The Wrong Brother

This past weekend over at The Phillies Room, Jim’s post about Jason Giambi’s 3-HR night against the Phils on Thursday night inspired a quick exchange about the fact that Phillies seem to have a history of employing the wrong brother. Whether the name is DiMaggio, Torre, Brett, Maddux or Giambi, the Phillies always seemed to employ the lesser ballplayer. Given that Phillies played the Rangers this past weekend, my plan was to post the 1989 Topps Big card of Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux, who has built quite the coaching career while his younger brother put together an amazing Hall of Fame resume.

Alas, thinking that there was no way I was going to post that particular Maddux card, Jim made that the featured card of his post last night. Now, a person less familiar with team history and with a smaller Phillies collection to exploit might have panicked and just used Maddux’s 1985 Tastykake rookie card (which he shared with Rodger Cole) instead. But no, I decided to go a different route and highlight another card from the 1989 Topps Big Set featuring another wrong brother in the Phillies employ — that’s right, the Phillies simultaneously carried two wrong brothers at the same time in the late ’80s: Maddux and Tom Barrett.

Okay, of the brothers mentioned thus far, Tom Barrett might be the biggest stretch when comparing big league brothers. His brother Marty was just your typical light hitting, good fielding second baseman, but he was a good enough to enjoy a 10-year career in the majors. Tom, however, was both light hitting and below average with his glove. Luckily for him, when he was ready for the majors, the Phillies were racing for the bottom of the standings. Otherwise, there’s little reason to believe that Barrett would have been given the opportunity to compile the .210/.289/.222 slash line he gave the Phils during the 1988 & 1989 seasons.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Topps Big issues because Topps was attempting to harken back to its vintage 1955 and 1956 designs without going into the full-bore recycle mode that marks its Heritage offerings. Topps successfully did this with the fronts of its 1983 and 1987 sets (which harkened back to the 1963 and 1962 sets, respectively), but this was the first time they attempted to do this on both sides of the card.

Clearly, given that they were only issued for two years, the Big brand never caught on. I’m guessing that the biggest issue with them was that they were also sized like the ’55 and ’56 sets. Topps must have felt this too — in 1989, they also revived the Bowman line and used the same card dimensions for it as the Big issues. However, when the new decade started, Bowman shrunk to standard card dimensions and the Big line was axed. Barrett’s brief time with the Phillies was finished as well.

History-Destroying Relic Cards

Today’s post has been brought to you by the news that Upper Deck and Marvel have teamed up to create relic cards of historic comic books in crappy condition. I don’t collect comics, but I still found the news unsettling — it’s been bad enough that for years now the card companies have been buying up rare, vintage sports memorabilia and chopping them into tiny pieces for use as relic cards to market to sports collectors, but now they’re chopping up old comic books for comic collectors. What’s next, is Upper Deck going to buy a T206 Honus Wagner and chop it into 20 individual squares for use in relic cards in its upcoming SP Legendary Cuts set?

Admittedly, when the first jersey cards came out 15 years ago, I was excited as everyone else — it was the next cool thing. However, I don’t think any of us foresaw the possibility that the card companies would start looking into the past as the relic card became a staple of the industry. It’s one thing to chop up jerseys, bats, caps and gloves of current players and paste them into baseball cards — those players are active and they can quickly and easily replace their game-used equipment. But doing the same to a bat used by Chuck Klein, or a jersey worn by Richie Ashburn? Well, I can honestly say that it never crossed my mind that the card companies would do such a thing. However, greed knows no bounds, and that’s exactly what the card companies did.

Nowadays, most card collectors have personal little reliquaries that would have made a 14th-century Catholic parish blush. True, our relics come from athletes instead of holy figures, but the end result is the same: you have a shard of something that supposedly once came in contact with or was used by the historical figure in question, but it’s such a tiny piece that without any frame of reference it’s next to impossible to tell what the original item looked like. History is being destroyed so that people can make more money. Personally, I’d rather view a complete Richie Ashburn jersey on display somewhere in Citizen’s Bank Park or the Baseball Hall of Fame rather than own a tiny piece of one thanks to the 2010 Topps Peak Performance Relic Inserts.

This is not to say that I don’t own any relic cards containing shredded vintage memorabilia. I’d like to stick to my moral guns and stay completely away from such items. However, they are still baseball cards, and while it is literally impossible for me to own a copy of every Phillies card ever made, I would like to have as complete as possible a collection of them. So, some of them have crept in. Yes, that includes the aforementioned Ashburn card, as well as the card shown today, the 2007 Topps Triple Threads Relics Combos Autographs #8, featuring Bobby Abreu, Ryan Howard and Mike Schmidt. Yes, by purchasing this card other cards like Ashburn’s, I am part of the problem — I am helping to create demand and feed the destructive beast. Sort of like the memorabilia in those cards, their existence leaves me torn. It’s one of those instances where I wish I wasn’t so obsessive-compulsive about collecting, but then again, collectors by their very nature are obsessive-compulsive.

It would be all too easy to blame Topps, Upper Deck, Donruss/Playoff and the others for the situation, but that’s like a junkie blaming the dealer for his dealing smack. It’s a parasitic, co-dependent situation, and unfortunately I don’t see anyway that the destruction of sports history — or history as a whole, for that matter — so that it can be included on a sports card-sized piece of cardboard will end anytime soon.

An Obscure Phillies-Rockies Connection

Today is the second game of the Phillies’ two-game set with the Colorado Rockies, and it’s hard to believe (for me anyway) that the Colorado Rockies are now playing their 19th season as a MLB franchise — which is more seasons than the Toronto Blue Jays had completed when the Phillies faced them in the World Series back in 1993. Already the Rockies have plenty of names synonymous with the franchise: Todd Helton, Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga, and, more recently, Troy Tulowitzski & Ubaldo Jiménez. But there’s one name that I will always associate with the franchise even if no one else thinks of him when they think of the Colorado Rockies: Bruce Ruffin.

Bruce Ruffin had the dubious honor of being the player called up from AA when the Phillies decided to release Steve Carlton in the summer of 1986. At the age of 22, he surprised everyone by putting together an amazing rookie season in which he went 9-4 with a 2.46 ERA in 21 starts. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the attention he deserved during award season, and he finished 7th in the Rookie of the Year balloting even though based on WAR he was the second best rookie in the league, behind only Robbie Thompson — who didn’t win the award either. (Anyone care to guess who did win that year, without looking it up?) Everyone was excited about what the future might hold for Ruffin and there was reason to believe that he might help the Phillies better compete with the world champion Mets in the ’87 season.

Alas, the ’86 season easily proved to be the best of Ruffin’s tenure with the Phillies. Over the next five seasons, Ruffin provided only two years of league average pitching performance against three woefully ineffective years. After spending all of ’87 as a starter, he spent the next four years bouncing back and forth between the bullpen, the starting rotation and AAA. Instead of becoming an ace, he ushered in era of Phillies prospects who dazzled us with amazing spring trainings or debuts, only to flame out and never be heard from again: Pat Combs, Jason Grimsley, Tyler Green, Rich Hunter, Brandon Duckworth. In fact, the Phillies weren’t able to produce a legitimate starting pitcher with any staying power in the majors until 1999 when Randy Wolf made his debut.

After the ’91 season, the Phillies traded Ruffin to the Milwaukee Brewers for Dale Sveum. For a clue as to how far Ruffin’s stock had fallen, just check out Sveum’s stats prior to the trade. The trade ending up being a bust for both clubs, and both players were with new clubs by the start of the ’93 season. It was then that an amazing thing happened: in one of the worst pitching environments in baseball, Ruffin was reborn as a closer. It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but from the years 1993-1996 he was one of the best relievers in the league, and for three of those years, he was the Rockies closer. Even though he was no longer a Phillie, I was glad to see Ruffin finally carve a niche out for himself and finally emerge from the shadows of being Carlton’s replacement and not living up to the expectations brought by his rookie season. Until the Phillies faced the Rockies in the NLDS in 2007, whenever I thought of the Rockies, it was Bruce Ruffin who came to mind.

Sadly, Ruffin’s career came to a shuttering halt in 1997. I have no recollections of how it ended for him, but when I did an internet search, I found in the Sports Illustrated archives that Ruffin was a victim of Steve Blass disease. It’s always sad to see a ballplayer develop it, but with Ruffin it was especially sad. According to the article, which SI published in its June 16 issue that year, much of Ruffin’s troubles during his time with the Phillies resulted from him struggling with his command. Having put together the four seasons that he had with the Rockies, it seemed that Ruffin had finally put it behind him. He would appear in only five more games after SI printed the article.

So, in honor of tonight’s game, here’s Ruffin’s 1987 Toys ‘R’ Us Rookies, #23. His only baseball card in 1986 came courtesy of the end-of-year Sportflics Rookies set. Amazing, neither Topps, Donruss or Fleer felt the need to include him in their rookie/traded sets at the end of the season. In this day and age, it almost seems unfathomable that could have happened — in fact, if this had happened today, Ruffin would have had at least two Bowman cards before even appearing in his first Major League game. Unfortunately, Sportsflics cards are difficult to scan, hence the decision to go with the Toys ‘R’ Us card that commemorates his rookie campaign.

The Lost Topps Cards

This year, one of the insert sets in the regular Topps issue is the “Lost Cards” series, which creates a few of the cards that Topps didn’t produce, for one reason or another, during the years 1953-1957. Just six names encompass the 10-card set: Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Duke Snider, Bob Feller and Roy Campanella. Not surprisingly, all but two of the omissions resulted from the contract wars between Topps and Bowman up through their 1955 sets. The other two card resulted from Musial’s non-appearance in the ’56 and ’57 sets — in fact, four of the cards in the set are Musial cards, which makes me wonder just what exactly Topps did wrong in its handling of Musial over 50 years ago.

Sadly, in its effort to rectify the Musial error and suck up to collectors of New York’s Golden Age of baseball (of the other six cards, five are Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers), Topps missed out on plenty of other oversights they made during the ’50s. Most notably, at least as far as this blog is concerned, the missing Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts cards from 1953-1955. (There are plenty of other Phillies who would be worthy of having a Lost Card created should Topps ever decide to do a true set including many of the players they’ve missed over the years, but I’ll just focus on the Hall of Famers from the period covered by this particular insert set). To be fair, Topps did produce an Ashburn card in 1954, and when they issued their Archives 1953 set in 1991, they included Curt Simmons and manager Steve O’Neill along with Ashburn (see above) and Roberts in the “The Cards That Never Were” series they tacked onto the end of the original set.

Yet, Topps being Topps, they couldn’t bring themselves to properly execute the cards in the Never Were series. They were hideous and looked only marginally like the cards originally issued in ’53. The fonts were all wrong and instead of using artwork based on photos, they just slapped a black and white photo of the player on the card. Looking at the cards makes you almost wish Topps didn’t bother at all. In fact, it makes you wonder why they had bothered at all.

So, maybe one of these days Topps will decide to properly execute a “missing cards” set, if for no other reason than they love to reuse their old designs and issue new cards of stars that have been retired for decades. I would actually like to see how some proper Lost Cards of Ashburn and Roberts would look (not to mention a proper Lost Card for Schmidt in 1973 — Topps has already issued a couple different monstrosities for that particular card without getting it right), but I’m afraid that Topps’s proclivity for focusing only on superstars would mean that those would most likely be the only Phillies cards in such a set, even though I could give Topps a nice list of Phillies cards that would be nice to see in such a set, should someone actually want my opinion on it.

Not that I ever expect to be asked, mind you.

Throwback Uni Time!

You can count me as among those who were disappointed when finding that the Phillies and Braves would be wearing 1974 throwbacks for the Civil Rights Game on Sunday. I was hoping that they would be wearing Negro League replicas like they did for a game back in 1997. Well, through The Fightins, I found out earlier today that the Phillies and Braves will be wearing Negro League uniforms tomorrow instead, thus giving two games of throwback uniforms.

Through the years, the card manufacturers have produced cards featuring various Phillies while wearing vintage replica uniforms as they’ve been trotted out. If nothing else, these cards are great because they add some variety to the look of the cards (note that it doesn’t stop Topps from re-using some of their photos ad nauseum, a tradition of theirs that dates back decades). However, it’s always a little disappointing that they don’t use photos from such games more often — especially when you consider how many sets come out over the course of the year. Case in point: after the Phillies and Braves wore Negro League throwbacks in ’97, only two cards pictured a Phillie wearing the Philadelphia Stars uni from that game. The first (shown above) was the 1998 Skybox Dugout Axcess Scott Rolen, #34 and the other was the 1998 Fleer Tradition Rico Brogna, #118. (Quick aside: the way I knew specifically the game took place in 1997 was because of the commemorative Jackie Robinson patch on Rolen’s sleeve.) I know the Phillies were a horrible team at the time and that no one wanted to waste anymore resources than necessary in producing cards of them, but Fleer — who made the Skybox line — already had at least one photographer there. Would have it hurt to get at least a usable shot or two of Curt Schilling as well?

Hopefully, we will see a few shots from both games make their way into sets later this year and early next year.

The Rarely Pictured Phils

One of the nice things about having multiple card manufacturers for over most of the past 30 years is that occasionally one of them would issue a card of a Phillie that none of the other sets captured. For example, Fleer was the only company in 1981 to issue a John Vukovich card. If you prefer a more recent example, the 2010 Upper Deck set will be the only place you will ever find a card depicting Jack Traschner as a Phillie. In fact, even though the Phillies both issue and update their own team sets every year and sometimes work with manufacturers to have special giveaways at the end of the season where a special team set is issued just to fans attending one particular game (see the 2007 Upper Deck/Majestic Phillies Alumni Team set, which annoyingly goes the extra step of having Legends inserts — of which I’m still missing three), there are plenty of Phillies through the years that never see themselves grace a baseball card in a Phillies uniform.

Sadly, the monopoly that MLB granted to Topps starting last year only means that such a thing is more likely to happen than over the past 30 years. Topps has never had a great history of capturing all the players who rightfully deserve their day on a Phillies card. In 1968 Roberta Pena played in 138 games as the Phillies starting shortstop — no card for him. Last year, Juan Castro appeared in 54 games for the Phils, but you’ll only find him in the two Phillies team issues. Even more puzzling are the cards of players who have cards depicting them as members of the Phillies even though they never actually appeared in a game for the club. But, more on that another day.

So in honor of those Phillies who never quite got the recognition they deserved from Topps (or any of the other manufacturers when they had the license to do so), here’s the 2010 Topps 206 Mini Framed Autographs Piedmont Insert, Brian Schneider #BS. It’s his only appearance on a Topps card last year, and it’s an autograph insert to boot. You would think that if Topps went through the trouble of making such an insert that they would include Schneider somewhere in one of their many other sets, but no. Unless you picked up one of the two Phillies team issues last year, this was the only way you could find him. But at least he got one, which is more than can be said for Castro, Ross Gload, Mike Sweeney, Nelson Figeuroa or Denys Baez — none of whom appeared last year on a Phillies card issued by Topps.

Upon Further Review: 2011 Topps Gypsy Queen

Last week, I wrote (more or less) approvingly about the new Gypsy Queen release. And while I stand by my initial reaction, upon further review I realize that while I like the set, Topps blew an opportunity to do something really awesome: make a set that was a true throwback to the original 1887 design.

It’s something that Topps actually knows how to do. While that aforementioned post included a disdainful remark about the Topps’s use of headshots and capless photos in its heritage designs, those type of photos are actually necessary in recreating the look and feel of Topps sets from the early ’60s through the mid ’70s. While I like the look and feel of the stylized action shots, they have nothing to do with the look and feel of the original set, a sample of which you see to the right (courtesy of the interwebs), that Topps is paying homage to. If Topps wanted to do a real Gypsy Queen set, they would have taken posed photos with the players dressed in replicas of 1887 uniforms (or some other period in time, preferably pre-World War II), printed the photos in sepia, and issued 3-4 photo variations for each player.

That would have been awesome… not to mention totally doable. In fact, while it was only an insert set of 12 cards, this is very similar to what Donruss did in the early ’90s with its Studio Heritage inserts. Okay, the multiple variations didn’t happen, mostly because Donruss wasn’t that “forward” thinking. Otherwise, the photos in the set look exactly the way they should’ve looked in the recent Topps Gypsy Queen — as shown by the Kruk card from Donruss’s 1993 issue, in which Donruss posed him in a uniform from the mid 1910s. If I had the proper QuarkXpress skills, I would’ve cropped the Kruk photo from this card and dropped it into the Topps Gypsy Queen frame to show how just how well it would have worked.

It’s not too late for Topps to rectify their error. Given their unwavering ability to beat a vintage design to death — the T206, Cracker Jack, Allen Ginter and their multiple iterations of the 1952 set immediately come to mind — Topps can just as easily take another stab at this next year and get it right. Will they? I doubt it, but I hope that they ultimately surprise me.

We Don’t Need No Stinking Pitch Counts!

Back during the halcyon days of my childhood, I thoroughly inspected the front and back of every baseball card I added to the collection. The pictures, the stats, the cheesy cartoons Topps would sometimes place on the backs, the pithy summaries of the player’s career or some memorable game/season — none of this stuff escaped my attention. Of course, this was a lot easier to do back during a time where there were only three major sets during the year. In my adult years, I started paying far less attention to the backs. The primary reason for this is that as I got older, it started feeling like the manufacturers were treating the backs more and more like afterthoughts — especially as the proliferation of sets took off in the early-to-mid ’90s.

Over the past few months I’ve been trying to pay better attention to the backs of cards — especially when I pick up a vintage pre-World War II card in an effort to rebuild that part of my collection, which I had to sell off nearly in its entirety back in 2003-2004 (more on that in a future post). One of my more recent reacquisitions is the 1933 Goudey, Flint Rhem #136. He passed away in 1969, long before the era of pitch counts and five-man rotations, but I have a gut feeling if he had lived long enough to see them, he would hold the modern starting pitcher in contempt. Why? Well, the first two sentences on the back of this card say it all:

“Pitched no-hit, no-run game for a minor league club in 1924 as Manager Branch Rickey, of the Cardinals, sat in the stand. Had pitched the day before, but Ricky wanted to see him work, so was put in again.”

With a name like “Flint Rhem,” it’s not surprising that he went out there two days in a row. He sounds exactly like the type of old-timey player who would have gone out there a third day and just kept throwing until his right arm fell off. If he had lived into his 90s, he would’ve been in rocking chair on the front porch of a nursing home, telling anyone who would listen about how today’s pitchers were too coddled, his reminiscences of pitching a no-hitter on no rest, how he must have thrown over 300 pitches on those two days, how he could get on a mound today and strike out Steve Jeltz on three pitches, and that it was a travesty that Chuck Klein wasn’t inducted into the Hall of Fame until 1980.

Okay, one part of that last sentence is probably a stretch, but I’ll leave it to you to decide which part it is.

14,000: The Card Immortalized in the Blog’s Title

Actually, thanks to the arrival of a new team set and a few other individual cards, I actually had the opportunity to pick the card referenced in the title of this blog. After thinking it over, the choice became obvious because it encapsulated so many different things — positive and negative — about the current state of the Phillies, modern card collecting and my feelings about where the hobby is today: 2011 Topps Gypsy Queen, #326 Chase Utley.

What I love about the card begins with the retro design of the set, which is based on the 1887 N174 set with the same name. Now, retro sets have their detractors (see the Dec. 10, 2010 post on Bad Wax about this set when it was first announced), but I am a sucker for sets like this. I heart them the way a 16-year-old fangirl loves Justin Beiber. Actually, I don’t know how a 16-year-old fangirl loves Justin Beiber, but I think I can imagine how it is, and that’s how I feel about retro sets — especially when compared to many of the designs used on modern sets (but more on that at another time). Adding to the awesomeness of the design is the use of an action shot. I know that action shots are actually anathema to the notion of producing a retro set, but while I do love the retro design concept in general, I really could do without the head shots and capless photos that Topps feels are necessary to its Heritage offerings.  The other primary reason for picking the card: Chase Utley, the best player on the team over the past five years, which happens to be the greatest period in team history. Picking him and this particular retro set also appropriately highlights the fact that this year’s team is also the oldest in Major League Baseball, and as such is far more injury-prone than any other team. Utley’s current stint on the DL just serves to accentuate this fact.

But as I said in the opening paragraph, there are a few negatives surrounding this card. First and foremost, it’s an SP. Topps justifies its insistence on including short prints in nearly every retro set it produces by saying it helps to duplicate the scarcity of particular cards in its vintage sets. Yet, it’s not fucking necessary — the only reason why cards from its pre-1973 sets are scarcer than others is because of the way Topps issued cards during that era. By insisting on issuing these SPs, Topps is only annoying team/full set collectors such as myself and creating a false sense of scarcity that really doesn’t exist. Another issue the card represents is the monopoly Topps now has on cards. For most of my life, there have been three or more different companies producing baseball cards, and each brought their own aesthetic to the table. That’s gone now, and while MLB and Topps insist they have the best interests of the hobby at heart, I’m not convinced that giving a monopoly to Topps is vital to the effort to produce less product and find a way to bring kids back to the hobby. Gypsy Queen is the fifth set produced by Topps this year, and its plagued with unnecessary levels of parallels, hard-to-find inserts and lack of appeal to kids. While I love the base design, I really do wish that Topps would work as hard on getting kids back into the hobby as it does trying to milk every dollar it can out of its rapidly aging fan base.

So, here’s to the 2011 Topps Gypsy Queen Chase Utley card: the perfect representative for the state of card collecting today, as well as the 2011 Phillies, and officially the 14,000th card in my Phillies collection.

Actually, It’s Only 13,993 at the Moment

Okay, despite what the name of this blog and what the About page says, the 14,000th Phillies card has not officially been added to the collection. When it comes in (I am expecting another 20 cards in the mail over the next few days), it will of course be immortalized in its own post. In the meantime, I did start prepping the site in anticipation of the big event. I’ve actually had the idea of doing a blog like this for some time, but it took this particular event to break the inertia. I have no idea how long I will actually continue to update this site, but I intend to post to it for a long time.

So, in anticipation of number 14,000, here’s one of the many cards that inspired me to start this particular blog: 2000 Bowman Draft Picks & Prospects, #66 Carlos Silva. The thing I loved about this card is the Photoshop job that Topps did on it. On the surface, it was basically a good one because the card was in my collection for years before I finally noticed the error that kept it from being an awesome touch-up: in their haste to Photoshop Silva’s Clearwater Phillies hat into a proper Philadelphia Phillies hat, they somehow reversed the Phillies “P” on the cap. I don’t know how that particular type of mistake takes place (and Topps has made plenty of Photoshop errors over the past 10 years that were far less subtle than this one), but this one has to rate as one of the most puzzling.

Hopefully, number 14,000 arrives tomorrow. If not, I’ll highlight another favorite card from the collection tomorrow night.