best of me this track season!

Monday, February 26, 2018

It's Like Christmas All Over Again

The looming snow drifts are melting away, the sun is peaking through the oppressively gray clouds, the previously frigid temperatures are slowly rising with sixty degree readings are predicted in the very near future... we're not quite out of the woods yet, but spring is at least making Jack Frost aware of it's impending arrival.  This spot of good weather, almost like an Indian summer in reverse,  is much closer to Easter conditions than it is Christmas-like; yet, nevertheless, it's the latter holiday that is currently on my mind.  Why is it that I feel that way, even though the mercury continues to rise and baseball's spring training camps are already underway?

This past weekend, my wife and I attended a family dinner at my parent's household, otherwise known as my childhood home.  While the lasagna was still in the oven and my parents were busy with it's preparation, in order to entertain myself, I found myself staring out of the picture window, at the rickety shed in the backyard.  You see, I knew I left some of my stuff behind when I initially moved into my college apartment and, again, after I moved in with my then girlfriend, now wife.  As I awaited my familial meal, straining to remember what forgotten treasures might be awaiting my return, my curiosity quickly got the best of me.  Before long, I was on the other side of that window and fidgeting with the lock on the front door of said outbuilding.

Once inside, surrounded by bicycles, pool supplies, and lawn care equipment, I found a massive wall of plastic totes - a daunting sight, indeed.  Luckily, I discovered that my possessions were near the front of the organized chaos and I only had to wade past the haphazardly "sorted" Christmas decorations (symbolic of what was to come).  Somehow, without tripping on as strand of lights, I pulled out a pair of containers and began my excited excavation, just as the garlic bread was going into the oven.

Those plastic totes were more like time capsules and, shortly after prying open the lids, I was transported back in time, back to the Christmas of 2006.

It was my last yuletide season before graduating from high school and my parents decided to splurge a little bit on me.  Growing up with three siblings in a middle class household, I never asked for much and was content to watch the unbridled joy in my baby sisters' eyes as they tore through green and red wrapping paper.  However, that year, it was me that ended up doing a happy dance in the middle of the living room.

When, I saw that autographed picture of Lee Smith which kicked off this post, resting among the old photographs of tote #1, I was instantly thrust back into that winter morning, 11+ years ago.

I was absolutely over-joyed, both when I initially found it resting under the Christmas tree and when I re-discovered it this past weekend.  The 1984 Cubs have long been a target of fascination for me and the intimidating closer, Lee Smith, was and is a personal favorite from that postseason drought-busting, Northside roster.  I firmly believe that the former all-time saves leader should have plaque on the wall at Cooperstown, but that's a rant for another day...

I don't know where my parents got this MLB-authenticated, signed, 8x10 print, but I do know that - all these years later - it's going to look great on the wall of my wife and I's current spare bedroom, right next to my "W" flag and Cubbie pennant collection!  Although, after several years of being stored in a non-climate controlled setting, the Kodak is a tad stuck to the glass of the frame... does anyone have a suggestion for how to loosen that problem without destroying the picture?

Anyway, as I was planning interior decoration in my head, I was promptly reminded that Mr.s Smith's John Hancock wasn't the only major gift that I received that yuletide season, as a triangular shaped cardboard propped up next to the Great Wall of Totes contained yet another artifact from the past:

A baseball bat.  But, it's not just any baseball bat - this, right here, is a spring training, game-used Louisville Slugger that once belonged to none other than former Cubs blue chip prospect, Eric Patterson!  

Ultimately, Corey's little brother was only a Cub for 20 games (2007-08) and ultimately, like most Wrigley farmhands of the time, washed out as a bust; but, on that Christmas morning in 2006, he was still part of the future of my favorite franchise, set to take over second base for years to come.  I thought I was getting in on the ground floor with this signed bat and was giddy as a school girl when I first unwrapped it.  Unfortunately, I did not have a proper way of displaying this item at the time and I immediately put it back into the box, for safe-keeping, where it stayed hidden until yesterday afternoon.

All these years later, we now know that Eric's elevator never left the ground floor; that's okay though, since I lost the certificate of authenticity that I know originally came with the gift.  Even so, it's not often that you come across a baseball bat used by an actual Cubs player in your parents' shed!  I'm going to have to fashion a bat rack or something in order that I might finally permanently release it from it's cardboard cage.  Also, I should note that this stick is actually my second slice of game-used memorabilia for the younger Patterson brother - my CATRC binder contains the following jersey swatch from 2006 Bowman Draft Picks & Prospects:

So, I now have an accidental Eric Patterson super-collection going.  Nifty.  It's probably the best there is around, by default.

Finally, as if an autograph by a should-be Hall of Famer and an MLB game-used baseball bat wasn't enough, there was one more treasure from 2006 waiting to be re-discovered.  At the time, my brother wanted to get in on the gift-giving fun; that said, being just a shade over 10 and without any source of income made that a rather difficult proposition.  Thrifty as he was, instead of going out and buying stuff from Target for his brother and sisters, he simply re-gifted items that he no longer wanted and were cluttering his bedroom.  In a normal situation, re-gifting might be seen as lazy or un-thoughtful; but, considering the situation, my brother was just doing the best that he could with his means.

As a result, I ended up with this 2002 Upper Deck Playmakers bobblehead of Ernie Banks, sans bat and it's corresponding UD trading card.  It would be easy to assume that the broken bat and missing card came as a result of years of careless storage; but, as I recall, the snapped stick was the reason why Mr. Cub was passed on to me.  Plus, little bro still wanted to keep the card for his personal Cubs collection, so that didn't make the transfer either.  But, hey, at least he tried.

If I remember correctly, Upper Deck released their series of bobbleheads in 2001 and 2002 but they never really caught on.  This doll was originally purchased from the local secondhand store, a few years after their initial release.

Although it's broken and incomplete, I was quite happy to find this gift, as well.  Though I've never been a big collector of bobbleheads, a few have passed into my hands over the years.  In the past couple of years, I've migrated this modest gathering to my desk at work, in order to add a little pizazz to my work-space.  Mr. Cub slots nicely into this display:

Accompanying Ernie, we have an SGA Kosuke Fukudome, Ryne Sandberg, Sammy Sosa, and Steve Trout from his days as the local independent team's pitching coach.  The kids at school love these desk decorations and I'm sure will take great joy at bopping yet another bouncing head.

At this point, dinner was about to be plated and it was time to wrap up the excavation.  Thus, my quick excursion to Christmas 2006 was ended and I transported back to the modern day.  However, perhaps when the weather takes a permanent turn for the better and it comes time for spring cleaning, I might have to meander back to my parents' shed for another go at the time capsules.  While that holiday season has been completely excavated, I know for a fact that there are plenty more goodies to uncover, including my NASCAR die-casts, books of autographed hero cards, and scores of caps, among other bits of memorabilia that I built up in my teenage years.

Am I the only one who still uses their parental home as a storage/staging area?  I hate to impose, but I just don't have the space right now.  I'm sure when I finally settle my student loans and can afford to upgrade from an apartment to a real house, my family will be all to happy to dump those boxes on my doorstep.  

When that day comes, it might just feel like Christmas, all over again!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Match Made in Heaven

Over the past few weeks, Tim Jenkins - of the excellent co-op blog, SABR's Baseball Cards Committee - has been conducting a semi-regular look into what exactly makes a baseball card.  While, on the surface, this may seem like a silly question with an easily definable answer, the market is flooded with countless items that do not match the typical template of a 2.5"x3.5" rectangle.  So, what if the collectible in question is slightly larger or smaller?  What if it's not printed on cardstock?  What if the shape is actually rounded instead of rectangular?  What of baseball player-centric products like stickers, patches, coins, stamps, postcards, etc.?  Are these items still considered "baseball cards?"   Many of these oddities are even listed in the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards - is that the "be all, end all?"

I, for one, have a very liberal definition of cards and my marquee Cubs All-Time Roster Collection binder includes several, non-traditional representatives.  Given the expansive nature of my ultimate collecting goal, one card of every Cub to ever suit up, I kind of have to be extra inclusive in order to have even a snowball's chance in hell to achieve it.  For instance, there are stickers holding down the fort for a handful of Cubs and photo postcards occupying slots for others.  Also, in some pockets you might actually find a greeting card and in others you might come across a paper disc.

And now, if you flip through this CATRC tome, you'll even come across a matchbook :

It may seem quaint in today's increasingly tobacco-less world and Zippo lighters, but matchbooks were once a major target of collectors.  In a different time, when almost every adult had a pack of cigarettes in their back pocket, these books of matches were given away at almost every business, hotel, convention, etc as promotional material.  It was often said you could trace a businessman's every move by the matchbooks in his pocket.  Naturally, with their never-ending variations and relative ease of acquisition, these items garnered attention among the collecting inclined.  Thus, like coins, stamps, and buttons, matchbooks were a popular collectible in the first half of the 20th century,

During the mid-30's, The Diamond Matchbook Company attempted to capitalize on this popularity by printing sports-themed books, including football, hockey, and baseball.  Per Sports Collectors Daily, "Unfolded, each matchbook cover measures approximately 1 1/2″ wide by about 4 1/2″ long. The exterior covers had various colored borders. On one side, a player’s image was shown and on the other, a biography was printed. The player’s name and team also appeared on the covers."

The example that you see above hails from Diamond's 1935 (U-3-1) release, a checklist which featured 156 players from across both leagues and was reprinted again the next year.  It should be noted that various border and color combinations are found for most of the matchbooks in the series, as well, almost like the colored parallels of today.

While they might not "technically" be baseball cards, these matchbooks filled a gap in the Depression Era; for many players of the time, these books are the only baseball card-like collectible to be produced with their likeness.  After all, disposable income wasn't exactly commonplace, at the time, and it wasn't being spent on bubblegum cards; matches, at least, were functional.  One of these rarefied baseballers was Cubs hurler, Fabian Kowalik.

The Falls City, Texas-born Kowalik initially came up to the Majors with the crosstown rival White Sox in 1932 (errantly cited as the '33 season on the back of his Diamond matchbook), after several years in the Lone Star State minor leagues.  During his lone season on the South Side, Fabian appeared on the mound in two-games (one start, one relief appearance) and gave up 8 earned runs in just 10.1 IP.  Additionally, he also played a full game at third base and the switch-hitter posted a .385 batting average in his 13 AB's.  Apparently, the young ballplayer also worked in "the lumber business" during the offseason... his father owned the highly successful Kowalik Lumber Company back home.

Going into 1935, the Cubs scooped up the breaking ball specialist in the Rule 5 Draft during the off-season, likely as Fabian was "lumbering" away.  He was dropped into the Cubs' bullpen that season, where he covered 55 innings in 20 appearances with a 4.42 ERA.  Chicago won the pennant that season and Kowalik, despite his mediocre numbers, made the World Series squad because skipper, Charlie Grimm, knew the powerful Yankee lineup might necessitate an extra arm.

His action at the game's biggest stage consisted of just one appearance, tossing the final 4.1 innings of the Cubs' Game Four loss.  All told, the "Falls City Flash" only allowed one run, went 1-for-2 at the plate (again, showcasing his two-way capabilities), and even scored a run.  Unfortunately, his performance was marred by a pitch that got away from him, an inside toss that broke the hand of Yankee legend, Lou Gehrig.  Of all the people to knock out...

Fabian tries on a hat with an umpire and (presumably) his wife in 1936.  Image courtesy of The Deadball Era.

Come 1936, Fabian got married and then showed up to Catalina Island out of shape for spring training.  After that, the newlywed lost the confidence of his Grimm, and found himself shipped away to Philadelphia, shortly after the start of the regular season.  After a partial campaign with the Phillies (during which he battled depression and motivational issues) and a two-game cameo with the Boston Bees during the next, Fabian's MLB career came to a close.  Even an impromptu shift to the outfield couldn't save Kowalik, though he hung around in the bush leagues through 1940 before officially retiring from the game. 

Although, our hero did briefly return to America's pastime in 1950, as the manager of the Robstown Rebels of the Rio Grande Valley League in his native Texas, but the team folded in mid-May.  After baseball, Kowalik opened up a highly successful wholesale beer distributorship.  Unfortunately, the demons that plagued him in Philadelphia never left him and he was driven to the bottle, drinking the profits made from his business.  This alcoholism eventually claimed his life in 1954, at the far-too-young age of 46, via cirrhosis of the liver.

With that, we can close the figurative (match)book on Fabian Kowalik.

Given his brief Major League career, his uninspiring statistics, and the era in which he played, it should come as no surprise that the moundsman never had a traditional baseball card printed with his likeness.  Thus, when I came across his 1935 Diamond Matchbook on Ebay for five bucks shipped, I immediately pounced. 

Granted, the condition is *ahem* less than perfect - there's some serious staining on the back and some paper loss as well, not to mention the wear and tear on the edges and surface.  Of course, decades ago, this was likely stored in someones pocket, in the inevitable event that they should want to "light up;" so this should be expected.  Considering this original usage, Diamond Matchbooks rarely show up in pristine condition, and Fabian is no exception.  But, that's no problem for this notably thrifty (or cheap) collector - in fact, that's what puts this super-vintage oddball into my acceptable price range.  I certainly didn't get "burned" on this deal!

And it made it's way to me safely, without any further damage and adorned with a psychedelic stamp too:

My matchbook came with a postmark featuring a rocker famous for lighting his guitar on fire, mid-performance - isn't that appropriate?

Anyway, after years of  routinely checking grab bags and buckets of random matchbooks found in antique shops, thrift stores, flea markets, etc., across the Midwest, I'm ecstatic to finally add one of these Diamond Matchbooks to my collection.  For less than the price of a jumbo pack of 2018 Flagship, I was able to track down a an 83-year old piece of cardboard from the Depression Era, checking off a rare need for my CATRC. 

Not bad, eh?

I'll conclude today's post with a question, would you add something like a Diamond Matchbook to your collection?  If so, what other envelope-pushing types of items are currently resting in your binders and boxes?  Where do you draw the line on what is a baseball card and what isn't?  In the meantime, I can't wait to binder Fabian along with the playing cards, photo stamps, and other assorted oddballs that already reside in my CATRC tome.

You might say that, despite it's differences, it's still a perfect "match" for my collection!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Running the Ball, Running the Race

Happy belated Daytona Day - sorry for being a day late and a dollar short.

Yesterday was one of the most important days on the automobile racing calendar:  the 60th running of the "Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing," otherwise known as the Daytona 500.  The season-opener for the NASCAR Cup circuit is considered to be one of the crown jewel events in all of motorsports, on par with events such as the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Grand Prix of Monaco.  The 200-lap event held on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway is one of the very first events on the yearly motor racing schedule, thus making the anticipation even more palpable as the green flag approaches.

Speaking of auto sport, for a time in the late nineties and early aughts, Cubs baseball and Bears football were supplanted in my heart by race cars and racing cards.  I would binge watch off road racing and rallycross events on the Speed Channel, attend as many races as I could afford at the local tracks, and play NASCAR Thunder on my XBox until my eyes were ready to fall out.  My collecting habits were reflected accordingly, as trips to my LCS were focused exclusively on packs of the latest Press Pass products.  Diamonds and gridirons were old hat.

However, at that same card shop, there was one football card that caught my attention:

Long gone Double Play Sports Cards decorated their walls with their most eye-catching merchandise.  I vividly remember taking a trip there with my father and seeing the above card mounted just above the cash register.  Standing there confused and probably with my mouth agape,  my dear old dad explained to me that the greatest running back of all-time and Windy City God, Walter Payton, once moonlighted as a race car driver.  My mind instantly shattered into a thousand pieces and I knew I had to have that card.

Unfortunately, that shop was unaware that the junk wax bubble had burst and the hometown markup was strong, so it took me another fifteen or so years to finally acquire it.  Thanks, Jeff!

After he retired from the NFL, Payton was invited to drive in Toyota celebrity races in 1988 and 1989, events which whetted his racing appetite.  Shortly thereafter, "Sweetness" officially became a two-sport athlete and formed NFL Team 34.  With his race team, the football legend raced at various levels in the Sports Car Club of America, winning a pair of races and even won the SCCA GT-1 championship during the 1990 June Sprints.  As you can see, Payton was just as speedy on the track as he was at Soldier Field.

For 1992, Walter moved up the Trans-Am series, then the uppermost level of the SCCA, racing for Paul Newman and road racing legend Tom Gloy.  The learning curve was steep, and in 18 events, Payton finished no higher than 8th place.  Then, at Elkhart Lake in 1993, the former Bear flipped his Ford Mustang several times and it burst into flames; luckily, he was able to escape with only minor burns, but he was sufficiently rattled.  Soon thereafter, Payton stepped out from behind the wheel permanently, and instead opted to pursue his second love as a team owner.

 Payton wheeling a Mustang for NFL Team 34

Walter then bought into Daly Coyne's racing team, a Plainfield, IL-based CART (Indy Car) entry, forming Payton-Coyne Racing.  Right up until his sickness forced him to step away in 1999, Walter was a familiar sight in the pits and he never missed watching his drivers on the track, according to one race official.  Some of those more notable drivers included Johnny Unser, Robbie Buhl, Roberto Moreno, and eventual '96 Indy 500 winner, Buddy Lazier.  However, unfortunately, victory lane eluded the team at this time.

Despite the relative lack of success, Payton's influence was felt across the garage area, as all the cars which competed in the 1999 CART season opener carried a decal, reading, "Get Well, Sweetness."  This decal also featured a football helmet with No. 34 in the Chicago Bear colors.

18 years later, Coyne driver, Ed Jones, sported a special helmet for his team's former co-owner.

And that is the story behind Walter Payton's second sporting career.  I'm curious, how aware of this bid of sports trivia were you aware of?  Were you as shocked and impressed as wide-eyed, pre-teen Tony was?

Walter Payton may not have competed in NASCAR; however, the day of the Daytona 500 still seemed like an appropriate time to share this story.  It's just too bad that I forgot to do just that, yesterday afternoon.  I was far too caught up in Austin Dillon, a third generation racer, outlasting the field in a crash-filled contest, taking the iconic number "3" car to victory lane twenty years after the legendary Dale Earnhardt did so in 1998.  I think the folks at NASCAR were quite happy with the result.  Sorry, Walter.

Of course, from everything I've read, I think it's safe to say that Mr. Payton would probably have been just as enthralled with the race as I was!

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Darwin Awards

While you might have been aware that today is Abraham Lincoln's birthday (this public school employee got the day off to celebrate), did you know that February 12th is also the day of birth for another prominent figure of the 19th century?  Today marks the 209th birthday of English naturalist, biologist, geologist, and author, Charles Darwin - you might know him for his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, and his theory of evolution.  In honor of this momentous occasion, since about 2001, the day of Darwin's nascency has been declared International Darwin Day, in honor of his momentous contributions to the fields of science.

Additionally, based upon his concept of natural selection (a characteristic of evolution), the Darwin Awards were launched in 1993 to "recognize individuals who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by selecting themselves out of the gene pool via death or sterilization by their own actions."  These award winners showcase the peak of black humor.

Here are some knuckleheads that just barely "failed" to make the cut for the real Darwin Awards

Furthermore, during the first half of the current decade, the Chicago Cubs employed a scrappy second baseman who bore the name of today's hero, Darwin Barney.  In 2012, the caretaker of the keystone put together a career year, stealing the Gold Glove Award from perennial favorite, Brandon Phillips, and looked to be part of the ongoing youth movement in the Windy City.  Alas, it was not to be, but, nevertheless, Darwin remained a popular player (especially with our friend, Wrigley Wax) until his trade to LA in 2014.  As of today, after stints with the Dodgers and the Blue Jays, Mr. Barney remains in the league, as a spring training invitee of the Texas Rangers.

Anyway, what does any of this mean?  Well, it means that, in honor of International Darwin Day, I'll be conducting my own version of the Darwin Awards.  However, instead of paying tribute to those who offed themselves in unique and dimwitted ways, I'll be showcasing my top five favorite Darwin Barney baseball cards.  Honestly, it's quite surprising how many quality pasteboards exist of a guy who is essentially a "one season wonder."  Anyway, this is the type of high quality and relevant content you should have come to expect from Wrigley Roster Jenga by now.

Without any further ado, let's jump right into the countdown with my fifth favorite Darwin card:

#5 - 2013 Topps Archives Cubs SGA 

In 2013, the Cubs partnered with Topps to create their own special set of Archives cards, centered around their franchise history and given away in four chunks at Wrigley Field.  Darwin made the first series, coming off of his 2012 GG-winning campaign and looking to be a star of the future, on this 1965 template.  While I wasn't able to make it to any of those games, I did come across a cello pack at a local Goodwill a couple of years ago.  Thankfully I did because I love the pennant-based design of '65 Topps and oddballs rock, making this Barney impossible to leave off of my list.

#4 - 2014 Topps Factory Team Set 

In the course of drafting this post, I was surprised to discover that I did not have the regular base card of this particular single in my collection.  That's okay though, seeing as the Factory Team Set version (which, ironically, I had to chase down in Philadelphia, of all places) changes nothing about this card that I enjoy.  Cocked and ready to fire to first for a double play, Barney shows off his fielding prowess with old school flipdowns, eye black, high socks, and a phenomenal 1908 throwback uniform.  It's an appropriate photo choice, seeing as the scrappy second baseman was something of a throwback himself.

#3 - 2012 Topps Flagship

Ordinarily, I have something of an aversion towards horizontal cards (they screw with my orientational OCD), there's no denying just how majestic Darwin's 2012 Topps base card is.  Racing full bore into second base, Barney has left his feat in a desperate dive to beat the tag, caught completely parallel to the ground by an astutely aware photographer with quick reflexes.  You don't see a shot like this on baseball cards all that often!  The stirrups and the ivy-walled background only serve to punctuate just how phenomenal this card is.

#2 - 2013 Topps Flagship

Our penultimate Darwin Barney pasteboard is another single where the photograph is the star of the show.  An absolutely jubilant Barney rounds first base, with his fist in the air, presumably after drilling a home run high into the bleachers - a rare occurrence for the slap-hitting, glove-first middle infielder.  A quick consultation with Getty Images reveals that this roundtripper was of the walk-off variety, finishing off a three-game sweep of the San Diego Padres, coming off of the heels of a 12-game losing streak for Chicago... no wonder everybody is so elated!

With that, we've now reached the moment we've all been waiting for - what Darwin Barney card will win the Wrigley Roster Jenga Darwin Awards??!!

Drum roll please:




Right - sorry, God.  Believe me, the irony of that guy showing up in a post tied into Darwinism is not lost on me.  Anyway, behold my favorite Darwin Barney card of all-time:

#1 - 2013 Aunt Millie's Bread Great Moments in Cubs History

Like I said, oddballs rock and there are few better such sets than Aunt Millie's 2013 regional release based around the Cubs.  The Indiana-based bakery issued a set of eleven rounded-corner cards that year, paying tribute to "Great Moments in Cubs History."  Riding high off the wave of Darwin's improbable Gold Glove win and likely looking for a recent event, Barney made the cut.  After all, in the throes of their controversial rebuild, the Cubs didn't have many great moments to chose from, at that time.  I failed to find out about these cards util after they'd left the market; but, luckily I came across this single at my LCS a few years later.

It's tough to beat a rare, regional, oddball such as this one, though those other Darwins gave it their best shot.  It was all in vain though, as I knew that Aunt Millie's gave me my absolutely favorite from the starting gun.

So there you have it, the Wrigley Roster Jenga Darwin Awards - an impromptu idea that "evolved" out of International Darwin Day.  I hope you enjoyed the countdown and it's firmly tongue-in-cheek nature.  Are there are fellow Cubs collectors out there who feel that I slighted a certain Darwin card?  Do you take issue with my rankings?  Please feel free to share your opinions in the comments section below!

In the meantime, happy Darwin Day!  Please do try to celebrate accordingly and keep your name out of the actual Darwin Awards.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Which Yu Would You Choose?

Back in April of 2012, I was sitting in the restaurant section of the Bottom Lounge, a popular Chicago concert venue located on the near west side.  After a long day of work, I was waiting on a group of friends to meet me there, so that we could enjoy the musical stylings of Bowling for Soup and Patent Pending on the cozy stage.  However, these friends were running late, so I plopped down at a booth, ordered a cheeseburger, and took in the baseball game that was playing on the TV in front of me - the Texas Rangers vs. the Toronto Blue Jays.  You might be asking yourself, why was a lounge in Chicago showing a Rangers/Jays game?  You see, the Rangers were starting a high-profile rookie who had just been imported from Japan, a pitcher by the name of Yu Darvish.

In that contest, the young phenom carved up the opposition, striking out nine Texas batters in seven innings while earning the win.  As I took in the action, I was simultaneously upset with my friends because we ended up missing all of Patent Pending due to their tardiness, but also pleased that I was able to take in such a dominant performance.  Since then, Darvish has been one of my favorite non-Cubs... well, now, six year later, you can officially drop the "non."

After months and months of seemingly endless hemming and hawing, labor saber rattling, and column after column about how the dearth of free agent signings could last into March, Yu Darvish signed a contract with my Chicago Cubs yesterday.   Basically, since connections were made in late November, we rabid North Sider fans have been obsessively refreshing Twitter, living for updates on MLB Trade Rumors, and even got so desperate as to turn to a cat for hot stove news, all in hopes of seeing the headline that popped up in our feeds last night:  "Cubs to Sign Yu Darvish."  Due to the stale market, they were able to get him on a six year, $126MM contract - roughly $34MM less than projected.

All I can say is, "it's finally happened - can Yu believe it?"  Also, get ready for an endless stream of terrible, low-fruit grabbing puns like that one.

This ace-caliber pitcher has an impressive resume.  The four-time All Star has posted a career 3.42 ERA, a career 3.30 FIP, and regularly ranked near the top of the league in strikeouts for the Texas Rangers.  After a late-season trade to the Dodgers last year, Yu helped to lead the powerhouse into the World Series, including a masterful start against the Cubs in the NLCS (6.1 IP, 1 ER).  Seeing as he is essentially replacing fellow free agent holdout, Jake Arrieta, in the Cubs rotation, Yu is going to have some big shoes to fill

Of course, as with any hurler signed to a lengthy deal, there are many risks associated with the move.  First of all, Darvish previously missed the entirety of the 2015 season when he went under the knife for Tommy John Surgery.  While he has obviously come back strong, there will always be questions about the durability of his right arm.  Furthermore, the true elephant in the room has to be his dreadful performance in the 2018 World Series - 2 starts, 3.1 IP, 8 ER - which lead many to wonder if those numbers were giving teams pause.  Although, during the course of the off-season, reports from the Astros leaked out that Yu was tipping his pitches, a problem that the Cubs coaching staff should easily be able to help their new TOR starter work through.

All in all, the Darvish deal has plenty of risk associated with it; however, there's no way that Theo and Co. were going to be able to acquire a pitcher of that caliber at a lesser cost.  Personally, I cannot wait to see Yu suit up in Cubbie blue when pitchers and catchers report, this Wednesday, February 14th (I feel like there's something else going on that day too... hmmmm....).

Now, with this big transaction officially in the books, it's time for me to update my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection binder.  Seeing as the Cubbies' new moundsman spent a lot of time as a big-time star for a club that I have yet to establish a regular trading partner with, I have a small handful of Texas Ranger Darvishes in my possession.  Yesterday evening, I took delight in digging through the Rangers section of my trade box in search of the new North Sider.  In the course of my excavation, I was able to uncover five different options for inclusion in my CATRC tome.

Of course, whatever card I ultimately decide to use as Yu's representation is obviously going to be a place-holder.  You know that Topps is already scrambling to get his name on the Cubs portion of the checklist for Series II - big name and big team.  On a related note, I am curious to see how the backlog of upper-echelon free agents will affect the cardboard releases of 2018.  Will Topps actually be able to get Darvish and his fellow holdouts into Series II?  Did they wait so long that they'll have to settle for Update?  Was Topps preparing for this eventuality when the market freeze became undeniably apparent?  I guess we shall see.

Meanwhile, as all of that is being straightened out, I'm left asking myself which Yu Darvish should hold down the fort until he makes his Cubs cardboard debut?

As I've done with big free agent/trade additions in the past, I'll pose that question to you loyal readers - which of the above five cards should I use for Darvish in my marquee binder?  Which Yu would you choose?

I look forward to responses - I'm having a hard time making a choice, though I think I'm leaning towards either the Archives card or the GQ parallel.  Please let me know what you think!

In the meantime, here's hoping that this major signing will help kickstart the extremely stagnant free-agent market... not that we haven't been saying that every time anyone signs a contract this off-season.  Although, this move is a little different as it officially sets a bar for the top-tier starting pitchers; thus, maybe this will cause some movement on the Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, etc. front.  Personally, I believe that all this talk about a free agent spring training camp and potential labor stoppage has driven us fans to the proverbial edge.

At any rate, welcome to Chicago and to the CATRC, Yu Darvish!

(Here's a little taste of what I missed out on that chilly April evening in 2012)

Friday, February 9, 2018

Oscar Gamble and the Cubs

Last week, the baseball community lost an underappreciated hero from the 1970's and 80's - Oscar Gamble.  Only 68, the former MLB star passed away on January 31st, due to complications from ameloblastic carcinoma, which is essentially jaw cancer.  This depressing news crawled across my Twitter feed while I was on a plane to Dallas, TX,  as I was en route to a busy, four-day work conference.  Thus, I didn't really have time to delve into this unfortunate loss until now.  However, despite my tardiness, I felt as though I should still pay tribute to Mr. Gamble, as he and the world of baseball ephemera will be forever be intertwined.

The slugger plied his trade with seven different teams over the course of a 17-year career, lasting from 1969 through 1985.  "The Big O" bashed 200 career home runs in just over 4,500 at-bats, including a single-season high of 31 with the 1977 White Sox.  Additionally, Gamble didn't strike out all that much, usually walked more than he K'ed, and his .265/.356/.454 career slash line shows him to have been quite a productive player, despite injuries limiting his time on the diamond.  All that considered, typically, it is not for his on-field performance that most fans remember the name Oscar Gamble; rather, it's for what he futiley attempted to stuff under his cap:

Oscar Gamble's big afro played a key role in creating one of the most iconic baseball cards of all-time, the 1976 Topps Traded single that you see above.  You have certainly seen this card on the blogosphere before, even if you do not have it in your own collection, and it's kept kids and adults alike entertained for 42 years now.  How can you not crack a smile when you see that poor hat holding on for dear life upon a mass of thick, curly hair?  There's enough bounce to make the eclectic lefty look more like a member of the Jackson Five than the Yankee Nine - it's just groovy, man!  I mean, baseball cards are kid's playthings and are supposed to be fun; what's more fun than that?

Of course, this wasn't the first or last time that Oscar's folicular fortitude would show up on cardboard; however, I would say that this airbrushed Yankees pasteboard captured it's era-defining volume best.  That's why, for several years now, the card has represented Gamble in my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection, bringing me joy every time I flipped through the "G" section of said binder.

Yup, in case you didn't know it, the most famous hair in baseball history once rested under a Cubbie Blue cap - although, it was much tamer back then:

Oscar (sans locks) during his only Spring Training with the Lovable Losers.
Image courtesy of AAA Sports Memorabilia.

It's easy to forget, since he hopped around from team to team fairly often, but Oscar was originally drafted (scouted by the legendary Buck O'Neil) by the Cubs in the 16th round of the 1968 draft.  The prospect would make his Major League debut in the Windy City the very next year, during a fateful 1969 season that saw the Cubs come oh-so-close to ending their World Series drought.  At age 19, he appeared in limited duty for 24 games during August and September, batting .225 in 71 AB's and watching helplessly as the Miracle Mets dissolved an 8-game division lead and blew by the scuffling Chicagoans late in the campaign.  Clearly Gamble was like Samson and his yet-unrealized skill was inextricably tied to his hair - remember, as a Cub, the rook had yet to let his inner Chia bloom.

That following November, in a futile attempt to plug a consistently gaping hole in the outfield, the Cubs front office dealt the promising young rookie and Dick Selma to the Phillies in exchange for the aging Johnny Callison and a PTBNL.  Needless to say, that deal did not work out in my team's favor.

 The other two major pieces of that November 17, 1969 trade.

Being that his stint on the North Side of Chicago was so brief and Topps was pretty much the only name in the baseball card game at the time, I'd long assumed that no cardboard rectangle existed which commemorated his short term stop in the Second City.  Therefore, I was more than happy to let the famous 'fro be repped by a (fantastic) card from his Yankee days.  Cursory research backed up this assumption.  But, you know what they say when you assume....

Okay - if you truly wish to split hairs, this is technically a stamp and not a traditional trading card.  Nevertheless, Dell Stamps have far more in common with contemporary bubblegum cards than the postmark you would include on the front of a letter.

At any rate, Dell released several team sets of stamps and corresponding albums in 1971, under the banner of  "Today's Team."  As you can plainly see in the scan above, stolen from the Trading Card Database, Mr. Gamble appears in one of these team checklists and is clearly sporting Cubbie Blue.  However, while a few Dells populate my card collection, I had no idea that Gamble was included in this release.  How could I miss this?  Welllllllll.... it's not technically a Cubs card; just read the brief write-up on the card's... errr... stamp's backside:

"Signed off the sandlots by the Cubs.  Traded to the Phils after the 1969 season."

Your eyes might deceive you, but this is officially classified as a Phillies card and was part of the Philadelphia booklet, despite it's photographic front.  Lot's of technicalities with this bad boy, eh?  Despite what the official catalogs might say, the photograph is the main course on a baseball card and, thus, this absolutely counts as a Cubs card, in my eyes.  Though I am curious as a kitten as to why, in 1971, Dell had to dig back into the archives for a three-year old snapshot for use on Gamble's stamp. Weird, right? Licensing issues, maybe?

Now, here is where I really proved that when you assume, you make an ass out of "u and me."  Shortly after I came across the Dell Stamp while Googling pictures of Oscar in a Cubs uniform, I discovered yet ANOTHER card of Gamble in Chicago digs:

Courtesy of a scan lifted from Ebay, here's our hero on the second Cubs card produced with his likeness (again, minus the big ol' floof of hair); there's no tom foolery with this one, that he shares with Larry Bowa, either.

In 1998, for the 13th annual Cubs Convention, the team offered a set of over-sized (3.5" x 4") cards for use in obtaining autographs - the massively popular event has always offered a great opportunity to meet team heroes.  This pack of 30 cards included a selection of the current players, team personnel, and alumni who would be attending the con.  Many of the cards forced the players to share real estate, in the manner demonstrated by Gamble and Bowa above.  After all, paper doesn't grow on trees... wait a minute...

When I discovered an entry in this set  for Oscar on TCDB, I frustratedly gave myself a hefty kick in the ass.  First of all, this set was definitely not new to me and I had been aware of it's existence for many moons, though they aren't particularly common.  Additionally, only a few months ago - at the 2017 National, I came across a thick stack of discount singles from this set, but neglected to give them my full attention as I was distracted by the sprawling pageantry of my first NSCC.  Did I accidentally miss out on what would have been a rarely seen boon to my marquee collection?  *Sigh* - the world may never know.

There was sooooo much to see and do - did I miss out on an uncommon opportunity?

Either way, both the 1998 Cubs Convention Gamble (plus Bowa) and the previously covered Dell Stamp are now each comfortably residing on my "want" list as highly desirable "Cubgrades."  If anyone has a lead on either of these oddballs, I'd graciously appreciate any assistance with the matter.  As much as I adore the outfielder's celebrated Traded card, a Cubs card still trounces a Yankees card any day of the week.

In the end, I'm just happy to be able to pay tribute to Gamble with my baseball card collection, even if I don't have one of his Cubs cards just yet.  The man was a quality ballplayer, a good and gracious man, a large personality, and symbolic of an entire era of baseball history.  Though his time as a member of the Cubs franchise was relatively brief, I think I speak for all of Cubs Nation when I say that the man under that massive afro was one of a kind and he was definitely taken far too soon.

R.I.P., Oscar Gamble