6 Pack Analysis: 1989 Donruss
You remember Lionel Simmons, one of those can’t-miss rookies on the Sacramento Kings in the early 1990s? And you remember how he went on the injured list because of Nintendo Thumb? Well, I’m left handed, but tonight on the train I noticed that my right thumb is slightly bigger than my left. In celebration of this discovery, I’d like to put forward a wholly unscientific explanation: my right thumb is bigger than it should be because I’ve given it a work out over the years opening packs and sorting through baseball cards. This explanation is much more comforting than the idea that something may be seriously wrong with me. Thinking about this got me thinking appreciatively about the fine art of opening a pack.
There are a few different techniques in opening a pack. I’d like to talk about two of them, and both techniques can be employed by the novice and the expert collector alike. First, there’s the Quickie, which involves ripping open the wrapper and then flashing through the cards in succession quickly. This way is good for when you’re on your way home from the drugstore or en route to a job interview or the emergency room and you just don’t want to deal with all that post-pack guilt (I’ve explained ‘post-pack guilt’ in an earlier post). The Quickie requires that you possess a basic knowledge of the set, current players and what constitutes a good card.
The second way to open a pack is the Set Builder. This involves examining the pack, examining each card and checking against the inventory in your head of cards you really need and others that you might as well throw away now before you get attached to them and they sit in your closet until a dusty afternoon when you visit your parents’ house and, just for the hell of it, you go digging for something really important in your closet and you remember, just as you open the door, “Oh right…baseball cards.”
To collect cards is to open packs. Since November or so I’ve been obsessed with finding a Perfect Pack—the chance occurrence that all of the great and good cards from any given set would make up one pack. But last night, while I opened Pack 4, my mind started racing: is there such a thing as pulling The Worst Pack Ever? There’s a very good chance, when you’re opening packs, that you’re going to get at least one half-way decent card. But what about the chances of not getting even one good card? I’ve gone to great lengths to assign statistical values to cards and assess Perfect Pack criteria, but I’ve not done the homework for what makes a pack The Worst Pack Ever (though I’m pretty sure that if you get doubles of Geno Petralli you’re almost half-way there). Is there a pack out there from a late-Eighties set full of Rangers, Expos, Phillies and Padres? I don’t know the answer, but I think I came pretty close to pulling The Worst Pack Ever last night with Pack 4 of my 6 pack analysis of1989 Donruss.
Tom Foley • Bill Long • Devon White • Alan Ashby • Tim Jones • Steve Jeltz
Ron Robinson • Shane Mack • Candy Maldonado • Andy Van Slyke
Joe Boever • Luis Rivera • Daryl Boston • Joe Hesketh • Ken Williams
I honestly couldn’t bring myself to go through them card by card. Not tonight. It’s like going through a roll call after a massacre. I know what you’re next thought it going to be: c’mon, Ben, it’s not that bad; you got Andy Van Slyke and Devon White in there. And technically you’d be right—those two guys were pretty good, even great at times. But their inclusion feel like a consolation prize somehow, like a Quality Control worker at Donruss looked through a random test pack and was like ‘Holy jeez! We can’t let a pack get out with Steve Jeltz and Shane Mack as the big prizes…quick, toss me one of those soon-to-be-worthless Devon Whites…”
Okay, just a few thoughts on some of the cards.
I would like a Phillies fan to explain the mystery of Steve Jeltz to me. He barely hit his weight (he weighed 180lbs. with an average of .187 in 1988), he was somehow the Phils starter at short for a number of years, and his hair was unbelievably bad. And not just in this photo—every photo of Jeltz showcases his jericurl in full effect. Even his name suggests he’d sport the hairstyle or that he’d be really fast around the bases, though of course Jeltz didn’t hardly steal a base because he never got on base because he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn if he drove at it in a dump truck. It’s almost like the Phillies spent a little too much time kicking themselves that they got rid of Julio Franco, so in 1985 the general manager dressed up as a woman and hit the dance clubs with a blank contract tucked in his garter. Result? Enter the hitless Jeltz.
This uniform takes me back. I played little league when these cards came out and my team was the White Sox. I still have my sweaty hat with the cursive C on it. We wore t-shirts emblazoned with ‘White Sox’ so we never got to wear the full kit. Which leads me to ask: did Bill Long spill chocolate or put a cigar out on his pants or is that big spot supposed to be there? Also, I’d really like to understand why pitchers often frown or stick out their lower lip in their wind-up. Bill Long’s expression suggests he doesn’t have teeth, or perhaps he chewed tobacco (or perhaps both). This would explain the spot on his pants: he wanted to spit out his chaw, but because he didn’t have teeth, his lips couldn’t hold it all in for an aimed spit, so it fell in his lap. Sick!
Unlike Long and countless others, Robinson always looked like was smiling when he pitched, like Bo Diaz flashed him a joke in finger signs and he couldn’t hold it in until after his delivery. Ron Robinson also had a rather weird shaped head, and in combination with his pillbox trucker hat and on again off again Maddox beard his head seemed about the size of a watermelon. It’s a miracle that Ron Oester could see the plate when standing behind him.
I always had an indescribable relationship with cards of Shane Mack. I always felt like he was meant to be a star and if I willed him to be one then he would start hitting consistently, make the All-Star team and retire comfortably after leading his many different teams to the pennant. And after retiring, he and I would become pen pals and I would tell him how I had willed him to be a star and that he owed at least half his riches to me. He, of course, would send me a check in the mail, and after depositing the check, I would promptly go down to 47th Street and purchase the small, action figure-sized Al Pacino in Scarface encrusted in diamonds (complete with precious stone-encrusted machine gun). I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It does exist, so don’t even joke about me making this up. I would buy it if Shane Mack gave me half his savings, or even a small unspent portion of his 1991 World Series share, but things we dream do not always come to pass.
When you start looking more and more at cards, you begin to notice that many players resemble one another, like those who play in the major leagues are part of a large, in-bred family (I don’t think this observation strays too far from the truth). In the case of Joe Boever, he looks a lot like Greg Maddux when Maddux sports a mustache, which leads me to another thought: what if the person of Greg Maddux was really Joe Boever all along? If so, it would make at least some sense: the journeyman reliever had a few seasons with a Maddux-in-his-prime ERA. So maybe it was actually the other way around: when Maddux got sick of piling up Hall of Fame credentials all the time for a consistent winner, he moonlighted as a journeyman reliever for a handful of teams until the mid-1990s, when he split with his ’stache, and therefore, his alter ego Joe Boever.
How did this guy miss? He and Wally Joyner, they were supposed to carry the California Angels into the postseason year after year until they keeled over on the basepaths, and they’d be lovingly buried in center field and by first base, respectively, on the Angels home field. So what happened? Neither had bad careers, it’s just…I guess both were surrounded with so much hype and attention when they broke in in 1986 that they could never live up to the hope and dreams that fans and collectors invested in them. White was an All-Star, a winner of multiple Gold Gloves and hit for power, for average, he was fast and a great fielder. But really, if you look at the 1986 Topps Traded and 1987 regular issue Topps sets, only the Barry Bonds card has retained its value since they came out and even that too will eventually, inevitably drop.
Okay, so it’s not the Worst Pack Ever, but it’s certainly close. I got 3 Expos, 3 White Sox, and not even one Red Sox player (and that’s through four packs! Not even a goddamn worthless Jody Reed! What the hell?). I got mostly commons, some doubles from previous packs, and really no big stars if you don’t count Andy Van Slyke and Devon White. And even if you do count them, they’re not bona fide stars (I would say that both are regional stars at best, though nationally respected). I’d be pissed to get this pack. Hell, I am pissed to get this pack.
One of My Favorite Cards: 1959 Topps Coot Veal
As with other Topps cards where a nickname is used in lieu of a real name, the story behind the nickname is never explained. And really, with a nickname like ‘Coot’, nobody cares that your name is really Orville. In fact, it would be better if you signed your name ‘Coot’ and left Orville at home with the other Nineteenth century names. What would really take the cake would be if you went to the courthouse and had your name officially changed to ‘Coot’. Because really, if you were born with a name like Orville Veal, you’d be doing yourself a favor in changing it.
This is one of my favorite cards because the guy looks relatively normal but has an unbelievably ridiculous name. Every so often a guy pops up like this: Bake McBride, Shooty Babbitt, Razor Shines, Toe Nash and Stubby Clapp come to mind immediately, though there are others. I would argue that most great players are born, not made, but I think everyone would agree that unless your name is Cal McLish or Randy Ready, great names sometimes need a little help.