Because they're a staple of this site, I get asked from time to time if I collect baseball cards. The standard answer is no, not really -- I was pretty obsessed from 1978 to '87 or so, but the reason I started using cards on this blog was simply for the art, back when I was fledgling on Blogger.com and couldn't fish through the Globe archives for what I needed.
But the more accurate answer is this: more than my wife knows.
I might pick up a pack at Target from time to time after completing my 6-year-old's search for the latest must-have Skylander. But mostly I like getting stuff that reaffirms my love for baseball, the inexpensive nostalgia that reminds me of the time when I first noticed the game. I bought a well-worn '73 Hank Aaron card that was unattainable when I was a kid and is pretty much worthless now, but nonetheless delivers a pleasant flashback.
Another recent time, I bought a cheapo '76 Cleveland Indians team set on eBay after having them in a what-if sports league, and yes, I do realize that is probably the dorkiest sentence ever written on Boston.com.
I also really dug the Topps Archives set last year, the mix of modern and legendary players and vintage card designs is pretty much what I would draw up if I were asked to design my ideal set. How much did I like it? Let's just say I bought more than the occasional pack at Target -- I need two cards to complete the set. Say, anyone have Adrian Gonzalez and Jemile Weeks?
Anyway, I haven't written a post on this project about the top 60 Topps cards of all-time since -- let's see -- May 2012, but while sorting through my Target and eBay contraband recently during the recent snowstorm, I had the urge to revive it. Here are cards 36-40.
Like collecting itself, I suppose, the countdown has been stagnant, but never entirely out of mind.
1976 Hank Aaron
Given that the all-time Home Run King (in conscience if not on paper) played his 23 big league seasons (1954-76) in the golden age of card collecting, it makes sense that there would be countless options for his inclusion in this project. And there were -- like peers Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, he was featured on a memorable card almost every year. His 1954 rookie card rated second in Topps's voting. His 1956 card is a classic in my favorite all-time unattainable set. In '57, he unwittingly was made to hit lefthanded. In '73, he looked to the sky, as if he'd just found out about that 16-year old mistake (or, I suppose, was merely catching a popup off the bat off, oh, let's assume Pepe Mangual). I'm not entirely sure why I settled on this one, which is as gaudy as 1976 itself and features a puffier Aaron, who hammered 10 homers in his final season, though it may have something to do with appreciating a time when home run kings aged like the rest of us.
1977 Rod Carew
What is it with singles hitters and massive egos? Wade Boggs, Pete Rose ... well, I guess Tony Gwynn might be an exception. Carew, who hit .328 with 3,053 hits in his 19-year career, certainly did not lack for confidence, though he may have been short in the tact department. I remember watching a vintage "This Week in Baseball" on ESPN Classic a few years ago, maybe longer, back when the channel actually showed classic sports and wasn't just a promotional device for whatever was airing on the ESPN mothership that night. It was the episode from September 1978 that aired after the shooting death of Angels outfielder Lyman Bostock, who had played with Carew on the Twins the previous season and finished second behind him in the '77 American League batting race. Carew's comments were weirdly detached -- he basically said something like Bostock talked a lot and wanted to be great, like himself. It was about the most casual eulogy for a ballplayer gone too soon that you could imagine. But hey, Carew was right about himself -- he was great. I went into this exercise suspecting for some reason that he'd be overexposed as overrated. But he was not. He won six batting titles, lead the AL in on-base percentage four times, and that '77 season (.388, 239 hits, 68 extra-base hits, 100 RBIs, 69/55 K/BB ratio), the season from which this card showing him playing defense originates, was true brilliance. Carew could have left it unacknowledged, but you know, Lyman Bostock probably did want to hit just like him.
2010 Adrian Beltre
I'm coming around, all of you revisionist how-did-this-guy-get-away chirpers. I mean, I get the circumstances of the incredibly likable third baseman's one-and-done season with the Red Sox. He came here to rebuild his value after injuries and a bad marriage of skills-to-ballpark in Seattle, and did he ever do that. In his 154 games with the Red Sox, he played third base with such range and intense brilliance that it diminished our perception of his fine immediate predecessors. He led the league with 49 doubles, smashed 28 homers, and provided comic relief whether he meant to or not with his threats to maim amused teammates who dared touch his head. Oh, and he didn't just swing from the heels; he swung from one knee. This card manages to capture how fun it was to have Beltre here for a season, and given what we now know about management's desperate quest for star power, it must be asked: Did they not recognize what was right in front of them, or did a focus group tell them to just ignore it?
1980 Gary Carter
You got the sense watching Carter during his grand '80s heyday with the Expos and Mets that he couldn't contain that trademark gregariousness if he tried, not that such a thought ever crossed his mind. It's a challenge to find a picture from his baseball prime in which he isn't beaming, that smile camera-ready -- too ready, envious teammates sometimes whispered. I'll never believe there was phoniness there -- it seemed to me he was merely guy who could barely contain his love for the game and knew how lucky he was. But I also think it was apparent that there was another side to his personality that might have been underplayed, one evident by the look on his face on this lovely card. Gary Carter might have been a swell guy and an extraordinary player (the Carlton Fisk of the National League, in essence), but let's also remember that he was a ferocious competitor who thrived to the point of joy at one of the most grueling positions in sports. "The Kid" was the rarest kind, and perhaps that's one reason the death at age 57 of such a lively ballplayer and personality still isn't fully fathomable, a year later.
2012 Update 1987 Mini Mike Trout
I'm breaking all the rules! The rules, I'm breaking 'em all! OK, so I'm actually the one who set the rules for this little project (refresher here), but play along with me. This card of Angels outfielder Mike Trout, whose rookie season was so phenomenal that it's fair to wonder if we've already seen the best he has to offer, hardly fits the conventions of this project. It's a mini, for one thing, and I'm not even really sure what set it's from or how you'd go about obtaining it in a pack. All I know is that like the player himself, it's awesome in a lot of different ways -- the throwback Angels jersey, the fake-wood paneling design in homage to the gorgeous, worthless 1987 set, and the Future Stars designation, which always reminds me of Pat Dodson for some reason. I may need to get this one. Right after Gonzalez and Weeks.
Previously in this series:
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.