Welcome to pitchers and catchers 2016. Whether you’ve just broken your fourth scraper on your cracked windshield since December or are in SoCal wondering whether this El Niño thing might be a more suitable name for a Kimchi taco truck in downtown LA, there’s a faint whiff of discarded chaw, beard sweat and Bud Light Lime in the air. And that can only be one thing: the siren call of spring training.
Right now, every team is healthy, every rookie the next Griffey and every club’s got a thousand and one chances to break your heart only to put it back together again in a tiny mosaic coffee table—but like any dysfunctional relationship, you’re going into it, feet first, thinking “This year—things will be different.”
And so, to celebrate these difference, Death of the Press Box is celebrating the week of the first popped gloves and sizzle off the bat with Five Stories which, to us, mean baseball is coming.
By Kyle Magin
The early ‘90s are the moment when baseball took hold for me. I didn’t watch many games, though Ernie Harwell’s dulcet tones were the soundtrack of my summer life as I played outside and my dad listened to him call Detroit Tigers games on a cheap portable radio as he tended the yard. I wasn’t particularly interested in box scores in the Kalamazoo Gazette or talking Tigers with my best friend. We attended few big league games at that time as we were 2-2.5 hours from the closest stadiums and my brother, sister and I were between the ages of six and two. No, the roadtrips to destinations across the Midwest would come later as age and finances allowed.
Where I was first enamored with the game was through baseball cards. I don’t know who bought me my first pack (though it appears to have been during my age 5 summer–1990) or when I started using allowance money to buy them on my own, but from 1990-1994 I filled three albums and a shoebox-sized plastic tub with all manner of offerings from Topps, Fleer and Upper Deck.
Many of the cards chronicle the heroes of the day–Nolan Ryan held high esteem for me and appears on the team pages for the Astros and Rangers numerous times. Ditto Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Greg Maddux, Cal Ripken, Jr., Barry Bonds and Alan Trammell, who enjoyed an elevated status for me even though it was four years past the point when Trammell held superstar value for anybody else. There of course were some interesting outliers–Carlos Delgado’s rookie card had him in catcher’s gear for the Blue Jays, and Deion Sanders appears as a Brave and a Red–but I think the real story of an interesting card collection are the pictures of guys who fill the slots between superstars and the gimmicks that Topps, Fleer and Upper Deck employed in any given era. Here are a few of mine:
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For whatever reason, I have two of Fleer’s kneeling Cuyler for ‘93. Why he didn’t get the treatment of a Tom Henke or Rod Allen–nearly nameless nobodies caught on candid camera in a spring training dugout just before picking their noses, breathing or blinking–I’ll never know. Cuyler–coming off a ‘92 season where he logged 291 at-bats, hitting .241 in right and center field for the Tigers over 89 games–instead got the star treatment, a heroic kneeling pose in the batter’s box in an orange spring training alternate meant to the catch the eye. This intrigued me because Cuyler was never a Tiger one discussed at family functions or informal get-togethers with my father’s sports fan friends. It was always Cecil Fielder, Trammell and Lou Whitaker. Cuyler held some promise during his 1990 rookie season, when he stole 52 bags and finished third in rookie of the year balloting. He never really lived up to expectations after that, even on some truly terrible Tigers teams, and was drummed out of the league by 1998 after short stints in Boston and Texas. Now he’ll pick up the phone if you ask him to come play at your fantasy camp.
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You don’t really need a re-set on David Justice but this is just a boss card. You can imagine its impact in 1992 on a 7 year old boy: a big strong outfielder toting a goddamn tomahawk at the end of 31 ounces of ash. As far as myth-building, does any one printed marketing tool do it as well as a baseball card in the hands of a little kid?
Toronto Blue Jays
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This is hands-down the most bizarre entry in my albums. On the front, Alomar soars in some dope Oakley A-frames (my God, I don’t even have to tell you what decade it is for you to date it, do I?) on what are definitely blue jay wings through a partly-cloudy Toronto sky. The back is only slightly more outlandish, using the word definitive twice in consecutive sentences, calling Alomar a “definitive class act” and the “definitive second baseman of the 90s.” The latter statement would prove prescient for a copywriter working with just three seasons’ worth of numbers (by the season’s end he’d have the first of two World Series rings, his third gold glove, fourth consecutive all-star berth and third straight appearance in the top 10 of MVP voting), but you know what happened with the former assertion. Baseball’s myth building machine misfired here.
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Chris Sabo worked as a solid punchline for me for years. Just look at those rec-specs. Look at that old-man-doing-work face. I bet Chris Sabo made that expression as he was changing the oil on his car or building a deck on the back of his house. In pictures with his hat off, Sabo is usually sporting the world’s flattest flat top. Regardless, you’ll get a knowing chuckle out of guys who collected cards of this vintage when you bring Sabo up. In the first semester of my freshman year I cracked a Chris Sabo joke about somebody’s glasses to my buddies at the dorm. One friend stopped dead in his tracks and told me his dad played hockey with Sabo as a youngster in Detroit and that he was a solid dude. A few years later I made a joking reference again about Sabo’s appearance and another friend recalled how generously he tipped at a Northern Kentucky golf course where he valeted. I have since stopped cracking on Chris Sabo since I’m apparently never separated from him by more than two degrees. Sabo made a few million bucks during his playing days and went on to coach at colleges and in the minor leagues and is apparently a big hit at Reds’ alumni gatherings. Today he coaches at a Florida baseball factory.
Los Angeles Dodgers
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My God, look at that tubby SOB.
“Hey, Tom, we need to get your picture for your Topps card this year. Mind hopping out of the cart?”
Tom: “I do mind.”
Can’t you just see him tooling around Vero Beach in ‘88, busting Orel and Gibby’s chops from the safety of his gas-powered cart? I wonder if he knew then how that World Championship team would turn out or if he was just always secure enough with himself to roll around Vero with a gut like that when a walk might have done him some good? You’ll notice this card is a chronological outlier from the rest. That’s because one of my mom’s work friends, Mr. Murphy, heard I was into cards at some point in the early 90s and produced this keepsake from his wallet. He saw then what we all find so funny now–a chubby chucklehead in a damn golf cart–but, I didn’t really get it. Growing up in AL country the Dodgers might as well have played on Mars for all I cared and I had no idea why all my dad’s friends laughed when I pulled this gem out. I get it now, and despite the remarkable wear on this Topps offering, it’s a treasured part of my collection.
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How this card came into my collection is a mystery, but it’s majestic. Berenguer, a Panamanian, squints into the sun after what I can only assume was the one set of 60s he had to run all year in spring training. He just sort of stares above the camera into the abyss, waiting to be excused for whatever’s left of the day’s clubhouse spread and a siesta. Berenguer was actually a pretty serviceable righty pitcher in his day, earning the moniker Senor Smoke. He pitched 168 innings for the 1984 World Champion Detroit Tigers, striking out 6-plus batters per nine against 4.2 walks. In 1987, after recovering from the grueling day that produced this photo, he’d strike out 8.8 per nine and record an 8-1 record mostly as a reliever with the World Series Champion Twins. In the ALCS that year he’d strike out six over six innings of work against Detroit in a win over his former club before getting shelled by the Cardinals in his sole appearance during the Series. Berenguer would stay in the Twin Cities after ending his playing career.
San Diego Padres
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There are many professions you would guess for Greg Booker based on his 1987 baseball card photo before you would land on 6’6” Padres righty. Off-brand Joe Pesci. Loan shark. 25-year smoker. Guy with a connected relative (untrue in the mob sense, but very true in baseball–Booker is Jack McKeon’s son-in-law, and Trader Jack sent his S-I-L packing to the Twins). Tanning bed owner/operator. Why do I own three of the same Greg Booker cards from my age two summer? Beats the hell out of me. Booker played for three teams over an 8-year career, but mainly the Padres. In ‘87 he really got stretched out, setting a career innings-pitched high with 68. In ‘88 he sort of shined, notching 6.1 strikeouts per 9 over 63 innings thanks in part to two starts. Two seasons later, he’d appear in two games for the Giants and finish his career at age 30. He coached for the Padres in the late 90s and early 2000s and now serves as a scout in the Dodgers organization. I can’t confirm this, but I bet Booker was all sorts of furious when the Pads pulled the old Marlboro vending machine out of the bowels of Jack Murphy Stadium. It’s bullshit. Almost as bullshit as owning three Greg Booker cards.