Sunday, April 07, 2013

After 41 years, one card away from completing the greatest set ever

The Gnome of Celebration and Victory salutes the 1972 set

And so it comes down to Vic Davillio.

I am one card away from completing the greatest baseball card set ever produced, The 1972 Topps, in a journey that started 41 years ago, which I guess is appropriate.

We’re talking about an epic issue, unlike any other Topps has produced in its 60-plus years.

It’s also a set with deep personal connections. My first-ever cards were from 1972, and the Tom Seaver card was the subject of my first-ever trade. That was huge deal at the time, obtaining the Seaver for two Yankees from my friend Jeff.

Topps went through dreadful design doldrums in the late 1960s, recycling design elements and even photos.

That changed in 1970 – perhaps inspired by the Mets’ championship? – with a plain but solid design. The bold, black-bordered 1971 set was a dramatic step up.

But the 1972 set is a magnificent piece of pure 1970s pop art. Team names exploded at the top of the card in big, bold colors. It’s as if the designers took a sabbatical Peter Max and Andy Warhol filled in.
It’s unlike anything Topps had done before, or since, for that matter.

The set features all kinds of special cards, with big stars getting a separate “In Action” subset. There were “Boyhood photos of the stars” cards – including Jim Fregosi’s Mets debut, showing him holding what seems like a massive accordion.

Fregosi also appears in a subset with stars in their new uniforms, with “TRADED” stamped across the front of the card. Nolan Ryan, the other end of the deal, appeared in an earlier series in his Mets uniform and an air-brushed Angels cap. It’s a great set, but not perfect!

It’s a great set for Seaver fans, with his base card previously named “The Greatest Card Ever” in this space. But Tom Terrific gets five other cards in the issue, more than in any other issue. And that’s not even counting the six-card puzzle from the backs of “in-action” cards in one of the later series.

That’s right, the cards were issue
d in series, and the 1972 Topps set high numbers are tough because the set is pretty popular.

That means I was able to chip away the set over the years. I was able to find a card here or there as I worked through other sets from the 1970s and 1980s.

Will helped me make a bigger dent, sending my way a bunch of 1972s he had, especially after upgrading some of the cards in his own set. He has higher standards for condition.

The 1972 set was out there as an unobtainable goal, the collecting Everest. I even managed to start and complete the 1971 set from scratch before getting close to 1972.

The mission became more difficult as weekend mall shows became scarce and the remaining cards dwindled to harder-to-find high numbers and short prints. I’d pick up a card here or there, but the pace certainly slowed in the last decade.

There’s a dealer from Ohio who appears at a mall show here in Grand Rapids a couple times a year.

The Clemente card is a classic. He looks sad, tossing the ball. 
He’s got a box of high-number cards in affordable condition, and I work through with my list each time he’s in town. Sometimes I can scratch off five or six cards. The dealer knows me by now and has followed my progress over the years.

He knew I was getting closer to the end, and at last month’s show asked to see who was left on the list. There were 10 left, and he said it’s not likely any of them would be appearing in the bargain box anytime soon. They were players from teams popular in the Midwest or Ohio, where he is based.

“Rick Monday, he’s a Cub. Wayne Simpson’s Red. The Morgan Traded. The Murcer is impossible, because he’s a high-number Yankee,” he said. “Good luck.”

“I guess that’s why they’re the last 10,” I said, dejectedly.

So it appeared the remaining cards would never be showing up in his bargain box.

With the end in sight, I took to eBay. The online auctions aren’t the most fun way to find cards. It’s more fun to have a shared experience and the joy of discovery. Other collectors appreciate the joy of finishing off a classic set.

But being so tantalizingly close, I poked around the site.

During the next couple weeks I landed the Murcer for a surprisingly reasonable price, and even the Monday and the
Simpson. Finally, the Joe Morgan Traded card was obtained after being outbid and losing three or four times.

And then there was one. Vic Davilillo. He was a fine role player for 16 seasons, playing with the Indians, Angels, Cardinals, Pirates and Athletics before finishing up with the Dodgers.

He’s not the best player in the set, but far from the worst. And he’s now a highly sought after slice of cardboard.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

In year No. 49, we look back to appreciate Armando Benitez and forward to Jon Niese

The Gnome of Victory and Celebration wishes a "happy birthday" with Hawkeye, known in our house as the" under-appreciated Avenger." Armando Benitez could commiserate with Hawkeye.

Armando Benitez was a misunderstood and maybe an under-appreciated Met.

Today, we embrace birthday No. 49, and the list of Mets wearing that number is not entirely encouraging as we look for inspiration for the year ahead. 

The essential “Mets by the Numbers” by Jon Springer and Matthew Silverman tells that 20 Mets have worn No. 49.  There were lots of players passing through, and some nice guys – Ed Hearn and Walt Terrell – who were traded for big pieces.

But Benitez was the most prolific. The barrel-chested closer seemed like he could throw the ball through a brick wall, and famously tried to throw one though Tino Martinez.

Benitez was a master at stockpiling saves, twice earning more than 40 for the Mets.

Alas, putting out fires in May and June and shutting the door when it counts are different things. 

Armando went from lights out to gas can during inopportune moments, like, say, Game 1 of the 2000 World Series, and Game 6 of the 1999 playoffs. Kenny Rogers never would have earned his “Bleeping” had Armando shut down the Braves earlier.

Benitez’ Mets tenure didn’t end well. Booed unmercifully, he was the team’s lone All-Star Game representative – clearly not a fan vote. Not only didn’t he get into the game, but he was traded during the All-Star Break to – get this – the vile Yankees.

We must remember that we don’t get to the World Series or deep into the playoffs without those early games, so let’s go easier on Armando. Stacking up 160 saves in four seasons is pretty impressive.

And, we have a new hope. No. 49 since 2008 has been issued to Jon Niese, our new Opening Day ace. We have reason to be encouraged as we finish out the 40s.

Monday, April 01, 2013

So much to celebrate in Opening Day victory

Opening Day in New York means that winter is in its death throes here in the great Midwest, and not a moment too soon for the newly christened Gnome of Victory and Celebration.

Let’s count the things we can celebrate today:

First, the 11-2 destruction of the Padres, whom the Mets always seem to play on Opening Day. We usually beat them, too, unless it’s an extra-special day, like the first-ever game at Citi Field.

Jon Niese looked spectacular on the mound and at the plate, too, driving in a run and giving up just two in six-plus innings.

David Wright showed why he’s the captain, making big plays, stealing bases and doing all the cool things that we’ve come to expect from him.

More Cowgill! Yeah, get ready for a season of “I got a fever, and the only prescription is more Cowgill” SNL references after new centerfielder Collin made his Mets debut and hit a grand slam, forgetting that we usually give those up, not hit them! 

Not a single Mets player was injured. Hey, the way we’ve been going, we’ll celebrate that today.
Across town, the Red Sox took care of business against the Evil and Ancient Empire, 8-2. Expect much weeping and gnashing of teeth in the Bronx this year, which is all good!