Pack #4: One glove

One of the best things about baseball is the fact that at any time, something incredible could happen. In a sport obsessed with statistical analysis and probabilityit is the possibility that keeps me interested.

I guess that is what interested me in this blog format-- the possibility of discovery and all these interesting things I didn't know about players that I get to learn from random packs of unopened cards. Here's what awaited me in pack four:

Awesome mustaches here and I love Jeff Russel's intensity balanced with John Tudor's serenity. And doesn't Gooden's arm look like something out of a science experiment?

But there was one card here that felt a little bit heavier than the rest:

So this post is an ode to the last season Chet Lemon played Major League Baseball. This is a man who, incredibly, used a single glove his entire career. Look at the back of that card; that's a lot of action for one glove.

And the photograph couldn't be more fitting--an homage to a man at the end of his career, a card that reminds you, maybe, of the last time you don number 34, the last time you step up to the plate.

Did Chet Lemon know on October 3, 1990, that it would be the last time he would play major league baseball?

He may have a had a hunch after learning during a spring physical that he had polycythemia vera and feeling his performance during the1990 season not up to his standard. That he showed up to spring training in '91, though, and that he wasn't waived until three days before opening day makes me think he didn't.

He didn't know it in the top of the first when the Tigers hit the lineup on Steve Adkins, Lemon notching a line drive single to left field with no outs after a Gary Ward grand slam.

He didn't know it leading off the third with a fly out to deep left field.

Or in the top of the fifth, doubling to deep left field, moving Ward, who would score that inning, to third.

Or in the top of the seventh, after striking out looking, with Rich Monteleone throwing relief for Adkins.

And maybe he didn't know it in the top of the eighth, with Alan Mills in for Monteleone, that this would be his last major league at-bat.

Then he singled up the middle on a ground ball to center, finality at the plate with a shot sent right back up the middle to the spot on the field he spent most of his 15 years in the majors.
Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun. 
-A. Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind


Pack #3: Coming of age

This pack is stacked.

It was difficult for me not to write about Clemens’ four-seamer and that lock of soaked hair, but I covered his 1990 season pretty well in the launch post for this set, so I felt like I couldn’t pick that card, though it is an awesome photo. (If anyone has leads on any of the photographers whose shots are featured in this set, let me know—I'm curious to investigate that side of things!)

I reserve the right to write about the can of dip in Melido Perez’s left back pocket, and I must say that Wally and Barry Larkin were under consideration.

But it was the other Barry I wondered if I could find anything original to say about: Barry Lamar Bonds.

1990 was a coming-of-age season for him, without a doubt. He received his first MVP award—a well-deserved one—as he became the first MLB player to bat .300, post 100 RBIs and 100 runs, and steal 50 bags (.301 BA, 114 RBI, 104 runs, 52 SB). Couple that with his 33 homers and you have the second member of the 30-50 club.

Just completely ridiculous stuff.

On the one hand, you might look at this card and think it doesn’t capture the raw power or tenacity that Bonds displayed in the 1990 season. I mean, he’s just sort of standing there.

But me, I see a rising player who knows exactly what is coming.

There he waits, lip packed full, beyond comfortable in the box, just thoroughly unimpressed. I mean, his Mimsbandz "SAY NO TO DRUGS"–captioned portrait wristbands exude more emotion than he does.

It is almost as if his bat is barely there, held with the minimum effort required to keep it from dropping out of his hands. There's an effortlessness and ease to the way Bonds carries himself that is at odds with his media persona, a self-awareness that runs counter to the player-you-love-to-hate image he acquired over the years.

The cowboy shot framing here feels appropriate, too. It's not hard to imagine the guns drawn, Barry ready to pull the trigger. The portrait of him on the back also feels appropriate, the look on his face attentive but also sort of incredulous.
"There’s a catcher behind home plate, and that catcher catches that ball every time with a glove. The only thing I did was change the object from a glove to a bat. And all I gotta do is catch it."  —Barry Bonds

In hindsight, it almost feels like in 1990 the rest of us were just catching up with what Barry Bonds knew his whole life: baseball would never be the same after him.

Pack #2: Hometown Hero

Pack two, at long last; I promise it isn't my intention for this to become a quarterly any rate, on to the cards:

As a Braves fan, this one was a no-brainer, although I love the Ballard mid-windup with the leg kick, Matt Williams with all the weight on his toes, ready to pounce, and Calderon with the top button open, chains glinting in the sunlight, wearing what I can only think to describe as full-on driving gloves. 

For me though, this pack is all about Marquis, the rookie in Montreal, still five years away from securing the final out in the first Atlanta World Series victory I was alive for. 

The card itself: Grissom is locked. Look at how gripped this guy is and how unwavering his focus. I'm worried he's going to turn that bat into sawdust before he gets the chance to swing it.

For the stat-heads: Four-time gold glove winner, 2,251 career hits, 227 HR, NL leader in steals in '91 (76) and '92 (78), first in outs made in '92 and '96. .272/.333/.442 career slash line. One of the crazier elite SABR clubs Marquis belongs to is the 2,000 hits, 200 homers, 400 steals cohort. He is one of only ten major leaguers who have achieved it. Craig Biggio, Roberto Alomar, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor, Joe Morgan, Johnny Damon, Bobby Abreu, and Jimmy Rollins are the other nine.

I'll always remember Marquis as the only Atlanta native on the 1995 World Series team, and it will always bum me out that he was dished along with Justice for Embree and Lofton. There's just something awesome about a hometown hero on your roster, something surely not lost on Grissom, who played a role in Atlanta native Michael Harris II's development in high school summer ball.

Still, I will always wonder what Marquis Grissom's career would have looked like if the strike in '94 didn't happen. There's a good chance he would never have been on the Braves.

Going into that season, the Expos were stacked. They were a league-leading 74-40 going into the strike, six games ahead of Atlanta, and could have been looking at a World Series face-off with the 70-43 Yankees. Instead, the franchise wouldn't make the playoffs again until they made the move to Washington; who knows how much longer a World Series run would have secured their place in Montreal for?

At the end of the day, Grissom was shipped to Atlanta after the strike took its toll on team finances, in what would become a series of career moves over his last decade in the league that would see him don Cleveland, Milwaukee, LA, and San Francisco uniforms, giving the team of the '90s a glorious two seasons.

One of the coolest things about the end of Grissom's career was that standout year in 2003, his first with the Giants, when he hit .300 with 20 homers and 11 stolen bases. 

And one of the many cool things about him off the field? He bought his parents a house and did the same for his 14 siblings.

A hometown hero, indeed.

Pack #1: Leadoff bunting

The first pack of the first box of cards, and I guess my first thought is, "well it's nice to have pulled the Griffey, but I'm sorry Kid, I don't think it gets much better than this Brett Butler bunting beauty."

A man whose career and legacy could arguably be defined by the bunt for a hit, I doubt there could be a better photo for a Brett Butler card to start the dive into the decade: his eyes locked on the ball, bat firmly held in front of the plate, his body ready to launch for first as soon as he sees that ball hit the ground (a brief aside to contradict what I just wrote and note that the '91 Leaf photo may have the edge here--nearly the same shot but the ball is right there in the corner of the frame, and he's in the uniform he'd spend the majority of the '90s in).

At 5'10" 160 pounds, maybe I'm only drawn to his style of play because it's easier to see myself in his shoes than, say, Dale Murphy's, but his game just seems so damn fun, and ain't that what it's all about?

Hits for contact. Walks more than he strikes out. A whole lot of bunting. A whole lot of stealing. Caught stealing...a bit more than you'd like.

Yeah I know that last one isn't great but, damn, if it isn't fun!

A leader in triples in both leagues, first in the NL in 1983 with Atlanta, and then in the AL with Cleveland in 1986, Butler's speed was such an asset--probably the thing, along with his tenacity, that kept him around the majors for as long as he was. 

And his bunting skills can't be understated--complete bunting data isn't fully available for the duration of his career, but for seasons it is available, he led the majors a handful of times, and consider this: in '92 he had 42 bunts. Butler alone was bunting more in his heyday than any single franchise has in any season in the past decade plus (you have to go back to the 2011 Angels, who laid down 43, to, as a team, surpass that '92 season).

1990 was a pretty good year for Butler--he led the league with 192 hits and slashed .309/.397/.384, and the timing of his "new look" free agency due to owner collusion a few years prior set him up for landing the Dodgers deal (also in this pack, Daryl Strawberry, would join him in the outfield, having made a splash of his own with a big contract a month earlier with the Dodgers).

And while he's there, enshrined on cardboard, bunting from the lefty's batter box, I can't help but wonder: what if he was right handed? His left-handedness was an asset with his hitting at the top of lineups I'm sure, but imagining him and his quickness if he could have slotted in at second base does make me wonder if history would see him and consider his game just a little bit differently.

At any rate, it's awesome to consider a man who defies the stat-head obsession with what value bunting brings as it relates to run production and all the somewhat silly arguments in the realm of statistical calculation, in part because Butler epitomized the realm of possibility, the possibility that hangs between the moment you realize the bunter is squaring up to do so and the moment the ball is on the ground, in play.

And putting the ball in play is something that most of us just hope we can do.

Welcome to the Cardboard Millennial

Friday, July 20, 1990.

I’m three and a half years old.

At 10:30 am Eastern Daylight Time in Rochester, NY, a new cry breaks forth onto the ears of the world. My sister is born. 

At 5 pm Central Daylight Time in Kansas City, Rookie Kevin Appier takes the mound in the first game of a Friday night doubleheader, the start to what will be a three-hit complete game shutout for him in front of the home crowd, just two starts after pitching a one-hit shutout in Detroit.

Two hours and 34 minutes later, a cry of a different kind resounds when Appier strikes out Tom Brunansky to end the game, veers off the mound toward the first base line, slaps his glove, and shakes catcher Mike Macfarlane’s hand as he is handed the game ball.

If not for the thunderstorms that moved through Kansas City back on Tuesday May 15th, when this game was originally scheduled to take place, maybe this never happens. 

Maybe after seven innings Roger Clemens isn’t stewing in the dugout as reliever Rob Murphy gives up two runs and is replaced by Jerry Reed, who gives up another on a wild pitch before getting out of the inning with a Kevin Seitzer groundout, a sad performance capping Clemens’ fourth loss in a row, Appier’s muted double fist pumps further unnerving him. 

Maybe Clemens doesn't find himself watching the second of the twi-night games, muttering under his breath, vowing to carry that loss into his next two starts—two complete-game shutouts of his own—remembering that sting, in fact, in his final 10 starts of the 1990 regular season when the Red Sox drop only one of those games, Clemens posting a .92 ERA and delivering 76 Ks over that stretch. 

But that, all of that, does happen.

In the 1990 postseason, the Red Sox get swept by the Athletics in the ALCS, but Appier and the rest of the Royals are watching from home, their 75-86 record putting them 27.5 games behind the A's. Clemens pitches masterfully in a game-one battle against Dave Stewart, but the bullpen and offense do him no favors, and his anger builds, culminating in a wild game-four ejection.

Later that year, tucked away on the back of a shelf, or up in an attic, or on the floor of a closet, somewhere just out of sight, a couple of boxes of 1990 Leaf baseball cards sit and accumulate dust, forgotten.

And now, after a long 33 years, Reader, we get to find out what’s in them together. Welcome to the Cardboard Millennial, a blog about baseball cards and mixed metaphors by an aging Millennial—hope you enjoy your stay.