Stranger Things Than Baseball Have Happened at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Part 2

A different American tradition takes the field down under

Americans watching cricket: a visual approximation of Australians watching baseball

The outfield wall is up, the infield is set down, and the Sydney Cricket Ground has seen its first game of baseball as MLB builds up to Saturday’s start of the 2014 season.  Four years ago though, a different group of Americans brought a slightly different American tradition to this field, though few were there to witness it.

Like baseball, fife and drum music traces its origins back to Europe.  Initially developed in Switzerland as a means of communicating through the Alps, fifes and drums became key elements of military forces throughout Europe and, through colonization of the new world, the Americas.  Military use of fifes and drums was at its height during the American Revolution and the American Civil War, firmly connecting this style of music with the times that defined this nation.

Advances in communications technology relegated martial music to a ceremonial role in the 20th century.  As the times changed, fife and drum music largely fell out of style except in certain areas where it continued with community groups.  Fife and drum saw a resurgence as a traditional martial music style in preparation for the American Revolution Bicentennial celebration.  Many of these groups and others they inspired remain to this day.  In fact, American fife and drum would go on to inspire the creation of American-style fife and drum corps throughout the world and even in Switzerland where the art form originated.

And that brings us to Australia by way of Scotland.  In 2007, the Middlesex County Volunteers Fifes and Drums became the first American-style fife and drum ensemble to perform at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the world’s premier martial music event.  In 2010, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo took the show (and a convincing mock-up of Edinburgh Castle) on the road to Sydney, Australia.  MCV was among the groups that came from around the world to give Australia a taste of one of Scotland’s biggest events (next to the World Pipe Band Championship, of course).  Next door to the Sydney Cricket Ground in the more modern and spacious Sydney Football Stadium.  You can watch the show here on YouTube.

Beer, beer, everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Where does the Sydney Cricket Ground fit in with all of this?  Well, since it wasn’t being used to host any ticketed events at the time, the Sydney Cricket Ground was used as the backstage area for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, providing space to get changed, warm up, rehearse, and relax between sets.  And on February 4, 2010, just before opening night, the Americans took to the field for one last rehearsal.

There was no audience.  No modifications needed to be made to the field.  And they weren’t even wearing full uniforms.  But if you thought this weekend’s baseball games were the first time the Sydney Cricket Ground hosted a group of Americans doing distinctly American things with origins in Europe, you would be slightly incorrect.  And if you thought any of this is as strange as it gets here, you would be way off the mark.  Because we have yet to see the Scots take the field.

Part 3: An international cast of characters

Stranger Things Than Baseball Have Happened at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Part 1

A slow and sober look around the field

Some sort of cricket-type activity

This weekend, Major League Baseball opens the 2014 season half a world away in Sydney, Australia.  The venue will be the Sydney Cricket Ground, a place that, as the name implies, is commonly used to host cricket matches.  If you thought this was the first time an American tradition made an appearance here though, you would be wrong.  In fact, nothing that could happen this weekend would have a chance of being the strangest thing a foreigner had done on this field.  But before we get to that, let’s take a look around.

The Sydney Cricket Ground has been around in one form or another since the late 19th century.  Instead of a single stadium structure around the field, the Sydney Cricket Ground has a set of separate stands.  The oldest of these stands date to the late 19th century.  The Members’ Pavilion, shown above, was originally built in 1878 and then rebuilt in 1886.  The Ladies’ Stand (not shown), is located just to the left of the Members’ Pavilion and opened in 1896.

The rest of the stands, despite being separate structures, essentially form a modern stadium.  Continuing around counterclockwise are, from right to left above, Brewongle Stand (1980), Clive Churchill Stand (1986), and Victor Trumper Stand (2008).

Next up is the Bill O’Reilly Stand (1984), which, despite having the Fox Studios Australia tower looming overhead, is not named for that Bill O’Reilly.

And that brings us around to the M.A. Noble, Bradman, and Messenger stands, which are behind what is now home plate and have just been rebuilt.  And since my photos are from 2010, this will be the end of the structural tour.

Of course, you’ll see most of this during the games anyway.  What you won’t see are the Aussie-flavour ads that have been removed from the stands.  Back in 2010, these were largely encouraging people to drive slower by equating fast driving with diminished manhood.  Meanwhile, the bathrooms were encouraging responsible drinking via the threat of violence delivered by a bouncer who your drinking causes you to pick a fight with while the buddy who was kind enough to walk you home just stands there and watches you get your face smashed in instead of dragging your sorry ass out of harm’s way.  Or maybe just getting you into a car and driving away really fast.

Luckily, the ads also propose a solution to both of these problems.  Put a pub in your backyard!  You won’t need to drive anywhere or get into drunken arguments with bouncers when you do your binge drinking at home.  That’s Aussie ingenuity for you, second only to Scottish ingenuity as we’ll see later.

Part 2: A different American tradition takes the field down under

Product Spotlight: 2014 Donruss

A little too much like an old classic

When 2014 Donruss was announced, it looked like it could be the missing piece in the Panini lineup.  After all, while Panini has had some success in high end (2012 National Treasures), shiny stuff (2012/2013 Prizm), prospects (various Elite Extra Edition releases and 2013 Prizm Perennial Draft Picks), and specialty retro (2013 Pinnacle and Hometown Heroes), they have no real base product to speak of.  With an ever-rotating list of products (National Treasures was demoted to an insert set in 2013 America’s Pastime), there’s nothing to really define Panini as a brand.  If you were collecting in the ’80s, you probably associate the Panini name with stickers and not cardboard.  It was only fitting then that Panini should launch their first true base product under the Donruss name, a throwback to a simpler time when it was possible to produce licensed baseball card products in competition with Topps.

For me, the Donruss name brings back memories of the 1986 and 1989 designs, Diamond Kings, Rated Rookies, and puzzles that never quite fit together right.  There are a lot of classic elements in the history of Donruss but also plenty of bad decisions and disappointments.  Unfortunately, 2014 Donruss takes a few of the former and mixes in a lot of the latter, creating a product that is a little too faithful to the brand’s lineage.

Card Design

Panini dressed up their first attempt at a base Donruss product like a bride.  There’s something old (the pre-1986 Donruss logo), something new (quality cardstock and gloss coating), something borrowed (the baseballs in the strips of color on either side of the photo), and something blue (the blue cardback style used in 1988 and 1991 Series 1).  Overall, it’s not a bad look, a more refined take on the brand’s design that incorporates elements from across the first decade of Donruss.

At least, that’s how it looks until you consider the photographs.  The basic design itself is a bit boring, but that makes sense when you consider that the player photograph is what should draw your attention.  You can forgive a border that is devoid of any bright color if it contrasts well with a colorful photo.  And that’s where the lack of a license from MLB Properties kicks in.  Without the rights to use team names or logos, Panini removed all trace of team identity from the photos they used, right down to eliminating the color orange from nearly every Mets card.  The Rated Rookies cards of Travis d’Arnaud and Wilmer Flores use photos from the Las Vegas 51s and the Granderson is obviously a Yankees photo, but everything else looks like it started out as a proper Mets uniform.  The end result is a lot of blue and white, just like the border.  They would have been better off converting the photos to black and white.

Mets Selection

You can’t really fault Panini for their choices here.  Two rookies, two hot young pitchers, one captain, the biggest offseason acquisition, and a future Hall of Famer.  That’s a good core group right there.  And with only 200 cards in the set (30 of which are Diamond Kings with duplicate players), there’s no room for anything more.  Only 200 cards?  That’s the same size as Topps Archives (not counting SPs; Archives is actually a much larger set when you account for SPs), a product that also mixes current players with retired stars.  Shouldn’t this be more in line with base Topps or even Topps Heritage?  200 cards just isn’t enough for this type of product.  Two 330-card series would make more sense, especially if Series 2 could be released in late September with All-Star SPs taking the place of the Diamond Kings.  Panini did use the insert sets to expand the total number of players (Dillon Gee, Jon Niese, Johan Santana, Ike Davis, Andrew Brown, and supposedly Jeurys Familia all appear in the inserts).

Subsets

With only 200 cards to work with, there wasn’t much room for variety in the subsets.  Panini went with the classics here, starting the set with 30 Diamond Kings and 15 Rated Rookies, each subset inserted at a rate of one every 6 packs.  I’m not sure the different level of scarcity between the two subsets makes much sense (each Rated Rookie should fall just over 4 per case on average, compared to just over 2 per case for Diamond Kings), but I guess Panini wanted to pack in the rookies.  In terms of design though, these just fall flat.  The Rated Rookies have all of the same problems as the base cards while the Diamond Kings are just too bland, though the 1984 Diamond King design is faithfully recreated.  Instead of art cards, the Diamond Kings in 2014 Donruss have a pair of photoshopped photographs mimicking the typical Diamond King layout.  The large sections of solid color in the border plus photographs with all detail wiped away equals a design that is simply lacking.

Retro Inserts

The strongest category by far is the array of inserts found in 2014 Donruss.  We’ll start though with the ones that don’t factor into the Mets team set.  Team MVPs and Power Plus both borrow from the 1989 design and do a good job of remaining distinct despite the common inspiration.  Something about the Team MVPs just looks wrong to me though, probably how the MVP logo is at the bottom over the photo instead of at the top under the photo.  With hat/helmet logos cropped out, the old design just wouldn’t work.  One other criticism is that, like the Diamond Kings subset, the Team MVPs insert set doesn’t have a card from every team.  The set is the right size (30 cards), but some teams are featured multiple times with a mix of active and retired players.

The Mets do have representation in four of the retro-inspired insert sets and the results are impressive.  The best design by far in 2014 Donruss is the one used for the No-No’s [sic] inserts.  The combination of elements from the 1986, 1989, and 1991 Donruss designs is almost seamless and the logo, while new, looks like it could be from that period.  I’m actually a bit disappointed that this wasn’t the base design, I would have liked to have gotten a few more cards like this Santana (instead, only 10 cards were produced in this design).  You barely notice the horribly mangled photograph.

The formula was a bit simpler for The Rookies with the 1988 colors in a new design with a Diamond Kings nameplate and the Panini RC logo.  On top of that, Travis d’Arnaud’s photo is the only one with prominent orange (David Wright’s base card with a visible orange undershirt is the only other card showing a Met wearing orange).

And then we have The Elite Series and Elite Dominators, some nice metallic inserts based on the early ’90s inserts and numbered to match (a more reasonable 999 instead of the original 10,000).  It’s strange to see these falling 2 or 3 per box when the original versions were so hard to pull.  Print runs sure have changed…  Two different Elite insert sets is a bit much though, with the 50 total cards outnumbering the entire Elite print run from 1991-1994.  Another reason why a second series would have made sense.

Modern Inserts

Not all of the inserts in 2014 Donruss look like they came from earlier decades.  The Breakout Hitters/Pitchers and Hall Worthy inserts both feature a mix of matte and gloss textures on unique designs.  This style has previously appeared in Panini Cooperstown and connects the vintage Donruss elements with the current incarnation under Panini.

Parallels

And what modern baseball card product would be complete without serial numbered parallels?  2014 Donruss has four, though they only have two different designs.  The Press Proof parallels come in silver (numbered to 199) and gold (numbered to 99) varieties and feature the standard base card design with a “PRESS PROOF” stamp and a foil-stamped serial number.  The Stat Line parallels are printed on metallic foil and come in season (silver stamp) and career (gold stamp) varieties, though the numbering is based only on the stat shown (with a maximum print run of 400).  It would have been nice if Panini had limited the minimum print run as well; Stat Line print runs can be as low as three.  Some additional variety would also have been nice; a die-cut version or some different color foils would have really helped to set the different parallels apart.

Box Toppers

David Wright base Diamond King shown as reference for scale

I don’t know why more products don’t throw a box topper card in every box.  Back in the day, boxes used to have cards printed on the bottom as a small bonus for buying so much at one time.  Box bonuses eventually shifted to the inside of the box with improved quality and decreased frequency.  Today, box toppers tend to be extremely limited with box prices starting at $60 for most products.  Every box of 2014 Donruss includes one of 25 jumbo 5″ x 7″ Diamond King cards as a box topper, with autographed versions of 24 of them randomly inserted at an unspecified rate (while not serial numbered, these are most likely limited to 50 copies or fewer).  Some of the box topper Diamond Kings don’t appear in the base set and vice versa, which seems a bit odd.  Otherwise, this was a great touch and a welcome callback to the jumbo Diamond Kings from decades past.

Donruss Signatures

Donruss was one of the first products to feature autograph cards (Upper Deck beat them by just a few months) and the Donruss/Leaf Signature products in the late ’90s are still some of the best autograph products ever produced.  A strong autograph set was therefore a must for 2014 Donruss.  Sadly, the Donruss Signatures name is the only element that draws from the Donruss legacy.  The card design looks like a reject from 2013 Panini America’s Pastime and the checklist is mostly prospects and young players, the type who sign autograph stickers by the thousand (all of the big names are on low-numbered autograph inserts that fall one every two cases on average).  Four Mets are featured in the 50-card set, but Andrew Brown’s first certified autograph is the only one you are likely to find.  Zack Wheeler’s autograph appears to be a short print and no copies of the Jeurys Familia or Wilmer Flores autographs have surfaced so far.

Recollection Autographs

The original Recollection Collection autographs, which ran from 2002 to 2005 in various Donruss and Leaf products, set the standard for buyback autographs.  Featuring diverse checklists of hundreds of players who had appeared on a Donruss or Leaf card of some sort from 1981 to the early 2000s, these cards featured a foil logo stamp, embossed authenticity guarantee, and foil-stamped serial number on the back.  In recent years though, Leaf, now under separate ownership, has had the buyback autograph market to themselves.  2014 Donruss brings back the Recollection name with buyback autographs focused on rookie cards and featuring an embossed logo and handwritten serial number.  Ron Darling, Dwight Gooden, and Darryl Strawberry are the Mets featured here.  A total of just over 1,000 Recollection Autograph cards were produced, making them fall less than one per case on average.  It’s a shame Panini couldn’t have gotten a few hundred more so they could make this a guaranteed case hit.

Game Gear

Four Mets are also on the 50-card Game Gear checklist, but this time all four are fairly common.  As 14,000 Phillies pointed out, the Game Gear design borrows from the 1980 What If design from 2002 Donruss Originals.  The Game Gear name itself is a remnant from Pacific, which last produced baseball cards just before Donruss returned under Playoff in 2001.  The material provided an additional throwback; most of the jersey swatches in the Ike Davis, Dillon Gee, and Jon Niese cards are from their 1993 throwback jerseys.  Like the Game Gear inserts in 2001 Private Stock, cards with jersey swatches also have a patch parallel (numbered to 25 in this case).

Wrapper Redemption

It has nothing to do with the Mets, but Donruss announced a wrapper redemption good for a three-card pack of Rated Rookies that will be cards 201-203 in the set.  While the names have not been announced, the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka is believed to be among the three.  The wrappers just might be the most valuable thing inside boxes of 2014 Donruss.

Case Break

So far, 2014 Donruss looks like a mild success.  The designs are, for the most part, strong with a good mix of elements from across three decades of Donruss products.  The minuscule set and some truly awful photographs take it down a notch and the lack of a license from MLB Properties hurts its collectibility.  The biggest problem though is figuring out just what kind of product 2014 Donruss is trying to be.  It doesn’t have the checklist to be a base product, it’s not heavy on prospects, the cards aren’t all that premium, and the price isn’t comparable to a discount product.  The guarantee of two autographs and one relic (though two per box is common) per box brings it to a price point comparable to base Topps or a product like Heritage or Archives, but the quality and value of these “hits” is not on par with those Topps releases.  So just what does that make 2014 Donruss?

A disappointment, especially if you open it by the case.  Doing some math puts the print run of 2014 Donruss at around 1,400 cases, give or take.  Spread across those 1,400 cases are 765 premium autographs (plus autographed box toppers), 1018 Recollection autographs, and 1089 patch cards.  The Stat Line parallels add about another 6,000 cards numbered to less than 99.  That gives you a best case scenario of getting one good autograph, a patch card, and four parallels numbered to around 50 in a 16-box case with no other serial numbered autograph or memorabilia cards.  For a $1,000 case, that’s not a whole lot of value.  With perfect collation, the rest of the case should give you two full 200-card sets, 14 155-card base sets, 4 Power Plus insert sets, 2 The Rookies insert sets, 2 Hall Worthy insert sets, 1 No-No insert set, most of the Breakout Hitters and Breakout Pitchers insert sets, half of the Team MVPs insert set, more than half each of the Elite Series, Elite Dominators, Donruss Signatures, and box topper sets, and less than half of the Game Gear insert set, plus plenty of parallels and extra Rated Rookies.

But you’re not going to get perfect collation, even inside a sealed case where collation shouldn’t be a problem.  I took a chance on a team break of a case of 2014 Donruss (done by Brent Williams) knowing that it wasn’t spectacular but expecting a minimum of duplicates of the more limited inserts.  With four Mets each on the autograph and memorabilia checklists, at least there would be a few interesting cards to look forward to.  What I wasn’t expecting was for the collation to be another aspect of the older Donruss sets that was faithfully reproduced in 2014 Donruss.

The Donruss products of the late ’80s and early ’90s were produced in tremendous quantities, but building a set was no easy matter.  This was due to collation so spectacularly bad that you could pull dozens of one card before finding just one of another.  Getting the same card twice in the same pack was not all that unusual.  This problem was hardly unique to Donruss, but Donruss was a prime example of collation that could be infuriating at times.

These days, smaller print runs and more controlled packouts help to keep collation more reasonable, especially within a single sealed quantity like a box or a case.  After all, duplicates in small amounts of a product are largely worthless to most collectors and reduce the value in the product.  With ever-narrowing profit margins, any cheap way to increase value is worthwhile.  So what happened with 2014 Donruss?

The results of this case break were not pretty.  Of the 32 autographs, only 23 were different (one appeared three times).  The Game Gear inserts weren’t much better: 16 different out of 21 base versions.  11 of the 16 box toppers were different with one triplicate among them.  Results for other limited inserts were similar.  By the time the break was halfway through, duplicates had already appeared in all of the major insert sets with checklists 50% or more greater than the number of cards that would be found in a case.

For the Mets, the results were mixed.  The Hall Worthy and The Rookies inserts delivered two each as expected.  The number of Breakout Pitchers inserts was two, as expected, but both were Dillon Gee.  No Elite Series or Elite Dominators inserts turned up, but only two of the 50 are Mets and only 35 (30 different) were in the case.  Only one of the four Mets Game Gear cards were in the case, as were two copies of the Andrew Brown autograph.  One of the two box toppers was a Met, which is reasonable for the checklist size (2 Mets out of 25 cards, 11 different of the 16 in the case).  No-No’s (What’s with that apostrophe, Panini?) massively overdelivered, 6 actual vs. 1.6 expected.  Diamond Kings also came out ahead (3 actual vs. 2.2 expected) while the expectation of 4.3 of each Rated Rookie was accurate for Wilmer Flores (5 in the case) and way off for Travis d’Arnaud (only 1 with bad surface damage in the entire case).  Base cards fell 13 to 15 of each, a bit under the 16+ that would be expected with good collation (each box should have more than 155 base cards, so this indicates bad box-level collation).  Three parallels rounded out the team lot, though none of them had print runs lower than 200.  Overall, it was a slight disappointment with some very significant over and under deliveries that should be extremely rare outliers in a properly managed packout.  Unfortunately, there is no indication of any care taken to manage this product’s packout.

And as for the big hits in the case, the only cards numbered to less than 99 were three Stat Line parallels and an Edwin Encarnacion patch card, with no autographs beyond the base Donruss Signatures cards.  That’s poor even for this product’s checklist, which isn’t that great to begin with.  On the plus side, this means that there will be some cases with multiple limited autographs.  There will also be some cases with no cards worth more than about $10.  For a $1,000 case, that’s just not acceptable.

The Verdict

File this one under “Missed Opportunity.”  The concept was a great one and parts of the execution were outstanding.  On the other hand, other parts ranged from puzzling to awful.  Why wasn’t there a Diamond King and Team MVP for every team (not to mention only 10 No-No’s [sic])?  Why were all of the photographs photoshopped to oblivion?  Where are the Jeurys Familia and Wilmer Flores autographs?  Who thought a 155-card base set made any sort of sense?  And how did the collation go so horribly wrong?  Panini clearly put a lot of effort into bringing together three decades of an iconic brand into one product, why did they stop short of taking the steps necessary to make it a success?

I just can’t recommend buying large quantities of this product to anyone.  A few packs or even a box may make sense for some fun nostalgia, but a case has nothing to satisfy anyone.  Set collectors will be out of luck unless they buy several cases.  Hit collectors won’t see any sort of return.  Team collectors won’t have much to chase with this tiny checklist.  And anyone who appreciates good photography will want to stay far away from this one.  2014 Donruss missed the mark and in the process delivered the modern equivalent of its 1991 predecessor.  This was not the product collectors wanted or the product collectors needed, just a mindless diversion until something better comes along.

2014 Mets Card Spring Preview

What’s in the cardboard for the 2014 Mets

Another offseason is coming to an end, so it’s time to take a look at what it all means for card collecting. 2014 was supposed to be the year Sandy Alderson’s plan came together, but significant gaps and questions put that in jeopardy even before Matt Harvey was lost for the season. In terms of cards, the lack of notable veterans has left most sets a mix of David Wright and various prospects and young stars. Are there enough new veterans and rising stars to give the Mets respectable representation in this year’s products? Or, like the master plan, will it take another year for everything to fall into place?

Farewells

Alderson’s big trade of 2013 sent Marlon Byrd and John Buck to Pittsburgh for infielder Dilson Herrera and MLB-ready reliever Vic Black. Byrd and Buck went on to the postseason and, as expected, didn’t return to the Mets. Buck was no longer necessary with the arrival of Travis d’Arnaud, but Byrd was the Mets’ top outfielder offensively.

As I predicted, the 2013 Topps Series 2 Mets team set is a “Where are they now?” article waiting to happen…

The non-tender deadline gave us another batch of departures. Jordany Valdespin, Omar Quintanilla, and Scott Atchison were cut as expected, with Justin Turner and the injured Jeremy Hefner joining them unexpectedly. Hefner and Quintanilla were re-signed, Jordany Valdespin gave in to destiny and signed with the Marlins, Scott Atchison signed with the Indians, and Justin Turner joined teammate Mike Baxter with the Dodgers.

On top of that, oft-injured pitchers Johan Santana and Shaun Marcum also landed elsewhere, Santana with the Orioles and Marcum with the Indians. Santana missed all of 2013 after his second shoulder surgery and Marcum saw his season end early after a shoulder surgery of his own.

Hails

As mentioned before, the Mets bolstered the ranks of their top 20 prospects with the acquisition of Dilson Herrera and Vic Black from the Pirates in August. Black should get a good amount of work as a late-inning reliever this year while Herrera is still a few years out. Not a bad return for a few weeks of a couple of players who wouldn’t be back this year anyway.

And here are the big offseason acquisitions. If nothing else, these guys bring a veteran presence in cardboard dating back to the late ’90s. More on that later.

Autographs

The last few months have given us plenty of new autographs. Bowman Sterling closed out 2013 with the first autographs from L.J. Mazzilli. Panini Elite Extra Edition started 2014 with the first autographs from Jared King and Akeel Morris, plus the first live autographs from Rainy Lara. Last month’s 2014 Donruss was largely a bust but did give us Andrew Brown’s first autographs. Notably absent is Juan Lagares, who should be in line for a lot of attention after his performance in 2013.

Autographs are also plentiful further up in the system. Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero should get called up sometime in 2014 and will hopefully get some more autographs along the way. Travis d’Arnaud and Wilmer Flores are the first of the top Mets prospects with autographs in 2014 products.

Notable autographs in upcoming products include the first from Dallas Green and Frank Lary in 2014 Topps Heritage (though not as Mets) and the first from Jeremy Hefner in 2014 Topps Gypsy Queen. More will hopefully follow in 2014 Bowman and 2014 Topps Archives, though the lack of Mets autographs in Heritage is troubling.

Game-Used

One of the big surpises so far this year was the pair of Rookie pinstripe jersey cards in 2013 Panini America’s Pastime. These (along with camo patch variants) are the first memorabilia cards from Juan Lagares and Scott Rice and mark the first time that multiple current Mets have had Mets pinstripe jersey cards in the same year since 2009. Travis d’Arnaud was the first 2014 Rookie with his first MLB-worn material in 2014 Topps Series 1 and 2014 Topps Tribute. It’s a good start after some pretty rough years, but there’s still more ground to cover.

2014 Donruss has given us the first oddity of the year in the form of pinstripe jersey cards from Ike Davis, Dillon Gee, and Jon Niese. Their Game Gear cards all contain a type of pinstripe only seen at the MLB level back in the ’90s. This would mean that they could only be from the 1993 throwback home jersey worn on the road in Colorado on April 16, 2013.

Autographed Game-Used

Leaf had a couple surprises of its own in 2013 Leaf Trinity. In addition to autographs from Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero, Dominic Smith, and Domingo Tapia, Leaf released autographed cards with memorabilia from Smith and Tapia. These all included piping or patches, a rarity for minor league players.

At the big league level, Travis d’Arnaud had his first autographed patch cards in the Strata insert set in 2014 Topps Series 1. Numbered to just 25 (and released as redemptions), these are not easy to get a hold of. Hopefully we’ll see more from him later in the year.

Playing Pepper 2014: New York Mets

Like last year, Daniel Shoptaw from C70 At the Bat polled the Mets blog community to get a picture of where the team stands as of spring training. Also like last year, I offered up my unique insight that may or may not be particularly insightful.

You can read all of the responses here: Playing Pepper 2014: New York Mets.

1) How would you grade the offseason?

It’s hard to go much higher than a B considering that the team still has some big holes and big questions, but the moves the team made should be at least enough for a B, so… It’s another year in a holding pattern, so a B it is. The outfield needed an overhaul, which it got in the form of Curtis Granderson and, to a lesser extent, the other Chris Young. The rotation needed a veteran and some Mejia insurance, which Bartolo Colon, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and John Lannan should provide. The bullpen has a few cheap new options, which is probably the best that could be expected. First base is still unresolved and shortstop… No shortstop solution equals a B.

In a different light though, this offseason earned an A for filling some of the Mets’ most glaring holes: All-Star memorabilia. Since All-Star workout jerseys started getting sold into tiny cardboard prisons in 2000, the Mets have had a representative from each AL All-Star team no later than the following spring each year. Sometimes it was a former player stepping up with a new team (Jason Isringhausen ’00, Melvin Mora ’05, Ty Wigginton ’10), other times it was a big-name offseason acquisition (Johan Santana ’07, Francisco Rodriguez ’08, Jason Bay ’09). This ended with the start of the Alderson regime. With no big free agent signings and an emphasis on building the farm system, there were no former or future Mets to be found on the AL All-Star Roster. It looked like 2013 would turn things around with both Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey in Toronto, but that didn’t quite work out.

That all changed with this past offseason. In the span of a few days, Sandy Alderson checked off the 2011 (Curtis Granderson), 2012 (also CG), and 2013 (Bartolo Colon) AL All-Star teams and threw in the first Met from the 2005 Futures Game USA team (Chris Young) for good measure. Later, the signing of Jose Valverde to a minor league deal added a possible second 2011 AL All-Star. A bounceback season from Reyes and/or Dickey could put us back on track to have a Met on every AL All-Star team.

2) Can Zack Wheeler step up and fill the gap left by Matt Harvey’s surgery?

Yeah, about that… Over the years (well, two of them at least), I have identified two predictors of doom that can be found in cardboard. From 2010 to 2013, only one player each year appeared with the Mets and had a Mets pinstripe jersey card released in the same year. None of the first three played a game with the Mets in the following year. The fourth is Zack Wheeler. In 2013, I noticed that a lot of Mets pitchers who signed a lot of autographs that year suffered from arm injuries. Zack Wheeler was one of the few who has, so far, remained injury free. Does this mean Zack Wheeler is now cursed and has no chance of throwing a pitch in 2014? Of course not. But with the run of injuries Mets pitchers suffered in 2013, nothing is certain.

Seriously though, you can’t really look at it is having a gap to be filled. With or without Harvey, the rotation needs five pitchers to start with and some depth to fill in as needed. The Colon signing added a much-needed veteran and 200 innings from Wheeler would certainly help, as would strong seasons from Jon Niese and Dillon Gee. That just leaves the #5 spot, which has some decent (and cheap) options that could also provide depth later in the season. Add in possible appearances by Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero, and/or Jacob deGrom in the second half and the Mets might just have a legitimate group of starting pitchers to work with while Harvey rehabs.

3) Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

I’m not really intrigued by it, but the one everyone seems to be interested in is who will be batting leadoff. “Leadoff Hitter” isn’t really a position, but you wouldn’t know that from the reporting these days. Eric Young Jr., the reigning NL stolen base champ, is the favorite for the job, but he’s a 4th outfielder at best. Do the Mets demote Juan Lagares to give EY a starting job to put him (and his mediocre OBP) at the top of the order? Or do they keep EY as a potent weapon off the bench and pick a leadoff hitter from the remaining options? This is the classic case of logic (EY’s value is highest as a bench player) vs. emotion (stolen bases!).

4) What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

That would be Travis d’Arnaud. Wilmer Flores will probably start the season in AAA and there’s little chance of seeing any of the big pitching prospects until late June or July. That puts d’Arnaud in the rare position of spending a full season with Rookie eligibility. He has already shown that he is ready behind the plate, but he didn’t impress much with the bat in his brief stint in the majors last year. If his bat comes around (and if he can put injury questions to rest), he could provide significant value at a position that hasn’t produced much for the Mets in recent years.

5) What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

I’ll go out on a limb and go with 80-82, 3rd place in the NL East.  As with last year, this will depend more on how the other teams in the division perform than how the Mets perform.  Will the Phillies continue to falter?  Is the Marlins’ emergence still another year away?  Did the Braves and Nationals make the right moves to stay at the top of the NL East?  If everything breaks right, the Mets could stay relevant past the All-Star break.  If not, well, pick any recent year to see the result.  I’m not quite sold on 90 wins, but 80 is still in play.  Of course, so is 70.

6) Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

Sigh. Will Matt Harvey’s rehab be televised?

Redemption Frustration

A Game of Cardboard Roulette

It’s what every collector hopes for. You open a pack and there’s a card that stands out from the rest. It isn’t like the others, so it must be something good. You pull it out and you’re hit with immediate disappointment when you see that the back looks like one of these:

You’ve hit a redemption card. Maybe it’s something good, maybe it’s junk. One thing’s for sure: you won’t be seeing the card for a while, if ever. Redemptions can help to get better cards into products, but they have become so prevalent in recent years that collectors have come to dread the prospect of dealing with yet another one. It seems like everyone has at least one outstanding redemption; some people have hundreds stuck in Pending limbo. If it’s a minor card you really want, it doesn’t hurt much to wait. But what do you do if you pull something like this?

Now you’re left with quite the conundrum. Do you redeem it and wait? Sell it now and let someone else deal with it? Will the price go down in the meantime or will the live card be worth more? Why do the card companies do this to us anyway? Let’s break down something we’ve been dealing with since the turn of the millennium but have yet to truly come to terms with.

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Inside the Lines at the White Plains Card Show

Back in the game a decade later

Last month, I shared my story of my trip to the 2014 Queens Baseball Convention.  After 7 hours at the event and another 4 hours spent in transit, that should have been enough for any weekend, especially when you consider that it included appearances (with autographs) from Ron Darling and Ed Kranepool plus a surprise appearance by Art Shamsky.  At least, that was the plan.

Backing up to Friday, January 17, a tweet from Matt den Dekker announced that he would be at the White Plains Card Show on January 18, the same day as the Queens Baseball Convention.

The timing was unfortunate, to say the least.  Former Mets Rusty Staub and Jason Isringhausen were among that day’s other guests, with autograph prices starting at $20 for den Dekker and going up from there (the full list of signers is unfortunately lost to history because the event promoter took all show information offline immediately following the event and nobody seems to have copied it down anywhere).  The show, however would go on.  For one more day at least.  It had been a decade since I had been to a card show, I was within driving distance, and there were two Mets on the autograph list for the final day.  Might as well stop by.

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