Monthly Archives: December 2011

2011 Mets Game-Used Set of the Year

2011 Topps Marquee

Look at all the pretty Mets cards...

It was another rough year for the Mets, with Ike Davis being the only addition the core group of Wright, Reyes, Beltran, and sometimes Santana in the lineup for game-used insert sets in the first half of the year (Bay was in there too, but I’m trying to forget that he exists).  2011 Topps Marquee added Angel Pagan and Fernando Martinez to the mix with the former’s first-ever game-used cards and the latter’s first MLB game-used material, both with cards featuring sticker autographs (as well as on-card autographs in a separate insert set).  There were several other notable cards, including the first pieces from the 2010 pinstripe uniforms (Beltran), large multi-color jerseys from Nolan Ryan (sadly, not Mets jerseys, though he is shown as a Met on the card) and Eddie Murray (Orioles), Mets logo patches from Johan Santana (though he is shown in a Twins uniform for some reason), and more mundane material from Jose Reyes, David Wright, and Tom Seaver (Roberto Alomar and Rickey Henderson were in there too, but I have nothing interesting to say about them).  Finish it off with a variety of autograph, jersey, and Padres patch cards featuring ex-Met Heath Bell, and you have a set with plenty to offer any Mets collector.

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2011 Mets Game-Used Year in Review

2011 was another dismal season for the Mets on the field, but who needs actual games when you have baseball cards?  It was a fairly uneventful season there too until the last few weeks, but there were several bright spots.

Going into the first year of the reborn Topps monopoly (Upper Deck still managed to put out a 2010 product with just a MLB Players Association license before getting sued by MLB Properties), I didn’t exactly have high hopes.  Take out all that Upper Deck and Donruss have given the hobby on the game-used front over the preceding decade and you would be left with mostly mediocre offerings.  Even after just the loss of Donruss and Fleer in 2005, variety in game-used offerings has taken a nosedive; taking Upper Deck out of the picture certainly isn’t going to help.  Gone are the days of finding pieces of hats, gloves, shoes, and other random items embedded in cardboard (I can live without game-used dirt cards).  Gone too are the days of even having any details of the item mentioned on the card – “Congratulations! You have received pieces of stuff used in a game of some sort!”  Based on how Topps seemed to be dumping its excess game-used inventory into cards in 2010 (some cards featured pieces of jerseys from events dating back to 2002), the days of timely and relevant game-used pieces (aside from the annual All-Star game insert sets) seemed long past.  2011 had a few surprises though, giving hope for some interesting products in the years to come (especially now that Panini, aka Donruss Mk. III, is in the market with a license from the MLB Players Association).

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Mets Game-Used History: 1997 UD Game Jersey

How long ago was 1997 in the baseball card world?  To start, there were six manufacturers producing MLB-licensed baseball cards, the most ever in the history of the hobby.  There were only 28 Major League Baseball teams.  The Red Sox hadn’t won a World Series in forever.  The Brewers were in the American League.  Baseball was still recovering from the strike that cut the 1994 season short.  And nobody had ever crammed a piece of a baseball uniform into a piece of cardboard.

The story really begins all the way back in 1990.  Upper Deck, in its second year of production after shaking up the industry with its debut set, was in need of a draw for its high number packs, which had the same mix of cards as the regular packs plus some from 100 more cards of nobodies and has-beens.  Their solution was a ten-card insert set honoring all-time great Reggie Jackson plus an additional variant card personally autographed by Mr. October – the first-ever certified autograph insert.  Now, insert cards were nothing new; various insert sets appeared in sets during the ’80s with little or no fanfare, often confusing kids who pulled a card that didn’t look anything like the others.  Something amazing happened to the Reggie Jackson Baseball Heroes set though – it became a hit.  The world’s first commercially successful insert set was born and the hobby would never be the same.

Certified autograph cards would remain fairly rare for the rest of the decade, but inserts quickly became a set’s main draw, overshadowing even rookie cards (particularly when the inserts featured rookies, as in Fleer’s once-hot but now-forgotten Rookie Sensations insert set).  As manufacturers churned out more and more sets (with smaller and smaller production runs), inserts flooded the market, making collecting cards of even a single player an impossible task.  The insert arms race was well underway.

By the middle of the decade, ordinary inserts and foil-stamped parallel sets were commonplace.  There were hobby-exclusive inserts, retail-exclusive inserts, jumbo pack exclusives, rack pack exclusives, and all sorts of other meaningless distinctions.  Upper Deck tried to capitalize on its hologram fetish with limited success.  Topps had better luck with its Refractor parallel cards (which only came in one variety of rainbow-reflective chrome, unlike the countless variants in today’s sets).  Upper Deck tried to tie player performance to mail-in bonus offers with its Predictor cards, but those didn’t last too long.  Many other gimmicks made their way into cards in these years, including various materials (real and simulated), foil, embossing, die-cut cards, and more, but none were game-changers.  Until 1997 (well, technicaly late 1996, but close enough).

In retrospect, the concept seems obvious.  Take a piece of cardboard with a player’s name and picture on it, add a tiny piece of game-used equipment, profit!  Following their experiment in the 1996-1997 Football set, Upper Deck tested the baseball waters in 1997 with a three-card UD Game Jersey set featuring some can’t-miss stars.  The plan seemed to be to feature one veteran star, one young star, and one star prospect.  For the veteran star, they chose Tony Gwynn.  Gwynn isn’t a bad choice, but his Hall of Fame classmate Cal Ripken Jr. was probably more relevant at the time, having recently broken Gehrig’s consecutive game streak and all.  For the young star, they went with face-of-the-brand Ken Griffey Jr., of course.  And for the prospect, they picked a New York shortstop in pinstripes who was coming off an impressive rookie season in 1996.  No, not the one who was named Rookie of the Year and would go on to rack up 3000 hits and almost as many World Series rings as he had fingers in the course of a Hall of Fame career.  No, they rounded out this historic set with Rey Ordoñez.

1997 Upper Deck Game Jersey Rey Ordoñez

The first Mets jersey available in bite-size pieces

And so the first-ever Mets pinstripe jersey card came into being.  Gwynn cruised into the Hall of Fame alongside Ripken.  Griffey had a few more seasons as the best player in baseball before his non-steroid-enhanced body succumbed to age and injury on his way to the Hall.  And Rey Ordoñez missed most of the one season his team made it to the World Series due to injury, only to return to have broadcasters make “and this is the kind of play that Ordoñez makes look easy” or “and this is why the Mets can afford to let him swing a limp noodle of a bat” comments right before misplaying a ball that the pre-injury Ordoñez would have gotten to easily.  Sometimes the cards end up being more notable than the players.