Sunday, April 21, 2024

From the Favorites Box: Astros Team Checklist, 1979 Topps #381

A series where I post some thoughts about favorite cards. Previous cards in the series are available here.
Here's an image you don't see on a team checklist every day.
I mean, the Houston Astros are in uniform, as per standard practice. But after that? It's filled with a whole bunch of randomness and fun.

First of all, they're posed outside of their stadium, in what might very well be the parking lot. Second, instead of the usual benches and chairs, they've brought in two motorized trolleys of some kind. (Could they be from a state fair?) And let's look even closer.

Some of the guys are sitting on the front ledge of the trolleys, while others are sitting in the seats.

Perhaps lounging would be a more accurate verb. (See the two highlighted players on the right.) And look at the guy all the way on the left. He's just chilling on the hood!

Unfortunately, there just weren't enough seats in the trolleys for all the players, so some of them had to stand between them, in the middle of the shot.

A couple of poor guys even had to sit down on the concrete.
But here's the strangest part. Look all the way to the right of the image, way in the back.

I really can't be sure, but is that a guy in a gorilla suit? Or maybe Bigfoot?

We may never know.

Regardless, it's such a wacky, fun scene. Very fitting for the times, too. Just a couple of years earlier, the Bad News Bears had some memorable scenes filmed at the very same Astrodome.

As for the actual Astros of the time, they weren't Bad News Bears bad, but they weren't so great, either. The 1978 version of the club finished with a record of 74-88, placing them 5th out of the 6 clubs in the NL West. Here are some team leaders:
Games Played: Enos Cabell, 162
Batting Avg.: José Cruz, .315
Hits: Enos Cabell, 195
Doubles: José Cruz, 34
Triples: José Cruz, 9
Home Runs: Bob Watson, 14
RBI: José Cruz, 83
Stolen Bases: José Cruz, 37 
Wins: J.R. Richard, 18  
ERA: Vern Ruhle, 2.12
Strikeouts: J.R. Richard, 303
Saves: Joe Sambito, 11
You've got some good numbers in there, despite the team's losing record. And don't forget, they had those sweet "tequila sunrise" uniforms, which would last from 1975 through 1986. Fun times, for sure.

And for an image that reminds us of just how fun and quirky 1970s baseball could be, 1979 Topps #381 has a spot in my box of favorite cards.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Golf Season! (Softball Season!) Golf Season! (Softball Season!)

Remember this classic argument?

Well, replace those two phrases with golf season and softball season, and you'll get an idea of what's going through my mind now that it's springtime. To explain:
Last year I got back into golf, and had a really great time re-discovering the game and shaking a lot of rust off my own. I kept track of some informative stats across the year, and I'm motivated to improve this season.
But at the same time, I've enjoyed playing softball over the past five years or so. I've been keeping stats there as well, and despite the drop-off in offensive numbers last season, I'm really looking forward to the new softball season (and new team!) as well. Stay tuned for more.
So therein lies the conundrum. It's April. The weather is getting a little warmer. The birds are singing. The grass is green again. It's golf season. It's softball season.

It's not that I can't do both. In fact, I made time for both last year, and I will make time for both again. (If you have hobbies or activities you truly enjoy, I think you should try very hard to make time for them.)
The real conundrum is that last year I didn't set any goals for either sport. Now that I'm on a mission—two missions—to improve my skills, how do I split the time effectively? I think we'll have to take it week by week, but I'm determined to get things done for both sports.
I've already hit the links a couple of times this year. Here was the opening round.


Not bad at all, considering it was February and cold and windy. That four-hole stretch where I went birdie-par-par-birdie felt pretty great. But as you can see, I had a bunch of messy holes right after that. It happens.
As for softball season, that should start up in about a month or so. Time to get to work.
All that said, however, I can't forget that Nine Pockets is a blog about trading cards. So to tie those little cardboard rectangles that we all love into this post, here are a couple of former MLB players who became very good golfers as well.
1985 Donruss #552 Rick Rhoden and 1990 Starline Long John Silver's #34 John Smoltz

Rhoden, in particular, was an accomplished golfer. After his MLB career, he became so proficient that he even played 34 tournaments on the PGA Champions Tour (age 50 and over), with three top 10 finishes.

I've got a lot of work to do before I get anywhere close to that absurd level of skill and proficiency. (As if I ever will—hah!), but that's fine. It's good to have plenty to work on.
Thanks as always for following along with my sporting activities. 
Do any of you have plans to get out in the fresh air this spring, be it golf, softball, hiking, or anything else? Share in the comment section. And then get out there!

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Iorg Brothers

It's October 1982, and you're a pro baseball player. This season you've really come into your own as a dependable, everyday infielder with the Toronto Blue Jays. And although your team is starting to take shape with talented young players like Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby, Damaso Garcia, and Dave Stieb, the club hasn't quite put it together enough to make the playoffs. So your season is finished. However, your older brother Dane's team, the St. Louis Cardinals, just swept straight past the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championships. He didn't play in the series, but things were about to change. In the World Series against the Brewers, Dane would get the call, and boy, did he produce. In 5 games, he'd go 9-for-17 with four doubles and a triple. And soon he'd be celebrating a World Championship alongside stars like Ozzie Smith, Keith Hernandez, and Willie McGee. 
That's a big win for baseball brothers Garth and Dane Iorg.
But that was three years ago. Now it's October 1985. Your Blue Jays are solid. You've added big hitter George Bell and steady infielder Tony Fernandez, and finished first in the AL East. As for your older brother Dane, he'd been traded from St. Louis to Kansas City. Talk about another solid team. George Brett, Willie Wilson, Hal McRae, Lonnie Smith, and a strong pitching staff had just battled their way to the top of the AL West. So it would be brother versus brother in the ALCS!
By this point you'd become an even more steady infielder—primarily at third base—so you'd get a regular role in the series. It might have been the nerves or excitement of playing against your older brother, but you didn't hit well at all (2-for-15). As for Dane, a part-time outfielder at this point in his career, he played in parts of 4 games, and only had 2 at-bats and 1 hit, a double, for the Royals. And frustratingly, those Royals would come back from the brink of elimination, winning the final 3 games of the 7-game series, to advance to the World Series. Dejected, you'd go back home and do the only thing you could—cheer on big bro Dane in the World Series again. He'd fly out in a pinch-hitting role to end Game 1, and then didn't see any action until Game 6. That's when things got exciting.
In the bottom of the 9th inning with one out, down by a score of 1-0 in the game (and down 3 games to 2 in the series), Dane came up to bat as a pinch hitter with the bases loaded. On the bad side of the spectrum, a ground ball could have meant a double play and the end of the World Series. On the good side, a single would at very least tie the game. 
Dane took the first pitch from Todd Worrell for a ball. Then this happened. 

The Royals would beat the Cardinals again in Game 7, and take the Championship.

What a moment for big bro.
Here are both Iorgs, pictured on cardboard from a few years prior to that moment. 
1981 Topps #334 Dane Iorg and #444 Garth Iorg
And here are some career numbers.



 (10 seasons)

(9 seasons)












































(Career highs in bold)


(1980, STL)

(1982, TOR)












































Garth played more third base than second base throughout career. His 9 seasons of MLB service were all with the Blue Jays.
Dane was mostly an outfielder, and played a little first base as well. Over his 10-year career he suited up for the Phillies, Cardinals, Royals, and Padres. He was part of two World Series Championship teams (St. Louis in 1982 and Kansas City in 1985).

So here's to the Iorg brothers. Two nice careers, and some very special playoff moments.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Don't You Forget About [This Custom Card]

I've created a custom card that features quite an interesting assortment of characters.

There's a Brain. 
An Athlete. 
A Basket Case. 
A Princess. 
And a Criminal.
If you're a fan of '80s movies, you might have already solved this one.

It's The Breakfast Club!
On Saturday, March 24, 1984, those five students—each from different cliques and with different attitudes—reported for detention at the Shermer High School library. And if you've seen the film, you know that it turned out to be quite a memorable day for all of them. What better way to commemorate it than a custom card?
Regarding the design, I felt John Bender was a natural fit for the middle spot. (He's probably the guy who was in detention the most that year, right?) And the text across the top worked out very well. I was able to add the year, name of the high school, and title of the film. Nice and neat.
Let's have a look at the card back now.

Similar to the card backs in the 1980s film stars set, I added a graphic across the top, based on the design that was used for some of the film's movie posters and VHS cassette boxes. Along the bottom I've added the "stats" line, which provides a nice bit of history for all the movie buffs out there. The card number is 2 because it follows the first card in this growing set, which was based on the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

As for the actors on this card, wow. You've got some 1980s legends. In fact, they were all members of a star-studded group called "The Brat Pack". Various combinations of The Pack appeared in big films of the era like The Outsiders, Sixteen Candles, St. Elmo's Fire, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, and more. 
But I don't think any of the other Brat Pack films were as big as The Breakfast Club. I mean, come on. Scroll back up and read the title of this blog post again, and tell me you won't immediately have that song from Simple Minds in your head.

So that's that. Another custom card complete. Hope you enjoyed it!
Do any of you collectors have detention stories from your high school days? Did you ever have trading cards confiscated by a teacher? Feel free to share your experiences in the comment section. (As long as they're rated PG.)

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Embracing the Best and Worst of the Junk Wax Era: Hockey Card Edition

A couple of months ago, I was inspired by Nick (of the Dime Boxes) and Night Owl to post a list of what I considered the best and worst sets of the junk wax era for baseball. I was a young collector back in the junk wax days, and certainly opened my share of baseball packs during that time. But there was also another sport I collected: 
So I thought I'd create a similar best and worst list for the coolest sport on ice.

Interestingly, the junk wax era for hockey cards didn't follow quite the same timeline. In the second half of the 1980s, when baseball junk wax was booming, you still only had two choices for hockey cards: Topps and O-Pee-Chee. But that all changed during the 1990-91 season, as FIVE new brands emerged on the scene (Pro Set, Score, Bowman, OPC Premier, and Upper Deck). It was a wild time to be a collector, that's for sure.

For the sake of this post, I think I'll set the junk wax hockey years as 1990-91 through 1994-95. After that, a whole bunch of premium brands came around, with all sorts of inserts and parallels and rare cards. I'd say that effectively ended the era.

So let's start with my selections for the five worst junk wax sets, in no particular order.

1991-92 Pro Set

The 1991-92 Pro Set design was never going to be as rambunctious as the inaugural version the year before (we'll get to that one later). However, I think the company might have gone too far in the opposite direction this time, and fallen flat. The loud colors and stripes of the 1990-91 set were replaced with. . . almost nothing. Just a full-bleed image and a little black tab across the bottom for the player name (not even a position!). Even some of the subsets in this set were boring. You could only tell one from another by a little half-circle banner over the team logo that indicated what subset card you were looking at. In addition, the photography was not great at times, with images that were a bit blurry, or that were strangely cropped. The black tab can kind of get in the way of the action on the card, too, as evidenced by Dale Hunter on the face-off and Chris Winnes taking a slap shot up there. Maybe the design team at Pro Set was still exhausted from the previous year.

1991-92 Score
Yeesh. Score was really trying to cash in on excitable collectors during the 1991-92 season. They produced three variations of the same set, each with a different color for the borders. Card backs were written in English, in French, or both. The adolescent version of me sure did get swept up in it, buying plenty of packs of the American (purple border) and Canadian English (red or light blue border with purple interior) versions. I might have bought packs of the Canadian Bilingual version too (red or light blue border with green interior), but I don't remember seeing packs in card shops or at card shows very often in my region of the US. It's true that there were a few exciting insert cards available in each set that featured Bobby Orr—including an autographed version. And occasionally a player's photo did differ from one version of the set to the next. But that certainly doesn't rescue 1991-92 Score from my bottom 5.

1993-94 Topps Premier
Back in 1990-91, O-Pee-Chee released their first premium set, called "Premier". It went over pretty well with collectors, and for the next two seasons, O-Pee-Chee continued with the brand. Then in 1993-94, Topps decided to jump in with "Topps Premier". It was the same exact set as the O-Pee-Chee version, other than the lack of French text on the card backs. I think I'd learned my lesson from Score a couple of years prior, and didn't fall for the Topps Premier hoopla—even with the allure of the special Black Gold inserts, which were admittedly pretty cool. 1993-94 Topps Premier was also one of the early hockey sets that suffered from "bricking" due to the ultra-varnish coating, which was another strike against it. Adding to the negatives, it was a time in the hobby when close-cropped player photos were in style, across many sets. Too close. I mean, look at how cramped those three guys are.

1993-94 Fleer Power Play
The irregular size and shape of these cards was eye catching, that's for sure. But I also think that a lot of folks bought one or two packs for the novelty of it, and then just never bought more. If that wasn't enough of a deterrent for collectors, the large set size (520 cards) probably did the trick. Even though it turned out that the cards measured the same as the vintage "tall boy", I didn't know many collectors who were willing to buy all the unique storage supplies necessary to complete and display the set, or even finish a team set. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Power Play did not return the next season. The thing is, Fleer didn't do such a bad job with the photography, oftentimes setting part of the player outside of the frame for that 3D effect. This works well on the taller template—especially in the digital image. As for how they looked on the actual cards in hand? I'm not so sure. Maybe the images would have worked better in some other form. Just imagine those three cards above as banners hanging throughout the concourse of an NHL arena, for example.

1994-95 Upper Deck Be a Player
I think 1994-95 Upper Deck Be a Player can be argued as a best set AND a worst set. It's a potential worst set because of the photography. It's a potential best set because it was the first one outrageous enough to put an autographed card into every pack. The list of autographs was an astounding 178 cards deep, and it contained many of the big names of the time: Brodeur, Selanne, Bourque, Leetch, LaFontaine, Shanahan, Gretzky, Yzerman, Kariya, Yashin, Lidstrom. 
The big negative, though, is for that photography. There are players standing outside in the cold, wearing ski jackets. There are players on the golf course, wearing polo shirts and khaki shorts. There are players wearing NHLPA jerseys instead of their team's jersey. (There was a lockout during part of the '94-95 NHL season.) Ultimately, even though this inaugural edition of Be A Player really changed the game with the one-autograph-per-pack thing, I still have to put it in the bottom 5.
Now let's get to the top 5, also in no particular order.
1991-92 Upper Deck
If the inaugural Upper Deck hockey release came out with a bang, their follow-up set in 1991-92 was even louder—and in a good way. The designers really upped their game. You've got some fantastic subsets like the Canada Cup and All-Rookie Team, plus much better quality on the hologram inserts. In addition, there are lots of great rookie cards to be found (Teemu Selanne, Nicklas Lidstrom, Peter Forsberg, John Leclair, Alexei Yashin, Alexei Kovalev, and Keith Tkachuk to name a few). This is probably the Upper Deck set I collected the most back then, and I had a lot of fun doing it. I still remember walking to the local card show with my friend on the first Friday of each month, going back to my house with packs and packs of 1991-92 Upper Deck, and playing NHL Hockey on Sega Genesis while we flipped through the cards.

1990-91 Pro Set

Despite the many errors in this set (and many stripes of many colors), I've got to put this set in my top 5. It's large and colorful—perfect for young collectors—and both Series I and Series II have some great rookies. On top of the standard subsets like All-Stars, Draft Picks, and Award Winners, you've also got some fun subsets like Head Coaches, Career Leaders, and even Referees! Oh, and collectors had the rare chance to pull a Stanley Cup hologram card. The photos in this set weren't always the best, but they also showed some decent action and weren't cropped so tightly or oddly as some other sets of the hockey junk wax era. That's nice.

1990-91 OPC Premier
I remember packs of 1990-91 OPC Premier being tough to find back then. But if you did find them, you had a good chance at putting the complete set together—it's only 132 cards deep. There are certainly some big-name rookies (Jagr, Modano, Fedorov, Roenick, Bondra, Mogilny, Nolan, Sundin), and a decent design that helps to make it memorable. The photography can sometimes be plain, and I'm not sure this set would have been in my top-5 back in the early 90s, but history has shown that it holds up, and the big rookie cards are still prized among collectors.

1990-91 Score

Score made a splash with their inaugural hockey set. Part of the buzz was generated from their exclusive rights to Eric Lindros. He appeared on the final card in the set, and if you purchased a factory set, you received 5 "bonus" Lindros cards that featured him in various photoshoot-style hockey poses. Here in 2024 it might be hard to understand how big of a deal this was, but Lindros was the hottest name in the sport back then, and hockey card companies all wanted a piece of the big power forward. Lindros aside, Score did very well with their first design. There were hardly any errors, especially when compared with some of the other brands. The "hockey rink" designfeaturing a blue line, red line, and blue line across the borderswas pretty cool. In addition, there were some fun subsets like "Blaster", "Sniper", "Magician", "Stopper", and "Speedster". Baby-faced Jaromir Jagr and Martin Brodeur rookie cards add to the good grade here.


1990-91 Upper Deck

Upper Deck took their baseball card success from 1989 and rolled it right into hockey for the next season. Their photography was unmatched, and gave hockey card collectors the best look they'd ever had into what the sport was all about. (Flip through the set and you'll see that Theo Fleury and John Tonelli up there represent just two of many fantastic, descriptive images.) The tamper-proof foil packs and anti-counterfeiting holograms on the card backs were cutting edge. The rookie cards were highly sought after. And on top of all that, the Young Guns series was created that very first year. It's still going strong to this day, which is truly impressive.

So that's my bottom-5 and top-5 hockey sets from the junk wax era. If any of you readers collected hockey cards back then, share some of your rankings in the comment section—or create your own blog post!

Thanks for reading, as always.