June 11, 2007

Card Sharks & Countdown: #65 to #62

Last night I finished reading Pete Williams’ Card Sharks, an excellent read. The book, currently enjoying a round of renewed attention thanks to Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson’s The Card, is great not only because it confirms my personal thoughts on Upper Deck, but because it helps me appreciate how the other companies approached UD, both leading up to its debut in 1989 and how they reacted and played catch-up in the early Nineties. It’s especially poignant in regards to this latest Card Critic Countdown.

It’s also interesting to note that there aren’t very many written accounts of the history of the hobby, and certainly few from the collector’s point of view. Not to be too self-indulgent here, but I think the recent burst of collector-fueled blogs is exactly what this hobby needed. Finally the collector has a way to express his or her own history in the hobby, how they approach collecting, what they’ve taken away from it and where they see it heading.

Anyway, the book is a good litmus test to see how much of a diehard collector you are. If you can make it through this book and still be in love with collecting cards as much as you were before, despite all the crap that the Upper Deck executives pulled, and how under the guise of “making a better baseball card” they mostly just sucked the soul out of the hobby—then congratulations, you’re really in this to the bitter end.

One last thing not related to the current Countdown. Yesterday I bought a hobby box of 2007 Topps Series 2, and although I got almost every card except Daisuke Matsuzaka (which leads me to believe his card may be as hard to find as Griffey Jr. in packs of 1989 Donruss), it didn’t really bother me, as I got this unintentionally funny card of Fernando Rodney and Pudge Rodriguez. Rodney is really into it; it looks like he’s waiting for a smooch. Too bad Rodriguez is still in his mask and pads.

#65. 1990 Topps
Ah, good ol’ 1990 Topps. A jewel in the rough. Yeah…not really, but sometimes it’s fun to pretend. It’s actually pretty amazing that this set was as bad as it was. Think about it: draft picks cards, Nolan Ryan Hero Worship, a decent crop of All-Stars, good Turn Back The Clocks (especially the 1975 Freddie Lynn, perhaps setting the precedent for later Archives Best Years and other retired players sets where they turn four-headed rookies to one-headed rookies with ease and grace), various other subsets and of course, Ken Griffey Jr, poised on the dugout steps gazing up into the sky, hopeful for a long, achievement-filled career. It’s a set brimming over with optimism.

It even had a high-profile error card, back when Topps was in the error card business by mistake. A quantity of Frank Thomas’ draft pick card, already one of the best cards in the set, were printed without his name on the front. Prices on the secondary market went through the roof and have stayed high, even after almost eighteen years and despite problems with counterfeit error cards.

Unfortunately, in terms of design, when Topps shot for ‘computer-gradient cool’ it missed widely and instead delivered ‘patchwork puke.’ This was one ugly set. Actually, you could say that it set the bar for the decade in terms of ugly design. Any ugly set that followed had to be compared to 1990 Topps to put its ugliness in perspective.

I want to say that this set has aged gracefully, that today’s sense of fashion, design and sensibility have grown and changed enough to be able to accommodate for Topps’ hiccup. But I can’t, because while the world has progressed, this set is woefully stuck. Instead, here’s what I appreciate about 1990 Topps: the unreadable backs and the ill-advised 3-D front, not so much for what they are as for what they symbolize: these design choices sum up just how much Topps (and the rest of the non-Upper Deck companies) had riding on predicting Nineties pop culture and style better than Upper Deck. Thumbing through a stack of 1990 Topps is like staring the end of the Topps Dynasty in the face.

Once the Traded and inaugural Major League Debut sets came out, it all but confirmed what the regular set had established: Topps was on the brink of becoming just another card manufacturer.

#64. 1992 OPC Premier
It was a big deal when O-Pee-Chee came out with their Premier line in 1991. I remember paying over a dollar for packs of Premier in 1991. But 1992? There was no hype, no buzz, nothing surrounding the set. And the set itself was like a minor tweak of 1991. Historically, that shouldn’t have been a problem. 1982 and 1983 Donruss differed only slightly in their design. But it was a problem with 1992 OPC Premier.

The player name, the crux of the 1991 design that was at once so crisp and delicate, was suddenly large-print size in 1992. The photos themselves were also softer, the backs were portrait instead of landscape and there were more cards in the set. But the real difference was that it was something in 1991 for a set to have a full-color back, with a color headshot, especially since not everybody could afford Upper Deck and Stadium Club. By 1992, that novelty had worn off. Too bad O-Pee-Chee didn’t get the memo. Ultimately, this set needn’t have existed.

#63. 1994 Pacific
God, how I loathed this set. Bad photos, unreadable front type, stupid company logo, cards that stuck together, bad back design (complete with torn linen resumĂ© paper bottoms). The only good thing was that it was half in Spanish. Everything should’ve been in Spanish. The way it was, it seemed like a half-assed job to me. Think about it: the Player’s Association should of let Topps just make cards in Spanish, like they did with O-Pee-Chee for French-speaking Canadians. They could’ve built off the resurrection of the sets Topps released in Venezuela in the Sixties and early Seventies. People would’ve become interested in those hidden gems, if however briefly. Anything would’ve been better than Pacific’s set from 1994.

#62. 1994 Topps
I kind of liked this set when it came out. It was a derivative of 1993 Topps, only with a better design, better photos and a nice thin gloss varnish on the front and back. I call it derivative of 1993 Topps because it was released in two series over the course of the season and Topps Gold parallel cards were seeded one per pack, which was kind of neat. There weren’t too many All-Star caliber rookies (though Konerko and Jason Schmidt made an appearance in the Traded set), and All-Stars were head-to-head AL/NL by position. Really, there’s not much to say about this set.
That’s because it’s not who’s included in this set that is important, but who’s not. Topps had three chances to include a card of Alex Rodriguez in this set, but didn’t. Only a handful of sets did include the A-Rod rookie (SP is the most notable), and those that did were rewarded with more interest from collectors.

I guess the only thing I can add right now is that I unearthed this card of Barry Bonds over the weekend. When this card came out in 1994, it perfectly summed up the hero cloaked in stoic greatness. Today it’s still perfect; a perfect photographic metaphor of the shadows that have enveloped much of this man’s game.

More Countdown Coming Soon


Joey said...

Pacific gets my vote for worst card manufacturer ever.

I think 1994 Topps is a set right in the middle for me, its not horrible and its not great.

For a little while when you had Juan "Gone" Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa and Frank Thomas fueling it I enjoyed busting packs and setting these cards aside, but that soon faded. Maybe with Sammy back and Frank getting close to a milestone the set will have some renewed interest.

Anonymous said...

I have the 1990 Topps set, well sort of.
It is actually the O-Pee-Chee set, but it is branded as Topps. The only differences are the card stock on some of the cards is the typical O-Pee-Chee cream (some of it is also the more Topps like grey card stock, too), the bilingual backs, the usual traded lines, and the O-Pee-Chee printed in Canada copyright. Unlike in previous years, it is the full 792 cards.

The 1991 set is much in the same boat, but the card stock O-Pee-Chee uses is basically the same as used in the boxed version of the traded sets of the era. If you are going for a 1991 Topps set, get the O-Pee-Chee version, it is much better looking. It is almost like a Tiffany set, but without the glossy coating.

Sharky said...

1987 Topps has a place in my heart. It was the first pack of cards I ever bought (9 yrs old) and they will always be my favorite. Baseball card collecting is about the memories and joy for me. I would honestly rather pull an Adam Dunn (or any REDS card) than any 19 swatch, 27 autographed, authentic tooth mark, actual piece of hair taped to the back card.