Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Pyramid Ratings and the 2017 Milwaukee Brewers

In January, the excellent baseball website Hardball Times had an article by Paul Moehringer called "The Pyramid Rating System's All-Time Milwaukee Brewers/Braves." The basic conceit behind the article is set forth in the article talking about the Baltimore Orioles all-time team: to build a modern team -- 12 pitchers with 5 starters, 6 relievers, and a spot starter and 13 position players, including 2 catchers -- based around the historical teams. 

The author focused on a city-centric approach rather than a franchise approach, which means, for example, that the Washington Senators' various iterations are made a part of the Washington Nationals' franchise history. This means, too, that former franchises including the Philadelphia Athletics, the Montreal Expos, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Boston Braves, the New York Giants, and the St. Louis Browns are resurrected. From there, the author creates 6 divisions of 6 teams each named after the current divisions. 

The Milwaukee "franchise" is placed in the AL Central alongside the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Browns, and Tampa Bay Rays. The thought behind putting the Milwaukee Braves with the Brewers is that if the Braves had never left, Atlanta would have gotten a team anyway but the Brewers would never have existed. The final rule is that players can only be placed on one team -- so Warren Spahn ends up on the Boston Braves, thereby depriving the Milwaukee team of its clear, by far best pitcher.

The Milwaukee team is heavy on hitting. Very heavy. At the same time, the pitching is as thin as tissue paper. Milwaukee's best pitcher in its history is the one pitcher who "dominated over an extended period of time": Teddy Higuera. Seriously, that's it. 

In terms of the starting lineups, it's again a very interesting set up. I'm going to use it to introduce the cards I bought recently from Brent Williams off eBay to try and guess what chances the guys in this year's sets have of making it to the "all-time team."

Let's start with the easy one:

That's a whole lot of Ryan Braun, and for good reason: Braun is the starting left-fielder on the Milwaukee team. The projected starting lineup puts him hitting third against righties and second against lefties. It's actually a pretty incredible lineup: against righties, the lineup is constructed with Eddie Mathews leading off. As the article notes, Mathews led the NL in walks four times, including three straight years from 1961 to 1963. He finished in the top-10 in OBP in the NL 10 times. 

Yeah, Eddie Mathews was really, really damn good. 

Braun was a shoo-in for a spot on the team, even if he is the only non-Hall of Fame starting outfielder alongside CF Robin Yount and RF Hank Aaron. He's backed up by Carlos Gomez and Gorman Thomas and, if necessary, Hank Aaron. Other than Braun, the other four outfielders on the team all played centerfield for significant portions of their career.

Now, onto the totally speculative:

With Orlando Arcia, we have very little to go on currently. Hitting-wise, he is improving. He is getting used to being in the big league. He chalks up a recent 9-game hitting streak to better pitch recognition:

And props to Sophia Minnaert for being bilingual. As a quick aside, I'm a big fan of sideline reporters who are bilingual and can translate on the fly. Atlanta United has Brittany Arnold who can do the same thing, and I feel like it is important so that we get to hear from guys like Arcia (or Miguel Almiron with ATLUTD) directly just the same as the English speakers who get interviewed on ESPN.

Back to the Milwaukee team. The Brewers/Braves roster only includes Yount and Braves stalwart Johnny Logan at shortstop (though Bill Hall could play the spot in a pinch). Logan was one of the all-time best defensive shortstops ever, and he was not a complete zero with the bat (OPS+ career of 94). Because Yount can play short, though, the author felt justified in carrying Gorman Thomas to destroy lefties.

If Arcia can develop further -- continuing to improve his pitch recognition, continuing to keep his strikeouts down, learning how to read pitchers on the basepaths, and the like and, further, assuming that he spends a good amount of his career in Milwaukee -- then there is a very good chance that he could end up displacing Logan. He is still very young -- turning 23 in August -- so that development time will be interesting to watch.

Next up: Jonathan Villar. Based off last season, if Villar could have been projected out from there, he would have been difficult to leave off the roster. This year has seen him come back down some -- he is hitting terribly this year -- so it's an open question as to what he can be or is.

He would be hard-pressed to be a starter on the all-time Milwaukee team since the team lines up another Hall of Famer there: Paul Molitor. Molitor could have been put at a number of positions, but second base was the best fit. Behind Molitor, the team would have long-time underrated Brewer Don Money, who could fill in both at second and at third. Money was such a good fielder at third base that he set a major league record with 86 straight games without an error in 1974. Despite that, he ended up being the AL All-Star starter at second in 1978 -- playing there while Molitor played short and Yount played golf.

Long-time Brewer Jim Gantner made the 40-man roster as a 2B/3B fill-in as well, and Bill Hall could slot in here at second as well. So, odd as it may sound, Villar joins a long line of Brewers with positional flexibility in the infield. Molitor, Money, Gantner, and Hall all played all over the infield, with only Gantner not being at least a part-time starter at shortstop in that time (he started 5 games at short in his career). 

All the caveats about time in Milwaukee apply to Villar, and if he can produce near what he did last year, he has a good shot to get onto the roster at a minimum. Don't underrate Don Money here, though: during his 11 years in Milwaukee, he hit .270/.338/.421 for an OPS+ of 114, including four all-star games. He platooned from 1979 through 1983, but he always had good power.

Welcome to the black hole that is pitching in Milwaukee. I supposed Davies and Nelson have as good a chance as anyone to make it into the mix for a slot pitching for the Milwaukee "Brewers" all-timers. To give you an idea of what I mean by black hole, here's the pitching staff:

SP: Higuera, Ben Sheets, Mike Caldwell, Chris Bosio, and Bill Wegman
Closer: Ken Sanders
8th inning: Dan Plesac
7th Inning: Tom Murphy
Setup: Chuck Crim and Dave Jolly
Mop-up: Braves P Don McMahon
Spot Starter: Lew Burdette

Others on the 40-man: Ricky Bones, Bob Buhl, Doug Davis, Cal Eldred, Mike Fetters, Ray Searage, and Bob Wickman

I'm a little surprised that Yovani Gallardo did not make the team over Doug Davis or Ricky Bones or even Chris Bosio. I have tweeted at him and left a comment to see his reasoning (or to see if Yovani just got missed in the shuffle).

So, either of these guys could get there, I suppose. But I kind of doubt it. 

No chance. Not unless Scooter ends up back in Milwaukee, jacks up on steroids, and suddenly turns into a lefty-hitting Bret Boone or Jeff Kent. 

Since these guys are no-hopers, let's look at the catching slot and at first base. I've mentioned in the past about how Del Crandall was really a star in his day. He ends up getting the nod as a part of a platoon with Jonathan Lucroy. Not bad. But, if we look at how the 40-man stacks up, we find Joe Torre listed as a C/1B. That's weird because I think of Torre as a Cardinal thanks to his MVP season there. As the article points out, though, Torre's career essentially gets split four ways thanks to the way that the pyramid system is structured -- his Braves time is half Milwaukee, half Atlanta -- and his best season was 1971 with St. Louis. 

At first base, we plug in Cecil Cooper. Arguably, that's a difficult slot too. Prince Fielder becomes a platoon DH who will absolutely annihilate right-handed pitching as a 1-2 punch with Eddie Mathews (career for Fielder against RHP: .294/.403/.539: a .942 OPS...which is basically Willie Mays), though Fielder sits against lefties to allow Gorman Thomas to mash. On the 40-man, George Scott beats out Joe Adcock for the spot thanks to the fact that Scott won five Gold Gloves in Milwaukee while also crushing the ball (.283/.342/.456).

I highly recommend reading the articles on Hardball Times about your favorite team's all-time team. Sure, the clubs like the Red Sox and the Yankees -- with their long histories -- have a distinct advantage over newcomers like the Marlins or the Brewers or the Padres. But it sure is fun to revisit those old names.

And, while you're at it, look up Brent Williams on eBay and Twitter -- he's a collector who sells rather than being just a seller.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Stealing a PWE

I'm getting closer to being caught up with posts. Well, what I mean is that I'm getting closer to getting into the things I've gotten in the month of May. I have two things left from the early part of the season to talk about, and first up is a PWE from my good friend Oscar a/k/a Stealing Home. To accompany these cards, I'm going with honoring the late Gregg Allman with some of my favorite Allman Brothers songs.

1.  "Midnight Rider"

Gregg Allman wrote this song in the midst of a pot-smoking binge in early 1971. He got stuck on trying to come up with lines for the third verse when roadie Kim Payne threw out the first two lines of the verse. Allman then wanted to get the song recorded so quickly that he broke into the studio in the middle of the night and laid the demo down himself.

This song came back into America's collective consciousness recently thanks to the fact that GEICO used the song in an ad for motorcycle insurance. This struck a lot of people as being in poor taste in light of the fact that band members Berry Oakley and Duane Allman both died in motorcycle accidents in Macon in the early 1970s about 13 months apart. As the article I linked to points out, it's rather incredible that both the ad agency and the surviving members of the Allman Brothers Band green-lighted that ad.

I'll start the PWE out with the card of the one player who is still with the team. Ryan Braun has been injured a lot this year with a calf problem that is becoming a real issue. Thanks to his lying about his steroid use, there is a significant portion of the Brewers fanbase who would like nothing more than to see Braun sold off for ten cents on the dollar in the interest of "rebuilding." 

I can see their point, but that thinking is short-sighted as well. Braun is entering the decline phase of his career -- yes. But just giving him away does not make sense either. He has value and, now, he has a full no-trade clause thanks to being a 10/5 guy. There are very few teams that he would play for at this point, and of those, I can't think of one that makes sense as a trade partner. In particular, Oscar's Dodgers as a destination makes a little sense but the Dodgers have a crowded outfield already. 

The Brewers surprisingly seem to have done better with Braun out of the lineup this year. Perhaps that will continue.

2. "Jessica"

Rock bands don't tend to have instrumental songs these days, and they never have instrumental songs that are 7-1/2 minutes long (album version) or 15 minutes long (pretty much every live version) like "Jessica." Guitarist Dickey Betts wrote this song, and named it for his daughter Jessica.

Wikipedia tells me that the song is really a tribute to legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt because the song was designed to be played using just two fingers on his left hand. Reinhardt had lost the use of two of his fingers in a fire, but he was able to get past that to become one of the most influential guitarists in any genre.

Let's go to the Hall of Famers next. I've been seeing a lot of folks recently posting their "best players I've seen play" or "from my childhood" lists on Facebook and elsewhere, so I'll use this opportunity to put up my list of the best players from my childhood here:

C: Gary Carter: best hitting catcher of the 1980s
1B: Cecil Cooper: Yes, I'm biased, but it's my list
2B: Ryne Sandberg: Got to see him play in person in 1984 in Wrigley. Pre-lights. 
3B: Mike Schmidt: No doubt the best third baseman ever
SS: Robin Yount: Yount was the precursor for shortstops who could hit playing the position
LF: Dave Winfield: Never liked him because he was a Yankee, but he was damn good
CF: Willie McGee: Single handedly destroyed a 10-year-old's dream in 1982
RF: Jesse Barfield: You *never* ran on Jesse's arm. Ever.
DH: Paul Molitor: The best pure hitter of the 1980s. Not Boggs. Molitor was more complete.
RP: Don Sutton: Yes, really. An artist by the time I saw him pitch. Guile alone, almost.
LP: Ron Guidry: For hating the Yankees, I sure respect them.
RP: Rich Gossage: Almost always lights out, and so intimidating

Others considered:
C: Ted Simmons, Bob Boone, Carlton Fisk
1B: Keith Hernandez, Don Mattingly
2B: No one, really.
3B: George Brett
SS: Ozzie Smith.
LF: Jim Rice, Ben Oglivie
CF: Dale Murphy, Robin Yount, Gary Pettis
RF: Reggie Jackson, Dwight Evans, Dave Parker
DH: Wade Boggs, Reggie Jackson
SP: Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver
RP: Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Jeff Reardon

Probably the most surprising to me is how weird right field was in the 1980s. Being a mostly American League fan, I didn't see much of Parker to be able to appreciate him. Jackson was a hitter mostly, not a fielder, and my dislike for him outweighed including him. Evans is a solid member of the Hall of the Very, Very Good. There are many worse players in the Hall of Fame, but that isn't an argument to include him.

3. "Ramblin' Man"

A necessity for any Allman Brothers post of their hits or greatest songs. This is one of the best driving songs around. I'm quite sure I fell asleep a few times with this song playing as I was on a roadtrip to wherever in the 1980s and 1990s. The song itself is heavily influenced by country music and was inspired by a Hank Williams Sr. song of the same name. It remains the highest charting Allman Brothers song ever, having hit number two on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

I feel like Topps Heritage may be the only set other than the Flagship set that can withstand all the gimmicks and short prints and stupid sh*t that Topps does with literally every single product it puts out. 

For instance, I'm not sure that Archives will stick around much longer after this year's ridiculous checklist. A Skip Bayless autograph? Christ, everyone other than Skip Bayless hates Skip Bayless. 

Zach Hample gets an autograph in this set too. The guy who illegally crashed his way into the Braves game at Fort Bragg last year just so he could push kids away and grab a foul ball is not someone who should be celebrated in any way. The guy is a blight on baseball fans, but he gets a card? Hell, even that self-promoting idiot Marlins Man thought better of trying to go to the Fort Bragg game.

Then we get into announcers. Only John Sterling and Gary Cohen. What? Why does the guy who's called the Yankees games since 1989 or the guy who's called Mets games since 1989 get a card when Bob Uecker -- who has been the Brewers announcer since 1971 and is in the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster since 2003 -- has yet to be included in anything from Topps like this? The last time Uecker was included in anything other than a Buyback was in the 2001 Topps Archives -- the reprint versions. He hasn't even been in Allen & Ginter. 

Why the hell does some obnoxious Yankee fan Bald Vinny get an autograph card in a set like Archives? 

Even player autographs are a mess. Roy Oswalt gets a fan favorite autograph with the Phillies -- the team he pitched 36 games for in 2010 and 2011 -- rather than with the Astros (for whom he pitched 10 years)?

Frankly, 2017 Archives is a train wreck. There are as many Milwaukee Braves in the base set as there are Minnesota Twins -- even Twins legend Harmon Killebrew is shown on the Senators, for crying out loud. There are more Aaron Judge cards (including inserts and autographs) than there are Brewers or Twins or Rays or Padres. 

I loved the Archives set when I got back into collecting in 2014. Now, I hope it is euthanized.

4. "Statesboro Blues"

"Statesboro Blues" is actually a cover of an old blues song written in 1927 by Blind Willie McTell. The Allman Brothers Band made it their own thanks to the inspired guitar playing by Duane Allman on the At Fillmore East live album. Duane used a medicine bottle from medicine he'd used to treat a cold as his slide for the slide guitar part -- and played slide guitar for the first time ever that show. 

Statesboro, Georgia, is actually the home of Georgia Southern University. For a long time it was (and may still be) in a dry county, so students there would make liquor runs to nearby Metter. My brother-in-law worked at that liquor store during college -- the time he calls the best 7 years he ever spent.

Here are the last three cards from Oscar. Manny Parra was going to be the next great Brewer LHP, but injuries kept that from happening. 

Jean Segura has spent time now with four different organizations prior to turning 27 years old. I guess that reflects both that he is desirable and he is easy to part with. The Brewers got three players for him, including yesterday's one-hit hero, Chase Anderson.

Finally, I hate that Scooter Gennett card. It looks like he's been shot in the back or something based on the grimace on his face. 

Oscar, thank you very much for the great cards. And to the Allman Brothers -- get the band back together in the afterlife and start touring up there with Col. Bruce Hampton, would you?

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Meet the Brewers #37: Bob Burda

On June 9, 1970, Marvin Milkes reached out to the San Francisco Giants and lined up a small deal. It was so small that it was not even a trade -- just an outright contract sale in which the Giants offloaded spare outfielder Bob Burda to the Brewers. To add Burda to the roster, it appears that friend of the blog and all around good guy Ray Peters saw his major league time come to an end.

1994 Miller Brewing Commemorative Set
A note before I jump in: all the material in this biography was obtained from stories appearing in The Sporting News. Access to these archival materials is available through a website called "Paper of Record." More importantly, access to that website is included for no extra charge as a benefit of membership in SABR.

Edward Robert Burda was born in St. Louis on July 16, 1938. He attended high school in Chicago, however, as his father Edward was working as an assistant bank examiner for the Federal Reserve. As you would expect, Burda was an excellent amateur baseball player. He was a Junior American Legion star and, in 1956, was a member of the Meramec Caverns team that won the National Amateur Federation tournament.

Right after high school and according to The Sporting News, Burda pursued his education in engineering at the University of Illinois and was attending Illinois on an athletic scholarship. Later articles state that he actually was attending Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. 

Midway through his sophomore year of college, however, MLB repealed its "bonus baby" rule, which had required teams that paid a bonus/salary package over a certain amount to place the signed player on the major-league roster or have the player become a free agent. This led to teams splashing cash on players left and right -- such as the Orioles signing Dave Nicholson to a contract with a bonus of $150,000 at a time when the payroll for the whole major league team might reach $500,000.  

The St. Louis Cardinals spent heavily in the 1958 offseason on college players and signed three young outfielders to bonuses: Jimmy Beauchamp from Oklahoma State (who got a $50,000 bonus), Charlie James from Missouri (who received a $15,000 bonus to take him away from being a star running back who eventually was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame), and Burda, who received $25,000. 

Burda only had one card as a Brewer, so I felt like I needed to add a photo I found.
Articles out of Cardinal spring training in 1958 indicated that Burda was the most polished of the three players, as Burda showed a better approach at the plate. To be honest, that didn't really help him get to the major leagues more quickly. Burda made his major league debut with the Cardinals in 1962, but by that time James had passed him as had another young player: a centerfielder by the name of Curt Flood. The next spring, the Cardinals discarded Burda -- trading him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for catcher Cal Neeman.

Burda seemed to hit well everywhere he went in the minor leagues. He showed some power in 1963 and 1964 with Columbus, but all that got him was another trade -- this time to the Giants in early 1965 with Bob Priddy in exchange for Del Crandall. Burda yo-yoed between San Francisco and Triple-A Phoenix in 1965 and 1966 before sticking in Phoenix in 1967 and 1968. A successful 1968 led the Giants to carry Burda as a pinch-hitter in 1969, but a .230/.317/.391 slash line that year made him expendable when Milkes came calling.

Since the 1970 Brewers were not a great baseball team, Burda got the most at-bats of his baseball career in one season as a Brewer. He did not make much of those at bats -- .248/.303/.342 with 4 homers in 245 plate appearances. He showed a good eye at the plate, of course, with a contact-based approach: he walked 16 times and struck out 17 times.

After the 1970 season, the Brewers dumped Marvin Milkes as the GM. Bud Selig had allowed Milkes a year to see what he could do, and apparently Selig was not impressed. That led Selig to hire Frank "Trader" Lane as his GM. Dumping Burda in a trade back to the Cardinals was Lane's second move as GM. Burda played a year in St. Louis before being traded to the Boston Red Sox for Mike Fiore. After that 1972 season, the Red Sox released him and that was the end of the line.

I haven't been able to determine what Burda did after his release and retirement from baseball. It appears that Burda and his family enjoyed the Phoenix area thanks to his time in the minor leagues there and settled there after his retirement. If Mr. Burda or his family happen across this, I'd enjoy hearing from him.

Bob Burda has just one card as a Brewer -- the Miller Brewing commemorative set from 1994. By the time Topps got around to issuing a card for Burda in 1971, he was already a member of the Cardinals and his card reflected that. As a side note, though, Burda's number has been retired by the Brewers. He preceded Rick Auerbach and some guy named Robin Yount in wearing #19.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Topps Now, Year 2

It's year two for Topps Now. Topps kicked off its second season of "instant" cards with a Spring Training set for each team, some of which included optional autographs. The Brewers were not one of the teams with an autograph option, but I was tempted. 

Had I not sent my "20% off" coupon out to Zippy Zappy for a friend of his -- it was a Trout card, after all -- I may very well have sunk $40 into buying one of those sets. Even after sending off that card, I was still tempted to plunk down $50 for it. I checked with some regularity to see what 15 players would be included in the set.

I checked and checked and checked. By the time the period for purchasing the sets had nearly ended, only eight of the fifteen cards had been posted. As much as I wanted to pull the trigger, I couldn't convince myself to do it. I just didn't trust Topps to provide decent players for the Brewers set in light of some of their selections for the flagship and Heritage sets. 

In the end, I'm apparently not the only one who eschewed buying that money grab -- Topps sold only 32 Brewers sets. I am kicking myself, though, for not buying into it on the potential that the Brewers could be in first place in the division at the All-Star Break. 

And then Eric Thames hit the scene. Thames exploded into the national baseball consciousness by an incredible hot streak of home run hitting against the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs. That led those now-much-less-lovable winners -- John Lackey and former Brewer/still lardass Chris Bosio -- to insinuate that Thames was on steroids. I'm assuming that was because Thames had the temerity to hit a homer against the Cubs. 

As an aside, the Cubs did not accuse Ryan Zimmerman of juicing even though Zimmerman has hit just two fewer homers in 42 games than he did in 115 games all of last year. Did Zimmerman really change his hitting approach to hit more fly balls, or did he just become acquainted with the clear and the cream? My answer: he changed his hitting approach and got lucky with how many balls left the park. Also, again, it's small-sample-size theater here too. If Thames or Zimmerman hit 13 homers in 28 games in the middle of August, we'd say they were on a hot streak. Do it in April, and John Lackey says, "check him for steroids!"

Of course, Lackey is a self-important prig for whom a Google search of "John Lackey is an idiot" returns 20,800,000 hits from sources as diverse as Yahoo Answers in 2011, the Daily Upper Decker website in 2016, a long-running forum dating back to 2014, and some Red Sox fans, who immortalized Lackey's absolutely stealing-money 2011 season. Even "The Big Lead" called him "exactly what's wrong with baseball." And he even filed for divorce from his first wife while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

I'm pretty sure that Lackey walks around in the summertime saying, "How about this heat?"

So, back to Topps Now.

I decided this year that I would not purchase directly from Topps because I could save a few dollars on each card by going to the eBay secondary market. I jumped all over both of the cards that Topps put out to celebrate Thames's excellent start, and I got them for about $7 each. The guy I bought them from made money, I saved money, and we all win.

Here are the Thameses!

I'll note that Matt Prigge covered the fact that Topps has upped its game in terms of the shipping container this year -- and considering that the purchase of a single card is a $10 venture, it's well past time for that.

When my shipping envelope from the eBay seller arrived, I pulled the cards out. Immediately, I noticed that these cards feel different from those from last year. They feel thicker -- perhaps more substantial -- as compared to last year's cards. Design-wise, I think I prefer last year's set, though. For comparison, here are the non-Trade Deadline, non-Prince Fielder retirement cards from last year:

Based on this selection, I'm very concerned that Eric Thames will not be a Brewer next year considering that every single Brewer to feature on Topps Now last year is gone. I don't count Arcia slapping hands with Carter as featuring him. 

The other thing: the rainbow back is a new feature. Last year's cards were just glossy on both sides:

Basically, last year's Topps Now was nothing more than a really expensive extension of the Topps flagship set in terms of the paper quality.  This year, though, it's almost to Stadium Club levels, I suppose:

Or something like that. 

As one would expect, Topps's orgasmic delight in everything Yankees continues to manifest itself. Last year, it was the Sanchize, Gary Sanchez, who appeared on 11 Topps Now cards -- literally one card for every 5 games in which he played last year. This year, it's all Judge all the time. Judge has appeared on seven Topps Now cards, including one card that celebrated his breaking a TV during batting practice, and six autographed parallels of that same card. 

Topps is just doing what sells, of course. They've issued a ton more cards during the first two months of the season than last year -- the Zack Greinke card on sale today is card #173, which celebrates an occurrence on May 22. Last year's card 173 was Yankee Starlin Castro's walk-off home run on June 22. In other words, Topps realized that the demand for these cards is high and will issue however many they decide makes sense on a particular day...even if they ignored the Brewers comeback from 6 runs down against the Mets a few days ago in lieu of issuing two Topps Now cards for Derek Jeter (RIP). 

Perhaps Topps will issue a Topps Now card for when the Brewers do their "Re2pect Bobblehead" giveaway. And, to be fair, Topps did not issue a Topps Now card for David Ortiz picking up an honorary degree from Boston University over the weekend. Maybe Topps should have done a card for this story....Ortiz's claim that he failed a PED test and had the results leaked because too many Yankees tested positive.

All this led me to do a Twitter poll. Please ignore my typo on the second line.

Just in case the results are not showing: 59% of the 44 respondents said they did not like Topps Now. 48% dislike it and ignore it. 27% of people love it but do not buy it. Only a quarter of respondents -- 25%, or 11 of the 44 -- buy the product, whether they love it or dislike it.

I fear that Topps risks doing with Topps Now what it does with every good idea it has: beating it into the ground with a club so far that everyone hates it and refuses to buy it. Topps only does things for one reason: to make more money for The Tornante Group. To that end, perhaps we should expect Topps cards for BoJack Horseman or Judge Faith

Shall we expect more Topps coverage of League 1 in England next year, since Tornante has been approved to purchase former Premier League Club Portsmouth F.C.? Maybe he can talk his pals at his favorite club, Arsenal, into giving Topps some additional swag?

I'm just glad Eisner isn't a Manchester United fan. 

But I digress, as always.

Topps Now is a good idea executed with the ham-handedness that we have come to expect from the exclusive license holder. It's all about the maximization of short term profits without regard for a longer vision of creating new collectors. If there was a vision for new collectors, Topps Now would be a great opportunity for it -- by making the cards less expensive or available on a $1 per game subscription for kids or something like that. But that's not in Topps's business plan currently, nor is it likely to be for the foreseeable future. 

Topps would rather cut up bases and stick them in cards to sell with a Derek Jeter autograph for $4,999.99.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Cards from an Award-Winning Writer

I forget exactly how it was that I started reading Matthew Prigge's articles on the Shepherd Express website about the Brewers. I would venture to guess that I was researching one of my posts and happened across one of his articles. It may have been his "Best 20 Brewers baseball cards ever" article, or it might have been looking at the Brewers Free Agent signings. I just don't recall.

I'm very glad that I did find his article, though. I commented on his post and started following him on Twitter. Since that time, he's started getting integrated into our online baseball card community -- even starting up his own blog called Summer of '74 where he is working on two Brewer-related projects: collecting the all-time roster of Brewers and, in addition, collecting the all-time roster of Brewers in autographs.

Matt's also an award-winning history author. Earlier this month, he received an award from the Milwaukee County Historical Society called the Gambrinus Prize, which is awarded each year to the best book-length work on Milwaukee History. Receiving that award also allowed him to meet Bud Selig.

Being a fellow Brewer collector and being a fair amount younger than me means that Matt had a bunch of Brewers cards from the late 1990s and early 2000s that I did not have. He also threw in a few extra autographs. So, without further introduction (because this one is getting long already), let's get to the stars of the show: the cards.

Of course, I can't leave well enough alone, so I'm going to intersperse music that the Shepherd Express brings to my mind...which means music from about 1994-1995, the year I lived and worked in Milwaukee between college and law school. Get ready for songs from Alternative Music's best year ever.

We'll get this started with the underrated Dinosaur Jr. Lead singer J Mascis formed this band in Amherst, playing their first gig as "Mogo" at a party at UMass. While originally this was a band, by the time the mid-1990s hit it literally was just Mascis. Previously, Lou Barlow was a member of the band before he quit and formed two excellent bands -- Sebadoh and Folk Implosion.

Barlow and Mascis have put their bad blood behind them now and began playing together again in 2005 and have since. They are touring Europe right now before coming back to the US to tour this fall.

These 2002 Fleer Triple Crown cards are not anything special or fantastic or wonderful, but at least it is a different look and sound and type of card from what goes on now. This set featured some parallels that sound familiar if you collect any of those "Donruss" cards: they had three sets of parallels numbered to each hitter's batting average, home runs, and RBI.

As Baseball Card Pedia points out, it goes without saying that the pitchers did not get any parallels. Consider the hitting environment in 2002, that's probably appropriate. Otherwise, it appears to be a pretty nondescript set. It's the usual suspects in terms of inserts of that era and features the usual allegedly game-used items being hacked up into little pieces and put into cards, with some dual relics, some triple relics, and some autographs.

1994 was the year that Soundgarden jumped into the American musical collective consciousness. Grunge music -- the "Seattle" sound -- probably hit its apex in 1994. You had Kurt Cobain's death in April of 1994, which caused that band to be frozen in time as my generation's parallel Beatles. Pearl Jam continues on today as the Rolling Stones counterpoint. I guess that makes Soundgarden something like Herman's Hermits or The Yardbirds and Alice In Chains is like the Dave Clark Five or something. 

I am not a big fan of analogies like those, to be honest. There will ever be only one band like the Beatles. I don't know the other bands well enough to make proper comparisons. In fairness, ever since the Beatles came onto the scene, bands have been trying to be "the Beatles meets (fill in the blank)." In an interview I saw very recently, Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana) said that Soundgarden's song "Black Hole Sun" nailed the combination that Nirvana in particular was trying to hit: The Beatles meet Black Sabbath. 

All that said, I know that Chris Cornell's voice was unique, and his lyricism underneath the loudness and occasional angriness of his singing was incredible. 


As to falling on Black Days, let's talk about the Milwaukee Brewers farm system for much of its history. The Brewers have had perhaps three to four major influxes of talent based on their own farm system. You had that first successful team of 1978 through 1983, built off the early drafts and a few crucial trades by Harry Dalton. Then, you had the meteoric rise of the 1987 to 1992 teams -- punctuated by inconsistency due to key pitching injuries.

After that, the team farm system lay fallow for the better part of a decade (1992 through 2005) thanks to poor drafts and player evaluation by Sal Bando's GM team. These cards above come from the very midst of that famine of talent. The "Black Days" of the farm system came thanks to a run starting in 1991 and ending in 2002 where the only real major league players that the team drafted in the first round of the draft were Geoff Jenkins and Ben Sheets.

Example: with the fourth overall pick in 1994, the Brewers selected Antone Williamson. Later that round, the Red Sox picked Nomar Garciaparra, the Dodgers selected Paul Konerko, the Mariners chose Jason Varitek, and the Mets signed Jay Payton. Add to that incompetence in trades -- not selling assets like Geoff Jenkins because he was a fan favorite until it was far too late -- and in signing Jeffrey Hammonds to a contract based on what Hammonds might have been rather than what he was, and you have a recipe for ugliness.

To finish the thoughts above, after 2005, you had the group of Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and Corey Hart that came of age in 2008 and were supplemented thereafter by Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez. The fourth influx of talent, of course, is the next one based off all the tear-down trades.

Okay, I talk about Bando's screwups a lot. Maybe I should take just one blog post and destroy his time as GM. I'd probably be the only one who'd read that.

I've featured music from Pearl Jam here probably more than any other artist. I guess that's just an indication that they really are my favorite band.

I saw them play at Summerfest in 1995 for $10, and it was a fantastic show. It was both a great day and a bad day, though. It was a great day because I saw an excellent band with a great opening act. It was a bad day because I got heat stroke that day (probably because of mixing too much heat with too much beer and not enough water) so it ruined a date with a really attractive woman whom I never went out with again.

C'est la vie.

These were the last of the Fleer cards that Matthew sent to me. A reflection on the poor farm system and poor state of the team in the late 1990s and early 2000s is the fact that the Brewers were ignored pretty regularly by card companies. Basically, it was Burnitz and Jenkins, occasionally Cirillo and Sexson, and then add in random young players.

Is this different from the Brewers of 2016? Not particularly, except for the fact that the 2016 farm system seems much healthier and is held in higher regard than those days 16 to 18 years ago.

The waiting right now, though, is driving me mad.

One of the albums of 1994 that reflected perhaps a pinnacle of a band but at the same time showed a band nearing its end was Monster by R.E.M.  When 1994 started, if you had told me that I'd be moving to Athens, Georgia, in August of 1995 for law school, I would have been very surprised.

I had not really considered Georgia as an option until I started looking at the U.S. News & World Report school rankings in the Fall of 1994. Once I saw that it was a top-30 law school and fairly inexpensive for an out-of-state student, I applied. It was the last school to send me my acceptance letter, and it turned out to be my first choice when it was all said and done.

There's always the counterfactual "what could have been" type questions I could ask. What if I'd gone to Wisconsin instead? Would I be working in Milwaukee? Chicago? Somewhere else? I rarely think that way though.


My "what could have been" questions tend to relate more to things outside my own life. What might Rickie Weeks have been had he not had wrist injuries constantly early in his career which took away key development time and sapped some of his bat speed and power from him? What might Ben Sheets's career looked like had he not thrown so many innings and pitches for teams going nowhere? What might have been in 2008 had Sheets not blown out his elbow just before the playoffs, taking the Brewers down to CC Sabathia as a top-level starter?

Those kinds of counterfactuals are fun. Well, fun to think about and rewrite history, at least.

In 1994 and 1995, I worked with a guy, Bill, who really introduced me into the depths and best of Britpop. It coincided with Oasis becoming huge here in the U.S. thanks to their debut album, "Definitely Maybe." I got to see Oasis play at The Rave in Milwaukee in March of 1995. Bill got a group of his friends together, and we all went to the show. It was a great show, definitely.

But it got better.

One of Bill's friends was this woman who was a DJ for WMSE -- the college rock station broadcasting from the Milwaukee School of Engineering. She talked to some of the guys on the soundboard about where the band would be hanging out after the show, and she talked me into trying to find them. So, we went to the hotel where the manager types said they'd be, and we waited for maybe 20 or 30 minutes. Seeing nothing, she suggested that we go back to The Rave and see if the band was still there.

We parked literally right in front of the front door and walked in. A cleaning guy looked at us and we just said, "We've got some friends backstage that we're waiting on." So, we walked straight back and there was Liam Gallagher (the lead singer) just talking and hanging out. He insisted that we go get a beer, and we started talking to him. Being the geek I was, I brought up the press's reports of arguments with his brother ("Those tabloids love to talk shite, don't they, right?") and his love of Manchester City ("Y'go anywhere in town, right, and no one supports that other team. They're all Citeh all the time!"). The DJ asked for his autograph on a CD liner notes, and I got my ticket stub signed. We got everyone in the band to sign both items, had a beer with the band, and left. 

I learned an important lesson that day -- just act like you belong and you'll go far.

Here's the Upper Deck cards that Matt sent me. Much like my encounter with Oasis, Upper Deck just acted like they belonged. It's too bad for baseball collectors that they have been cut out of the baseball card business by MLB. I'd guess they pissed MLB off with that 2010 effort that didn't do enough to avoid the use of logos and color schemes. Upper Deck did great things in baseball card designs, but all we get now is just whatever Topps throws out there. Too bad.

Punctuating that year in music for most alternative music fans, of course, was Kurt Cobain's death followed by the release of the "Unplugged in New York" CD. That Unplugged was a master class of sorts in how lyrical Cobain and Nirvana really were. 

"Pennyroyal Tea" was always one of my favorite Nirvana songs too for its self-centered lines about being on my time with everyone -- I think that was the start of my real understanding that the less that I cared about what others thought about me, the better my own mental health would be. Yes, I still care about what others think -- just not so much that it makes me do things that I'm not comfortable doing.

The final four cards here were well worth the wait. A Milwaukee Braves team card from 1962 and then three autographed cards of PC guys Jeff Cirillo and Ben Oglivie and my personal point of wonderment for 2017 Topps in Chris Capuano on a card that comes from 2006 -- you know, when Capuano was actually a key member of the team.

My thanks to Matt for the great cards, for the great writing, and my congratulations once again for the award!