Thursday, April 30, 2009

Where have you gone Ramon?

Let's review the Dodgers' starting rotation after one month of the season:

Chad Billingsley: 4-0, 2.14 ERA, 34 Ks, 12 BBs, 0 HRs
Randy Wolf: 1-1, 4.31 ERA, 27 Ks, 8 BBs, 2 HRs
Clayton Kershaw: 0-2, 7.29 ERA, 26 Ks, 11 BBs, 4 HRs
Eric Stults: 2-1, 5.50 ERA, 11 Ks, 12 BBs, 0 HRs
James McDonald: 1-1, 7.11 ERA, 6 Ks, 10 BBs, 2 HRs

Ugly isn't it? Look at those ERAs. And this is for a team that's in first place. Where would they be without Billingsley?

It pains me to see the Dodgers struggle on the mound, because as much as I like offense, and this particular team's offense, I know that the Dodgers are about pitching. It has always been what they know how to do. But now I'm not so sure. They seem to be like every other team that hasn't got a clue about what they're going to get out of their starters.

So in times like these, I turn to the great Dodger pitching past. But I'm not going to go way back to Koufax and Drysdale or even as far back as Sutton and John or Hershiser and Valenzuela. I'm going to talk about Martinez. Pedro's older brother. Ramon.

Recently, Thorzul contacted me, saying he had acquired over 150 cards of a certain Dodgers pitcher and he'd be sending them my way. I was intrigued. I immediately thought of Hershiser. But I was wrong.

It turns out it was 177 cards of the Dodgers' great hope for the 1990s, Ramon Martinez. And, apparently the person who originally had all these cards had great hopes for Ramon, too. Because there were 52 Ramon cards from 1989 Topps alone, plus 40 from 1989 Fleer and 29 from 1989 Donruss.

That was Ramon's rookie year when everyone thought he was going to be the next Doc Gooden. He almost was -- for two seasons. He finished 20-6 in 1990, struck out 18 Braves in a single game, and was second in the Cy Young voting. The next season was pretty good, too. But then injuries and a general inability to string together several good starts hurt his career. Ramon did well again in 1995 and 1996, but he was frustrating to watch a lot of the time.

With the injuries and all, it's easy to forget how good of a pitcher he was. So, here is my ode to Ramon in card form, thanks to Thorzul Will Rule. I present the many cards of Ramon:

Rising Star Ramon: You think CC Sabathia was the first guy to wear a tilted cap?

Longest Arms in the World Ramon: His right arm looks three times as long as his left. No wonder he could pitch!

The Pensive Ramon: He appears to be thinking about his pitching performance on the left. Just draw some thought bubbles from the Ramon on the right to the Ramon on the left.

Operating Without a License Ramon: I'm told this is one of those unlicensed card dealies.

Ramon, Lover of Women, Enemy of Penguins: Doesn't it look like he just punched out a penguin? No? Well, it looks like he punched out something penguin-sized.

Shadowy Ramon: From out of the darkness, Ramon emerges to slay the evil Mets in Shea Stadium.

Bazooka Ramon: He'll burst your bubble.

Having My Picture Taken Ramon: Easily the most uninspired Ramon of the bunch.

Future Star Ramon: And he knows it.

Skinny as a baby giraffe Ramon: I read on the back of one of the cards that Ramon is tall and slender with a loose arm. Sounds like he should get that fixed.

Knuckle-scraping Ramon: That is some delivery. I pitched a little growing up. Not once did my hand ever hit the ground during my delivery. Of course, I'm not 6-4 either.

I Love L.A. Ramon: Even after seeing this card 52 times at once, I'm still not sick of this shot.

Shiny Ramon: Ramon goes out in style with the Dodgers with a glittery 1998 Finest card. After 10 years with L.A., he was still only 30 years old.

Where Am I Tonight Ramon: This stadium looks familiar as hell, but I'm drawing a huge blank.

Watching the Girls Go By Ramon: Ah, spring!

He's All Ears Ramon: I can't help it. It's all I see when I look at this card.

Powerful Ramon: Let's not forget Ramon struck out 223 batters in 1990 and pitched a league-best 12 complete games. He also threw a no-hitter in 1995.

In Your Dreams Ramon: Ramon was downright awkward at the plate. Shockingly, he hit one home run in his career.

Baffling Ramon: Score used the phrase "baffling changeup" on the back of Ramon's cards in consecutive years.

Classic Ramon: When I picture Ramon, this is the image I see.

Spotlight on Ramon: I know you can't tell on the scan, but it looks like the sun is shining directly behind him.

That ends the Ramon retrospective. Thorzul also sent a handful of other Dodgers:

He sent the last three 1985 Topps Traded Dodgers that I needed.

And a 2009 Upper Deck card of Andre Ethier.

The Dodgers have just sent James McDonald to the mound to face the Padres. Through one inning he has a no-hitter! Keep it going, James. Time to channel your inner Ramon!

Catalog of dreams

Good gosh, did you get your catalog yet? If not, you have got to get this thing. It's free, it's filled with pictures of cards you can't afford, and it is the most wonderful time you'll ever have reading a book. That is if you are the card collecting sort of guy or gal.

Mine came in the mail yesterday afternoon. I found out about it at Wax Heaven here. And Mario wasn't kidding. It is awe-inspiring. Drop dead gorgeous.

Robert Edward Auctions is making a whole bunch of historic cards available for amounts of money I will never have. But I do get to look at all the pretty pictures. And there certainly are a lot of them -- 640-plus pages worth of cards, plus all kinds of other memorabilia. It's really the history of baseball cards in one catalog. It will probably take me years to absorb all of it.

But here is just a glimpse of what I've seen in the few short hours I've had this thing. Keep in mind, I know nothing about auctions, and the history of old cards is really better left up to people like dayf. So, the knowledgeable commentary will be at a minimum.

1910 PC796 Sepia Ty Cobb/Honus Wagner Postcard. Cobb and Wagner shaking hands during the 1909 World Series. How cool is this? It drew my eye instantly. Wagner probably wanted to beat Cobb over the head with that bat for being a racist bigot. But this makes for a much better picture.

1909-1911 T206 Sherry Magie error card. One of the most famous and rarest error cards of all-time. This particular card is graded poor-to-fair 1. I like the text that goes with it:

"This is an extremely pleasing low-grade, and therefore relatively affordable
example of one of card collecting's most significant rarities."
The catalog's idea of "relatively affordable" is between $1,000-2,000.

1909-1911 T206 White Border "Florida Attic Find" Collection cards. Collection of 20. I'll let the catalog tell the story:

"In 2002, a European man who recently settled in the United States was remodeling
his newly acquired home in Florida, and while rummaging around in the attic
found an old trunk filled with nearly 350 virtually pristine T206 White Border
cards and a handful of T205 Gold Borders. The man was not a baseball fan and all
the names on these cardboard treasures were completely unfamiliar to him."

Isn't that the way it always goes? The guy finding the rare cards in the attic is never a baseball fan and never has a clue what he found. Meanwhile I have rummaged around in attics countless times just on the occasion that I might stumble across some 100-year-old cards, and I have found absolutely nothing. Not even a 1989 Donruss.

Three 1933 R319 Goudey Babe Ruths. Together in one place. ... Mind. Just. Blown.

1949 Bowman Jackie Robinson. I wonder whether the guy babbling next to me at the card show needed this card to complete his set. He can get it at the auction for between $1,500-2,500. That's all.

1952 Topps "Series 1A" Uncut Final Color-Process Proof Sheet. According to the catalog, these were the first 1952 Topps cards ever printed. "This very sheet literally represents the birth of the modern bubble-gum card."

Honey, fire up the credit card.

1960 Topps Complete Set. Just remember, while you're spending your Saturday in Target trying to complete the 2009 Heritage set, some richy richy dude is forking over $4,000 for the real thing. That's a happy thought, isn't it?

1963 Topps Don Drysdale. Mint 9. I'm interested in seeing how much this card goes for, because I have this card and it's in extremely good shape. It's not a Mint 9, but it's a super-fine "specimen," as they might say in auction land.

1967 Topps Test Stand-Up Collection. These look like very cool cards, but since they are test issue cards from the '60s my chances of owning them are as good as me being struck by lightning while reading the winning numbers off my lottery ticket.

An unopened cello box of (432) 1975 Topps cards. The knowledge that there are 1975 Topps cards out there that have never been busted just boggles my mind. Getting a box like this would take care of more than a decade worth of Christmases for me.

But I'll end up with the usual Christmas goodies because I won't be getting any of this stuff. Instead I'll just have to settle for drooling on the pages of this catalog, and this:

The free refrigerator magnet that came with the free catalog! That's sort of cool, even though I originally thought it was a free card.

Seriously, if you want to stare at all kinds of cool cards from Turkey Red to Play Ball to 1960s Topps to (gack!) cut signatures, you need to get this thing. And if you can afford the stuff in the catalog, I have one question for you:

Will you adopt me?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mask

I have often thought about what might be the easiest and most difficult jobs in pro sports. I haven't thought it all the way through, so I'm sure there are some sports that I've missed, like Australian Rules Football or Mongolian cliff diving. But among the sports I've thought of (now there's a category for you), I imagine these two are the easiest:

1. Pro golfer. Golfing is an insanely difficult game to master. But if you are very good at it, you have got it made. The game is leisurely. There is little danger of major injury. You almost always play in warm climates. And everyone has to be quiet every time you do anything. You can't beat that.

2. Pro bowler. The surroundings aren't great (how many hot dogs can you eat?), the footwear sucks. But again, the sport has "fat guys can do this, too" written all over it.

Now onto the most difficult jobs, which is what this post is all about. I've often though that hockey goalie was the most difficult and potentially frightening task. In fact, even though I've never played goal in my life, I have had dreams in which I was a hockey goalie. None of them have been pleasant. Standing still while everyone else is moving a 100 miles an hour and a rock-hard piece of vulcanized rubber is moving even faster seems positively bananas.

The second-most-difficult, to me, has got to be offensive lineman. What a thankless, uninspiring career occupation that is. Think about how much you enjoyed helping your friends move. The shoving, the heavy lifting. Well, that's all linemen do! And they don't even get to drink beer while they're doing it.

But there is one position that I constantly overlook even though I have heard all my life how difficult it can be, and that is baseball catcher. All you have to do is look at the mask they're required to wear. Nobody else on the field is wearing that.

Think about how you felt when you saw Ellis Valentine here or Gary Roenicke wearing that football half-face guard thing for the first time. If you're anything like me, you thought, "My gosh, what happened to him?"

But we don't think that when we see the catcher wear an entire mask. We shrug it off and say, "yep, that's the catcher." We've heard it all before. The foul tips off the fingers, the shots to the groin, the backswings in the head, the foul balls off the shoulder. But catchers don't forget.

See? Look at Bill Schroeder here. He doesn't even want to put his mask back on. "I've got to wear this thing again?" He knows what's coming.

So, in an attempt to honor the catcher, I've put together my favorite catcher cards in my collection. I've limited it to 10 cards, and in all of the cards the catcher must be wearing his mask. Because the mask defines who they are: the baddest players on the field, the ones that make that relief pitcher who comes in to throw four pitches and get one out look like, oh, I don't know, a pro bowler.

10. Dann Bilardello. 1984 Topps. This is what's known as self-preservation on a card. With one skillful move, Bilardello ensures that there will be little Bilardellos in the future.

9. Rick Cerone, 1982 Donruss. You have all you need here. Player, mask, chest protector, catcher's mitt, ball. And I love that old-school mask.

8. Javy Lopez, 2006 Upper Deck. There are a lot of UD photos like this, so I just picked one. I like a play at the plate and Javy's doing it all with his mask still on. But unless he's got the plate blocked exceptionally well, I think the runner's safe.

7. Sal Fasano, 2006 Upper Deck. Check out the goggles. Fasano is doing his best impression of "The Fly."

6. Butch Wynegar, 1985 Topps. Love the intensity on his face as he throws to second base. He may be merely sending his last warm-up pitch down to second, but you could never tell from the look on his face.

5. Hector Villaneuva, 1992 Triple Play. Now that is a tight shot. Doesn't this job look like FUN?

4. Jason Kendall, 2000 Topps. I had a friend that wanted Jason Kendall cards. I gave him two to choose from, including this one. I hoped he didn't pick this one. He didn't. I was relieved.

3. Joe Oliver, 1992 Upper Deck. Having never played catcher, I'm not sure why Oliver is looking this Brave runner in the eyes. Maybe he thinks he can freeze him with his X-ray vision, because I think the runner is going to be safe.

2. Jerry Grote, 1976 Topps. I like this card so much because you really didn't see many photos back then with a catcher's mask on. Catchers were often posed squatting without a mask or pretending to flip the mask away. Making sure the collector saw the face seemed to be critical. I'm pretty sure this wasn't the first "mask-on" card. But it's got to be one of the pioneers.

1. Ron Pruitt, 1979 Topps. This was my first experience with a "mask-on" card. I thought it was so cool. Not just the mask, but the eye-black. And that "OF-C" designation isn't one you see a whole lot. Pruitt may have been strictly a backup during his career, but thanks to this card, he will never be forgotten. Not by me.

So, if you see a catcher, give him a hug. Well, a hearty handshake anyway. That mask could poke you.