Wednesday, October 30, 2019

While You Were Away...

During the nearly three months that I stepped away from baseball, baseball cards, and baseball card blogging, the Cubs tried desperately to stay in the deceivingly tight National League Central chase.  I say "deceivingly" because although the North Siders were well within striking distance of the crown until nearly the bitter end, it never truly felt as though they stood a chance in coming out on top.  The team simply felt flat and flawed while the Cardinals worked their devil magic and the Brewers went on yet another unstoppable September bender.  Of course, that doesn't mean that the club simply mailed it in and gave up the fight; au contraire, they made some roster moves down the stretch that screamed "go home, fat lady!"

Since most of my collecting and writing interests are based around my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection, I will now take this opportunity to show off the cards that were added to my marquee binder as a result of these desperation moves, even if it took me until the last few days to finally get around to physically doing so.  Again, I was on a baseball vacation when all of this went down and the shit hit the proverbial fan at Wrigley this September.

Let's begin with the biggy.  When both of the Cubs starting middle infielders (Javy Baez and *blech* Addison Russell) went down with separate (eventual) season-ending injuries on back to back days in the early days of September, Theo Epstein and Co. were forced to get creative with their roster construction.  Especially seeing as AAA shortstop, Dixon Machado, was already on the MiLB disabled list.  With few realistic options, a "go big or go home" type move was necessary:

Thus, the Cubs' number one prospect, Nico Hoerner became the first member of the 2018 draft class to reach the Major Leagues, barely a year after he was selected in the first round the previous June.  For a franchise that even made Kris Bryant go year-to-year and rung-to-rung on the minor league ladder, this was an exceptionally rapid turnaround.  Of course, for the Cubs, it was either go against their normal development schedule or officially wave the white flag; I must say, it was a pleasantly surprising commitment to competing.

Nico did his part to try and save 2019 - slashing .282/.305/.436 in 82 PA's as the sudden starting shortstop - alas, it was not to be.  However, the move gave us Cubs fans a glimmer of hope and me, specifically, the chance to add this eye-catching blue 2019 Bowman parallel (#'ed /499) to my CATRC.

Welcome to the binder, Mr. Hoerner - the 2020 season will be an interesting one to monitor for you.  Will you force the issue through Spring Training and stick on the MLB roster or will you be placed back on your previous developmental training?  We shall see.

Next up, we have another story of a guy making the best of a bad situation.  

Much has been made about the bevy of talent which came from the 2011 draft - after all, names like Baez, Francisco Lindor, Gerrit Cole, George Springer, Trevor Story, Blake Snell and many others make up the class of '11.  However, that year's second overall selection was one that several pundits thought might be better than them all; a highly-polished college starter with a ace-caliber repertoire.  That man's name was Danny Hultzen:

Unfortunately, years of injuries, arm troubles, and several surgeries kept him from making the Majors.  In fact, by 2017, Danny was completely out of professional baseball and seemed like just another blue chip bust.

However, the Cubs coaxed Hultzen out of semi-retirement in 2018 and, after a full year of rest and recovery, the Chicago front office saw enough in his stuff to promote him straight to AAA-Iowa after just 8 appearances for the Mesa rookie league team.  Then, the lefty made mince meat out of his competition in the homer-happy Pacific Coast League in 2019 (1.26 ERA in 14.1 IP with 0 HR's), which was impressive enough to finally earn him that long awaited call-up to the Show for September.  

During a Cubs season dominated by negatives, Danny's comeback was a welcome bit of wholesome fresh air.  Also, for the record, Hultzen didn't give up a single run in his 3.1 innings of work and looks to have a tangible shot at grabbing a lefty pen role for 2020.  Welcome to the Windy City Danny and, more importantly (to me, anyway) welcome to my CATRC!

Luckily for me, I just so happened to find one of Danny's first mass-produced baseball cards - the 2012 Bowman Chrome Prospects single that you see above - in a discount box at my LCS.  I don't think the owner had realized that Hultzen had become Cubs property and, thus, no home team upcharge!

Lastly, the Cubs did make one further addition to the roster during my blackout period; however, tragically I do not currently have a card with which to represent him in my most treasured binder.  In fact, the young hurler doesn't have a single mainstream baseball card to his name.  Poor me, right? 

Showing just how desperate the team was for a jolt, this pitcher wasn't first called upon at the Big League level (in Chi-Town, that is) until September 1st, he still managed to make 14 appearances before the end of the season.  After showing some early success with his gravity-defying hook, Joe Maddon through this rookie right into the blazing (dumpster) fire.  I mean, he didn't have many reliable options to call upon at this point.

At any rate, the Cubs got a good look at the hulking, six foot nine (tallest Cubs pitcher ever?) lefty that they got from the Padres in the Carl Edwards, Jr. trade.  Even if he was thrust into the thick of things rather quickly, it may have given him an inside track in next year's crowded bullpen picture.  

Speaking of inside tracks, if anyone has such an inroad to acquiring one of Brad's few minor league, team issued cards, I sure would be appreciative if you'd let me know.  Like I said, Wieck has no mass-produced cards on his ledger yet, so these SGA's are my only option, at this juncture.  The 2014 seventh rounder has simply never caught the eyes of the folks at Bowman, Leaf, Onyx, Panini Prizm, etc.  With the lack of love relievers get, in general, who knows if he'll even get an MLB card, in the long run?

With that, I have now covered all the roster moves that I missed out on during my time away from baseball and blogging.  It feels quite nice to be caught up, in that regard, especially with transaction season being just days away... potentially, I could have been buried in an avalanche of tardy CATRC moves.

On that note, here's hoping that there is tidal wave of Cubs roster moves coming up in the next couple of winter months.  After two painful September collapses in a row, I think this team needs something of an overhaul if they want to reasonably compete in 2020.  At least, a new center fielder, second baseman, a starting pitcher or two, and perhaps more still should be on the "to-get" list.

Nevertheless, at this moment, I'm all caught up.  Thanks for digesting my overly tardy ranting and rambling!

Monday, October 28, 2019

High Numbers - Doing Update's Job

One of the last purchases that I made before my blogging blackout was a team set; to be more specific, I pulled the trigger on a Cubs team set from Topps Heritage High Numbers.  Usually, this particular set - which essentially serves the same purpose for the Heritage line as Update does for Flagship -  is one of the releases which most perks my interest.  I can say, unequivocally, that the 2019 edition is not an exception; in fact, it may be the highlight of the year for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.

Unfortunately, this year's aforementioned Update release was a massive dud to this Cubs fan.  It certainly did not do much to "update" the 2019 Cubs Flagship team set, which is it's only true purpose in existing.  For one, there were only four cards featuring the Chicagoans in the checklist, which doesn't leave much space for mid-season acquisitions and rookie call-ups.  In fact, only one - just one - of those cards featured a player who hadn't already been a Cub for at least a year (Craig Kimbrel).  Two are useless All-Star cards, which should be some sort of insert rather than taking up valuable space in the base checklist.  Some "Update," huh?

Luckily for me, the pendulum swung in the complete opposite direction when it come to HHN:

Of the five cards that you see above, four had never been graced with a proper Cubs card before Hi-#'s hit shelves in August and all four of those pasteboards were definite needs for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  Thus, I was absolutely elated when I first saw the checklist on Beckett's website and made sure to not to dilly dally, purchasing a complete team set as soon as I found one in my price range instead of beating around the bush with pack purchases.

Vic Caratini, the Cubs' capable backup backstop, was the one player who had been featured on a handful of previous Windy City-centric cards.  Meanwhile, the following were Cubs firsts:

All I can say about our first example is that it's about time.  Brandon Kintzler was acquired at the trading deadline LAST year and has been a key component of the Chicago bullpen since that July 2018 transaction.  Of course, relievers get very little love from the old bubblegum company and so it took until now for Mr. Kintzler to get his due.  Just in time for him to leave the team in free agency, of course...

Nevertheless, I'm not going to complain about the opportunity to update his card, though the honor might have come later than it should have for Brandon.  He looks much better in Cubbie Blue than Brewer Blue, in my totally unbiased and on the level opinion.

Brad Brach was a slightly more timely selection for the HHN checklist, being an offseason acquisition.  Of course, you'd think the winter signings would be more prudent for Series Two fodder, but what do I know?  After all, by the time these cards hit the shelves, Brach had already hit the pavement, having been DFA'ed by the Cubbies after posting an ERA over six in 42 appearances.  Obviously, Brad's Cubs career isn't one that we Cubs faithful will remember fondly; but, now we can at least remember it properly with this single.

Our next subject was another one of the Cubs' winter free agent acquisitions and, like Brach (and pretty much all of the other players signed that offseason) was an utter flop:

I guess that's we get for inking an ex-Cardinal; that St. Louis pixie dust wears off quite quickly after they move on.

Descalso was brought in to be a swiss army knife infielder with an above average bat, but ended up well under the Mendoza line.  Along with Addison Russell (boo, hiss), this swing and miss was a major reason the Cubs had such a black hole at second base in 2019.  At least Daniel isn't a bag of excrement though, so he has that going for him; he seems like a pretty decent dude.  For that reason, I'm happy to see him pop up here, even if his Cubs career has been less than stellar so far.

Finally, we have the biggest name of the bunch:

Craig Kimbrel was a knee-jerk signing to try and save the flailing 2019 Chicago Cubs and their dumpster fire of a bullpen.  Obviously, he did not save the pen when he was signed mid-season and was, in fact, just gasoline poured on the blaze.  He allowed nine homers in just over 20 innings and had an ERA over 6.50 in that same time... which is, by far, the worst the potential Hall of Famer has ever looked on a Major League mound.  Appropriately, Kimbrel doesn't look particularly good on this card either, with his obviously Photoshopped hat and jersey; however, I'll take what I can get.  Honestly, it could be so much worse.

On the bright side, there's reason for hope when it comes to the final two seasons of Kimbrel's three-year contract.  The home runs can be slightly explained by the juiced ball that Major League Baseball employed last season and it looks like some changes are going to be made with Mr. Spalding.  Also, there's plenty of examples of pitchers signed mid-season failing to find a groove due to the lack of Spring Training and meaningful innings.  Here's hoping that the next two years produce better results and more natural looking Kimbrel Cubs cards!

Actual footage from an examination of the 2019 baseballs.

With that, you can see why I was so happy with the 2019 Heritage High Number set, even if the players included weren't particularly great (for the most part).  Five cards, four suitable "Cubgrades" for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  Rarely - if ever - is one singular release so fruitful for my marquee binder.  Obviously it was the far superior option when it came to "Update" sets in 2019, at least from a North Side baseball perspective.

Each year, it feels as though Topps' Flagship product is getting worse and worse at actually documenting the baseball season at hand.  I know there are print deadlines and other contractual speed bumps that slow down the process of creating up-to-date checklists, but there has to be a way to curb this troubling trend.  Update, in particular, is made up almost entirely of useless filler rather than trade acquisitions and mid-season signings.

Thank you HHN, for picking up the slack and doing Update's job!

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Had One In The Can

Editor's note - this post is several months late, as I started laying it all out just a few days before my blogging blackout.  However, though timely it is not, it is all but ready to go.  So, I might as well just go ahead and fill in the gaps and click publish.  I'd hate to waste it...

Ever since he began to sniff the Big Leagues, the Cubs' Kris Bryant has had a corporate relationship with Red Bull.  Over the years, the star third baseman and the energy drink behemoths have come together for a series of truly fun promotional gags.  For instance, one year Kris punked an entire collegiate baseball team as a "foreign transfer student."  Another year, Bryant had the tables turned on him as Red Bull had Greg Maddux pose as a sound guy with a mean hook.  Whoever the creative minds behind these campaigns are, they are truly earning their presumably hefty paycheck.

Earlier this summer, RB and KB got together again to host a home run derby right smack in the middle of the Chicago Loop:

It's moments like these where I miss working downtown....

Anyway, there's another aspect of the Red Bull/Kris Bryant sponsorship pairing that is becoming something of a hallmark.  The energy drink with the largest market share in the world has taken to spicing up their iconic can design with the faces of prominent athletes and celebrities which endorse their product and other intellectual properties, i.e. pro video gamer, Ninja, Team Red Bull F1 driver, Daniel Ricciardo, the characters from Capcom's Street Fighter video game series, and Pac-Man, among others.  After all, collectors will buy just about anything related to their favorite people and things.

During the outset of the 2018 baseball season, Kris Bryant's face was also sharing space with the dueling crimson bulls on blue and silver cans across the Chicagoland area.  Being the rabid Cubs fan I am with a potentially problematic energy drink habit, you better believe I grabbed one of these bad boys for my knick knack shelf; heck, I even banged out a post about the canister here.  Red Bull must have done pretty well in the Windy City that April, as they trotted out KB cans once again at the Chicago River home run derby, only this time with a slightly different design.  I mean, it's no secret that we collectors have to have every little variation, right?  

Although I was unable to make it to the event in the Loop, these special edition cans soon found their way into grocery stores and filling stations throughout the suburbs and you damn well better believe that I grabbed one... I'm no exception to that "every little variation" quirk, you know.

This is what the Kris Bryant Red Bull can - 2019 edition - looks like.  I included a promotional image from a since lost article, seeing as the photography in this post leaves plenty to be desired.  Of course, I'm not sure how much the admittedly small and pixelated .jpeg is helping.  Nevertheless...

To sum it all up, the design of Red Bull's iconic product doesn't change very much, except that you get to see Kris Byrant's face as he steps up to the plate in a RB cap in one blue parallelogram and his powerful cut in the other.  Also included are an advertisement for a contest to hit the batting cages with the 2016 NL MVP and a faux signature, both of which occupy the silver negative space.  All in all, it's very simple and barely messes with the famous color scheme and design.  Sadly, there's no Snapchat filter/game via Snapcode included on this year's can.  😦

For comparison's sake, here's a side by side look at the 2019 and 2018 RB/KB cans:

Again, poor photography, but you get the gist.  For a full look and review at least year's drink container, you can check out my thoughts right here.  Essentially, it all boils down to this:  same idea, different pictures.

It was after washing out this can of Cubs-themed Red Bull that I realized I had unknowingly dived head first into yet another collection, something which my wife will verify that I already have far too many of in my limited living space.  Now with two Cubbie energy drinks to go along with a pair of Northside baseball themed beer cans, I have a blossoming beer/pop can collection building up on my shelving unit:

In case your curious, you can read about Joe Maddon's  "Try Not to Suck" German-style ale (which doesn't suck, but also doesn't leave a large impression) here or the fantastic sampling of "Ron Santo 10 Ale" - gifted to me by P-Town Tom, of Waiting 'til Next Year fame - over here.

At this point, all I need are some of those vintage RC Cola cans from the 70's and I'll have all the Cubbie beverage canisters that I can think of!  

These two would definitely fit in with the rest of my Cub-cans.

Is there anyone else out there that picks up and hangs onto these special edition cans of Red Bull?  Or, perhaps we have more Monster fans on the blogosphere?  Did anyone else out there accidentally stumble into a side collection in the same manner as I did my can stash?  Does anyone know of any other North Side baseball themed beverages that I should be keeping my eyes open for?  Please feel free to weigh-in in the comment section below; I'd love to hear from you!

In the meantime, after banging out this post, I might need to wander down to the gas station next door and pick up another can and "ride the bull" again just to find the energy to make it through the day.  Grant me sustenance, Kris Bryant!

Friday, October 25, 2019

Does it Spark Joy?

Well, I'm back.  Hope you all didn't miss me too much.

As the Cubs sputtered to finish line of the 2019 season, I checked out.  Call me a bad fan or whatever, but baseball just wasn't fun anymore.  I know that fans of the North Side baseball club would have basically sold their soul just to be in postseason contention less than a short decade ago (myself included), but the last few months of Cubs baseball were just... grating.  Between the Addison Russell crap (launch him into the sun), the political dealings by ownership, the suspect new television conglomerate, the managerial drama, the general toxicity of the fan-base on social media, the seemingly lackadaisical play on field when it mattered most, and the second straight craptastic collapse, I simply wasn't enjoying America's pastime anymore.  With that in mind, I turned to the only voice of reason I could find in this topsy-turvy world: the goddess of decluttering, Marie Kondo.

Simply put, baseball was not sparking joy in my life; so, I disposed of it.  Unfortunately, part of dumping baseball was dumping baseball cards, as well.  With that, the blog went on indefinite hiatus.

After a couple of months of focusing on greener pastures, like training for the Chicago Marathon, focusing my need to collect on vinyl records, and whiling away the hours with my wife - sans the burden of subconscious stress over the performance of two dozen random men participating in a child's game - I feel quite rejuvenated.  Now that the World Series is halfway over, I feel comfortable jumping back in, once again.  After all, the split was never meant to be permanent, I just needed a nice long break to regain perspective and to remind myself that there are infinitely more important things in life than sports.

Of course, the Bears are trying their damnedest to drive me right back to the brink.

Turns out they needed more than just a kicker, huh?  The whole offense is screwy.

Thankfully, I'm not nearly as die-hard towards the Bears as I am the Cubs, so I can still enjoy the sport of football while keeping it at arm's length, without the intense emotional investment.  In fact, before last weekend, I had never even attended a single Bears game.  Heck, I had never even been to Soldier Field for so much as a carnival, let alone a professional football tilt.  Notice also that I am speaking in past tense.

That's right, this lifelong outskirts of Chicago native had never seen the Monsters of the Midway perform outside of a TV broadcast.  That is, until my Eagles fan of a mother-in-law accidentally won tickets to last Sunday's game in a raffle and (since she would rather burn them than entertain the thought of going) offered them up to my wife and I as a gift.  That definitely sparked joy!

That being stated, the Philly native got the last laugh, as the Bears were absolutely pantsed by the injury ravaged Saints, despite coming off of a bye week.  Even though they lost 36-25, it didn't even feel that close.  During the Bears' very first offensive set, a blocked punt led to a safety, which really set the tone for the rest of the evening.  By the end of the third quarter, Mitch Trubisky and crew had only four first-downs on the ledger.  Four.  Needless to say, it was a lopsided affair.  Nevertheless, I had an absolute blast as absolutely everything was a new experience to me.

Some highlights:

We arrived at the complex super early (more on that in a bit), after a train ride and a mile and a half walk, partially along the fog-draped lakefront.  Nevertheless, I still had enough energy to excitedly sprint back and forth along the original and still empty, column-lined concourse of Soldier Field.  I am a runner, at heart, after all.

Seeing the gridiron, in person, for the first time as we emerged from bowl plopped on top of that historic concourse briefly took my breath away.  In fact, it was much like my first time seeing the diamond at Wrigley Field way back in 2004.  I was awestruck long enough to have the much more experienced folks blocked behind me contemplating knocking me over the railing so they could get to their seats.

And, of course, souvenirs.  The reason why my wife and I arrived at the gates early - an hour before they opened and three before kickoff - was so that we'd each be guaranteed that day's giveaway:  the above Walter Payton bobblehead.  "Sweetness" is going to be making some new friends on my desk at work very soon.  Additionally, I also made sure to keep my souvenir soda cup and a Miller Lite can celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NFL with a Bears logo on it because I adore my ephemera.

But, this is a card blog, is it not? And I am a card-carrying, card collector, right?  With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that my souvenir scavenging was not limited to stadium giveaways and beverage containers:

That's right - I also picked up this bad boy from the first kiosk I came across.

Not only have I been shying  away from my baseball cards during my self-imposed hobby exile, but my football cards have been ignored too.  As such, there's definitely some new, fresh faces in this factory team set blister pack that are needed for my Bears All-Time Roster Collection.  I pulled the trigger - even though it was more expensive there than in regular retailers - because I loved the idea of having Bears cards from my maiden Bears game hold such prominent places in my collection.  If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know how much emphasis I place on my roster-based binders.

While there were some repeats, including a highly unnecessary Brian Urlacher single (throwback players being included in what is serving as a flagship product is a rant for another day), I was able to nestle a few new names into my BATRC after the shellacking ended and the Metra train took me home.  For example:

Roquan Smith was last year's first round draft choice and, as such, his cards came with a premium in Chicagoland card shops.  Prices didn't go down either after the linebacker posted 122 tackles, five sacks, five passes defended, and one interception in his rookie campaign, arguably the best defensive debut since Brian Urlacher.  Unfortunately, he's been struggling quite a bit this year; but, then again, so is pretty much the entire roster.

Anyway, it's always nice to cross a big name off of the list!

Next up, a pair of fresh-faced rookies.

David Montgomery has been an integral part of what is technically considered Matt Nagy's "offense."  The running back was a third round draft choice last winter and now leads the team in rushing yardage with 231.  In fact, it's not even close, with last year's breakout star, Tarik Cohen, lagging miles behind with 47.  Once again, it's quite apparent that the offense is broken, but Montgomery is doing his best to carry the team on his back.

Meanwhile, Riley Ridley hasn't played so much as a single snap for the team so far, though he is on the 53-man roster.  Thus, I don't have much to say about the fourth round draft choice.  Maybe he deserves an opportunity to play?  Heck, he even looks like he's stuck on the sidelines and annoyed in the picture chosen for this rookie card.

While not entirely new to my Bears roster collection, Khalil Mack certainly needed an update - he looks so much better in blue and orange!

Mr. Mack has been nothing but a beast since being pillaged from the Raiders prior to the start of last year.  For frame of reference, in 2018, he registered 47 tackles, 12.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and an interception returned for a touchdown. Significantly, the 12.5 sacks were the most by a Bears player since Richard Dent back in 1993.  So far in 2019, Mack already has 4.5 sacks and leads the league with 4 forced fumbles.  Like I said, he's a nearly unstoppable beast.

Finally, though I was quite happy to properly update my card for the Bears' biggest star, my favorite card from the blister pack was actually the one that follows:

While my OCD tendencies are usually somewhat offended by cards which picture a player on a different than he is listed as being with, that quirk still does not diminish this pull for me.  From now on, Cordarrelle Patterson will always hold a special place in my heart because he provided the lone Chicago highlight from my very first live gameday experience and, boy oh boy, it was a doozy:

I have always thought that return a punt or kick-off for a touchdown was the most exciting single play in sports and, after seeing one in person, that it nearly caused my heart to lead straight through my rib cage.  I haven't had a declared favorite player since Devin Hester moved to Atlanta, but I think Mr. Patterson might have stolen the crown!  The Swiss army knife offensive weapon was only brought over from New England last winter, but he'll now always hold a special place in my heart.

With that, we've covered all of the relevant content from the factory team set which commemorates my first visit to Soldier Field. 

All told, despite the result, the memories made and the souvenirs obtained definitely contributed to making the game an overall positive experience.  I had a great time and hope to make it back again sometime sooner than in another 30 years.  Is there anyone else out there like me that roots for a particular team but has never seen them play in person or took decades to finally do so?  Was it a geographical location thing or was there some other reason that kept you from making the pilgrimage?  Let me know in the comment section below!

Another benefit was that I felt inspired to return to the Chicago sporting world and to blogging, so that I might have some documentation of my first Bears game.  Here's hoping that it sticks!  On that note, here's hoping my newfound balance in life and sanity stick too.  We shall see - there's nothing or nobody better than the Cubs at testing my limits though.  Thankfully, they have far less opportunities in the off-season.

Don't make me Marie Kondo you again, Cubs!