Bert was kind of my introduction to an arcane world, one of prospects who hadn’t made mainstream baseball card sets, and yet were well-known to certain circles of fans. I’ve mentioned the prospecting magazines I used to read in the late 80s and 90s; as I recall, the first one I picked up reviewed every team – it was where I learned of players like Jeff Bagwell for the first time, but I also learned of some Brewers prospects that I had never even heard of before. Darryl Hamilton I was familiar with (the guy in the magazine was tabbing him as a future superstar – just a little off), but he was also talking of some catcher in A ball named Bert Heffernan. I had never heard of him, but I was instantly intrigued. Was this Milwaukee’s catcher of the future, flying just under the radar?
Well, history shows that no, of course, he wasn’t, and as far as I know, he never even had a major card issue. I had completely forgotten about him until I bought a cheap box of Star a few years back and came across this card. Once I saw him, though, all those memories came flooding back, and I decided to check up on his stats to see if he’d been overblown.
I was surprised to see he had made the majors, if only for a cup of coffee. I was less surprised to see that he had pretty much never been a legit prospect – just one conjured up this sportswriter. In 1989, the year I think the guy was writing for, he did hit .296, but had a paltry .376 slugging percentage.
The moral of the story? Don’t trust sportswriters for prospect picks.
August 29th, 1990. I was just a kid attending his second major league game, seated somewhere way up in the Upper Deck at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium. I was still stunned by how green everything was, and especially stoked to get to the see the Yankees. You see, they were a bit of a joke at the time, but I knew all about their farm system – Bernie Williams, Gerald Williams, Robert Eenhoorn, Hensley Meulens – all the guys who were big back then. In fact, I had a Yankees hat that I wore in secret because I was such a fan of their farm system. Here was a chance to see, up close and personal, one of the most prolific fruits of that system to date: Kevin Maas.
I remember watching him through binoculars in BP, hitting moonshots with his weirdass crouch/stance. I wondered if his older brother, Jason, who was still down in Columbus but would surely make it, used the same stance.
Of course, the Yanks ended up winning it, disappointing me as I WAS an Orioles fan, after all (Craig Worthington was our goat that day), but I got to see Maas rip a home run, his 16th of the season.
After that game I started imitating his stance in our backyard games, and I found I was able to uncoil a lot more quickly, giving me a lot more drive on the ball, but also requiring me to start my swing a little bit early, thereby hurting my pitch judgment just a tad. I wonder if that’s what ultimately did Maas in.
Anyway, I’m sure I’ll write more about him in time.
There is no card more iconic of a period of my life. The sight of this card makes a million memories burst forth, each stronger than the previous. I remember a brisk Fall day, standing outside my old brick middle school, trading cards with friends. I remember the great debates at friends’ houses between Olerud and McDonald (already covered here). I remember watching Olerud in Spring Training of 1990 and all the way through, him becoming my hero as time went on. He embodied all that I wanted to be at the time: class and dignity, with a quiet grace to just go out there and do the job. Too bad that’s not who I am, but I could admire it. I think in retrospect there was something reminiscent of my father’s work ethic, and that always meant a lot to me: shut up and do the job. My coaches even commented on it.
Olerud was my baseball hero for about five years or so; when I was having a hard time at the plate, I would dream about him giving me advice, and it usually helped me out. He was like a spirit guide to me. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps I was in a rough period of my life where my dad wasn’t really available and I needed a proxy of some sort. But I collected his cards obsessively, and still have a binder full of them that I’ll do something with eventually.
Just one thing though – he’s wearing a cap here with a bat. And he wore the helmet in the field. JUST ONCE I would have liked to have seen him wear the cap in the field. Sigh.
Man, oh, man. The 1991 Leaf Gold Rookies were it for me. This, I thought, was the pinnacle of prospect collecting. Beautiful layout, limited (hah) release, strong choice of rookies – what else could you want? I dreamed of collecting the 91 set, but at the time some of those intimidating names made it almost undoable. I will certainly get to them in time, however.
The 1992 Leaf was even stronger visually, I feel. The box at the bottom was further simplified, fed by the gold border and diamonds at the top. Like many other stories, this card’s story is wrapped up in the time that I helped my father at his job in my teenage years. If I remember correctly, we stopped off at the latest card shop (the one that had replaced the coin shop downtown, on Route 11 near the car dealerships for anyone who knows Harrisonburg, VA. All-Star cards was mecca. It was the dream, and they knew all of us well enough to hold certain cards when they arrived.
1992 Leaf was one that got held for me – the guy knew I was obsessed with the 91 rookies, and so when I came in, he had a pile of the 92 gold rookies waiting for me. I didn’t have a lot of money on hand, but I knew I had to have the Boone card – he was certainly one of my favorites for the issue that year, as I’d followed him from his years in USC. I rushed off to work with my little prize in my hand.
Of course, we all know how it turned out for Boone and 90s rookies cards, but for awhile there I really felt like I had something. This is still the original card, one of a handful spared from those days. The other stories it could tell…
Okay, so I chose a slightly different version of this card for my expose, but let’s be frank: a lot of people have covered that card in a hundred better ways than I could. I’m far more interested in the concept of the Gregg Jefferies Future Star card, for you see, this was the genesis of my teenage prospecting. I pulled this card from a pack of 1989 Topps and was trading with friends with no knowledge of how special the card was supposed to be (three WHOLE dollars, folks). To me, he seemed like some no-name that I was only too happy to trade for a handful of Jose Canseco cards. It was only once the trade was complete that the group revealed my folly: I had traded a three-dollar card for about 75 cents. I felt humiliated, and swore it wouldn’t happen again.
So I went out and started reading up on prospects, determined to get the best of others. Star players no longer meant anything to me; it was all about the rush of grabbing up prospects who would later be the dollar or higher cards that I could spin out. Of course, I had no idea that the industry was conspiring against that plan, but I was a kid. I thought I was smarter than all the other collectors.
It would warp my view of the hobby and take me years to get back to just enjoying the cards. Damn you, Gregg Jefferies.
I’ve mentioned my prospecting mags of the early 90s before…but the first one I can ever remember was one that I bought for a trip to Baltimore to catch the Orioles and the Yankees. This hot new shortstop prospect Wil Cordero was on the cover, and there was comprehensive coverage of prospects for every team with these exotic minor league cards that I had no hope in hell of ever getting. I remember, nestled amongst the Twins, was this hot new battery that was rising through the ranks at the time – they called it Park to Parks. Park Pittman to Derek Parks. For some reason, Pittman has disappeared from the collective memory of most baseball sites – I had to find him on the baseball cube, but in 1989, as it turns out, he was hardly a stellar prospect, and hadn’t pitched well since rookie ball in 1986. I didn’t have this info on hand, but these days, I’d certainly suspect his prospect status had more to do with the name connection than anything else. The fact that he was gone by 90 cements that for me.
Parks, on the other hand, was a decent if not spectacular catcher. He did make the majors for a few years, but put up some lousy numbers, though I think he had a reputation as a great defensive catcher and gamecaller (for whatever that’s worth these days). I mean, sure, he managed 24 homers in A ball in 1987, but that was accompanied by a .247 BA. It never got better from there, either.
But still they have a place in my teenage prospecting pantheon. I’ve used them as create-a-characters in games ever since, just for fun.
Topps’ 1989 cards introduced me to the Draft Pick system. I was absolutely mesmerized when I pulled cards like this. I seem to remember Jim Abbott, Steve Avery, Monty Farriss, Bill Bene, Robin Ventura, and Mark Lewis joining Benes in the cards in this set (oh yes, and Ty Griffin and Willie Ansley – can’t forget those flops). They were in different uniforms – they looked a lot younger than your average star, and there was this sense of promise about them. This was a little before the Gregg Jefferies incident (which I will detail soon, very soon), so I can’t point the finger at that for my fascination with younger players. I really think it was the break in formula in the base set that did it. Seeing those cheap little uniforms fired my imagination.
Once I learned about the draft, I was completely hooked. It was like gambling on the future. How awesome was that?
As for Benes – I don’t know, he may have arguably been the best of the bunch. Avery would have overtaken him if not for overuse, and it’s debatable about his career versus Robin Ventura, but I’d take Benes over Ventura when building a team. And yet I had a lot more Ventura cards. Intriguing…
Juan Guzman was one of the first baseball players that I ever saw up-close-and-personal-like. I guess it was summer of 1994, and a friend had somehow scored AMAZING tickets, right down the first base line, behind the first base dugout at Camden Yards, and like three rows up. I’ve never been so close to a game, and it spoiled me for years afterward. Anyway, I kind of remember Guzman coming over and signing autographs, but I DEFINITELY remember watching him warm up so close to us. I was amazed at how close the mound was to home plate. It seems a whole lot closer when you’ve got some flamethrower out there, let me tell you.
It took a lot of digging, and I thought it had gone down before the year of my high school graduation, but apparently not – July 31st, 1994, was the first time Guzman pitched at Camden. He didn’t exactly pitch a gem, but he got the win against a decent Baltimore lineup. Looking at that lineup, I feel pretty honored to have seen some of those guys: Devon White, Robbie Alomar, Paul Molitor, and John Olerud (my second time seeing my hero in action). Not to mention, of COURSE, Cal Ripken, Harold Baines, and Rafael Palmeiro, who I liked a lot at the time.
I also remember this game as a big deal for the neighborhood rivalry – Ben McDonald versus John Olerud – the ultimate answer to who was better. The victor? Well…Olerud went 2 for 3 with a homerun and a triple. McDonald? 6 ER in 5 innings. Olerud supremacy!
Frank was one of those guys that looked amazing right out of the gate, as soon as he was drafted, and put his cards pretty much out of reach until the scope of the early 90s overproduction became apparent. That’s part of why I treasured this Best card so much, even back then: so many people had Thomas’ 1990 Score and Topps, fewer had the Leaf, but I never saw this card in anyone else’s collection. I can’t remember exactly where I found packs of these cards, but I know that we found about half a box and, owing to the rarity, I convinced my parents to scoop up all the remaining cards.
The packs also contained some future stars such as Bernie Williams, Javy Lopez, and Luis Gonzalez, among others that I thought would be future stars at the time. The cards seem simplistic, but I think they’re actually pretty nice. Full-bleed shots were unheard of at the time, and while the font is a little low-rent and cheesy, it’s about what you would expect for that time. Better minor league cards were coming, and soon, but for now, this offered what I thought was an underrated look at an undiscovered country: the world of minor league baseball, which still fascinates me to this day.
In 1990, I was absolutely obsessed with John Olerud. I had been interested in the guy since learning that he was a legit two-way threat, a batter who could also pitch well (I was enthralled with the Babe Ruth legend at the time). Around that time, I started hearing about recent draftee Ryan Klesko, another two-way threat, though it’s hard to believe these days. Let me tell you, though, that was all I needed to hear, and he was on my want list. Of course, I had some trouble finding Klesko cards, as he wasn’t in any of the major sets. Thankfully, the 1990 minor league sets took off, and next thing you know, I have a bunch of Klesko cards.
Of course, we know how his career turned out: okay, passable, but never a real superstar, which bummed me out. I was convinced that somehow he would be the next great thing. I’m sure the warning signs were there: lack of plate discipline, high strikeout-to-walk ratio, the whole deal, but then…well, it was just as much about the legend of the player as the reality. And Klesko was quite a legend for me in the summers of 90 and 91.