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2008 Topps Heritage figures to uphold the tradition

As the cover of this week’s SCD suggests, the 2008 Topps Heritage issue is around the corner, and that figures to be yet another major triumph for a franchise that has been as wildly successful as anything Topps has come up with over the last decade. I am fully aware that they have refined the issue to the point where it’s quibbling to suggest that one year is superior to another; anymore, it probably comes down to little more than how you feel about the original issue. In this case, it’s my favorite year ... by a wide margin.

As the cover of this week’s SCD suggests, the 2008 Topps Heritage issue is around the corner, and that figures to be yet another major triumph for a franchise that has been as wildly successful as anything Topps has come up with over the last decade.

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I am fully aware that they have refined the issue to the point where it’s quibbling to suggest that one year is superior to another; anymore, it probably comes down to little more than how you feel about the original issue. In this case, it’s my favorite year ... by a wide margin.

I figured the colorful background from 1959 would make this special anyway, not unlike how Topps’ nostalgic feel for 1958 managed the same idea last year. Truth to tell, Topps designers and graphic guys have been getting better each time out, both in terms of nailing the look and feel of the originals and in finding cool ways to link the Heritage version to its famous predecessor.

So along with matching colors and graphic elements, you also get nuances like nostalgic nods through numbering, where Heritage cards link things like team cards (Phillies No. 8 in both issues, etc.) and “combo cards,” plus individual cards (No. 10 is Alex Rodriguez; Mickey Mantle is No. 10 from 1959). They’ve done that for a few years now, but it’s still fun, especially the combo card linkages, like No. 212 Heritage, with Chipper and Andruw Jones matching the classic Eddie Mathews/Henry Aaron Fence Busters original.

I suppose one of the great strengths of the whole genre is that the aforementioned stuff hooks old geezers like me, while the new issue features enough of the inserts, autographs, relics and chrome parallels to snag the younger collector. That’s fine with me.

The Heritage issues are such traditional juggernauts that the inserts tend to be the same year to year, along with the various autograph arrangements and the relics, and I gotta admit, I often like the various reprinted cards that turn up each time to accomodate a number of vintage signatures.

The press release information also included a brief description of something else added this time that sounds pretty neat: advertising panels of three-card strips and – even more intriguing – original 1959 Topps cards stamped with a 50th anniversary doo-hickey, then placed in a 1-card penny pack. That turns up once in every two boxes, and makes me wonder whether anybody will then take the penny packs and have them slabbed and graded in their unopened state. Just wondering.
Anyway, I’ve certainly appreciated having a baseball card set that I can look forward to every year. And the timing is just about perfect at the end of February. If I go on an end-of-February golfing odyssey this year, I guess I’ll have to use cheap X-out balls to save money for Heritage boxes.
Sounds like a decent trade-off to me.

* * * * *

It used to be a tradition back in the 1970s and 1980s, more with the Veterans Committee voting but still, to a lesser degree, with the Hall-of-Fame vote from the baseball writers (BBWAA). Just before the vote totals would be announced, a well-placed article would run on the wire services noting the solid chances of a particular candidate, and more often than not, the guy would be announced as a new HOFer a few days later.

It wasn’t an exact science, and as MLB itself and the Hall of Fame grew in recent decades, the voting would come under increased scrutiny all year long, rather than just surrounding the announcements.

So it was with some amusement – and a bit of amazement – that I saw stories in the Sunday (Jan. 6) New York Times proclaiming: 1) “Hall voters may look Rice’s way” and; 2) “Raines could slide safely into the Hall on first try.”
I was pleased with the first story, since I believe Rice is among a number of great players from the 1970s and 1980s who belong in Cooperstown, but the second one had me scratching my head.

Tim Raines? First ballot? Without getting bogged down in the debate about Raines’ numbers, it seems incomprehensible that anybody would think he would be elected on a first ballot. Heck, it’s hardly a sure thing that he will be elected on any ballot, to say nothing of his first time out of the box.

Turns out, the actual bylined article by Dan Rosenheck didn’t really make the first-ballot argument even indirectly, but did talk about Raines as worthy of enshrinement, all the while crunching his numbers in general and his base-running stats in particular. In fairness to the guy who wrote the story, the overheated headline almost surely came from an editor who got a bit carried away. Tim Raines could slide safely into the Hall on his first try, and Pete Rose might be appointed as ambassador to Luxembourg.

With the vote announcement on Jan. 8 came word that Goose Gossage had made it easily and Rice had just missed. The former seemed like a slam-dunk, since he had been the highest vote-getter last year, but I had held out hope for Rice, in part because of that seemingly well-timed New York Times article. So much for tradition.

Like Rice, Andre Dawson narrowly missed, the former by a mere 16 votes, the latter by 50. I’d like to see both get in, largely because I remember when they played and both were major stars in their time. Rice was the most feared hitter in the American League for a decade; Dawson was a fine hitter and exciting base runner with a legendary throwing arm, his career hobbled by bad wheels almost certainly made worse by playing in the grotesque Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

When I talk about voting possibilities, I restrict myself to things I consider at least a possibility, rather than lament about things I’d like to see. While I’d like to see, among others, Dave Parker, Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy voted in, their vote totals thus far have been so miniscule that such conjecture is little more than fantasy. All three got the usual bite this time, around 15 percent each, just under two guys who were probably the top shortstops in their respective eras, Dave Concepcion and Alan Trammell.

I always wanted to see Harold Baines get to the 3,000-hit mark just to put to the test the voters’ fascination with magic numbers. Baines was on the ballot for the first time, but I don’t think most voters think of him as a Hall of Famer. He got 28 votes, at 5.2 percent making it by a whisper above the 5-percent threshold that could have dumped him from the ballot.
The aforementioned Raines did OK for a first time out, snagging almost 25 percent, edging past a once surefire Hall of Famer, Mark McGwire. He was spanked once again by the BBWAA for his ill-considered appearance before the Congressional committee a couple of years ago; more on that a bit later.

Three fine pitchers from earlier eras – Bert Blyleven, Jack Morris and Tommy John – continued to get the snub from the BBWAA, and for John, the oldest of the group, it’s now virtually a done deal that he’ll have to await his shot with the Veterans Committee. Next year will be his last on the BBWAA ballot, and at 29 percent, there’s no way to make the jump. Blyleven got nearly 62 percent this time, and with four years left on the ballot he would seem to have good reason to hope, especially since the lineup of new additions over that span is not all that imposing.

Rickey Henderson should be a first-ballot enshrinee next year, but there are no others that easily categorized from 2009-12. Conventional wisdom – and analysis of previous votes – shows that holdove
r players’ chances improve when the newly added group of first-timers doesn’t include the obvious first-ballot guys.
I have my doubts whether the relatively tame list of new guys from 2009-12 will be enough to push Jack Morris over the top, or, for that matter, Lee Smith.

The latter is in that group of relievers that have put up monster save numbers but still don’t seem to generate much awe (read votes) from the ham sandwich brigade. One wonders whether Gossage was helped by the release of the (intentionally?) campy ESPN series “The Bronx is Burning.” God knows voters have marked their ballots for sillier reasons than that over the years, including the annoying “protest” votes that dribble in with each ballot.

I include Gossage in the discussion just to show how fair-minded I can be, my annoyance with relief pitchers notwithstanding. I have no beef with his being elected, but if relievers are going to be considered based largely on lifetime save totals, where is there even a tiny semblance of fairness to the dozens of other relievers who just happened to labor for teams where there was no chance for even a remotely close number of save chances?

I realize the value that a dominant reliever brings to the game, but the “save” statistic riles me up big time.What good is an individual statistic when only a handful of pitchers in each league have the opportunity to lead the league every year? There are very few ostensibly individual statistics that are so team dependent, but I seem to be the only guy worrying about it.
Steroid cloud looms over coming elections

These kinds of musings are the fun stuff, the tradition that dates back to the days when both the Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball itself were much more mom-and-pop style operations.
The Hall has some fascinating controversies on the horizon though, directly related to the steroid questions that have hounded MLB now and figure to for years to come, despite what will certainly be strenuous efforts to get it all put behind them.

McGwire’s rather pronounced punishment of two years of paltry vote totals is going to have to be re-examined in coming years as it becomes more and more evident that the use of “performance enhancing” substances – legal or not at the time of use – was probably so widespread for the better part of a decade that the public’s initial outrage is going to have to be tempered a bit.

Think about it. Let’s say in five years we’ve learned that the use of steroids or HGH or virtually anything else they could get their hands on was essentially endemic in Major League Baseball until public relations pressures (and the lunkheads in Congress) forced all concerned to suddenly look – and act – concerned.

If, as it seems likely, the number of players involved was so enormous that singling out any individuals for condemnation (i.e. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire) would be preposterously unfair, then the current climate of outrage will have to be rethought.

Of the three players mentioned in the previous paragraph, I am convinced that Bonds and Clemens will both ultimately be admitted to the Hall of Fame. Bonds is so thoroughly despised by so many in the fourth estate that his election could very well take several years, but eventually he’ll have to be voted in. Though it frosts my grommet to say it, he was the best player of his generation.

Many of the same arguments apply to Clemens, regardless of what takes place in the coming months. If his indignation of recent weeks represents the genuine emotion of an honorable man who has had his reputation sullied, then I would even applaud some kind of vindication, however unlikely. He is left having to prove a negative, to prove that he didn’t do something, a Herculean challenge that seems as impossible as the broader challenge of trying to restore a good name and reputation after they have come under disrepute.

Ultimately, one suspects that such individuals are left needing to content themselves with some Zen-like realization that their self-knowledge of their professed innocence (and the support of family and genuine friends) will have to suffice. I am a little rusty with my Buddhism, but that’s my best advice to Roger and the Bare Man.

For McGwire, I am all at once supportive and pessimistic. I am supportive because his transgression as currently outlined, is seemingly even less significant than many others. He suffers essentially from poor timing, having had his initial Hall-of-Fame eligibility kind of neatly coincide with the unfolding of this “scandal.”

Until his admittedly ill-advised appearance in front of that congressional committee three years ago, McGwire had a largely solid reputation, though his inaccessability in our hobby for autograph purposes certainly hurt a bit.
But even that always seemed like little more than a bit of personal eccentricity that the public was more than happy to make allowances for, at least until his tortured testimony.

What I wonder about more is what the long-term impact will be on his Hall-of-Fame prospects? Both Bonds and Clemens were first-ballot Hall of Famers even before the dawning of the steroid era, but McGwire was a different case. He socked 300 home runs in his final six seasons, and averaged 61 homers per year from 1996-99.

Plus, it almost seems like people got madder at McGwire than at Bonds, for example, seemingly because they were more disappointed by McGwire’s inclusion in the steroid debacle. I am not as certain that he will eventually be inducted as I am about Bonds and Clemens.

As for others, including some “magic number” guys, it’s going to be even more interesting. Rafael Palmiero, a member in good standing of both prestiguous clubs – 500 homers and 3,000 hits – is likely to be subjected to a McGwire-like penalty for his Clintonian denial of steroid use and later failed drug test. Like McGwire, it’s even possible that he may never get in, or at least not by the baseball writer’s hand, which encompasses two decades (five-year waiting period; 15 years on the ballot).
Ultimately though, I don’t think players from that “tainted” era gave hardly a second thought to using some substance that might make a difference between being put on waivers or an $8-million contract. I don’t think they even thought of it as cheating.

I guess it will take the passage of time to get the final word on how fans feel about it. I would be amazed if it looks as disgraceful 10 years from now as it does today. In the meantime, it’s going to make for a lively and often overheated Hall-of-Fame debate.

T.S. O’Connell is the editor of Sports Collectors Digest. Reach him by e-mail at: thomas.o’; or (715) 445-2214, ext. 243.

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