1991 Topps #15 – Von Hayes


The Card

The 1991 Topps set was an attempt to be a little bit more minimalist and refined with its design, which was the trend in the early 90’s. An anniversary emblem adorned the front and back of every card, but other than that, it was just another very mediocre Topps set.

Topps’ photography was getting a little better, but the higher quality poses and images in other premium sets made Topps look amateurish and boring. I’m not sure if it was the photography or a limitation of the card stock used by Topps, but pretty much all of their photos suffered from a strange blurriness that made it look like there was a matte painting behind the players.

The Player

Very tall and skinny. Who is shaped like that? There hasn’t been a successful hitter shaped like that since Ted Williams, and I don’t think there will be again. Hayes may be the last of his kind. He also looked a bit like Carl Sagan.

Hayes spent only two years in the minors, hitting very well in A-ball and AAA before breaking in with the Indians in 1981 at the age of 22.

Hayes was originally acquired by the Phillies in a “five-for-one” trade with the Indians in exchange for Manny Trillo, George Vukovich, Jay Baller, Jerry Willard, and Julio Franco. The bulk of his career was with Philadelphia, where played offensive sidekick to Mike Schmidt.

When he first came up, Hayes was nothing special at the plate, but something he learned to do quite well as he got older was draw walks. In the statistically ignorant 80’s, that ability to get on base was probably overlooked and undervalued. These days, a look at the numbers reveals that he was quite good with the bat in the late 80’s, though a mediocre first baseman.

On June 11, 1985, Von Hayes became the first player in MLB history to hit two home runs in the first inning of a baseball game.

Hayes was unpopular with fans. His cool demeanor on the field, coupled with rumors of a prickly personality off the field, rubbed people the wrong way. He also never quite lived up to the expectations that came with being traded for five players.

In 1991, a Tom Browning pitch broke his skinny arm. Hayes was traded to the California Angels in the off-season but would later cite Browning’s pitch as what ended his career:

I broke my arm when I was hit by a pitch from Tom Browning… and I was finished. I tried to make a comeback (with California) in 1992, but it was no good.

I never realized he stole so many bases, averaging about 25 a year and reaching a high of 48 in 1984. I would have loved to see him run. I imagine he would have looked like a baby deer.

Since retiring, Hayes has managed a variety of minor league teams, currently the Alexandria (Louisiana) Aces.

1990 Leaf #180 – Albert Belle


The Card

Donruss used the Leaf brand from 1985 to 1988 for cards distributed in Canada. Despite their relative rarity and the fact they were almost visually identical, Leaf cards were even less desirable (if that’s even possible) than the standard Donruss offering. In 1990, Leaf was rebranded as an independent high-end issue to compete with Upper Deck in the emerging premium card market.

The 1990 Leaf set was very popular for it’s newness, card quality, and perceived scarcity. An exciting class of rookies also helped make this and pretty much all the 1990 sets more exciting to collect.

With it’s neutral white-gray color scheme, minimalist design, and nice-looking backs, the cards were a welcome departure from other ugly and cheaply made sets of the time. The card stock was impressively thick and the images we of high quality, but a closer look at the photography of the set as a whole shows mostly traditional poses without much personality.

On this particular card, Belle’s expression is somewhere between needing to sneeze and needing to take a shit. The headshot on the back is decidedly more pleasant. His faint smile and droopy eyes make it look like he just took a bong hit. Also notice the difference in skin tone between the two images.

The Player

Unbelievably, Belle was a Boy Scout who attained the rank of Eagle Scout. In high school, he was a star baseball and football player, a member of the National Honor Society, and vice president of the local Future Business Leaders of America. He graduated sixth in his high school class.

After a successful baseball career at LSU, Belle was drafted by the Cleveland Indians. He shot through the minor leagues, hitting for average and power at every level. He made it to the Indians in 1989 at the age of 22.

Born Albert Jr., he was known as “Joey” (his childhood nickname) in the minors, and his earliest baseball cards bear this name. After undergoing counseling to address his temper and excessive drinking, Belle preferred to be known as “Albert.”

Belle always seemed angry. I felt like he took all his aggression out on the baseball with that awkward-looking swing. And he could hit the ball pretty damn hard. But his career was marked by controversy, fights with fans, unpleasant interactions with the public, and a disdain for the media. Buster Olney, then of The New York Times, wrote:

It was a taken in baseball circles that Albert Belle was nuts… The Indians billed him $10,000 a year for the damage he caused in clubhouses on the road and at home, and tolerated his behavior only because he was an awesome slugger… He slurped coffee constantly and seemed to be on a perpetual caffeinated frenzy. Few escaped his wrath: on some days he would destroy the post-game buffet…launching plates into the shower… after one poor at-bat against Boston, he retreated to the visitors’ clubhouse and took a bat to teammate Kenny Lofton’s boombox. Belle preferred to have the clubhouse cold, below 60 degrees, and when one chilly teammate turned up the heat, Belle walked over, turned down the thermostat and smashed it with his bat. His nickname, thereafter, was “Mr. Freeze.”

During a game in Belle’s banner 1994 season, White Sox manager Gene Lamont challenged that Belle was using a corked bat. Umpire Dave Phillips confiscated the bat and locked it in the umpires’ room. During the game, Indians pitcher Jason Grimsley scrambled through a crawlspace above the ceiling and switched Belle’s bat with Paul Sorrento’s, a fellow teammate.

The Indians were ordered by the American League to produce Belle’s original, unaltered bat. Eventually, the bat was sent to the MLB in New York where it was x-rayed and then sawed in half in the presence of Belle and Indians GM John Hart. The bat was found to be corked and Belle was suspended by the AL for 10 games.

Jason Grimsley stated in 1999 that he had used Sorrento’s bat to replace Belle’s because all of Belle’s bats were corked. This story was corroborated by Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel in his 2002 book, where he confirmed that all of Belle’s bats were indeed corked.

In 1995, Belle led the league in home runs, doubles, runs, RBIs, and slugging percentage but narrowly lost the AL MVP award to Boston’s Mo Vaughn. Belle’s temperament, disdain of the media, and allegations of using corked bats surely cost him the votes he needed to win. He said:

If you ask every reporter who voted, they knew they should have been voting for me. It should have been the greatest landslide in MVP history. Just because some of them didn’t like me … they didn’t vote for me.

When looking at his numbers from the mid-90’s, the height of the steroid era, it’s easy to say that he did them. But aside from the numbers he put up, there’s no real evidence that he did.

After leaving the Indians, he signed a Chicago White Sox contract with an unusual clause requiring that he remain one of the three highest paid players in baseball. In October 1998, he invoked the clause, and when the White Sox declined to give him a raise, he became a free agent. A $65 million contract with Baltimore would again make him the game’s highest paid player.

Despite indications that he could still hit, degenerative hip osteoarthritis forced Belle to retire in 2000 at the age of 34. He homered in the final at-bat of his major league career, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on October 1, 2000.

Today, Belle lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. He claims to have calmed down a little bit:

I’m 46 now, compared to when I was 26, so I’m pretty mild-mannered. I’ve got a wife and kids and stuff. It’s a different personality now.

But the reputation from his playing days still lingers, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever get voted into the Hall of Fame.

1990 Topps #162 – Todd Zeile


The Card

The 1990 Topps set was a hideous abortion of secondary colors, halftone gradients, and squares. Topps tried real hard to cram the trendiest design elements into a single layout and succeeded in making one of the ugliest sets of the decade. It didn’t help that most of the photos were blurry and uninspiring.

On the back, you get the vitals, stats, and a useless fact printed on muddy card stock. Art deco fonts also came into style in the early 90’s, and Topps found a way to use it for the player’s name (the Broadway font, in this case).

Zeile was one of the many “future stars” touted by all the card companies and hobby magazines. How did they choose these guys? Now that we can take a closer look at all the metrics, it just doesn’t make any sense.

The Player

Zeile progressed quickly through the minors and looked like a pretty good hitter, but certainly nothing special. He made it to the majors in 1989 at the age of 23.

A catcher originally, Zeile was moved to third base by manager Joe Torre in an effort to make him a more productive hitter and prolong his career. He spent most of the rest of his career there and was not very good. Zeile ended the decade having committed more errors than any other player in the 90’s.

Zeile’s bat proved to be mediocre. A highlight may have been driving in 103 in 1993 with the Cardinals or hitting 31 home runs in 1997 with the Dodgers, but Zeile never hit .300 and was never the best player on his team. He was never voted onto an All-Star team and never received an MVP vote. To his credit, Zeile has the most home runs in major league history for players whose last name begin with the letter Z.

He played 16 years for 11 different teams and was durable, avoiding injury for most of his career. On October 3, 2004, he became one of 41 players to hit a home run in his final at bat. Zeile’s final home run also made him the last person ever to hit a home run off a Montreal Expos pitcher.

After retiring, Zeile (who looks a bit like Greg Kinnear) pursued film production and acting, with bit parts on TV and in the movies. In 2011, he was sued over failed real estate project in Mammoth Lakes, California.

1986 Topps #250 – Dwight Gooden


The Card

The 1986 Topps set was the beginning of my youthful addiction to baseball cards. I remember being 11 years old and riding my bike to the 7-11 and buying Rack Packs off the shelf. The best part of the Rack Packs were that you could see the front and back card in the pack in all three “packs”. I remember sitting in the aisle at the 7-11 looking through all of the packs, trying to find one with an above average player.

Looking back at the 1986 card now, I think to myself just how much profit Topps must have made back in the day. The card stock is absolutely horrible. You can actually rub the card apart just by placing a little pressure to the face of the card with your thumb, it literally wants to fall apart. If there is a PSA 10 1986 Topps card, I would love to see it.

The fun thing about the 1986 set, though, was the massive block lettering at the top. Topps didn’t care if the team name was Reds, Mets, Cardinals, or White Sox. They were going to attempt to jam it to the width of the card.

The front of the card shows Gooden in full pitching motion, just off-centered, almost like you would be a right-handed hitter facing the Doctor. Looking at the card now, I wonder if he is actually on a mound or just tossing warm up in the outfield. He doesn’t seem to be overly concerned or straining with what he is doing here.

It has been 25 years since I found my first Gooden card, sitting four packs back deep on the rack and on the back of the third rack pack. I hadn’t even seen the card before. I just saw the name Dwight Gooden #250 on the back. I didn’t open that pack, nor did I see my first Gooden “front” to the card, until roughly two months later when I found him in another pack. I had that pack for many years until I traded the pack with a buddy for a box of 1989 Upper Deck.

I have always had a love/hate relationship with the back of the 1986 Topps card. I love the design, but again the card stock was just so bad that I had a hard time reading it. They would flake, fade, or have a massive gum stain that would make it very hard to enjoy. The “Talkin’ Baseball” section always had something completely useless for the player and it took up roughly a third of the back. Who cares that Jesse Gonder was the first Mets player to get two sacrifice hits in a game in 1963? Not me.

The Player

Most people have heard the story of Gooden. And, I don’t think we need to hear again that substance abuse derailed what could have been a truly amazing career.

The Triple-A team where I grew up was the Minor League franchise for the Mets. I followed them closely. I was a Mets fan and Gooden was one of the faces of the franchise.

I will tell you being a Mets fan all of my life, he is my second favorite Mets player behind Mookie Wilson. He dominated from 1984 to 1989 reaching 100 wins at the age of 24. He would go on to win another 57 games in a Mets uniform over the next five seasons all before the age of 30. Then the wheels fell off and we know most of the rest of the story.

He bounced around four more franchises from 1996-2000 before pitching his last big league game at 35.

Since retiring, he’s had all sorts of legal trouble. DWI, punching his girlfriend, hit-and-run, and violating his probation.

I follow him on Twitter, and he seems to be at least soberish. Not really sure what he is up to other than posing with Jim Brown.

1991 Score #763 – Rodney McCray


The Card

As wonderful as the 1988 Score set was, by 1991, they were the trash of baseball cards. They were really cheap, their cards didn’t have much value, and the design was really basic. The drop case “R” looks really poor, and I am not 100% sure what they were trying to do there.

What I didn’t remember was just how big the 1991 Score set was. McCray’s card was #763. Most sets from Donruss and Fleer in that time frame were in the 660 card size. Only Topps and Upper Deck really went to the 800 card sets. Score decided in 1991 to bump that size to 900.

I always thought McCray looked confused on the front of the card, like he was trying to gather what was going on in front of him before he made a decision on what to do next. On the back of the card, McCray looks to be a likable player. There is a slight hesitation in his smile that makes me think that right before the photo the front office told him he was being sent back down to AAA next season.

The Player

McCray was drafted four times starting in 1982. He finally signed with the San Diego Padres in 1984. The issue for McCray is that he couldn’t really hit. He was excellent at getting on base, though, and was fast enough to steal some bases in the minors. His defense was excellent by all accounts and he had a very strong arm.

By the time I met McCray, he was a 28-year-old outfielder on his third franchise. For a brief time in 1992, I was a batboy for the Tidewater Tides (the AAA farm team for the New York Mets). It was a sucky job. Not very fun, and I quit after two weeks. The pay was horrible. You made $12 a game and had to be at the ballpark for eight hours on game day.

That being said, being around the players was fun. The nicest of all of the players was Rodney McCray. He signed probably close to a dozen of these cards for me. He gave me his playing spikes when he was called up the New York Mets. I played in those blue spikes for two years in high school.

Most people will remember McCray for running through the outfield wall in Portland in 1991. ESPN ranked it as the 7th best sport blooper of all-time, and The Best Damn Sports Show Period ranked the incident as their number one Top 50 Devastating Hits in sports history.

I think two things really hurt McCray’s baseball career. The first thing is he couldn’t hit, and in the mid-80’s, general managers and front-offices still looked at batting average over on-base percentage. McCray could get on base, but could never hit for a high average. This resulted in him being 26 before he even made it out of A-ball despite on-base percentages of .371, .354, .414, and .410 at that level.

I think the second thing that really hurt him is he wasn’t a very good base stealer. He stole a lot of bases, but he was also caught an incredible number of times.

Currently, per Wikipedia, it looks that McCray is a base running and outfield instructor for the Los Angeles Dodgers.