June 27, 2006

Best Set Countdown: #2 – 1985 Topps

This set is just about the greatest thing that could’ve happened to Topps. Especially after the fiasco of 1984. Think about it: you’re number one and you’ve been number one for nearly thirty years (since you bought out Bowman in 1955), and then all of a sudden, in a span of two or three years you lose your monopoly, you mail it in for a couple sets, and you lose your top spot because you fail to accurately read the competition. And then it turns out that the competition is fierce. Those other companies aren’t interested in paying homage to all the hard work you’ve done, they’re interested in showing you the door. So what do you do? Do you lie down and take it like you did in 1984 (despite one of your better designs of the decade)? Or do you roll up your sleeves and rethink your strategy, examine your roots and see just what worked before you decided to forgo a stellar product and half-ass it through the late 1970s?

Luckily for collectors everywhere, Topps rolled up their sleeves. And while I have no idea what they actually did behind closed doors, it sure as hell seems like they addressed every set from 1975 onward (and all the Fleer and Donruss entries as well) and just picked them apart. They separated the strong subsets like All Stars and Record Breakers from weaker ones like In Action and Super Veterans. They took into account how rookie-driven Fleer and Donruss had become as those two companies tried to differentiate themselves as forward-thinking (rookies were the driving factor in the 1984 Update set and 1984 Donruss), compared with the Topps institution (I can’t think of a better synonym for ‘old’).

So then, with sleeves up, Topps decided that if they could no longer beat the competition, they could at least join them in the rookie bonanza. And while they didn’t resurrect their rookie cup (that wouldn’t happen until 1987), they did unveil two awesome subsets: #1 Draft Picks and Team USA. #1 Draft Picks actually only featured three rookies out of the twelve guys in the subset, and most of the guys featured were kind of C- and D-List stars (like Jeff Burroughs and Floyd Bannister), but that’s not the point. And for the record, this subset also featured Harold Baines, Bob Horner, Shawon Dunston and Darryl Strawberry. The real point of this subset was that it gave Topps one more way the other companies hadn’t thought of in recognizing merit in players and denoting rookies (though it wouldn’t be until 1989 that Topps would make the previous year’s first-round draft picks a yearly set cornerstone (and even later for other companies)).

And if we can rightly anoint the #1 Draft Picks subset ‘awesome’, the Team USA subset is right up there with the Rated Rookie as ‘hobby-defining’. Or maybe even more than ‘hobby-defining’; maybe a more accurate term is ‘set-and-company-saving’. Think about it: let’s say you’re Topps (lots of role-playing today) and you get invited over to Mr. Donruss’ house for what you think will be a few hands of friendly poker. To start off the night, you’re dealt a rickey and a gibby and a baines and a Fernando and a Mookie, though somehow Fleer’s got two rickeys and he wins. You chalk it up to beginner’s luck. Then you cruise in the next hand when you’re dealt two Ripkens to everyone else’s one. Then you narrowly beat out the other guys when it turns out you have a Strawberry and the other two guys don’t know what a Strawberry is. So you’re up, winning two out of three (and you were probably robbed in the first hand). Then you take a break, you get up to use the can and when you get back, Fleer and Donruss are sharing a joke. Then Donruss asks if you’d ‘Like to make it a little more interesting’. All night you’ve had this guy eating out of the palm of your hand, so you say sure, what the hell; you’ll mop the floor with him. Bets are placed and you draw a weak hand, though you’ve got a Mattingly in the hole. The pot gets bigger, everybody’s making bluffs and going higher and you think you got them right where you want them—you got a plan on how you’ll pull this one out. So Donruss calls and he’s got a Mattingly (just like you). Shit. And he’s got some other guys you didn’t know about, including McReynolds and Joe Carter and a pair of Fernandezezez. That’s when you reveal you’ve got a pair of aces: Gooden and Saberhagen, not to mention a Mattingly. You know you’ve got Donruss beat and now you think Fleer won’t stand a chance against this hand. Unfortunately for you, not only does Fleer have the Mattingly and the Gooden (your one-two punch), but they can out-do Donruss with a second one-two of Clemens and Puckett. Yikes. Well, now you’re down and out and might as well get out of the business with your legacy intact.

But that’s not what Topps does. They reevaluate their moves across the evening, er, last five years, and realize that the competition is finding success with rookies (something that Topps practically invented). So Topps finds a way to get more rookies back into the mix. And, learning from the embarrassing experience of not featuring a rookie the other guys had, they brought in rookies of guys the competition wouldn’t have for at least a year, and in the case of mega-rookie Mark McGwire—two years (nearly a lifetime in baseball card manufacturing and collecting).

Let’s look at the genius that is Team USA. Besides the McGwire it’s got Billy Swift, Cory Snyder, Oddibe McDowell, Shane Mack, Scott Bankhead and Mike Dunne. It’s got a great manager card of USC’s Rod Dedeaux, plus a few others of guys who didn’t pan out (like Gary Green). Of course, like the Donruss Rated Rookie class of 1987, if we were to go back in time and put together our own Team USA subset, we probably would take out Pat Pacillo, Green and maybe Bankhead (who had a decent major league career) and replace them with Bobby Witt, Barry Larkin and Will Clark, three of the eight team members not represented. Can you imagine if those guys had been in this set? They would make it hands down the best of the decade. Anyway, this is a great subset. And more importantly, it was exactly what Topps needed to stay relevant.

Of course, if this set had had just the Team USA and #1 Draft Picks subsets and the 1988 checklist, it would be a middle-ranked set. But it doesn’t. It has one of the strongest (if concentrated) rookie classes of the decade.

When you look at who’s in a rookie class any given year, the players’ positions usually favor hitters or pitchers; rarely is it perfectly balanced. 1981-84, 1986 and 1987 were hitters’ years. 1985 and 1989 were pitchers’ years. I would say that only in 1988 was there a balance. Look at the lineup of rookie pitchers in 1985 Topps: Mark Langston, Jimmy Key, Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen, Roger Clemens, Orel Hershiser. Between them they pitched 10 seasons with 20 or more wins, and combined they have 1,271 career wins (and counting). And they all had their regular-issue rookies in the same set. That’s amazing. Of course this set also features the rookie of Kirby Puckett, but, and not to discount Puckett in any way, this set was never about the rookie hitter. These pitchers had pop right out of the gate. Gooden was on fire, Clemens not far behind and the other four would be superstars in their own right in less than two or three years.

Other neat things about this set:

It had strong All-Star lineups. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. Sure, they may have mirrored the previous season’s actual All-Star starting lineups, but that doesn’t lessen the anger of receiving a Damaso Garcia All-Star card (unless you’re a Blue Jay fan, I suppose. But then again, if you were a Blue Jay fan and you were buying Topps, there was probably something wrong; you should’ve been buying O-Pee-Chee, where they seeded Blue Jays and Expos more frequently).

The great Topps numbering system. I love it that Eddie Murray is #700 and his All-Star card is #701. That had to have been on purpose. That’s not one but two times you get to see his awesome mustache/beardburns. And really, #700 is one of the best Murray cards of the decade. Would you want to interview someone with beardburns as menacing as this?

A ridiculous amount of Record Breakers. There are ten of them. In previous sets when there was a lot of stuff going on, Topps would consolidate (like the retirement Highlights card from the 1984 set). But not here. There is absolutely no need for ten Record Breakers, even if ten records were broken. I, for one, do not care how much sushi Cliff Johnson ate while he was in Japan, nor do I care about anything that has to do with Juan Samuel. I’m not being anti-Phillies about that, I just don’t think any set needs ten Record Breakers. It almost reeks of desperation, like Topps found out Donruss and Fleer were staying in the same hotel and awkwardly confronted them in the parking lot or lobby: ‘You can’t tell us what this hobby’s about! We’re Topps! We fucking made this hobby!’ This of course would be followed by a series of half-hearted punches and a mumbled string of ‘We made this hobby!...we made this hobby…’ Then Topps would collapse and blubber until Monsieur O-Pee-Chee would pick him up and help him back into the elevator or curbside handsome cab. Moral of the story: sets should never have more than seven Record Breakers.

I’ve always wished that I had started collecting in 1985, instead of ’86, and I’ve never bought a pack until I knew I was going to do this countdown. So, like Marvin Gaye’s awkward moment when he forced his audience to recognize his parents at his Kennedy Center concert, I would like you to help me recognize this very special moment in my pack-opening history.

Thank you. Now I’m ready.

First thoughts: right on the front cover it has the tag line the Real one!, like they wanted to incite fear into the minds of little kids that those Fleer and Donruss cards weren’t ‘real’. This is some heavy shit.

…I already know I got a Dan Quisenberry All-Star and an Orel Hershisher with a gigantic old-as-time gum stain on the back, which is actually quite aesthetically pleasing…

Rufino Linares This is going to be a great pack, I can feel it. How can you get a guy named Rufino and it turn out to be a bad pack? It’s just not gonna happen.
Bill Almon, 1974 #1 Draft Pick Well, at least I didn’t get Shawn Abner.
Mark Clear I think he came over in the Carney Lansford ‘We Hardly Knew Ye’ trade with the Angels, right?
Jim Gott Well, not every card’s going to be good. It was silly and unrealistic of me to think so.
Pete Falcone Something’s a little suspicious here…I’ve already gotten two Braves and I’ve got 10 cards to go…hmmm…
John Rabb That’s another guy who’d be allowed past the green glass door.
Yogi Berra/Dale Berra Father Son This is great, really the only card out of this subset that you’d ever want anyway, except maybe the Steve and Dizzy Trout card. But really, nothing beats the back of the card, where it lists most of Yogi’s major achievements and can’t even come up with one neat thing to say about Dale.
Dan Quisenberry All-Star I always loved this guy and his ridiculous submarine delivery.
Bryan Little…and they would allow cherries, but not bananas; trees but not plants…
Bob Clark You could not have a more non-descript name than Bob Clark. It’s also fitting that he plays for the Brewers.
Brian Dayett …bumblebees but not wasps…baboons and balloons…
Jeff Leonard One of the greatest lines of Mel Brooks’ original film of The Producers happens when Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock is standing by his office window and, upon seeing a white Rolls limo pull up across the street, yells ‘When you got it, flaunt it, baby! Flaunt it!’ He, of course, is on skid row (with his cardboard belt). So this is relevant because Jeff Leonard was an All Star in 1984 (and the game was played in San Francisco), so he got an All-Star card in the 1985 set. So what I’m trying to say is that Leonard should be pimped out in furs and diamonds on this card, his fingers blinding the camera with studded rings and he should be shown using an elephant tusk shoehorn to help him into his bedazzled loafers. Not much to ask for, if you ask me.
Chris Bando Man, what is with me and getting Chris Bando in a pack?
Bob Horner Horner’s looking kind of fat, and he’s the third Brave I’ve gotten in one pack. That’s some bullshit right there.
Orel Hershiser The one thing I remember about Hershiser more than any of his other accomplishments is the Head and Shoulders ad he did where he proclaimed that he washed his hair ‘Four or Five times a day’. Who in their right mind would do such a thing?

So here’s to you, 1985 Topps. You’re a helluva set.
I wish I had started collecting sooner.

1 comment:

BaseballcardUlysses said...

This is an awesome blog. Thank you!