Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Highs and Lows

You've heard it before - baseball season is a roller coaster because it's full of highs and lows.  Over the course of an arduous and grueling 162-game schedule, not even the greatest team of all-time (obviously, the 2016 Cubs) can always be at the peak of their performance.  Come the end of the year, you can only hope that the good outweighs the bad when the leaves begin to change colors.

Lately, the 2018 edition of the Cubs have been mired in a deep, dark low while the surging Brewers have been riding a high wave of success.  Going into the month of September, the Northsiders were leading second-place Milwaukee by five games.  Since then, the Cubs packed up their bats a month early and limped to a .500 record while the Brew Crew has taken on all-comers and cut that seemingly safe lead to a scant half game.  In short, panic has set in at Wrigleyville and the club is in danger of their worst collapse since the infamous 1969 season.  In short, the gloom and doom has engulfed our fan-base, now spoiled by a World Series win and four consecutive 90-win seasons.

It's been tough to watch and I too am guilty of this worry, letting the low trample my mindset like a cursed black cat trotting through Shea Stadium.  So, what's the best way to pull oneself out of such a rut?  To get High, of course!

No, no, no - that's not what I meant, Towelie.  Although, that probably wouldn't hurt either....

Anyway, the high that I'm talking about experiencing involves the latest cardboard release from the Topps bubblegum company and has nothing to do with the devil's lettuce.  A couple of night's ago, while on a regular Target run with my wife, I decided that a pack of baseball cards might just cheer me up.  So, I grabbed the latest and the greatest product to hit store shelves:

Heritage HIGH Number would hopefully provide the natural lift that I was looking for, sans any sort of skunky smell.  I sought out a jumbo pack of this update to Topps' annual Heritage release because the checklist contains three cards that I need for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  Both the rubber-armed reliever, Steve Cishek, and the sequel to Rick Ankiel, Tyler Chatwood, make their cardboard Cubs uniform debuts in this product - thus, they're both needed Cubgrades for my marquee binder.  Furthermore, a certain hot freshman infielder gets his first pack-pullable rookie card (he's got a few cards in the various "instant" card products) in HHN.  While I already have secured a minor league card of this rookie cup contender, a Major League card would make a much better fit in my CATRC tome.

Hitting any one of these three cards in my impulse pack purchase would certainly improve my mood and lift me out of the depths of Cubbie despair, if only for a little while.  Would I have any luck?  Or would the cardboard gods smite me like the Milwaukee Brewers have been smiting National League opponents during the stretch run?

Well, here's the first card that I pulled out of the wrapper:

WEEEEEEEEE!!!  That rated rookie just so happened to top the stack, instantly making this purchase worthwhile.  While he's cooled off some since his hot start, his cards had been demanding a certain premium on the open market, especially here in the Windy City.  Plus, his walk-off heroics have thoroughly cemented his place in Chicago baseball lore, no matter what happens during the rest of his career on the diamond.

It doesn't really get more epic that a bottom of the ninth inning, down to the last strike, walk-off grand slam, does it?  "Bote McBoatFace" filled in memorably for Kris Bryant at third base and looks to be a useful piece off of the bench for years to come, filling a Ben Zobrist-type role.

As I alluded to earlier, David was already represented in my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection binder, courtesy of a generous gifting by Jason from Hoarding Cardboard.  Jason graciously forwarded me the full 2014 Kane County Cougars team set, a team for which Bote played before they changed major league affiliates.  Overall, as we determined in this post, which reviews the entirety of the set, Bote is already the best player to come from this roster and hopefully he continues to make his case.

While the HHN rookie in full Cubs colors definitely displaces this pre-rookie, Jason's kindness wasn't for naught.  Instead, I will now be shifting this oddball into one of my favorite side projects, my "Nothing Major" binder - a book made up entirely of minor league cards of Major League Cubs.  It's a perfect transition!

Anyway, I should probably get back to talking about the subject at hand - my mind-altering, jumbo pack of 2018 Topps Heritage High Numbers:

Also included among the 20 pasteboards was this pair of old friends.  Luis Valbuena was one of the few productive and entertaining players employed during the darkest depths of the Cubs' rebuild.  Unfortunately, injuries have taken their toll on Luis lately and his batting average has hovered around the Mendoza-line during his time in Los Angeles. 

Meanwhile, Christian Villanueva's post-Cubs tenure has gone quite well, as this "Now & Then" insert shows.  Blocked by Kris Bryant, the third baseman was allowed to walk over to San Diego, with whom he got off to a blistering start.  On April 3rd, the second game of the 2018 season, the rook blasted three home runs, kicking off a breakout campaign with the rebuilding Padres.  As of now, Christian has 20 big flies on the season and may just be a building block for his forward-looking club.

So far, the theme of this pack has been hot rookies, with Bote and Villanueva making up two-thirds of my highlights.  Well, this next card is only going to strengthen that overarching flavor:

When it comes to 2018 rookie cards, it doesn't get much hotter than this guy... especially lately.  I may not be a Braves fan, but I sure can appreciate a good rookie pull, even if he was murder on the Cubs earlier this season.

As far as the rest of the pack goes, the majority of the other contents were much more pedestrian.  Here's a quick overview:

Nothing exceptionally interesting, for my personal tastes, except for maybe one card.

Tony Cingrani may be your standard, fungible reliever, but he's long been on my list of favorite non-Cubs players; for many years, I've kind of been hoping that he'd eventually blow into the Windy City.  While he has a reputation for being a durable and useful bullpen arm, that's not the crux of interest.  Rather, Cingrani hails from New Lennox, IL, a community that is only a hop, skip, and a jump from my hometown - I always have to root for the local boys!

Plus, it's nice to see that Topps is digging into the bullpens for checklist fodder - they should do that more often.

With that, we've covered the entirety of my mood-boosting, impulse pack purchase.  While I didn't net either Cishek or Chatwood, landing the coveted Bote rookie card as the first piece in the pack was quite the thrill.  Overall, I'm batting one-for-three when it comes to landing all of my needs from 2018 Topps Heritage High Numbers, which ain't so bad.  In fact, that's a better batting average than anyone on the Cubs has posted since fall began... or. at least it feels like that's the case anyway.

In the end, I definitely felt a lot better about baseball after opening that pack of HHN and I didn't even have to worry about setting off the smoke alarm!

With my anxiety momentarily suppressed, I realized that the Cubs are still leading the NL Central; though the margin is razor slim, they haven't blown it yet.  Not to mention, only four short years ago, I and any other rabid Cubs fan would have gladly sold their soul to be in the thick of the pennant race in the season's last week.  No matter how this race plays out, this is still the golden era of Cubs fandom and we Chicago faithful should not take this for granted.

That said, please get it together, Cubbies - I'd still prefer that you not blow the division.  Otherwise, I might have to take to another sort of "hobby" to heighten my mood.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Coming Out Of Hibernation

This recent uptick in work activity that has kept me from blogging has also, sadly, kept me from keeping up with my collection.  I'm terribly far behind on recent releases from Topps and Panini and crew and I have yet to collect the first cards of names like David Bote (hot rookie premium prices aren't helping either), Steve Cishek, Tyler Chatwood, etc. in their Cubs uniform.  However, as my first Wrigley Roster Jenga post in three weeks yesterday indicated, things are finally starting to slow down to a manageable pace and now managing my baseball card collection doesn't feel like another extra chore.

I love my cards, but when work gets crazy, I don't want to do anything but nap, snack, and binge watch Friends on Netflix during my fleeting free time.  Super sedentary.

However, my energy has been on the up and up this week and with Heritage High Numbers having been out for more than a week now, I finally decided to stop by my LCS on the way home from work rather than beeline straight to my sofa.  HHN includes all of those Cubs debuts that I mentioned and I still enjoy the minimalist design of 1969 Topps - thus, it was the perfect Burbs bait.

Lo and behold, apparently my LCS has been falling behind as well, as there was no trace of the latest Topps product on the proprietor's shelves.  In fact, it wasn't even listed on his chalkboard of recent releases.  *womp, womp*

Curses, foiled again!

Rather than immediately retreat back to my hidey-hole at home and dive head first into a bag of popcorn, I decided to mill about the shop and see what else I might be able to dig up.  After all, I was already there, I might as well.  I'm glad I did too because, while the shop's baseball stock was a little behind, there was a completely up to date selection of cards for another sport.  While my Cubs binder has been ignored lately, this box of cards proved to be exceptionally fruitful for a far more neglected collection of mine:

Da Bears!

The Monsters of the Midway were well-represented in the shop's football section, with a healthy selection of 2018 releases to choose from.  Seeing as how I had to brush the dust off of my Bears All-Time Roster Collection binder when I put these new finds into their proper slots, it'd been a minute since I last cracked open that tome.  I mean, with as embarrassingly bad as they've been over the past few years, I can't say that I've been motivated to keep up with the tire fire.

However, things are looking up this year, thanks in no small part to young, high-ceiling quarterback, Mitch Trubisky.  Although, the Bears have mauled the careers of many a young signal-caller,  so maybe, subconsciously, that's why I've waited until now to finally pick up a card for the second-year player.

Allen Robinson offers a veteran target for the aforementioned Trubisky, a position which has mostly been a revolving door since the departure of Alshon Jeffrey.  On Monday, the former Jaguar went out and caught 10 passes on 14 targets for 83 yards - that'll get the job done!  His very first Bears card comes as part of the 2018 Donruss release and his bug-eyed facial expression makes this card a gem!  

Meanwhile, the Bears managed to pull their biggest blockbuster trade since they traded for Jay Cutler when they managed to pry defensive beast, Khalil Mack, away from the Raiders.  This trade had fans dancing in the streets and, so far, the Mack Attack has been a godsend for the team.  Unfortunately, this transaction didn't go down until late in training camp, so Panini wasn't able to get him in the blue and orange for their newest stuff.  So, this 2017 Donruss single, from his days in Oakland, will have to do for now.

Josh Bellamy has been with the Bears since 2014, yet it took me until now to finally track down one of his cards... and he'd been one of the few bright spots during the John Fox-era. I told you that I've been slacking on this project!  Those he's been bumped down a few sports on the depth chart, here's hoping he continues to contribute during the Nagy-reign.

Javon Wims is a rookie, so I'm excused here.  The seventh-round draft selection hasn't seen any game action yet, but he did make the 53-man roster out of camp.  I hedged my bets and picked up a card for my BATRC... hopefully he doesn't get cut before making it onto the field!

Lastly, I picked up this pair of young stars, as well, thinking it was strange that I'd ignored them.  Well, as it turns out, not only am I behind on acquiring cards, I'm lacking in tracking my cards too.  While my Google Sheets document made no indication that I'd already hunted down Jackson and Cohen, my nine-pocket pages indicated otherwise.  Oh well.  As they say on the gridiron, I guess I now have "double coverage" on this Bears duo.

And so, even though the shop didn't have what I came for, the journey turned out to be well-worth skipping out on Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey and Phoebe in the end.  That said, with only a 21.71% completion rate on my Bears All-Time Roster Collection, I still have a LOT of ground to make up.  Good thing work has finally slowed down enough to let me enjoy cards again!

With that, I think (knock on wood) I might finally be out of my blogging and baseball card funk.   Now if I could just find some of those Heritage High Numbers packs or blasters to keep this momentum rolling.  Otherwise, even though work appears to have finally normalized, I might just end up disappearing back into the bottomless abyss that is Netflix.... a marathon of The Office is always tempting...

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Playing Catch Up

Just when you think everything has calmed down, the flood gates re-open things get crazy all over again.

Working in IT for a local school district is usually a pretty sweet gig... except for the first few of weeks of the school year which is basically hell month.  Forgotten passwords, broken and missing equipment, rushed implementation of new technology... it's pure chaos.  It doesn't help that I've assumed command of a second school either and we've seen massive turnover on the staff district-wide.  In short, work has been bonkers and the last thing I want to do after a long day at the office is log onto yet another computer and blog.

However, things seem to have *knocks on wood* finally settled down... of course, I've said that before.  With a tenuous peace at hand, I'm going to take full advantage and bang out a quick blog post to cover what I've neglected during my unintended hiatus.  With that in mind, let's get to it before a server blows up or something and I get sucked back into the technological madness.

This will be my first blog post this month... I know, it's been a while.  Of course, September is a big month in the world of Wrigley Roster Jenga as rosters officially expand to include up to 40 Major League players per team.  Of course, no club activates their full forty-man roll-call; but, all teams supplement their core with top prospects and veteran depth pieces, whether they're battling for a playoff spot or just trying to make it to the the end of the regular season.  My Cubs are no exception, meaning this expansion puts me on high-alert for new faces to add to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.

While in years past the lovable losers would use this expanded roster to audition minor leaguers for upcoming campaigns in a low-pressure setting, these ain't your daddy's Cubs.  Now on the verge of their fourth straight 90-win campaign and playoff berth, Theo and Co. are using September baseball to find any competitive advantage that can be gained over the 30-day period, valuable tools that just don't quite fit onto the regular roster.  During this golden era of Cubs baseball, they've almost always made sure to add a speedster, a guy who can swipe that extra base late in close games.

2018 is no exception.  On September 1st, the team activated Terrance Gore from AAA-Iowa with no purpose other than to run like the wind.  With 26 stolen bases in 57 career games, Terrance is pretty good at that; he was even good enough to earn his way onto the playoff roster for the World Series Champion Royals in 2015.  Hopefully he can "steal" another ring in 2018.

Gore's contract had actually been purchased from Kansas City back in mid-August, although he was told he'd be activated as soon as September rolled around.  Theo and Jed always plan ahead and so do I.  When I read about the transaction, I went right out and "swiped" the 2015 Topps single you see above from my LCS - now it rests comfortably in my CATRC binder.

So far, in a Cubs uniform, Terrance has already nabbed five bases in just eight contests.  Also, just for good measure, he's 1-for-3 at the plate.  Having seen partial MLB action since 2014, the famously inept hitter was 0-for-his career before blowing into the Windy City.  Then, on September 8th, he uncorked a single in our nation's capital, against Max Scherzer, of all people.  Baseball is weird.

While Gore had already been in the Cubs system for half a month before the roster expansion, the Cubs also did some last-minute shopping.  Not only do rosters expand on the first, but anyone eligible for the postseason roster must be with their respective organization by then.  So, in an effort to make sure all of their needs were covered with layers and layers of depth, the Chicago front office did some late dumpster diving as August wound down.

Having just been designated for assignment and released by the Blue Jays after a horrid season in their starting rotation, on August 31st, the Cubs inked Jaime Garcia to a minor league deal at the league minimum.  While his ERA was over six and half in the Toronto rotation, the former Cardinals star still managed to hold lefties to a meager .186 batting average along the way.  It never hurts to have an effective LOOGY stashed away, just in case.

He wasn't activated right away, but he was eventually activated on the fourth, after an intended audition with Iowa was rained out.  So far, he's made three appearances in Cubbie blue - one disastrous spot start in which he was only able to record a single out and two scoreless appearances out of the bullpen. Moral of the story - keep him away from the starting rotation and he can still be effective.

Having been a former top-of-the-rotation presence for the Cardinals, unlike Terrance Gore, I did not have to make a special trip just to purchase a Jaime Garcia card for my CATRC.  Alternatively, I had a trio of options stashed away in my trade boxes because the universe always seems to taunt me with Red Bird cards when I rip packs.  Oh well, I guess it sometimes works out in the long run.

However, the decision on which single would be added to my marquee binder was a difficult one.  My favorite of the three is, by far, is the 2012 Opening Day card which showcases a fantastic throwback to the Negro League St. Louis Stars.  Unfortunately, my OCD tendencies just would not let me include a horizontally-oriented card in the binder when I had vertical options.  In the end, I went with 2016 Topps, just because I'm not a huge fan of last year's design.  Hopefully, Jaime does something super awesome in the last couple of weeks here and earns himself a Topps Now card, making this whole inner struggle moot.

Now, Gore and Garcia weren't the only September call-ups made by the Chicago National League Ball Club.  However, so far, all of the rest had already recorded their names in the Cubs' all-time ledger before this month - i.e. Dillon Maples, Taylor Davis, James Norwood, etc. - necessitating no further action for my CATRC.  Of course, despite already being half done with September, the team probably isn't quite done with additions just yet.

Enter the Cubs' new third-string catcher... or, rather, soon to enter, the Cubs' new third-string catcher.

Filling this role for most of 2018 was Chris Gimenez.  Although he had a strong defensive and game-calling reputation and a strong working repertoire with his former Rangers teammate, Yu Darvish, Chris' short time with the North Siders did not go well at all.  The backstop was ineffective with the bat and behind the dish, and got into some hot water with the front office and the clubhouse when he took to the media to say that Darvish felt like "Chicago hates him."  Thus, when it came time to add another catcher for the stretch run, rather than call Chris back up from AAA, they swapped him to the Twins.  It was time for a change of scenery.

Coming back from Minnesota was another signal-caller, Bobby Wilson, who has served as a respected second fiddle with the Angels, D'Backs, Rays, Rangers, Tigers, and Twins, the Cubs over the last decade.  However, as of now, the trade acquisition has not yet been placed on the active roster, despite being acquired back on August 30th.  Why is that?  Why would they trade for him and not utilize him?

Well, Bobby was actually on the 10-day disabled list when the Cubs and Twins got together.  An ankle injury has had him on the shelf since 8/24 and there has been no timetable set for his return.  While the Cubs knew what they were getting, I have to wonder if they didn't understand the extent of the problem, seeing as we are rapidly running out of schedule.  The aforementioned Taylor Davis has been serving as the third catcher in the meantime; however, the Cubs brass still must plan on utilizing Bobby before the month is out, as a locker with his nameplate has been seen in the clubhouse.

Other than that, it's been radio silence in regards to  Mr. Wilson.  Of course, there probably isn't a lot of demand for information about the third-string catcher by people who aren't obsessed with Cubs roster history.

Nevertheless, I decided to hedge my gets and, like with Gore, make a run over to my LCS and pick up a Bobby single for my roster binder.  Like many a backup backstop, Wilson doesn't have a ton of options, so I took what I could get.  That being said, the awkward high five/fist bump found on his 2010 Update rookie card is a fun get.  Also, I should take this opportunity to thank the proprietor of Baseball Dreams & Memories for being a boon to my collection over the last 15 years and for always humoring my odd collecting habit.  Also, thanks for having all of the Topps Flagship sets from this millennium ready and able to be picked apart.  He's the real MVP.

With that, I do believe we've covered all of the Cubs roster movements since I went on my unintentional blogging "vacation."  Nothing too exciting, but a couple of role players were added as part of the annual September call-ups, allowing for a few new faces to be added to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  They may not be super exciting names, but it's always fun for me to add to my favorite collection!

Surprisingly, I was able to get through this entire post without anything going haywire - fingers crossed that this relative calm continues for the foreseeable future and I can get back to blogging with consistency.  I'm sick of playing catch up!

Oh the IT life...