Saturday, April 22, 2017

2017 Topps Gypsy Queen creates a regal mystique for collectors

Aiming for aura of regal mystique as its name implies, the 2017 Topps Gypsy Queen set delivers collectors a striking design that is sure to draw the attention of many this baseball season. Immediately clear from opening the first pack of the box, is that the emphasis is on creating cards that are timeless in their display. The vivid action shots that blur the lines of photography and artwork are meant to persist in their appeal for decades.

2017 Topps Gypsy Queen / Topps
This year’s Gypsy Queen makes some amendments to the 2016 series, reducing the base set to 320 cards and removing the mini parallels from the series of inserts available to chase. Parallels include numbered colored cards (Purple, Black & White, Red, Black), as well as image variations of players in throwback uniforms or capless action shots. Some of the parallels are hard to determine due to the difficult to read codes in the fine print on the back that serves to differentiate them from the base set.

Standout inserts included the Hand Drawn Art Reproductions, which further the design motif of the set, as well as the Fortune Teller inserts that feature many of the rising stars in the league. The most tantalizing insert set however, might be the Chewing Gum Mini autographs (1:771 packs). These signatures include Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax, as well as top-tier young talents Carlos Correa, Noah Syndergaard, and Yoan Moncada.

2017 Topps Gypsy Queen Inserts and Variations / Topps
In exciting fashion, the box provided for this review yielded three autographs, one more than the two that were guaranteed. There was a Jacob deGrom autographed jumbo patch, a black and white autographed parallel that was numbered out of 50, and a signed base rookie card.

Jacob deGrom Autographed Insert Patch Card / Topps
On a somber note, the Glassworks Box Topper inserted into the box, was one of the late Jose Fernandez. As of this writing, Fernandez doesn’t have a base card in any of the 2017 Topps releases; seeing him once again alive on cardboard serves as a painful reminder of his 2016 passing.

2017 Topps Gypsy Queen Jose Fernandez Glassworks Box Topper / Topps
This year’s Topps Gypsy Queen is certainly another release by Topps that is not only worth chasing, but preserving. While collectors might find it a bit frustrating and expensive to compile the 20 short prints (1:24 packs) for a complete set, the classic graphics make the 2017 Topps Gypsy Queen a tough set to pass up.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Bearing witness to Jackie Robinson Day in 1997

On April 15, 1997, the New York Mets hosted Jackie Robinson Night at Shea Stadium, where Major League Baseball forever retired Jackie Robinson's jersey number 42. Exactly fifty years prior, Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves in 1947, serving to shatter the line of segregation in the sport.

I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the game, as the Mets distributed tickets to local high schools to boost attendance. I remember an announcement being made that tickets were available and as soon as the bell rang for the next period, I went to the office to claim one. Excited to have my ticket in hand, I eagerly awaited the opportunity to bear witness to this historic event.

Media Gathering Around The Field at Batting Practice for Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 / N. Diunte
Entering Shea Stadium for the game, there was a tremendous amount of security as President Clinton was in attendance. Seemingly at every turn in the stadium there was a Secret Service agent, constantly on the lookout for any potential sign of danger. On the field during batting practice, hordes of media gathered by the newly unveiled logo commemorating the event.


Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 Shea Stadium / N. Diunte
During the fifth inning of the contest, Major League Baseball stopped the game for an unprecedented on-field ceremony that included a hobbled President Bill Clinton who was recovering from knee surgery, Rachel Robinson, commissioner Bud Selig, and a few of Robinson's former Brooklyn Dodger teammates. The President explained the significance of Robinson's legacy and why it was important that his number 42 was going to be permanently retired across Major League Baseball.

President Bill Clinton speaking during Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 / N. Diunte

Taking in the game from the upper deck with hordes of other New York City high school students, there was a bond that evening that transcended team affiliations, knowing that we were all spectators to a historical baseball event, one worthy of the President's time and attention. Twenty years later, the annual on-going tributes to Robinson and the doors that he opened, serve to remind us just how powerful his impact was on  the game.

Special Commemorative Program From Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 / N. Diunte

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Bob Cerv turned a late start into an All-Star baseball career

Bob Cerv was an unusual late-comer to professional baseball, signing his first minor league contract at the age of 25. His career was delayed due to his World War II service, which started in 1943 right after his high school graduation. After a three-year tour of duty, he became one of the University of Nebraska’s most decorated stars, winning back-to-back basketball championships, as well as garnering the Huskers’ first baseball All-American honors in 1950. Despite his accolades on the diamond, Cerv wasn’t sure the sport was going to be his calling.

“All at once I didn't think I was going into pro ball,” Cerv said during a phone interview with the author from his home in 2008. “I could have gone into pro basketball also. I played basketball and baseball at Nebraska. … Then they [the Yankees] offered me a deal, ‘Well we'll send you to Kansas City, and if you make it, we want to see how you do.’ I was 25 years old when I signed.”

When he arrived in Kansas City, the Yankees farm system was brimming with so much talent, that many including Cerv, eventually went on to stardom with other franchises. Cerv said that his 1951 AAA team in Kansas City was a prime example of just how rich the Yankees were with prospects.

“[Mickey] Mantle, Jackie Jensen, and I played the outfield [together] in Kansas City at the same time,” he said. “About seven years later, we were the All-Star [starting] outfield.”

Bob Cerv (r.) with Casey Stengel (c.) and Bob Wielser (l.)

He turned his delayed start into a dozen major league seasons that spanned from 1951-1962 with four different major league teams. Sadly, Cerv passed away April 6, 2017 in Blair, Nebraska. He was 91.

Cerv spent his first few seasons with the Yankees shuttling back and forth between Kansas City and the Bronx until 1954. The Yankees had used up his options and manager Casey Stengel decided to make him a permanent part of his outfield platoon.

“In those days when you were in AAA they could option you three times,” he recalled. “They had to keep or sell you. In 1951, ‘52, and ‘53, I got sent back down, and in ‘54 they had to keep me. That's the only year Stengel won 100+ games, and we lost by eight to Cleveland that year!”

The Yankees rebounded in 1955 to capture the American League pennant and face off with the Brooklyn Dodgers during the World Series. A late season leg injury forced Mantle out of the lineup for the majority of the series, clearing the way for Cerv to start during the Fall Classic.

“I played center field and I was 2-16 and [Irv] Noren was 1-16,” he said. “I hit against the left-handers and Noren hit the right-handers. We were lousy! I remember I hit a pinch hit home run off of Roger Craig; not many have done that. Then everything went their [Brooklyn’s] way.”

Over fifty years later, Cerv recalled Sandy Amoros’ catch during Game Seven of the 1955 World Series coming as the result of a genius decision by Dodgers manager Walter Alston. At the time, the Cerv was perplexed by the change.

"[Sandy] Amoros made that catch right after they just changed. I don't know why they switched all those people for. That was the greatest move. Junior Gilliam would have never caught that ball; even Amoros barely caught it. Yogi rarely ever hit a ball that way, but Amoros could run.”

Cerv tasted World Series victory the following season when the Yankees got their revenge against the Dodgers. He had one hit in his only at-bat during the series. During that off-season, the Yankees sold Cerv to Kansas City. The opportunity to play full-time made a world of difference for Cerv. By 1958, he beat out Ted Williams for the starting spot in the All-Star Game while setting a Kansas City record for home runs. Even more impressive was that he accomplished all of this despite spending an entire month of the season playing with his jaw wired shut.

“I hit 38 homers that year, everything went well,” he said. “I finally got to play every day. That was self satisfaction. I always played against the left-handers and there were no bad left-handers in the major leagues. They didn't stay long if they weren’t pretty good. Parnell, Pierce, Score, Hoeft ... they could throw the hell out of the ball.”

Cerv had one last hurrah with the Yankees, returning in a 1960 mid-season trade to become a part of their World Series team. He hit .357 in their World Series loss against the Pittsburgh Pirates. His career ended in 1962 an ill-fated run with the Houston Colt 45s, when leg injuries had robbed him of his bat speed and power.

Upon retiring from the majors, Cerv spent many years as giving back to the game as both a professor and coach at Southwest Missouri State College and John F. Kennedy College in Nebraska. He stressed fundamentals, something that he felt the modern ballplayer lacked.

“The minor leagues went from D-AAA, but one thing they knew, was how to play baseball,” he said. “Nowadays, they learn in the majors and they make too many mistakes; they don't have enough players. If you have a halfway year in the minors now, you are in the majors. Pitchers don't even have to have good years. If they look like they have a good arm, that's all they need.”

While Cerv’s salary never reached more than $30,000 in one year, he had no qualms about coming along too soon. His multiple post-season appearances with the Yankees more than made up for it.

“I can't complain,” he said. “I had a lot of World Series checks. When I first came up, they said ‘Don't mess with our money, we'll make more money in a week than in a year.’”


Sunday, April 2, 2017

2017 Topps Opening Day is a worthy kickoff to the season

Topps is reading to ring the bell on the start of a new season with the releasing of its appropriate titled 2017 Opening Day baseball set. Emblazoned with their classic Opening Day logo, this 200-card set serves as a celebration of when baseball fans around the country can do more than stare out their windows awaiting the start of the regular season.
2017 Topps Opening Day / Topps

Condensed from the 2017 Topps Series 1 version, Opening Day provides collectors the opportunity to have a fun and focused product, without having to worry about chasing short prints or open multiple boxes to complete a set. The 36-pack box sent for this review yielded a complete set amidst an array of inserts with about 20 duplicates of the base set to spare.

This year’s Opening Day set is rather kid friendly with inserts of each MLB team’s ballpark food staple, as well as Mascot cards for each team, with some lucky fans unearthing signed ones. While traditional collectors might scoff at the idea of a signed Mascot card being one of the hits, plenty of youngsters will enjoy this niche in 2017 Opening Day.

2017 Topps Opening Day Bryce Harper / Topps
In addition to the box yielding a complete set, more difficult inserts such as a Bryce Harper National Anthem card (1:244 packs) and an Opening Day Stars Kris Bryant card (1:27 packs) were other bonuses that added to the excitement of this product. The blue foil tinged Opening Day inserts have a nice finishing touch with the April 2, 2017 or April 3, 2017 commencement specially placed on the card.

A sampling of 2017 Topps Opening Day Inserts / Topps
With a price point around $30 per box and the opportunity to pull autographs of some of the game’s top young stars, as well as a tremendous variety of enjoyable inserts, 2017 Topps Opening Day is a family orientated product designed to engage fans of all ages.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Jose 'Tony' Zardon, eldest living Cuban major leaguer passes away at 94

Jose Zardon, a native Cuban who was the last living member of the 1945 Washington Senators, passed away March 21, 2017 in Tamarac, Florida. He was 94.

Affectionately nicknamed "Guineo," for his blazing speed that was akin to the local hen in Cuba, he first played in the United States in 1944 when the legendary scout Joe Cambria signed him to the Washington franchise. After playing one season in the minor leagues, the Senators minted the fleet-footed outfielder as a major leaguer in 1945, seeking to take advantage of his ability to cover the vast depths of Griffith Stadium. 

Jose Zardon at his home in 2012 / N. Diunte
With major league rosters depleted due to World War II enlistments, Zardon and his Cuban teammates with the Senators became pioneers of sorts, giving the club in the nation's capitol an integrated team a year prior to the Brooklyn Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson. While there were other Cubans who preceded Zardon in the major leagues, their solid performance further opened the pipeline for his countrymen to follow.

In his only major league season, Zardon batted .290 in 131 at-bats, while making some tremendous catches in the outfield. Throughout the remainder of the 1940s and early 1950s, Zardon spent his winters playing for the Almendares and Havana clubs in Cuba, as well as two seasons in Venezuela. He remained active in the minor leagues, spending another ten seasons as both a player and a manager before retiring in 1955.

Great detail of Zardon's career is profiled in the SABR book, "Who's on First: Replacement Players in World War II." In 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Zardon at his Florida home to discuss his career, where in his jovial fashion, he shared a story about how he stole first base after a famous Cuban sportswriter doubted his hitting abilities. The video, which is linked below, is a taste of Zardon's warm character which was appreciated by all who met him. 

* Ed Note - In the above SABR interview, Zardon admitted that his birth year was 1922, not 1923 as listed in the official baseball database.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

2017 Topps Heritage hooks hobbyists with a simple approach

Cut in the aesthetically pleasing style of the 1968 Topps design, Topps’ 2017 Heritage is a throwback to a season that was defined by the mound dominance of Bob Gibson and his miniscule 1.18 ERA. While the feel of the set doesn’t quite have the aggressiveness of Gibson’s fastball, it is the simplicity of the overall package that will attract collectors to this year’s issue.

While some of Topps’ other releases feel like a parade of bells and whistle with all kinds of shiny inserts, the traditional aspect of Topps Heritage is what keeps collectors coming back to this product. Nuances like the puzzles of Kris Bryant and Mike Trout on the back of the All-Star cards, as well as the action and letter variations are the right amount of diversity to make you pay attention to the details without losing sight of what brought you to the product in the first place.

Buster Posey Action Variation / Topps
A certain gem of 2017 Topps Heritage is the selections for the dual and triple Real-One autographed cards. Lucky individuals will garner a signed card of the fantasy Hall of Fame battery of Nolan Ryan and Johnny Bench. Others so fortunate will pull signed cards by three franchise Hall of Famers, with the Cardinals supplying Steve Carlton, Orlando Cepeda, and Lou Brock on the same card, while the Baltimore Orioles put out stalwarts Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Jim Palmer on another. These multi-signed cards are highly desirable pieces that could easily serve as the cornerstones of many hobbyists collections.

Nolan Ryan / Johnny Bench Dual Signed Card / Topps
Set collectors however, will face a major challenge in completing the 500-card set. The yield from the 24-pack box is well short of the fifty percent mark, further complicated by the 100 short printed cards at the end of the set. The box provided for this review only yielded eight short prints, which will undoubtedly force collectors to the secondary market to finish things off.

A selection of 2017 Topps Heritage Short Prints / Topps
A cool touch to the box provided for this review was the addition of a 1968 Topps buyback card, further connecting the past with the present as intended by the theme of the Heritage set. While hoping for one of the aforementioned dual autographs, this box yielded a Clubhouse Collection relic card of Miami Marlins slugging outfielder, Giancarlo Stanton.

Don McMahon 1968 Topps Buyback / Topps
Giancarlo Stanton Clubhouse Collection Relic / Topps

Despite the fact that a set will be difficult to build out of one, or even two boxes, the clean and simple design combined with the possibility of pulling a monumental autograph should push collectors to explore the depths of the 2017 Topps Heritage release well into the regular season.

 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Former Met Anthony Young says brain tumor has shrunk

Former New York Mets pitcher Anthony Young, who gained notoriety in the early 1990s by setting a major league record with 27 consecutive losses, announced in late January 2017 that he had an inoperable brain tumor. Speaking with radio host Bill Donohue on New York’s WGBB 1240 AM, Young gave listeners an update on his condition.

“I was having blurred vision and my wife took me to the emergency room,” Young said. “They found out that I had a brain tumor in my brain stem, which is too dangerous to try to get a biopsy, so we treated it like it was cancer.”
Anthony Young / Mets

After two months of receiving chemotherapy and radiation, Young is now following a plan to recovery that includes a five day regimen of chemo 23 days apart. Determined not to let his diagnosis affect his life, Young continued to work the entire time since starting his treatment.

“I’m doing great,” he said. “I never got sick, I drove myself every day to chemo. I never missed a day of work. I go to work every day. … Everything is going fine. I had a MRI the other day and the tumor actually shrunk some.”