Thursday, May 17, 2018

2018 Bowman Baseball Review – How 2018 Bowman is setting a fever pitch in the industry

Immediately following the release of 2018 Bowman Baseball, prominent sports card dealers were placing five-figure bounties on the coveted Shohei Ohtani Superfractor card. As of this writing, Blowout Cards has ignited the offer to $100,000; therefore, it is of little surprise that collectors nationwide are posting photos of empty retail shelves in their quest to hit the big time.



While Ohtani has provided the necessary mania to give the sports card industry a shot in the arm, Bowman shows that their 2018 release can stand well on its own despite the hype surrounding one vaunted card. With a clean design and attractive inserts, 2018 Bowman Baseball furnishes a product that has staying power for years to come.


The 100-card base set features the aforementioned Japanese phenom, as well as a keen mixture of rookies and veterans. Ronald Acuña, Hunter Greene, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. all lead the charge of the 150-card prospect set, with their chrome cards serving as sought after treats for those lucky enough to get their hands on an entire box.


Digging into the parallels and inserts, traditional serial numbered colored parallels will keep fans busy tracking down their favorite player’s rainbow, while the new Bowman #Trending and Bowman Birthdays insert sets give a new flavor for collectors to dine upon. Equally pleasing are the Bowman Sterling, ROY Favorites, Scouts Top 100 and Talent Pipeline inserts, with each providing another nuance for consumers to pour into while digging for their golden ticket.


Even though this box did not add six figures to my annual income, it did yield a complete base set, a host of inserts, three numbered parallels, and a refractor autograph of New York Mets prospect Andres Gimenez. Just going through each pack was exhilarating, as there was tremendous excitement on social watching many post stories of their frantic searches for the product.


With box prices trending near $150 due to the increasing reward placed on the Ohtani Superfractor, 2018 Bowman Baseball is still worth diving into just for the exciting ride that could end with a life-changing hit.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

2018 Topps Gypsy Queen Review - A mysterious vibe worth catching

Sliding in on the heels of 2018 Topps Heritage Baseball, this year’s release of Topps Gypsy Queen Baseball series serves as formidable follow-up a heralded product. The set features a design that contains elements of the old and new school, giving collectors a tasty treat to start the season.

2018 Topps Gypsy Queen Variations and Short Prints / Topps
Immediately noticeable is Shohei Ohtani’s rookie card. With the two-way phenom taking the baseball world by storm, his presence in the set alone will draw fans to this product. Beyond Ohtani’s solo appearance in the base set, 2018 Topps Gypsy Queen has an attractive offering of parallels and variations that add excitement to opening a box (or case) of this product. The Jackie Robinson Day variations, numbered color parallels and rare Bazooka backed cards all give 2018 Topps Gypsy Queen a flavor of its own that will go down smoothly with hobbyists.

2018 Topps Gyspy Queen Bazooka Back / Topps
Each box guarantees two autographs and staying to true form, Topps provided sleek on-card autographs that pop. This box yielded rookie autographs of Garrett Cooper and Anthony Banda, with the latter a limited edition black and white variation. While neither are top prospects, Derek Jeter, Kris Bryant, Sandy Koufax, and the aforementioned Ohtani are some of the high impact names that comprise the autograph subset. For collectors who have better fortunes, their venture into 2018 Gypsy Queen may uncover rare autographed patch books (1:2877 packs) and the interesting pull-up sock relics (1:7920 packs).

2018 Topps Gypsy Queen Garrett Cooper Autograph / Topps
Staying consistent with last year’s release, the Fortune Teller mini insert cards return to feature 20 of the top young talents in Major League Baseball. The Tarot of the Diamond inserts follow along with the gypsy theme, an additional insert set that Topps should continue to preserve for future releases.

2018 Topps Gypsy Queen Tarot Card Inserts / Topps
While the presence of Shohei Ohtani’s autograph will lure many fans to 2018 Topps Gypsy Queen, the set’s pleasurable aesthetic and crisp on-card autographs creates a mystique that will keep fans chasing after it throughout the season.

Don Lund, legendary University of Michigan baseball coach, passes away at 90

Don Lund, a three-sport star at the University of Michigan, and a major league outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, and St. Louis Browns for seven seasons, passed away Tuesday due to natural causes. He was 90.

Much of Lund’s acclaim comes from his status at Michigan where he was revered not only for his athletic prowess, lettering nine times in baseball, basketball, and football, but also for succeeding the legendary Ray Fisher as the head baseball coach at his alma mater. He coached there from 1959-62, winning the Big Ten Championship in 1961, and the National Championship in his final season.

Don Lund / Author's Collection

Mike Joyce, who went on to pitch two seasons with the Chicago White Sox in the major leagues, was one of the aces for Lund’s Big Ten Championship team in 1961. Speaking with Joyce shortly after the news of Lund’s death, he displayed tremendous pride to have played under his tutelage.

“While he was not a pitcher, he was a pretty good student of the game,” Joyce said via telephone. “He used to say, ‘The secret of pitching is to relax and concentrate.’ Fifty-four years ago he suggested that and I still haven’t forgotten that. He made the execution a lot simpler without trying to be the master of everything.”

Despite only coaching at Michigan for four seasons, Lund had a profound impact on the program, developing future major leaguers such as Bill Freehan, Fritz Fisher, and Joyce. Never during his playing days did he imagine that he would be the part of the link from Branch Rickey to Fisher.

“I never thought it [coaching at Michigan] would happen when I signed with the Dodgers,” Lund said in a 2009 interview. “Branch Rickey was the coach of the University of Michigan when he was in Law School, then it was Ray, and then I. It is such a small world; you would never think that it would happen.”

Lund almost went professional in another sports, as he was a first-round draft choice of the Chicago Bears, but turned down that offer to sign with the Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers. He signed for a $7,500 bonus right out of Michigan and three weeks later he was in Leo Durocher’s clubhouse. That three week delay included a few trips to New York, as well as his college graduation, which left him little time to be ready for his major league debut.

“Our college season ended and then there was graduation,” Lund said. “It was another two-to-three weeks before I played another game. I had gone to New York, signed a contract, came back home, and then went back to Brooklyn.”

He made his debut July 3, 1945, without stepping foot in the minor leagues. His first ride in with Brooklyn wouldn’t last very long.

“It was just a token thing,” he said. “I pinch hit, but they could see I wasn't ready to play and they sent me to St. Paul.”

He worked diligently in the minors, and was rewarded with another stay in Brooklyn at the start of the 1947 season, just in time to be on the bench for Jackie Robinson’s debut. About a week before Robinson made history by breaking baseball’s color barrier, Lund homered in a spring training game and was greeted by Robinson at home plate. The photo is immortalized on the cover of Lund’s 2009 biography, “Playing Ball with Legends.

Lund played in the major leagues through 1954, with his best season coming in 1953, when he batted .257 with nine home runs and 47 RBIs in 421 at-bats for Detroit. After working with the Tigers as their farm system director from 1963-70, Lund returned to Michigan for a 22-year stay as an assistant athletic director until his 1992 retirement.

Spending nearly 50 years in a wide encompassing athletic career, Lund’s greatest accomplishment may not have been anything that he did on the field, but the impact that he left on the young men under his watchful eye.

“He was first and foremost a gentleman; somebody who made you proud to be associated with, whether or not you were a baseball player or a normal person,” Joyce said. “What I most appreciated was that he respected people that worked hard, he did not play favorites, and on top of everything else, he made it fun to play baseball.”

* - This article was originally published for Examiner.com on December 10, 2013.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Len Okrie, catcher for Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox, dies at 94

Len Okrie, former major league catcher and World War II veteran, passed away April 12, 2018 in Hope Mills, North Carolina. He was 94.

Okrie, like many baseball players of his era, put his major league dreams on hold during World War II. Drafted after one year in the minor leagues, Okrie set his sights on helping the United States Navy crack Japanese communications.

“I was drafted here in Fayetteville,” Okrie said during a 2008 interview from his home. “I served 1942-1945 in the Navy. I went to radio school to learn the Japanese code. We broke the Japanese code where we were stationed. We had to go to college to learn it all. To learn that stuff, it sure was complicated. I enjoyed it. I would have stayed in [college] if I [weren’t] bought by the Senators to go into the big leagues. I was playing softball in the war because that's all they had.”

Len Okrie / Boston Red Sox
He was able to shake off the playing rust quickly, emerging as the Senators top catching prospect after batting .314 at Fayetteville in 1947. His play on both sides of the ball impressed Washington Senators scout Mike Martin, accelerating his move from the Cubs organization to the nation’s capitol.

“I did pretty good coming back,” he said. “I was scouted by the Washington scout [Martin] and he said that I was the best catcher they had seen and I would be a good asset to the ball club. I only had a year and a half in the minor leagues and then went to the big leagues.”

Okrie debuted in 1948, pressed into action after both of Washington’s catchers went down with injuries. He hit .238 in limited duty and spent the 1949 season in AAA for more seasoning. When he returned in 1950, he found a new challenge in addition to deciphering big league pitching, a Cuban pitching staff.

“I caught [Conrado] Marrero, [Sandy] Consuegra, all of those Cubans,” he said. “With Marrero, he had a good slider. He could not understand the signs, so I used to tell [them], 'Go ahead and throw, I'll catch anything you throw.' They had a lot of Cubans; Joe Cambria brought all of those guys. Pretty good bunch of kids, they could throw well and were pretty smart.”

Now that Okrie was establishing himself as a fully-fledged major leaguer, he was also fulfilling a family legacy, as his father Frank pitched for the Detroit Tigers in 1920. His parents laid the foundation for his baseball aspirations.

“My father played big league ball,” he said. “He taught me a lot when I was a kid. [We played] every day in the backyard or on the ball field. Now there is not enough communication with the parents. My mom, dad, and sister used to chase the balls during practice. They were very proud when I made it to the big leagues; they used to sit in the stands. He told me to play hard and keep my nose clean. We never ran around; it was all baseball, period. [You] ate it, slept it, and everything else.”

Okrie last parts of four seasons in the majors, primarily with Washington, save for one game with the Boston Red Sox in 1952. While adequate defensively, his bat could no longer keep with his glove, posting batting averages well below .200 in his final few minor league seasons.

He quickly transitioned into the role of a minor league coach, eager to share his father’s teachings with the next generation of baseball players. He started in 1954 in the Red Sox chain and spent close to twenty seasons developing players in their farm system, as well as that of the Detroit Tigers. One of his prized pupils was Jim Leyland.

“I coached and managed in their chains,” he said. “I had Jim Leyland, he was my buddy. I kept him in baseball when he was in Lakeland. I needed a helper and I needed a coach, so I kept him in baseball. I knew he was a clean cut kid and I liked him very much. He is doing a good job. I told the Tigers that I would like to keep him. Wherever I went, he went. He was my little backup catcher.”

After stepping away from baseball, Okrie went into law enforcement working as a desk sergeant for the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department. While in retirement, he kept his full attention on the game. Despite the tremendous difference in salaries, over 50 years later, baseball still captivated his soul.

“I watch baseball everyday if I can get it,” he said. “It's a great game, but I don't see the money they make. Maybe they deserve it, I don't know. We never made that money back then. It's awful, [but] I don't blame the kids. If management wants to give the kids that much money, more power to them. We never got it, my highest salary was $5,000 per year and I finally got $18,000 when the Red Sox bought me.”

Turning his focus to modern major leaguers, he shared his father’s advice about professional conduct. Even though his father played in the majors almost a century ago, his advice still rings true to this day.

“If you are going to get paid, like my dad said, you give them 100 percent,” he said. “When you put that uniform on, it's all baseball; you run hard and you play hard. When you are off, you relax. Don't dissipate. Don't run around. I never did. That's how I stayed in it so long.”

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Baseball Happenings Podcast - Jim Allen explains Shohei Ohtani's meteoric rise

Shohei Ohtani dazzled Los Angeles Angels fans in his first home start, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning before Marcus Semien broke up his bid for baseball immortality with a one-out single. After an underwhelming spring training, Ohtani has silenced his critics by blasting three home runs in his first week as a DH, and pitching to near perfection to start his second.

Shohei Ohtani / Topps
Shortly after Ohtani’s epic pitching performance against the Oakland Athletics, we spoke with renown baseball author Jim Allen, who has been covering Japanese baseball for the past 30 years. Having followed Ohtani since high school, he explains during this interview why he isn’t the least bit surprised that a healthy Ohtani is putting on a show for MLB fans.

He currently writes for the Kyodo News and is on Twitter @JBallAllen.

Baseball Happenings Podcast - Jim Allen Interview