Category Archives: Player Spotlights

Player Spotlight: Juan Centeno

Two-time September call-up gets no love from Topps

As we await the announcement of the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, we can safely rule out Juan Centeno. We can probably rule him out for next year as well; he will carry his rookie eligibility into 2015. Still, someone who started the final game of the season for two consecutive years deserves some recognition, right?

Juan Centeno’s claim to fame may have come in just his second major league game. On September 25, 2013, he became the first MLB catcher to ever throw out Billy Hamilton. Hamilton would go on to be the early favorite for NL Rookie of the Year in 2014 while Centeno would spend most of that season in the minors, finishing with AA Binghamton before getting the call to Queens, his second of the year after a brief stint in May. Despite the appearances early in the season, Centeno apparently did not merit his own fake Topps card at the entrance to Citi Field on the final game of the season.

In fact, he wouldn’t get any real cards from Topps either. Wilfredo Tovar, also a two-time September call-up and the recipient of the throw that nabbed Hamilton, got half of a Rookie Card in 2014 Topps Heritage. He had all of 3 MLB plate appearances in 2014 and has yet to play in a single AAA game. Centeno just can’t catch a break. Well, with Topps at least.

Panini is a slightly different story. After a disappointing first series, Panini revamped the 2014 Donruss product in Series 2. It was still disappointing, but this time around all of the Mets autograph cards on the checklist actually existed. Among those were Centeno, Tovar, and fellow Rookie Matt den Dekker (plus David Wright for good measure). These are Juan Centeno’s first cards other than team issues. A proper Topps Rookie Card seemed like an inevitability after this, but it was not to be.

But Panini kept delivering in 2014 Panini Immaculate with Centeno’s first memorabilia cards. Included here are swatches from blue and black jerseys, plus patches, piping, and assorted odds and ends. Seems too good to be true, right? A guy who has played in just 14 MLB games with memorabilia cards? Well, it wasn’t true. The black jersey, which the Mets haven’t worn in a game since 2012, was the biggest clue. Well, that and the bit on the back that says “event-worn material” where most others say “game-worn material.” None of this material is from an actual game and I can’t even imagine what “event” it could be from. Seems fishy.

And that’s all there is for Juan Centeno. After helping the Mets make it to the finish line (well behind the NL East champs unfortunately…) in two straight seasons, the Brewers claimed him off waivers when the Mets moved him off the 40-man roster to clear space for prospects in need of protection. With plenty of catchers available as minor league free agents, the move made sense. Still, Centeno deserved better than a couple of sticker autographs and some sketchy memorabilia.

Player Spotlight: Ed Kranepool

The first true Met for life

There were few constants for the Mets of the ’60s and ’70s.  Between some of the worst teams in baseball history and two World Series teams (one winner and one loser), the ups and downs could not have been any bigger.  What all of those teams had in common though was Ed Kranepool.  Kranepool was called up to the majors in 1962 at age 17 and stayed with the Mets until he retired almost two decades later.  More than half a century after his debut, Kranepool remains the only retired Mets all-star to spend his entire career with the Mets.  In fact, Kranepool’s longevity in Queens gave him many franchise records, some of which are just starting to be overtaken by David Wright.  Ed Kranepool was never a superstar player; Baseball-Reference puts his career value at a mere 4.2 Wins Above Replacement, less than David Wright’s bWAR from his injury-shortened 2013 alone.  Still, he was a big part of Mets history and deserves some cardboard commemoration.

Kranepool’s cards from his playing years all predate the demise of the Topps monopoly.  Through the expansion of the hobby in the ’80s and the product diversification of the ’90s, his only cards were in various team issues or specialty sets.  That all changed in 1999 when he appeared in the first great retired player autograph set in Fleer’s Sports Illustrated Greats of the Game.  He looks hungry.

Kranepool’s game-used memorabilia history includes cards in several of the great memorabilia insert sets of the 2001-2005 era.  Between bat cards in Upper Deck’s 2001 Vintage and 2001 Legends of New York and jersey cards in 2002 Topps Super Teams and 2005 Topps Pristine, he had a decent variety of material for a lesser player who hadn’t appeared in a game since the ’70s.

In addition to the game-used, Kranepool also had several base cards and autographs in products from 2001 to 2005.  One of the more interesting was 2004 UD Timeless Teams, a product that shares a name with the memorabilia insert set in 2001 UD Vintage that also featured Kranepool.  The 2001 version included bat cards (and a quad bat card) from Kranepool and teammates Nolan Ryan, Ron Swoboda, and Tommie Agee.  The 2004 version included autographs from Kranepool and teammates Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and Jerry Koosman.

Sadly, changes in the hobby after 2005 kept Ed Kranepool from appearing in cardboard until 2011, when Topps Heritage issued this coin card to commemorate Kranepool’s rookie year.

2012 had much more Kranepool in store.  With autographs in Topps Archives, Topps Tier One, and Topps Update, it was a big year for Ed Kranepool.  2013 was a bit of a down year with only autographs in Panini Golden Age.  Despite the years, Ed Kranepool’s signature hasn’t changed since I first got his autograph in person more than 20 years ago.  I didn’t know who he was back then, but I’ll be better prepared when I see him on Saturday at the 2014 Queens Baseball Convention and get a chance to re-live a part of my childhood.

Mascot Spotlight: Mr. Met

Silently cheering on the Mets for 50 years

50 years ago, the Mets unveiled the corporeal form of their mascot, Mr. Met. As the first modern sports mascot, Mr. Met became an iconic part of the fledgling franchise and has remained a fixture in Queens through several incarnations. The first, shown above on the left, is currently on display in the team museum. The current version, above right, got a new hat and a new wife, Mrs. Met, in 2013.

Mr. Met first appeared in cardboard in a 3-card mascot set from Upper Deck in 2006. Since then, he has appeared in Topps Opening Day mascot insert sets several times. In 2013, he received a fitting card number: M-1. For the best professional sports mascot, nothing else will do.

Mr. Met also had his first-ever certified autograph card in 2013 Topps Opening Day. Will we see Mrs. Met on cards in 2014? Only time will tell.

Player Spotlight: Ron Darling

From the mound at Shea to the booth at Citi

Ron Darling should be familiar to Mets fans either from his days as a pitcher or his days as part of the best broadcast team in baseball.  Either way, Darling is a key part of the Mets family.  Interestingly though, he hasn’t had a very large presence in cardboard since his playing days; the bulk of his cards are base cards from 1984 to 1995.

Game-Used Memorabilia

When game-used memorabilia cards became commonplace in 2001, Ron Darling was one of the featured subjects.  In one of the last (and best) products of the year: 2001 Upper Deck Legends of New York.  Darling had pieces of a pinstripe Mets jersey included in the Legendary Mets Jerseys set.  For some reason, this set also had a parallel set that was identical to the base set except for the addition of a serial number.  Hey, it was 2001, they were still figuring these things out.

The rest of Darling’s memorabilia cards were released by Topps from 2002 to 2004 and included swatches of gray fabric.  There’s not really much else to say about these.

Autographs

Darling’s first certified autograph card was released in 2003′s product formerly known as Topps Archives.  Archives Fan Favorites?  All-Time Fan Favorites?  The cards couldn’t even agree on what product they were from, so I sure can’t figure it out.  As for what’s going on with that signature, you’ll have to ask him about that (which you will have the chance to do at the 2014 Queens Baseball Convention, 1pm on January 18 at McFadden’s Citi Field, tickets still available).

Topps gave Darling’s pitching arm a workout again in 2004, this time signing four of his old Topps cards to be encased and inserted into 2004 Topps Originals, one of the great buyback autograph products in the biggest year of buybacks.  The four chosen cards include Darling’s 1985 Topps, 1986 Topps, 1987 Topps, and 1993 Topps cards.  1993 Topps?  That’s a bit of an odd choice, must have been what Topps was able to get a hold of in quantities of at least a dozen.  This is Darling’s only certified autograph card that shows him with a team other than the Mets.

2005 was the end of an era in baseball cards and Darling was back with autographs in Topps Retired (encased chrome and refractor autos) and Topps Pristine (his first sticker autos).  Interestingly, despite having cards in Topps Archives (or whatever they were calling it that year), Darling was not part of the record 18 Mets in that year’s Fan Favorites Autograph set.

Mets fans would have to wait until 2009 for another Darling autograph.  The Ring of Honor insert set in the base Topps products brought together autographs from several players from the 1986 team.  Looks like his pen control was hurt by the time off (though who knows when those stickers were really signed…).

The dark years came to an end with the arrival of 2012.  Topps Archives was reborn under its proper name, though without Darling in its first year.  Leaf (under new management) brought back buybacks in 2012 and Darling was one of the many Mets to be featured.  Darling made his triumphant return to Archives in 2013 and also lent his pen to 2013 Panini Hometown Heroes.  In all three cases, his signature had reached perfection, a far cry from the abstract scribble from a decade earlier.  Ron Darling’s iconic signature had finally taken shape.

Mascot Spotlight: Sandy the Seagull

Representing the Brooklyn Cyclones since 2001, Sandy the Seagull is one of the lesser-known Mets mascots working in the minors. In 2013, after appearing only in Cyclones team sets, Sandy had his first Topps cards in 2013 Topps Pro Debut’s Mascot Patch set. With a base version numbered to 120 and parallels numbered to 50 and 1, Sandy’s total print run from major manufacturers comes in at less than 200. It’s not much, but I suppose you can’t expect too much from someone who hasn’t appeared above the NYPL.

Player Spotlight: Rick Ankiel

A Mets legend 13 years before putting on the uniform

I’ve been a big fan of Rick Ankiel since 2000 for two rather contradictory reasons.  The first is because I managed to pull not one but two of his autograph cards from 2000 SPX.  Numbered to 1500 (which was what passed for limited in those days), the Rookie / Young Star autographs in SPX were tough pulls.  To get two of the same autograph from a few packs was quite unlikely, but for them to be from one of the hottest rookies in the game?  That was just amazing.  Ankiel would go on to finish second in Rookie of the Year voting with a bright future ahead of him and solid value in his cards.

The second reason I am fond of Rick Ankiel undid the first.  TINSTAAPP.  Look it up.  While the regular season validated Ankiel’s top prospect status (he was ranked #1 by Baseball America going into the 2000 season), everything fell apart in the postseason.  In Game 1 of the NLDS, he lasted only 2 2/3 innings against the Braves and gave up 4 runs.  The Cardinals took the series and eliminated the team that had knocked the Mets out of the postseason in 1999, seemingly clearing a path for the Mets to go to the World Series.  All that stood in their way were the Cardinals, with Ankiel set to start Game 2 and get a shot at redemption.

There are two things I remember most clearly about the Mets in the postseason back in those days.  The first is Robin Ventura’s 15th inning grand slam single in 1999.  The second is the first inning of Game 2 of the 2000 NLCS.  Ankiel started off with a full count strikeout and then the wheels fell off.  A full count walk, a wild pitch, and a second full count walk on a second wild pitch put runners at the corners for Todd Zeile, who hit a sac fly on, you guessed it, a full count.  Robin Ventura broke the streak with a four pitch walk and Benny Agbayani got impatient and hit an RBI double before he could be issued his three balls.  That would do it for Ankiel, who somehow gave up only two runs in his second postseason meltdown.  He got one more chance to turn things around in Game 5, coming in to start the 7th inning of what would be the 7-0 blowout clincher for the Mets.  That went about as well as his previous outing – one strikeout, two walks, two wild pitches, and one run in 2/3 of an inning.

As a fan of the Mets, I always like to see them walk (literally in this case) all over their opponent.  As a fan of baseball though, I hate to see a career implode as suddenly as Ankiel’s did in October 2000.  Ankiel would pitch just 34 more innings in the majors between 2001 and 2004 before it was clear that his postseason performance was no fluke.  Rick Ankiel the pitcher was done.

This would not be the end for Rick Ankiel.  Starting back at the bottom of the Cardinals’ system, he used his strong arm and decent bat (for a pitcher) to transform himself into an outfielder.  In 2007, he made his return to the majors as a slightly better than replacement-level hitter.  After six years spent between the Cardinals, Royals, Braves, and Nationals, Ankiel hit bottom and signed with the Astros for the 2013 season, appearing in 25 games before being released.  By the Astros.  There was nowhere left to go.

And then he signed with the Mets on May 13.  Rick Ankiel, replacement-level outfielder who wasn’t good enough to play on the 2013 Houston Astros, was eagerly snapped up by the Mets to patch up their sinking ship of an outfield.  You’ll have to excuse me if I’m not jumping for joy over this move.  But hey, at least those autographs count as part of my Mets collection now.  And with a major league career spanning nearly a decade and a half, he must have a lot of interesting game-used cards, right?

Eh, not quite.  The bulk of his game-used cards are bat or white/gray jersey cards from 2000-2002.  He does have some blue mesh Team USA jersey swatches, a few Cardinals patch cards, and at least one game-used shoe card.  Beyond that, we have to dig down to game-used base cards and game-used dirt cards.  Seriously.  There were a few more boring jersey cards in 2009 and 2010, then nothing.  Rick Ankiel hasn’t been relevant in years.  Welcome to the Mets.