February 19, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #35 - 33

35. 1993 Leaf
I’m sorry, but even white boys have to shout: Even though this marked Leaf’s first foray into full-bleed photography, foil stamping and shiny hologram printing, the night skylines on the back outshined whatever bells and whistles they could throw in. It should have been the front design. With all apologies to Sir Mix-a-Lot, 1993 Leaf is the ‘Baby-Got-Back’ set of the early Nineties.

The checklist? A snooze, with no major rookies to speak of (unless you count Curtis Leskanic as a major rookie), and Ben McDonald slated on card #1. Also: 106 inserts seeded over three series, including possibly the first cross-brand cards: Frank Thomas Hero Worship. I remember these cards in 1993 Studio; they were in Leaf as well.

34. 1992 Stadium Club
It is for this set (and 1991 Leaf) that ‘sophomore slump’ applies the best. Oh sure, I’ve thrown the term around quite freely over the course of this Countdown, but it is the very definition of 1992 Stadium Club.

Coming on the heels of one of the most iconic sets of the early decade, Topps tried to make this edition even better than the previous one. Because we’re talking about 1992, that meant adding inserts and send-away offers, not to mention opening up the checklist to seemingly include every major leaguer, and everyone they went to high school with–a whopping 900 cards in all (up from 600 in 1991). And yet even with all these base cards, and in one of the best rookie crop years to boot, there are few (if any) major rookies in the whole base checklist.

Instead, they were lumped into the special ‘SkyDome’ box set, along with the other subsets that Topps should have included in the base set: All Stars, Draft Picks and World Series Highlights. Maybe these cards weren’t included in the regular set because of timing. I don’t know. What I do know is that this special 200-card set is more exciting than the 900-card behemoth it followed, and had Topps cut out 200 cards from the base to include these SkyDome cards, 1992 Stadium Club would have been a more logical follow-up to 1991.

33. 1994 Studio
It was hard not to like Donruss’ Studio brand: the photography was amazingly sharp, the checklist wasn’t bloated, the overall base design was attractive and for the most part, it seemed like the set had little if anything to do with baseball. Of course, it had everything to do with the game, but since its inception in 1991 with those hideous charcoal-background portraits, Studio was all about infusing the stars of the game and the game itself with an artistic sensibility, like Diamond Kings come to life.

And like every other brand in the early Nineties, Studio was not immune to the insert craze. But because the base design was so classy, naturally it rubbed off on the inserts (actually, I shouldn’t say ‘naturally,’ because even some sets with the best base designs had some terribly-designed inserts; 1993 and 1994 Donruss come to mind). Studio debuted the tiered Silver and Gold Stars sets, as well as the filmstrip ‘Editor’s Choice’ (the film strip design motif seemed to be a big deal in the early Nineties, probably because of the heightened emphasis on quality photography). 1994 also saw the continuation of the ‘Heritage’ insert (contemporary stars dressed in historic uniforms), a personal favorite.

So if this set is so great, why does it rank somewhere in the middle of the pack? Simply put: it’s fluff. 220 base cards hardly constituted a major issue, and if it was real statistics you were after, Studio was not the place to look. But if it was senior superlative, yearbook-type body copy and old-timey boardwalk dress-up you wanted, Studio was your set.

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