While searching the aisles at Rite Aid recently for more rubbing alcohol and toilet paper, I came to one of the displays at the end of the aisle that gets stocked with Pokemon, Magic: The Gathering, and baseball cards. To my joy, the 2020 Topps packs had arrived, so instead of the out-of-stock items I’d gone searching for, I returned home with nostalgia.
But the real nostalgia arrived in the mail a few days later, because I wanted to see how the cards of today stacked up against the cards of my childhood. So, I found some packs of 1990 Topps on eBay for a dollar each. There were 16 cards in each wax pack, and 34 in the 2020 pack from the store, so I went ahead and cracked open two packs of the 30-year-old cardboard for the exercise.
The results? Mostly, it was just good, old-fashioned, forget-your-troubles-for-a-few-minutes fun. And, it turns out, cards of both now and then can break down into similar categories.
1990: Howard Johnson, Carney Lansford, Bob Welch, Dave Winfield
2020: Tim Anderson, Shane Bieber, Manny Machado, Mark McGwire, Yadier Molina, David Price, Fernando Tatis Jr.
I definitely had good luck with my 2020 pack, and if a couple of these guys are stretches, so are a couple from 1990. Bieber was last year’s All-Star MVP, and I decided that Tatis already belongs in this category despite also fitting into the next one. Lansford and Welch were two of the most important pieces on an A’s team in the midst of winning three straight pennants, and it was legitimately exciting to get their cards at the time. Winfield was coming off an entirely missed season.
It’s mind-boggling that the top star of 30 years ago that I pulled was McGwire’s 2020 card, which just has his full career stats on the back and no explanation as to why he’s got a card this year. No explanation is really needed, though.
The ones that stand out here in particular, though, are Anderson and Johnson.
Last year was Anderson’s coming out party, starting with his bat flip to end all bat flips and continuing all the way through the first batting title for a White Sox player since Frank Thomas in 1997. At a time when batting average gets less emphasis in the baseball world than it ever has, Anderson made it cool again, because he makes everything cool.
HoJo, meanwhile, isn’t here just because he was on the 1986 Mets. His 1990 card celebrates his second 30-30 season in three years, at a time when he was the only switch-hitter in the club, one of only 11 players ever to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season, and joined Bobby Bonds and Willie Mays as the only players to do it multiple times.
Since 1990, there are 11 players with multiple 30-30 seasons, and the club’s membership has grown from 11 players total to 42, including four more switch hitters. HoJo wound up doing it again in 1991, and while he’s not a Hall of Famer, it’s definitely impossible to forget him.
1990: Earl Cunningham, Randy Johnson, Carlos Martinez, Larry Walker, John Wetteland
2020: Logan Allen, Bo Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Jeff McNeil, Nick Senzel (Turkey Red), Nick Solak
It’s an effort to be true to the times that results in this category from 1990 being stronger than the Unforgettables, with two Hall of Famers in Johnson and Walker, as opposed to just Winfield. But in 1990, it was Cunningham who was the No. 44 prospect in the game, according to Baseball America, after being picked eighth overall by the Cubs in the previous year’s draft out of high school in Lancaster, S.C.
Cunningham never made it past A-ball, while Johnson, the owner of a 4.48 ERA with 103 walks in 186.2 major league innings, was on his second team after the Expos couldn’t figure out what to do with him. Walker had just made it to the Expos… and hit .170 with no homers in 47 at-bats.
How cool would it have been to pull an early-career card of Bo’s father Dante here? Alas. Also, with all the (deserved) hype around Vladimir Guerrero Jr. last year, it escaped notice, a bit, just how good the young Bichette was, at more than two wins above replacement in only 46 games. He was the fifth-youngest player in the American League last year and definitely is worth watching whenever the Blue Jays and the rest of baseball return.
1990: Chris Sabo
2020: Sean Doolittle
For me as a 9-year-old kid who had to wear Rec Specs for gym class, Sabo was an absolute legend. For me as a 39-year-old man who embraces socialism and writes online about how Major League Baseball should consider acting with a baseline level of humanity and not launch cockamamie plans for a fugazi season, Doolittle is an absolute legend.
Are these the best players in baseball? No. Was getting their cards the highlight of these packs for me? You’re damn right it was, and that’s so much of what this hobby is about, even if that once got lost in watching for triangles pointing up next to guys’ names in Beckett Baseball Card Monthly.
1990: Wally Backman, Tom Brunansky, Glenn Braggs, Bucky Dent (Manager), Mike Fitzgerald, Cito Gaston (Manager), Ron Kittle, Oddibe McDowell, Don Robinson, Luis Salazar
2020: Brandon Belt, Alex Colome, Sonny Gray, Whit Merrifield, Joc Pederson
These are the players who are the beating heart of the game, the players (and managers) who may have done things to earn some kind of acclaim, but may not be known so well outside of the markets of their own teams.
Looking at the groups from 30 years ago and today, my main thought is the classic Onion article, “In My Day, Ballplayers Were For Shit,” which I now realize was written 10 years after 1990 and 20 years before now.
Backman, who was a big enough part of the 1986 Mets to get the Duran Duran treatment in their season review video, managed to have a 14-year major league career despite posting a .687 career OPS. He was a good but not great fielder, fast enough to try stealing but get caught on one-third of his career attempts, and didn’t really stand out at anything other than bunting. Still, a 14-year major leaguer!
Then there’s Colome, who throws a 95 mile-per-hour fastball, backs it up with a cutter at 90, and has more than a strikeout per inning over his four seasons as a full-time reliever. It’s unfathomable how dominant he would have been with that stuff in 1990. Colome was an All-Star in 2016, tied for the major league lead in saves in 2017, saved another 30 games in his first season with the White Sox in 2019… and no highlights of him will ever be featured to a Simon Le Bon soundtrack.
1990: Checklist 6
2020: Houston Astros Team Card, Washington Nationals Team Card, San Francisco Giants (1960s Decades’ Best), New York Yankees Team Card, St. Louis Cardinals Team Card, “Close Call” (Checklist)
There’s more of these cards now, but they’re cooler to look at?
1990: Dave Anderson, Don August, Todd Burns, Mark Carreon, John Farrell, Brian Fisher, Steve Frey, Rich Monteleone, Eric Plunk, Jeff Robinson, Don Robinson
2020: Leury Garcia, Danny Hultzen, Scott Kingery, Nicky Lopez, Roman Quinn, J.T. Riddle, Hansel Robles, Chance Sisco
It’s not usually a good sign when Topps has room for a fun fact about you on your baseball card and they go with basic biographical information. “Dave and his wife are the parents of two children” and “Ron and his wife are the parents of three children” are both included here, as are “Jeff attended Azusa Pacific University” and “Eric is a 1981 graduate of Bellflower High School.” And then there’s the double: “Todd attended Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He and his wife are parents of one daughter.”
The Topps folks are a bit more creative today, but still let you know pretty quickly what you’re dealing with. “Although Leury usually plays at least six different positions annually…” and “Hansel always had the stuff to close games…” particularly stand out.
These are the players you’ve heard of for one of three reasons: they killed your team one time as an opponent (Riddle), they killed your team constantly as part of the team (9-year-old me loathed Plunk, part of the trade that resulted in Rickey Henderson going to the A’s), or you got their baseball card.
Better to be in that last group, like August, who I don’t ever remember seeing pitch, but whose career I’m intimately familiar with through cardboard, than to be like Robles, who is synonymous with pointing to the sky as if a ball is a pop-up, only for the ball to wind up going 500 feet. Anonymity has its advantages.