Orioles Card "O" the Day

An intersection of two of my passions: baseball cards and the Baltimore Orioles. Updated daily?

Friday, February 29, 2008

Vintage Fridays: Terry Crowley, 1973 Topps #302

Today we see Terry Crowley chugging down the third base line in Yankee Stadium. Standing in his way is All-Star Yanks catcher Thurman Munson, whose life and careeer came to a premature end in 1979, when he crashed while trying to land his personal plane. Munson was 32. But here, in this action shot from 1972, he is in his prime and ready for battle. Though "The Crow" has all the momentum from his charge around the basepaths, there is an uneasy look on his face, as though he's about to hit a brick wall. His right hand is raised in the air; though he could be preparing to strike at Munson in an attempt to jar the ball loose, it's just as likely that his thoughts have turned to self-preservation. After all, the ball has not yet arrived. We see it just inside the frame of the photo, blurred with motion. Terry is close enough to the catcher that he runs a real risk of getting pegged in the head with the hard white spheroid. Adding to the sense of impending violence, this card has a mysterious red stain right between the heads of the two combatants. Sure, it looks more like ink from a bingo marker, but it could very well be blood. Whose blood? Thurman's, or the Crow's? Maybe a little of each?

I'm not sure what the outcome of this play, or even this game, might have been. I've searched the invaluable Baseball-Reference.com and it appears that the only game in Yankee Stadium in 1972 in which Terry Crowley was involved in any plays at the plate was a June 29 contest, which the Yankees won 4-3. The Crow scored twice: once from third base on a Brooks Robinson single to left field, and once from third on a wild pitch with Elrod Hendricks batting. He was also thrown out trying to score from third on a Brooksie grounder to third baseman Celerino Sanchez. By process of elimination, the ball is coming from the field of play, so this wouldn't be the wild pitch play. On the other run, Brooks hit the ball through the infield. I'd like to think that even Terry wasn't slow enough to turn a two-out hit to the outfield into a close play at home (he would have been running on contact with two outs). Sadly, I think he was out on this play, and the O's lost to boot. According to the box score, the attendance was 8,438, which would explain the sparse crowd that serves as the backdrop to this photo.

So buck up, Crow. At least nobody was watching this game.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Brian Burres, 2007 Topps '52 Rookies #119

In Brian Burres' major league debut, he left the mound with a nose bleed. Sure, that's pretty embarrassing, but who among us hasn't had a few humiliating moments ourselves? Sure, ours may not have happened with 36,000 people in attendance, but at the end of the day it still makes a good story.

One of my favorite stories to tell involves a weekend trip to New York with my high school cross country team, the Archbishop Curley Friars. I was a sophomore at the time, and it was my first year with the team. We were running in the Foot Locker Invitational in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. I remember looking forward to these trips, mostly because we got out of classes for a day or two, but also because it was nice to travel a bit and see a new part of the country. This would be an especially interesting trip, as the girls from Catholic High's team (the sister school to our own all-boys' Catholic high school) would be following us up in their own school van.

Since the social pecking order of high school was still in full effect, the primary concern on the lengthy van ride from Baltimore to New York was hotel room assignments. There would be four boys to a room, and if you snoozed, you'd get stuck with the freshmen or the one or two especially weird upperclassmen. So at my first opportunity, I had a quick word with Steve (one of my closest acquaintances on the team) and made sure that I'd be in his room. It would be the two of us, another sophomore named Tim, and a junior named Paul. When we got to the hotel, Coach Hoffman asked for the room assignments. The last room to be announced was ours. Paul took the honors, saying the names of himself, Tim, Steve, and then...it seemed as if he froze for a split second. He stuttered, and the name that spilled out of his mouth was that of Adam, the aforementioned weird upperclassman. I was stunned. When I pressed him about it later, Paul claimed that he had blanked and said the first name that came to him. I took him at his word because...if you knew Adam, no one in their right mind would choose him as a roommate.

With that, Coach Hoffman turned around and said, "Now which one of you doesn't have any friends?" He glanced at me and grinned. "Kevin! Okay, you're with me."

I have to explain that one of my favorite things about track and cross country was the coach. Our teams in those years were mostly subpar, and he spent most of his time belittling us and talking about how good his teams were in the Eighties. It was inexplicably hilarious. The angrier he got, the more we were entertained. One of his more motivational speeches was: "There are six words to describe this team. Suck, suck, suck, suck, suck, and suck!" Sure, Coach Hoffman's dyspeptic, middle-aged ranting was a riot, but that didn't mean that I wanted to share a room with him.

But as my new roomie wisely said, "Screw them, you get your own bed."

Saturday night, I settled into bed and listened to my portable CD player (I believe it was Local H's As Good As Dead) while Coach Hoffman watched some cheesy action movie. I knew that we had to be out of the hotel by 8:00 the next morning before the race, but I didn't worry about setting an alarm. "I'm sharing a room with the coach; he'll wake me up." The next thing I heard was:

"We're leaving in FIVE MINUTES!"

Somehow, I scrambled out of bed, got dressed, and washed up in record time (no shower, of course). Still, I wasn't quite fast enough to satisfy Coach Hoffman. I'll let my friend Jessica, who was on the Catholic High team, tell the rest of the story:

"All of a sudden, we see the Curley van start moving and this one Curley guy comes running out of the hotel, jumps up, and grabs onto the door as it pulls away...everyone felt really sorry for you. They were like, 'Awww.'"

Awww indeed. That's why you don't leave your morning routine at the mercy of a grouchy balding man in a jogging suit.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cal Ripken, Jr., 1993 Colla Collection All-Stars #9

Continued from Jack Voigt

One of the best things about growing up as an Orioles fan in the Nineties was getting the chance to see Cal Ripken, Jr. play on an everyday basis. If you went to a game - any game - between May 30, 1982 and September 19, 1998, you got to see Cal play. I can remember feeling a certain letdown when I went to the ballpark and found that Rafael Palmeiro was being rested, or Mike Mussina had just started the day before, or so forth. William, one of the readers of this blog, has lamented that he always seemed to get tickets on days that Chris Hoiles sat out in favor of backup catcher Jeff Tackett. Then, of course, there were our friends from yesterday's entry who wanted to see Jeffrey Hammonds do his thing. But on June 2, 1994, not only did Cal Junior suit up and take the field for the 1,947th consecutive game, he had one of his best days that year.

The 1994 season on the whole was crucial for Cal. With the exception of his amazing 1991 season, in which he won his second MVP award and set or equaled career highs in practically every offensive category, he had not batted over .264 since 1986. There were whispers, growing louder every day, that Cal's performance was suffering because of The Streak. Some baseball pundits claimed that what he was doing was selfish, that he was putting personal achievements before the good of the team. But in 1994 Cal let his bat do the talking, swatting .315 and improving his OPS by 74 points over his 1993 figure. Just as Lou Gehrig's seemingly unbreakable record of 2,130 consecutive games played had come into sight, Baltimore's own Iron Man seemed to be getting stronger.

In Cal's first at bat against the Tigers on that Thursday afternoon, he started a rally in the most unlikely manner. Leading off the second inning with the O's trailing 1-0, he struck out. But catcher Chad Kreuter couldn't handle the pitch from lefty Bill Krueger (how do you like that battery? Krueger to Kreuter!), and Cal alertly took off running, reaching first safely on the wild pitch. Three singles in a row brought him home with the tying run. By the time Mike Devereaux grounded out to shortstop Chris Gomez (a future Oriole), the Birds had taken a 4-1 lead.

After a Tiger comeback, the scored was tied as Cal came up to bat again in the third inning following a Rafael Palmeiro double. Palmeiro stole third base, and Ripken drove him in with a single to give the O's a 5-4 lead and chase Krueger from the game in favor of reliever Storm Davis. Cal made it to the plate for the third straight inning in the fourth, this time facing Kurt Knudsen. Jack Voigt had walked to lead off and advanced to second on a Devereaux flyout. With two outs, the Tigers made the brilliant decision to walk Raffy intentionally to face Ripken. One deep fly ball over the fence in left-center field later, Cal had himself a 4-RBI game! The Orioles led 8-4 thanks to career home run number 301. (This was the first of #8's milestones that I would just miss; another would come the following year and will receive its own story in due time.)

For good measure, Cal would single in the sixth inning before fouling out in the eighth. The rest of the offense would pick up the slack in the eighth, however, scraping together three more runs to make the final an 11-5 win. Thanks in large part to Cal's early-inning heroics (3 for 5, 2 R, 1 HR, 4 RBI), emergency starter Scott Klingenbeck got the first win of his career in his first try and I went home happy. Now that's what I call a field trip.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Jack Voigt, 1994 Fleer #23

Continued from Mark Smith and Scott Klingenbeck

Before I talk about the actual result of the game, I want to go into more detail about our experience in the bleachers. At the time, they were some of the cheapest seats in the park, going for $4. In hindsight, this both blows my mind and makes me feel prematurely old. (These tickets now cost $15 each; $23 for "Prime" games like the Yankees and Sawx.) At such rock-bottom prices, the bleachers attracted the more colorful and authentic O's fans, to say the least.

A few rows behind us there sat a couple robust gentlemen who, emboldened by the warming rays of the sun and the malted hops in their bellies, struck up a one-sided conversation with Tigers right fielder Junior Felix, a journeyman who had a little power and a little speed, but evidently not enough of either to get comfortable anywhere. Detroit was his fourth team in six major league seasons, and his third in three years. As he stood stock-still a few feet in front of the warning track, he was showered with catcalls by Charm City's third-rate answer to Statler and Waldorf. Among their greatest hits:

When a hot dog wrapper blew onto the field: "Hey Junior, why don't you pick up that piece of trash! Ya gotta do something to earn that money!"

As the Tiger pitcher ran into trouble: "Hey, Junior, can you pitch?"


And my personal favorite: "Hey, Junior, where did the rest of your legs go?" (At 5'11" Junior wasn't exactly a Smurf, but I do recall him having noticably short lower legs that ended abruptly after the calves.)

Junior seemed to be a fairly good sport about the heckling. The fans never got profane or violent, to their credit. At one point, he even turned around and acknowledged them with a wave.

The Oriole right fielder, on the other hand, was not so lucky.

Getting a rare start that day was longtime minor leaguer and utility player Jack Voigt. He had performed above expectations as a rookie in 1993, hitting .296 with an OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) of .895. He struggled as a sophomore, though, and was hitting .240 as play started on June 2. Though he walked twice and drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, some fans were harder to please than others.

Two such discriminating fans wandered down to the bleachers in the late innings. They were a pair of young boys, somewhere around my age. The duo perched in an open spot in the front row and started riding Jack Voigt hard, trying to get a rise out of him.

"Hey Jack, you suck!"


"You suck, Jack! You stink!"

Not very original. No wonder he paid them no mind.

"We want Jeff!"

They were going for the low blow. Jeffrey Hammonds was the Great Hope in Baltimore, the fourth overall pick in the first round of the 1992 draft. He'd made it to Camden Yards one year later, and dazzled fans with his strong bat and his glove. However, he also struggled to stay on the field, and at the time of this particular game, was sidelined by a knee injury. Jeffrey Hammonds was everything Jack Voigt wasn't, a flashy five-tool player with an Olympic pedigree and a big signing bonus who was only briefly detained in the minor leagues. Voigt was 27 when he finally got a tenuous grasp on the big leagues, having spent six long and dusty years in the Orioles organization.

That was the last straw...Jack turned around, threw his arms up and gave them a dirty look. His body language seemed to say, "C'mon! What do you want from me? I'm just trying to do a job here!"

Jack's still plugging away at his job - or jobs, rather. He works in real estate in Florida when he's not serving as the hitting coach for the New Orleans Zephyrs, the AAA affiliate of the New York Mets. I remember reading an article during his playing days that suggested that Jack Voigt would make a good manager some day. Let's hope that he gets his shot. That would show those mouthy kids what's what.

To be concluded tomorrow.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Mark Smith and Scott Klingenbeck, 1995 Topps #631

Continued from Johnny Oates

It was a beautiful day for baseball, 71 degrees and sunny at game time. We took our seats in the right field bleachers, the first time I had ever seen Oriole Park from that vantage point. I immediately fell in love with that section of the ballpark, with the entire field laid out in front of me and the right fielder so close that it seemed that I could reach out and touch him. I've gone to a few dozen games since then, and sat everywhere from the very last row of the upper reserve to box seats right behind home plate, but the bleachers are still my personal favorite.

When I know that I'm going to a baseball game, I've always taken a special interest in the starting pitching assignments. In my mind, it seems that I was never lucky enough to catch Mike Mussina when he was the ace of the Oriole staff, though I have watched enemy pitchers like Randy Johnson and Tim Hudson stymie the Birds. This particular day was no different. The O's had been caught a little shorthanded, and plucked some untested rookie from AA Bowie for an emergency start. The kid was a slightly stocky righthander named Scott Klingenbeck.

So, how did the kid do? Not bad at all. Despite allowing six hits and walking four, he hung in for seven innings. Klingenbeck allowed four runs (three earned) but struck out five to help his cause. Most impressive of all, he bounced back after being touched up for three runs in the third inning, retiring 13 of the last 15 Tiger hitters he faced. But would it be enough to pick up a win in his major league debut?

P. S.: This is the only card I have of Scott in an Orioles uniform, and I couldn't even find any on eBay. He appeared in six games for the O's in 1995 before being traded to the Twins for Scott Erickson. Not a bad deal for then-GM Roland Hemond near the end of his storied career.

To be continued tomorrow.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Johnny Oates, 1992 Topps #579

I selected Johnny Oates today because he was the manager of the Orioles on Thursday, June 2, 1994. Of all of the games I've attended over the past fifteen years, that day's game has proven one of the most memorable. Among other things, it was the only game I've ever attended with my mother - just the two of us. Even better, she pulled me out of school to go to the game, which started at 12:35 in the afternoon. I was in sixth grade at the time, and for reasons I did not fully understand at the time (and certainly don't understand or even remember now) our teacher failed to plan a field trip for the class at any time that year. With the school year winding to a close, Mom took it upon herself to provide me with a field trip of my own. This was obviously superior to a regular field trip; I was spared from a day of school when no one else was, and there was no threat of an educational experience! The tickets were a gift from one of her coworkers who couldn't use them that day. I recall a quick stop at the McDonald's around the corner from my school for lunch, and then we were off to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. This would have been only my second game at the still-new ballpark, and my first game of the 1994 season.

At the time, the O's sat in third place with a respectable 27-22 record, six games back of the front-running Yankees. It was one of several competitive Baltimore teams in the early-to-mid Nineties, anchored on offense by Rafael Palmeiro, Cal Ripken, Jr., Brady Anderson, and Harold Baines. The starting rotation was topped by Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald, who was having a breakthrough year; at the end of games, veteran Lee Smith would saunter in from the bullpen to close out wins. There's no telling how good that team would have been over a full season; they were 63-49 on August 12, when a players' strike halted (and ultimately cancelled) the rest of that year's action. They stood frozen, six and a half games behind the Yankees in second place and just two and a half games behind the Indians for the first-ever Wild Card berth.

As time ran out on the 1994 season, so too did it run out on Johnny Oates. The former O's catcher, who had guided the team to three straight winning seasons and no worse than third place in each full season since taking the reins, was fired by an impatient Peter Angelos, who had spent a lot of money to bring several star players (Palmeiro, Smith, Sid Fernandez, and Chris Sabo) to town and expected greater results. Oates, known as one of the kindest and gentlest men in the game, landed on his feet. He was quickly hired by the Texas Rangers, and helmed them during the greatest period of success in team history. In 1996, his second year in Texas, the team won 90 games and captured their first division title. For his efforts, Johnny was named Manager of the Year in the AL. The Rangers would win three AL West crowns in four years, but they ran into the Yankees each time, winning just one playoff game in all that time. Oates resigned after a last-place finish in 2000 and a slow start in 2001. Just three years later, at age 58, he died from a brain tumor. Texas retired his number 26; legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan (#34) is the only other Ranger to receive this honor.

To be continued tomorrow.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Storm Davis, 1985 Topps #599

George Earl Davis, aka "Storm", has a classic baseball name, even if his mother did pluck it from a book that she read before he was born. I'm convinced that the superiority of his moniker was worth at least two wins per season above the average, even if there's no way to accurately measure it.

Of course the rich, 55-year history of the Baltimore Orioles is flush with great names. While Drungo Hazewood, Arnie Portocarrero, and Treindad Hubbard may take the crown for most outlandish full birth names in O's lore, none of them ever won 61 games for the Birds. So Storm gets the nod from me today.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Vintage Fridays: Frank Robinson, 1967 Topps #100

This week needed some star power, and they don't get any brighter than Frank Robinson. As you can tell from the block lettering on his jersey and the non-Woody Woodpecker bird on his cap, this photo was taken when Frank first arrived in Spring Training in 1966, before the team rolled out their new uniforms for the 1966 season. Even in their wildest dreams, the Orioles couldn't have imagined the impact that their new right fielder would have, as he won the Triple Crown (.316, 49 HR, 122 RBI), the AL MVP, and the World Series MVP, powering the Birds to a four-game sweep of the Dodgers for their first championship.

Sportswriter Jim Murray once said of Frank: "He plays the game the way the great ones played it - out of pure hate." He broke in with the Reds in 1956; though Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier a decade earlier, there were still racial tensions in the game and the country. "Robby" was hit by a pitch 20 times as a rookie and 198 times in his career (eighth-most in history). So it makes sense that he played mean; he wanted to show that he was not going to be intimidated.

I never would have guessed this as a child. The only cards of Frank Robinson in my early collection depicted him in his mid-fifties as a smiling, grandfatherly manager, the wise leader of the ragtag Orioles teams of 1988-1991. He was one of the friendliest looking guys you could ever see on a baseball card. Although he still had a reputation as being a strict disciplinarian up through his last managing gig in Washington (which ended in 2006), Bill James admits that he "has gotten nicer as he has gotten older".

It's good to know that I didn't imagine that, at the very least.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Jim Hoey, 2006 Upper Deck #1020

This is one of several cards I received in a recent trade with Patricia and her seven-year-old daughter Lucy, who are responsible for the entertaining and breezy Dinged Corners blog. It's the only card in my possession featuring young reliever Jim Hoey, one of several former Aberdeen IronBirds to play for the Orioles in recent years. Jim and I both spent time in Aberdeen in 2004, though he'd been shut down due to injury by the time I arrived.

My first job after graduating from college was an unpaid marketing internship with the IronBirds in Fall 2004. It eventually became a paid consultancy when my boss quit suddenly and I was needed to complete a series of illustrated reports for the team's sponsors. I had a great time for the three short months I spent at Ripken Stadium, and I did a little bit of everything. For the last few home games of the season I surveyed fans about their experiences and preferences, wrote game notes for the program, operated one of the scoreboards, and even helped out with the video board operation once. Once the offseason began, I spent most of my time working on the sponsor reports, selecting and editing photos that displayed company logos or products around the stadium and writing corresponding copy. It wasn't nearly as exciting as the in-game stuff. But I also took on a task that was good for a few laughs, and will probably get Lucy's attention.

I made several public appearances as the mascot.

That's right; for a brief period, I was Ferrous, the dopey-looking but well-meaning bird of indiscriminate species. The team's previous Game Entertainment Coordinator (and man behind the mask - er, head) had just left for a similar (but more high profile) job with the Ravens. Ferrous was booked for a number of events, and someone had to put on the suit. As a recent grad lacking a full-time job, I was desperate for money and more than a little curious, so I stepped up to take on a few bookings. I shook my tail feathers and bobbed my head on four occasions that I can remember: to help hand out invitations to a private batting practice and luncheon (one of the perks for the team's top-level sponsors), to commemorate the completion
of highway construction near the stadium (along with Gov. Bob Ehrlich), to visit a class of autistic children at an area school, and in one gruesome instance to meet and greet the shoppers at the Harford Mall...on Black Friday.

If you or anyone you know have ever been inside a mascot costume, you know what it was like. The costume was bulky and smelled terrible. It was laundered regularly, but there's only so much you can do with an unbreathable jumpsuit that is being soaked with sweat every time it's worn. In between washings it was liberally doused with Lysol, which seemed to mutate the odor instead of masking it. The head was basically an oversized football helmet; the opening was in the mouth area, so there were several inches of head on top of my own. This was a decidedly awkward sensation and visibility wasn't ideal. The head weighed a ton, as you can probably imagine.

The most difficult thing about playing a mascot is learning to communicate without words. I relied heavily on pantomime and goofy waves and thumbs-up gestures. People would ask me questions, such as "What are you supposed to be?" or "What are you doing here?". Usually I had the team's PR director with me to do the verbal heavy lifting, but at the mall in particular I was on my own, making exaggerated batting and throwing gestures. For the most part, adults were bemused and children curious or even affectionate. One of the autistic children was so excited to see me that he managed to pull me to the ground with a vigorous hug. While the child was exceptionally strong for someone so very small, my own lack of coordination probably didn't help matters much. Of course, there were other, more rambunctious kids who were eager to grab my beak and to pull on my already loosening tail. I was not fond of those children. Then there's Governor Ehrlich, who responded to my good-natured shuffling with a wisecrack: "Does he get paid by the hour?".

Overall, it wasn't a terrible experience. Often it was rewarding, as I was entertaining both children and adults. Besides, it gave me a good story and a smart response when people ask me what I've been able to do with a bachelors' degree in drama.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Jay Gibbons, 2002 DAV #13

I want to turn back the clock.

I want to root for the Rule 5 kid made good, the hidden gem plucked from Toronto's organization to hit booming home runs out to Eutaw Street.

I want to remember a time when my teenage sister had just discovered the Orioles for herself and decided that she would become an Oriole wife, and that the goofy-looking redheaded guy would be good for her.

I want to smile as I read about the relief that he felt upon signing his lucrative new contract, because he had just gotten married and things were looking up in every aspect of his life.

I want to admire the young player who was so respected by his teammates that he was named their representative to the Players' Association. He faced the reporters and answered their questions when the team was thrown into turmoil by a steroid suspension for a popular veteran.

But there's no time machine in baseball. You can dress the players up in classic uniforms, play 1960s music on the PA system, but you can't undo what's been done.

What can be done is to create a better future. Admit your mistakes (to an extent). Go out on the field and earn back your job. Prove that you can do everything you've done and more without those "shortcuts". Give us a reason to root for you again.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Terry Kennedy, 1989 Topps #705

I'll say one thing for Terry Kennedy; he took a good picture. Some of the most memorable cards in my collection feature TK: on his 1987 Topps card, he seems to be shouting at a teammate or opponent from his perch in the dugout; he also has a great 1992 Upper Deck card with a closeup of his eyes framed by his catchers' mask. The card I'm featuring today is right up there with the best of them. It's an uncharacteristically dynamic action shot for the 1989 Topps set, with Terry perched over home plate, mask already flung away, waiting anxiously for the relay throw as the coaches look on from the blurry Oriole dugout. The intense concentration is etched on his face as the unseen base runner barrels down the third base line.

Terry became the first second-generation Orioles player when he arrived from San Diego along with Mark Williamson in the October 1986 trade that sent Storm Davis to the Padres. His father Bob had been a third baseman and outfielder for the O's in their infancy. The younger Kennedy had the unenviable task of replacing an all-time fan favorite in Rick Dempsey. While Terry was named to the All-Star team in 1987, it was more on name recognition than merit; the three-time National League All-Star batted just .250 that year. It would be his last year as a full time player. In 1988, Terry was one of many Birds to have a lousy year, dropping to .226 with just three home runs in 85 games. The following January, he was swapped to the Giants for fellow catcher Bob Melvin, who was a dependable part-timer for the O's for the next three years.

The future is bearing down on Terry Kennedy, but he doesn't flinch. Here comes the throw...

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ozzie Guillen, 1998 Upper Deck #652

I was digging through a bin of 90's Orioles cards in a sports card shop last year when I saw this one. I grabbed it immediately. If any player has a card more symbolic of his time with the O's, I sure haven't seen it. The look on Ozzie's face seems to say, "Really? Are you sure I signed with the Orioles?" I'm sure he wasn't unhappy to be with the team, since they were coming off of back-to-back ALCS appearances. Sure, it was probably a shock to the system to be in any uniform other than the pinstripes of the White Sox; Ozzie had broken in with the Sox in 1985 and played his entire thirteen-year career to that point with his original team. But Ozzie Guillen just wasn't a good fit in Baltimore.

I couldn't tell you today what the Orioles' rationale was in bringing Ozzie to Camden Yards. They had already moved Cal Ripken, Jr. to third base, but Mike Bordick was installed at shortstop. I guess they figured it would be a nice luxury to have a former All-Star shortstop coming off the bench, but Ozzie was 34 years old and Bordick was in the middle of a five-year stretch in which he played at least 150 games each season. There was just no point to signing another veteran; new manager Ray Miller didn't seem to know what to do with him. A month into the 1998 season, Guillen had appeared in a dozen games, but had only 16 at-bats. Being accustomed to playing every day, he was clearly struggling to stay fresh (he had only one hit). So the Birds released him, and he lasted three more seasons in a part-time role in Atlanta and Tampa Bay.

So yes, the look in Ozzie's face says it all. From the various colorful statements and opinions that have spilled forth from his mouth since he became manager of the White Sox in 2004, it's probably best that we just let the picture do the talking.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Steve Stone, 1982 Topps #419

This is my first special request card, courtesy of my Uncle Jeff, who called last night to inform me that he had lost an entire evening while reading this blog and my NumerOlogy website. I'm happy to accommodate his request, since he has been a die-hard Orioles fan for his entire life and has played an important role in my own fandom. This Steve Stone card was one of the first (and oldest) cards in my collection, part of the mysterious stack of 1980s cardboard that came into my possession before I was even following baseball myself. It may have come from Uncle Jeff; at any rate, he's augmented my collection greatly throughout the years, including the recent generous donation of the entirety of his own collection. My uncle got me involved in fantasy baseball ten years ago, and I always look forward to talking sports with him at family gatherings.

In recent years, he's lost a lot of his passion for the sport, having been disillusioned by the usual suspects: the labor disputes, the steroid taint, and of course a decade of mismanagement by the Orioles' brass. So it was a great compliment when Uncle Jeff called and told me that my writing reminded him of the good times, the rich and colorful history of the Baltimore Orioles. In that spirit, he asked me to feature Steve Stone in this space. He vividly recalls Stone's magical 1980 season, in which he won a team-record 25 games and posted a 3.23 ERA to capture the last Cy Young Award to date by an Oriole. He owned one-quarter of the O's 100 victories, as the team fell three games short of the division champion Yankees.

My uncle described Stone's season as amazing, and it truly was, especially in the context of his own career. Setting aside 1980, Steve's career high in wins was 15 in 1977 (with the White Sox). In eleven years, only three times did his ERA meet the league average. Most incredible - and unfortunate - of all, Stoney pitched only twelve games in 1981 before calling it a career. The card at the top of this entry is his last.

The truth is that Steve Stone sacrificed everything for one great season. He consciously chose to throw more curveballs in 1980. As he said later, "I knew it would ruin my arm. But one year of 25-7 is worth five of 15-15." Still, the amount of pitches he threw were probably just as damaging as the type of pitch he threw. Stone started 37 games that year, five more than any other year in his career. In those 37 games he pitched 250 and two-thirds innings, obliterating his previous best of 214 and one-third. That kind of workload is bound to take a toll on a 32-year-old pitcher.

Uncle Jeff's warm remembrances would seem to indicate that Steve Stone had a point. Given the choice between one year of greatness and five years of mediocrity, what would you choose?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Arthur Rhodes, 1992 Pinnacle #251

When it comes to baseball cards, there's really nothing as consistently entertaining as an action shot of a pitcher in mid-throw. The sheer concentration and exertion involved in hurling a baseball at speeds of 80-100 miles per hour can cause some pretty ridiculous facial expressions, as it so happens. Former Orioles lefty Arthur Rhodes is responsible for some of the funniest faces in my collection.

Though Arthur was considered a prospect in 1992, he spent his first five years in the major leagues floundering in the O's starting rotation and battling injuries. His won-lost record was 17-24, and his ERA 5.70. Still, he had a powerful left arm, a valuable commodity in baseball. In 1993, he was even considered the centerpiece of a potential trade with the Padres for slugging first baseman Fred McGriff.

When Davey Johnson took over as manager in 1996, one important decision he made was to use Rhodes solely as a reliever. In a middle-innings "vulture" role, the pitcher thrived. He won 9 games against a single loss for the Wild Card winning Orioles. In 53 innings he struck out 62 batters. Rhodes was even better the following year, going 10-3 with a 3.02 ERA and 1.05 WHIP and striking out 100 batters for the only time in his career. Arthur even received minor consideration in the MVP voting due to the vital role he played for a Baltimore team that led the American League East from Opening Day on through the end of the season. Though the Birds once again fell short of a World Series, you couldn't blame Arthur Rhodes, who did not allow a run in his three postseason appearances.

Rhodes has had a lengthy and often successful career as a reliever, although it looks like the end may be near. He struggled with the Phillies in 2006 (5.32 ERA), and missed all of last season with Tommy John surgery. Arthur is now in camp with the Seattle Mariners on a minor-league contract. At age 38, he might be running out of chances.

But in baseball, anything is possible.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Vintage Fridays: George Bamberger, 1959 Topps #529

This is one of the oldest Orioles cards that I own, in addition to two cards from 1957 and a handful from 1958 and others from 1959. It depicts righty George Bamberger, who had been out of the major leagues since 1952. That's right; George had waited until he was 27 to get the call from the New York Giants, and was hit hard in seven games in 1951 and 1952 (12.00 ERA, 3 baserunners allowed per inning). His long absence from the bigs is no mystery in such context. He spent the remainder of 1952 through 1955 toiling in the Pacific Coast League for the Oakland Oaks, and the still-developing Orioles obtained him prior to the 1956 season. Despite being picked up by the O's, Bamberger bided his time at the team's PCL affiliate in Vancouver for three seasons. When he led the league in ERA (2.45) and tied for tops in shutouts (5) in 1958, George finally had his contracted purchased by the Birds.

Armed with knowledge of Bamberger's purchase, Topps was able to squeeze him into one of their higher-numbered, later-year releases. The palm tree in the background is a good hint that this shot was taken at Spring Training. I love the zipper on the jersey, as opposed to buttons. George's expression is hard to mine; perhaps it's relief that he's finally back at the age of 35, after six and a half long years in the minor leagues. If so, that relief would be short-lived. By the time this card was produced, Topps had to scramble to add a note to the card back indicating that he'd been sent back to Vancouver in May. The reason? Again, we let the numbers tell the story: three games, eight and one-third innings pitched, seven runs allowed on fifteen hits for a 7.56 ERA. George did manage to notch his only major league save by closing out a 7-5 win over Washington on April 19. But it wasn't enough to keep him around. After he allowed two runs to the Red Sox without recording an out three days later, he was sold back to Vancouver for $12,500. He would never pitch in the major leagues again.

But George Bamberger would leave his imprint on baseball in other ways. He returned to the Orioles in 1968 as Earl Weaver's pitching coach, a position he'd hold for the next decade. His pitchers would win twenty games eighteen times, and would also net four Cy Young Awards (three by Jim Palmer and one by Mike Flanagan). Finally, the Milwaukee Brewers hired George as their manager. He oversaw the beginning of the first boom period for the Brew Crew, as "Bambi's Bombers" hit the ball hard and won over 90 games in each of his first two seasons. As a rookie skipper, he was voted Manager of the Year. He initially retired after the 1980 season for health reasons, and later returned to pilot the Mets and then the Brewers once more, but had little success.

You can say this for Bambi, though: he never gave up.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Daniel Cabrera, 2007 Topps #54

What could Daniel Cabrera have to do with Valentine's Day? Like most Orioles fans, I usually experience nothing but pain and frustration when he takes the mound. But believe it or not, this lanky, erratic Dominican hurler once played an important part in one of the best dates I've ever had.

It was Friday, September 22, 2006. I was about a month into a relationship with a girl named Melissa. We had been friends for almost five years, and when we both found ourselves single and realized that there was mutual interest, things came together quickly, almost effortlessly. It was as though we'd been together for years. Most nights, we didn't even have to make concrete plans to have a good time. We'd just sit around my apartment or hers, watching TV, maybe playing cards or video games. It was very low-key. But on this particular night, I thought it would be nice to do something out-of-the-ordinary and catch an Orioles game.

We met up at Union Station after I got off of work and took the MARC train to Camden Yards. It was a Student Discount Night, so we grabbed some cheap upper reserve seats down the left field line and settled in to watch the Birds take on the Twins. It was a beautiful night, a calm 72 degrees with just the slightest breeze. I was in my element, and I couldn't help but show off, feeding Melissa bits of trivia about the ballpark and the players. I probably mentioned that Oriole Park was built very near to Babe Ruth's birthplace. I mentioned the Baltimore Sun's neon signage on top of the scoreboard, and pointed it out to her as the "H" blinked when a batter was credited with a base hit and the "E" blinked when a fielder was charged with an error.

For all of my baseball knowledge and enthusiasm, I'm sure the night still would have been lacking if the Orioles hadn't held up their end of the bargain. Fortunately, they started strong, touching up Carlos Silva for four runs in the first two innings. Most of the excitement came in the second inning, as Brian Roberts walloped a two-run home run and Nick Markakis drove in another run with the first of his two doubles. Given some offensive support, Daniel Cabrera shook off the effects of a long and disappointing season. He allowed only one run before tiring in the seventh inning, and struck out eight batters. Brian Burres pitched out of trouble in relief, and Chris Ray slammed the door shut in the ninth on just nine pitches, preserving Cabrera's eighth win by a 7-3 margin.

When a crisp autumn chill settled into the stadium as the evening wore on, I slipped into my Orioles windbreaker. I was grateful that Melissa had come along, and I pulled her closer to me to keep us both warm. Even though she called things off a month later, ending the relationship almost as abruptly as it began, we're still good friends. One of my fondest memories of our time together was that night out at the ballpark.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Chris Sabo, 1994 Collector's Choice #485

Pitchers and catchers reported to the Orioles' Spring Training facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida today...not a moment too soon. I hate - hate hate hate - winter. Maybe it's because I was born in August. Maybe I have Seasonal Affective Disorder; who knows? But the miserable freezing rain that tripled my commute time home last night sure isn't doing anything to dissuade me. Spring is coming. Soon we'll have more daylight, warmer weather, blooming trees and flowers, and of course, baseball. I've pulled out a card featuring Chris Sabo in all his Rec-Specs glory, going through the paces of a Spring workout in 1994. I'm also going to take this opportunity to post the rather fitting lyrics of the song "Spring", by one of my favorite musicians, folk singer Richard Shindell:

The day will begin like any other
Another sunrise in the east
It will reach across and touch you like a lover
It will tease you from a dream

And opening your eyes you will surrender
To the light that fills the room
And the hope that you have carried since September
You will offer up to June

Maybe will be certain
You can take it as a vow
Winter’s just the curtain
Spring will take the bow

Looking out your window you will wonder
At the blooming in your yard
And every opening flower will be a mirror
Of the quickening in your heart

Maybe will be certain
You can take it as a vow
Winter’s just the curtain
Spring will take the bow

The day will begin like any other
Another sunrise in the east
It will reach across and touch you like a lover
It will tease you from a dream
You won’t remember

Maybe will be certain
You can take it as a vow
Winter’s just the curtain
Spring will take the bow

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ramon Hernandez, 2008 Topps #312

Because this week is taking on a "fresh starts" theme, and because I opened my first pack of 2008 Topps last night, I present to you Ramon Hernandez, the first Oriole of 2008. It's a great action shot of Ramon chasing down a pop-up, probably in Fort Lauderdale. (The bat boy in the background is wearing the orange practice jersey, and of course Oriole Park at Camden Yards now has a brick backstop a la Wrigley Field.) The facsimile signature is so bunched together that I can't make heads or tails of it. When Ramon signed his contract with Topps, he must have been in a hurry.

If anyone could use a fresh start in 2008, it's Ramon Hernandez. He was something of a surprise for the O's in 2006, playing in a career-high 144 games and hitting .275 with 23 home runs and 91 RBI. But last season, he struggled with injuries all year, his power dipped (.382 slugging average), and manager Dave Trembley publicly questioned his conditioning. There were even rumblings that GM Andy MacPhail had shopped Hernandez around, with the Mets supposedly being an interested party before they settled on Brian Schneider. With Catcher of the Future Matt Wieters drawing lots of attention, I hope we'll see a motivated and healthy #55 behind the plate for the Birds this year.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Mike Boddicker, 1984 Fleer #645

Mike Boddicker made his major league debut on October 4, 1980. It was very forgettable, as he blew a 3-0 lead in the second game of a doubleheader against the Indians. He walked five batters and gave up six runs (five earned) in seven and one-third innings. He allowed a double and a home run to Ron Hassey, for goodness' sake. At the time, it may have been hard to imagine that he would throw twenty-three innings in October without allowing an earned run in three years' time.

While 1983 was the fourth year that Mike spent time in the major leagues, he did indeed still qualify as a rookie: he had pitched that single game in 1980, followed by two more at the end of 1981 and a seven-game trial late in 1982. Having finally had some sustained exposure to the top hitters in the game, Boddicker announced his intentions to stay in '83, shutting out the White Sox in his first start of the season and ultimately winning 16 games even though he started only 26. He led the league in shutouts (5) and fewest hits per nine innings (7.09) and was runner-up in ERA (2.77). Despite this impressive showing, Mike finished third in Rookie of the Year voting behind Chicago's Ron Kittle (who hit 35 home runs but managed a paltry on-base percentage of .314) and Cleveland's Julio Franco (whose .306 OBP was even worse; voters must have been misled by his 80 RBI and 32 steals).

In the American League Championship Series, Boddicker got the last laugh on Kittle and the ChiSox, striking out 14 batters and allowing just five hits in a 4-0 whitewash in Game Two. The Orioles won the next two games to advance to the World Series, and Mike was named the ALCS MVP. In the Series it was more of the same, as he helped the O's rebound from a Game One loss by going the distance to top the Phillies 4-1. Eddie Murray failed to come up with a clean catch of a Cal Ripken relay throw; his error led to an unearned run that proved to be the only blemish on Boddicker's postseason record that year. Again, the Orioles swept the rest of the Series and became World Champions.

I began with an anecdote about Mike Boddicker's rocky first game as an Oriole. It bears mentioning because the current team has several green young pitchers who will be counted on to contribute this year. Some, like Jeremy Guthrie and Adam Loewen, have had some measure of success in their brief time in the major leagues. Others, like Garrett Olson and Radhames Liz, have had a rougher go of it. But even if they continue to take their lumps on the mound in 2008, there's no telling where they could be in a few years' time.

I'll try to remind myself of this entry in August, when it's entirely likely that the Birds will be lagging behind even Tampa Bay.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Earl Weaver, 1993 Ted Williams #85

It's about time I got around to posting a manager card. Why not start with the best? I have a ton of cards from this set, which was a pretty cool concept. Basically, Ted Williams endorsed a brand of baseball cards that featured great players and managers of years gone by. It had a little bit of everything, with subsets for Negro League players, minor league photos of the stars, and even a few women from the old All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Each pack also came with two pogs featuring old team logos. I still have the pogs in a binder at home with the rest of my collection. Yes, I collected pogs. Suddenly I feel much less guilty about my baseball card mania.

The card itself is a thing of beauty. The background photo is a familiar action shot of the Earl of Baltimore standing up (on his tiptoes, most likely) to his old nemeses, the umpires of the American League. This may have been one of his A. L.-record 98 ejections, which delighted Baltimore fans for nearly two decades. I'm even more amused by the foreground photo, which seems to show Earl in a pensive moment. I imagine him listening patiently to the ump's shoddy explanation as to why his last call went against the O's. He massages his throat just to keep his hand busy...probably just to keep himself from putting said hand on said umpire. Earl is poised and ready to strike.

Give 'im hell, Earl.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Matt Wieters, 2007 Tristar ProspectsPlus #53

Now that the Erik Bedard trade has FINALLY been completed, I thought we could all use a reminder that we've traded the present for a brighter future. Matt Wieters might be the brightest part of that future; it's not every day that your team drafts a catcher who: a) is projected to be ready for the majors in two years, b) draws comparisons to the best major league players at his position (Joe Mauer and Jason Varitek), and c) actually signs with the team. That last point just can't be overstated. The first positive step the Orioles made under Andy MacPhail was signing Wieters right before the deadline last year. Just the fact that they drafted a Scott Boras client said a lot, but it didn't end there. In recent years, the O's had draft debacles like Rice pitcher Wade Townsend (who never signed with the team and re-entered the draft the following year) and Adam Loewen (who didn't sign for nearly a year after the team picked him).

As far as the trade goes, it seems that a large percentage of Orioles fans support it. But there are always going to be voices of dissent, those who say that counting on unproven young players is a gamble, or that you just don't give up a certified left-handed ace. Just remember that Erik Bedard isn't as much of a sure thing as he might seem. In the past five years, he's had Tommy John surgery (2002), a knee injury that cost him two months (2005), and a strained oblique muscle that shut him down with a month to go in his breakout season (2007). He's never made it to 200 innings in a season. No trade comes without risk for one party.

We're waiting for you, Matt. Don't rush yourself; we've got plenty of other things to figure out in the meantime.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Vintage Fridays: Pat Dobson, 1972 Topps #140

As a child, I was given a Crown Gasoline poster featuring the 1988 Orioles schedule and the slogan, "Come Out And Watch Us Add To Our Legendary Collection". It's an amazing poster, with photos of 30 Topps baseball cards of Orioles stars, ranging from 1956 to 1987. I recently dug that poster out from under my bed, and hung it on the wall where it belonged.

I remember studying that poster frequently when I was younger, the images of decades-old cardboard that were but a rumor to me, something unattainable. The only featured card I had was the 1987 Cal Ripken, Jr. Eventually the 1986 Eddie Murray made its way into my hands. Last year, I began to pursue vintage Orioles cards on eBay, and bit by bit, some of those older, mythic cards came into my possession. This brightly colored, Art Deco-styled Pat Dobson card is one of those.

My first impression of this card is the most lasting: that photo is as unflattering as it gets. Pat stands front and center, ball hidden snugly in his glove, with a blank stare in his eyes and his jaw hanging slack in an unintelligent manner. For goodness sake, he looks lobotomized! Is this really the best picture taken during his photo shoot in Spring of 1971? The guy is a five-year veteran who just won 20 games - one of four Orioles pitchers to do so - you'd think Topps would give him a little more respect. They could've just dug out this photo in a pinch.

Perhaps this goofy-looking card got Pat's year started on the wrong note. He actually pitched slightly better than he had in 1971: his ERA dropped from 2.90 to 2.65, his WHIP from 1.10 to 1.08. But he was plagued by bad luck and worse run support (2.9 runs per game) and lost 18 games, winning only 16. For all his struggles, he was still selected to the All-Star Game. How many 18-game losers can say that?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Todd Zeile, 1997 Topps #473

Here we see Todd Zeile following through on a swing in one of his 29 games for the Orioles, his fourth team. He would play for eleven different clubs by the end of his career (and hit a home run for each of them, setting a ML record); he even suited up for the Mets on two separate occasions. His stint with the O's in late 1996 was the shortest stop in any one place in Todd's career. It wasn't that memorable; he hit .239 with 5 home runs and 19 RBI. He was, however, the lone offensive star for the team in their five-game ALCS loss to the Yankees (.364, 3 HR, 5 RBI). The next year it was on to Los Angeles, where Todd hit a career-high 31 home runs.

I chose this card today because I'm feeling a little wanderlust myself. Despite some unseasonable warmth in Maryland this week, we're still in the doldrums of winter and I've spent the past few weekends cooped up in my apartment. Fortunately, I have plans on Saturday to drive across the Bay Bridge to my alma mater.

The first few years after I graduated college, I was a frequent visitor, keeping in touch with friends who were still there, seeing plays, and avoiding the Real World for a weekend at a time. Eventually most of those friends graduated, I found other ways to keep busy, and the trips became less frequent. This will be the first time I've visited since the fall, and I'm looking forward to it. Making this particular 90-minute drive is usually therapeutic, as I enjoy seeing all of the familiar landmarks along the way and just having time to clear my head.

So when I'm in my favorite college bar on Saturday night, I'll raise a draught of Dogfish Head to you, Todd Zeile.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Brian Roberts, 2007 Upper Deck Goudey #19

After yesterday's bout of card collecting remorse, I wanted to post a card that made me happy. I wanted to talk about a card that made me smile no matter how often I looked at it. This is the card that came to mind.

One of the things that both Topps and Upper Deck do right is retro. This set is based on the 1933 Goudey gum cards, and features striking player portraits with colorful semi-abstract backgrounds. It's funny how sometimes less is more: there's no glossy finish, no foil stamping, no chrome or refractors or whatever the hell else makes me feel like an old crank at the age of twenty-five.

Most importantly, look at Brian Roberts. He just looks so unabashedly filthy in that picture! The long, scruffy hair, the unshaven face, the satisfied smirk. It's a very different image from the smurfish, clean-cut second baseman that drives the girls wild in Charm City, and there's something about it that just makes me laugh. I would guess that the original photo was taken in Spring Training 2007, when Brian reported to Fort Lauderdale a little shaggier than usual. Of course, team owner Peter Angelos is known for his draconian grooming policy. When the O's signed the second baseman to a contract extension a few weeks later, he opted for a trim and a shave, indicating that he wanted to make Mr. Angelos happy. No wonder he's one of P.A.'s favorites; he knows how to play the game on and off the field.

I'd been saving this card for a "goodbye" of sorts to Brian Roberts, but I needed it in a pinch. It still seems more likely than not that he'll be in a Cubs uniform before Opening Day, but you never know. I do want to say that of the three stars the Birds have dealt or will probably deal this offseason, I'll miss Brian the most. He's one of the best second basemen in the game and has done a hell of a lot for the Baltimore community. So here's to you, #1.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Rodrigo Lopez, 2003 Fleer Patchworks #13

I received this card in a random assortment of Orioles cards that a friend included in a recent trade. It's nice looking, kind of classy. I like Rodrigo Lopez, and this was my first card featuring his likeness. But I chose this card because it comes from a set that I never even knew existed. I'm not sure why it existed, nor am I convinced that it needed to exist. In that way, it's emblematic of what baseball card collecting has become.

You'll have to forgive me. I'm a little shell-shocked as I type this entry. I've just made my most expensive baseball card-related purchase ever.


I've always considered myself a very thrifty guy. It's probably something that was instilled in me by my bargain-hunting father, who grew up with five brothers and a very tight family budget. When I buy groceries, I make a beeline for the store-brand items and sales. I save every penny I find or receive in a piggy bank. As it pertains to baseball cards, I've always been the type to seek out 4 for $1.00 packs of 1989 Topps or bargain-priced grab bags instead of grabbing up the Next Big Thing in the hobby. Even since returning to full-time collecting in mid-2007, I've been careful to cap my monthly spending somewhere around $30.

But then I laid eyes on the sell sheets for 2008 Topps. I fell in love with the whimsical-yet-simple design of the base cards, not to mention the inserts that ranged from nostalgia-inducing (Baseball Card History) to quirky (Campaign 2008). I had to have them. This was meant to be the first set that I'd attempt to hand-build since the mid-Nineties. So I went online and started pricing boxes.

Hoo, boy.

The bare-bones hobby boxes go for 50-60 dollars. So taking the advice of Dave the Cardboard Junkie I ordered a Jumbo Hobby Box: 10 packs, 46 cards per pack, a slew of inserts (including at least one autograph and one relic) guaranteed. $86.95. Besides all of the insert goodies, I have a much better shot at completing Series One with the jumbo box.

So where did the other 30 bucks go?

The online store I used offered free shipping on orders over $100. Part of my spending philosophy is that I'd rather get something else and spend a little more than I'd planned than spend $8-$10 to get something I've already bought shipped to me. So I cruised their site and settled on a jumbo box of 2006 Topps Series Two, since it was relatively cheap and I don't have much of that set yet.

I'm a sick man. I've spent the entire morning rationalizing this purchase any way I can (my tax refund will be more than enough to cover the cost, maybe I'll sell unwanted inserts on eBay, etc. etc.), but ultimately I feel like I've played right into the hands of the money-hungry card companies. I swore that I wouldn't be distracted by bells and whistles and shiny things, that any more than $2 a pack was highway robbery, that card collecting should be for kids and just for the love of it all. I have a creeping sense that I've become what I'd fought against.

But I just know that the doubt and self-loathing will be shoved out of my mind when I start ripping packs next week.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Ripken Family, 1988 Donruss #625

We had a surprisingly lively Super Bowl party last night, with about a dozen friends and family congregating and sharing in the free-flowing beer, the stacks of pizza and chips and cookies, the silly and often disappointing commercials, and almost as an afterthought, the football. My roommate and I were the only two diehard football fans in the apartment, and he was an especially interested party: as a native of New Jersey, he's spent his entire life rooting for the Giants.

As the Giants regained possession of the ball with two and a half minutes left, down just four points to the heavily favored and undefeated Patriots, our guests were increasingly drawn to the drama being played out onscreen. There was a palpable buzz as Eli Manning started marching his team downfield. We positively came unglued as the young quarterback scrambled out of the grasp of several Patriots rushers, sprinted to an open area, and heaved a deep prayer to unheralded David Tyree. Tyree plucked the ball from between the outstretched hands of defender Rodney Harrison and kept it pinned between hands and helmet as the duo fell to the turf, never allowing the ball to squirt free. A few minutes later there was pure joy and satisfaction, first with the go-ahead touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress and then with the final second mercifully ticking off of the game clock. The underdogs had prevailed, denying the increasingly obnoxious Pats their presumed birthright of immortality.

As that late touchdown drive played out on TV, the frequent camera cuts to Peyton Manning were a compelling sight. Here was the anointed star of the family, the holder of passing records and MVP awards and countless commercial deals, sitting in his suite and rooting unabashedly for his little brother. His brother who had endured ridicule and scrutiny for most of his young career. It's always somewhat reassuring to see professional athletes, who usually guard themselves with a sort of bland and corporate veneer, letting their guard down and just being human.

To salute the Manning brothers, I've posted the only card I know of to feature all three Ripkens. Billy is shown as a rookie; he would hang around to form a solid double-play combo with brother Cal, Jr. for six years. Cal Senior had just gotten his shot at managing a major-league team after spending his entire adult life either playing and coaching in the minors or coaching in the majors. Though Junior never got a chance to sit on the sidelines and root for his younger brother, one of the enduring images of Cal's historic 2,131st consecutive game was Billy (on break from his AAA Buffalo team) cheering him on from behind home plate at Camden Yards.

Of course, the Ripken Boys are keeping it in the family to this day, working together as co-owners of the Aberdeen IronBirds minor league baseball team and preserving their father's memory through the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Benny Ayala, 1984 Topps #443

In honor of the underdog New York Giants, here's scrappy utility player Benny Ayala. Benny says, Go Big Blue!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Mike Mussina, 1994 Score #9

As long as we're talking about numbers, I can't help but think back to my brief and pitiful experience in Little League. Because I didn't take any interest in baseball until I was eleven, I also hadn't grown up playing the sport...or any other sport, come to think of it. Now that I was baseball-mad, I wanted to be a part of the action. As if my novice status didn't already put me at a disadvantage, I was also entering my awkward phase. Still, it was Little League; no cuts. There was a general mass tryout and then the five managers divvied up the players in private. I would be a Yankee, though I was still too young and naive to be offended by that association. Besides, with our royal blue polyester jerseys and goofy white and blue foam hats with the mesh backing, we resembled the hated Bronx Bombers in name only.

The first thrill for me was picking a uniform number. I did my homework, paging through my Athlon baseball preview magazine and consulting the team rosters to see which big league players wore which numbers. My age group wore numbers between 30 and 49, so I soon fixated on #31. Greg Maddux and Mike Piazza would be pretty good company. Of course, when it was time to choose, I found that my preferred jersey was absurdly tiny. So it went to a diminutive pitcher/second baseman named Dave. When the dust settled I was left holding #35. Not too shabby, although I remember being more excited about sharing a number with Frank Thomas than I was about Mike Mussina. It was 1994, and the Big Hurt ruled baseball without mercy.

My performance, however, was not reminiscent of either player. In six-inning games, I got roughly two at-bats per game and three innings in the field...right field, of course, where I would do the least damage. I still remember every time I reached based on a batted ball that season. Both of them. On the first, bunted for a hit. If I could do anything, it was run. (The most encouraging of my coaches once referred to me as "Rickey Henderson", which was even funny to me.) The second time, I actually swung with all my might, felt that satisfying impact...and watched the ball drop dead in front of the plate. I ran like hell and beat the throw from the flustered defender. I did at least walk occasionally, since a recent growth spurt had seen me shoot up to nearly six feet tall and my higher strike zone was harder for my erratic young peers to locate. Plus, I was reluctant to swing the bat.

For all of my misadventures, I had landed on a good team with supportive coaches and friendly teammates. We won ten out of sixteen games, finishing second to the hated Red Sox (go figure). The following year, most of us returned with similar results, winning ten games and placing runner-up to those darned Sox. Hmm, no pun intended. I had been given #42, which I was able to identify with Jackie Robinson even if no contemporary players were doing much with it at the time. I doubled my hit total to four, all bunts. I also collected my lone RBI on a bases-loaded pitch that hit me in the helmet. As one of my teammates joked, "That's using your head!"

That's the extent of my baseball career. Eventually I figured out that slow-pitch softball was a better fit for me, but at least I tried.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Vintage Fridays: Brooks Robinson, 1966 Topps #390

I've been saving this card for a special occasion, and today is pretty special. First of all, it marks one month since I started this blog. I've managed to post one card each day, which for me is pretty impressive. Maybe I can finally take the question mark off of my blog description at the top of the page.

But I also launched my website today: NumerOlogy. For the better part of a year, I've been researching uniform numbers. I wanted to figure out just who wore which numbers for the Orioles, and when they wore them. I'm sure I've missed some here or there, but overall I'm pretty pleased with what I have. I spent most of today fighting with WordPress (I am not terribly tech-savvy), and I'll probably revisit it later. For now, I just wanted to get the site up. Feel free to check it out and offer me your thoughts.

In the meantime, let's talk about this card. I bought it at a card show at a local mall in 1994 or 1995, and for years it was the oldest card in my collection and my only card of Brooks. I kept it prominently displayed in my room. About four years ago, I was a senior in college when I found out that Brooks Robinson was coming to my school.

The baseball team was holding a fundraiser: there would be an "fireside chat" with Brooks and Tony Bruno, and then #5 would answer a few questions from the crowd. Afterward, there was a luncheon and silent auction, and Brooks made himself available for autographs. It was a no-brainer for me; how many chances do you get to meet one of the greatest Orioles players of all time? So I paid my $15 (I signed up too late to get a lunch ticket) and pocketed my baseball card.

During the chat, Brooks was as warm and folksy as you'd probably imagine. He talked about a wide variety of topics, from his two-hit debut against the Senators in 1955 ("I called my parents and told them, 'this is easy!' " Of course, those would be Brooks' only two hits that season.) to his love of fishing to the sad state of the contemporary O's (he said that Peter Angelos' biggest mistake was letting Mike Mussina and Rafael Palmeiro leave town). He talked for at least an hour, and I probably could have listened to him for much longer.

Upon arriving at the lounge for the second portion of the event, I put my jacket down and headed straight for the autograph line. After all, I couldn't afford to bid on anything and I couldn't have lunch. When I finally got to the head of the line, Brooks greeted me with a smile as I handed him the card. He asked me my name, and told me I was looking good. It seemed like an odd thing to say, but I wasn't about to turn down a compliment from a man with 16 Gold Gloves. He took a look at the card and immediately identified the venue as Yankee Stadium. After signing the card, he shook my hand and wished me well, and I left feeling like a million bucks.

I met one of my heroes, and I didn't even have to leave campus.