When the Leaf Company issued their first modern set in 1990, they became the seventh manufacturer in the baseball card marketplace. With collectors being overwhelmed by the number of products, Leaf was perceived as being a scarcer product and the sales took off quickly. As always, however, what really drove the demand were the rookie cards for that year. Frank Thomas, Sammy Sosa and Larry Walker were the key players but fans were also buying the hype on David Justice and John Olerud.
More products entered the fray in 1991 and collectors were getting turned off by over-production and too many choices. There were some great rookies in 1991, including Mike Mussina, Chipper Jones and Jeff Bagwell, but every player wasn't in every product and none of the sets carried high demand. The only 1992 set with long-lasting appeal (due to scarcity) was Bowman and it had a wealth of outstanding rookies -- Trevor Hoffman, Carlos Delgado, Mariano Rivera and Mike Piazza.
The 1993 and 1994 sets were dominated by the rookie cards of two future Hall of Famers, Derek Jeter in '93 and Alex Rodriguez in '94. The standard issues produced boatloads of their rookie cards but the ones that outshine the rest are the SP foil cards from each year.
One of the other problems for collectors during this decade was that players could be found in some products but not in others. Bowman had a tendency to corner the market on younger players, so you'll find Andruw Jones, Scott Rolen and Vladimir Guerrero's rookie cards in two 1995 Bowman products but not in other sets, diminishing the value of those other issues.
1996-1998 was a wasteland when it came to rookie cards but the companies tried to create demand by adding autograph cards and insert sets. We'll cover that phenomenon in a later article. 1999 was another story, as the Bowman products included great stars still making their mark today -- C.C. Sabathia, Alfonso Soriano, Adam Dunn, Matt Holliday, Josh Hamilton and Carl Crawford.
Collecting baseball cards can be great fun, but it is certainly a solitary passion compared to the camaraderie and interplay involved in a Rotisserie baseball league. My recommendation to friends and acquaintances has always been to play in an auction-style keeper league, not only because it is closer to the real world with contract decisions and off-season trading, but also because it gives us a chance to laugh twelve months a year.
There was a clear reminder of this just last week when I approached another team in our NL-only league about a possible trade. As owners of J.J. Putz, they had shown interest in David Hernandez, who I had picked up in the end game at last year's auction for $2. Even though their keeper list doesn't have a lot of depth, they did have four possible keepers at middle infield. I floated an idea about Hernandez and used the term "excess" in reference to their 2B and SS players. Here was their response:
"Surely you chuckled upon your word selection of 'excess' in reference to our thin keeper list. We are in the position of the homeless guy on the busy traffic corner with our tin cup out as you roll up to our corner in your 2012 Jaguar (that has license plate that says QUACK) and roll down your dark tinted glass to get a better read of the sign that we have created with a piece of used cardboard and a thick semi-dried out marker that says, 'We will work for handcuff middle relievers'."
My response was to tell them that their new job would be writing this column because their prose is much more entertaining than mine, then I traded Hernandez to another team -- for a 2B.
The episode took me back once again to the roots of this particular league and how many hysterical moments there have been. Even at our first awards party in November of '84, two gems were uttered that will live in infamy. 1st place in our league paid 50% of the pot at that time and when the championship team walked into the dining room and realized that they were essentially paying for 50% of the beautiful Deli buffet on the table, they said, "Hey, it's real meat!" We also gave out some souvenir pens as gifts to all the teams and owner of the last place squad turned to me during the festivities and said, "How do I explain to my new wife that this pen cost me $700?"
The following year, I was driving and listening to the sports highlights on AM Radio. The twice-an-hour sports report indicated that Von Hayes (a member of my team) had set a major league record by hitting two home runs in the 1st inning (he was leading off for the Phillies). My excitement quickly turned to a chill when I remembered that the starting pitcher for the Mets that day was Calvin Schiraldi -- also on my team. The following day's quote from the Washington Post: “You see the pitching line on Calvin Schiraldi: 1 1/3 innings, 10 hits, 10 runs, 10 earned runs. Three 10's...who does he think he is, Mary Lou Retton?”
You can't put a price on memories like that. You can insert whichever baseball cliché might be appropriate but I'm reminded of the quote (twenty years before "Bull Durham") from Seattle Pilots Pitcher Jerry Stephenson: "I'm just happy to be here. I'll take whatever they give me. If they took the hat off my head and crapped in it, I'd put it right back on my head and say thanks."