Friday, July 21, 2017

2017 Topps Series 2 gives a nod to unforgettable moments for baseball fans

With their flagship base series product, Topps gives a nod to unforgettable baseball moments in their 2017 Topps Series 2 release. Focusing on their "Memorable Moments" subset, one groundbreaking debut jumped out of the box of cards provided for this review.

Winding up with a laser-eyed focus, Satchel Paige knew the cameras were on him as he stepped to the mound to deliver the goods for the Cleveland Indians on July 9, 1948. Topps captured the intensity of this moment in a colorized version of a classic photo of Paige rearing back to pitch for the Indians.

While Topps fills in many missing pieces to their 2017 Series One product, the real catch of this set are the inserts, specifically the aforementioned subset. In honor of Paige's debut, below is a piece that I originally wrote in 2012 about Paige's debut that includes interviews with players who appeared in that game.


Just two days after the record books said he turned 42, Satchel Paige made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians on July 9, 1948 in front of a crowd of 34,780 at Cleveland Stadium. The sheer magnitude of the situation shouldn’t have fazed the legendary hurler, who once pitched in the championship game of dictator Rafael Trujillo’s league in the Dominican Republic under the threat of a machine gun toting militia. Yet, for Paige, toeing the rubber on major league soil brought a sense of high drama, shaking one of baseball’s most experienced moundsmen.

“I felt those nerves … they were jumping every which way,” Paige recalled.

Standing at the plate for the St. Louis Browns was 29-year-old first baseman Chuck Stevens, who entered the game sporting a .252 batting average with one home run, certainly not the type of numbers that would rattle fear into opposing hurlers. While Paige admitted his nerves, Stevens on the other hand saw a familiar target. Back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Paige came out to Stevens’ California hometown of Long Beach to play winter ball. The two squared off many times before that fateful day.

“I played against him about ten times before that night. I played against him when he could really smoke it,” said the 94-year-old Stevens from his home in California. “When Satch relieved against us [in Cleveland], he was just spotting the ball around. [It seemed like] he had lost 60 mph off of his fastball. He threw his breaking stuff and he had great control so you knew he was going to be around the plate all the time. He wasn’t going to overpower you like I had seen him in his earlier days.”

Stevens wasted no time getting acquainted with his old friend. He promptly laced Paige’s offering into left field.

“The ballgame in Cleveland was not a big deal for me because I was just hitting off of Satch," he said. "I singled into left field, between [Ken] Keltner and [Lou] Boudreau. … I always had pretty good luck off of him.”

Stevens dates his success against Paige back to a meeting they had a few years prior, just as he returned from his service in World War II.

“One of the longest home runs I had ever hit in my life was off of Paige," he said. "I had just gotten out of close to four years in the service, and we played an exhibition game in Long Beach and Satch pitched against our ball club. The ball I hit, I guess it must have been well over 400 feet. I wondered where all that power came from when I was rounding the bases.”

Stevens’ teammate Ned Garver was a 22-year-old rookie relief pitcher. Only in the major leagues for two months, he found himself right in the middle of this historical event.

“There was never a time when there wasn’t a bunch of hoopla around Satchel because he was such a colorful guy,” said the 85-year-old Garver from his home in Ohio.

Garver pitched two and one-thirds innings of scoreless relief for the save that day, but his clearest memories from that game started before a pitch was even thrown.

“We had a man on our team who hit cleanup and played left field [Whitey Platt]. He was from Florida. He told the manager he wasn’t going to play,” Garver recalled. “Zack Taylor was our manager, and you know back in those days, you didn’t tell somebody you weren’t going to play. You didn’t get away with that kind of crap. [Taylor] said, ‘No, you’re gonnna play.’ So he put him in the lineup.” Platt wasn’t a happy camper to say the least, and when he batted against Paige, he let him know it. “The first pitch Paige threw to him, he threw his bat at Satchel, and it whistled out there about belt high. He just wanted to show that he did not like that situation.”

Paige fooled Platt so badly for strike three with his famed hesitation pitch, that his bat once again took flight, this time flying up the third base line. Looking to extract some sort of revenge for Platt’s first toss of the bat, Garver said Satchel pulled one from his bag of tricks to finish the deal.

“If he threw a bat at Satchel like he did, Satchel was not going to look on that with favor, so he was probably going to give some of his better stuff along the way. To strike him out gave him some satisfaction.”

Paige pitched two scoreless innings that day, quickly shaking whatever nerves he had when Stevens stepped to the plate. He finished the season with a 6-1 record and helped the Indians get to the World Series, where he made one appearance in relief. Even though his best days were behind him, he still had enough left to outsmart major league hitters and give fans a taste of what the major leagues missed in its prime.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Why 2017 Topps Tier One is a good money bet for collectors

Seeking to live up to quality one expects by its name, 2017 Topps Tier One has selected the upper echelon of baseball for inclusion in this year’s set. With each three-card box guaranteeing two autographs and one relic card, the odds are favorable that a superstar autograph is waiting behind a foil sealed pack.

2017 Topps Tier One / Topps
A quick look at the checklist for the Tier One autographs reveals the likes of Barry Bonds, Bryce Harper, Derek Jeter, Hank Aaron, Ichiro, Kris Bryant, Mike Trout, and Sandy Koufax to name a few. The dual and triple autographs are equally as tantalizing. Over one-thousand home runs with Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. on the same signed card? Yes, I’ll take that. How about three potential Hall of Famers from the same generation with Bryant, Harper, and Trout signing together? Sir, can I have another?

For those searching for the next wave of MLB talent, Tier One has that covered with their Break Out Autographs set. Upstarts such as Alex Bregman, Miguel Sano, and of course, Aaron Judge are the headliners. Conspicuously absent is Cody Bellinger; however, I am sure Topps will make up for his demand later in the season.

2017 Topps Tier One Miguel Sano / Topps
Curiosities such as signed and unsigned bat knobs (numbered 1/1) add to the intrigue of Topps Tier One. A card with parts of Aaron’s or Ty Cobb’s bat makes for interesting discussions amongst collectors. One-of-one cut signatures from deceased Hall of Fame legends Joe DiMaggio, Roger Maris, and Willie Stargell also give collectors more vintage items to track down.

The box provided for this review yielded autographs of Steve Carlton (#/25), Miguel Sano (#/90) and a Zach Britton relic (#/331). The two signatures display nicely on both cards and the copper tinged signature of “Lefty” Carlton makes his deliberate autograph stand out amidst the wave of blue sharpies in collections everywhere.

2017 Topps Tier One Steve Carlton Copper Autograph / Topps
It is quite understandable that some hobbyists might not want to take a $125 chance on only three cards, as Topps’ guaranteed hit products tend to appeal to a niche segment of the hobby. While Topps can’t guarantee a dollar-for-dollar return on your investment with 2017 Tier One, it’s a good bet that collectors will walk away happy after a purchase.



Thursday, July 6, 2017

Gene Conley recalls the rocky start to his major league career

At six-foot-eight, Gene Conley towered over his competition on the mound and the hardwood. He used his tremendous athleticism to claim his stake in two professional sports in a way that no other athlete has done since.

The two-sport star earned Major League Baseball and NBA championships respectively with the Milwaukee Braves (1957) and the Boston Celtics (1959-1961), making him the only player ever to accomplish this feat. Sadly, Conley passed away July 4, 2017 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. He was 86.

Gene Conley 1951 Hartford Chiefs
After the Boston Braves lured Conley from his studies at Washington State University at the end of the 1950 school year, Conley’s performance for Class A Hartford in 1951 showed why the Braves persistently recruited him. Conley posted an impressive 20-9 record with a 2.16 ERA, and was named the Most Valuable Player of the Eastern League and the Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year. After one dominant performance, his catcher and former Negro Leaguer player Stanley Glenn, compared Conley to arguably the greatest pitcher ever.

"You reminded me of Satch tonight," Conley recalled during a 2008 telephone interview from his home.

Conley thought that he would work his way through the minor league ranks, but the slumping Braves had plans otherwise. Looking to capture the magic he displayed in his lone minor league season, the Braves management felt that he could continue his meteoric ascent in the major leagues. To his surprise, the Braves kept Conley on the major league roster when they broke from spring training in 1952.

“They brought me up after one year in A-ball to Boston,” he said. “They sent me down as fast as they brought me up!”

Conley was thrown right into the fire, making his debut in the third game of the season against the eventual National League champion Brooklyn Dodgers. It was a step up Conley acknowledged over a half-century later that he wasn’t ready to make.

“I opened up against the Dodgers,” he said. “I remember the first time I was with Braves after I came up from Hartford, I wasn't ready to pitch in the big leagues. The [Dodgers] were just loaded. Oh all of them, the whole works. I remember I was sitting there in the dugout. Spahn opened the season. Someone asked, ‘Who is pitching tomorrow?’ I heard someone say at the end of the bench, ‘They're going to try that phenom from Hartford I believe.’ I was going to crawl under my seat. I think some old veteran said that. I gave up about four runs and he [Tommy Holmes] took me out in the middle of the game.”

Blitzed by the prospect of facing a lineup filled with All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, there was no way for Conley to pitch around the mighty Brooklyn lineup. He recounted how the litany of talent they had didn’t allow him to focus on stopping one single batter.

“Their lineup was so loaded,” he said, “You didn't pay attention, there were so many stars. Someone asked me the other day, ‘Who gave you a lot of trouble?’ I said shoot, you go down the Dodger lineup. How about [Duke] Snider? [Jim] Gilliam? Pee Wee Reese? [Roy] Campanella? They were all good ballplayers, Gil Hodges too … You didn't worry about any one of them because the other guy was just as good. [Jackie] Robinson was a little over the hill, but he could play like he did. [He would] steal a base, work you for a walk, and drive you crazy on the bases.”

After just four appearances that left him with a 7.82 ERA, Conley was mercifully sent to Triple A where he helped to lead their Milwaukee team to the American Association pennant. He followed in 1953 with 23-win season at Toledo where he once again was bestowed with the Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year honors.

He returned to the major leagues for good in 1954, pitching ten straight seasons with the Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, and Boston Red Sox until persistent arm troubles sidelined him in 1963. He finished his career with a 91-96 record, along with three All-Star selections and the aforementioned World Series championship.

While Conley stood out in baseball for more than just his height, he was humbled by the sheer talent that surrounded him during his career. He enjoyed being able to say that he was able to compete for a long period of time against baseball’s most iconic names.

“When you have eight teams,” he said, “you can imagine how tough the lineups were back in those days. I looked in a book on Hall of Famers, I played with and against more Hall of Famers than I ever saw. What luck did I have? That had to be a good period … I caught all of those guys. I'm glad I pitched through the 50s and 60s. I caught Berra, Mantle, and all of those guys. That was fun.”

Monday, July 3, 2017

2017 Topps Finest touches a wide palate of tastes for baseball card collectors

With a product like 2017 Topps Finest, collectors have bold expectations for the set to deliver on return and design. Sandwiched in between the release of 2017 Topps Archives and 2017 Topps Series 2, Topps Finest looks to stand out amidst two of Topps’ flagship products.

Immediately noticeable alongside the Chrome finish is the powerful background that pushes the players seemingly through the card, putting you up close and personal with the action. The 125-card base set is succinct enough to hit all of the top stars, while also including the coveted rookies of Aaron Judge and Andrew Benintendi; however, set collectors will find issue with the 25 short prints, as they appear once only every four mini-boxes.

Despite the frustration of set collectors, most who will purchase 2017 Topps Finest are looking for what they can hit past the base set. A unique twist that Topps put on this year’s release are the inserts modeled in the design of the 1994-95 Finest Basketball set, a nod to when collecting both leagues were more closely aligned. This insert set also has autographed parallels, which are sure to attract collectors that pursued the basketball card set in their youth.

2017 Topps Finest 94-95 Kris Bryant Insert Card / Topps
A tiered system of 2017 Topps Finest autographs that contain refractor parallels are the most readily available signatures from this set. With the parallels coming in eight different colors of increasing scarcity (Blue, Green, Gold, Blue Wave, Red Wave, Orange, Red, and SuperFractor), the chase of completing a “rainbow” of Aaron Judge, Barry Bonds, Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr., Kris Bryant, and Mike Trout, will keep collectors pouring into this product as the cards hit the market.

2017 Topps Finest Tyler Austin Topps Finest Autograph / Topps
The Finest Finishes autograph insert set, which commemorate historical endings in baseball history, boasts an autograph lineup of the likes of Cal Ripken Jr., Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, Ozzie Smith, Pedro Martinez, Reggie Jackson, and Sandy Koufax. These cards serve to keep the conversation going about why these moments have persisted in the minds and hearts of fans and collectors worldwide.

2017 Topps Finest Ozzie Smith Finest Finishes Autograph / Topps

Each master box (two mini-boxes) guarantees two autographs. The box provided for this review yielded not two, but three autographs, including one Finest Finishes of Jake Arrieta, which I am sure is celebrating his 2016 World Series performance. Also included were multiple base card refractors, two refractor parallels, three Breakthrough Inserts, as well as, yes, an Aaron Judge rookie card.

2017 Topps Finest Aaron Judge Rookie / Topps
If collectors are looking for a product that supplements its impressive autograph set with equally attractive base cards to match, and are willing to pay a premium to do so, 2017 Topps Finest can easily satisfy a wide palate of collector’s tastes.



Friday, June 30, 2017

Why 2017 Topps Museum Collection is the cornerstone of Topps releases for the season

Looking at Sandy Koufax enter his flawless delivery on the cover of 2017 Topps Museum Collection, the elegance that he showed on the mound foreshadows what this product delivers. With on-card autographs that stand out on high-grade thick stock, and radiant jersey relic pieces distributed throughout, this set proves once again that it is worthy of being a cornerstone display of any modern collection.

2017 Topps Museum Mini-Box / Topps
Opening the box, one will find four mini-boxes, which even those are worthy of being collected, as the four together pay a fitting tribute to one of the most beloved Dodgers Hall of Famer. Each mini-box guarantees either an autographed or relic card, giving collectors four exciting chances to pull a big hit.

Sorting through each five-card pack, the four base cards with their high gloss finish and limited edition parallels are in demand, as coveted rookie cards of Aaron Judge, Andrew Benintendi, and Yoan Moncada are being chased by fans across the globe. The additions of iconic legends such as Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente, and Ted Williams serve as an added bonus to the merits of this 100-card set.

2017 Topps Museum / Topps
While the aforementioned base cards serve as a delightful benefit, those who purchased 2017 Topps Museum Collection are looking to score a rare autograph or relic that justifies the product’s $200 price tag. Primary of interest are the dual and triple signed cards, as combinations of some of the best ever to play the game are together on the same piece of memorabilia. Who wouldn’t want a dual signed card of Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey Jr., or a triple signed card of the Hall of Fame Atlanta Braves rotation of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz to add to their collections?

2017 Topps Museum Hank Aaron / Ken Griffey Jr. Dual Auto / Cardboard Connection
For those who are eyeing the next generation of Hall of Famers, 2017 Topps Museum Collection has that covered. In addition to the aforementioned trio of top rookies in their autograph roster, the likes of Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout all appear throughout the variety of signed cards available in this set. The gold signed Museum Framed and Premium Prints autograph variations jump off of the cards, further solidifying their desirability in collections.

2017 Topps Museum Quad Mets Patch / Topps
The box provided for this review stayed true to form, yielding one on-card autograph, one relic autograph, a quad patch and a prime relic, each with the quality that one has come to expect from Topps’ Museum Collection. As the All-Star Game approaches, Topps has once again given collectors a reason to keep their focus on this release without having to look ahead to what is coming in the second half of the season.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

How Billy Pierce squared off against Satchel Paige in an epic 11 inning showdown

Billy Pierce, the Chicago White Sox pitching legend, passed away Friday July 31, 2015 in Palos Heights, Illinois due to complications from gallbladder cancer. He was 88.

Acquired during a trade in the 1948 off-season from the Detroit Tigers for catcher Aaron Robinson, Pierce started a 13-year run in Chicago where he emerged as one of the most successful pitchers in franchise history. Early in his tenure with the White Sox, Pierce quickly wrote himself into the record books in an epic 11-inning contest against Satchel Paige’s Cleveland Indians.

Billy Pierce / White Sox
On May 29, 1949, the 23-year-old lefty squared off the legendary Paige, who was almost twice Pierce’s age. They met during the second game of a doubleheader at Cleveland Stadium in front of a sizable crowd of 47,769 fans. They eagerly awaited this matchup of the budding star facing one of the game’s most storied pitchers.

In 2010, I spoke with Pierce about this game at the Baseball Assistance Team Dinner in New York City. He excitedly recalled how his wife came with his parents from their home in Detroit to see the game.

“My wife [Gloria] came over with my mother and dad from Detroit to Cleveland to watch the game,” he said in 2010. “We go on, one inning, two innings, three innings — it gets to be about the sixth inning and we’re tied 1-1.”

Gloria, who was shaken by the suspense of the game, was approached by a Cleveland fan. He assured her that the elder Paige would not be able to keep up with her husband.

“A Cleveland fan came up to her and said, ‘Honey, don’t worry, Satchel will collapse and he will quit.’ It ends up in the 11th inning, he beat me 2-1. He didn’t collapse,” he said.

Pierce started the bottom of the 11th against the Indians, but after he loaded the bases to three straight batters, White Sox manager Jack Onslow replaced him with Ed Klieman. After retiring the next batter, Paige was due to bat, but Indians manager Lou Boudreau had one more trick up his sleeve. The player-manager inserted himself as a pinch-hitter for Paige and promptly singled home the winning run. After eleven innings, Paige emerged with a complete game victory.

While Pierce admitted that he was fortunate to even have the opportunity to go up against Paige, he wished he could have been with the White Sox the year prior when the crowds rushed to see the American League’s first African-American pitcher.

“When he first pitched in Chicago, I wasn’t there, that was the year before. They tore the gates down; it was just jammed to see Satchel Paige.”

* - This was originally published for Examiner.com on August 1, 2015. 

Charlton Jimerson's 'Against All Odds' is a major league triumph

Charlton Jimerson’s baseball career was never supposed to happen. Growing up in a volatile home hindered by a broken marriage and his mother’s rampant drug use, Jimerson was behind in the count before he ever took the field.

Charlton Jimerson
His 6’3”, 210 lb., frame was tailor made for baseball stardom, but well beneath the surface were scars built from a tumultuous childhood. In his autobiography, “Against All Odds,” Jimerson describes how he was ultimately fortified by his rough upbringing.

Growing up in the Bay Area, Jimerson’s parents split up early on, starting a carousel of residences (including foster care) that were fueled by his mother’s crack cocaine usage. He didn’t have the opportunity to play Little League baseball until moving in with a friend’s family at the age of 12.
“My mother would not envision sacrificing $40 for me to play Little League baseball when she could use that money to buy crack,” Jimerson said.
Getting a late start in the sport put Jimerson farther behind baseball’s learning curve. While most of his peers were getting ready to age out of Little League, he was just beginning to learn the finer points of the game.

“I wasn’t like the other kids who had played tee ball at five years old and continued to play each year thereafter,” he said. “They had an early jump on learning both the mechanics of baseball and how to deal with their emotions. As for me, I was just getting my feet wet at age 12.”

As Jimerson approached high school he could not escape the volatility of his family life. When he started high school he moved in with his older brother, but that relationship soured by his sophomore year. He changed high schools and moved in with his older sister who provided some much needed stability for him to navigate his high school career.

He excelled at Mount Eden High School, starring for their basketball and baseball teams, yet by the start of his senior year, no local colleges showed interest in Jimerson as a baseball prospect. He left the team his junior year due to differences with his coach, and his senior year was tarnished by a suspension stemming from an altercation at a rival school. Despite these obstacles, the Houston Astros saw enough talent to take him as a “draft and follow,” pick in the 24th round of the 1997 MLB Draft.

Despite his draft status, Jimerson signed on to the University of Miami as a walk-on in 1997. Entering a nationally ranked powerhouse, Jimerson was surrounded by a team of pedigreed baseball players. It was like he was back again as the 12-year-old starting Little League, only this time; he had the necessary tools to make an impression on Hurricanes coach Jim Morris.

While he boasted tremendous speed and power, he struggled to cut down on his strikeouts enough to crack the Miami lineup. For three years, he was used primarily as a late-inning replacement and pinch hitter. As he entered his senior year, Jimerson remained determined to breakthrough. His patience was rewarded when one of the team’s outfielders suffered an injury, clearing a spot for Jimerson to start. He busted through the opening, batting .302 with 10 home runs his senior year, en route to leading the Hurricanes to a National Championship. For his efforts, he was named the 2001 Most Outstanding Player Award for the College World Series.

The Astros renewed their interest in their former draft pick, selecting him in the fifth round of the 2001 draft. After enduring a harsh childhood and a slow start to his collegiate career, Jimerson finally could call himself a professional ballplayer.

Like all new players in the minor leagues, Jimerson had to make a series of adjustments both on and off the field to stay in the game. No longer could he get by waiting for a pitcher to miss with a fastball, or using his speed to make up for a poor route in the outfield. He had to put in the extra work necessary to cover his weaknesses and stay ahead of the competition. Additionally, he had to control his distractions away from the ballpark; something that he admits hindered his growth as a ballplayer.

“I would never understand the consequences of my partying habits until after I retired,” he said. “My infatuation with women, alcohol, and nightclubs continued to hinder my performance on the field throughout my entire baseball career.”

While Jimerson struck out at an alarming rate (once in less than every three at-bats), the Houston brass continued to move him up the ladder, as he sent balls screaming out of the park, stole bases, and made highlight catches in the outfield.

In 2005, he was finally vindicated when the Astros called him up to fortify their bench during their World Series run. Even though he only played one inning as a defensive replacement during his time on the club, Charlton Jimerson had arrived as a major league baseball player. Now that he had a taste of the experience, he was hungry for more.

He dutifully finished another season at Triple-A in 2006, and once again the Astros rewarded him with a September call-up. This time he wanted to prove that he could not only be an asset on defense, but have value for his skills at the plate. On Labor Day, the Astros squared off against the Philadelphia Phillies in a heated pitcher’s duel between Roger Clemens and Cole Hamels at Citizen’s Bank Park. After five innings, Hamels was halfway to pitching a perfect game. Clemens did his best to match Hamels’ efforts, yielding only one run in the process. As Clemens walked off the mound at the end of the fifth, he tweaked a muscle in his groin, causing Astros manager Phil Garner to summon Jimerson from the bench to pinch-hit. With two outs in the sixth inning, he approached home plate for his first big league at-bat.
“I felt like Mike Tyson on his way into the ring before a heavyweight title bout,” he said. “My walk was slow and calculated, with a hint of confidence in each stride. I don’t know if I was prepared for the moment, but I had definitely been through enough in my life to handle the moment. My childhood had taught me how to maneuver in the midst of pressure situations.”
What happened next during Jimerson’s showdown with Hamels was of the highest cinematic drama. With the count 2-1, Hamels unleashed a change-up that ran right into Jimerson’s wheelhouse. A loud crack and a few hundred feet later, Jimerson made his way into baseball’s record books, hitting a home run in his first major league at-bat, spoiling Hamels’ perfect game.

As he returned to the dugout amidst congratulations from his teammates, he realized that his moment in the sun went beyond his impact on the box score. It was the reward for navigating a life full of obstacles that would have swallowed most in its path.

* - This was originally published April 10, 2015 for Examiner.com