Friday, February 14, 2020

The Monkey's Out of the Bottle

I have a laser-focused collection.

That's not to say that I don't enjoy miscellaneous Cubs cards, fun photography, and mysterious oddball pasteboards.  However, after nearly two decades worth of collecting the way I do, I don't think I'll be shifting my collecting focus anytime soon.  In short, I am set in my ways, I love my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection, and that binder get 99% of my hobby time.

On the bright side, the fact that I am so preoccupied with one mission (collect one card of every man to take the field in a Cubs uniform) keeps me grounded.  I'd much rather spend $20 on a super vintage tobacco card than a blaster of random, modern day product.  On the negative side, it also keeps me grounded.  By that, I mean that I don't get much joy out of buying packs, blasters, and boxes of cards because I know that my collecting needs will almost never be met by such purchases.  After all, I'm not going to find a strip card of some Depression Era benchwarmer in a rack pack of 2020 Topps, am I?  Heck, even if there is a Cubs rookie or first appearance in a North Side uni in a new set, it's infinitely more economical to purchase them secondhand rather than play the Topps lottery.

When the new cards first hit the shelves each year, it should be an exciting event for any hobbyist, but my supremely narrow collecting focus keeps my exuberance mostly in check.  Parade, meet rain.

That said, I am not made of stone.  While both my brain and my wallet know that spending money on modern product will not provide much benefit to my CATRC, that doesn't keep me completely on the sidelines.  I'll still buy a stray pack or two each year - I have to see what the new stuff looks like in person, after all.  Therefore, when I found myself in Target over the weekend, I decided to loosen my collar a tad with a rack pack of 2020 Series One.

Now, like I said, modern products rarely have any carrots to dangle in front of my face and this year's Flagship is no exception.  While the checklist is 350 cards long, there is only one, single bullet point which captures my attention, #103 Danny Hultzen - it's like being a Rangers fan or something.  Anyway, despite landing fifteen cards in the set, Hultzen represents the only Cub making his first pasteboard appearance with the team, thus making it a chase card for my CATRC.

Despite this fact, I still plopped down the five dollar bill - despite the long odds of adding anything to my binder - because sometimes you just have to...

Little did I know, I was in for a surprise.  Without any further ado, let's bust into this 34-card pack of 2020 Topps Series One - my very first pack of cards on the calendar year:

Upon shedding the wrapping, it was Tony Gonsolin's face (or his trendy mustache and flowing mane) which initially greeted me.  I don't know who this guy is. but he's definitely got a good first name.

Second out of the packet was a card that could be of potential use.  The Cubs have brought in local hero, Jason Kipnis, on a minor league deal with a Spring Training invitation.  He represents a cheap (an emphatically important quality for the front office this winter), veteran stopgap at second base that could allow blue chip prospect, Nico Hoerner, to spend some time refining his game at AAA.  So, maybe I'll be adding this card to my CATRC binder soon and actually get something useful out of my "treat yo'self" impulse purchase.

Also, maybe the hometown hero can redeem himself for very nearly ruining the Cubs' party in 2016.

I think I lost about 5 years off of the back end of my life when I saw that ball leave the bat.  Yikes.  My skin still crawls when I watch the video 3+ years later.

Speaking of startling moments, the next card in the pack was a massive surprise.  Like I said, there was exactly one card on this fairly large checklist that I actually "needed" for my collection.  One.  One out of 350 possible pulls and I had only bought 34 cards.  Yet, only three cards into my first sampling of the product, there it was staring back at me:

Danny Hultzen makes his first appearance in a Cubs uniform; in fact, he makes his first appearance on a card as a Major Leaguer, period.  As you might infer, that means this card will slot right into my CATRC binder.

The lefty was one of the few bright spots for the Cubs during the latter half of the 2019 season.  The second overall pick (by Seattle) of the 2011 amateur draft was the only player taken in the first 29 selections who hadn't reached the Bigs. This draft class is widely considered to be the greatest of all-time - for apparent reasons and Hultzen was expected to be one of the bigger names from it.  However, while names like Gerrit Cole, Mookie Betts, Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez went on to stardom, Hultzen battled an onslaught on injuries and washed out of baseball on two separate occasions.  Yet, come last September, there Danny was in a Cubs uniform, striking out the side in his maiden Major League appearance.

Some might question the validity of putting a minor league lifer who had only made six appearances in the preceding season onto the checklist of Topps Series One and - honestly - those people would be right.  It doesn't make sense - it's just a symptom of the over reliance on rookie cards that Night Owl eloquently studied not so long ago.  Plus, while he is back with the club for 2020, the chances of him making much of an impact are quite slim.  The new three batter minimum rule and his lack of a 40-man roster spot see to that.  You'd think Topps would want a proper representation of the Major Leagues in their Flagship set... but rookies.

Of course, with all that being stated, the homer in me is thrilled to find a proper Cubs card of the guy.  After all, LOOGY-type relievers rarely get any love and he looks so much better in Cubbie Blue than Mariners Teal.  Does this make me a hypocrite?  Probably.  Maybe.  Yes. C'est la vie.

While this pack was already a odds-defying, massive success, I was thrilled to discover another Cubs card just a few flips later.  Since "the Professor" is known for his intelligence and attention to the finer points of pitching, let's now take a moment to examine the design used for 2020 Topps.

In short, I like it.  While, like many who would bemoan this era of collecting, I would prefer a return to borders.  However, that horse is dead, buried and decaying.  Others complain about the sideways orientation of the nameplate and it's seemingly Bowman-inspired layout.  In regards to the former, I also agree, but I find this to be much easier for my brain to comprehend than having the last name printed above the first, like in 2019 Topps; so, at least it's an improvement.  In regards to the latter, some scream Bowman rip-off; but, to me, the layout and design harkens back to video games like MVP Baseball or to graphical elements used in mid-00's television broadcasts, which tickles my nostalgia bone.  

Also, I enjoy the color coding used in the nameplate  Any attempt to get more blue and red into my Cubs cards is welcomed.

As for the back, they're pretty standard fare, although the heavy reliance on gray is a bit drab.  Also, I find it odd that they included Danny Hultzen's minor league numbers rather than his MLB stat-line.  I'm sure it has something to do with print deadlines or whatever.

Okay, with that out of the way, let's see what the rest of the pack produced:

Here we have a pair of former Cubs, or at least a former Cub and a former North Side farmhand.  I don't miss Aroldis Chapman, but this otherwise standout pack had to damped my enthusiasm by reminding me that Eloy Jimenez is blossoming on the other side of town...  Oh well, nothings truly perfect, I suppose.

On the plus side, the latter does represent my first Eloy card whatsoever, so it'll fit in nicely with my "Coulda Been a Cub" side project.

Next up, a trio of cool photos, including a special "Maryland Day" Orioles uniform (anyone else think soccer when they see this?), a hovering Gregory Polanco, and an intimidating perspective not seen nearly enough on baseball cards.

Oh hey, this guy has been in the news a lot lately, hasn't he?...

On a brighter note, I think I might have the market cornered on the second generational talent in Toronto.  Well, almost - I'd just need Vlad Jr. to complete that "set."  Still, that's a lot of family ties for one pack.

That does it for the base portion of the packet.  Moving on, let's examine the "special" cards:


As I mentioned earlier, this particular pack of cards came from a Target, so here are my retail-only Turkey Red inserts - two regular and one Chrome.  Like the return of crimson birds, but a whole lotta meh here with the backgrounds and the players pulled.  Also, I'm just now noticing how poorly these inserts photographed, especially that shiny Sale.  Although, much like Chris' Sawx and Yordan Alvarez's Houston Astros, I probably should have seen that coming.


And finally, to close out the pack-busting experience, here's a 35th Anniversary of 1985 Topps insert.  Seems like Topps likes to dip into the well of 80's nostalgia quit often; but, the '85 set is actually one of my favorite designs of all-time, so I'll let it slide this time.  I can't quite put my finger on why I get such a kick out of this set (perhaps it's the simple geometric design, prominent use of team logos, and bold colors), yet I find the originals representing a fair amount of 80's Cubs in my CATRC.

Of course, Pete Alonso is a fully-grown "Polar Bear" and not a "Cub."  Thus, as much as I will cape for '85 Topps, this one will be going into the trade stacks.

With that, we've seen all there is to see with this odd-defying hanger pack.  Within the plastic wrapping, I was able to uncover the one and only card from this product that I declared a target (and, again, within three flips) which served as a Cubgrade for my CATRC, one potential further addition to said binder, a bonus Kyle Hendricks, and an Eloy for my "Coulda Been a Cub" collation.  Considering my narrow scope of cardboard interests, that's an exceptional haul.

All in all, my dip into 2020 Series One went even better than I could have possibly expected and I'm thoroughly satisfied with the brief abandonment of logic that facilitated the purchase.  Granted, there's not a shred of doubt that I could still purchase the single Hultzen RC on Ebay or at my LCS for a fifth of the price I forked over for the pack, though nothing compares to that childlike thrill of pulling it yourself, right?  I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one who feels that way - I encourage you to share a story about the last time you experienced such a rush and/or your feelings about 2020 Topps Series One in the comment section below.

In the meantime, now my wallet and brain have to get together and work twice as hard to repress the urges of my yearning heart to try and replicate the magic.  What have I done?

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Cubgrading Castellanos

Unlike the real Cubs, the other day, I actually spent some money and brought back Nick Castellanos.

Okay... so paying a dollar on Ebay for a 2019 Bowman Heritage base card a couple of months after the product's release isn't really the same thing as inking a highly sought after, star player to a massive four year, $64 million dollar contract.  But, then again, I am not part of the Ricketts family, rolling around in Ameritrade money a la Scrooge McDuck, either.  They were outspent by the Reds... the small market Reds... who have also stolen Pedro Strop away from us and spent all winter getting better than us...

Meanwhile, as I was saying before I got sidetracked on an emo tangent,  I have finally "Cubgraded" my Nicholas Castellanos representation in my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  In case you're new to Wrigley Roster Jenga, that means that I have upgraded a player included within the binder from a non-Cubs card to the proper blue pinstripes.

From his acquisition at the trading deadline on July 31st until this week, "Big Stick Nick" was wearing a Tigers jersey in my most treasured collection.  I was supremely disappointed that he didn't show up in North Siders uniform in last fall's Update checklist and mildly worried that - upon his seemingly inevitable free agent departure - he wouldn't get a proper, pack-pullable Cubs card at all.  Sidenote - how did he not make an appearance in Update?  A big name swaps spots on two heritage franchises, one of which is in the middle of the playoff hunt, at the trade deadline?  Isn't that Update's wheelhouse?  WTF, m8?

Luckily enough, Bowman Heritage was rebooted just in time to save Nick from Tiger purgatory.  Although, it should be noted that he also popped up in blue and red in Topps Gallery, as far as pack-based, retail products go.  However, the photograph of Nick looking imposing as he strides up to the plate in the home pinstripes set against the clean, "keep it simple, stupid" design of 1953 gave it the edge over Gallery's hit or miss "artsy fartsy-ness."

As far as Gallery cards go, Nick's isn't too bad - I've seen some real horrors since the product was rebooted a couple of years ago.  However, when it comes to documenting the entirety of the Chicago Cubs all-time roster, I'll take a photograph of a player over a drawing any day.  Plus, the home pinstripes look so much better than the blue "softball" alternates.  I don't think that's much of a hot take, but I know that certain sectors of the Chicago fan base thinks that the blues are the best uniforms of the bunch.  I am not among them.

Anyway, I definitely feel like the Bowman is better than the Gallery, which is why the former is comfortably resting in my All-Time Roster tome and the latter is a scan that I swiped from Ebay.

Anyway, Nick is now a Cubs, if in my silly little collection and not in real life.  I guess that's an okay consolation prize.  However, I will not be thrilled when I inevitably see Castellanos wearing Red in Topps Series II...  Nick may have only been a Cub for half a season, but he made a huge impact.  One could say he carried the team on his back during the later summer and fall of 2019, posting an absurd .321./.356/.646 slash line with 16 home runs in just 212 at-bats.  Needless to say, the team floundered in spite of his Herculean effort.  Plus, by all accounts he was an enthusiastic and positive clubhouse presence, seemed to want to stick around, and would have slotted nicely into what is now a rather week outfield rotation at Wrigley Field. 

Alas, the Ricketts have to same some money so that they can abide by this broken luxury tax system which actively encourages the sport's largest money makers to shed salary.  Just look at the Mookie Betts/David Price trade that went down last night...  if I were a Red Sox fan, I'd be lighting some torches right about now.  Of course, I might need to keep some of those handy anyway in case Kris Bryant gets dealt.  We shall see.

In the meantime, at least I now have a proper Cubs card to commemorate Nick's electric and all too brief time on the North Side of Chicago.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

R.I.P. John Andretti

One week ago today, the sports world was rocked by the death of Kobe Bryant and understandably so.  The Black Mamba was certainly one of the true greats of his profession, was equally beloved by fans, and was cut down at an age far too young, with a daughter who barely had time to live.  All in all, it was a devastating situation that truly makes one take a step back and think. 

Now, I've never been a huge basketball fan - my interest in the sport died when Michael Jordan retired (the second time) and, even before then, it was casual at best.  Thus, tragic though Bryant's sudden death was, it didn't affect me the same way it did a lot of my peers.  When news dropped about the accident, my wife and I were at a baby shower and the festivities ground to a halt.  I was sad to hear about the loss of life, but I didn't feel as personally attached to Bryant as did many of those party guests and other sports fans across the world.  That's not to say that I wasn't grieved by the loss of life - I'm not a monster - but I've just never paid all that much attention to Kobe's sport of choice.

However, just a few days later, there was another loss in the world of athletics that I felt on a much more personal level.

I maintain a small collection of NASCAR cards and I am passively working on obtaining one for each driver who has one.  This card of John came paired with a 1:64 die-cast model of his #43 Cheerios Dodge that was released by Hot Wheels in (I believe 2002).  That toy car has long since disappeared, but this card remains in my binders.  Once a relic of my childhood, it now holds a more poignant significance.

On the following Thursday, it was announced that veteran racer, John Andretti, had lost his battle with colon cancer and passed away at the age of 56.  Andretti, of course, hails from the most famous racing clan in the history of motorsport and, like his uncle Mario, he was one of the most versatile competitors of his generation.  During the halcyon days of my NASCAR fandom, John was a fixture on the circuit as the pilot of one of the most famous cars in the game, driving the famous blue #43 for Richard Petty.  Two family dynasties working together under one roof, it was almost poetic.

Seeing as Petty was and is my favorite driver in the history of stock car racing, I naturally rooted for John every weekend.  While he was never a front runner, he was able to get a couple of wins under his belt before the NASCAR phase of his career ended in the mid-aughts.  However, that did not mark the end of his time behind the wheel.

Like I said, Andretti was a versatile driver.  Once he was done in stocks, he simply pivoted.

John Andretti returned to the circuit which provided him his first break into the big leagues of auto racing - Indy Car.  In fact, he even brought the legendary blue #43 over with him for a couple of years, in a partnership between Richard Petty Motorsports and Andretti Autosport, as exemplified by this picture I snapped during Indy 500 time trials in 2009.  If you'll permit me a humble brag, I'm impressed I was able to capture such a crisp, clear image of an Indy Car, at speed, with a simple Canon Powershot.

Of course, the Andretti name is synonymous with open wheel racing, so it was a natural move.  Not to mention, John's biggest claim to fame is when, in 1994, he became the first man to attempt "The Double" - competing in the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR's Coke 600 in the same day.  That's 1,100 miles in just one day, split between Indy and Charlotte, NC - only a handful of brave souls have even entertained the thought.  Even before that, John had been a regular on the Indy Car (then sanctioned by CART) circuit throughout the late 80's/early 90's, even notching a win in '91 at Queensland.

His return to the open wheel ranks was not earth shattering, but I was irrationally excited to see him show up at the Brickyard from 2007-11.  After I began to grow tired of NASCAR, like John, I too pivoted to Indy Car and have been present for Indy 500 time trials nearly every year since 2003.  seeing a name from the early days of my auto racing fandom show up in my new preferred discipline was a nostalgic thrill.

This is John during Indy time trials in 2006, driving for Marty Roth and a year before partnering back up with Petty.

Beyond NASCAR and Indy Car, John also competed in NHRA drag racers, USAC midgets, and sports cars.  Also, besides his famed double, he's also the only person to have ever competed in a NHRA, Indy Car, and NASCAR event during the same season.  Plus, he's had the opportunity to compete in three of the crown jewels of the entire the racing scene - the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans - as well. Needless to say, John Andretti's racing career was full of intrigue.

Off the track, Andretti was well-liked and well-respected in the garage area of whatever track he happened to be competing at in a given weekend.  Furthermore, he spent a great deal of time volunteering with charities, both with the Petty Victory Junction Gang camp and for Riley Children's Hospital through his own initiative, Race 4 Riley.

In short, the sudden loss of John Andretti hit me pretty hard, as I had followed his career with great interest since the earliest days of my auto racing fandom.  it's never easy to see one of your childhood heroes pass on, whether they make larger than life dunks on the hardwood or guide sleek machines 200 miles per hour through a curve.  In the end, it's important that we appreciate our brief time on this earth, as you never know when it's going to end, no matter if you're a random sports card blogger or among the greatest athletes of all time.

R.I.P. John Andretti.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Frame Job

Recently, my wife hosted a big fundraising gala.  Without divulging too much personal information, she works for a local non-profit that benefits adults and children with mental disabilities, providing schooling, work, and social services.  With such lofty and wide-reaching goals, a large budget is required, as it works with families all across the county.  Thus, each year, the company holds an annual, year-end gala at a local country club to raise the majority of the funds needed for their noble goals.  Complete with fancy food spreads and a three-course dinner, live and silent auctions for tempting prizes, multimedia presentations showcasing the company's work, a raucous live band, and a black tie dress code, an incredible amount of work goes into making this happen.  Most of this stressful work falls squarely on the shoulders of my wife and her department, though I do volunteer when and where I can to alleviate some of the load.

On the plus side, this year's gala was a rousing success, earning rave reviews from attendees and the board of directors, as well as reaching the fundraising goals.  Plus, needless to say, my better half is in a much better mood with this event fading in the rear-view mirror.  So too am I, both because when she's stressed, I'm stressed and because I got a nifty souvenir out of the whole process.

In the lead up to the big night, a lot of storage space was needed to stash the live auction prizes, silent auction baskets of goodies, and props/decorations/equipment that made up the gala.  As such, my wife and her fellow co-workers had to completely clear out their nearby storage unit to make room for the deluge.  Over the preceding years, this unit had been treated the same way as the closet in our spare room has - as a catch-all for any and all overflow that's largely ignored until some odds and ends need to be hidden away and is then promptly forgotten again. 

Most of these cobweb-covered castoffs were earmarked for Goodwill or the dumpster out back.  Old promo materials, stacks of files, and miscellaneous junk made up the majority of the disused junk - nothing particularly useful. Clearing out storage units actually sounds like a  good time to me, seeing as you have literally no idea what you might find; however, I had to sit this one out.  Nevertheless, I ended up with some re-discovered treasure:

Mark this down on the lengthy list of reasons why I love my wife.  Even as she was digging through junk, tired from planning a stressful event, she was looking out for me and saved this intriguing find from the scrap heap.  Also, holy moly... the possibilities as to what these cards could be!!

While visions of T206 team sets danced through my head, I knew that was the longest of long-shots.  I knew it was far more likely that my spouse and her cohorts had dug up a set of reprints or some kind of retrospective set.  As it turned out, that line of thought was absolutely correct - however, there was yet another surprise to be had:

I was certainly not expecting these re-discovered pasteboards to come collated in this manner!  As you might be able to tell from the boxscores at the center of the piece, this frame job pays tribute to the World Series Championship team of 1908.

As far as the cards go, they aren't technically the 1908 Cubs, as my wife and the party which assembled the piece had posited.  Rather, these sepia-toned beauties showcase the 1907 World Series Championship team, a Cubs squad which is given far less notoriety since a century plus title drought did not follow that World Series win.  That being stated, the main players on the back-to-back championship roster are mostly the same, so the sentiment still works.  Of course, I still had to point this out to my wife, who now thinks I'm an even bigger nerd than she did before.

Without any further ado, let's take a closer look at the cards, which come from the TCMA portfolio and were originally released in 1987:

First, here's a side-by-side comparison which shows how these cards originally look, as opposed to mounted on foam board.  As you can see, the fancy, embossed, blue and gold piping is not part of the original look.

Meanwhile, as far as the set goes, all the major players are there:

The most recognizable names of the bunch, a "trio of bear cubs, fleeter than birds" are there...

... plus the rest of the starting infield.  These two are oft-forgotten, seeing as they didn't have a legendary poem written about their exploits on the diamond.  Although, fun bit of trivia, Johnny Kling was a championship billiards player when he wasn't calling pitches for the Chicago Cubs.

Only one outfielder gets the nod, Frank "Wildfire" Schulte, perhaps because the grassy part of the field was something of a timeshare on that legendary club.  With Schulte having won the National League's Chalmers Award (basically the MVP trophy) a few years later - in 1911 - his name carried the most weight out of the five men who split time chasing fly balls.  Thus, "Wildfire" spread into the TCMA checklist.

Finally, the pitching staff is represented by three big horses of the starting rotation.  Ed Reulbach was shown already and his buddies Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown and Orval Overall fill out the checklist.  This trio of hurlers led the team in pitching wins, splitting 68 victories between themselves with Mordecai accounting for 29 all on his own.  Boy oh boy, how the game has changed!

In addition to the cards, as I alluded to earlier, the frame job also includes the box scores of the 1908 World Series as a centerpiece, as well as the complete batting and pitching statistics for the victorious Chicagoans.

So, if you're like me, you might be wondering who put this crafty display piece together.  Was it some intrepid Cubs fan? A rabid baseball card collector?  Perhaps it was even TCMA themselves, as a clever way to market their oddball cards?  Well, the answer is stamped right in the middle of the bottom row of pasteboards:

Dream Team Collectibles based out of St. Louis Missouri, in case you can't read the gold embossing on a green background.  They were a big name in the hobby around this time, largely on the strength of these very sorts of items - fancy, themed frames and plaques involving sports memorabilia.  Starting in 1986, Ed Gaines and his wife Barbara and by the start of the 90's, these items were almost ubiquitous in local card shops, card shows, and wherever one could purchase sports ephemera. 

Speaking of big names, it was while researching my 1908 Cubs frame that I came across an eye-popping piece of trivia about Dream Team Collectibles.  This mom and pop company once took on a corporate behemoth and came out on top.  That big corporation was even one of the leagues that their products, no doubt, celebrated - the NBA.  That's right, that NBA - the National Basketball Association.  Wild, right?  And what was the lawsuit about?  The usage of the name "Dream Team."  Holy crap - possessive much?

In May of 1995, Dream Team Collectibles sued NBA Properties Inc., which is the licensing arm of the NBA, and later USA Basketball to try and stop them from using and licensing the term "the Dream Team," which of course was a term used to refer to the famous Team USA Olympic basketball squad, featuring the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, etc.  It's hard to view this as anything other than an advantageous, headline grabbing cash grab, as I don't believe anyone was going to confuse the two entities.  If that were the case, it worked out quite well for the Gaines, as the case never made it to court and DTC received an undisclosed cash settlement for their troubles.  

What a bizarre story.

All in all, this delightful display came with beautiful sentiment, cool cards, and a fascinatingly odd bit of trivia.  Now, all it needs is a new frame and it will definitely be going up on a wall in my office in the near future.

Do you have any of these Dream Team Collectibles displays in your collection or perhaps something similar?  I can't find any current information on this company, so it seems like they may have passed by the wayside in the last couple of decades, though there's no shortage of similar products on the market today.  Just stop by your local mall and pop into Plaques Plus if you don't believe me.  Do you find these items to be as charming as I do through my rose-tinted, nostalgia-riddled glasses or do you think that they're simply tacky?  I encourage you to make your opinions known in the comment section below. 

One thing that is not up for debate though is the fact that my wife rocks!  In the throws of preparing for one of the largest and most important events in her professional life, she stepped back, thought of me and went out of her way to save a trinket that she knew I would enjoy.  I would sing her praises and defend her to ends of the earth, even if Dream Team Collectibles themselves came after me with a frivolous lawsuit to get me to stop.