All posts by Jeff

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.

1989 Donruss #40 – Ron Jones


The Card

The 1989 Donruss cards were so cheap and so plentiful and so worthless that I grew to hate them.

Cards from the 80’s were all about bold, bright colors, but the late 80’s added gradients. Donruss incorporated one across the top and bottom of their 1989 cards. It looks OK, I guess, but there was the common problem of vertical off-centering. It was very obvious when a card was miscut. Another quality control issue were the black bars on either side. Sometimes they had a matte finish, sometimes they were glossy. And the cards were also pathetically thin. The slightest bit of humidity would make the cards curl. They looked and felt cheap.

And Donruss (named for founders Donald and Russell Weiner) had a pretty crappy record when it came to selecting Rated Rookies. They got a few right, but Alex Sanchez? Eric Gunderson? Paul Marak? Steve Chitren? Terry Bross? How did they pick these guys?

Jones was stocky and muscular. Never saw him play, but just by looking at the pictures, I imagined that he could hit the shit out of the ball.

The Player

Jones was born and raised in the small town of Seguin, Texas, just east of San Antonio. As a kid, he played tailback for the Texas Youth Football Association Seguin Steelers.

In 1982, the 18-year-old Jones was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 14th round, but he refused to sign. The following year, Montreal selected the outfielder from Wharton Junior College with the 42nd overall pick. Once again, Jones refused to sign. The Phillies wound up signing him as an undrafted free agent in 1984.

Jones was not exceptional in the minor leagues but showed a lot of power when he was called up in 1988. I, of course, extrapolated the numbers and expected him to be the next Babe Ruth.

He started 1989 with the Phillies. Only 12 games into the season, Jones ran full-tilt into the unpadded fence at Shea Stadium and busted up his right leg. He was lost for the year. Jones was asked if he had learned anything from four months as a spectator:

I’ve learned I don’t want to go through this again.

Only 24 games into the 1990 season, Jones’ other knee blew out, this time at Veteran’s Stadium against the Astros. On a line drive by Houston’s Franklin Stubbs, Jones broke back and then came charging in when his left knee buckled and he collapsed to the ground. Jones had surgery to repair a torn patella tendon and torn lateral meniscus in his left knee.

This injury, for all intents and purposes, ended his career. He fought back and played in 28 games in 1991, but his legs just couldn’t hold up.

Jones played Mexican League and Independent League ball for another nine years and hit very well, but he never got a chance to play in the majors again. He quit the game after the 2000 season.

Upon retirement, Jones began working as a hitting instructor and coach for high school youths, eventually forming the Big League Batting Academy in Tomball, Texas with former major leaguer Charlie Hayes. Jones also coached the Houston Sox, a 13-18 year-old major division team in the Houston-area select baseball league.

In 2006, the 41-year-old Jones was found dead in his apartment from an apparent “brain bleed”. I was really sorry to learn that.

1990 Upper Deck #74 – Dean Palmer


The Card

Palmer’s holding a Bratt bat over his shoulders, and he’s shown in profile. It’s kind of cool. Not the action shot you’d want for an up and coming star, but it works. His uniform is nice and clean.

The card design of 1990 Upper Deck is pretty plain, though. Just not much to it. The back has a misspelling (“perminant” instead of “permanent”). Did they not have spellcheck (or editors) in 1990?

I probably have more of this card than any other in my collection. I had read in a magazine that Palmer had more long-term potential than Scott Coolbaugh for Rangers at third base. So I stockpiled the cards for cheap. They were right, Palmer WAS better than Coolbaugh, but not good enough to return on my investment. The cards are as worthless now as they were back then.

The Player

Palmer began playing in the Rangers organization in 1986 at age 17. He was immediately nothing special.

In 1989, he made his major league debut and sucked hard, but he’d become a decent hitter a few years later. In 1995, he swung so hard that he ripped his biceps tendon off the bone. An injury facilitated by steroids, I’d guess.

One day in the 90’s, he showed up to the field at Florida State, where my buddy was groundskeeper. With a metal bat, my buddy says he was hitting balls about 600 feet into a parking garage next to the field.

He bounced from Texas to Kansas City to Detroit. With a series of nagging neck and shoulder injuries, Palmer retired following the 2003 baseball season. He attempted a comeback with the Tigers in 2005 spring training, but failed to make the team.

Palmer now is the assistant coach at Lincoln High School in Tallahassee.