March 19, 2012

Card Critic: 2012 Topps Heritage Review

Are those braces on Escobar's teeth?
I feel old.
This time four years ago I argued that Topps should've killed off the Heritage brand with the 2008 Heritage '59 set. I stand by that sentiment. I understand that you don't kill a cash cow, but collecting a Topps Classic 1963 set would weigh better with my definition of the word "heritage." That said, I like this year's set—with a few caveats.

One thing I have to mention right away: The Topps checklister had one final chance to honor Stan Musial. One more chance. He or she could've put a worthy Cardinal veteran like Lance Berkman in Musial's final checklist-number slot. But noooooo. You want to know who got #250? Jon Jay. No, not him. This guy. What Heritage used to get right was the practice of checklist-matching current stars to their team-themed original-set counterparts. Number 1 in the 1960 Topps set was Early Wynn of the Chicago White Sox. Number 1 of the 2009 Topps Heritage set? Mark Buerhle of the Chicago White Sox. Number 20 of the 1957 Topps set is Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves. His checklist-matched counterpart in 2006 Heritage? Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves. I could go on, but you get the idea. There were very few heroes at the top of the Topps universe of the 1960s: Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Stan Musial. And I'm sorry, but though he may be a St. Louis Cardinal, Jon Jay is not even a cardboard stand-in for Stan Musial.

Which leads to a larger question: Did Topps abandon the checklist-matching system for 2012 Heritage? Answer: Not really. They just abandoned their standard hero-worship model. They're not matching based on ability, but by team and field position. For example, Jay Bruce is on number 400. In 1963, another Cincy outfielder had that spot—Frank Robinson. Number 348 is Miguel Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers' hard-hitting first (now third) baseman. His original-set counterpart? Vic Wertz. Pick a card at random ... number 364 Jose Tabata of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the original set, #364 is Howie Goss of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Okay, another one, this time not from a team that was around in 1963: Desmond Jennings at #195. In 1963 that was Manny Jimenez, also an All-Star Rookie, from the KC Athletics. Milwaukee Brewers' outfielder Corey Hart is on #414. In 1963, that's Ty Cline, of the Milwaukee Braves. Very clever. It's a huge Topps checklist-history-matching in-joke.

Also, I love that players are in their new uniforms, simply because none of them appear to be blatantly Photoshopped (although most if not all have been blatantly Photoshopped). One of the few cards that looks off is Carlos Beltran's. It's not quite as bad as the old-school St. Louis airbrushings, but for some reason the Topps artists just haven't seemed to master the "STL" on a cap. But Mark Buerhle, Prince Fielder, CJ Wilson, Jed Lowrie, Michael Pineda, and others that I have seen look great. With the exception of a few cards, the maturation of airbrushing has been a boon to recent sets. It used to be that the Topps artists would try to obscure the old uniform, or break out the Cray-Pas and go to town (see the Airbrushing Invitational Rodeo I did a few years back). Now, with the sophistication of Adobe CS5, Prince Fielder on the Brewers easily transitions to Prince Fielder on the Tigers without too many hiccups.

I'm okay, for some reason, with there being variations up the wahzoo, though the specific types of variations seem lacking. Color swaps are alright, but image swaps? C'mon, that's kind of lazy. Also, super-short-printed error variations seem to taunt the average set builder, especially if it becomes generally accepted that they are part of the master set. I would've liked to see the incorporation of older players, original to the set. Maybe a Rookie Stars card featuring Bryce Harper, Jesus Montero, Nick Hagadone, and Pete Rose? That would be a variation worth chasing. 

And speaking of the Rookie Stars subset, why are the same players featured on different cards? And why do those players also warrant their own cards? Did I miss something? Is this 2003-04 Topps Basketball Rookie Matrix, or is it especially hard for a player to meet rookie status nowadays? There are so many great young players out there that it seems completely frivolous—and gives the impression that Topps doesn't really respect its customers—to showcase the same players in different permutations across multiple cards. I feel hoodwinked.

Also, I think the photography is worth a mention The original '63s have aged so well because the photography standards were higher. Kodachrome, or whatever the professional equivalent at the time, featured brilliant color and crisp images. For its Heritage line (since 2006's Heritage '57 set), Topps has tried to evoke an old-timey feel for its photography. I can't say that it's worked. Continuing with this year's set, some of the posed sideline images appear muddled, like the designers have been hitting the diffuse filter pretty hard in the color-correction process. 

Finally, the card stock feels leathery on the back. If you put a card under a microscope and magnified the back so that you got down to the very fiber, would it be thatched? It feels as if this would be true.

Overall, I'm excited for this set. It suffers a little out of the gate with the needless carousel of rookies and the muddy photos, but it gets points for the clever checklisting nods and for the (generally) clean airbrushing.

Oh, and one more thing: These cards don't stink like Sex Panther cologne, like the 2012 Topps flagship product does. They smell like baseball cards should smell, despite the lack of gum in the pack.

(RIP indestructible, disgusting Topps gum)


Steve F. said...

Nice review, Ben. A question: The 2007 Heritage set had white letter and yellow letter variations because the 1958 Topps set did. Were there actually color swaps in the 1963 set or is that something Topps made up just to add some variations? (The image swaps are obviously just frivolous--and unnecessary, IMHO.)

By the way, it's too late now, but here would have been a good variation for the 2011 Heritage set. Topps issued a Venezuelan set many years in the 1960s, but AFAIK, the only year there were cards added that weren't copies of the first two series of the basic Topps set was 1962, when they added cards of Elio Chacon and Luis Aparicio. IOW, cards 1-196 copied Topps's first two series, and then those two were added. Oddly, instead of being added as 197 and 198, they were added as 199 and 200. Anyway, it would have been great if Heritage 2011 had two short-printed cards numbered either 199 and 200 (like the Venezuelans) or, better, 503 and 504 (3 and 4 above the end of the existing set) of Venezuelan players that weren't otherwise in the set. Considering BBRef lists 84 2011 players born in Venezuela, the options would have been numerous.

Grand Cards said...

One thought on the photoshop quality. Though Prince Fielder may appear seamlessly transitioned into a Tiger, the discerning viewer will notice that Prince is sporting a "D" on his hat that is at least 2-3 times larger than actual size.

This is something that Topps has shown a consistent inability to get right, having screwed up at least one hat "D" in photoshop in each of the last four years.