Retro, throwback, old school -- whatever you call it, marketing departments will find a way to bring back an old idea with a new twist, and baseball cards are no exception. With the over-production of the 80's and 90's, baseball card manufacturers needed to bring customers back to the hobby. And what better way than tugging at the heartstrings of baseball nostalgia for the "baby boomers."
In 2001, Topps was celebrating the 50th anniversary of their entry into the baseball card business. They utilized the framework of their historical 1952 set to develop a new product. Topps Heritage came into the marketplace with current players pictured on cards with the format of the iconic 1952 set. The detail of the set and the photography took collectors back to the time when packs were a nickel and included a stick of gum. The set was designed for card enthusiasts to build it completely by opening packs and sorting through the cards. It even had some of the quirks of the original like short-printed cards, checklist cards and even bubble gum, though the gum was enclosed in a plastic wrapper. To all of this, Topps also added some autograph and relic cards to make the set even more attractive. The real draw, however, was the 1952 look and the opportunity for kids of the 50's to build a new set of cards for the 2000's.
Topps Heritage has been a consistent top-selling product at a mid-range price (around $3 a pack) for over a decade. Each year, the cards mirror the old design of the appropriate Topps set with new players. This year's release, which just hit stores last week, uses the 1963 card as its platform. If you collected cards in the 50's and 60's, this is the product for you.
With the success of Heritage, other retro designs have followed suit over the last decade. Topps added a product modeled after the 1880's brand called Allen & Ginter in 2006 and Upper Deck produced 1930's style cards utilizing the Goudey card format in 2007.
Check out the 2001 Topps Heritage card of Mark Grace in the '52 Topps format and you'll see why these sets have been so popular.
My passion for baseball card collecting is on the other end of the spectrum when it comes to fantasy baseball "snake" drafts. As an auction-style rotisserie player for over 25 years, sitting at a computer screen while 15 or 20 players are chosen before my next turn isn't my idea of fun - or real skill. With that being said, one of my three championships last year was in a 5x5 ESPN.com league. The only reason for participating is that the person who hosts the league is a young man who is like a son to me. If he asked me to join him in a Fantasy Camel-Racing league, there would be no hesitation.
Even though I did almost no research prior to the draft, reading baseball publications and listening to satellite radio doesn't allow you to avoid snake-draft strategy. You all know the drill - get a stud in the first round, pay attention to position scarcity, don't take pitchers too early, etc. The only idea I felt secure about was that to win this format, you must take some chances. If an owner sticks with safe or logical picks (usually based on prior season performance), some percentage of those players will disappoint. This is easily confirmed by the owner in our league who managed to sleep through the draft (how you can sleep through an alarm at 6:00 PM on a weekday is a topic for another day). So, his team was chosen by "auto-pick", which is tantamount to using the expertise of all the prognosticators at ESPN. How did he fare? 7th place, 44 points behind the Ducks.
The computer assigned the order about an hour before the draft and I had the 5th pick. Not surprisingly, the top four choices were Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, Miguel Cabrera and Carl Crawford. So, looking for a player who could supply all five offensive categories, the Ducks chose Ryan Braun. By the time my 2nd round pick (the 26th player) came around, one of the quirks of the snake had reared its ugly head...the dreaded position run. In addition to Albert and Miggy, the following 1B were taken between picks 6-25: Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis. Knowing that 1B would be a wasteland by the time my 3rd pick came around, the Ducks opted for Prince Fielder.
Wanting to secure enough positions to allow flexibility later, my picks in the 3rd (35th player) & 4th (56th player) rounds were Jose Reyes and Rickie Weeks. At this point, being contrary seemed to be worth a try and the Ducks took Carlos Santana in round 5 (it is a one-catcher league). In round 6, Martin Prado filled the 3B slot but was also eligible at 2B and would add OF early in the season.
Having filled every offense position at this point, I took my first pitcher in round 7 and it was the non-sexy choice of Tim Hudson. Another perceived reach in round 8 was Rajai Davis, but it put the team in a position to not be concerned about SB for the remainder of the draft. Round 9 produced a closer in Jonathan Papelbon and round 10 added a 2nd SP in Ryan Dempster.
The Ducks went against the tide again with Jose Tabata in round 11, Madison Bumgarner in round 12 and Joel Hanrahan in round 13. These three players had something in common, talent, but not much of a track record. Round 14 filled the corner spot with James Loney, round 15 added another SP with upside in Ian Kennedy and round 16 filled the MI with J.J. Hardy.
Other notable choices late in the draft included Bud Norris (round 20), Alex Gordon (round 23) and with the last pick (round 25), Brandon Beachy. Obviously, the team you pick on draft day is never representative of the final product that wins a league, but this core performed admirably. Later additions from the free agent pool included Freddie Freeman (May), Desmond Jennings and Jose Altuve (July) and Stephen Strasburg (August).
The result:124 points (70 in hitting, 54 in pitching) and a 14 1/2 point victory. This week, we'll have our 2012 draft and next week, I'll reveal the roster. Just for the record, I'm doing exactly the same amount of preparation this year.