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Greatest baseball cards: Pack 3

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 16, 2010 07:10 AM

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15rollie1.jpgWe've got high heat, knee-buckling hooks, Cooperstown immortals, the lingering what-if of unfulfilled promise . . . and even a semi-random picture of Rollie Fingers shaking Rico Petrocelli's hand during his fleeting moment with the Red Sox. What we don't have is Cliff Lee. He shunned us for Philly, too. Ah, well, there's always Pavano -- or at least the gem who was once traded for him. Dig in to the batter's box if you dare and get ready for an all-pitchers edition of our version of the Top 60 Topps . . .

finnpedro.jpg1993 Pedro Martinez

You'd think Pedro would have more thrilling Topps cards than just this sort-of-creepy oddity with Randy Johnson here, but he doesn't. His coolest made by any company is probably this Soul Glo-ing work of art from 1991, but it's an Upper Deck production, which DQ's it for our purposes. Because we have absolutely must include a Pedro -- it's a rule, you know -- by default we'll go with his first Topps card, which comes from the days when he was known as Ramon's kid brother and pitched mostly in relief because that dope Tommy Lasorda didn't think he could handle the rigors of starting. Pedro would be dealt that November to the Expos for second baseman Delino DeShields, the first of Dan Duquette's two heists of the greatest pitcher of at least his generation, and perhaps all generations. From what I understand, Pedro eventually proved to be able to handle the rigors of starting; he's the best pitcher these beady eyes have ever seen, he has the best adjusted ERA of all-time for a starting pitcher, and we sure do love it when statistics work in sync with our perceptions. I've made my feelings on Pedro clear though the years, so let's turn it a different way: If you could watch any player again -- not someone like Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson or Tony C. or some grainy black-and-white-footage icon you never saw in real time and real life, but someone you were actually fortunate enough to see -- who would it be? For me, without a doubt, it's Pedro Jaime Martinez, circa 1999-2002. Just give me one more game with Fenway buzzing in anticipation, one more summer night with the Dominican flags flying high, one more electrifying performance when his fastball came equipped with its own jet stream, his curveball broke at least one plane, and along with it the hitter's will, and his changeup was a cruel trick. Those were some times.

finnkoufax.jpg1957 Sandy Koufax

Now if we're talking about players we didn't have the good fortune of watching but wish we did, wouldn't Koufax be near the top the list? And barring the long-overdue invention of the time machine anytime in the near future, wouldn't the next-best thing be the chance to talk to Vin Scully -- I should say, listen to Vin Scully -- soliloquize on what it was like to watch Koufax in his brief, glorious, and unprecedented-except-maybe-by-Pedro peak? (Or even better, an interview/reminiscence with Koufax; unfortunately, he's so private that he once lived in Maine. I know, who would live there?) The lore of Koufax's career, the story -- struggling to find command for the first half of his career, command performance after command performance during his spectacular final four seasons, then, sadly, retirement at age 30 because of arthritis in that golden but flawed left arm -- remains as mesmerizing today as it has ever been. The priceless footage of one of his four no-hitters or his masterful performances in the '63 and '65 World Series never fails to cause the clicker to stall on the "MLB Network." And his baseball-reference.com page is mesmerizing in its own way; you can't help but stare at the bold-faced stats accumulated in those final seasons, when he had an ERA of 1.88 or lower, at least 25 victories, and a minimum of 306 strikeouts in three of his last four years. Oh, yes, and the baseball card. We picked the '57 Koufax. But honestly, any one would have done the trick. We just wanted a reason to talk about the legend, our best attempt at a placeholder until we should be so lucky to have Mr. Scully elegantly regale us with reminiscences about how the magic really went down.

vidafinn.jpg1973 Vida Blue

If you've ever wonder what the moment before 100 mph heat is unleashed looks like to a batter, this is as close as it's come to being captured on cardboard. With a name like Vida Blue, he was probably destined for fame, and he found it in 1971, his first full season with the A's. He made 39 starts, won 24 of 'em, had a league-best 1.82 ERA, had 103 more innings pitched (312) than hits allowed (209), and struck out 301. He won the AL MVP award and the Cy Young Award, but here's an interesting bit of perspective: His 185 adjusted ERA that season would rate as the seventh-best of Pedro's career. Blue was never quite so good again, though he did win 20 or more games two more times. I wonder what would have happened had Bowie Kuhn not nixed A's owner Charlie Finley's dastardly plan to sell Blue to the Yankees and Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox during the 1976 season. With the lefty Blue in the New York rotation, would Ron Guidry ever have been given a real chance? With Fingers and Rudi in Boston, would one of the Rice-Lynn-Evans trio have been dealt for pitching? Would Bill Campbell have been signed and fed to the Zimmer meat grinder? As it turned out for Blue, most of his accomplished teammates were dealt or departed as free agents during and after the '75-'76-'77 seasons, and he was the last star of the A's dynasty to remain in Oakland, something his expression here suggests he just realized.

finngibson.jpg1968 Bob Gibson

Yes sir, we've got ourselves an All-Star card, which is a bit of a cop out, I know. But there are two things about this one that gave it the edge over other Gibson cards we liked (his odd pretty-in-pink 1958 rookie, the simple 1961, the gaudy 1972):

1) It's from his legendary 1968 season, when he went 22-9 and led the league in ERA (1.12, a number every serious baseball fan knows for its historic meaning), shutouts (13), adjusted ERA (258), WHIP (0.853), and strikeouts while pitching the Cardinals to the World Series.

2) He's actually smiling, which runs counter to the perception that he was all serious, snarling business, all the time. Of course, Gibson didn't bring that smile with him to the mound, where not only would one of his generation's supreme intimidators brush back a hitter for looking at him the wrong way, he'd brush him back for looking at him, period. And he didn't have much use for the input of his catchers, either. Tim McCarver, the former Cardinals backstop better known to this generation as a meandering broadcaster, tells the tale of strolling out to the mound to try to calm Gibson during a rough inning, only to be greeted by an admonishing bark.

"Get back there! The only thing you know about pitching," Gibson growled, "is how hard it is to hit." Now, I don't know if the story is true to the last syllable, apocryphal, or a figment of the same region of McCarver's imagination that brought the world the concept of Derek Jeter's calm eyes. And I don't particularly care, either. Any story that ends with someone telling Tim McCarver to get lost is true enough for me.

finngooden.jpg1985 Dwight Gooden

His 1985 season, when he went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts in 276 innings* at age 20, was the most sensational single-season performance by we've seen by a pitcher not named Pedro. (OK, and Rocket '86.) Though in a way, we didn't really see enough of it. It was a different time then. Australian Rules football was still a key element of burgeoning ESPN's menu. There was no MLB package on cable . . . hell, there barely was cable. And so the only real chance to see the kid dubbed Dr. K torment NL hitters with his effortless yet blazing fastball and duck-for-cover curve was on NBC's Saturday "Game of the Week" or on ABC's "Monday Night Baseball." But when you did get to see him . . . I mean, it's a cliche, but I can't think of a better word to describe it than breathtaking. It's easy to forget, knowing know what we didn't know then -- that he'd never win 20 games again, or that he'd receive Cy Young votes in just three other seasons, or that substance abuse issues and perhaps that heavy early workload would derail a career that should have ended with a stop in Cooperstown -- but there was a time when Gooden was such a phenom and phenomenon that he was on par with a certain young Chicago Bulls guard in terms of popularity. (No, not Quentin Dailey.) With his charisma and charm, the remembrance of what he was and the hazy promise of what he could have been, he probably got more chances than he deserved to prove he was going to respect his own talent. Instead, he's one of baseball's lingering what-could-have-beens. But when he was . . . man, was that ever fun.

* Yup, 276 innings at age 20. And his manager was not Dusty Baker.

Previously in this series:
Pack 1: 1952 Mickey Mantle, 1969 Nolan Ryan, 1978 Dave Winfield, 1956 Ted Williams, 1975 Oscar Gamble.

Pack 2: 1960 Carl Yastrzemski, 1952 Gus Zernial, 1956 Willie Mays, 1987 Barry Bonds, 1978 Reggie Jackson.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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