Friday, September 30, 2011

The Ultimate Memorabilia Post

You like that title don't you? Admit it, you clicked on this post just to see if I was writing about the best memorabilia in my collection, right? Actually, come to think about it, I really don't have that much stuff that's not on cardboard. A small collection of auto'd 8x10's of second rate Tampa Bay Lightning players (Corey Schwab!) and some autographed pucks. That's really about it. I'm kind of depressed thinking about it now. I should have some sort of game-used jersey somewhere in the closet. Maybe that will be my 2012 goal cool-ass memorabilia acquisition.

For now you will have to settle for a quick post on an upcoming high-end product from ITG. That's right, I'm going to write about a product that I have no chance of owning. Much like The Cup or Panini's new Dominion product, the best I can hope for is to scour e-Bay for singles and possibly steal a relic card on the cheap. The product I'm talking about is ITG's Ultimate Memorabilia 11th Edition. UM made its debut in 2000-01 and has been providing collectors with awesome cards ever since.

Lemieux auto/patch? Yes Please!

So what can we expect from this year's product? Pretty much more of the same – and that's not a bad thing. Despite not having a NHL license you can count on ITG to put out a good looking product with a pretty decent checklist of players. The base cards are limited to 100 players from both past and present (including Mr. Lecavalier) which is nice, because if you're shelling out hundreds of dollars for a box, the last thing you want to pull is a John Scott autograph.

The official particulars for this product are:

Release Date: 11/10/11

5 packs per box

3 cards per pack

Of those three cards in a pack you should receive – one limited Ultimate Base card, on Ultimate Autograph card and one Ultimate Authentic game-used memorabilia card.

Each of the 100 base cards feature artwork from Mike James and has three versions:

Silver – limited to 63 or 64

Gold Parallel numbered to nine

Black Bordered sketch 1/1

So good luck with that master set builders and player collectors. Of course, if anyone out there happens to pull the Lecavalier sketch card I will be more than willing to take it off of your hands. Who cares about base cards though, right? You're interested in the real meat of the product, the inserts and autographs! Well, I don't have that many photos to show you. One I was able to snag off of the Blowout Cards forum is:

One card with six pretty sweet patches

With names like Ultimate Cup Finals, History of the Franchise, FantaSTICK, and Boys are Back, I can't wait to see more of these in the wild. By the way, the Boys are Back is a subset dedicated to the "greatest players to ever skate for the original Winnipeg Jets franchise". That should definitely be a hot seller for ITG.

The autograph inserts include subset names such as Future Star Auto (get your Brett Connolly cards now!), Goalie Legend, and cut autos from past players with sweet names like PaperCuts and Lumbergraphs.

All that is nice. OK, it's really, really cool. However, there are two additional inserts that have me intrigued. The first is the Ultimate Giveaway program. It took me a couple of read-through's to understand exactly how this works. I think I have it. In random packs one of 10 different Ultimate Giveaway cards will be inserted. Each UG card will have six different versions based on the color on the front of the card. Therefore, it seems there are actually 60 total cards inserted. If you pull one of these cards (which replaces a base card in the pack) you are entered to possibly win the game-used memorabilia featured on the front of the card.

How do you win? Well you go to the Spring Expo in Toronto and spin the In The Game Wheel. If it lands on your color – you win! But even if you lose you win, because if it doesn't land on your color (or if you don't pull the card by the April 15th deadline) you will receive a 1/1 sketch card in the color depicted on the front of your card. One of the things up for grabs is a:

Brett Hull All Star Game Jersey

When I hit the Powerball and can drop some coin on this set I hope I pull one of these cards. A road trip to Toronto to spin a wheel would be totally worth it. I'm pretty sure I can con Link, Scott and Saint Leo Mike to come with me for the festivities.

The other twist is the designated hot pack. HOT PACK! HOT PACK! In each case one pack will be designated as a hot pack. Each pack will include 3 designated Hot Patch cards numbered to 459. There are 56 different cards (and yes Mr. Lecavalier is included).

Look at how hot that looks!

From what I can see it's a pretty nicely put together set. Some of the hockey collecting veterans like Sal and Captain Canuck probably have more experience with past versions of this set and can speak more to the value of busting a box. I will be setting up an e-Bay alert for the Lightning cards in the set which appear to be Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. I was kind of joking about the Connolly card earlier since I'm not sure if he's going to be included or not. ITG continues to prove that you don't need a license to put out cards that collectors want.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Speculating on Things

I am a fan. I also write a blog. For the most part I try to keep the two separate. While I tend to write about the teams that I root for, I also try to keep a somewhat unbiased approach to doing it. If Zach Britton is struggling I will admit it (and he is- for some reason he’s pitching cautious). There are times when trying to keep my inherent fan-ness out of my writing leads to a struggle. Which leads to me deleting entire blog posts that I’ve dedicated an hour or two to writing.

For instance, on Sunday night after Jacoby Ellsbury kept the Red Sox’s fading playoff hopes alive with a late-inning home run. Instead of enjoying a great sports moment I was fired up about the lack of speculation in the mainstream media about the possibility that his breakout season might have been chemically enhanced. I took to the keyboard and wrote out a two page diatribe about how irresponsible it was that no one was asking the question, about how it’s just like the 80’s and 90’s again where people were turning a blind eye toward ridiculous on-the-field accomplishments. In short, it was an indignant, unprofessional slam piece mainly fueled by my dislike of the Red Sox.

I didn’t upload it to Blogger, I kept it in my documents file and slept on it for a night. I also emailed a couple of journalists that I’ve communicated with in the past asking them what the repercussions of asking an athlete the simple, straight forward question “Are you on steroids?” Instead of blindly attacking their profession I wanted some input into how asking what I thought was an obvious question would affect their careers.

To a person they responded almost identically. Without hard proof it would be an extremely dangerous question to ask. A dramatic increase in home runs isn’t hard proof. A failed drug test is. Not only would it poison their relationship with the player and team, it would destroy their credibility in the industry as well.

Therein lies one of the main differences of blogs and mainstream media. Blogs, for the most part, can delve into the realm of speculation without much consequence. We don’t require “hard proof”. I can look at Jacoby Ellsbury’s career and see that he never hit more than 9 home runs at any one year in his professional career and question if his 30+ home runs this year are suspicious. I can also make snide remarks on facebook about “at least Brady Anderson hit double digits in HR’s before he hit 50) and there are no repercussions. If I was paid to write about sports I wouldn’t be able to.

The truth is, no one knows why Ellsbury is putting it all together this year. There could be several factors, from being healthy, to the stacked Red Sox lineup, to the fact that he is pissed off for being included in trade talks and seemingly written off by management.

When I watch his at-bats as an unbiased baseball enthusiast instead of as an Oriole fan, I notice that he is getting pitches to hit and driving them. I’m sure some numbers factory has the breakdown of what pitches he’s hit for home runs, but most of the ones I’ve seen are fastballs belt high down the middle of the plate or hanging sliders. It’s not like he’s breaking his bat and hitting the ball 400 ft. He is squaring up on bad pitches and driving them.

Unfortunately for Ellsbury, Jose Bautista and, to a lesser extent Matt Kemp, prolific offensive numbers are always going to come into question. It’s not their fault, but the fault of the previous generation of players. The alleged rampant use of performance enhancing drugs in the prior decades has jaded the fans against players.

Columnists might write that we’re in a “post-steroid” era, but that doesn’t mean we are, or should be in a post-steroid speculation era. Until the players agree to full testing, including HGH, then fans are going to doubt what’s going on in baseball.

The restrictions that the mainstream press has to operate under are a good thing.
It forces them to make sure the story they are reporting is correct. It protects players from groundless speculation and unfounded rumors. If some of that burden of proof had been around in the early part of the 20th century perhaps we’d know for sure if Joe Jackson should be blacklisted from baseball instead of mythical tales of him “sayin’ it ain’t so”.

On the other hand, there is a place for blogs as well. Much like CM Punk has given voice to the voiceless, blogs can shed light on the issues that the Chicago Tribune or LA Times can’t touch. As for this blog, well I’ll keep delving into the important things, baseball cards and free things to do in Chicago.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Lazy, Rainy Quick Hit Post

Some quick hits for this rainy Tuesday afternoon:

* If you have a question on if you should start a quarterback who has broken ribs, a punctured lung and no receivers to throw to -- don’t do it. That’s how you lose your match up by 4 points.

* Mayweather vs. Ortiz - Protect yourself at all times. Ortiz wasn’t going to win that fight, but by losing the way he did, there is a good chance he gets a re-match and Mayweather gets to dodge the Pac Man for a few more months. Oh, and why isn't more being made of one of the most blatent headbutts in the history of boxing? There is no excuse for what Ortiz did in that round, and amount of hugging or kissing is going to change that.

* Red Sox collapse - Couldn’t happen to a better fan base Of course, now we get to hear about how tortured they are for the entire off-season.

* Hockey season is right around the corner. It’s AWESOME! There will be previews coming up some time in the next week or so.

* I just saw the preview for 2012 Heritage. I think I might be collecting that set instead of the base set this year. Even with the short prints and the higher sticker price it’ll be more fun to collect. So, I’m starting to save my pennies for a box come next winter.

* The Ravens are 2-1 after three games (just like I thought they’d be if not in the way I thought they would be). However, I’m still not sold on their secondary. Great game for Torrey Smith, but he’s still a rookie. There will be weeks where he disappears.

*Ozzie Guillen talked his way out of Chicago. I would be surprised if he makes it all the way through his new four-year contract down there. The Cubs need a GM and the White Sox need a coach, at least the hot stove will be steaming in The Windy City this winter.

* Bloggers out there - are there any posts that you wrote and didn’t post after thinking about it?

* Survivor - Russell’s nephew - annoying or most annoying? Hey, kid why not focus on being your own person?

And a bonus photo from the greater Chicago-land area

The view from Starved Rock.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Pinnacle of My Day

I did something today that I haven't done all summer. I bought a pack of cards. Things have been a little slow on the pack/box buying because of our current economic situation. I was in Target doing the normal daily shopping (yes I grocery shop everyday, because well it gives me something to do instead of staring at a computer) and saw that they had a very slim selection of loose hockey cards, as in they had none.

So I dug around the value box to see if there was anything worthwhile in there. There were a couple of packs of Pinnacle (not marked down) and a couple of packs of 08-09 Upper Deck. I went with the Pinnacle simply because I hadn't busted any of it this year and wanted to see what my luck would be in one retail pack.

I know my luck. I wasn't getting a Tough Times autograph or a City Lights Materials card. The only thing I was looking for was a Vincent card. Or any Lightning card for that matter. Well, let's get right to it and see how I did.

Not a bad way to start. Alex Ovechkin freight-training Tomas Plekanec. Or as the back of the card says he's "more than willing and able to play the role of the rough and tumble".

I'm not really digging the way that was written.

Scottie Upshall celebrating a goal. Or the fact that he wouldn't have to move to Winnipeg.

Tyler Ennis pulling a Bobby Orr against the Penguins. Or is it the Panthers? Nope, it's the Blue Jackets. Hey NHL teams, how about we stop with the dark blue uniforms and circle crest in the middle.

Wow, I really do not like this card. Let's see why:
A. East Coast Bias prevents me from liking Detroit.
B. The Phoenix player gets absorbed by the border.
C. This probably would have been sweet as a horizontal card.
D. Hank Zetterberg sucks.
E. All of the above.
F. A,B,C,D

That's right it's F!

As much as I disliked the Zetterberg card, I really liked this one. Doesn't Pavelic just look happy to be playing hockey and not, say, unconscious in his goal crease?

Patric Hornqvist getting stopped by Carey Price. I flipped through this pack about 4 times on the bus ride home (grown man looking at hockey cards and I'm not even one of the top five weirdos on the bus! Love the Big City!) and it wasn't until I scanned the card until I noticed it was an "Artist Proof" parallel. Way to make your inserts stand out!

Bryan McCabe. No jokes here. It feels like I would just be piling on.

Daniel Alfredsson. Nothing to striking about this card other then the look on Alfie's face. Almost as if he's surprised he scored. Take a look at the fan under his left armpit.

Man? Woman? Brett Michaels? Even looking at it a day later I'm not sure.

And the final card in the pack!

Boom! Lightning player! Big Vic Hedman. Not only does it look like he's doing an excellent job of obstruction Daniel Alfredsson, it also looks like he's thumbing Popeye in the eye. Good job Vic!

There ya have it. For $2.99 I got 9 cards, wait what? Nine cards? The pack says I should have gotten 10 Cartes De LNH a Collectionner. Why those no good, scruffy-looking.....

Monday, September 19, 2011

At Long Last The Thrilling Conculsion of The Road Trip

(sorry there are no pictures. Blogger is acting up.)

Day two of the road trip began early. There are certain calm, soothing ways to wake up – the sun rising in the east, gentle music gradually increasing in volume, a light kiss on the lips from a loved one. The theme song from “The Flinstones” is not one of those ways. What it lacks in subtleness it does, however, make up in effectiveness. So after a couple of quick showers and some continental breakfasting it was off to Iowa City.

The front desk attendant said it would probably take about 40 minutes to get there with game day traffic. It was smooth sailing until we hit the University of Iowa exit which was backed up a little bit. After sitting on the shoulder of the highway for about 5 minutes we made it through and found a parking spot on a golf course about a mile from the stadium.

Three hours before kickoff and Iowa fans were in full tailgate mode. The college kids were lugging suitcases of cheap beer to their beer pong tables while the older crowd sipped on wine outside of their multi-thousand dollar mobile homes. After seeing the way some of the RVs were set up Link and I quickly added “college stadium tour in a RV” to the list of things to do once I hit the powerball.

It was an odd sight to see so many yellow and black clad fans that are not cheering for a Pittsburgh team. While the sports world justly mocks Ravens fans for their unhealthy obsession with purple zubas, they pale in comparison to the yellow and black overalls sported by an unhealthy number of Hawkeye supporters.

We wandered around Kinnick Stadium a few times to see if there was anything of interest. Unfortunately, other than food vendors and tables hawking Iowa merchandise there isn’t much. That’s not a bad thing. It was obvious once we got there that everything was about the game itself and there was no need for any extra bells and whistles to entertain the easily distracted masses.

I can freely admit that I know nothing about Iowa sports (other than Kurt Warner was a QB for the Iowa Barnstormers) and had no idea who or what “Kinnick” was and why the stadium was named after him or it. I figured it was a coach that had won a bunch of games in the 30’s and went back to wondering why people would wear Guy Fieri wigs in public.

Luckily for prosperity’s sake a gregarious Iowa fan approached Link and started filling him in on some of the finer aspects of Hawkeye history. Apparently, Nile Kinnick was a Heisman Trophy winner from the 1930’s who is revered in Iowa much like Johnny Unitas is in Baltimore. As a running back and kicker he led the Hawkeyes to a victory in 1939 over Notre Dame and then gave a rather articulate Heisman acceptance speech that some say is the best speech ever uttered by a college athlete (sorry Tim Tebow).

He sounds like one of those all around all-American boys that you don’t find in sports anymore. The stature in front of the stadium depicts him not in uniform, but in a letterman jacket carrying his books. Our friendly host thinks he would have been a presidential candidate would it not have been for his untimely death in a US Navy training accident during World War II.

The stadium itself is pretty cool. It’s an all-brick stadium that reminded Link a lot of Camden Yards. Much like outside, there aren’t many frills on the inside. Other than the typical food stalls there was one wall depicting the All-Americans in Iowa history (including Mr. Papadopoulos himself – Alex Karros) and a large bronze relief of Mr. Kinnick plunging over the goal line against Notre Dame.

After chatting for a few more minutes we went inside. A text from Saint Leo Mike added some intrigue to the game as he broke the news to us that Pitt and Syracuse were abandoning the Big East for the ACC. As far the game itself, well the less said the better. I’ll give Link credit for calling the epic 4th quarter collapse. Pitt broke down pretty much just as he said they would. Poor fella traveled a long distance to see history. It just wasn’t the type of history he wanted to see (Iowa’s biggest comeback ever).

Despite spending most of my adult life in Florida, I am pretty much college football agnostic. The Duchess is a Florida grad so I tend to route for them if I have to. The team I’ve seen play the most is actually the University of Hawaii so I like them as well.

Without having much at stake at the Iowa/ Pitt game I sat back and enjoyed the atmosphere. Kinnick Stadium is an all bleacher stadium and putting comfort before pride we invested in padded seat backs. With 70,000 Iowa fans and about 25 Pitt fans in the stadium things were kind of cramped, but not uncomfortable.

I imagine college football is the closest American sports come to the passion other countries show at soccer games. There were chants (no songs) and the crowd was about 90% gold. The student section was boisterous, and when the refs missed an obvious holding call on Pitt in the third quarter the entire crowd let their displeasure be known with a loud, sustained “booooo”.

On the way out, Iowa fans continued to show their hospitality by pointing us in the right direction when we took a wrong turn back to the parking lot. Link did suffer some minor heckling, but when one drunk fan started getting annoying he was shushed by fellow Iowa fans. Where else does that happen?

We found the car without much incident and drove straight home. Well except for that side trip to the casino. Over the years, Link and I have spent our fair share of time together in casinos. We’ve gambled together in four different states and Canada. We’ve lost money and won money. Unfortunately, this was one of the times we lost money. I spent an hour at a craps table paying $5 a roll to see someone set a number and then crap out. There are few places more depressing than a craps table that is ice cold. It’s pretty much the DMV of the gambling world.

Craps and blackjack are the two games I gravitate to in casinos. I tried poker, because everyone in America was playing poker, and I found that I have no patience for it. Therefore, I am no good at it. Link, on the other hand, is halfway decent. As in he actually wins money when he plays. So for our Vegas trips that usually means he plays poker for a few hours and I end up wandering around the strip looking at the Star Trek exhibit at the Hilton or the vintage matchbooks at the Tropicana.

I’ve had mixed results at the craps table. The first time I played I got cleaned out. The second time I won some money. At the casino in Iowa (which I won’t name) it was more of the former. I was just betting a number or two so as not to give them all of my chips at once so I was pretty much dying the death of a thousand razors. Not fun.

After we contributed to the coffers of whoever owns that casino we were back in the car for the ride home. It was uneventful, although we did pass two more presidential homes. Who know that the trip from Illinois to Iowa would lead to so much fun history? Unfortunately, we didn’t stop at Regan’s or Hoover’s homes because we wanted to get back to my apartment sometime before midnight.

All in all, it was a good trip. It’s always fun to catch up with old friends and share in new experiences. Even if the game didn’t end like we had hoped, it was a blast. Pitt returns to Iowa in 2015. Not sure where I’ll be then, but if it’s still Chicago I would definitely make the trip again.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Outlander! Outlander! We Have Your Woman!

Day One. 7:52pm. The day is over. Well at least the driving part. The Mini Cooper is parked in the lot and the football game is on the TV. It’s novel to have channels to choose from after 9 months of not having cable. It reminds me of when my mom finally caved and had cable installed in the house the summer before I left for college. Soooooo many choices filled with such bad T.V.

Any who. The Hampton Inn and Suites in wonderful Cedar Rapids, Iowa isn’t a bad hotel (for a non-Starwoods property. Shout out to my big, sis!). There is a decent number of sports bars around and the hotel offers free wireless internet along with the NFL channel. Excellent!

The history of Link/Chief (that’s me!) road trips date back to college. The first was an epic ride in a Dodge Neon from Saint Leo, FL to Cranberry Township, PA to Baltimore, MD one Christmas break. There was gambling (RIP video slots in South Carolina), a dashboard that didn’t work, a race to a gas station without a clue how much gas was in the tank due to the non-working dashboard, $0.65 a gallon gas, a picture of me freezing my ass off by a bridge, cows standing on the side of a hill, a Steelers game which led to Link’s mom swearing like a sailor and an epic game of “Name That Athlete” that lasted the entire stat of Georgia.

This trip wouldn’t be as epic. For one thing we’re not in our 20’s anymore. At the restaurant, when Link mentioned it was my birthday, the waitress responded with the “Oh it’s your 29th , right? ” in that “wow, I know you‘re older than my dad, but I want to make you feel good so you’ll tip me better” voice that I remember from my days in a restaurant.

Another difference is the technology. We weren’t flying blind, getting our directions from a paper map and by reading highway signs. Nope, Link had his GPS and I had printed out step-by-step directions from Mapquest in case of catastrophic satellite failure or solar flares. Along with serving as a navigator, Pitt’s biggest fan also closed a few deals, e-mailed a few proposals, played a couple rounds of Words-With-Friends and checked the weather.

The dashboard worked, but gas was not $0.65 a gallon.

The trip was delayed a bit due to Link’s “aborted landing” at Midway. I guess Southwest felt the need to give their passengers a little more time in the air as they bailed out on their initial landing and circled around again. After that bit of delay we were underway with Howard Stern on the radio and sports talk flowing back and forth. In case you were wondering:

1. Steelers got old fast, Link’s expecting a bad team to be saved somewhat by a weak schedule.
2. Crosby will be out at least half the season
3. Pitt is not a good college football team
4. Nobody cared about the Pirates once they started losing and football started

As I was the driver I kind of commandeered the route out to Iowa and since we were staying in Cedar Rapids I managed to chart a northerly route through the great state of Iowa. Why northerly? Well because it would take us to a certain Iowa shrine that I had an itching to visit since I’m not sure how many times I’ll revisit this fine state.

What I didn’t count on was visiting the home of one of the greatest Civil War generals (and one of the greatest drunks) and former president Ulysses S Grant. There was a statue of his wife. We took pictures. She was a…ummm..handsome woman. If I would have remembered my USB cable you would see a picture here:

If you want to visit it yourself drive to Galena, Illinois. You can’t miss it.

After that brief detour it was off to Dyersville, IA. What the hell is in Dyersville? Well, a lot of cows. A lot of corn. Some chickens standing by the side of the road. Most of all, the Real Field of Dreams. That’s right for the low, low cost of nothing you can play ball on the same field as Ray Liotta and Kevin Costner. They even have the white house with the swinging bench on the porch.

Picture of white house that is on my camera that you can’t see.

It is pretty much exactly what you would think it would be. The dimensions are a little smaller than a regulation field and it looks like they had a bit of gravel around home plate, but the bases were 90 feet apart, the mound 60 feet 6 inches away and there were people playing ball on the field. Not an organized game, but more a glorified batting practice.

There were a couple of kids, some elderly folk running around the outfield and a bunch of middle aged guys acting like kids. A kid took a picture of his dad and granddad by the cornstalks in right field and a girlfriend cheered on her man as he took a mighty swing and miss at an offered pitch. If his shoulder wasn’t bothering him I’m sure I could have talked Link into taking a swing or two and possibly launching one into the cornfields, instead he stood on the side and talked a little football with some Iowa locals.

And here would be the picture of the guy fielding grounders at short with a beer in his hand.

I took a couple of calls from my folks and Saint Leo Mike and then snapped a photo or two before hitting the small gift shop. That’s right Hamel, you have something on its way soon! If you’re a baseball fan, there is some kind of special feeling in the air, there probably would have been more if it hadn’t been a chilly, damp afternoon. But, still it felt like a place baseball fans should visit. Heck don’t be ashamed to grab your glove and shag a few grounders either.

After picking up our goodies we were back on the winding roads (isn’t Iowa supposed to be flat) to Cedar Rapids. A decent dinner at the Fieldbox (OMG they have Moose Drool on tap!) and then back to the hotel for football and phone calls to loved ones. Oh yeah, that’s something else that has changed since the college road trip. Road trips are nice, but so is having someone to go home to at the end of it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Road Trip!

The Hopeful Chase goes on the road tomorrow. And I'm pretty sure I've talked my traveling companion into taking a detour.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Card Trade Leads to Some Random Pondering

Amidst my move at the beginning of the month I was able to pull off yet another card trade. Unlike 99% of the trades I’ve made in the last three years or so, this one came from somewhere other than my want-list. Heck, it didn’t even come from someone else’s want-list (let me send a friendly reminder to all those out there - update your want-lists!) No this trade came via Zistle.

I’m not sure how many of you out there use as place for your card inventory, but let me give it props for making trades nice and easy. I’ve got a couple of things posted up there that I’m trying to trade away (namely my Chicle base cards and the remnants of my former Carl Crawford collection) and finally someone saw something they needed.

Josh, a Royals fan and I had a match (cards on my trade list matched cards on his want list and vice versa). So in exchange for four or five Royals cards I received back the following:

Eight Eddie Murrays for my personal collection and an always appreciated sticker of the greatest logo in the history of the Baltimore franchise. Everyone always mentions how the sticks of gum from Topps packs don’t age well. Well, neither do the stickers from the mid-80s Fleer products. I’ve tried to stick two of these to a binder (because after all I’m still 12 years-old) and neither one made it.

I’m stuck between the 1987 highlights (which has a bit of a nice gloss to it) and the 1996 Topps as my favorites from this bunch. The Topps is from the days when I abandoned card collecting for college, well college and bestowing whatever funds I had on alcohol. So despite being 15 years old it’s new to me!

I’ll call it a tie, but what strikes me most about this package is Murray’s use of batting gloves. I’ve always remembered him as not wearing them when he hits, which is born out by the fact that half of the cards pictured show him bare-handing it (1987 Donruss Highlights, 1990 Donruss NL Best, 1987 Sports Flics, and 1996 Upper Deck).

Two of the cards (1990 Fleer and 1988 Topps) show him double-bagging it with gloves on each hand. There is nothing unusual about that, most hitters, especially switch hitters, would have a glove on each hand when hitting to help with their grip. Even during my modest career as a switch-hitting catcher/first-baseman I used gloves on each hand.

What I find odd are the last two cards (1987 Fleer Limited Edition and 1996 Topps) show him using one glove. Again, not unusual for a player to hit with just one glove on his hand. What is unusual is that in both photos, Murray is wearing the glove on his top hand. That you don’t see too often as hitters are most concerned with keeping a solid grip on the bat with their bottom hand, also known as the “power hand” since it is that lead arm that pulls the bat through the hitting zone.

At first, I thought it might be a co-incidence and the other team had brought in a relief pitcher to switch Murray around and force him to hit from a different side of the plate. Being a nice guy Murray wouldn’t want to slow the game down by going back to the dugout and switching hitting gloves. However, if you notice he rocks the single ear flap helmet in both shots, which means he went to the plate knowing what side of the plate he was going to be hitting from. If he could get the right helmet on, he should have the right batting gloves as well.

With my curiosity piqued I flipped through my growing collection of Murray cards and noticed that in all of the pictures that show him with one batting glove on, it is always on the top hand. Well, all of the cards except for one. His 1988 Score card shows him hitting left-handed and with the glove on his bottom hand.

One theory that I have (developed in the 8 minutes it’s taken me to type this much) is that the Hall of Fame slugger, unlike most hitters, rarely released his top hand during his follow through. Perhaps the glove helped him keep his top hand on the bat and allowed him to drive through the point of impact.

Since I’m writing without access to the internet, I can’t find out if he ever talked about it, but it has given me something else to look for when picking up new Murrays. I also can’t remember if any other major leaguers have ever hit like that. Can you, my loyal readers, think of anyone?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Football? A Baltimore Ravens Preview Before The Season Starts? My Goodness!

The air is crisper, the sun is setting a bit sooner and people are investing way too much time worrying about Peyton Manning’s health. Thus, it must be football season. Usually, I don’t write football previews, actually I don’t write that much about football at all. Of all the sports I follow, football is the one I’m least analytical about and the one I least desire to put pen to paper about. That lets me be Joe Q. Fan when it comes to the NFL.

With my recent internet blackout I barely had time to prepare for my fantasy drafts and no time to look at things in depth regarding the Ravens. However, that’s not going to stop me from giving you a season preview. After all, if you don’t come here for uninformed sports opinions why do you come?

The shortened pre-season didn’t start well for Ravens fan. GM Ozzie Newsome cut ties with some popular names to free up cap space. No more will the cries of “HEEEEEEEAAAAPPP” resonate through BB&T Stadium every time Todd Heap catches a first down and limps off the field. The one year contracts for TJ Houshmanhzadeh and Dante Stallworth weren’t renewed, no great loss there, but for a few days the Ravens were awful short in the wide receiver department.

Kelly Gregg, aka Buddy Lee, went to Kansas City as did enigmatic offensive lineman Jacob Gaither. Gaither is no great loss despite his potential. Gregg is on the downside of his career and would be hard pressed to beat out Haloti Ngata or Terrence Cody for playing time.

As always patience is a virtue when keeping tabs on the Ravens front office. Newsome didn’t sign any big names, but he found replacements for weak spots in the line up. Vonta Leach’s signing as the starting fullback signaled a dedication to the run that was missing last year. Lover of the chronic Ricky Williams was brought in to replace Willis McGahee as a back-up running back. Williams isn’t the back he was in New Orleans, but can be serviceable as a third down back.

Joe Flacco’s new targets in the passing game are going to be downfield threat Lee Evans and young tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, two pass catching tight ends who are athletic enough to line up in the slot from time to time.

The increased focus on the running game should open the passing game for Flacco, and Evans downfield abilities should open the middle up for Anquan Boldin. “Q”’ should see more action in the red zone which will make his fantasy owners happy.

It’s a big year for Flacco. He’s healthy, he has a stronger running game and receiver targets, and his line is supposedly better. We’ll see if he propels himself into the top tier of NFL quarterbacks or continues to be a better than most, but not great field general. He needs to improve on the speed of his decision making. Too many times in his brief career he’s held onto the ball too long and taken bone-crushing sacks or lost the football.

So where are they going to end up at the end of the year? One of the NFL’s clich├ęs is that every team takes the season in quarters. If you win 3 out of every 4 games in each quarter you end up with a 12-4 record, which is pretty good.

Well I’m not going to do that. I’m going to break it up into three categories.

Games The Ravens Should Win

9/18/11 - Tennessee. The Titans aren’t the team that they used to be when they had Steve McNair and Eddie George in the backfield. The Ravens should be able to shut down Chris Johnson and put the game in Matt Hasselbeck’s hands. With the exception of Kenny Britt there isn’t much for Hasselbeck to throw to so the secondary should be able to back each other up.

10/24/11 - at Jacksonville. The one game on the schedule that the Ravens should be double digit favorites and actually cover. On national TV Baltimore should dominate.

10/30/11 - Arizona. The Cardinals comes to town which means the return of local favorite Todd Heap. He should get a nice reception. By this time the NFL should know if Kevin Kolb was worth the price they paid for him. If the Ravens get pressure on him they should be able to force mistakes. Losing Rodgers-Cromartie on defense opens up the deep ball to Evans. The only thing I worry about is the Ravens looking head to Week 9 and the Steelers.

11/13/11 - at Seattle. If the Seahawks weren’t the Seahawks I would worry about the west coast flight. However, there is a 32.6% chance that the Ol' Gunslinger himself has gotten off the tractor in Mississippi to start for the Seahawks. Even if he hasn't the QB will be Tavaris Jackson or Charlie Whitehurst. Let that sink in for a little. The Ravens secondary isn't elite, but it's good enough to contain those threats. This game starts a four game stretch against the weakest opponents for the Ravens. If they go 4-0 in these games the playoffs should be a strong possibility.

11/20/11 - Cincinnati. Cedric Benson could be in jail by this point of the season and Marvin Lewis could be unemployed. The Bengals defense is better than people think, but I don’t see them putting up many points with Andy Dalton throwing the ball. The Ravens should be able to shut down the running game and feast on the rookie quarterback.

11/24/11 - San Francisco. Happy Thanksgiving! Oh and it’s a family reunion for the coaches. John and Jim Harbaugh face off for the first time and John lays the smack down on his bro who, at this point, is wondering if there is a loophole that lets him return to Stanford.

12/4/11 - at Cleveland. Hopefully having won the last three the Ravens should be peaking at their best by now. Much like Tennessee, they could be a danger if Colt McCoy had anyone to throw to. The Ravens won’t light up the scoreboard, but should score enough to win. However, much discussion will be made about Art Modell who isn't even the majority owner at this point and he moved the team more than a decade ago. I got over the Colts moving - time to sack up and get over yourselves Cleveland. It's not like they moved a Super Bowl contending team.

12/24/11 - Cleveland. Christmas Eve. The air is cold, the stockings are hung and the Browns still suck.

1/1/12 - at Cincinnati. Another holiday game and the Ravens could need this one to get into the playoffs in a competitive AFC. The Bengals will be playing for Andrew Luck and not much else.

Games The Ravens Could Lose

9/11/11 - Pittsburgh. I know I’m sacrificing my Ravens fan card by saying this, but I think Pittsburgh is a better team then the Baltimore this year. Not by much, but based on past history just enough to squeak out a win.

10/2/11 - New York Jets. The new Ravens vs. the old Ravens. There is no way Mark Sanchez has a big game against Baltimore, but I think bad penalties and a lack of discipline will be the difference as the Jets win 10-9. In other words as long as the total is over 23 - bet the under.

11/6/11 - at Pittsburgh. This could be a must win game for the Ravens if they want to win the division and pick up home field advantage in the playoffs. The pressure will be on Flacco and so far in his career pressure games haven’t been his forte.

12/18/11 - at San Diego. I don’t like this game at all. From Phil Rivers ability to rack up passing yardage to the Ravens having to go to the west coast, it all adds up to a loss. Plus, aren’t the Chargers 112-1 in November and December over the last few years?

Games We Don’t Know What Will Happen

9/25/11 - at St Louis. The Rams bandwagon is overflowing at this point. Second year quarterback Sam Bradford proved that he belongs in the NFL (at least more so than fellow 2010 draftee Jimmy Clausen). Stephen Jackson is a legitimate offensive threat and their defensive should be better than people think. This also goes down as the game I would be attending if I was employed.

10/16/11 - Houston. The Texans have replaced the Cardinals as the critics favorite team to “surprise” people. Despite their perchance for underplaying to their potential, the talking heads like think every year is the year that they break out. If Arian Foster and Andre Johnson stay healthy the middle of October could be a shoot-out.

12/11/11 - Indianapolis. If Manning is back I’d give Indy the edge. Much like Roethlisberger he has the Ravens number in head to head match-ups. Even if he has high school dropouts as his receivers he will carve up Baltimore’s secondary.

So if the Ravens lose all of the games they “could lose” and at least one of the mystery games that puts them at five losses. If you’ve followed the team at all over the last decade you know that they lose at least one game that they should win due to taking bad penalties. So I see them at 10-6 this year. AFC wild card. One win in the playoffs and done.