Wednesday, July 31, 2013

1987 Topps: Part III


Vital Statistics

There are 792 cards that look like they were cut directly from a baseball card tree in a forest near Cooperstown, plus another 132 cards in the Traded set that must have come from a radioactive tree somewhere near Chernobyl.

Meanwhile, another year, another third baseman for the Dodgers. Between Ron Cey's departure after the 1982 season and the arrival of Adrian Beltre in 1998 the Dodgers went though players at the hot corner like George Steinbrenner went through managers. Jeff Hamilton played more games at third for the Dodgers than anyone during that 15-year period, and was the main guy manning the position for the '88 World Champions. Former Dodger Dave Stewart started game one of that World Series for the A's. When he was asked about the Dodgers lineup on MLB Network's 20 Greatest Games, he pointed out that he didn't know who Jeff Hamilton was at the time, and that he still has no idea. But Hamilton remains the last third baseman to win a ring with the Dodgers, and you can't take that away from him.

Special Cards

The wood grain looks nice as a backdrop to the checklists, if you're into baseball cards featuring nothing but a list of players' names.

Topps All-Star Rookies
For the first time since the 1978 set, the Rookie Cup reappeared to honor selections to the annual Topps All-Star Rookie Team, which kicked off in 1959. It was a welcome return, and the cups look particularly nice in the context of the '87 design. The team Topps chose for the '86 season included four outfielders, for some reason, expanding the usual list from ten to eleven. But Topps failed to put the cup on third baseman Dale Sveum's card. American League Rookie of the Year Jose Canseco "highlighted" the ten-card subset, but Angels' first baseman Wally Joyner turned Southern California into Wallyworld that season.

Future Stars
Another concept making a return for '87, though in a drastically truncated form, was cards featuring prospects declared by Topps to be "Future Stars." The 1982 set marked the last time that often-dubious label was applied to up-and-comers. But, unlike previous incarnations, the 1987 Future Stars received cards of their own, rather than sharing them with a few other hopefuls. Also, rather than highlighting prospects from every major league team, Topps chose to predict stardom for just six players in this set. You would think that meant featuring only can't-miss prospects, but a 1987 Topps Future Stars card was probably the career highlight of first basemen Pat Dodson and Tim Pyznarski. Dave Magadan and B.J. Surhoff had fine careers. Rafael Palmeiro was a dirty cheat. But there was one genuine star in the bunch, and he got what would become an iconic card of the era.

Skippers once again play the role of keepers of the team checklist. Unless you wanted to know their height and weight (with questionable accuracy), whether they were a lefty or righty as players, where and when they were born or where they currently lived, you were pretty much out of luck. If you didn't know any better, Sparky Anderson might be in his first year as a manager and Pat Corrales might have eight world championships under his belt. You really had no way of knowing from these cards ostensibly featuring the men in question.

Team Leaders
If you like cards featuring lots of people who you may or may not recognize standing around on a baseball field, inside of faded borders that make it all look like a half-forgotten memory, these cards are for you. The oft-repeated Topps "design" looks even more pointless when placed inside of '87's wooden borders. There was at least one card from this subset with a welcome and easily recognizable face (though in a strange uniform):

Record Breakers
Cards #1-7. As is often the case when Topps chose Record Breakers over Season Highlights, you get a few important records and a few that are really stretching the boundaries of what can be considered interesting. Naturally, we get another new single-season saves record (Dave Righetti, 46), with the bonus of a new rookie record (Todd Worrell, 36). The most impressive record has to be the 20-strikeout game by Roger Clemens. But there's no doubt about my favorite, considering that we have an all-time Dodger legend breaking an "old-guy" record.

Turn Back the Clock
Cards #311-315. Year two of the Turn Back the Clock project. These look really nice with the wood borders, and the selection of Topps cards displayed is top-notch. This is probably the best-looking group from the five-year run that began in '86. And, of course, I was happy that the twentieth anniversary of the last triple crown (at the time) meant an opportunity for a new (old) card of Yaz.

Cards #595-616. The All-Star cards are among the best-looking in this classy set. The decision to employ the league logos, and to do so without using the circle that surrounds the team logos on the rest of the cards, really makes these stand out. Unfortunately, Topps continued to use the backs of these cards to awkwardly present statistical league leaders. But it's hard to hold that against cards that look this good.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

1987 Topps: Part II


First Impressions

I basically looked the other way. I mean, I was a teenager and this was the '80s. My bedroom was painted blue with red and yellow accents. The world was full of day-glow and neon and cool geometrical shapes and amazing new home computers. And here comes Topps with a set of baseball cards framed with simulated wood-grain paneling? What were they thinking? I still bought them, but it was more out of habit than excitement.

26 Years Later...

Whatever the rest of the world thought of these in 1987, today there seems to be a general consensus that this is one of the classic Topps sets. Although my opinion of the these cards has certainly moved in a positive direction over the years, I'm still not prepared to go that far. The design certainly benefits from the march of time, which has taken it out of the context of the 1980s. It never really belonged there. The '80s were not a time for the timeless. It was all about the here and now, then.

One way to tell that this design is timeless is to look at cards of the White Sox. The Pale Hose tended to look great on the more '80s-centric designs of the era, in their crazy horizontal-striped, number-on-the-pants, softball uniforms. The even-yeared sets from '82 through '88 look like they might have been designed specifically with South-Siders in mind, they look so good. But when you put one of those unis inside of '87s wood-grain border, it becomes painfully obvious how time-locked that look really is.

The classic uniforms tended to look best with this design. The Orioles, Pirates, Giants and Tigers look especially nice in their wooden frames. But one team with, shall we say, more modern sensibilities may have actually looked the best. That's because uniforms of the Oakland A's work really nicely in this context, the garish green transformed into something more reminiscent of a pine forest.

In all, this is a fairly unobtrusive, utilitarian set of cards. There are few spectacular photos, but a lot of good ones and not many bad ones. The set is a real gamer. You get the usual mix of action and posed shots. With a few exceptions, there's a real sameness to the actions shots. Lots of conservative choices, befitting the conservative design. There is also a large population of close-up portraits among the posed shots, which look particularly good within the wood frame.

Speaking of Chili, there are nine other players in this set who share his name: Alvin, Eric, Glenn, Jody, Joel, Mark, Mike, Ron and Storm. Wonder if that's a record of some kind? Probably not, since nearly all of these guys hung around for several years. I never realized how Davis-filled the '80s were...

It's hard to find much fault with the basic design (as long as you're cool with the whole wood thing). The circle with the team logo is a good size and in a good location. The name plate provides some team color coordination, and the font used is reasonable. The location of the Topps logo is excellent. The angles of the borders are interesting without drastically intruding on the space left for the photo. But there is one huge problem, in my opinion. For the first time since the psychedelic tombstones of 1972, the player's position is not displayed on the front of the card. This was to become way too common in the coming years, and I hold it against this set that it began that trend.

On a positive note, the backs of the cards were among the most legible of the decade (although I'm not sure the blue and yellow really does much to create a unified theme with the wood grain on the front). The additional information Topps provided was some of the most interesting, as they chose to share personal information about the players. When there's room, they also give you some historical "On This Date" highlight featuring an unrelated player, punctuated by the Topps card number for that player in the year of the event discussed.

In retrospect, the 1987 Topps design is a conservatively classic 25th-anniversary nod to their last wood-themed set from 1962. It may not have been a trendy choice for its time, but it holds up as a fine representative of the timeless Topps tradition.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

1987 Topps: Part I


The summer of 1987 was to be the last opportunity of my childhood to listen to Vin Scully on a regular basis. Naturally, that's because my childhood was coming to an end. But also because (though I didn't know it at the time) my family was to move away from Hermosa Beach just as the next summer was getting started. Listening to Vin has been such a big part of my life that I've often said, and even more often thought, that his loss when it someday comes will hurt me as much as losing a member of my own family. And I know there are millions of people out there who feel the same way.

Fortunately, thanks to modern technology, MLB Extra Innings and Gameday Audio, and Vin's legendary longevity, I again get to hear him regularly even after three decades have passed. Of course, even the lifetime I've spent enjoying his presence in my life only covers half of the story of his sixty-four years calling Dodger games. I get goose bumps every time I tune in and hear "It's time for Dodger baseball!" The sound of Vin's voice brings me back to a very different time in my life.

I hear Vin's voice coming from the clock-radio on my Grandfather's night stand. I've quietly entered his bedroom while he sleeps early in preparation for work at 4:00 am, and I'm lying on the far side of his bed, listening through his snoring, enjoying the Dodger game he fell asleep listening to.

I hear Vin's voice coming from the portable transistor radio we normally keep in the bathroom. I've taken it down the street, where I'm throwing a tennis ball against a brick wall, pretending that I'm pitching, or fielding infield grounders along with the players.

I hear Vin's voice in the headphines of my Walkman. I'm riding my bike on the strand along the beach, either past King Harbor toward Palos Verdes or past Mahnattan Beach up toward Marina Del Rey. Hopefully I haven't been so engrossed in the action that I turned around too late to make it home before the game ends.

Here's how much Vin's presence has become a part of me over the years. When I look at this rather unremarkable Dodgers Leaders card (#431), featuring pitching coach Ron Perranoski leading a conference on the mound, it's the sound of Vin's voice that fills the emptiness inspired by the card's fuzzy lack of purpose. Scully explains that Perranoski is discussing whether to pitch to the left-handed hitting Ken Oberkfell with the tying run on second and two outs, or walk him and go after the righty Rafael Ramirez. Then Vin tells us to be sure to come out to the ballpark Friday night when the Blew Crew returns to Dodger Stadium. It will be a battle of left-handers as Rick Honeycutt will go up against Dave Dravecky in the first of a three-game weekend set with the Padres. Maybe he's also using this break in the action to extol the virtues of Farmer John beef franks. It doesn't really matter what he's saying. The voice of Vin Scully is magic to my ears, and will always be magic to my soul.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

1986 Topps: Part IV



Oddball(s) of the Set
A couple of all-time greats among the managerial ranks are featured in the Traded set. Hall-of-Famer Dick Williams gets his last shot with the Seattle Mariners, and longtime minor league manager Jim Leyland gets his first with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Unfortunately, neither is represented with much dignity here. I expect to see a giant pineapple in the kelp over Williams' shoulder, as the airbrush job makes it look like he was just hired to manage in Bikini Bottom. Meanwhile, Leyland is forced to run his team with a giant aviary perched on his head. You would expect to see a small bird take flight if he were to lift his cap, Casey Stengel style.

Most Aesthetically Pleasing
There are are ton of great shots in this set of pitchers in motion. But what really stands out is the number of excellent cards featuring catchers at work behind the plate. Among others, Tony Pena, Charlie Moore and Glenn Brummer are all featured with top-notch action shots. It's hard to choose the best, but you can't go wrong with Randy Hunt and his amazing flying cap (#218) or Bo Diaz tagging out Tommy Herr (#639).

As great as those are, and as much as I hate to admit it, this Jeff Leonard card (#490) is simply baaaaaad-ass! He's a Giant, and a loudmouth hot dog. But can you beat that black bat, helmet, eye black and 'stache matching up with the card's black border, then the orange of the Giants logo, the doughnut, the stripes on the bat, and the orange tint to the fans in the stands matching up with the card's accent color? Add in that "I'm about to step into the batter's box with bad intentions" glare and, grudgingly, I've gotta admit it's one Giant of a card.

Favorite Non-Dodgers Card(s)
This set is all about the aesthetics, and no team's cards look nicer than those of the Yankees. It's a colorful set, but it's the stark black and white, of the card design and of the classic pinstripes, that make the Yanks' cards really stand out. Ken Griffey has a nice portrait shot. The Niekro brothers, Phil and Joe, look good as teammates for the first time in over a decade. Eddie Whitson may have had a tortured tenure in pinstripes, but he has a fabulous '86 Topps card. Frankly, they all look great. But my favorites are the real Bronx Bombers of the set: Dave Winfield (#70) and Don Mattingly (#180), both shown doing what they did best (among a great many other things on the diamond).

Favorite Dodgers Card(s)
Fernando Valenzuela may have had his finest season in 1985, and his '86 Topps cards do that justice. In an echo of the historic start to his rookie season in 1981, Fernando set a big-league mark for consecutive scoreless innings to begin a season. In the most interesting card of the bunch, they Turn Back the Clock to highlight that rookie year. The thing about this card, which makes it my favorite of the set, is that the card depicted on the front is not the card that came out in the Traded set in 1981. (You can view 1981 Topps: Part IV to see that card.) It's remarkably similar, the only difference being that Fernando faces the camera squarely on this card, while he stands sideways on the original. Why Topps did this is a mystery to me, but for what it's worth I think it's kinda neat.

One Final Thought
1986 Topps may have unofficially been the "Pete Rose Set," but Charlie Hustle wasn't the only ancient first baseman playing for the Cincinnati Reds to get some Topps love in '86. Hall-of-Famer Tony Perez, who hit .328 at the age of 43 in a loose platoon with Rose, gets two great pieces of cardboard of his own. His base card (#85) is one of the nicest in the set, featuring a changing-of-the-guard moment with young Eric Davis. And any Record Breaker card that begins "Oldest Player to..." is automatically among my favorites.

The Big Picture

This boils down to a race with 1984 for second place. In the 1986 set's favor: A beautiful card design, the nifty Pete Rose Special tribute, the introduction of the five-year Turn Back the Clock plan, and an incredible crop of rookies in the Traded set. Working against '86: Managers as checklists, All-Stars as League Leaders, the introduction of the ghostly and ghastly Team Leaders card design, bland subset designs, in general, and a tendency toward blotchy printing issues. The devil's in the details, and as great as the base cards look, those details push 1986 Topps into the #3 spot with seven sets reviewed, after 1984 and ahead of 1981.

Friday, July 5, 2013

1986 Topps: Part III-T


Harbingers of darkness...

This set is the complete opposite of the previous year's Traded set. In '85, the biggest rookies were Vince Coleman, Ozzie Guillen and Teddy Higuera. In addition to Bonds (#11T) and Canseco (#20T), the 1986 Traded set marked the debut of, among others, Bobby Bonilla, Will Clark (#24T), Mark Eichhorn, Andres Galarraga, Pete Incaviglia, Bo Jackson, Wally Joyner, John Kruk, Kevin Mitchell, Dan Plesac, Bip Roberts, Kurt Stillwell, Dale Sveum, Danny Tartabull, Bob Tewksbury, Robby Thompson, Mitch Williams (#125T), Bobby Witt and Todd Worrell. Not to mention one of the best baseball names of the '80s (though a bust on the field), Billy Jo Robidoux.

Sweet Lou Piniella, who appeared as a player as late as the 1984 set, shows up here (#86T) as the latest of George Steinbrenner's managerial whims.

One of my favorite stories here is that of the "Rooster," Rick Burleson. The Angels' shortstop had missed most of the past four years, and all of 1985, due to a torn rotator cuff and a dislocated shoulder. He kept battling and finally made it back to play an important role on the '86 division championship team, hitting .284 in 93 games as the Angels' utility infielder.

We're once again treated to "premium" card stock for the Traded set in '86. I guess I'm starting to warm up to this... a little. I still don't like that it makes for a big difference between base set and Traded set cards. But I have to admit that they look pretty good again, and that the backs are particularly enhanced.

So, what happens to the Blue Crew in the '86 Traded set? They get a couple of veteran role players: catcher Alex Trevino and lefty reliever Ed VandeBerg. The set also marks the arrival of the fourth future star first baseman since the departure of Steve Garvey three years ago. There was Mike Marshall, Greg Brock, Sid Bream, and now Franklin Stubbs. All had solid major league careers. None became a star hitting away from the thin Albuquerque atmosphere. As for departures, we get another long-time Dodger in an unfamiliar uniform. After fourteen seasons in Los Angeles, Playgirl pinup model and catcher's mask throat guard inventor Steve Yeager moved up the coast to the Pacific Northwest for a year before hanging up the spikes for good. Not quite as torturous as previous losses, given the established presence of Mike Scioscia behind the plate.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

1986 Topps: Part III


Vital Statistics

You know the drill: 792-card base set, 132-card Traded set.

A notable Dodger newcomer from this set is four-time batting champ Bill Madlock. Mad Dog was acquired for the stretch run in 1985 and hit a blistering .360 in 34 games for LA as they cruised to another NL West title. He stayed hot in the NLCS against the Cardinals, batting .333 with three homers and seven RBI. But he had to watch Jack Clark's backbreaking blast sail into the left field pavilion, taking a shot at riding his hot bat into the Fall Classic along with it. Madlock would have a decent year with the Dodgers in '86, but would get off to a bad start in '87, prompting his release and sending the revolving door at third base back into motion for the Blue Crew.

Special Cards

In 2013 Topps notoriously refused to use Pete Rose's name in its Chasing History blurbs on the backs of its cards. But 1986 Topps could rightfully be referred to as the "Pete Rose Set." We've already seen card #1 from this set, featuring the awesome 1B-MGR position designation. But that's just the beginning.

They're in the set again. Very good. But their cards are used as team checklists again. Not so good. Always glad to see them included though.

Record Breakers
Cards #201-207. The reason, of course, that Pete Rose is featured so prominently in this set is that he broke one of the game's most hallowed records, becoming baseball's all-time hits leader. At the other end of the spectrum, Topps recognized Keith Hernandez for breaking the record for a stat that had been in existence for just six years, and which would be abandoned by the end of the decade. But any excuse to use that great photo of him losing his batting helmet is worthwhile. Other cards in this subset include Dwight Gooden becoming the youngest 20-game winner and Phil Niekro becoming the oldest pitcher to throw a complete game shutout.

Pete Rose Special
Cards #2-7. Topps broke out a classic tribute, previously used only for Hank Aaron in the 1974 set in honor of his becoming the all-time home run king. Depicting all of his Topps cards over the years, from 1963, through the crew-cut years and the bowl-cut years, up until 1985, the Pete Rose Specials feature yearly career highlights on their flip sides. On the final card (#7), Charlie Hustle is shown honoring the memory of Ty Cobb, the man he supplanted as the hit king.

These use the black frame along the card tops, with a yellow-backed checklist where the photo would be. A nice use of the set's motif, for what it's worth.

Cards #701-722. Other than the checklists, none of the subsets here uses the black border of the player/manager cards. That serves to set these cards apart, but none of the design concepts is very inspired. The All-Star cards are particularly spartan, but pleasantly so, with most featuring classic posed shots. The player names are bold along the top, but I wish the team name font would have been incorporated into the subset designs. The card backs are again used to display league leaders, which is not one of my favorite choices from this era.

Team Leaders
After a one-year hiatus, Team Leaders return, but in a completely different form. Whereas these had been used as team checklists from 1982-1984, the backs of these cards show the team's leaders in a number of batting and pitching categories. The cards, rather than showing batting average and ERA leaders for each team, depict the dean of each team, with the date from which their continuous service with the team began indicated on the back. The design, which was to persist in one form or another for several years, is one of my least favorite. The photo is turned into an amorphous blob, fading to oddly-shaped white borders, giving the impression that you're looking at a heavenly tribute to a deceased player. One of the few good-looking cards from this subset is big Lee Smith (#636), whose imposing presence manages to break through the fuzzy haze.

Turn Back the Clock
Cards #401-405. Reviving a concept first used in 1977, Topps gives us a little history lesson. These cards "Turn Back the Clock" in five-year increments, discussing the highlights of each season on the back. Unlike the '77 edition, these use Topps cards from the year in question as the graphic feature. Getting some baseball history is always a positive, but the thing that elevates this concept to something really special is that Topps stayed with it for the next four years, creating a multi-year subset that ends up covering 25 seasons.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

1986 Topps: Part II


First Impressions

Mired in the first collecting slump of my lifetime, although a minor one, my appreciation for this set was muted at the time. I was just too busy with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll to bother. That is, if you count just thinking about sex... all of the time... and substitute comic books for drugs (it was a serious addiction). Also, my Dodgers were muddling through their worst season since I became a fan. And the whole black and white border thing just didn't grab my attention, either.

27 Years Later...

Turns out that I managed to let a minor gem slip through the massive cracks in my attention span. This is one of the more beautiful sets of the decade. What I'd considered to be a set lacking in color as a teenager is actually one of the more colorful. The use of black to frame the top quarter of the card with the team name actually serves to make the color that's used really pop. The team names are featured in a fabulously bold '80s-rific neo-futuristic font, which is so great that it manages to pull off the trick of also being timeless. These are stretched to cover the tops of each card, except, for obvious reasons, in the case of the A's. Bright coordinated team colors are used for the team names, as well as a small circle in the lower left corner of the photos displaying the player's position. The Topps logo again appears in an upper corner of the photo. The player's name anchors the bottom in black.

The beauty of this set's design is that it makes the color of the photos grab the attention all the more. And, unlike with the designs of previous few years, the space left for the photo lacks odd angles or major obstructions. This allowed Topps to simply choose the photos they felt looked the best, and crop them without being restrained by awkward border considerations. As a result, the set features an excellent balance between different types of action shots and the kind of classic baseball poses that were prevalent in its '70s issues. The variety is the best of the decade, including a mix of posed and candid head shots, warm-up/batting cage shots, medium-distance action shots, and a good amount of quality full-body action shots.

I'm not sure about this, but it's my impression that the card stock is once again a little thinner, similar to that of the 1984 set. Of the sets reviewed so far, the '84 and '86 sets are the only ones that tend to have a natural curve to the stock. The other sets tend to hold nicely in a flat position. But this doesn't take away from the set's appearance. One of the big concerns with cards that are printed with black borders is the potential for chipping. It's difficult to find 1971 Topps cards, for example, with really pristine edges. However the black doesn't seem to chip as easily on the '86s, and they seem to hold up well over time.

The backs are nothing spectacular, but they look nice enough. The black framing technique is echoed at the top with the vital statistics. The player names are pleasantly bold. The card number and Topps logo, in the upper corners inside of diamond shapes, make for nice symmetry. The theme for the additional information displayed, when the stats allow room, is "firsts." The Talkin' Baseball boxes, featuring a few different versions of an anthropomorphic baseball, tell you about firsts in the player's franchise's history. Additional blurbs tell you about some of the player's own firsts, sometimes including the year and number of their first Topps card. Although kinda neat, this information gets to be monotonous. The black and red color scheme is a nice one, though the stats can be a little hard to read at times, especially for veterans with long careers. For the first time, game-winning RBI numbers are added at the bottom of the career stat line for batters. It was a dubious statistic, that didn't officially survive the '80s, but Topps would continue the practice for the remainder of the decade.

In all, it's a simple design that really allows for some spectacular results. With 1988 as perhaps its only competition, I would say that of the Topps sets from this decade, 1986 is the design that would best translate into giant-sized wall posters. It certainly makes for a fabulous collection of little hand-held works of art.