Tag Archives: Baseball

Drafting hope

The 2013 baseball amateur draft finished this weekend.  1,216 young men were drafted, and 1,215 of them dream of playing for a Major League Baseball team someday.  They dream of running out onto a perfectly manicured green field, shagging fly balls out of the clear blue sky, swinging for the fences, and tipping their hat to the crowd.  Most of them will never make a big league roster, and still they dream.

One however, has no such aspirations.  The 34th round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks was one of the top high school prospects in 2010.  He was drafted then by the San Diego Padres, but chose instead to attend college and play baseball for Arizona State University.  Cory Hahn played only three games for the Sun Devils.  In his third game he slid head first into second base.  During the play he collided with the second baseman, who was lunging for an errant throw.  Hahn’s head struck the second baseman in the knee, breaking Hahn’s C5 vertebrae.  The injury left Hahn paralyzed from the chest down.

Major League Baseball rules stipulate that players drafted out of high school have to wait three years to be drafted again.  When the Arizona Diamondbacks selected Hahn in the 34th round of the draft (Hahn wore number 34 at ASU), they were not drafting a five-tool player that would hit soaring home runs or make diving plays in the field.

Yet the draft was about more than a heart-warming publicity stunt.  Hahn has spent the last three years as a student coach at Arizona State.  In that time he has inspired many with his courage and tenacity.  The Diamondbacks plan to put him to work.

Diamonbacks President  Derek Hall told the Associated Press, “It’s not about us. It’s really about Cory and his family,” Hall added. “I was able to spend time with them right after the injury in his hospital room and he’s a wonderful kid. We want to make this permanent. We don’t want this to just be about the selection and him being a draft pick, but about him working in full-time employment with the Diamondbacks and hopefully we’ll make that come to fruition for he and his family here soon.”

I know a lot of people will be cheering for Hahn to make an impact for the Diamondbacks, even if it is never with a bat or glove.

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Please Remember

The picture on the left was circulating in my Facebook world today.  When I saw it, I shared it immediately.  These five reminders are just so beautifully simple.  I would like to go to Metropolis, take a picture next to the Superman sign, and check out a little league game.  I wonder if it effective.

The sign is posted at baseball fields and reads, Please Remember: 1. These are kids, 2. This is a game, 3. The coaches volunteer, 4. The Umpires are human, 5. You do not play for the Cardinals.

My daughter isn’t quite old enough to start playing, and I’m hoping she’s still a few years away from people taking it too seriously.  I haven’t been to a lot of youth baseball games lately, but I’ve heard horror stories of adults behaving very poorly.

The sign got me thinking, what if I could use these same rules at church?  What would they look like?  It seemed like the sign on the left hit a nerve with a lot of people that participate in youth sports.  I wonder if my sign will do the same with people that worship on a regular basis.

What the following was posted in your church, Please Remember: 1. We were all created in the image of God, 2. This is worship, 3. Visiting church is an act of courage, 4. Pastors are human, 5. You are not Jesus.

I love the Church.  It can be a place of love, forgiveness, and hospitality.  All too often it is not.  What if this sign hung in our churches?  Would it resonate?  Would it make a difference?

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Opening Day

Busch Stadium in St. Louis, one of my favorite places on earth.

I start to get excited as soon as I can see the lights of the stadium.  It doesn’t matter which stadium – Wrigley, Comiskey (no, it is not “The Cell”), Busch.  I start to get excited as soon as I can see the lights.  Approaching the stadium, the excitement builds.  People are coming in off the El or crossing the street in hoards.  I always buy my peanuts from a guy outside the stadium because it’s usually a buck cheaper.

I love the colors of baseball.  Blue, gold, white, and green.  These are the colors of baseball for me.  Blue sky.  Green grass.  Golden infield with crisp white lines.  I always pause at the first site of the field.  Everything is perfect.  Nobody has kicked up the batter’s box.  Nobody has groomed their own place in the field.  The rubber and the bases shine.  The scoreboard is big and bright and full of information, but right now there are only zeroes on it.

I love the smell of baseball.  Cinnamon is the smell of Comiskey.  The churro stand must be nearby.  Onions are caramelizing on the grill.  Hot dogs are red.  The beer is cold.  I breathe it in.  I don’t bring my glove to games (because I’m a grown man), but I can still smell the leather.  I’ve buried my face in my glove enough times to recall the smell – especially at a ballgame.  I find my seat, fill out the lineup card and let the sun pour over me.  I look at the names on my scorecard and wonder, “Who’s going to hit a home run?  Who will get the first hit?”

I love the sounds of baseball.  The vendors are hawking their $9 beers.  The crowd is a low murmur, ready to explode in an instant.  The organ plays tunes that were not meant to be played by pipe organs, but somehow they fit.  And then the game starts, and I wait for the greatest sound of them all.  Bat on ball.  The crowd comes alive.  The players move in perfect synchronicity to the place they need to be – covering every possible angle that the ball may travel.

I’ve never been to a game on Opening Day, but I can only imagine the sense of excitement.  For those in St. Louis that celebrated just a few months ago, or those in Chicago that have been waiting generations, the excitement of Opening Day is connected directly to hope.  Hope springs eternal on Opening Day.  The team hasn’t lost a game yet.  Everyone’s in first place.  Every team has a chance.  Every fan knows that on Opening Day, anything can happen.

For those of us that love the game, baseball is the soundtrack of the summer.  It will be on the radio and TV.  We will check scores from phones, and open up the agate page in the sports.  Phrases like “rubber match, games back, get-away day,” will reenter our vocabulary.  Every fan hopes that what begins with a cool day in April will end with a cool celebration in October.

The season will be filled with ups and downs.  There will be winning streaks and hitting streaks; losing streaks and slumps.  There will be lazy fly balls and screaming line drives.  There will be thrilling comebacks and heartbreaking losses.  Our team will win.  Our team will lose, and the summer will move on.  Eventually, the season will be over, and we all want it to end with a parade through our city.

Isn’t that what life is all about?  When I die, I don’t expect that there will be a parade, but I have assurance to know that there will be a great celebration.  Jesus gave us some simple instructions for life, “Follow me,” he said.  Follow him in service, compassion, grace, and love.  He told us to love ourselves, love our neighbors, and love our God.  He told us to break bread with each other, forgive and be forgiven, and be willing to sacrifice for the sake of others.

We go through this season of life and surely there are going to be slumps, bad outings, and losing streaks.  Everyone faces the dog-days of summer and the nagging insecurities of a fallen world and a sinful nature.  Today though, we have hope.  Today can be Opening Day.  There are a lot of questions we have to answer.  There is potential that we can still unlock.  There are stories to be told, and lives that we can touch.  There swings to be swung, pitches to be pitched, and games to be won.  Today is Opening Day.

Play Ball!

Why I love baseball

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If LaRussa goes to HoF, why not McGwire?

In the 2011 Hall of Fame voting, Mark McGwire received 19.8% of the vote, far short of the 75% required to gain admission to the Hall.  His 583 career home runs are the most of any player that is eligible for the Hall (retired 5 years), that has not been enshrined.  For many years that honor belonged to Dave Kingman and his 442 home runs.  In McGwire’s first year of eligibility he received 23% of the vote.  For right now, the trend shows that Mark McGwire will never be elected into the Hall of Fame.

Neither will Rafael Palmeiro.  Palmeiro is one of four players to have 500 career home runs and 3,000 hits.  The other three are Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray.  In his first year of eligibility, Palmeiro received 11% of the vote.  No one has ever made the Hall after receiving 11% of the votes.  Palmeiro and McGwire are exhibits A and B for the steroid era sluggers making the Hall of Fame.  Both of them are confirmed users.  Both have incredible, HoF-worthy numbers.  Neither will be enshrined in the near future.

Why do I bring this up? Because this week Tony LaRussa retired.  He retired after an emotional run to his third World Series championship.  He retired after what was a mixed-bag of managing. In the Series he made some world-class gaffes as well as incredibly shrewd moves.  There is little doubt that LaRussa is a Hall of Fame manager.  He has won three World Series titles, including wins out of both leagues.  He has won division titles with three teams.  He has won the manager of the year twice (and will likely win it again this year).  He is third on the all-time list in managerial wins behind only legends Connie Mack and John McGraw (and is second all-time in losses).

Shortly after he retired the accolades, congratulations, and well-wishes came pouring in.  It seemed like every news source and commentator was fawning over his incredible achievements and his already paved route to Cooperstown.  I just want to say, “Hold on a second.”

While McGwire and Palmeiro sit outside Hall, we’re going to let LaRussa stroll right in?  No, he never used performance enhancing drugs, but he certainly benefited from them.  It has been argued that LaRussa is the most complicit manager of the steroid era.  Tony LaRussa managed Mark McGwire in two different stops – his two most successful, I might add.  McGwire has finally admitted to using steroids, first in Oakland in 1989, and again in his famed run toward 73 home runs with the Cardinals in 1998.  His manager both times? Tony LaRussa.  He claims that LaRussa, who has time and again defended McGwire, didn’t know anything about it.

This book was "bashed" at first, but most Canseco's assertions have been vindicated.

At best, it seems hard to believe that LaRussa knew nothing – twice.  At worst, he was a complicit participant in the greatest systematic cheating scandal in the history of the game.  Some go so far as to say that he was actively covering up the steroid use of his players while at the same time berating any reporters with the gall to ask questions.  And according to Jose Canseco, the guy who has been proven right over and over again despite being ridiculed and insulted when he first made his accusations, LaRussa knew everything.

I’m not saying that LaRussa shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, but it seems clear that a standard about the steroid era has been set.  It will be interesting when 2013, when Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens become eligible for the first time.  If any of them get in, it will surprise me.  Interestingly enough, because managers are voted into the Hall differently, LaRussa will first be eligible (along with Joe Torre, Lou Piniella and Bobby Cox) in, how cool is this, 2013.

So it turns out 2013 will be an interesting year for the Hall of Fame and the steroid era.  Three known users and two managers that benefited greatly from the era (Torre managed A-Rod, Clemens, Giambi) will all become eligible.

I’m not passing judgment on LaRussa’s resume, but I’m surprised that almost all national media outlets have been completely silent on LaRussa’s less than sparkling involvement in the steroid era.  It seems to me that there is a double standard.  If the players don’t go in, why would their managers?

For further reading:

Sorry Albert, I don’t believe you.

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Sports schadenfreude

Schadenfreude: Taking pleasure from the suffering of another.

Lisa Simpson taught me this word many years ago. She used it to describe how Homer was feeling when Ned Flanders’ Leftorium was going out of business. It is not a noble feeling.  It mostly stems from jealousy, which is never pretty.  In sports, schadenfreude is pretty common.  In recognition of the Heat’s recent loss, which has to be one of the top sports schadenfreude moments in history, I have compiled a list of other great moments.

10 and 9. Anytime Duke or the Dallas Cowboys lose.  No real reason, I just can’t stand Duke or the Dallas Cowboys
8. Maybe Free Throws should move up on your list.  In an interview on Pardon the Interruption, Coach John Calipari was asked about the importance of free throws.  He responded, in his ever glib manner, “If I made a list of 100 things I use to evaluate a player, free throws wouldn’t be on it.”  A few days later his star player Derrick Rose was at the free throw line with national championship on the line.  A couple of missed free throws later, Kansas beat Coach Cal’s Memphis Tigers and cut down the nets.  A few years later, the Final Four banner in Memphis was taken down.  In light of recent scandals, I’ve actually gained respect for Coach Cal.  At least he isn’t out there writing books about moral values and spirituality.  With him, you know what you get – a few temporary banners to hang in your gym.

7. The Patron Saint of the Sweater Vest resigns.  Under normal circumstances, I don’t take pleasure in someone losing their job.  As unemployment in this country remains over 9%, it seems particularly insensitive to laugh when someone new is added to the list.  But when the guy in question has written a book called The Winners’ Manual for the Game of Life, and he resigns in the midst of a growing cheating scandal that suggests systemic corruption, I can’t help but enjoy his downfall.  I’m not sure if there is a chapter in Jim Tressel’s book about maintaining a culture of lies and intentionally turning a blind eye as his spoiled athletes cheat the system.  I haven’t read it, and don’t plan to.  I think what’s worse are reports from Buckeye fans that are defending this guy.  They are blaming Terelle Pryor for “bringing down” their god.  Pryor certainly isn’t blameless, and he might have been the catalyst for getting him caught, but being mad at him for exposing Tressel is like getting mad at Toto for revealing the Wizard.  That whole good-guy image was just smoke and mirrors.

6. Timeout!  The Fab Five was one of the most polarizing teams in college basketball history.  Love them or hate them, they helped define an era of basketball.  Count me in the group of people that couldn’t stand ‘em.  Looking back now, I can see that much of the vitriol aimed at Michigan was about class and race, but I don’t think that was why I didn’t like them.  I just don’t like Michigan.  So when the Wolverines and North Carolina were playing for a national championship in 1993, I was pulling for the Tar Heels. North Carolina was up 73-71 with 19 seconds left in the game when Chris Weber snagged a rebound.  He awkwardly took the ball up the court, and then got caught in a trap along the sideline.  Fearful of giving up the ball, and unable to find an open man, Weber called a timeout.

Usually that would be considered a good move.  The only problem was that Michigan didn’t have any more timeouts.  With 11 second remaining, a technical foul was called against the Flub Five.  Two free throws plus the ball meant that Carolina won 77-71.

The Fab Five produced two Final Fours, but neither banner hangs in the Crisler Arena anymore.   In 2002, a widespread cash for play scandal was revealed.  There were indictments, forfeited games, and for all those that couldn’t stand the Fab Five, a lot of schadendreude.

5. The Rich Rodriguez Era. When I was in High School I was visiting my brother at the University of Illinois. One of his fraternity brothers taught me a filthy version of “Hail to the Victors.” I didn’t even understand what all the words meant, but I knew one thing: Michigan sucks. Unfortunately, this was more wishful thinking than actually describing the quality of Michigan’s football teams. They (along with Ohio State) have dominated the Big Ten. They’ve won 42 conference titles, and been to 20 Rose Bowls. Seriously, Michigan is the worst. Even their colors are pretentious – It’s Yellow!

After hiring Rich Rodriguez from West Virginia, there were lawsuits, players quitting, an NCAA investigation and mediocrity on the field.  I watched it all with glee.  In three seasons with Rich Rod at the helm, the Wolverines went 15-22 and won only six Big Ten games.  He was fired last year after a 7-6 season and a loss in the Gator Bowl.

5a. The Charlie Weis Era.  For pretty much all the same reasons.  Some think that College Football is better when Notre Dame and Michigan are good.  I’m not one of them.  I hate it when they play each other, I honestly cannot decide which team I want to lose more. The Brian Kelly era hasn’t exactly been stellar either – I still cannot believe he wasn’t punished more severely for his irresponsible actions surrounding the death of Declan Sullivan.

4. The Exception to the Rule: Corey Wooten’s first career sack. When I started thinking about this list I thought to myself, “No injuries.” I have never taken joy out of someone getting injured while playing sports. Then I remembered the exception. I’m not sure if anyone in sports history has ever done so much to lose respect and appreciation without doing anything illegal as Bret Favre. As a Packer, I hated the guy because he beat my Bears so much, but I always respected him. I respected his play, his joy, and his toughness. He seemed like the kind of guy that would be fun to play with and against. Then the retirement carousel began. It was all so narcissistic. Every August for three – or was it four – years, the Favre Watch would start. Would he retire? Would he call a press conference? Who would he play for? It all got so tiresome as he held one franchise after another hostage.

He ended his career with the Packers by throwing an interception in the NFC Championship. He should have ended his career with the Viking the same way. Instead, he came back for another year in 2011. This is how it ended, maybe.

3. One word: “Bartman.” The Cubs may be the lovable losers for everyone else in the country, but to  White Sox fans, only one of those terms applies. In 2003, the Cubs were five outs from going to their first World Series since 1945. They were up 3-0 over the Marlins in the top of the eighth inning of game 6 and held a 3-2 series advantage. Mark Pryor was rolling, and Cubs fans everywhere believed that the temperature in hell had reached the mid-40s. I was watching the game in my living room, sitting on my chair. A Lifelong Phillies and Sox fan, I was actually half-heartedly pulling for the Cubs.Chicago baseball had been so bad for so long, I was ready for a World Series in Chicago.

Then Luis Castillo hit what seemed like a meaningless foul ball. Leftfielder Moises Alou was under it, but against the wall. A Cubs fan, wearing a Cubs hat, ear phones, and a green turtleneck  under a black sweatshirt did what any other fan would have done in the same situation. He tried to catch a foul ball. In the process, he knocked it away from Alou. Instead of being the second out of the inning, Castillo walked. Before the inning was over, eight Marlins crossed the plate. The Cubs lost 8-3. After the inning, I laughed and told my wife, “That is so Cub-like.” In game 7, the Cubs had their ace Kerry Wood on the mound with a 5-3 lead after four innings. Bartman had nothing to do with them losing that game 9-6.

In the aftermath, the ball has been destroyed, Steve Bartman was forced into a semi-exilic state. Bartman will forever be remembered in Chicago. Some will remember him with pain and anguish. Others, like me, will remember him with a light chuckle and a dash of schadenfreude.

2. The Yankees lose.  Ttttthhhhhheeeeeeee Yankees. Lose!

Yankee-hating is a long-standing tradition in America, and for good reason. Steinbrenner, Jackson, Martin, Cashman, Jeter, A-Rod, and a legion of annoyingly arrogant New Yorkers created the original Evil Empire. The majority of the 80s can be added to this list as the Yankees floundered, much to the joy of most long-time baseball fans. In the mid-90s though, the golden era of Yankee-hating ended. In 2004, the Yankees had won 5 of the last 6 league pennants. The Yankees had beaten the Red Sox in seven games the year before. The Yankees owned the Red Sox. The Yankees were THE dominant force in baseball. After getting trounced 19-8 in game 3 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, it looked like another horrible end for the Red Sox. Thus began the greatest collapse in the history of baseball. There was a rare Rivera blown-save, a bloody sock, a bunch of “idiots” with long hair, and David Ortiz hitting what seemed like a dozen home runs, including a two-run walk-off bomb in the bottom of the 12th in game 4

Looking back, Schilling has become more and more annoying, Ortiz and Ramirez have both been implicated in the steroid-era, and the ultimate “idiot” Johnny Damon joined the Dark Side. The Red Sox have their own brand of annoyingly arrogant fans – a sort of Mini-Me to the Yankees Dr. Evil. But at the time, for Yankees haters everywhere, the 2004 ALCS was prime schadenfreude material.

1. LeBron James and the Heat lose to the Dallas Mavericks.

I used to like Lebron. When he was a rookie, I picked him a little early in a fantasy draft. Other managers ridiculed me, telling me he was “all hype.” I believed the hype, and his all-around excellence helped my team win the league championship. He has since developed into what appears to be an unstoppable force. When the Bulls were struggling through the Del Negro mediocrity, the Cavs were my second favorite team. Even after The Decision, I didn’t join in the venomous attacks on Lebron. I figured, he took less money to play with friends and go after a championship – that’s not all that bad. I was afraid a lot of the venom was more racially motivated than people admitted. But the guy just wore on me, and here’s a quick list of why: 1. The team just seemed to whine all season, and never understood why they weren’t liked. They painted a big target on themselves, and then wondered why people were taking shots. 2. “The Chosen One” is inked on his back (chosen for what?) 3. The pre-season self-predicted Seven-Peat (or was it eight?) 4. The early celebration in game two. It was just a pattern of self-promotion and premature celebration. So when they basically quit playing with about 60 seconds left in Game 6, I was in full schadenfreude-mode.

So there it is – my all time Top Ten Sports Schadenfreude moments.  I’m not proud of any of it.  Takeing joy from the suffering of others isn’t exactly “Love your neighbor” kind of stuff.  But this is sports, and part of what makes sports are fun is that it’s a fantasy world.  It’s a world where I cheer for the good guys and everyone else is bad.  It’s a world where I care deeply about the results of adults playing kid games.  It’s a world where I can forget about war and poverty and justice and just enjoy great athletes, great drama, and great joy and great suffering – especially if its the Yankees, Wolverines, Cowboys or Favre doing the suffering.

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Phillies Phanatic

Last year at about this time I wrote about Why I love the Phillies.  They were playing in game four of the World Series.  A few days later I was wiping the tears from my eyes with my daughter in my arms as I heard Harry Kalas make the call, “The Philadelphia Phillies are the World Champions of baseball!”

Today I am watching the Phillies.  Amazingly, they are back in the World Series. They have a chance at going down in history as one of the greatest teams ever.  It feels strange.  I spent the first 32 years of my life in perpetual disappointment with the Phillies.  Until last year my most vivid memory watching the Phillies was watching Joe Carter round the bases after ripping my heart out.  That all changed last year. Until last year I was a fan of a team that was best known for the record 10,000 losses.  Until last year I could never be accused of being a fair-weather fan. 

This year I am the fan with the confidence of being the defending World Series champions.  Last year I agonized over every pitch. I raged at every close call that went to the Rays, and held my breath everytime the Phillies had someone in scoring position.  Last year I was the fan of a team no one wanted to win because everyone was so enamored of the Cinderella Rays.  This year I am the fan of the team that everyone is pulling for because everyone hates the Yankees.

A lot can change in a year.  I’m hoping one thing doesn’t.

 

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Competition

I’ve finally been convinced.  I have decided that Competition is the only great motivator for excellence.  Without competition, no one would strive for anything.  Without competition, we will all be pathetic weak pansies waiting for handouts.  The Oprafication of America has to stop, and Competition must be restored at all levels of society – starting with the great hallowed grounds of Competition – the sports arena.

To that end, I want to create a new temple dedicated to the heroes of Competition.  Ben Johnson, Barry Bonds, Tonya Harding and Rosie Ruiz will be bronzed for all the world to worship.  These Great Champions were pushed to new heights by Competition.

Ben Johnson and Barry Bonds were tremendous athletes.  They were world-class, highly-paid professionals, yet no one would have called them “The Fastest Man on the Planet” or “The Greatest Player Ever,” until they went the extra mile.  Driven to excellence, these two achieved all-time status.  The fact that they are both pariahs today shows how weak the rest of us are.  Bonds and Johnson put it all on the line  – took chances – risked organ failure – shrunk their testes – for Competition.  What have you done in the name of Competition?

Tonya Harding was a powerhouse on skates.  She was the most powerful jumper in the world, but that Nancy-girl Nancy Kerrigan was threatening to dethrone her.  So Harding took the Competition to the next level – outside the ice rink.  She convinced her thug husband to whack Kerrigan on the leg.  Now that is dedication.  If Kerrigan were a true competitor, she would have been wearing shin guards.

And of course, the ultimate Competitor, Rosie Ruiz.  She destroyed her competition by winning the Boston Marathon after running about 3,000 feet. Driven by the desire to win, Ruiz didn’t let anything – not even the first 26 miles of the race – stand in her way.

If conservative pundits have taught me anything these last few weeks, it’s this.  Competition is Good.  It might be the only True Good out there.  Competition drives prices down, increases customer service, and is good for all of us.  Pure, unadulterated, unencumbered, untested, untaxed, unregulated Competition is the only way we may have prosperity (its probably the only way to defeat the terrorists too).

So let’s stop the bull.  I will only cheer for athletes that are saturated with steroids.  I should be able to get stronger just by sucking the sweat out of my favorite player’s headband.  In fact, owners should test their players and suspend anyone that is not completely bathed in the cream and the clear, because they obviously don’t want it bad enough.

After all, God helps those that help themselves, right?  That’s in the Bible somewhere, I’m sure of it.  I think its right after that stuff about not making idols.

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The death of baseball cards?

It was announced recently that Major League Baseball has granted exclusive rights to producing its baseball cards to Topps.  See the New York Times story here.  According to the article, the baseball card market has dropped to a fifth of what it was in the mid 90’s.  In other words, baseball cards are dying. 

It was a slow death, but this is how it happened.

1. Someone’s mother threw away her son’s shoebox full of baseball cards.  In that box were hundreds of faces of no-name players like Eddie Joost and Ray Boone, but a few of the cards held the likeness of Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, and Joe Dimagio.  This was repeated by thousands of mothers across the country.  Only a few boxes were salvaged.

For the decades from the 50’s to the early 80’s, baseball card collecting goes on without major event.  Topps is the main company. The pack includes over a dozen cards and a stick of gum, and most suburban kids can buy a few packs with the money they earn from mowing their neighbor’s lawn, or from the money in a birthday card. 

Some of the cards are put in the spokes of bicycle wheels, but a few are treasured.  When I was a kid I kept all of my Phillies cards, traded all of my Cubs, and kept the likes of Mark McGuire, Will Clark, Tom Seaver, and of course Mike Schmidt.  I treasured the Mike Schmidt cards. 

The greatest third baseman to ever play the game, on the first card he appeared alone.

The greatest third baseman to ever play the game, on the first card he appeared alone.

I would set out all my cards, and sort them into their teams.  I would put together all-star teams.  I would pour over the stats, delighting in all the tiny numbers, especially the numbers in italics, indicating that was a league-leader.  Then step two in the death of baseball cards happened:

2. Those boys grew up, and started buying those cards with the faces of their heroes, thus driving the prices up.  One ancient card with Honus Wagner’s picture on it is sold for six figures, and every middle aged man in America swears he had that card in his old shoebox this his mother threw away.

Suddenly there were new companies.  Donruss and Fleer popped up, but I stayed loyal to Topps.  Now no one dared throw a card away for hopes that a rookie card of a future hall of famer would someday bring fortune.  Baseball cards stopped being about loving baseball, and became about making money. Then Upper Deck came out, with their glossy finish and special sets and hologram cards and increased prices.  Now a deck had about 10 cards and cost three bucks.

3. The Becket monthly price guide was released.  Becket had made an annual book, one that you could look up your old cards for fun and see how much they might be sold for.  The monthly guide though, destroyed collecting.  Now prices fluctuated with every hot streak.  Buying and selling rookie cards were like a complicated futures market.  And having Ken Griffey’s rookie card wasn’t enough, because if it were a Topps card, it was worth $3, but if it were an Upper Deck card, it was worth $75. 

4. Baseball cards became a business of old men instead of a hobby of young boys.  For years the value of a card was simple.  If a player was good, the card was valuable.  If a player was very good, and you had his rookie card (and there was only one), then that card was very valuable.  By the mid-90’s there were so many companies, so many sets, so many Gold, Elite, Premium, Glossy, Hologram, Special Edition, Autograph Edition, Rookie All-Star, Future Star, College, Minor League All-Star, Top Draft Pick, Platinum cards, no one but savvy businessmen could keep track of it all.

 Can baseball cards be saved?  I think so.  This is what Topps needs to do:

  1. Make one set of cards every season.  The release date is Opening Day.  Players that played in major league games in the previous season get a card.  No one else.  This will clear up the issue of what is someone’s rookie card.  Plus, if someone gets called up in July and has a great season, there will be increased demand for his card before the next season even starts.
  2. Put all the player’s stats for his entire career on the back of the card.  One of the great things about old cards was that you could immediately tell if a player had a long career by the size of the font of the stats.
  3. Limit the special insert sets.  Every season, have only two special sets inserted into the regular packs: one for rookies and one for all-stars or league leaders.  Simplify and streamline the deck so that there is only one card for each player during any given year.
  4. Improve merchandising in stores.  Do not overcrowd an aisle with so many cards that kids/parents don’t even know what they are looking at.  Keep them (as much as possible) away from the High School Musical Cards, and the President Obama Cards, and the Miley Cyrus Cards. 
  5. Put the gum back in.  Kids like gum, its not complicated.
  6. Put more cards in each deck.  Make it something worth while.
  7. Add some sort of internet interactive game to play with the cards.  This has been wildly popular with Webkins and other toys.  Allow kids to assemble teams online with the cards they get and play other teams.  Add bonuses for getting closer to filling a full set.  This would intergrate fantasy baseball and collecting cards – and might even draw in some old guys like me.

Here is a great article about the 1987 set of Topps Baseball cards.  This was the first set that I collected seriously.  I still have many of the cards in my room at my parents house.  My Mom wouldn’t dare throw them away

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That Ball’s Outta Here!

Harry Kalas died today.  Kalas was the voice of the Philadelphia Phillies and NFL Films for many years.  His voice has brought me to tears more times than I can count.  One the most memorable moments of my sporting life was watching the Phillies win the World Series last year, but it didn’t feel complete until I could hear Kalas call it.

Kalas’ voice was one of the most recognizable in sportscasting history.  He belongs near the top of the great generation of broadcasters that includes Vin Scully, Phil Rizzuto, Jack Buck, and Harry Caray.  I did not grow up listening to Kalas.  Growing up in Chicago made it difficult to get the Phildelphia radio station to listen to him, which made me cherish the times I could listen to him all the more.  I hope you enjoy this video, if for no other reason than to hear one of the greatest of all time practice the craft of sportscasting.

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Sorry Albert, I don’t believe you

My new Sports Illustrated came in the mail today.  On the cover is Albert Pujols, slugger for the St. Louis Cardinals.  The headline reads, “Albert Pujols has a message: ‘Don’t Be Afraid to Believe in Me'”

Albert Pujols on SI

Sorry Albert, I have nothing against you personally.  I might actually believe that you are clean – but I’m not giving you the benefit of the doubt.  I want to believe you are clean – you are an amazing player.  I lived in St. Louis for three years and marveled in your greatness.  You are the only player I have ever watched that actually surprises me when you make an out.  You are so good that I actually expect a hit every time.

There are no signs that you are, or ever were, on steroids.  Yet you did sort of come out of nowhere.  You have always been a huge man, yet you do sort of look smaller on the cover of this issue.  Maybe you are clean – and I hope you are, but I still don’t believe you.  And you have no one to blame but yourself – and your union.

I assume you’ve heard the saying, “Once bitten, twice shy.”  Well, I was bitten when I believed Mark McGwire say that bottle of chemicals in his locker was just a supplement, and I was bitten over and over again each time I drove by the sign that read Mark McGwire Expressway just north of Busch Stadium.  I was bitten when I believed that the reason for the increased home runs in the late 90’s was because of “hard balls.”  I was bitten again when owners called Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco embittered liars.  I was bitten (how many times is that now?) when Rafeal Palmeiro wagged his finger and angrily declared “Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids, period. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never.”  And I was bitten when Alex Rodriguez made himself out to be the great anti-Barry with Katie Couric.  So I guess after all the times I have been bitten by the owners, media and especially by members of your union, I’m more than twice shy.

You might be clean, but you are not blameless.  Where was this indignation when Barry Bonds’ hat size went from melon to globe? Where were you when your former teammate, he of the cartoon-like forearms that were built on something more than spinach, was declaring, “I don’t want to talk about the past”?

There is plenty of blame to spread around in this whole steroid mess.  The owners probably turned a blind eye to it as Sammy and Mark rescued the game from the despair of labor disputes and a cancelled World Series.  The media droped the ball as they gawked at the home runs while ignoring the signs.  But the players – the clean ones – are as much to blame as anyone.  They were the ones that really, undeniably, knew what was going on.  They were the ones that were most directly being negatively effected by the cheaters.

So now you clean players want to say, “It wasn’t me – He did it.”  Sorry, it doesn’t work like that.  As far as I’m concerned – you’re all guilty.  The whole era is tainted – not just Barry’s numbers, but yours too, Albert.  Because it was you, Albert, that had the power to prevent the steroid era from happening.  If the union cared about the clean players, then it would have acted to make testing happen to protect their integrity.  Yet, the union continues to drag its feet.

You want me to believe you?  Then demand that your union leadership be fired – now.  Demand that Bud Selig is fired – now.  Demand random blood testing – now.  Demand full season suspensions for first offenses – now.  Do that, and maybe I’ll believe you.  Until then, you, and no member of your union, deserves the benefit of the doubt.

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