Saturday, February 9, 2019

Sorry, Ump, this might hurt a little

So the other day I was happily ripping some 2017 Series Two. Why was I ripping packs of 1.5 year old baseball cards? Too much time away from home, sigh.

It was a very enjoyable rip; it is fairly rare that I feel like I have sufficient financial liquidity to splurge on an actual Hobby Box of baseball cards, but I did that summer. Then I probably promptly disappeared back into living and working in a county without any stoplights. I like those, although they don't usually have baseball cards. Maybe this year I will luck into being in and around such country but still be within striking distance of a Walgreens, we'll see...

I did set aside some fun cards to share with you. But I also found a card that ties in with a subject I have written about a few times on this blog, including just recently: what is going on with the Umpires on the baseball cards?

This is a fun card all the way around. I hear it saying "Everybody Watch Now" before a music bed kicks off where other people hear "Everybody Dance Now." I vaguely remembered it from 2017 Opening Day, but when Opening Day is appearing in my grocery bags, I am generally working all 8 days a week, till dark:30, usually.

I first considered Umpires on cards after receiving a great 1992 Topps card sadly demoted to packing material.

That post in turn helpfully lead to an even more revealing post on Night Owl's blog, a full decade ago. I definitely recommend checking out that one. 

Now you have probably noticed the feature I noticed on this nice Hanley Ramirez card. I have been looking forward to scanning it - Topps can't hide much from a high resolution digital scanner. First, I wanted to see the Catcher:

Though I thought a scanner could figure it out, that is either Russell Martin, or Josh Thole, I can't conclude a positive ID here. But I can confirm it is a regular human being baseball player.

Here is the Umpire standing next to him:

Have you always thought certain Umpires were so terrible as to be not quite human? Maybe here is your proof, complete with a poorly done paste of the original image now with a bonus not-matching halo, though that is difficult to discern, in-hand. Until you see it, and then you can't un-see it.

This card does definitively answer something I was trying to figure out on a 2018 Update card just recently - was the Umpire deliberately blurred when Topps created the card? Ironically, on the card in that post, I couldn't decide for sure - but I could still figure out which actual Umpire it was, even before I just asked Getty Images to spill the beans for me.

Doing that for this card quickly leads to this image:
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 2: Hanley Ramirez #13 of the Boston Red Sox watches his solo home run during the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park on October 2, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images)

I'm not going to get into cutting out a blow-up of the Umpire's face from the Gagnon photograph; I don't have a license to do anything at all with photographs and the Internet.

But clearly, finally, to me, Topps doesn't have one for displaying the Umpires on the cards, either.

And that is too bad, really. I am not sure how much the Umpire Union wants to extort from Topps in case one of their faces appears on a baseball card, but the whole question just seems so, so - pointless? Petty?

Now I know Topps and Michael Eisner and Rob Manfred and Tony Clark and the head of the Ump Union, whoever that is, routinely hang on my every word here, every day, so I hope they will take my simple suggestion to heart - how about if Topps makes a small donation every year to the Retired Umpire fund, or the Minor League Umpire Emergency Tragedy Fund?

And then we could have a few more epic baseball cards in every set, when the photographer just happened to also catch an Umpire's face - and without Topps having to go to this extra effort to make sure they don't accidentally let us identify one of the ever mysterious Umpires that are so critical for us to enjoy a baseball game now and again.

Because otherwise, I have to wonder how often Topps just passes on photos that require this extra compositional effort, or simply isolate a player's torso from an otherwise interesting action shot, rather than do this silly looking Umpire erasing trick?

I did find another amusing Umpire card in 2017 Series Two, that required no extra effort from Topps, which just luckily obscures the Ump's face.

It also includes what looks to be a mysterious lurker visitor from the Boston Red Sox, perhaps, in the Oakland A's dug-out, who is blowing a bubble. But you just might have to blow this one up on a scanner, yourself...

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The curious case of Nicholas Castellanos

So in my first purchase of 2019 Topps Baseball, I was rewarded with several cards of my favorite team, including a brand new edition of the leading hitter on the team in 2018. Nicholas Castellanos pretty much carried my team's offense, such as it was, hitting 23 Home Runs and generating a .298/.354/.500 slash line. No other Tiger had AB qualifying #s within even 30 points of those decimals - things are that bad in Detroit right now.

But wait, what is he doing on this card? Our best hitter must be good in the field, then, too?

Nope. Nicholas Castellanos finished dead last in the rankings for Defensive Wins Above Replacement, or dWAR, for 2019, with a -2.4 score. 

What felt a little odd to me about the card was thinking about the last Nicholas Castellanos card I had seen, just a few weeks ago when I sorted out what all was happening with Topps and the Tigers and 2018.
Which in turn reminded me of another 2018 card in those cheap sets I collect -
Huh. 2 Fielding cards in 2018 - maybe he was good in the field back in 2017. Nope. -1.9 dWAR that year.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought I had seen Nick on a Topps Baseball card with a glove in hand, before...
Maybe when he played in in the infield in 2016, he had a better rep with the leather? Nope. -0.9 dWAR for 2016 at the Hot Corner.

And still I was trying to remember a Castellanos baseball card with a baseball bat on it. Maybe in 2016 Topps Baseball?
Nope. A little better mark for 2015 though, with only a -0.7 dWAR.

When Castellanos was in the Tigers minor league system, the most common descriptor for him was that he "rakes." Now, we are not going to see a rake on a baseball card, though it would be an amusing way to spotlight slugging prospects, somehow. Surely his youngest cards have a bat on one?
Sweet! A Topps All-Rookie Cup selection! There is the Tigers exciting new Third Sacker, In Action in his Rookie year! He must have been great with the glove that year! 

Nope. -2.7 dWAR in his first full season in the majors - & only a .700 OPS - pickings must have been a little slim for Rookie 3B'ers in 2014.

Ahh well, I do recall how excited everyone was to see Nick come to the plate for the first time for the 2013 Tigers - maybe his Rookie Card would show us that:
Ahh, he was still blocked from playing his "natural" position of Third Base that year, by some guy named Miguel Cabrera. But a Rookie with a glove on his Rookie Card, he must have started out well out there in the Outfield? 

Nope. -0.1 dWAR in the field during his "cup of coffee" appearance in September, 2013, in all of 9 games. dWAR is a bit of a counting stat, so it would be hard to move a needle on it in only 9 games. But still, the needle slipped into the negative.

Now, to be fair, I did finally find a Nicholas Castellanos card with a baseball bat on it, though it took until 2018:
I don't know what possessed Topps to relent on all those fielding cards by creating a unique Chrome card here, rather than just repeating the S1/S2 card as would normally happen. It is a nice card though, featuring a Spring Training uniform, like a lot of 2018 cards do.

And Topps has otherwise treated Castellanos very well lately, with several photo variation cards over the years, including a brand new one in 2019 Topps. And they also possibly gave him an extremely large compliment by making him card #3 in the Living Set, making him somewhat immortal, really, on baseball cards. But then they did have to pick 2 cards to issue with Aaron Judge while also illustrating to everyone that the Living Set would include everyday players, too, so one could consider that a bit of a back-handed compliment, perhaps. That card sure bums me out, because I would like to own one, and even though some 3,639 copies exist, it still sells for > $100, regularly, and probably will, for quite a while to come. So that will probably never happen, for me.

Ahh well. At least I can't pull any more cards showing Victor Martinez trying to run the bases. 

And maybe this explains something for the Tigers, who desperately need more, more, more prospects for hope for the future, much more than they need the final year of Nicholas Castellanos' contract with them. The whole situation is getting pretty ugly - Castellanos is now basically asking to be traded ASAP, but the Tigers are in a tough spot on this. After all, there are only 14 other spots for a Designated Hitter in the American League. So maybe, the Tigers just aren't getting any phone calls on this - because all the other GMs collect baseball cards, too, and they just can't forget that glove, either.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

A Tale of 2 Card Backs

It was the best of times - the team had arguably the best outfield in the National League.

It was the worst of times - the team had lost it's young, cost-controlled #1 Ace in a tragic accident, spiraling it into a season of despair.

It was the age of wisdom - a reviled owner agreed to sell the team to a group fronted by a future 1st ballot Hall of Famer.

It was the age of foolishness - the decision was made by the Hall of Famer to trade away every piece of that incredible outfield.

It was the epoch of belief - Milwaukee felt it had some players on its way to a spring of hope.

It was the epoch of incredulity - Miami fans had no belief left.

Milwaukee would move on to a season of Light while Miami would remain in the Darkness.

The baseball fans could do little but wonder over the superlative degree of comparison, which arrived soon enough, with their brand new baseball cards.

They were soon cooing over the numbers found on this card:

Rarely had a more impressive set of league leading red stats ever begraced the back of a baseball card in such pleasing OCD simplicity, which helped greatly after the OCD triggered when an explanation that the Italics equated to a League Leader was left off the card, though most baseball card readers were more than well-trained in the nuances of the genre to understand.

Few had even bothered to turn over a card found just a few cards before, in their nascent stacks of the brand new baseball cards. Despite the front of the card's evocation of another player famous for wearing only one orange sleeve in the famous city of Miami.

The cards had one eery similarity - identical "vitals" of 6'3", 195#. A striking coincidence, perhaps, two players of identical size - two players, destined to be linked throughout eternity itself, as if one's success had depended on the sacrifice of the other.

One small fact that could, perhaps, become the core of a brand new explanation of the future of the player with the one orange sleeve? Something that could help, somehow, adorn the back of a card with stats like these:

"Nah boss, I'm still stuck on trying to figure out something for that Brinson card. I got bupkis here; it's just, like, totally impossible! How about we just go back to printing full stats and call it good?"

Friday, February 1, 2019

The new Phonebook's here! The new Phonebook's here!

Adams, Chance.

Welcome to 2019 Topps Baseball.

I don't think I have ever pulled a First Card so well predicted on the wrapper, that's for sure. Maybe I shouldn't have picked a Yankees Card of the Year last year.

I like the card, and I already need another copy of it. And then another copy after that. I make a side collection of the RC logo cards as a bit of a living set of all the players that debut in MLB. Yes, I know sometimes players slip through the inevitable Topps cracks in that idea. But then there used to be people that didn't get listed in the phone book, either.

I also like to collect The Pitcher Is Smiling At Me cards, though I don't think I have even found 9 of those to show you fine folks yet. Chance Adams gets me +1 I guess.

The cards man, the cards, what about the cards? An initial impression: they feel a little thicker this year. Someone would have to weigh an identical # of them across a few years to figure it out definitively.

The card man, the card, what about this card? It strikes me that with the constant pining for the old days & ways in this hobby, I think I might have an example of such right here in my 2019 First Card. It's blurry. I don't think that is just the edges of Adams, Chance's body parts straying into the graphical special effects along the edges, either.

Now it could be that Topps, or the original photographer, has purposely dialed back the digital crispness of the images. That is fine with me. All those 'Photo Day' cards Topps issues in other sets are often a bit frighteningly over-lit and digitally cold and sterile. These cards in 2019 Series One aren't like that, they have some basic warmth. If a little blur here and there is the price paid, I'm good with that.

What else is going on here? I'm sure the words "Hockey Sticks" and "1982" are circulating around collectors' minds right now. Reverse Hockey Stick? No, that doesn't fit. Hold that thought for now. Goalie Stick?

It is nice that Adams, Chance is printed on the card - with ink. (Or the absence of ink, I guess). The only use of foil present is in the Topps logo.

Oh dear, we are getting far from a picture on the tl;dr blog. Let's flip the card over.
As usual for more than a decade now, the design elements on the back repeat the ones from the front. This is a pretty explicit example of such. The use of a pale/pastel color makes for a nice bed for some text.

And the text is basically a complete paragraph this year - quite expansive compared to past efforts. I know that since this particular card is an Official MLB Rookie Card© card, the one year stat line format is pre-ordained. I would just say that it would be nice if Topps would use up all the empty space by increasing the point size of the text a little. I would think that in the 21st Century, high-end image composition software could even do that automatically on cards like this one.

This card back did cheer me up with it's opening line: "The Yankees are grateful that they took a Chance with their fifth-round....." Yes, the Topps card back writer is still unable to resist the low-hanging fruit of a cheap pun construction like that one. It should be a decent season for reading the backs of the cards, as long as your squinting skills have a good Spring Training I guess.

Now let's try another card.
This card does partially answer a mystery from the first card - why so much white space? Because every last name is different, duh-huhhh. Now I get it.

Except, couldn't the image interact with the design frame on an individual card basis? Would that be too much to ask? I guess on a set of 22¢ baseball cards, the answer is yes.

This card also reveals more of what all those little square things Topps likes so much will be up to this year. They are kept out of the left side of the card by the team color wall, and the bottom of the card by the name wall, but they battle with the image on the left side. Last year, they mercifully kind of disintegrated off the color name stripes just a wee little bit. This year, they are more like that weird 'smoke' in 2016 that didn't really catch fire with many collectors in that design.

The fade to that design element on the left side, combined with the fade effect of the white name plate area, seem to me to be tricking my brain into projecting blurriness into the image. Perhaps that creates that warmth I like, dunno. We are getting into baseball card design thesis program stuff now.

But since we are this deep into collecting Topps Baseball cards for this many years of our lives, let's consider a nice part of baseball cards, and these cards in particular. Team Color!

Solid, this year. And there are even 2 of them! Well, maybe if you squint some.

Let's zoom in. Here are Adams, Chance's colors:

(If you are thinking - Yankees, Red, where does that come from, you should be better prepared for this class - you can click away for an instant refresher if needed.)

Now here are the team colors on the Laureano, Ramon card:

Advantage: Athletics. The A's get a nice Gold stripe on their Team Color wall; everyone knows they are the Green & Gold team. The Yankees get a much thinner Red stripe, losing half of the space the A's get for their Gold stripe to an extra layer of White, or Grey.

And you thought the designer picked out square tiles for all that space above the rim of the bath tub for the bathroom remodel? Nope. Individually inlaid, randomly patterned, perfectly round little tiles. No cheapskating on Topps Baseball cards.

I am starting to get a Sea Turtle flashback here - I recently realized the workings of a certain design feature on those cards somewhat similar to this one, though I won't be illustrating it on my new 2013 set blog for another 28 cards or so. The perfect illustration in that set is a White Sox card, and luckily enough, here comes one now:

Team Color #1: Black. Team Color #2: Grey. The Chicago White Sox. Check. But another card like the A's card, where Team Color #2 doesn't give away half of itself to White.

There is a little bit more going on with this and I think it relates to printing registration perhaps. It's a bit of a deep dive into baseball card construction, so for now I will just note that the A's and the White Sox are off to a better start in the set than the Yankees, with better Team Color #2 strengthening their cards. The reveal of more on this technique on the Sea Turtle cards will come on the Chris Sale card a month or more from now.

As for this Kopech, Michael card, my 3rd sequential RC in my first pack, I already have a love/hate relationship with it. This card is shot in Detroit, as are a lot of Topps cards these days. I know this because of several things in the photo, like the small portion of the back wall, and a quite blurry yellow line at the top of the outfield wall. I don't quite understand why they are so blurry though. In weeks to come I will show you some more Made in Detroit cards for comparison. Kopech, Michael's legs seem almost as blurry as Adams, Chance's are.

The more definitive visual cue to the stadium location is the word "bit" on it, which is part of an ad for a candy product backed by one Miguel Cabrera - "bitbits" - which sadly hasn't penetrated all the way to the farthest corners of Michigan, where I hang out, so I have yet to try any. I do hope a more clear picture of this ad appears on a Topps Baseball card sometime soon.

So Kopech, Michael's RC card turns out to be from his 2nd Major League game, which was quite triumphant - for him. 6 Innings, only 1 Run - but 7 Hits, to the credit of my team. The next time the Tigers faced him was in Chicago, and they absolutely shelled him for 7 Runs in just 3 Innings Pitched. Taken apart by the 2018 Detroit Tigers. Hope is still alive for my team, I guess - they were able to 'write the book' on an opponent, rather than the other way around. The jury is still out on Kopech, Michael, so far.

This next card is also quite illustrative of this set, and I am only four cards in:
A nice, 100% complete baseball player, with no body parts disappearing into the White Hole that appears will be a part of each and every card. Instead of nice soothing white borders, we get a randomly shaped piece of them, inside the card, in a set that is neither full-bleed nor full-border. This card makes me ask - couldn't Bettis, Chad's foot have been placed right on the purple team color wall and allow the photograph to use up all that white space? That would require individualized baseball card construction though.

And I doubt many, even long-time baseball card collectors, could project a Team Color #2 for the Colorado Rockies, after Purple. I would have guessed Black. But then Purple and Black might make a better football card somehow. So Topps selected Grey, and the two Team Colors get the job done.

Sometimes, perhaps, they get the job done too well. Look out Springer, George!
I guess he didn't get the memo that there would a Team Colors pole standing in front of Home Plate in that game.

My first 2019 horizontal card - pretty epic. Show me a collector who says they don't like a Play @ The Plate card and I will show you a liar. Lately I have been thinking Topps is just getting their reps in now, preparing for a key card in 2020 Heritage - I hope there is a dynamic Rookie Catcher in MLB this year.

So we are going to have "frame break" cards, another thing few if any collectors would disagree with. These seemingly require an individual construction effort for a given card. So why couldn't the design elements sometimes just overlay the imagery, if the imagery can sometimes overlay the design elements? Then the White Hole on every card could be banished, and put to better use.

After a string of 3 cards with thick secondary Team Color lines, I see the Astros will have a skinny Blue one for theirs - approaching superfluousity, which my PC's auto-dictionary doesn't even think is a word.

It does appear another long-time Topps tradition will continue in these packs -
Plenty of horizontal cards, appearing together fresh off the die-cutting machine. I really do look forward to seeing some uncut sheets from the 2010s some day.

Greinke, Zack does seem pleased with his card, and so am I - another +1 on my The Pitcher Is Smiling At Me collection; whole years go by without adding to it and now I have 2 new entries from the same pack.

It has only been recently that I have started noticing the Blue uniform #s they wear in Arizona; maybe that says something about things that are missed when you live in the desert.

I do like whenever Team Color #1 is Black, though that is almost always only done for the Pirates. A new member of the club is fine with me, and the Diamondbacks don't quite seem to be sent to skinny Team Color purgatory, either.

Another regular member of the Black Team Color club is the Orioles, for whom it is usually the secondary color. Will it be this year?
Ummm, maybe. There is a black line there, I guess.

At first I thought I had sort of pulled my first 2019 Detroit Tigers card, but, alas, the Tigers actually signed a different, negative-WAR infielder named Beckham, though I would be mighty surprised to see him appear in Update this coming fall. At least the Tigers get to play the Orioles 6 times this year, and vice-versa. That will help both clubs.

Now with all this Team Color action and at least a Half Border design this year, we should be primed for some pretty nice parallel versions of these cards to appear. Here is my first pull of such:
Yes, that is technically a parallel. The "150 Years" parallel - just the stamp, done in gold foil rather than silver, along with the Topps logo also being in gold. A totally useless exploitation of the collector impulse by Topps. Obsessive Player and some Team Set collectors will want to track down these "parallels" just, because. I am so glad I am able to focus my collecting on to cards that I enjoy looking at later on down the road, rather than just mindlessly attempting to collect every tiny variation of basically the same thing just, because, Topps made it, so I have to collect it.

Now one major bit of news coming from the large-scale "breakers" of Topps sets this week is that inserts will be much more scarce this year. For me, this is good news. I occasionally like to complete an insert set, but probably nowhere close to a majority of them. Inserts are good for Player and Team collectors, supplying more unique cards for them to enjoy. If they are to be printed in smaller quantities now, that will make them easier to trade in for something else, via COMC in particular. So I was quite looking forward to my first 2019 insert -
I do like the authenticity here as Jose Altuve is wearing a Spring Training patch on his right arm, and probably that is a Spring Training only uniform for Houston. That particular insert, however, is a "retail only" insert appearing in every other pack in a blaster, and I will wager one per hanger pack, and probably one in every other 'rack' pack too. There will be piles of these building up everywhere, I imagine.

I have a few better ones to show you in another post; today I am just wandering through that quintessential baseball card experience, the First Pack:
This is a card I was quite looking forward to. I lost track of how many Hoskins, Rhys Rookie Card cards I pulled in 2018. And since I am always far from and ignorant of much of the goings on in the NL East, all those RCs here, RCs there, everywhere an RC left me with one question - would his sophomore campaign deliver on all the hype? Yeah, I could look it up instantly whenever I wish these days. But often I would rather just wait and turn over a baseball card, like this one.

And this card has a wonderful new design feature - a blue Liberty Bell. Unfortunately, the Phillies are also stuck with a skinny Team Color #2 to go along with it.

As are the Indians -
Where Clevinger, Mike illustrates once again why the White Hole is there on all the other cards, though not on this well constructed card. This card makes me laugh though - is he about to do the Funky Chicken, or is he about to Balk, Balk, Balk? If a baseball card can't make you chuckle once in a while, you need a new Hobby.

Another classic team for combining Team Colors and baseball cards is the New York Mets. How will they fare in this erratic set?
Sigh. Even a card with a classical "Hero Number" - #200 for the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner - can't convince Topps to put a little more blue ink into their nifty new baseball card frame. Overall though, a mighty fine baseball card and a good example of my suspicion that I will have a fine season of collecting baseball cards ahead.

But wait - there's more! These packs have 14 cards this year. I would have had to drive some 30 or 50 miles to reach a store that would sell me a classic single "pack" of Topps Baseball, something not really an option in the midst of the Polar Vortex. So to get as close as possible to that beloved First Pack memory, I picked up a blaster of 2019 Series One, which has a new packaging format - 7 packs of 14 cards. A change I am fine with, as I have never understood why we need all those extra wrappers inside a blaster anyway.

One of the nicer stories in 2018 Major League Baseball was the experiences of Piscotty, Stephen:
So I was just a little disappointed that Topps didn't include some easy feel-good back-story on the back of this card. Oh well. Another card I was looking forward to this year, with what proved to be some wonderful light on it. It will look good amidst 8 of it's buddies on a binder page, some day.... as will this card:
An early contender for the Psychedelic card of the year? One never knows when a Psychedelic cartoon car might start driving straight off a baseball card and straight into your consciousness. Blackburn, Paul is another keeper.

And to launch 2019, I have an Oakland A's Hot Pack. Now if only my local casino would finish up the inevitable opening of a Sports Book. Should be a good year, out West.

Overall, I basically always enjoy 21st Century Topps Baseball cards. The 2010s are drawing to a close nicely here. I was totally unable to resist opening all 7 packs in my blaster, despite a grim initial plan of knowing I probably can't be buying many new cards for several weeks, and a hope I could somehow just open just one of the packs, once in a while, through that period. Fat chance! In the other packs I did pull some fun cards to share with you in a future post.

And I also look forward to discovering some new nicknames for this set of baseball cards. Because I can get that excited about nothing. And no one knows what a Phone Book is any more, anyway.