Wednesday, September 02, 2020

1994 Topps, pt. 3

Moving on to the regular cards, one thing I thought was odd were two “Bob Clemente”-esque names, which you don’t really expect in 1994. Benny Santiago (#370) and Denny Martinez (#440). The latter is especially odd, since Dennis is a common American name, while the former was famous – maybe someone thought Benito was too associated with fascist dictators?

I already touched on the demographic info and statistics on the backs of the cards, but the backs also feature another picture of the player and usually some kind of anecdote. What’s interesting is that the longer the player’s career, the less likely they are to have an anecdote, since they have to squeeze in all of the stats real tight. Usually these blurbs are asinine statistical trivia or a personal story that Topps considered interesting but usually is not given in enough detail due to space limitations to land with the reader. A typical example of the former is Bill Haselman (#138):

“In 19 games from June 6 to August 8, Bill hit .328 with 11 of his 13 extra-base hits for the season”.

And of the latter, Tony Pena (#85):

“As a kid, Tony was transported to his games by 4 donkeys pulling a wagon.”

There are handful that fall between the ridiculous and the sublime; these are my favorites, with a limited amount of my own snark interjected:

Phil Plantier (#13): “Phil’s home run total was the 4th-highest in Padre history. Amazingly, he had two-HR games on the second-to-last days of May, June, July, and August – an anomaly he attributed to ‘biorhythms’”.

Greg Gagne (#151): “One of Greg’s home runs last season was the 10,000th ever hit at the site of Detroit’s Tiger Stadium.”

It took me a minute of back-of-the-envelope figuring to concede that this was even possible. It is in fact possible.

Graeme Lloyd (#187): “Graeme was the definition of a ‘rubber-armed’ pitcher, as he worked in an amazing 43% of the Brewers’ first 103 games.”

Curtis Leskanic (#191): “Quickly Curtis shaves his right arm before starts because, he says, it reduces resistance and increases his arm speed.”

Julio Franco (#260): “Julio once promised his mom he’d hit .300 for her every season; he’s done so in 9 of 16 pro seasons”.

So apparently he’s 44% a terrible son.

Eric Helfland (#363): “In Eric’s short career he has played at two colleges, been drafted by two teams, picked in the Expansion Draft and then traded.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a “Future Star”.

Arthur Rhodes (#477): “Arthur was born eight days after the New York Mets upset the Orioles in the 1969 World Series.”

What a fun, uplifting, relevant to Arthur Rhodes fact to put on the back of his card, which presumably was primarily collected by Orioles fans!

John Hope (#491): “John’s hopes for a no-hitter were ruined on 9-16, when he had to leave his hitless game against Florida after 4 IP with leg cramps.”

And my hopes of winning the lottery were ruined when the second number on my ticket didn’t match after the first did.

Brad Holman (#631): “Brad held foes to a mere .208 AVG, getting revenge for suffering a grisly facial injury when struck by a line drive on 8-8.”

That’ll learn ‘em!

Felix Jose (#672): “Called by manager Hal McRae ‘the most serious guy I’ve ever seen in spring training’, Felix’s March shoulder injury plagued him all year.”

Pedro Martinez (#676): “Pedro’s real last name is Aquino but, because his passport listed his mother’s maiden name, he kept the name Martinez to avoid the hassle.”

Given that this is the OTHER Pedro Martinez, this was a case of winning the battle only to lose the war and be occupied by the enemy’s troops for the next five centuries.

But my favorite, which I will show here so that you can see the back of a 1994 Topps, is for Ricky Jordan (#86):

What’s more disgusting, that or his walk rate?

Now for the best part of any baseball card set – the front of the cards. Throughout this series I’ve been talking about how great 1994 Topps looks, but have been holding back on just what it is about these cards that I find so aesthetically pleasing. It’s difficult to articulate - I suppose that as often is the case as a rational-minded person trying to describe aesthetic feelings, I just have to chalk it up to a certain je ne sais quoi. A lot of it is just that they were the cards of record at the time that I fell in love with baseball. They have what I might in another context consider excessive borders, but the truncated home plate shape feels baseball-appropriate, and the colors are coordinated with the player’s team. The script for the player’s name is just right – it’s more exciting than print, but it uses proper punctuation, and it’s always clean and readable.

While I long ago moved on from Ken Griffey as the most desirable card in this set in terms of player identity, I can’t move on from Ken Griffey’s card (#400) being the best looking in this set. Not sure whether it was burnt into my subconscious that way, or if it is just that it looks great:

Most of the cards show an action shot of the player. Three of my favorites are Tom Gordon (#66), Orel Hershiser (#460), and Fred McGriff (#565):

A fair number of the cards are laid out as landscapes rather than portraits; I find this annoying when looking at the set in a binder, but some are very nice. A good example is John Olerud (#10):

I will attempt to classify the unique cards that I like into a few buckets. One theme that I particularly enjoy is “plain girl with hot girl”. I’m sure you’ve seen an online dating profile where a less-attractive person displays a picture of themselves with one or more relatively more attractive people, hoping for some misplaced swipes (I’m not sure what step two in this plan is, but I digress). There are a number of cards that fall into this category, usually involving a middle infielder pivoting/making the relay throw at second while a more famous runner slides in:

- Felix Fermin (#36) is shown on the pivot with Rickey Henderson sliding in
- Bret Barberie (#132) gets the pseudo-Sportsflics treatment as Jeff Bagwell slides into second
- Jeff Kent (#424) paired with Chris Sabo (of course, Kent would eventually a much bigger star than Sabo, and regardless of how unpopular he may have been, he was also not a minion of the forces of darkness as Sabo was)
- Bip Roberts (#733) paired with Eddie Murray
- Honorable mention: the featured player of the card is more prominent than the slider, but Roberto Alomar (#675) is paired with older brother Sandy

Two in this genre don’t occur at second base. In one, Tino Martinez (#693) catches a pop-up at Cleveland Municipal Stadium with the baseball decal on the wall showing Bob Feller’s retired #19 getting prominent treatment. But my favorite in this whole genre (other than possibly Fermin because it includes Rickey) is #122, Jeromy Burnitz:

Burnitz is dwarfed on his own card by Bonilla, who not only had three inches on him but gets the foreground of the shot. I also imagine that pairing these two up infuriates Mets fans, Bonilla for obvious reason and then Burnitz was dealt away to Cleveland with Joe Roa for Jerry DiPoto, Paul Byrd, Dave Mlicki, and PTBNL Jesus Azuaje. At least the Indians didn’t benefit, flipping Burnitz to Milwaukee for Kevin Seitzer during the 1996 stretch run at a point where Burnitz was a better hitter and almost a decade younger. No, I'm not bitter about the Indians giving away Burnitz, Brian Giles, and Richie Sexson, the hitters who could have extended their competitive window into the early 2000s. Why do you ask?

Some of the best action shots:

- Todd Frohwirth (#242) and one of my future favorite players of the era Steve Reed (#627) are both delivering from down under on the front and backs of their cards. Someone at Topps shared my aesthetic preferences for relievers.

- Spike Owen (#297) leaping in the air on the pivot
- Ryne Sandberg (#300) getting the pseudo-Sportsflics treatment on the pivot
- Charlie Hough (#625) gripping (front) and throwing the knuckler (back)

Perhaps my favorite card in the set, then and now (ok, then was behind the Manny Future Star and Griffey), is Kenny Lofton (#149):

The counterpart to action shots are fish out of water shots, in which a player is featured doing something that is not their forte:

- Mike LaValliere (#147) running
- Doug Drabek (#220) and Dave Winfield (#430) in catchers’ crouches during warm-ups
- Mark Grace (#360) fired up on the mound during a pitching change/visit
- Devon White (#511) reading fan mail while wearing a Blue Jay pullover so teal that he must have known he would eventually be a Marlin
- Jose Rijo (#705) aiming his most ‘90s of contraptions, a Super Soaker, at the fans (?)

My favorite of these is Doc Gooden (#150):

A few that I don’t have a defined bucket for:

- Fernando Valenzuela (#174) is caught at the trademark “eyes pointed up” part of his motion, but seeing him in a Baltimore uniform is a little discomforting
- George Brett’s final card (#180) is a zoomed out shot of him hitting it the other way, but with the distinctive Royals Stadium scoreboard visible in center, I think it works and is a very nice card.
- Texas wore some kind of alternate uniforms; I don’t know that they’re throwbacks as the “T” looks like a cousin to Detroit’s olde English “D”. But someone at Topps loved these as they figure prominently on three Rangers’ cards – Dean Palmer (#136), Kevin Brown (#345), and the back of Craig Lefferts (#288)

- Rey Sanchez (#422) is signing autographs, holding his own 1993 Topps card.
- Geronimo Pena (#444) straddling the back of a Dodger baserunner
- Almost all of the amusing pictures are on the front of the card, but on the back of his card, Alvaro Espinoza (#726) is wearing his goggles and a panama hat. It’s pretty great.

One of the premium sets of the day was Studio, which generally pictured players in posed portraits. 1994 Topps features three cards that look as if they might be trying to encroach on Studio’s territory. Maybe someone caught the San Francisco clubhouse on a good day, because both Willie McGee (#534) and Barry Bonds (#700) are so depicted. But they both had a certain amount of gravitas given their career accomplishments, which made this treatment seem non-ridiculous. I'm confused by what the thinking was on #522, though.

The pictures are generally so good, though, when you get an unflattering one, it makes you wonder what Topps had against the guy. My first reaction when I saw Larry Casian (#543) was that he was getting pulled, but upon looking at it further it seems far, far more likely that he's receiving the ball from Tom Kelly. But Casian's experssion is dire, and it seems weird to me that the catcher appears to be walking up onto the mound when he should have been standing there for a while waiting for Casian to trot in from the bullpen.

Bob Ojeda (#93) had a truly terrible year on a human level in 1993. He was injured in the spring training boating accident that killed teammates Steve Olin and Tim Crews, and only appeared in nine games after missing time due to his injuries. You would have hoped that Topps would show a little more humanity than this image:

In a class all by itself, though, is what I think is the most erotic baseball card I’ve ever seen, #80:

I’ve had enough fun with this that I’ll have to consider collecting another set as an off-season project in the future. The hardest part would be finding one that can hold a candle in any respect to 1994 Topps. It’s all downhill from here.

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