Saturday, November 27, 2010

Quirky players and quirky sets in countdown of Topps top 60 cards

Moving into the top 20 of the Topps greatest 60 cards of all time, we're encountering some of the game's great characters -- and the company's greatest sets.

No. 20, 1974 George Theodore

Can you imagine if George Theodore had been a Yankee? They’d have sucked the color from him like a vampire. But as a member of the Mets, he’s a legend despite just two part-time seasons where he demonstrated no significant prowess. But he was wonderfully quirky, with his gangly physique that earned him the nickname “The Stork,” and spouting quotes like, “I've been trying transcendental meditation, and that helps me be passive and wait on the curve. I've got to find something else to hit the slider." He’s likely the only Met with Basil for a middle name, and to come from Utah, where he is enshrined in the state’s Sports Hall of Fame. And he’s just as famous for his horrific outfield collision with Don Hahn in 1973, just another odd aspect of that incredible season. And one of the best things about the spectacular 1974 set is that in includes a card of Theodore, with legendary cartoon on the back proclaiming that George like marshmallow milkshakes.

No. 19, 1971 Bud Harrelson

Speaking of quirky, the 1971 shot is one of Topps’ best – and most unusual. The company started to use more action photos, but it seemed like a bunch of them were taken from the stands. Buddy Harrelson’s horizontal beauty is a classic example. There are four players in the photo and one umpire. We’re assuming that Buddy is the one placing the tag on the apparent Astro since he’s a shortstop. The second baseman, whom I believe to be Ken Boswell, is running to back up the throw, and it looks like Nolan Ryan is quietly pumping his fist in celebration. These days, Topps would likely crop in tight on Buddy and the Astro and PhotoShop out Boswell and it just wouldn’t be as fun.

No. 18, a tie between 1974 Bud Harrelson and 1974 Tug McGraw

Yeah, I’m cheating a little here. But these cards go together like Jose Reyes and triples, Endy Chavez and amazing catches and Oliver Perez and stink.

Both are great portraits, and not the kind usually associated with baseball cards. Topps sets for most of the 1960s were littered with Big Head, No Hat shots, and most looked like mug shots.

Buddy’s capless, but it seems intended to show off his ‘do. And Tug’s wearing his cap, but it looks like he’s having a nice conversation with fans. Had this been in the 1971 set, we’d have seen the fans he was talking to, plus a dozen more in the section, two vendors and half of Flushing Meadows Park.

Buddy gets points for coming back to the Mets as coach, then a brief tenure at the helm before being the face of Long Island minor league baseball with the Ducks.

No. 17, 2008 Johan Santana

This Santana shot is more typical of the modern Topps action shot. A little better, actually because it’s incredibly crisp, and the colors all just work together beautifully. Johan has an unusual motion, on display here, and this must be what a batter sees. And look how clearly Santana signs his name! He’s an ace is all aspects of the game.

No. 16 2009 Heritage Carlos Delgado

I was torn between two Delgado cards. The 2008 Heritage set uses the 1959 set, and it’s pretty perfect, with the headshot in the circle showing Carlos with a nice smile. But the 2009 card is equally perfect, using the 1960 card as the template. This time we get a menacing Carlos posing in his stance. That must have been the look Yankee pitchers got on July 27, 2008 when he hit a grand slam and recorded a team record 9 rbis, part of a glorious 15-6 rout at that ugly ballpark in the Bronx. Many Yankee fans wept that day. The card shows him wearing the Shea Stadium patch from that year, and that blue cap just looks beautiful.

No. 15, 1993 Todd Hundley

Remember when Hundley was our best player? He broke the record for most home runs in a season by a catcher, and the Mets’ season record, too. Javy Lopez broke the catchers record and Carlos Beltran tied the Mets mark. Some people note the Todd was mentioned in the Mitchell Report. But Mets don’t do steroids. Hundley was pushed aside when Mike Piazza came, and there is certainly no shame in that. His attempt to move to leftfield was laudable, though not successful. I like this card for a couple reasons. First, there is the trophy for being named to the Topps All-Star Rookie team. Then, this is a great action shot. It looks like Todd chased an errant throw back behind the plate and is getting ready to rocket the ball back. But I do notice that he’s wearing a batting practice jersey, so it could be a spring game, or he’s faking an action shot. But Mets don’t fake action shots.

No. 14, 1989 Darryl Strawberry

Speaking of fallen heroes, I was torn between two Darryl cards. His 1985 card is fantastic, as crisp as a Topps base set photograph can get. It shows Straw after a mighty swing, looking to survey the damage before breaking into his run. All the elements work – the uniform, the card design, and the background. I went with the 1989 card instead, which also has a great design, with his beautiful home uniform working with the card colors. This photo isn’t quite as crisp, but shows Straw early in his swing with the leg up high and hands back and low, eyes intently focused on the incoming pitch before he launches.

No. 13, 2001 Heritage Edgardo Alfonzo

Topps has done a nice job with its Heritage cards, and this one calls back to the 1952 set. Fonzie seems like the guy the Mets seemed to take for granted. He was an undrafted free agent, and worked his way up through the system and was moved around the infield in his first year. He was outstanding at third, moved to second when the team landed Robin Ventura and then headed back when Roberto Alomar came around. His run in the 1999 playoffs was epic. His leadoff home run was all Al Leiter needed in the tie-breaker against the Reds, and he lead off the first game against the Diamondbacks with a home run off Randy Johnson and smacked a grand slam in the ninth to break a tie.

No. 12, 1992 Stadium Club Howard Johnson

HoJo’s apparently lost his job as Mets hitting coach, but tutoring batters isn’t going to be his claim to fame anyway. My favorite HoJo story involves his comeback attempt during the 1997 spring training. It became apparent that the magic was gone, but Bobby Valentine kept him around all spring and giving him at bats. Why? Each time he was greeted with a standing ovation. HoJo played with the Rockies and Cubs after departing from the Mets in 1994, and the spring turned out to be a curtain call for the fans to say thanks for the late 1980s and early 1990s. This Stadium Club card is a great portrait.

No. 11, 1964 Casey Stengel

Topps used a nearly exact photo for the 1965 set, both cards are wonderful. “The Ole Professor” is holding court on the dugout steps, and I imagine it’s the Polo Grounds since the steps don’t look brand new. Holding court was what Casey did best in those years, since we know he was fond of napping during games and turning things over to the coaches.

Next we’ll move into the top 10, which is difficult since I have about 15 cards I wanted to cram in there.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving is a time to pause to give thanks -- and confront turkeys

I hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving!

I’m blessed. I know it. I appreciate it. And every year I remember to pause on this day – and on most others, to be sure – to take a moment and reflect on all the good things going on amidst the challenges we all face.

Some of those challenges are identified here as turkeys, and maybe this constructive criticism will lead them back onto the proper path.

Certainly I can never express enough thanks for my family, who stick by me and encourage me – and guide me back on the proper path when I go astray. Some of us are separated by a considerable numbers miles, but we’re only a phone call or e-mail – or Words With Friends app turn – away.

I’m thankful for my job. I don’t take this for granted anymore. I’ve been able to survive several rounds of cuts and can continue to do the job I’ve dreamed of doing since I was a kid, a job that I think allows me to meet new people and experience wonderful things and some not-so-wonderful things and, on a day when everything goes right, to make a difference to some people in some places.

Turkeys: Big league managers and coaches, who, for reasons unexplained, voted to give Derek F. Jeter a Gold Glove as the American League’s best shortstop. I’ve made my peace with Jeter after the epic booing I bestowed upon him at U.S. Cellular Field. So the beef here is with the voters who clearly must have forgotten that the role of the shortstop is to actually get to the ball, catch it and throw it to first base, not watch as it skips all the way to the left fielder while basking in the glow of undeserved praise.

I’m thankful for my buddy Will, who this year realized that we’ve known each other 20 years. He’s been by my side through thick and thin, and knows when to have my back and to get on my case. Our baseball adventures account for many of the tales on this blog, all of them true and most of which we could never have imagined. Thanks, man!

Turkey! I spent a wonderful Thanksgiving with my in-laws. But Francisco Rodriguez probably did not. Punching the father of your children’s mother – technically not an in-law, I know – after a bad game is not a good thing to do unless you are actually trying to bring shame to your team and send the Yankee hacks into a frenzy.

I’m thankful for my awesome coed softball team! After several years of come close, and hoisting some nice consolation round trophies, we finally took a league championship! I confess there were moments of doubt, as we only won a game or two during the regular season. But everything came together for the playoffs, as we started hitting and fielding like champs. As the coach, I was a wreck during the final game, where we dispatched our rivals with a tidy 7-1 victory!

Turkey! Ian O’Connor of ESPN New York is a Jeter-loving Yankee hack of the highest order, even penning a glowing book about Mr. Intangibles while supposedly objectively covering him. He also wrote a crazy column allowing Reggie Jackson to spout off about how if Andy Pettitte beat Cliff Lee in an ALCS game, he’d punch his ticket for Cooperstown (despite his 3.80 ERA and steroid confession.) But the column that earned O’Conner his turkey designation came in April when he asked Johan Santana if he regretted signing with the Mets. When O’Connor didn’t get the answer he wanted, he wrote what he claimed Santana really thought and would have said had he been injected with truth serum.

I’m thankful for R.A. Dickey and Mike Pelfrey (Start and end of season). I sheepishly reveal that I was not excited when Omar announced that he signed the 30-plus knuckleballer. But he sure became the Mets’ feel-good story of the year as he went on to finish 11-9 and a 2.84 ERA. And he would have enjoyed Mets immortality with our first and only no-hitter had bleeping Cole Hamels not got that little chip shot to fall in. Pelfrey was so fun to watch early on, absolutely dominating in so many starts. We all thought he’d get 20 wins for sure.

Turkey: Mike Pelfrey, middle of the season. Whatever Big Pelf figured out in the beginning of the season, he somehow forgot it by the All-Star break. He did seem to get things back together by the end of the year, finishing with a still-impressive 15-9 record.

I’m thankful for my awesome students at both Cornerstone University and Kuyper College. Each year I teach, I think that I’ll never get such cool kids again. Yet each year I find there are more wonderful students eager to learn about being a reporter. Watching them improve through the semester is almost as fun as a big front page story that gets everyone riled up. And sometimes we go on field trips.

Turkey: Puerto Rico. I went to Puerto Rico in 2005. We walked around Old San Juan, toured the historic fort, and found some really special handmade Christmas ornaments that remind me of our time there. If only the Mets had visited the fort instead of playing the Marlins when they visited San Juan in late June. Riding high when they arrived, the team proceeded to fall apart, losing the opener 10-3, and then giving away the second game after a late rally. The team won the final game, but Jose Reyes got hurt, everyone else got the flu, Frenchy apparently spent way to long in the casinos, and some of the families got into a fight in the stands. The promising season spiraled out of control, and everyone seems to think the visit to Estadio Hiram Bithorn was the turning point.

I hope this holiday finds you happy and healthy and in appreciation of the blessings the Lord has given us. Even in the toughest of years on and off the field, may we never forget what is special about our lives, and the people we get to share them with.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Counting down the Topps All-Time Top 60 with numerical issues

After some detours and debates, we’re back to counting down the top 60 Topps baseball cards of all time, and it again looks like the company has smiled upon the Mets with cardboard quality.

No. 30 1994 Stadium Club Ryan Thompson
Thompson looked the part. The centerfield prospect was a big part of the 1992 mid-season deal that sent David Cone to the Blue Jays. The Mets also got a red ass second baseman named Jeff Kent who did not then appear to be the potential Hall of Famer he would be come. Thompson got the slugger’s number of 44 and was intended to be the new Darryl. Alas, it was not to be. Thompson’s best year was 1994, when he hit 18 homers but hit just .225. The Mets gave up on him in 1996, sending him with Reid Cornelius to the Indians for Mark Clark. Thompson bounced between the minors and majors for several years after that, even getting a ring with the vile Yankees in 2000. His 1994 Stadium Club card showed he sure knew how to pose.

No. 29, 1987 David Cone
Speaking of Cone, his 1987 card in the traded set is a classic. And when anyone complains about the Nolan Ryan trade, the balance came in spring 1987 when he came with Chris Jelic to the Royals for Rick Anderson, Goose Gozzo and Ed Hearn. The following year Cone set the league on fire, going an incredible 20-3 with a 2.22 ERA. He was hosed in the Cy Young voting. It’s one thing to fall behind Orel Hersheiser in his magical year. But Cone finished in third behind Danny Jackson, who had three more wins but five more losses and an ERA a half-run higher. The card shows his compact delivery, one of several Cone could throw at batters to keep them off balance – which helped him strike out 19 batters in one game. Cone attended University of Missouri for a bit, and even planned to attend the School of Journalism. Had he stayed in school, we would have been classmates.

No. 28, 1974 Rusty Staub
Rusty came to the Mets in 1972, but didn’t appear in the 1972 and 1973 Topps sets. But his Mets debut – like much of the 1974 set -- is a classic. Clearly the umpire has just made the egregious mistake of calling a strike, and Rusty is implying that perhaps the man in blue is mistaken. Based on the folks in the stands in the background, I’m guessing the photo was taken on Helmet Day.

No. 27, 1981 Lee Mazzilli
I confess that I did not know that Mazzilli, one of the only stars the Mets had in the late 1970s and early 80s, held or shared seven speed skating championships. That explains the skin-tight uniform. Nor did I know that he set a league record – possibly the professional record – for stealing seven bases in a game while playing for Visalia in the California League. I remember how unhappy the Brooklyn native was about being traded to the Rangers, but the deal brought Ron Darling and eventually Howard Johnson. How nice was it to see Lee return for the end of the 1986 season and hit .400 in the World Series?

No. 26, 1969 Cleon Jones
Cleon looks great in this card, and in 1969 he certainly was. His .340 average stood as the team record for nearly 30 years, with John Olerud besting it in .354. His abrupt removal from the game a July 30 double header – and the still debated reason why – is believed by some to be a turning point in the season. And it was Jones’ shoe that was hit – or not, depending on how deviously brilliant Gil Hodges was – that let to his controversial walk followed by Donn Clendenon’s home run to get the Mets back in the fifth and deciding game of the World Series.

No. 25, 1985 Davey Johnson
Topps can have several rather dull years in a row, and then somehow manage to have everything come together. The 1985 set was one of those years, with a great design. Even the manager’s card looks great!

No. 24, 1993 Stadium Club John Franco
John Franco is certainly an all-time Met, but if the team ever decides to retire his number it is going to have some issues. Franco was already a star when he arrived from the Reds in 1990 wearing No. 31. But he gave it up when Mike Piazza arrived in May 1998, which he didn’t have to do considering he was practically Mr. Met. He assumed no. 45 to honor Tug McGraw – a number Pedro Martinez claimed the year Franco departed. Now, why does this otherwise magnificent portrait of Franco show him standing in front of a jersey with No. 17? Depending on when this was snapped, the jersey belonged to either David Cone or Jeff McKnight.

No. 23, 1978 Felix Millan
Maybe Franco had the jersey there to honor Felix Millan, the steady second baseman through much of the 1970s. Millan didn’t hit for power, but specialized in choking up on the bat and slapping the ball in play. Dude simply did not strike out. The 1976 card also is great, and shows how he gripped the bat. But I favor this wonderful action fielding pose.

No. 22, 1990 Keith Hernandez
The 1990 set is usually considered to be the company’s nadir. The design is dreadful, and the cardstock was crappy and many of the photos were blurry messes. But sometimes a really good photo can make it through all the other issues. Keith has some nice cards, especially the 1983. But I like this shot of him in the on-deck circle. And if the Mets ever do get No. 17 on the wall alongside Casey, Gil, Tom and Jackie, this will be the player they’ll be honoring.

No. 21, 2005 Heritage Mike Piazza
But I think there is little doubt that the next number on the wall will be No. 31 for Mike Piazza, most likely when he’s elected into the Hall of Fame in a couple years. The 1956 Topps set is in the discussion as the company’s best ever, and the Mets weren’t around then. So the Heritage issue is the next best thing.

Next we'll venture into the top 20!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Terry teaches? Collins can look at previous Mets managers on cardboard to see how he might fare

Now that it appears Terry Collins will be the new Mets manager, we can pause the countdown -- again -- to see how our skippers have fared over the years in Topps sets.

It's a mixed bag, to be sure. Some nice shots, some epic shots and a bunch of pretty dull head shots.

Topps hasn't been consistent over the years, demoting managers to a small headshot in the corner of team photos for a stretch in the 1970s and early 1980s and bouncing them out of the set completely in 1982, 1994 through 2001 and again in 2010.

Hopefully they'll be back in 2011. And note to Topps, we;d rather see Collins in the second series instead of airbrushed in the first.

Here's our review, from Jerry to Casey.

Jerry Manuel, 2008-2010
Jerry liked to bunt and ran a loose clubhouse. He did have the team in fist place in late 2008 for a short time in 2010. You can't blame him for the injury glut of 2009. But he sure seemed to be going through the motions near the end. Too bad he only got one Mets manager card, because he deserved better.


Willie Randolph, 2005-2008
Willie got alot of abuse for his bullpen management and perhaps carrying on like he had a Louisville Slugger up his butt most of the time. And 2007 really sucked. But 2006 sure was fun. His heritage card with Maine recalls the earlier card of Casey Stengel and Ed Kranepool. And he got a second 2008 card because of a special team set.


2008 Team Set

2008 Heritage


2007 Allen & Ginter


2005 Traded

Art Howe, 2003-2004
It's not his fault that Fred dropped the "Light up the room," line, and Howe did take other teams to the playoffs. He did get a nice card in the Heritage set.




2003 Heritage

2003 T-206

Bobby Valentine, 1996-2002

Bobby V is easily the most animated, exciting manager the Mets have ever had. That's why Topps chose to show him in lifeless head shots on both of his cards. Bobby deserved better, but at least the company included managers again.



Dallas Green, 1993-1996

The 1993 Traded card has one of the best Mets managers of all times, and Dallas Green, too. Green shares the card with Davey Johnson in his Reds uniform. It's also his only Mets card. Topps didn't have manager cards in 1994 through 2000. The sets were shrinking and the company was pandering to the investment types who would rather have a rookie -- any rookie -- and another star card in their packs instead of a manager. Boo.

1993 Traded

Jeff Torborg, 1992-1993

I got to see Torborg in his waning days as Mets manager when I was able to interview Mickey Weston in the visitors clubhouse in Riverfront Stadium in early 1993. Topps didn't do Torborg any favors, hading him a nasty airbrushed card in 1992, and a shared card in 1993.



Bud Harrelson, 1990-1991

One of the most beloved of Mets, Harrelson will be better remembered as shortstop and not a manager. But you have to love his smile on the 1991 card.


1990 Traded

Davey Johnson, 1984-1990

The greatest Mets manager? He'd get my vote. But Davey's cards a pretty dull. He gets a lot of head and shoulder shots. But the 1985 issue with Davey leaning on the batting cage is the best portrait in the bunch.







1984 Traded

Frank Howard, 1983

Hondo managed 106 games in 1983, but earned a card in both the 1983 Traded set and the 1984 issue. He's got one of the better Mets manger cards-- an action photo.


1983 Traded

George Bambeger, 1982-1983

Bambi came out of retirement pretty much as a favor to Frank Cashen and bailed in the middle of his second season. Too bad he only got one card, since Topps booted managers altogether from the 1982 set.


Joe Torre, 1977-1981

Torre was the Mets first -- and probably last -- player-manager. And he got hosed when it comes to cards. Just one card to himself, and it had a pretty neat concept of showing manager in is playing days, too. The rest are the unfortunate tiny headshots on the team card.





Joe Frazier, 1976-1977

Frazier's the only non-interim Mets manager to never get a card of his own, stuck on two team cards. His 86 wins in 1976 is actually one of the team's better victory totals.



Yogi Berra, 1972-1975

Yogi has some of the coolest manager cards, showing the entire coaching staff in 1973 and 1974. But he's got the first of the bad team card headshots.




Gil Hodges, 1968-1972

Gil got some cards worthy of a Mets hero, especially the 1970 classic. Don't like the 1968 photo too much -- looks like he's just sucked on a lemon -- and it doesn't help that Topps used the photo again for the 1969 set.






Wes Westrun, 1965-1967

Westrum didn't have a lot to work with, and it's not easy to follow an icon. But he sure knew how to pose for a card. His were among the coolest Mets manager issues!



Casey Stengel 1962-1965

"The Ole Perfesser" got an airbrushed cap in his first card, and his last two are great, but just about identical. They show Casey sitting on the dugout steps chatting away, and one can only imagine what he was saying.