Sunday, January 13, 2019

and then I found an Umpire on a 2018 Baseball Card

You don't see cards like this very often, any more. Oh, sure, we all love a Play @ The Plate card. And with each passing year, it seems like we get a few more, and they get better and better. I mean, could Stadium Club even be printed these days, without several such cards? Not that there is anything wrong with that!
And this is a really good card, which proves to be from Taylor Davis' actual first MLB start behind the plate on Sept. 14, 2017. A First Start Rookie Card. That's Jose Reyes coming in to score on a Double by Brandom Nimmo as Asdrubal Cabrera, the on-deck batter, gives some sort of heads-up sign about what's going on with the defense, probably a throw coming in to the Catcher, imminently. Which, unfortunately for the ultimate charm of this Rookie Card, Davis proceeds to drop, as Reyes remains Safe and Nimmo advances to 3rd.

In the 4th inning, veteran Alex Avila trotted out to replace Davis, an easy call for Maddon to make in a September game with 3 Catchers on his roster and the divisional standings to consider. As I write, there is very little chatter on the MLB blogs about Davis' future; he had only 5 At Bats in 2018, all in September as this card was being printed, and the entire business of Baseball doesn't much care for MLB debuts at 28 years old. His road to The Show started with being signed while playing in the independent Cape Cod League - you don't see players like that very often, any more.

His tiny footnote in Baseball history will also include a minor 'viral' video made in the minor leagues while with the Cubs AAA affiliate in Iowa, which is not that super exciting but probably didn't hurt the process of making the Topps RC checklist, either, when he had only 8 games and 13 AB (his 2017 totals) in MLB at the time final 2018 Update checklist cuts were made this year. Unless he once again gets The Call to Chicago as a 30 year old back-up Catcher with very little MLB experience, in the 2019 season, there is a very good chance this card will be a One-and-Done. At least for the S1+S2+Update Topps Set, as he was also on a 3-player Rookie Card in Heritage this year, and 21st Century 1&Done cards might need a fair bit of special rules to delineate.

And though all of that was basically interesting for me to figure out starting with just a baseball card of a player I have never heard of, and might also never hear of, ever again, none of that is why I am posting this card, as you already know from the title up there.

This post is because of this guy on the card:
Who I am quite sure is (in) famous Umpire Joe West, who has been an MLB Umpire for almost as long as I have loved baseball cards, and that's a pretty long time. He is 2nd All-Time in games "Umped", through 40 still Active seasons. I barely ever see MLB on the TV and I still know his face.

I wouldn't be totally surprised if Joe West has appeared on a baseball card before this one, though I mean that in the 'Cameo' sense, as here. He does have his own card in a couple oddball sets, and also in 2004 Bowman Heritage, the return of the TV Set, which included Umpires in the original 1955 edition. I don't own any of those cards, and have no plans to pick one up; you will have to click on over to see them somewhere on your own time. I like Umpires strictly as occasional cameos on my live action baseball cards, and have no wish to collect trading cards for them.

Finding any such cameos of any specific Ump would be a bit of random luck, and would be exceptionally unlikely in the 21st century and especially again in the 2010s, when Umpires have all but virtually disappeared from baseball cards.

Now a question is - Why?

It is speculated at times that Topps blurs out parts of the cards now, on purpose. Maybe they are afraid of making an individual fan completely recognizable, maybe they don't have a special side contract with the Managers, maybe they don't have a special side contract with the Umpires. Hold those theories, while we re-visit this Taylor Davis 2018 Topps Update #US229 RC
But I am not so sure those ideas are correct. I don't know what year the source photos that Topps uses switched from 20th century 'analog' to 21st century 'digital', but I think as time has passed both the photographer and also possibly the Topps baseball card constructor have a great deal of control over which parts of an image are in the most focus.

On this card, the Umpire's face is quite blurry, and he is not all that far from the well focused portion of the image, Taylor Davis's face inside his Catcher's mask. But Asdrubal Cabrera just beyond Home Plate is also fairly blurry, too. Did you know that was 12 year MLB veteran A. Cabrera in that picture, after his probably semi-regular semi-annual appearances in all your stacks of baseball cards? I didn't. I had to use the wonderful cheat sheet tools available on Baseball Reference to sort it out, using his Uniform #.

Topps can print images of Asdrubal Cabrera whenever and however it wants, on any card. The unfocused portion of this card does not totally seem deliberate to me, yet.

Nevertheless, that could still be true for Cowboy Joe's face there.

I have been leaning away from that theory, of Topps deliberately adding blurriness to get around extra contract hassles. There is also a chance that all those confusing blurs on cards these days is simply a side effect of how the source photo is made. Even if I had the free time to do it, I know I will never learn the intricacies of creating high quality photographs; I am strictly a pointer&shooter. My first digital camera, purchased well before my 'phone' included one, had a robust instruction manual that was a just about guaranteed sleep aid whenever I tried to absorb it.

So perhaps the original photographer (who turns out to be Jon Durr, with Getty Images) made his lenses spin just so, until he could see the whites of Taylor's eyes just exactly perfectly, and Click!

Or perhaps not.
In this closer-to-the-original digital image, Joe West is much easier to identify. Though I still doubt anyone not really, really well acquainted with 2017 New York Mets uniform #s and/or likely batting orders could have correctly ID'd Asdrubal Cabrera back there near the wall.

However -- Topps chose to crop this card down some, giving it their best shot to make it possible for us to recognize brand new Cubs back-up Catcher Taylor Davis, while also giving us a dramatic action Play @ The Plate baseball card.

Yet I am left with a continuing wonder if perhaps that cropping process inside Topps HQ, done to the digital image well after it was first recorded on an ultra high-end sports photographer's camera, might inevitably reduce the resolution on the other parts of the image that Topps doesn't really need, anyway. When after all what they do need is the visage of an MLB player for their own individual baseball card, not other players, fans, or an Umpire.

Here is another wrench in the zoom crops - reconsider the Rajai Davis card I posted yesterday -
-which is from a day game.
The Taylor Davis card, also from 2018 Update, is from a night game. I have noticed over the last couple years that the night cards arrive with a little more blur to everything beyond the player. Perhaps it is easier for the camera to keep good resolution of the objects farther and farther from the center of the focus point, in bright sunshine. On the other hand, Rajai's card is probably shot from much closer to Rajai than the distance to Taylor on that card. But in general, to me, the night cards have a little less resolution beyond the central player image. I think.

And I wonder how the printing process itself interacts with the possible sharpness around the edges of the card, as Jose Reyes's compression sleeve goes from a distinct Mets Orange in the original Getty Image, to a far less vivid kinda-reddish, sorta, color on the resulting baseball card.

However the digi-stuff is all working in practice, I still know Joe West is on my baseball card; and that is yet another reason for me to think there is no particular contractual proscription on that.

Although I still can't answer this basic Baseball Card Theory question definitively either way as Topps never seems to ask me to just come hang out at Topps HQ with my jaw agape while I ask trivial questions all day, I do hope to see more cards like this. The Umpire is a pretty key part of the game after all. And I also know there will be only one way for me to continue trying to answer it. I'll just have to keep collecting baseball cards.

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