Wednesday, August 19, 2020

1994 Topps, pt. 2

For some reason this winter I was struck with nostalgia for 1994 Topps, and decided that it would be a good off-season project to collect the complete set. I’d never collected a complete current set when I was interested in cards – I didn’t have the resources, and I preferred to get a variety of different sets (although as I said, 1994 Topps was my favorite based on how represented it was among my cards) or to buy Ken Griffey cards. Yes, my year of baseball card obsession corresponded with thinking that Ken Griffey was the best and coolest player. Not that I have anything against Griffey, but in retrospect, it now seems like a lot of wasted time and money that could have been spent on Barry Bonds or Rickey Henderson cards. Within a year I was getting seriously into statistics and discovering that Bonds, not Griffey, was the best player in baseball, but by then I wasn’t buying a lot of cards.

I say I never collected a complete “current” set because I do in fact have a complete set of 1991 Donruss, or extremely close to it. They are ugly cards, to be sure, but we used to buy boxes of them dirt cheap at Big Lots. I also have to be pretty close on 1990 and 1992 Topps, although I never sat down and tried to inventory what I had.

Of course it would have been easier and cheaper to just buy the complete set, especially for Topps, but I decided it would be more fun to start with my old collection, buy some unopened packs, and buy singles to fill in whatever gaps were left. So that’s what I did, and it was more fun and more expensive. I felt conflicted about opening previously sealed boxes of twenty-six year old cards; on the one hand, it felt like squandering the last of a non-renewable resource. On the other, these poor cards had been stuck inside for two and a half decades. Time for them to get out and be admired like they were made for.

There was a complication, though. I believe 1994 Topps was the first Topps set to be glossed on both sides, and they get stuck together. I was usually able to get them apart without too much damage, but there were a handful of unfortunate incidents, although I think Mike Mussina was the biggest name for which I ended up with a severely defaced card. At least by 1994 there was no disgusting gum enclosed.

There were frustrations -- I ended up with a lot of extras, naturally, but not as many of some of the cards that I now consider most desirable (Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Roger Clemens, Jeff Bagwell) as I would have liked. As always seems to be the case, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker stuck together – I got zero of the former and only one of the latter. There were amusing coincidences as well. In one pack I got a Lee Smith and a Trevor Hoffman back-to-back – the man who contemporaneously held the career saves record, and the man who would break it. When I was opening a pack during commercials while watching the Super Bowl, I pulled a Pat Mahomes card.

One thing that struck me as I was putting the set together was that these were “my” cards, but not “my” players. 1994 Topps is and always will be the consummate ideal of a baseball card in my mind, but of course they represent the players of the 1993 season, in which I cared zilch about baseball. The 1995 or 1996 set would much better capture the universe of baseball players as I came to love it, but the cards themselves would not hold the same nostalgia value.

The other thing that struck me after I had mostly completed the set in the spring was how the baseball experience of 1994 would reverberate to that of 2020, the only two seasons of my time as a fan that have been catastrophically shortened (144 games in 1995 sounds real good right about now).

With that, I will write about the cards themselves. On the back, the second picture takes up about a quarter of the card, but leaves plenty of room for a statistical record that is probably better than what was published in contemporary Who’s Who In Baseball. You get the demographics (height/weight, bats/throws, draft status, how acquired by current team, DOB/birthplace, and current home), plus decent stats for the entirety of the player’s major league career (and if you don’t believe that, look at how they had to squeeze it in on Nolan Ryan’s final card). For pitchers, the statistical categories are G, IP, W, L, R, ER, SO, BB, GS, CG, SHO, SV, and ERA – weird order, but total runs allowed? Can’t argue with that. For hitters: G, AB, R, H, 2B, 3B, HR, RBI, SB, SLG, BB, SO, AVG. For 1994, that’s pretty good.

The set is not marred by inserts – there are a number of “special” cards, but none that are inserts – they all are standard numbered, not irritants designed to make it impossible to complete a set. Unfortunately, these special cards are the weakness of the set.

1. 1993 Draft Picks

At first, this should make you excited, because the #1 overall pick in 1993 was the greatest player ever to be taken #1 overall, and one of the greatest to be drafted period, Alex Rodriguez. But he is nowhere to be seen, nor are most of the other best players drafted in the first round (Brian Anderson, Chris Carpenter, Darren Dreifort, Torii Hunter, Derrek Lee, Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek), with Billy Wagner being the exception. The highest draft pick represented is Wayne Gomes (#4). I assume that since the draft picks weren’t MLBPA members, they were able to cut their own deals, which explains why they’re absent, but it’s still a disappointing lot, and there are about 35 cards wasted on them.

2. Prospects

These cards feature four players to a card, which means you get only a tiny picture of their faces. It’s typically one player from AAA, AA, A, and a draftee. There’s one card for each position, and it’s worth listing them out:

C (#686): Chris Howard, Carlos Delgado, Jason Kendall, Paul Bako
1B (#448): Greg Pirkl, Roberto Petagine, DJ Boston, Shawn Wooten
2B (#527): Norberto Martin, Ruben Santana, Jason Hardtke, Chris Sexton
3B (#369): Luis Ortiz, David Bell, Jason Giambi, George Arias
SS (#158): Orlando Miller, Brandon Wilson, Derek Jeter, Mike Neal
OF (#79): Billy Masse, Stanton Cameron, Tim Clark, Craig McClure
OF (#237): Curtis Pride, Shawn Green, Mark Sweeney, Eddie Davis
OF (#616): Eddie Zambrano, Glen Murray, Chad Mottola, Jermaine Allensworth
SP (#316): Chad Ogea, Duff Brumley, Terrell Wade, Chris Michalak
RP (#713): Todd Williams, Ron Watson, Kirk Bullinger, Mike Welch

Similar to the draft picks, I’m not sure how many players the powers that were at Topps at actually had the ability to choose for these cards. That being said, if this is the success rate, why bother? This did produce the first Topps card for Derek Jeter (I’m not going to wade through the excruciating minutia to try to figure out if it qualifies as his Rookie card or not), but sharing a card with the likes of Brandon Wilson and Mike Neal is not the stuff 1952 Topps Mickey Mantles are made out of. I’d say they hit a homer run with catcher, and the rest of these are just sad. How could you pick twelve outfielders and only have Shawn Green to show for it? And I for one am shocked that the relief pitcher prospects didn’t pan out.

3. Coming Attractions

These cards, the last 28 regular cards in the set (minus the Series 2 checklists that close it out; 4 of the 792 cards are devoted to checklists), feature two prospects from each team. These guys were all supposed to be close to the majors, and so there are more familiar names; I’m not going to list them all, but I’ll give you the top names to give you a flavor. Excluded from this list are the two Braves, arguably the two best players in the group on the same card, a definite success – Chipper Jones (the best player represented by leaps and bounds) and Ryan Klesko.

Carl Everett, Bob Hamelin, Scott Hatteberg, Raul Mondesi, Troy O’Neal, Bill Pulsipher, Steve Trachsel, Rondell White

4. Future Stars

These cards are sprinkled in, one for each team, showing a player pretty close to the majors. There are a couple big names, and as a kid this was my favorite card in the set (along with Ken Griffey, of course). I had multiple copies, and I also happened to pull a bunch of them when opening old packs:

Unfortunately, I don’t consider the design of these to be so cool anymore, with the “futuristic” border. The pixelization of everything in the background of the shot other than the player is not a horrible idea, but as an adult I’d just prefer a nice picture. The future stars were:

Paul Carey (BAL)
Frank Rodriguez (BOS)
Justin Thompson (DET)
Domingo Jean (NYA)
Alex Gonzalez (TOR)

Scott Ruffcorn (CHA)
Manny Ramirez (CLE)
Billy Brewer (KC)
Jose Valentin (MIL)
Rich Becker (MIN)

Garrett Anderson (CAL)
Eric Helfand (OAK)
Tim Davis (SEA)
Benji Gil (TEX)

Javy Lopez (ATL)
Nigel Wilson (FLA)
Cliff Floyd (MON)
Butch Huskey (NYN)
Tony Longmire (PHI)

Matt Walbeck (CHN)
Calvin Reese (CIN) (yes, the back of the card does mention “Pokey”)
Todd Jones (HOU)
Danny Miceli (PIT)
Tripp Cromer (STL)

Mark Thompson (COL)
Billy Ashley (LA)
Ray McDavid (SD)
Salomon Torres (SF)

The weirdest thing for me about grouping 1994 teams by division is the Tigers in the AL East.

5. 1993 Topps All-Stars

Apparently these are Topps’ own picks for 1994 All-Stars in each league. They appear in a run to close out the first series (at least until the checklists gum things up). The design of the cards is unremarkable, but what’s more interesting are the stats on the back – they split the players’ stats by pre- and post-All Star Break, even though they are full season selections, and the stats are different – they show Total Bases and OBP, but not SLG which are on the regular cards. Who knew it was easier to pick all-stars than prospects?

C: Mike Piazza, Mike Stanley
1B: Fred McGriff, Frank Thomas
2B: Robbie Thompson, Roberto Alomar
3B: Matt Williams, Wade Boggs
SS: Jeff Blauser, Cal Ripken
LF: Barry Bonds, Albert Belle
CF: Lenny Dykstra, Ken Griffey
RF: David Justice, Juan Gonzalez
SP: Greg Maddux, Jack McDowell
RP: Randy Myers, Jeff Montgomery

6. Measures of Greatness

These feature one active player of historical stature and compare their statistics to those of the average Hall of Famer and one particular Hall of Famer at their position (this statistical comparison is shown in Bill James’ seasonal notation, per about 158 games, which I assume was chosen since it's the average of 154 and 162). The pairings can be entertaining, though:

C: Darren Daulton/Roy Campanella

In fairness, this wasn’t a great time for great catchers – Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter had retired, Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez were too young for this kind of company. This did not age well.

1B: Frank Thomas/Jimmie Foxx
2B: Ryne Sandberg/Rogers Hornsby
3B: Wade Boggs/Brooks Robinson

I’d make fun of this one, but there was still an extreme dearth of HOF third baseman at this point; Mike Schmidt wasn’t in the Hall yet and George Brett had just retired. Eddie Mathews is not a good comp for Wade Boggs at the plate stylistically, so the pickings are slim. There still hasn’t been a third baseman who really comps to Boggs.

SS: Cal Ripken/Luis Aparicio

Same problem, although Ernie Banks would be a much better fit than Aparicio. Here's the back of the card as an example of these:
OF: Barry Bonds/Willie Mays

This comparison looks even better now than it did then.

OF: Ken Griffey/Stan Musial

This is a bad comp (Mays would be the lazy one), or at least would be a bad comp were it not for the fact that both hail from Donora, Pennsylvania. Does the card point this out? Nope.

OF: Kirby Puckett/Joe DiMaggio

Really? Not Duke Snider or something?

DH: Paul Molitor/Roberto Clemente

I’ll cut them some slack since Molitor was multi-positional and closing in on 3,000 hits. Oddly, pitchers were omitted from Measures of Greatness.

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