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Off to the faces.

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I was going to weigh in on the news this past week that Major League Baseball is moving its baseball card license away from Topps and to a different company, Fanatics, in a few years, ending a 70-year connection between MLB and Topps.

Instead, I think I’ll just go straight to writing about the faces and stories of my latest box of cards, which arrived in the middle of last week.

(OK, I’ll say a few things. I’m not that sentimental about MLB’s split with Topps, because nothing lasts forever, and Topps has not been so amazingly wonderful and fault-free that they couldn’t be improved upon. I hope Fanatics makes a reasonably priced, gimmick-free product that is easily accessible — or at least a reasonably priced, gimmick-free, accessible base set that can then be accented by whatever goofball novelty stuff they feel like coughing up. As a one-or-two-pack-a-year guy, my opinion doesn’t matter that much anyway.)

Anyhow, we’ll open the box. Off to the faces!

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I was good friends for a while in high school with a girl who had a thing for Alexander Mogilny, the Russian-born scoring star for the not-quite-hometown Buffalo Sabres.

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I dunno, he musta been cute or something.

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Might as well get all the Russkies out of the way early. In 1992, the California Angels signed three Russian players for a rousing $1,500 bonus apiece. None of them got within 5,000 miles of the major leagues, but Topps put them on an entertaining card in 1993 — a definite time capsule from those early post-Cold War years. (It looks at a quick glance like they may have been painted into their Angels uniforms, but I might just be cynical.)

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In the Seventies, they called this man “Disco Dan.” But in this fuzzy, frill-free 1982 Fleer card, it looks like he’s struggling just to get his bat on the ball. After the love has gone, how can you carry on?

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Why did I spend a dime on a card of a convicted murderer who died in his prison cell?

Because I suspect the Patriots, the NFL, and their sundry partners in business would love for me to forget that Aaron Hernandez ever existed … that a human being so sadly flawed could get so far in their enterprise, and have so many serious problems ignored or forgiven, simply because he had a soft pair of hands and a quick pair of feet.

They would like me to forget the sins of the past, along with the assaults and batteries to come next week, and the long-term brain trauma and crippling injuries suffered by players, and simply be awed by the pregame military flyovers and the expensive commercials and the incessant hyped-up bark of the announcers.

Fuck them, every one.

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Maybe it’s the look on Caleb Joseph’s face. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that the Baltimore Orioles have (sadly) been a rudderless ship for a long, long time. But I can’t look at this card without thinking that Mr. Joseph has just done something really, really ill-advised — like thrown wildly on a pickoff attempt — and is just in this very instant realizing his mistake.

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Not every card collector is out to pile up a stack of Mickey Mantles. A lot of us have weird quirks we look for. I haven’t made a formal fetish of it yet, but I decided a while ago that I liked cards in which cars or other vehicles sneak into the background, and maybe someday I’ll pursue them more formally.

(Why cars? I think because you don’t usually see a car in the confines of a major-league stadium, so a photo with a car or cars in it must be taken at some offbeat location like a spring-training field. And that adds a certain funk right from the get-go.)

This excellent ’82 Fleer card is a stalwart example of the genre. Mr. Jorgensen looks like he could be taking grounders at a community-college field, and for all I know, he is. Extra points for that groovy windbreaker-under-jersey look. If Fanatics can get some windbreaker-under-jersey pix, they’ll rule OK.

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I’ve written about my fondness for Topps Heritage, which are modern sets that reuse designs from many years ago. This set (issued, I believe, in 2002) nicely mimics the look of the 1953 Topps set, which used painting-style illustrations for the players.

I adore the painting treatment here of Bill Ortega, a Havana-born outfielder who appeared in five games for the 2001 Cardinals and was not heard from again at the major-league level. It’s not strictly photorealistic — it’s sort of on the near edge of photorealistic — and he’s not smiling; he seems to be aware ahead of time that this is just going to be one stop along the path.

Bill Ortega looks a little bit like he’s thinking that no one can hurt him any more than he’s already been hurt, while wishing in his heart that were actually true.

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Also from the category of wary-looking athletes, former Montreal Canadiens goalie Andre Racicot earned the legendary and derisive nickname “Red Light” — by some sources, after he gave up three goals on six shots over 13 minutes in his NHL debut. (For the non-hockey fans in the crowd — hi, Mom! — a red “goal light” is lit behind a goalie every time a goal is scored.)

He never quite lived it down. But he did get his name on Lord Stanley’s Cup as a member of the 1993 Canadiens, which is not something every player accomplishes.

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I have a commissioner card, and I’ve seen those Fifties Topps cards with the National and American League presidents, but I haven’t seen too many cards showing owners.

Wikipedia describes Bruce McNall as “a former Thoroughbred racehorse owner, sports executive, and convicted felon,” and that about sums it up.

(He owned the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League at the time this card was produced. I wonder if they ran cards of all the other owners, or if McNall was special?)

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For someone who swore off the NFL, I dropped a lot of football cards into my cart this time around. CFL cards are always welcome, especially when …

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… they feature such a funkadelic color scheme on the back (randomly intermingled green and yellow on black!)

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Many years ago, when I worked summers on the custodial staff at a nursing home, I dealt with some real characters. One of them was a painter — I think he sometimes did other maintenance tasks, but by and large he painted stuff that needed painting, and this seemed to largely sustain him. Oddly for a painter, he wore predominantly white clothing, and kept it fairly clean.

My memory of him — I think his name was Mark — is positively tinted by his absurdist approach to life. He apparently had decided to cruise through this relatively menial job on a cushion of humor … a glint of the eye, a curve at the corner of the mouth, and great comic timing.

The Resistance took many forms among the workers at the Home. Some of them, like two brothers who were both ex-military, were a little harsher and coarser than I sometimes liked. They’d brined in the ol’ fuck-the-Army a little too deeply.

Mark, in contrast, seasoned his I-don’t-care-what-happens-here with a dose of almost childish playfulness. Like the time we were talking football, and he decided to mention to our co-worker Tim that the Patriots had some guy named Tim Goad.

“Tim Goad. Tim …. Goad,” he said, then paused for effect. “Tim, are you a goad?”

Written words do not do his style justice; it was sort of reductio ad absurdum, en fuego.

And every time I see my new Tim Goad card I will recall it fondly.

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Still trying to capture my old painter-buddy’s elan vital. I am reminded of a long-ago exchange that supposedly took place between a film director and the young Robert Mitchum:

Director: “Hey, Mitchum, you remind me of a pay toilet. You know why that is?”

Mitchum, bemused: “Naww. Why is that?”

Director: “Because you don’t give a shit for nothin’.”

The people who ran the cutting machines for Fleer in ’82 didn’t let the grind bother them too much either, based on this Reid Nichols card. As a look at the top border shows, it is grossly, almost drunkenly miscut. Made it off the factory floor and into a package, though, and somebody got paid at the end of the week.

 

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One of my favorite subgenres of the sports-scrub category is the local guy who makes good with his local team … then finds no market whatsoever for his talents elsewhere, as if he were only able to competently catch bombs or hit fastballs within 20 miles of his birthplace.

I exaggerate somewhat in the case of Naaman Roosevelt, but some of the ingredients are there. He grew up in Buffalo and attended the football powerhouse that is the University of Buffalo, before making the Bills for two or three years as (I believe) an undrafted free agent, catching 25 passes.

He didn’t make it into an NFL game for anyone else … but he did go north of the border and become a regular contributor to the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL. So he’s big in Buffalo and Regina. Which is better than some people manage.

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I don’t remember what year these cards are (early ’90s sometime) and none of these guys made the major leagues (one of them played seven games at Rookie level and was done.) I just really love the guys in front of the bare trees. They look so cold.

They stand in the lifeless place of reckoning, and don their best game faces.

They might be wearing stone-washed jeans.

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There’s a small subgroup of Red Sox players with a minor distinction that comes up now and again: They share a last name with a town or city in Massachusetts. Garry Hancock is one. So are Fred Lynn, Tim Wakefield, Joe Hudson, and Bill Lee.

Sadly, the Sox never got around to signing Daryl Boston back in the Eighties. And earlier this year, they ditched an infielder named C.J. Chatham. It makes one wonder sometimes just where their priorities are.

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Also on the New England tip, we have Claude “Skip” Lockwood, born in the Boston neighborhood of Roslindale; educated in the suburb of Norwood, Mass.; educated at various times at MIT and Emerson College of Boston; and resident of Cos Cob, Connecticut, at the dawn of the 1981 season. I can practically taste the cod cakes in Skip’s kitchen and see the blocky old Volvo in Skip’s driveway.

Sad to say, this is what they call a career-capper: Skip had already thrown his last major-league pitch when this card appeared. It’s still great.

(The ’81 Topps set is the first one I have clear memories of collecting, and as a result, it is indisputably the finest and most visionary design Topps ever rolled out. I will brook no dispute.)

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Punter cards are pretty great. Maybe I should make a point of collecting them.

The punter gives the lie to most of the NFL’s shtick. He is usually lanky, pale, and incapable of tackling the blow-up Tigger on his front lawn, and yet he makes an NFL salary and enjoys a place among all the bruisers.

Long may he run. (Something tells me the NFL would love to replace punters with automatons, painted to resemble Coors Light cans. Tell me I’m wrong.)

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Placekickers are pretty great too, especially when they look like drowned rats.

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People like to make fun of the prevailing design trends of the 1970s, but I’ll argue that there was a period, maybe around 1992-1994, that was just about as bad — ugly and cliched, but lacking the fun.

Look at album covers from that period and you’ll agree. Look at sports cards like this 1993 League Leaders jobbie and you’ll agree twice. (What did they lead their leagues in? Interceptions, I believe.)

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An NFL team in light creamsicle orange, with a winking pirate as a mascot? I doubt that would fly very far nowadays. Reason enough to pick up any old Tampa Bay Buccaneers stuff you come across. At least one of these guys, John Lynch, turned out to be pretty good.

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Just today I saw somebody on Twitter express the opinion that “gum is gross.” It’s not something I think I’ve heard before, or not in a long time, and it made me think.

Gum? Gross? I guess it could be. I dunno – I’ve been putting it in my mouth (and sometimes my stomach) for 40-plus years without thinking much about it. Have I been doing it wrong? A big life error? Yeesh. I might not sleep tonight, thinking about this.

Worked fine for Jeff Jones, though.

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Rest well, Joe Delaney.

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