First Packs


Following up from the previous post about baseball cards. A few weeks ago I stuck my nose into a card shop for the first time in decades. I mainly just wanted to poke around and see how things had changed. Or not since it still felt very much the same as the card shops I remembered from my youth. Boxes of packs on the glass countertops. Shelves of wonderful old cards underneath. One case full of whoever the current hot stars are. Another full of local teams.* Higher shelves stuffed and overflowing with god knows what kind of ephemera. And an old guy at the end of the counter working on a collection of cards I can’t imagine ever being able to acquire.**

*Weirdest thing for me is being in Yankees/Mets/Phillies territory.

**Though this is a priorities thing now rather than the financial thing it was in my youth.

I purchased a couple of wax packs* for old time’s sake to relive the experience of opening a pack and seeing who I got. It’s kind of amazing. 25 years later and the feel and smells came rushing back. So what if it was more the feels and smells of the post-wax era. But opening the pack, sliding the cards out, and smelling them** before I even had a chance to look at who I got triggered a rush of sensory memory and nostalgia.

*Are they still called wax packs even though they’ve not been wax since I was collecting?

*Even after working for five years in a print shop, the smell of UV coating—even on a piece of junk mail—invariably reminds me of being a kid and opening a pack of Topps Stadium Clubss.

I chose the bare-bones 2017 Topps Series 1 packs which end up being $2 for 10 cards. They also came in bigger packs which cost $13 for 50 cards. Yeah, the math didn’t make sense to me either. But since the big packs are more likely to have a special insert—aka “hot pull”—they cost more. It’s weird, where 60 years ago you bought gum and got baseball cards too, now you’re buying a raffle ticket which happens to come with cards.

The “hot pull” nomenclature wasn’t around when I was a kid but insert-itis was a big reason why I got out of the hobby. It’s dismaying to return and not only find it to still be part of the culture but realize that it’s now the actual driving force of the industry. The only silver lining is that since the pricing is based around the odds of getting an insert, if you don’t care about them you can buy the cheapest packs available.

Thankfully the cards are nice. With their full-bleed images, glossy surfaces, and foil stamping they feel more like the up-market cards which I could barely afford. And the photos. Wow. Well-lit, sharp, detailed action photos unlike anything I’d seen as a kid.

Topps used to be a mix of posed and action shots. But the action shots were never cropped tightly—maybe below the knee on a corner infielder or batter but you usually could see the player’s feet. Now? All action all the time and you’re right up in the middle of it with crops at the knee and arms barely fitting in the frame. Super graphic and definitely reflective of the kind of thing that digital photography is best at.*

*Blowing tons of frames of action in order to find the best single image of the sequence.

At the same time, after the excitement of looking at all the cards settled down, the photos began to rub me the wrong way. Baseball isn’t an immersive sport. It’s about patience and observation where brief moments of action and excitement break the overall rhythm of the ballgame. There’s plenty of time to look around and soak in the environment and having all the cards be ACTION ACTION ACTION doesn’t reflect what I love about the game.

Many of the cards with player portraits allow you to see the stadium. Whether it’s the quiet of batting practice* where the empty stands are just a backdrop or a photo where the photographer has considered how the player should interact with the architecture, I love seeing the parks and being reminded of how wonderful baseball is when it’s experienced live and in-person.

*I used to love getting to games hours early, hanging over the dugout railing for autographs, and watching batting practice after we were all chased out of the box seats. Also, again, my mom was a saint.

And yes, I understand that Topps has other sets which feature posed photos but those don’t appeal to me. I’d much rather see designs inspired by the classic look of baseball cards rather than ones which explicitly copy them.

I also have to admit to loving how Score was all action when it came out. But that kind of photography was new and all the other brands had similar mixes of portraits and action. Now though, between card after card of tight action and the shallow depth of field required to photograph that action, I feel no sense of the game or the place.

Which brings us to the backs of the cards. I’m not impressed. One of the reasons I used to prefer Topps was because it had all of a player’s career stats—often including the minor leagues—on the back. I remember comparing cards, searching for who had the most stats,* and seeing how far back they went. Other companies had only a handful of recent seasons and filled their backs with other stuff that wasn’t consistent card-to-card.

*I used to love Nolan Ryan’s cards for this reason.

Now, Topps’s backs include only a half-dozen seasons and devote the rest of the space to what reads like a PR statement and a giant graphic which prominently lists the player’s twitter and instagram accounts. I don’t dislike the social media stuff being there but it still weirds me out. I find myself wondering how those will age in 25 years—and what 25-year-old gimmicks my kids will ask me about. And if the complete stats were present I’d have no complaints at all.

Besides the lack of stats the only other real complaint I have is the Rookie Card badge. It’s bad enough that the Rookie Card phenomenon is still going strong. But having a special badge for ALL the rookie cards is just rubbing my nose in an aspect of the hobby which ruined it for me as a kid. There’s no legitimate reason for Rookie Cards to be a thing except that collectors have decided that they should be. And the badge, by being slapped on every rookie card, indulges this obsession by marking the cards as being “special.”

Still, despite my curmudgeonly complaints, I’ll continue to grab a pack here and there. After all I didn’t get any Giants players yet.

on inserts


While I don’t care about them, I did get both a Father’s Day and a Mother’s Day card. The way that Major League Baseball has been screwing around with special holiday-themed uniforms has been driving me nuts for a few years. I don’t like messing with alternate uniforms anyway but when they stop including the team colors and end up looking like a youth league where every team has the same home and away shirts? Disaster.

So yeah, seeing the inserts mirror those horrible made me shake my head. Still yay Kris Bryant. And at least the Father’s Day insert is interesting in how it screwed with my brain. At first I thought they’d screwed up and missed one of the printing plates. I’ve seen too many pulls off the press where Black or Magenta is missing and this looked just like that.

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3 responses to “First Packs

  1. Pingback: Junk Wax | n j w v

  2. Pingback: My First Box Break; My First Relic | n j w v

  3. Pingback: Progress – SABR's Baseball Cards Committee

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