Starting a new set

So late last month Matt Prigge decided that he wanted to clear out a bunch of sets and cards that he’d accumulated for accumulation’s sake. Matt just moved and while he had moved with all his cards, I guess that he realized that he didn’t want to buy enough Ikea Kallax units to get them all his basement floor.

I haven’t gone through such a downsizing yet but it’s coming. I have to get what I have organized first though. But with cards it’s easy to fall into the accumulation trap and taking a step back to figure out what I really like is a healthy activity to do every once in a while.

Currently, aside from my Giants, Stanford, and a few mini-projects, I’ve found that I’m enjoying filling out the cards and sets from my childhood but am enjoying just having samples—preferably Giants or Stanford players—from the other years. I’ve been enjoying building a 1978 set but it’s really the guys from 1987–1994 that I remember best. That’s my youth and all I cared about was baseball and cards.

I had collected complete sets of 1987–1993 Topps as a kid. I’ve been building 1986 since it represents the cards that were in existence when I became a fan and I acquired a couple hundred of them over my childhood collecting years. I only had a couple dozen 1994 Topps for comparison. By then I’d realized that I shouldn’t be spending money on packs if I was just going to get the set. When the strike hit and I dropped the hobby cold-turkey I never picked up any more 1994 Topps cards.

As a result I have no real memories of 1994 as a set. It’s not a design that I liked at the time* and I just didn’t spend a lot of time looking at the cards. But I’ve seen more examples in recent years and have found myself liking a lot of things about it. Plus the players are still the guys I knew and the set itself serves as a bit of commemoration of the single best Giants season I’ve ever witnessed.**

*As an autograph hunter I found myself skeptical of glossy cards since we hadn’t figured out the best way to get them signed. In many ways my preferences for non-glossy cardstock and older-style designs versus the fancy-shmancy modern cards the the 1990s pulled the hobby into is rooted in autograph hunting practicalities rather than any design-based critique.

**Yes winning a World Series is great but there’s also something wonderful about seeing your team dominate the regular season. The sting of getting pipped to the pennant by the Braves still hurts but looking back on it I just remember a heck of a run and pennant race.

So when Matt sent out feelers for who’d be interested in various junk wax sets I said hat I’d be interested if he had a set or partial set of 1994 Topps. The price was more than reasonable (especially since it was coming already-paged) so I sent over the money and a week later (thanks to Thanksgiving) the box arrived.

Yeah they don’t make sets like this anymore. I’m still not sold on the design but it’s not as bad as I remember and the only time it makes itself noticed is on cards like the Brett where it brilliantly mirrors the scoreboard. Photography-wise though this is fantastic stuff. A great mix of close action, distant action, experimental action, quiet candids, and poses.

What I like best is how much stadium detail I get. There’s enough depth of field to see what the grandstands are like. Many of the candids are wide-angle shots that show off all kinds of dugout details.

There are also plenty of horizontal cards too with the same mix of images. These are things we have to look for the photo-specific Stadium Club set to see nowadays and it’s a shame since this set is three times as large and so offers an abundance of photographic riches.

One of the things I like best about the photography in the set is how it allows the photos to remain grounded. We can see feet on the ground and know where the play is occurring. How far off the ground a dive is. That plays at second base refuse to hide the baserunner and bag behind the card graphics. These are cards that have been designed by people who know and understand baseball.

While it’s easy for me to rue my bad luck about getting into cards at the peak of card worthlessness, comparing these to what 1986 Topps looks like allows me to be thankful for being able to witness the incredible improvement in the quality of baseball photography.  Just the fact that I got to see the changes as they happened was a lesson in and of itself.

Anyway, Matt’s cards plus the ones I had already left me 45 cards short of a complete set. Most of those holes are in Series 2, much like my 2014 build. Full list of what I need is here. I’ll also keep an updated list on the set need page but this one will mark my starting point.

155 200 387 408 411 416 417 421 428 442 447 465 473 476 477 480 484 486 528 549 586 589 593 615 626 637 649 662 664 668 670 671 672 677 678 679 688 702 718 733 736 738 750 772

Matt, of course, was not content to just send me what I paid for and instead packed assorted other goodies into the box. Two packs of Topps Baseball Talk are so cool I almost don’t want to open them. Since I don’t have the player I need to go to YouTube to listen to the cards but the cards themselves are pretty cool too. As oversize versions of the 1989 design they feature nice big images and with the record grooves on the back are among the oddest to the oddballs.

Most of the packing though was assorted Giants cards from over the years. Many of these I have but I have two boys who are more than happy to take my duplicates too. I’ve already given them each a 300-count box each of cards from 1960 to  2019 as a house-warming present and need to put together other gift packs of duplicates for them now.

In the batch here it turned out that I was missing a bunch of the 1985 Donruss, 1987 Donruss, 1987 Fleer, and 1988 Donruss cards. 1989–1991 though were my peak years and if there’s a hole in my binder it’s because the card is autographed and so is merely in a different binder.

Which means I fastforward to 1992 here and mention that I’ve never seen those blue Classic cards before. They’re kind of horribly printed but I’m amazed that I’m still finding out about new cards from my peak collecting years.

The 1994 Bowmans are also mostly new (I do not remember this design from my youth even though I had a bunch) and the Upper Deck Fun pack represents a set I never saw as a kid. I’ve gotten some Fun Pack cards in previous trade packages but the Pro Files Bonds card is a completely new one to me as well.

Past the strike now and into cards I never saw as a kid No idea if the red lettering on Pinnacle means anything but all that gold foil still kind of amazes me. The 1996 Donruss Steve Scarsone though is a perfect demonstration of how quickly cards designs went from grounding the action to covering it up.

Instead of looking like a fantastic play Scarsone looks like he’s trying and failing to imitate the Karate Kid. Unfortunately, this school of card design is what Topps does repeatedly in modern cards and it’s noticeable enough that my 10-year-old complains about it.

Getting into the 21st century. Standout card here is the First American Church of Baseball Tim Lincecum. I have no idea what this set or organization is (its Facebook page suggests it is/was a Giants fan club) but it’s wonderfully odd and hand-numbered to 500 on the back.

Also the two Buster Posey 2015 cards are part of the Giants team set and NL All Stars set. Needless useless variants that I refuse to chase. But having a sample in the binder is fu none the less. The only reason I actively want those team set cards is if they included a guy who otherwise doesn’t have a Giants card that season.*

*A few of the hardest Stanford cards for me are guys who only showed up in the team sets.

And finally the 2018 and 2019 cards. I appreciate the Gypsy Queen since I categorically refuse to buy these. Ditto to Gallery. Not my cup of tea even though seeing how they’re made is of interest to me from a technical point of view. Like it appears that 2019 Gypsy Queen cut back on the logo and nameplate stupidity of 2018 and doesn’t feature any areas that look like they were printed in a second printing pass.*

*This is a long-overdue SABR post.

Lastly, buried in the stack of Giants cards was this Bill Swift autograph. I had to double check that this was included on purpose but Matt confirmed that it was. Bill Swift was a good Giant whose two full seasons were good enough that I forget that they were his only two complete seasons with the club. His 1993 was especially fantastic and he fully deserved to be in the running for the Cy Young Award.*

*As an aside, how awful was Jose Rijo’s run support that season since he was pretty damn good in every other stat besides Wins/Losses.

This card in particular has always been one of my favorites since it includes the Giants’ awesome Turn Back the Clock uniforms. I liked this card so much that I got it signed back in the day.

Yeah. This is from Spring Training 1993. And this isn’t a complaint about having two but rather an observation at how much Swift’s signature is different. I’m assuming Matt got his card signed TTM at some point in the past couple decades. The signature there more closely matches the neat signature examples Google pulls up. My card meanwhile is a hasty scrawl while getting into or out of the Scottsdale clubhouse.

Anyway, thanks Matt! I’m looking forward to finishing this set build too.

So I jumped the gun…

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When I wrote about wrapping up our season, while it was about Trenton, I was in the mindset that it was also our last baseball game of the year. As we drove back from the ballpark we were talking about how many games we’d gone to and had all reached the conclusion that that was it.

Then last weekend I caught notice that Somerset was playing a Saturday night game with a super hero theme so the boys and I decided to head out for one last game. I’d been to Somerset earlier this season but this would be the boys’ first time. It’s always nice to add a new ballpark to your life list.

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We ate before we left and still managed to get the the park in time for the boys to get their capes. There were enough kids wearing them at the ballpark that even the older kids were okay dressing up. Also there were all kinds of costumed heroes walking around and many of the fans were dressed up too.

My youngest ate it up. He loves Batman so he loved the Batman-themed jerseys and all the other stuff going on. We just wish that the baseball caps had batears like the batcowl.

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The highlight though was getting Frank Viola’s autograph before the game. My eldest received a complete (well near complete) set of 1991 Topps for Christmas and when we were getting ready for the Thunder season I noticed that Frank Viola was the Binghamton pitching coach. It was at this moment that the idea of getting his 1991 cards signed occurred to him. And it was this moment which also encouraged me to look up the other coaches and figure out who had played in the pros.

So while Joe Oliver was the first autograph of the set (and my son added Brian Harper later), he was disappointed to find that Viola had switched from Binghamton to coach for the High Point Rockers. That High Point was in town for this game meant that we were able to wrap up the season getting autographs on the two cards that were part of the excitement in the beginning. Very cool.

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This takes my son to four in-person autographs on his 1991 Topps set. Is he getting the complete set signed? LOL of course not. But it’s going to be fun to see how many he can add to it. Princeton baseball coach Scott Bradley has a card in the set (a fact I only realized after the season ended).  And Pete Incaviglia manages Sugarland which comes to Somerset a couple times a year*

*Actually this week but only on school nights so no dice.

1991 also just looks pretty good signed. Nice photos and simple borders. I like that the two Viola cards look so different too.

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In order to stave off sibling rivalries for now, I’ve been supplying my youngest with cards so he can “me too” with his brother. In this case where his brother is getting 1991 Topps signed, he’s getting 1991 Donruss. I know I know. Those are just the duplicates I have handy.

Still there is something to 1991’s color which appeals to his sensibilities though. In many ways it’s a perfect set for him. And the 1987 is because I happen to have a ton of those as well. But it’s a good year for Viola too.

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Viola is a super nice guy. Chatted briefly with the kids and thanked them for having his cards. They were super happy as we settled into our seats and watched the game. It was fun for the boys to watch without a rooting interest. Somerset is nominally our home team but they kind of rooted for High Point because of Viola.

We just watched the game. Saw a couple guys steal first base and chatted about how the Atlantic League rules are different.* My eldest has started to recognize when balls are well hit too. For a long time they couldn’t tell if something was hit well or not but a couple of the homers in this game were crushed and he could tell how those looked and sounded different.

*I’ve been wondering how to score those. The box score from this game lists them as HBPs even though the Atlantic League rules suggest that they should be listed as SBs. My gut suggests that they should be listed as WPs or PBs and count (or not) as earned runs accordingly.

He also noticed that many of the players had Major League experience and even recognized a few names from his collection. I suspect we’ll be going to more Somerset games next year and be keeping more up-to-date on the roster. The more low-key autograph scene here suits my preferences and my kids’ comfort a lot more.

High Point jumped out to an early 4-run lead. Somerset scratched back to within one. Then the Somerset pitcher ran out of gas, loaded the bases, and the relievers proceeded to let a couple runs in, re-load the bases and serve up a grand slam. Still, we saw some nice defense in there as well and there were plenty of other Independent League shenanigans as well.

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Mascots and superheroes roaming the aisles. Batman clips on the Jumbotron. Tshirt tosses (my eldest grabbed one). Playing “Piano Man” when it hit 9:00.* And yes fireworks after it all ended and Somerset was put out of its misery.

*No tonic and gin for sale though. 

The show had been hyped as a good one and it was one of the better stadium shows I’ve seen. An NJ Transit train pulled in right during the finale and I found myself wondering how much the train riders could see since it looked like things were being fired off right nest to the tracks.

There’s another series in a couple weeks. I don’t expect us to go but I can see them lobbying for it…

End of the season

We got back from summer vacation in time to catch one last Trenton Thunder game. Feels like ages ago since we were going to games in the Spring. Not just the two-month gap, we’ve moved and everything is different (in a good way) in our lives now.

Trenton’s changed a lot too. Half the team we remember has been promoted and since we hadn’t paid too much attention to the Yankees Minor League transactions over the summer we had a lot of catching up to do. The boys enjoyed it though in an everything-positive way. They were excited for all the guys who made it to AAA and they were happy to see some of their favorites who were still around.

They were especially excited to find that one of the players whose autograph they’d gotten in Spring had since appeared in the Majors. Adonis Rosa got just a cup of coffee pitching the final two innings of one game but still, very cool. Now they get to decide if that‘s enough to move him from their Minor League section to their Major League section of their autograph binders.

We didn’t plan on doing any autograph hunting at the game. Last one of  the season and just relaxing at the stadium sounded fun. But there was a table set up behind the press box and the line wasn’t too bad so the boys decided they’d take their chances.

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It turned out that two players would be signing. The first was Chris Gittens whose autograph we’ve gotten before. He’s super nice though and it was a great chance to congratulate him on winnig the Eastern League MVP Award. He’s one of the boys’ favorites too so they were excited to see him as well. I suspect they’re hoping that he’s promoted next year though.

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The other player was Isiah Gilliam who’s been at Trenton since July but is new to all of us. He also seems like a nice guy. Since he started at Tampa this season there’s a decent chance we’ll seem him next year.

The boys each got their program signed and I got my ticket stub signed as a memento. They then proceeded to keep score for the entire game—a decent game but ultimately disappointing 3–2 loss. It’s been a lot of fun to see them grow so much this year.

My youngest used to struggle keeping score and paying close attention longer than 90 minutes. He made it the full two and a half hours this time.

My eldest meanwhile is increasingly noticing stuff that I’m not. This is great since one of the best things about going to a game with other people is that we all key into different things that are going on.

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After the game we got to go down on the field for the final Kids Club activity. This was the last Fireworks night of the season and the kids club got to watch it from the outfield. It’s always a treat to be out on the field and this would be the closest they’d been to fireworks ever.

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It’s a decent show. Nothing fancy like what Princeton does or crazy like Redentore in Venice. But a very nice way to close out the season and celebrate the ending of summer.

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For my part I’ve found that I like turning around and watching people watch the fireworks. Something about the field all dark but the crowd still lit up is sort of magical to me and I like seeing faces get illuminated by different flashes of color (and accompanied by various oooohs and ahhhhs).

School starts this week but the boys are already making plans for next year. The 2020 schedule is in the program and they’ve not only circled all the Sunday day games but have noticed that one of them is Richmond. The boys may be Thunder fans but they‘re Giants fans first and will rooting for the Flying Squirrels that day. I suspect we’ll be trying for autographs as well.

Blink of an eye

Note: This is a longer version of a post I wrote for SABR which was in part inspired by my previous post on this blog.

This year I enrolled my sons in the Trenton Thunder’s Boomer’s Kids Club. It’s a great deal. Tickets to eleven games for the three of us plus fun activities and a tshirt* for $45. I knew we wouldn’t be able to make the games in July and August because of summer plans but even just going to the games through June it would be worth it.

*Shirt and activities for kids only.

So this past weekend were our last games before summer vacation. Normally summer means more baseball but in our case it means a break. Well from Trenton at least. Hopefully we’ll catch a San José Giants game in California. Given the way San Francisco has been playing we have a decent chance to get to Pac Bell AT&T Oracle as well.

Erie was back in town and the three of us went to games on both Saturday and Sunday. Saturday was a Copa de Diversión night between the Trueno and the Piñatas. Sadly Boomer is not renamed Bumador but the Guatemalan band was a nice touch. Game was not good either—only one of the 5 runs scored was earned—but it was an enjoyable night at the ballpark.

I wandered over to the Erie dugout before the game with a Casey Mize card since he’d been so cool the previous Erie game I’d been to. And indeed he was. He’s very strict about one autograph per person but takes his time, personalizes everything, and has no problems posing for photos. It’s nice to see. I don’t blame these top prospects for getting a bit surly and tired of the autograph stuff—especially the autograph hounds with dozens of the same card who are clearly in the resale business. Mize’s approach with the personalizations is perfect. Clear lines about what’s appropriate but also super accommodating for the actual fans.

The following afternoon we were back at the ballpark. The game itself couldn’t have been more different. Crisp and well-played. 1–0 pitching duel which gave the Thunder a win the desperately needed. Over in just about two hours.

Because I knew it was our last Thunder game for a while I decided to let the boys hang around the clubhouse after the game and try to get some cards signed. I wasn’t sure how the boys would be able to handle a stack of cards as well as the pens but there’s no way to find out unless you try.

So we hung out for an hour and they did great. Missed a few guys because they were shy. Missed some others because of having to pick one out of a bunch to get. But they each ended up with seven signed cards plus the program and were super happy with their results. For my part I got the Albert Abreu Kenny sent me signed since I was there and had the card.

We’ve now been to seven games this season and it’s been awesome. The boys have gotten two shirts, a jersey, a frisbee, and a pennant. They’ve had a chance to throw out the first pitch, walk around the field, be part of a high-five tunnel for the players, and watch The Sandlot on the outfield after a game. We’ve even been tossed five baseballs. Oh yeah and the games have been good. The Thunder are a decent team and it’s been a lot of fun to watch the boys learn the players and really get into following the season.

They’re also completely hooked on the hobby—especially autograph collecting. Completely. This is all me and my interests rubbing off on them. They’ve seen me write TTM requests and get cards signed at Trenton Thunder games and they want to join me. So I indulge them.

Not too much. I supply cards and pens (for now) but they have to do the requesting. I’m not going to flag a player down for them or ask on their behalf. I’ll help spot guys but the boys need to learn how to approach players, make the request, and say thank you. In addition to the Trenton players we’ve started off pretty simple by just focusing on visiting coaches. As a result the two of them have pretty eclectic autograph binders.

My youngest’s binder is organized alphabetically by first name. His idea. It’s a wonderfully random bunch of cards.* Seven Thunder players. Five coaches. And one card that Marc Brubaker mailed to him. I find myself wondering how much a first grader even cares about people like Joe Oliver, Brian Harper, or Matt LeCroy. These aren’t guys he knows. Some, like LeCroy, aren’t even guys I’d really talk to them about.** But they’re in the binder and he’s super-excited to show them off.

*Unless you make the Eastern League connection.

**Even though the Frank Robinson story is pretty touching

Can he tell you about the players? Only what he knows by turning the cards over. But he’s into this as a hobby even though he’s, so far, just tagging along with me.

His brother’s binder is pretty similar except that his one TTM return is in there and there are a couple 1991 Topps cards that he pulled from his own binder because he got the set for Christmas last year. As a result he has a bit more of a connection to guys like Harper and Oliver but LeCroy, Mark Johnson, and Mike Rabelo are all ciphers to him.

As the season’s progressed I’ve been questioning what it means to collect autographs of guys you’ve never heard of and second-guessing the importance of what I’ve gotten my kids into. Are they excited only because I’m excited? Am I pushing them to do something that only means something to me?

I jumped into the hobby in 1987. I bailed in 1994. Not a long period of time but it felt like forever. And in a way it was. Not only did those years represent half my lifetime by the time I stopped, they covered most of my years in school—pretty much my entire youth.

Now, 25 years later as a father, I’m seeing things from the other side. What was a lifetime when I was a kid is already flashing by in the blink of an eye. I know I only have a handful of years where my sons will legitimately share my interests. Yes legitimately. At the end of the day I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter why they’re interested in the hobby, the fact that they are and that we’re able to share it is what matters.

My two boys love collecting and everything it entails. Getting cards. Sorting cards.* Re-sorting cards.** Showing me their cards. Asking for new cards. Etc. Etc. It’s great. It reminds me of being a kid and it inspires me to document their adventures so that in a decade or two when they look back at their collection they’ll have my thoughts and memories to go with their memories of those years when the three of us were enjoying baseball together.

*On the floor as God intended.

**One day will be by number, the next by team, the next by last name, the next by first name.

I get to experience what I put my mom through, how patient she was, and how much she enjoyed seeing me get excited by the hobby. She kept a journal which I eventually turned into a book so that we could all have copies. I still enjoy rereading her essays and I’m looking forward to my boys reading them too.

Instead of journalling I’m blogging about our adventures and putting together summaries of events we’ve gone too. Like when we went to the Thunder Open House I took photos of their baseballs and printed out a letter-sized sheet for their binders. I’ll do the same thing with their haul of autographed cards for the season since I know they’ll re-sort them multiple times in the future.

It’ll always be important to have the biographical breakdown of their collection. As my sons get older, their cards and autographs will increasingly become markers for their memories rather than just objects to collect and hoard. The memories they’re attached to is what makes them special. It’s why I collect and why I hope they keep collecting.

In fact, I’ve been inspired to start doing the same thing for my cards and autographs. I know I’m going to be passing  everything on to my sons. I also know that “all dad’s stuff’ will be nowhere near as memorable as having an introduction to a given collection or set which explains who I was when I got these and why the set was important to me. This is a big project but I’m looking forward to it.

A perfect day

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in the hobby on Card Twitter. It seems like the big Memorial Day meetup at the Hall of Fame spurred a lot of existential conversation about why we collect, what we collect, and what will happen to our collections in the future.

For guys without kids who collect, these conversations are kind of sobering but seem to have prompted some level of wanting to pare things down to the essentials and focus their collections as tightly as possible. For those of us with kids who collect, it’s made us think about both what we’ll be leaving them as well as how much we’re influencing their collections.

As a member of the second camp, I love that my sons are enjoying the hobby with me. In a way they’re responsible for bringing me back in but I’ve also had a huge amount of influence in encouraging their interest. I’m constantly trying to balance guidance with letting them find their own path. I want them to find their own interests and I love seeing how they use their cards. I also want them to avoid doing things I know they’ll regret later.

To-date they’ve been content following my interests. Collecting Giants. Tagging along on my autograph searches at Trenton. I worry that they’re only excited about stuff because I’m excited about it. I’ve also realized that it ultimately doesn’t matter.

For example. Last Sunday we went to the Thunder game. I wanted to get autographs of the visiting Harrisburg Senators coaches. Matt LeCroy is the manager. He was a journeyman catcher (and DH and 1st baseman when needed) whose seven-year career was decidedly average. I like getting in-person autographs from guys like this. Seven years in the bigs is seven years in the bigs and being able to tie the autograph experience with the game experience is the kind of thing I enjoy doing.

For my kids though it’s not like they know who LeCroy is. He’s not a World Series winner like Brian Harper or Joe Oliver. He played before they were even alive. But because I had a few extra Topps Chrome cards around I was able to supply them with cards to ask for an autograph when I got my two cards signed.

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And they enjoyed it. My rule, as with the TTM requests,* is that they have to handle the interaction—maybe not initiating contact but at least waiting and handing the card over and saying thank you. They enjoy it…not just because I do. Getting autographs is fun. Getting them on something specific like a card is even more fun. Not only will they always know whose signature it is, they’ll have the picture and memento as well.

*Where they have to write the letter.

In a decade, no matter what their opinion of collecting is at that time, this Matt LeCroy autograph will be on a binder page with Joe Oliver, Brian Harper, Mark Johnson, Brian Rabelo, and who knows what other autographs that we got together. They’ll be able to look back at that page and remember the season (hopefully, seasons) we were in Boomer’s Kids club and went to a ton of games.

It won’t be about the players. It will be about how they did it with their brother and their father and how the three of us spent Sundays together before other activities got in the way. And they’re sure to get in the way…probably much sooner than I expect or desire.

But for now things have been perfect. We get to the ballpark early. Hang out and watch them set up the field and see the players come out. The past couple times we’ve been on the visiting side of the field the boys have gotten balls from the players. Last Sunday Austin Davidson was the generous player. Unlike with Erie where I was caught flat-footed I was able to get my ticket stub signed for the scrapbook.

As with the autographed cards, I’ll look back on this stub and remember it as part of the experience. Spending a Sunday at the ballpark with my sons. Getting cards signed and balls tossed to us and enjoying the breeze that made the hot sunny day not just bearable but quite pleasant.

I also got the Harrisburg pitching coach Michael Tejera’s autograph. I didn’t have enough extras to give to the kids (and splitting up a Fleer Classic and a Topps Gold Label card between them was likely to risk complaining and hard feelings) but it’s just as well since they didn’t even notice me get this autograph. They were still excited about getting LeCroy.

Tejera had a five season career. Average like LeCroy but he did win a World Series with the Marlins in 2003. This is my first time getting a Gold Label card signed. Pain on the butt to scan but it turned out better than I thought.

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After that perfect start to the day we settled into our seats behind the Senators’ dugout and watched the Thunder lose 4–1 by batting 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position. A frustrating loss but we didn’t care. My youngest managed to keep score for the entire game this time* and my eldest only needs my assistance when things get weird.** The group of Nationals fans in front of us were both good-humoured and funny.*** Boomer even came by with a supersoaker to help everyone cool off.

*He’s just marking the result of each plate appearance for now.

**Like a player getting picked off of first by the catcher.

***I wouldn’t expect anything else from people wearing Sean Doolittle shirts.

As soon as the game ended the sky got dark and it started to rain. But we’d had our fun and I told the boys as much on the drive home. It’s been a fun couple of months. Four games now with the kid club plus one with Little League is a lot of quality time we’re spending together at the ball park. I’m making sure to enjoy it while it lasts.

A week of baseball

So my adventure in Somerset ended up kickstarting a busy week of baseball. Over the eight days Thursday to Thursday I ended up doing a ton of baseball games. The Somerset game, three at Trenton, and five Little League games for my sons. It’s been wild and wonderful. This has been my schedule:

Thursday: Somerset in the day, Little League in the evening
Friday: Little League Night at Trenton
Saturday: Little League doubleheader
Sunday: Trenton followed by a movie on the field
Monday: Little League in the evening
Thursday: Trenton in the day, Little League in the evening

I’ve already written about Somerset but it’s worth checking in on the Little League seasons. My eldest son’s team has just figured out how to field. It’s wonderful. We’ve been doing fielding drills about knowing what base to throw to and just practicing covering the bases and making good throws. For a few games the kids had the right idea but couldn’t execute. Now, all of a sudden, they’re making plays. It’s so much fun to watch and the kids are so proud of themselves.

It’s funny. All the kids want to bat but they get way WAY more satisfaction from properly fielding a grounder and throwing a guy out at first.

And yeah their batting is getting better too as more and more of them are getting comfortable with the pitching machine. And they’re even getting smarter on the basepaths. But it’s the fielding work which is great to watch.

My youngest’s team meanwhile is at the stage in coach pitch where they try and kill the coach with liners up the middle. Also a lot of fun to watch even if it doesn’t quite look like baseball yet. The improvement is obvious to everyone and a few of the kids have gotten really good.

I don’t take credit for these things as a coach since the kids have to put in the work but this stage of the season goes really really far in the “making it all worth it” department.

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Which brings us to Little League Night at Trenton. It rained. It was fine. Game started late but we still got to walk around the outfield. Some of the kids got autographs but it’s not a coach’s place to join in there. The game itself was pretty good. Trenton made a nice comeback to take the lead. We didn’t stay until the end since we had Little League the following morning so we left after the 7th inning when the clock hit 10:00.

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The boys weren’t happy about leaving early—even though they accepted the reasoning—so they made me promise to check the score when we got home. They were happy to confirm that Trenton had hung on for the win. However before we left my son and his friend did get to partake in one of the between-innings contests. Very fun and I got to see a bit of how all that Minor League marketing stuff works. Lots of work goes into those every game.

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We made it back to Trenton two days later for Miguel Andujar Jersey day as well as a post-game movie on the field with the kids club. We ended up sitting right next to the dugout and it overwhelmed the boys. Too much to pay attention to although they very much enjoyed all the action. We even got a ball that the Binghamton 1st baseman tossed our way after an inning.

The game in this case was not so good for the locals. Jason Vargas was rehabbing for Binghamton and had a no hitter through three innings before giving up a solo home run in his last inning of work. Meanwhile the Trenton pitchers couldn’t find the plate. Also, it was hot. Where Friday was kind of cold and wet, Sunday was hot and sunny and no one was used to it yet.

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The boys were happy though because we got to hang around after the game, go out to right field, and watch The Sandlot on the jumbotron. That was pretty cool. It’s nice to have the park basically to yourself and it’s always nice to rewatch The Sandlot. It’s not the generational touchstone for me that it is for a lot of other guys but I enjoy watching it with my kids.

Then the following Thursday I caught the last morning start game of the year. It was a good one. A decent pitchers duel where Trenton fell behind 1–0 and then 2–1 before stringing a couple hits together to win 3–2. One of those wonderful Eastern League games that lasts less than two and a half hours.

I decided to try and get the last of the cards that Kenny had sent me and did pretty well in that department.

The Hoy Jun Park Bowman looks pretty nice signed. I don’t like all that Chrome bling but I can see why some people do. Park also takes a lot of time with his signature and I appreciate that he puts the effort in.

I think I have most of the guys in the 2015 and 2016 Staten Island Yankees sets who made it to Trenton. I’m still missing Jose Mesa Jr. and Will Carter but everyone else who’s been with Trenton for a while this year is in the binder. Acevedo does not like this card. He pointed out that they misspelled his name so I apologized. But at least he and Zehner have been playing pretty well this year. It seems like the Yankees are treating this class of players a bit tougher as they’ve cut a couple of them despite them not being that bad. I guess you’ve got to show something more than promise after 5 years in the organization.

Rosa and Kriske meanwhile are part of the next class of guys are are trickling into Trenton this season. Kriske is one of the first guys out of the pen most games. I’ve yet to catch Rosa pitching.

I also grabbed a Garret Whitlock autograph on my ticket stub. He’s been pitching pretty well so I figured I’d grab an auto since he was signing.

I don’t foresee having another week quite this busy baseballwise. No more midweek games on my schedule and Little League is wrapping up. It was fun while it lasted though.

Independent Ball

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A couple weeks ago I noticed that the Somerset Patriots also had a few mid-week morning starts on their schedule. I’ve been intrigued by the idea of checking out some independent ball—especially with the Atlantic League partnering with Major League Baseball to workshop rule changes—but have never made the drive up to Bridgewater. Last Thursday was the first 11AM start of the season so I figured it was as good a time as any to make the drive.

It’s a nice drive along the canal. Only 35–45 minutes and very pretty for most of the way. Parking is cheap and plentiful and, if I lived along the train line,* I wouldn’t even have to drive. The park itself is pretty nice too. A good size but still cozy with no bad seats.

*Specifically the High Bridge line. I live on the Northeast Corridor so to change lines I have to spend the two hours to go all the way in to Newark and then back out again.

Morning starts are designed around school groups. This game was a combination STEM day and sports-careers day. For older kids there was a pre-game QA session with various community members who worked in sports. I didn’t catch much of this but I was listening to the portion involving a former Rutgers Athletic Director who was asked about paying college athletes. A good question. His answer though was essentially that if they paid athletes they’ll end up unionizing. Very weaksauce and serves as additional confirmation that the athletes should be paid.

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The STEM day portion involved a pre-game experiment/demonstration about how launch angle effects distance where they wheeled out a giant protractor and used a sling shot to launch a baseball at the desired angle. This then turned into the between-innings tshirt toss method. I’m not sure any of the kids got the lesson but if even one of them noticed that 45° appeared to be the best angle then I guess the exercise was worth it.

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To the game itself and thinking about the rule changes. First off, the 18″ square bases look comically huge. I’m not sure why this is needed. I guess it’s an attempt to increase offense without tampering with the canonical dimensions of the game. Changing the distance between bases from 90 feet would be outrageous. Making the bases 3″ larger though can slip through the cracks. I’m not sure how much offense it’ll create though since it also means that throws to first don’t have to be as long.

No mound visits is weird but wasn’t noticeable during this game due to pitchers not laboring and getting into trouble. This is an observation of its own and I don’t know if it’s just this game or a generic Atlantic League thing but there were very few walks or strikeouts in the game. At Trenton it seems like deep counts are increasingly the norm and that the three true outcomes are working their way through the minors now too. At Somerset? Lots of balls hit in play. It was kind of wonderful even if the fielding was a bit of an adventure at times.

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The exciting thing though was, appropriately for STEM day, I got to witness the first day of implementing TrackMan and automatic umpires. This isn’t the first case of implementing automatic umpires but it’s still super-new technology to the game. When I was watching the game I thought it was up and running completely and was amazed at how much of a non-factor it was. Then I noticed the home plate umps subbing out* and found out that they were calling their game but also hearing the TrackMan chirping in their ear.

*4 innings for the first ump. 1.5 for the next two (day/night doubleheader so only 7 innings)

Still, a pretty interesting thing to witness and I want to go back to see how the experiment progresses. Automated balls/strikes is clearly something Major League Baseball needs to implement soon.

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To the food. I wasn’t planning on eating at the game. I usually don’t and once I saw the prices I very clearly wasn’t. $5 for a hot dog. $8 for a foot-long. $13 for a burger. Yes the food looked good but even with the usualy ballpark markups that’s pretty high.* Then I saw an advertisement for their special of the day, chicken empanadas. I would’ve been second guessing myself all day if I didn’t try those. They were good. Not great. About the right value for ballpark food. I’m glad I got them. I also don’t need to get them again.

*I couldn’t help but wonder if the higher prices meant they were paying their players better than Minor League salaries.

And lastly. Of course I got some autographs. Frank Viola is the pitching coach for High Point. He’s definitely one of those players I remember from my youth. World Series MVP in 1987. Cy Young in 1988. A frequent All Star during those years. He had a very good big league career and I was very happy to get a couple of his cards signed. He was super nice and I bet he much prefers the autograph scene in the Atlantic League to the one in the Eastern League. There were maybe a handful of us at the game and we were all the type who like the older players or obscure guys. None of that prospecting/investing crowd that exists at Trenton.

I can see my kids having fun here. I can see myself having fun here again. I’ll definitely be back and will dial in some time to visit Bound Brook as well since it looks to be full of Costa Rican and Peruvian food.

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Another Trenton Homestand

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Trenton’s back after a roadtrip and so we’re back at ball games. The first one was a Sunday game against Erie. The boys opted to stay in the stands rather than partake in the pre-game activity this time. Despite the rain on the drive over, the weather cleared up by game time and stayed hot and sunny until after the last pitch, at which point it got cold and overcast and threatening again.

Not the best game but we got to see a few new players. Rony Garcia got his first AA start and put together a nice-looking line of 5IP, 0R, 0ER, 1H, 4BB, 8K. He wasn’t quite that good but gutted through a bunch of deep counts to get some clutch strikeouts and defensive help. And Brooke Kriske picked up the 2-inning save as the Thunder swept the series with a 4–2 win.

The boys are enjoying the game and they’re enjoying the autograph hunting. With Erie we were looking for the three coaches since they all played in the majors.

Mark Johnson pitched in 9 games for Detroit in 2000. We got him before the game. Nice guy. Went in to the dugout but told us he’d be back. And he came back out and headed right for us. Everyone else on the railing was trying to get the just-called-up Casey Mize (who’d go on to pitch a no hitter the following day) but we weren’t ready for that. Heck we weren’t even ready for Taylor Motter who has cards in the 2017 and 2018 sets.

I don’t have the headspace to stay on top of Eastern League players and transactions. Thunder players, maybe since it’s a consistent team and after seeing a few games you get to know the guys.

Coaches are about the most I can handle. And definitely getting cards for the coaches is way way easier. If the boys want to go nust prospecting they can start acquiring their own cards. So far they seem happy getting coaches and they’re polite and quiet enough on the railing that one of the Erie players gave them each a ball without them having to ask.

The main guy we wanted to get was Brian Harper. He put together a nice 16-year Major League career and, like Joe Oliver, was featured in my son’s 1991 Topps set. Harper also was super nice. Asked us to wait until he got his stuff on the bus and then came back down and signed for everyone. I almost feel like he provided cover for his players to get on the bus (over a half dozen got on unbothered by autograph seekers).

Harper confused the boys by having the Bible inscriptions (this is actually the first autograph I’ve gotten with these as well). I was surprised to see that he changes the inscription for each signature. My two are John 3:16* and John 14:6.** My sons have John 1:12*** and John 14:6. Okay so maybe he just rotates through three.

*For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting.

**Jesus saith to him: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me.

***But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name.

Anyway it’s provided a decent entree into a discussion about proselytizing and being comfortable stating your faith. Harper’s signing was super gracious and patient. There were a lot of us there who’d brought his cards (this pleased me since it suggests that the prospectors also appreciate his career) and Harper took his time with a nice signature for everyone. Each of these verses works as a succinct summary of his faith and, on the first Sunday of Easter, felt kind of appropriately timed.

And Mike Rabelo, the manager who appeared in 86 games over three seasons in the mid 1990s, was clearly rushing to get on the bus. The boys have better-looking signatures than I do.

Start of the season

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Last Christmas Santa gave the boys each a membership to Boomer’s Kids Club. Is a good deal, $45 total for three tickets to 11 games this season. Trenton’s a great minor league experience* but the kids club is a ridiculously good deal even if we miss some of the games.

*As I’ve mentioned previously it’s done a good job at seducing local kids into becoming Yankees fans.

The first game was on Sunday a week ago. We arrived at the ballpark early so we could pick up our stuff—tshirt, membership card, tickets, giveaway pennant—without getting caught in any lines. After that we wandered around the ballpark until it was time to get in line for the ceremonial first pitch with Boomer.

We didn’t know what to expect (although I wasn’t expecting it to be a real first pitch where you keep the ball) but it turned out to be pretty funny. All the kids got a tennis ball and went to the mound. Boomer then got ready to catch and ALL the kids threw at the same time.

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The game was good too. Not great—lots of walks and deep counts which meant that the game went an hour longer than the usual Eastern League game and clocked in at three and a half hours—but Trenton beat Portland 10–0 and the hometown fans went home happy.

Was an odd blowout. Trenton just kept stringing a few hits and walks together, scoring a run or two in four of the first six innings to go up 6–0. Meanwhile the Trenton pitcher kept getting himself into jams (6 walks, 4 hits, 1 HBP in 5 innings) and then somehow getting out of them. The game picked up once we got into the bullpens and Trenton blew it open with a four-run 7th.

My sons had expressed interest in staying after the game for some autographs. So I figured we may as well kill the entire day at the ballpark. My eldest realized a few months ago that a few of the guys in his 1991 Topps set were now coaches in the Eastern League. I helped him do some of the homework in terms of figuring out who to look for. In the case of this game, Portland’s managers was former Reds catcher Joe Oliver.

So my eldest pulled his card and I pulled a 1991 Donruss dupe for his little brother and we camped out by the visitor’s clubhouse. Looking for coaches is a lot easier than looking for players and while I understand the allure of prospecting, getting an autograph from a World Series winner who had a 13-year Major League career is a pretty safe bet. He won’t become a star, but he had a good career.

They were good. Nice and patient and when Oliver signed for them they held the cards all the way home until they could put them in their binders.

I brought a few cards for myself as well. The Upper Deck is the one I wanted but he was nice and signed the 1992 Topps as well.

The Portland pitching coach is Paul Abbott. Unfortunately he’s not in the 1991 Topps set nor did I have enough duplicates and extras to give the boys each a card (though they’ll obviously be splitting up my collection at some point anyway).

This didn’t turn out to be a problem. The boys were still kind of enthralled by their one autograph that they weren’t ready to get another. They haven’t done the in-person card thing yet but I think they’ll get there this season.

I also managed to get the two Thunder players who are currently on the Yankees 40-man roster. Since neither of these guys made it to the Open House I’m happy I got them so early in the season.

Domingo Acevedo is a tough signer but he was in a good mood on Sunday, hanging out by the dugout after closing out the game. I wasn’t expecting or planning to go after him but I saw an opportunity and moved fast.

Albert Abreu is a good signer and I got him after the Wednesday 10:30 game. I love the Wednesday morning starts. Nothing like watching a game and getting it over before the day really begins. The Thunder lost this one but it was a crisp two and a half hour game which would’ve been even faster had there not been some sloppy fielding.

A very nice way to start the baseball season properly. Two games. A bunch of autographs. Two happy kids with fan club merchandise who are pumped for the season. Between this and Little League there’s been a lot of baseball going on in the house and this spring feels like it will turn into a good summer.

Sunken Diamond Visitors

Of course it wasn’t just Alumni or Stanford players whose autographs I got at Sunken Diamond. Stanford played a very competitive schedule. Not just was the Pac 10 South* a bit of a powerhouse with Stanford, Cal, UCLA, USC, Arizona, and Arizona State, but Stanford also played yearly series against good teams like Cal State Fullerton and Fresno State. I saw a lot of good players come through.

*For whatever reason in the late 80s and early 90s the Pac 10 had two 6-team divisions for baseball.

At first I only learned who I’d seen after they made it to the pros. But we had a subscription to Baseball America and I realized that I could use its scouting reports to start prospecting. This started off on a basic level with just getting signatures whenever the cover players were guys who’d come through.

So in 1990 it was Bret Boone. I was already aware of Bob Boone as a Stanford alumnus and had a vague dream of maybe getting this cover signed by all three Boones.* Yeah I only got Bret. Upside down because that’s the orientation I handed it to him (lesson learned, make it as easy as possible when you hand someone an item).

*It occurs to me that Bret’s son is playing college ball locally… But that would be kind of weird.

This turned out to be a decent prospecting job too. Bret went on to have a good major league career. Over a dozen years. An All Star a couple times. A few Gold Gloves. Pretty respectable stuff.

The following year a bunch of Arizona State guys were on the cover. I’m not sure how I didn’t get Tommy Adams but I did get Jim Austin and Mike Kelly. Despite the hype of the million dollar outfield, only Kelly went on to have a Major League career with 6 years in the bigs.

Once I started to read the scouting reports and mark who the top prospects were who’d I’d be seeing each year I had to get a bit more creative. I decided to use the photocopied roster inserts from the scorecards so I’d have a record of both the year and the team. These aren’t the most-attractive artifacts but they’re pretty handy for identifying everything I’d want to know about the circumstance of the autograph.

Anyway these are:

  • 1993 UCLA—David Roberts, Ryan McGuire
  • 1993 Arizona State—Doug Newstrom
  • 1994 USC—Aaron Boone
  • 1994 Arizona State—Antone Williamson

Turned out to be a mostly-successful batch of prospects. Boone and Roberts had pretty good careers and McGuire and Williamson both made it to the bigs. No one made it huge but I can’t complain.

Interestingly, for some reason the USA cards in Topps Traded didn’t include many guys who came through Sunken Diamond. The only card I got signed by a visitor was Dante Powell when he came through with Fullerton. But he also made it to the bigs—even playing for the Giants—so that turned out pretty well.