April 24, 2007

Card Critic: 2007 Upper Deck Series 1

By now everybody and their brother knows that the Topps board of directors is up in arms over the $384.5 million takeover bid from Eisner and Torante. A lot of them want it to go through, but a few contrarians want the company to keep the door open for higher bids.

As has been reported in major newspapers and other media outlets, one such rival bid has come in from Upper Deck, at a dollar higher per share than the Torante bid (a reported $10.75 per share versus Torante’s $9.75 per share). And so while other media outlets sort of fail to mention that this would be a very big deal should Topps rescind acceptance of the Torante bid and accept Upper Deck’s—the fact that there would be one major manufacturer of baseball cards for the first time since 1980 and spell the end of Topps’ Pavlovian equivalence with the word ‘baseball card’ in the minds of countless millions of Americans—I think that to get the full experience, I need to approach a review of UD’s Series 1 with this news in mind.

It’s interesting that Upper Deck would put in a bid to buy Topps. The two companies are so different that it’s almost like one needs the other for survival. Good and evil, Lego Town and Lego Space, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson…for one to simply disappear now would produce no winners. I would even argue that the average collector would lose tremendously. UD already owns the Fleer imprint and have turned it into a retail-only product for 2007, denying hobby store patrons the chance to pull some great (albeit worthless) ‘Perfect 10’ inserts. Adding Topps to the mix, Upper Deck would not be simply adding the Topps and Bowman imprints to their collection, they’d be acquiring the vaunted Topps Vault, which is basically the history of baseball cards post-World War II. With so many classic imprints to choose from and budgets to meet on every line, who’s to say that Upper Deck wouldn’t be tyrannical in their card set decisions and pump out crap set after crap set for all of eternity? Now at least if they do that, they have a competitor in Topps.

I’ve written about Upper Deck before at great length, but when they burst onto the scene in 1989, they got so many things right that the normal learning curve just didn’t apply. They led their sets with (and thus showcased) rookies. They included special cards, cards with fun, offbeat photography, artistic cards and holograms—lots of holograms. And they built on their success the very next year with randomly-inserted autographed cards, insert cards and more of what made their 1989 product great. Sure, they made a helluva lot more of the cards in 1990 and the set wasn’t career-defining, but it helped set the table for the company for the next few years. Their forward-thinking mentality helped them nearly corner the certified-autographed sports memorabilia racket and carried them into the 21st century. Round about this time, Donruss lost their license from Major League Baseball, Upper Deck bought up what was left of the Fleer imprint after the company went bankrupt and many of the other early-Nineties competitors fell by the wayside. Coming into 2007, the landscape is again sparsely populated, with only Topps and Upper Deck producing licensed sets. So far the two companies have released at least eight product lines between them, with many more on the way (there were 38 different product lines produced in 2006, not counting the scores of insert sets available as well).

This set will be UD’s flagship base set for 2007. And it’s not a bad set. It’s a little boring, but that’s okay. There are literally a ton of cards in this set. There are 500 cards in just the first series, so that leads me to believe, without reading a sell sheet on the product, that there will be 500 in Series 2 and then a tacked-on Updates series that will come out in September or October of at least another 100 cards. That’s 1,100 cards, just in one set. Now we’re talking early-Nineties Score in terms of comparable bulk. 1991 Score was what a big set was all about: lots of subsets, lots of benchwarmers, role players, special cards, super stars, all-stars, et cetera. It looks like 2007 Upper Deck is nothing like that set. I got no cards that I would consider subset cards, just card after glossy card of regular players.

So then if the regular set is a bore, why bother collecting it? Well, the photography is great. Fantastic photos are an Upper Deck staple, and 2007 is no exception. And everybody’s got a card (and I mean everybody). And this product literally has desirable inserts coming out of its ears. Rookie Redemption, anyone? In preparation for this review I had considered a number of options: a hobby box, a retail box, a $9.99 retail box and a $19.99 retail box. I priced out the hobby box online and at the local hobby shop and found online to be cheaper by about $18. Same with the retail box, though it was tough to turn down the purchase while hefting it in hand at the shop. I also turned down the $9.99 and $19.99 boxes when I read how many cards you actually got for that price: for $19.99 you got 8 packs of 8 cards; for $9.99 you got four packs. Four measly packs! Then I found that Kmart sold ‘fat packs’ which are essentially rack packs, as you get 32 cards for $4.99. So I ended up buying 3 fat packs. I’m not entirely disappointed in my pulls, as I understand that you pay a premium for hobby boxes because you’re basically paying for the chance for the big insert pull, and that was really not what I was looking for.

I was looking for a clean base card design (yes, if boring), with readable player names (sort of), and comprehensive stats and engaging ‘somebody-kill-me-now’ back-of-card text from a bored Upper Deck copywriter (yes and no). I was pleasantly surprised by what must be a fat-pack-only or retail-only insert set called ‘Star Power’, which is only marred by the gigantic smear of the Upper Deck logo in the lower left corner. It’s insert sets like Star Power that make me begrudgingly like Upper Deck—it calls to mind the broadside announcements of early twentieth century circuses, complete with weathered parchment, circus-style fonts and subtle wear and tear fading on parts of the photos and background. I can almost see this set as a late-1960s Topps fold-up poster insert. Even the backs are nice, with the only downside being the ridiculous numbering system Upper Deck uses for inserts where they checklist based on the player’s initials. It’s infuriating, simply because it’s impossible to tell who you’re missing when you don’t know how many cards are supposed to be in the set.

Judging on first impressions from Series I, I can see why Upper Deck would want to gobble up the Topps Mystique right now. When Topps turns over an empty fist, a Derek Jeter publicity stunt falls out, smart marketing towards the older collector with lines like Heritage and Archives, and a deal with Ryan Howard, one of the game’s brightest young stars. It could be a smokescreen, but they seem to be hitting on all cylinders even while the company's in a crisis. When Upper Deck swings, out spills a big, tired white elephant. A thousand cards in one set...with no subsets? What is this, 2006?


Joey said...

Insightful perspective about the Topps sale and the Upper Deck offer. I hadn't thought about the implications of only one baseball card manufacturer. Thats kind of scary. Competetion is the fuel for great products. Therefore, I am glad the Upper Deck offer was rejected.

Voltaire said...

There are about six or seven subsets. The "fat packs" don't have any inserts; that's why they're cheaper. Not only does 2007 Upper Deck have inserts, but they're really nice, too.