A few months ago, when I first thought about writing about baseball cards, I bought two boxes of cards from Dave and Adam’s Card World. I got a big box delivered to me at work (because having a package delivered to your apartment in New York City is just about the worst thing you can imagine), and upon having it handed to me, my coworker fell back in shock as I instantaneously regressed back into a nine year old boy having his birthday and Christmas all rolled into one. The boxes were case-fresh and came padded with Styrofoam peanuts.
If you never collected cards, there are no words to describe the feeling of seeing two whole boxes placed in front of you, 36 packs to a box. There really aren’t. I spent under $20 and I got maybe 200 hours of pure enjoyment, with none of that horrendous post-pack-binge guilt of blowing fifty bucks on new cards while children are starving all over the planet and here I am an adult, when I should really give the money to charity or treat me and my ladyfriend and the old guy down the hall out to Popeye’s and then maybe go rent Awakenings again. You know. To feel good about myself and that I’m not a vegetable in the psycho ward at Bellevue. And it would be okay if I cried, because that’s Robert DeNiro up there taking all those drugs—for the good of science and progress—and if you can’t cry during a DeNiro movie, then you’re not a man. But I didn’t have to go through all that, because I bought these cards wicked cheap.
The boxes I bought were 1987 Topps and 1989 Donruss. I thought this would be a good starting point: late-Eighties sets full of stars, semi-stars, Hall of Famers and rookies. (As a sidebar, is there any more intoxicating word or phrase than ‘rookie card’? I would bet that, for card collectors at least, this is one the most powerful phrases in their lives, right up there with ‘I don’t know…take them all for a dollar,’ and ‘Holy shit—it says ‘Fuck Face’ on the end of his bat!’ There are also pretty good cases for ‘game-used,’ ‘short print’ and ‘Joe Charbonneau’, but ‘rookie card’…I dare you to name another hobby-related word or phrase as captivating.)
And when I started to write, I thought it would be interesting to tackle two major issues. The first is interesting, but not really relevant to this post, so I won’t really get very far into it. I was going to try to figure out the Topps system of card numbering, based on established stars, their past season’s performance and other special factors (with numbering rewards set to both bases of 9 and 10, so for instance, both the numbers 500 and 221 would be excellent; 500 because many years that was reserved for Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, and 221 because it would fall in the center of a page of cards…if you were an über-nerd and bought Ultra-Pro (or cheap imitation) clear plastic pages and showcased your sets in three-ring binders).
The second issue I wanted to research was the idea of pulling the ‘Perfect Pack’. I figured out a system of positive and negative statistical ranking of cards in any given set based on player, team, whether it was a special card or not, whether it was a harder to find card, whether it was a double or a real loser. An example of a real loser card would be Manny Lee, Toronto Blue Jays, 1987 Topps. I opened maybe ten packs of those and found Lee’s card in almost every pack. Therefore, based on the fact that he’s a Blue Jay, he’s not a star or even a remotely decent player and that his card could possibly have been double or even triple printed that year makes him a ‘Real Loser Card.’ And while statistics are fun to figure out (hell, most of what makes baseball great is that people who will never, ever be able to hit a baseball going faster than 60 miles an hour can make snap a judgment about a player’s soul based purely on their statistical career), they don’t make for consistent storytelling (at least not in my case).
I figured that a Perfect Pack must be assessed based on the merits of each card and how they complement each other. That’s why, over the next week, I humbly present to you a 6-pack qualitative analysis of 1989 Donruss.
The first thing I want to say before I open the pack is that I never found Donruss wrappers especially intoxicating. I bought the cards not because I was drawn to the packs, but to simply keep up with my friends. I was always drawn to Topps packs; there was something especially Pop Art about them that I liked. Another thing I want to add is that a very good argument can be made that the grading and condition grades of cards have been relatively meaningless since the advent of foil packs. When cards came in wax packs, the wrapper had a way of destroying or staining or sticking to cards, thus killing their value before you could even see if it was a Joe Boever or Dave Parker all-star. Foil does not interact with the cards in any way (plus, and this might be the more telling thing about why card conditions are almost meaningless now, cards are almost all glossy today). Do you remember the Topps Tiffany sets in the Eighties? I always thought it was lame to have glossy cards; I thought it meant the card was a special send away or you bought them at Kay Bee Toys or Toys-R-Us and that therefore the only place you’d be able to find their pricing would be in the Sportscard Collector Digest yearly price guide.
I remember on more than one occasion coveting the possibility of selling all my Todd Worrell rookie cards and turning a handsome profit, which would then be invested back into Robin Ventura rookie cards and thus would begin a vicious cycle of believing every bloated price I found in those ridiculous yearly guides.
Really, putting prices in yearly guides should be outlawed. If a company wants to put out a yearly guide, it should be a large book full of pictures of each card from each set. It would be more of a yearly compendium of cards, like a visual checklist. Actually, I can picture Beckett doing one of these for every year and calling it the Visual Encyclopœdia of Baseball Cards. I know I would buy something like that; no pricing, just a big picture book of every card produced from a given year. 1958 would be about ten pages long and 2003 would be somewhere around six hundred pages long—but I would buy both volumes because both years are equally important in the progress of baseball cards. Maybe we could petition Beckett to team with Taschen and make these books affordable…anyway, on to Donruss, 1989.
It says on the bottom of the pack that if you sent 3 wrappers and $8.00 and $2.00 for shipping, Donruss would send you the Diamond King set in jumbo version. Did anyone actually do this? None of my friends did this, and I don’t think I had $10.00 at any one time until I was 14 years old. If you’re reading this and you sent away for these cards, please email me. I want to see one of these things, because the Diamond Kings were always a highlight (especially when you found out that the Padre DK was someone like Tim Flannery or Eric Show…jeez, what a waste…).
The Puzzle Piece
I’ve railed against the merits of inserting a puzzle piece before, so I’ll spare you that diatribe here. But seriously, what was the point? I would’ve been much happier if they’d inserted coupons for mayonnaise or an instant-win scratch ticket, you know, to get kids addicted to gambling just like their favorite sports heroes.
1. Carlton Fisk Fisk was always a favorite of mine, and before I knew the whole Haywood Sullivan-Shoddy LeRoux contract story, I never knew why he left Boston. Also, what makes this card great is that in 1989 someone at Donruss woke up and had the big idea to show players in dramatic, Roy Hobbs-style action poses. Fisk is great here, more than compensating for the ridiculous White Sox uniform.
2. Willie Fraser I don’t know anything about Willie Fraser, but again, another dramatic shot with the player’s face in darkness.
3. John Fishel This could very well be Fishel’s only Donruss card, and the fact that he got a card goes back to the filler theory. The back of the card tells of great things to come for Fishel, that he was going to land the Astros’ utility job in ’89. He also kind of looks like a clean-shaven John Kruk in his photo, like Meatloaf lost a few pounds (but not too many), cut his hair to a manageable mullet and learned how to bend at the knees.
4. Jose Oquendo Yes, it’s true: I’m a Jose Oquendo fan, if purely because he could play at every position. On the front of his card here it gives him the position of IF, and I bet that sparked a debate at Donruss when they were doing research and the layout for his card. Also exciting: it says on the back that he was traded from the Mets to the Cardinals for Angel Salazar, the very same Argenis Salazar I wrote about a few weeks ago.
5. Darren Daulton When the mooooon is in the seventh house/and Jupiter aligns with Mars/then peace will guide the plah-ah-nets/and Dutch will take his place among the stars…
6. Nick Esasky I remember I was excited when the Red Sox signed Esasky. Then it turned out he had chronic vertigo or some kind of vestibular neuritis and he couldn’t play baseball anymore. He was one of those guys who would alternate having good and bad years, like he would hit twenty homers (when that meant something) and then he’d relax the next year and only hit twelve, then feel threatened by the idea of Schottzie sending a passive-aggressive message from management and pooping in his locker and he’d go out and hit twenty again.
7. Mark Davis This guy got a ridiculously gigantic contract, right? For doing almost basically nothing, right? Or am I confusing him with Mike Moore? Is he the one who won the Cy Young for one of those crap Padre teams in the Nineties, or am I confusing him with someone else named Mark Davis? If you want to talk about achieving large things in baseball and still maintaining anonymity, I think Mark Davis might be your man…or I could be thinking of somebody else.
8. Chris Speier He bounced around, didn’t he? He may actually have been more of a success if he hired himself out as a Steve Garvey lookalike. Garvey don’t want to be in court that day? Send Speier! Actually, maybe he looks more like Wayne Gretzky. Hope he can skate.
9. Bob Kipper The Pirates had a deep roster in the late Eighties early Nineties, but apparently that didn’t stop them from holding local Who Wants to Pitch Tonight for the Pirates? contests, of which Kipper was a winner. Oh wait, I just read the back of his card…he was part of the trade that took Candelaria out of Pittsburgh. And isn’t Kipper a kind of fish? I bet he never had anyone tell him that he was the Fish that Saved Pittsburgh.
10. Charlie Puleo Yeah, not a great card. Double negative points for being a Brave.
11. Mitch Williams Shit, man, it’s motherfuckin' Mitch Williams! Somebody break out the effin' PBR...I’m sorry for all the swearing, it’s just a knee-jerk reaction whenever I see Wild Thing’s face…he’s even got a wispy soulpatch going…this is what I think of when I think of Texas, don’t you?
12. Steve Rosenberg Ray Romano meets Ozzie Canseco. Did he ever get in a game?
13. Mark McLemore This guy has been in the league for forty seasons right? Wait a minute, this calls for Baseball Reference. Nineteen seasons. Now that’s a major league career.
14. Craig Biggio This is his regular-issue Donruss rookie card. The inclusion of this card transforms the pack from average to pretty good. Now explain this, and I know I’ve already brought up the idea of Biggio looking like a child, but: would you argue that Craig Biggio and Tom Brady have the same face, and if you agree with that, can you explain why Biggio looks like a child and Brady does not?
15. Jose DeLeon DeLeon’s arms look like they were painted onto the photo. They are especially well-defined.
As I said above, the inclusion of Biggio in this pack makes it a pretty good pack. If I got this pack in 1989, I probably wouldn’t have known who Biggio was. Getting Fisk as card one lifts the expectations of the pack. I’m not saying I expected getting a Brett in the same pack, but at least a Rated Rookie, even if one of the crap RR’s. But this pack is pretty good. With 5 out of 15 cards being even remotely good (Fisk, Wild Thing, Daulton, Biggio & Esasky), that’s a 33% success rate. By no means is this a Perfect Pack, but it’s not especially disappointing either. If this was the first pack I had opened for 1989, I would have been encouraged that Donruss wasn’t phoning in the design, like they did in 1988, they weren't against using more dramatic photography and I hadn’t found a Red Sox yet, although I did get an Honorary Red Sox in Fisk, and that would be encouragement enough to open Pack 2.