Wednesday, June 28, 2017

1991 Topps Mike Greenwell

On May 18, 2016, I got the above card in my mailbox and wrote the following on Facebook later that day:

The game is afoot! Look who I found in my mailbox today. I hope I get a Phil Plantier tomorrow.”

Yeah. It’s not Shakespeare, I know. I was still trying to find my footing with this whole Baseball Card Bandit (BCB) thing and wasn’t sure exactly where this thing was going*.

* To be honest, I still don’t know. At Aly’s 40th birthday party dinner on Saturday, someone asked me if I knew who the BCB is, I said that I did and told them a name. The entire room stopped, everyone looked at me and shook their head and told me I was one thousand percent wrong. So I’m not sure whether they were all screwing with me by trying to throw me off the scent or whether they were being truthful.

It reminds me of the Epimenides Paradox. From 19th Century English academic Thomas Fowler via 21st Century academic Wikipedia: “Epimenides the Cretan says, 'that all the Cretans are liars,' but Epimenides is himself a Cretan; therefore he is himself a liar. But if he be a liar, what he says is untrue, and consequently the Cretans are veracious; but Epimenides is a Cretan, and therefore what he says is true; saying the Cretans are liars, Epimenides is himself a liar, and what he says is untrue. Thus we may go on alternately proving that Epimenides and the Cretans are truthful and untruthful."

Back to Mike Greenwell. Greenwell played 17 games in 1985, 31 in 1986 and was part of the American League Championship Series and World Series roster that year. I know a lot about the Red Sox, I’m no Thomas Fowler, but I know a bunch about the team. I remember Greenwell whiffing badly in Game Six of the World Series, but if you had told me that he got into 31 games that season, I would have thought you were lying – like Epimenides!

Greenwell didn’t really come into my fan consciousness until 1987, when he and Ellis Burks teamed up to be “The Gold Dust Twins V2.0”*. It was thought that not only was Greenwell going to carry on the Boston leftfield legacy for another generation (Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to Jim Rice to Mike Greenwell) but that he and Burks were going to be the second coming (though mirror images) of Rice and Fred Lynn.

* Every time the Red Sox have two rookies come up in the same year and experience a little bit of success, the Boston Media falls all over itself to call them the incredibly clich├ęd “Gold Dust Twins”. It happens all the time. From Greenwell and Burks to Mo Vaughn and Phil Plantier to Mookie Betts and Xander Boegarts, you can bet your mortgage that someone (probably Boston Herald writer Steve Buckley or Globe scribe Dan Shaughnessy) is going to write a breathless column wondering if this new duo is the next GDT. Guys, I’m begging you, come up with a new name. Please.

Things were looking pretty good for Mike Greenwell in his first two years. He was an All-Star in 1988 (and 89) while finishing behind Jose Canseco (who was the first player to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases when that was a HUGE thing) in the Most Valuable Player race*. Injuries took its toll on the Gator (that’s what he was called I guess because he was from Florida**) and he never reached the heights of that magical 1988 season.

* In the 2000s Canseco admitted to using steroids during the 1988 season, Greenwell began banging the drum that HE should now get the 88 MVP trophy because his former teammate (they ended up on the Sox together in 1995) was a cheater. That seemed kind of dumb, a waste of time and a bit desperate. Greenwell knew that he wasn’t going to retroactively get the award, right?

He was out of baseball at the age of 32 in 1996.

Greenwell was an interesting player and drama always seemed to find him. He was a butcher in left field and there were times when it seemed that he was going to inadvertently kill Ellis Burks** when the two would chase a fly ball. He would constantly say dumb things to the press and then get into fights with reporters over what he said. He got into a fight with Mo Vaughn while they were taking afternoon batting practice because Vaughn didn’t “know his place”.

** According to Wikipedia, he found an alligator, taped up its mouth and threw it in Burks’ locker room. I’m not sure if this is a true story, but if it is, do you see what I mean about him trying to murder Ellis Burks? What the fuck, Mike? Jesus.

That wasn’t a racial thing, but more a veteran-rookie thing. I guess in the baseball world if a veteran wanted to hit BP, he’d just cut in front of a rookie and the first-year guy was just supposed to shut up and take it (baseball players are just the worstthey really are). Vaughn never took any crap from anyone so they exchanged words which led to the rolling around on the dirt in Anaheim. It was kind of a big deal in the papers that week because by this point the Red Sox sucked, the Patriots stunk and it was too early to figure out whether Larry Bird and Cam Neely were going to suit up for their respective winter teams. So, it was all Gator and Mo, all the time.

At that point, I was pretty much done with Mike Greenwell. He devolved into an injury-plagued iron glove who didn’t hit with much power, but carried himself as top echelon guy. He was an extremely destitute man’s Wade Boggs, without the defense and the eccentric behavior. Greenwell also seemed to embody every dumb stereotype of Florida in one package: he loved NASCAR, he had that dumb, unironic mustache, that slow drawl and cackle.

Mo Vaughn was from the Northeast and he had that East Coast swagger. He was the future of the Sox and everyone knew it.  Mo talked big, he hit big and this hulk of a dude was going to lead the Sox somewhere. The Hit Dog (as Vaughn was known as) also seemed like a genuinely good guy—we all knew about his charity—and he sounded smart (though later we found out he did a lot of dumb things) especially compared to the Gator (both nicknames were pretty dumb in retrospect). When Mo chucked Greenwell around the Big A, it felt as if it was a palace coup and Vaughn was now in charge.

Unfortunately, Mo lead the Boston Red Sox to the same place that Greenwell did: an ass-kickings in the first round of the playoffs.

Looking back on Greenwell, he had a decent career: he hit for a better than decent average, had an okay batting eye, could drive in runs (he holds the all-time record for most Game Winning RBIs in a season with 23 in 1988, a record that will never fall because Major League Baseball no longer recognizes it as a valid statistic) and made $22 million. I’d take that.

And to be honest, it probably was unfair of me to project my feelings onto a guy I never met and only “knew” through 30-second soundbites. Greenwell probably wasn’t an Everglades Einstein, but who cares. The guy was paid to hit and he did a relatively decent job at it.

What's crazy to me is that Greenwell's son Bo was drafted by the Indians in 2007 and spent six years in the club's minor league system before going over to the Sox in 2014. His baseball career is done. Damn it, I feel old. 

Ever since John Henry and his crew came to own the Red Sox, they’ve done a lot of outreach with Red Sox alumni, even ones that left town acrimoniously (and there are a lot that have done just that). But the one guy you never see at the ballpark is Mike Greenwell. The guy played his entire career with one team: the Boston Red Sox, he was a star when the team desperately needed new ones and with better PR, he could have been the first version of Kevin Millar.

Come back Greenie, all is forgiven. Mostly. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

1990 Topps Ellis Burks


On May 17, 2016 I found the above card in my mailbox. I found it really curious and I posted the below on Facebook:

I found this in my mailbox today without a note or anything. I think someone is trying to send me some sort of a message. 
But what could that message be?”

It was that day that the Baseball Card Bandit (BCB) first came into my life. Actually, I should say that this was the day that the first BCB, the domestic BCB, came into my life. For more than a year, not more than a few weeks go by without a new baseball card appearing in my mailbox. As the summer of 2016 progressed, I figured out who the BCB was (I will name him once his last card shows up in this blog) but there have since been more BCBs that have been mailing cards to me from different parts of the country.

Is it just one person? Is it more than one person? The answer to those questions are: yes. Yes, for the most part it is one person and yes, it’s also more than one person. How many, I can’t be sure. But this set of blog posts are going to focus a little on the BCB but a lot on the men captured on these cards.

I earnestly started following baseball—specifically the Boston Red Sox—in the summer of 1986. It was the summer after my fifth grade year and the Red Sox were doing something that they haven’t done since my little brother was born in 1978, they were competing for a pennant. They started out hot and just kept on chugging led by Roger Clemens and Jim Rice.

Before this summer*, I had watched baseball but I didn’t watch baseball, if you know what I mean. I knew of players like Wade Boggs and Dwight Evans and I definitely knew who Jim Rice was. He was the big dude that hit a lot of homeruns, but at the same time seemed to hit into a lot of double plays. My dad used to say that Rice’s license plate read 4-6-3, which is a. what you would write in your scorecard if a player hit into a double play (grounded to second [4], who flipped to short [6] for one, who threw to first [3] for two outs) and b. it’s a really old joke. But I didn’t care, I’d gladly exchange a double play for the potential of a monstrous home run any day.

* When I was in third grade, I won tickets to see the Red Sox play the Kansas City Royals at Fenway. I was beyond pumped—it was my first time seeing any sporting event live—but the game was rained out. We were told that the following day, there would be a double-header and we’d get to see two ball games for free. That day I saw six Hall of Famers play: Rice, Wade Boggs, Dennis Eckersley and Cary Yastrzemski (I can’t believe I spelled that correctly without going to Google—I’m so awesome) for the Sox and George Brett and Gaylord Perry for the visiting Royals. But, I begged my dad to leave in the first inning of the first game. Why? We were in the bleachers and right before the first pitch, two dudes two rows ahead of me, sparked up a joint and were passing it back and forth. I didn’t know what marijuana was, so I must have been staring. All of a sudden, a lady turned around and said, “Do you know what they’re doing?” “No,” I answered. “DRUGGGGGGSSSSSS!” I freaked out—remember this is during the time of Nancy Reagan where pot equaled heroin—and my dad was perplexed as to why I wanted to leave. I wouldn’t tell him (I did not want to implicate him in a crime, if we were all to be arrested!) so I made up an excuse, “It’s too hot.” He basically told me to tough it out (which is what I would say to my own kids) and we stayed for the rest of the day.

1986 was also the year that Roger Clemens showed up and man, he was something else that year. Every time he took the mound, you knew he was going to win. And not just eek out a game, but that he was going to thoroughly and completely dominate. It was amazing to watch him pitch. He instantly became my new favorite Red Sox.

What does this have to do with Ellis Burks? Glad you asked. You may have heard, but the Sox ended up losing the World Series that year and things didn’t get much better in 1987. By June, the Sox were hopelessly looking up and the team went into a full-fledged rebuild mode. All of the veterans (aside from Boggs, Clemens, Rice and Evans) were shipped out or benched and a bunch of new players were brought in. Mike Greenwell (more on him next time), Todd Benzinger (who looked like he lisped really hard while saying his own last name), John Marzano (a true Olympic hero), Sam Horn (someone should name a message board after him) and Ellis Burks all became starters by mid-season and the future looked pretty bright.

Unfortunately, only two of the five sustained any sort of success; Greenwell and Burks.

I immediately gravitated towards Burks because he did two things really well: he stole bases and hit homers. While it seemed that just about every team had one or two exciting, two-way players, the Red Sox just seemed to have these old mashers who might hit a homer but would probably strike out. Or if they got to first, they’d have to wait for three other guys to get a single before they scored. What was new and exciting the previous year, was slow and boring in 1987.

I’d much rather have Cincinnati’s Eric Davis than Don Baylor or Oakland’s Jose Canseco rather than Dwight Evans or the Mets’ Daryl Strawberry than Jim Rice. Those guys were flashy and fast and powerful, and most of all they were young. They were the definition of the new 1980s baseball player, the kind that can hit a dinger, steal a base and make an-over-the-wall catch. Did you see what Bo Jackson did last night? Unless he’s playing in Fenway, no one is doing that in Boston.

But Ellis Burks was different, he was a part of this new brand of baseball player. He covers a ton of ground in centerfield (broken-down Tony Armas played the same position a season ago, are you kidding me?) and when he gets a hit, he can take the extra bag with ease. He’s awesome. I can’t wait to watch him for the next 15-20 years. How many World Series is he going to lead this team to? Probably five or six, bare minimum.

Those dreams were never realized* and he played six injury-plagued seasons with the Sox, making the All-Star team in 1990. He didn’t play in that game though because, you guessed it, he was hurt. After he left Boston, he became a pretty good player hooking up with the White Sox, the Rockies, the Giants and the Indians where he had some really solid years and made another All-Star team. Actually, he put up huge numbers in Colorado, slashing 306/378/579 with 115 bombs in five seasons.

** It wasn’t just me who thought that Burks was going to be something special. When the original RBI Baseball was released for Nintendo, Burks was the only player on any roster who didn’t appear in his team’s games. What I mean by this is that the Red Sox were represented on the game by the 1986 team and Burks was listed as a reserve outfielder. He did not play one inning for that team, but the programmers must’ve thought that Burks was something special. Or they confused him with Mike Greenwell, who did play more than a handful of games with the 1986 team. Either way, Burks still rules.

He made it back to Boston in 2004 where he was the stereotypical “veteran presence” who plays once or twice a week and offers advice to the kids. But he only got 11 games that year because, yup, injuries. The one image that I’ll never forget is the plane landing from the journey back from St. Louis. Burks was the first one off the plane, holding the trophy and a big smile. Maybe it was the five or six championships that I envisioned but it was one and that is more than enough.

There was a lot of things that I liked about Ellis Burks. For one thing, I looked at him as if he were “my” player. Roger Clemens, Jim Rice, Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans; they all started their career before I became a baseball fan. I looked at them as if they were someone else’s ballplayers. Ellis Burks was a rookie when I was a rookie. I got his first year card in a pack of Topps and it was organic – I didn’t have to go to a card store and pay $15 for his rookie. It was right there in a pack that I bought at Cumberland Farms.

And secondly, by the late 80s and early 90s, the Red Sox underwent a whitewashing where Ellis Burks was the only black guy on the team. I guess that I empathized with him. Not because I was black in a sea of white faces, I’m not, but because I was a gawky, awkward teenager who felt as if I never fit in. I tried and I think to an extent that I was semi successful, but I always felt out of place. I imagined Burks felt the same way. Whether he felt this way or not—and I can very well be projecting here—I’m not sure, but for a long time, Ellis Burks vanquished those feelings and it gave me the inspiration that I could too. That I might be different but at the same time I could also be a success. Ellis Burk was and still is the man.

I can think of no better way of starting this series than with him.   

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Battle of Los Angeles

Lights out
Guerrilla Radio!
Turn that shit up!

Lights out
Guerrilla Radio!
Turn that shit up!

Those aren’t the words of Hercules or the Angel or even Ice Man, but of Zack de la Rocha front man of the 90s group Rage Against the Machine. Why did I quote this band for this comic book? Because the title of Champions 9 shares the same name as Rage Against the Machine’s third studio album, “The Battle of Los Angeles”.

Am I suggesting that RAtM* are secret Champions fans? No. I’m overtly saying it and I think that Tom Morello and company owe someone at Marvel Comics a lot of money.

* When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I loved Rage Against the Machine. “They sang about real things, man. Important things. Things that we should be doing,” I’d argue to myself. And argumentative me was right, they were highly political and they did sing about a lot of things that were important and they did it in an aural pleasing (debatable, I know) way. But being pissed off all the time takes its toll, not only on the musicians but the listener too. I loved Public Enemy but after a while, it felt as if each album was an hour-long bitch session. Not everything has to be the “Humpty Hump” but at some point, you have to let your fans breathe. RAtM was a lot like that. I’m sure they’d take that as a compliment, which is fine.

Back to the Champions. We open up with Hercules and the Angel having to take on the Crimson Dynamo, the Griffin and the Titanium Man all by themselves because Ghost Rider took Rampage to the hospital, Ice Man is off with Ivan searching for the kidnapped Black Widow. Hercules is down for trading fists, but the Angel is understandably worried, so he falls back to crowd detail and lets Herc fight. Don’t worry, former California governor Jerry Brown got away, safe and sound.

The Scion of Zeus does a pretty good job with Crimson Dynamo and once the crowds are safe, the Angel handles the Griffin. At this point, Ghost Rider comes back and joins the fray. With an assist from Hercules (TEAMWORK!) he knocks the Griffin out with Herc’s mace. The cool thing about Hercules' mace? It has a big gold H on it. Proper. 

Hercules gets tired of fooling around with Crimson Dynamo and punches him out too. As this is going on, Warren Worthington III, aka the Angel, is goofing around with the Titanium Man. He kicks TM in the head, which causes the green Russian Iron Man to fall on Hercules, who is cooked.

When I was a kid, I remember the Titanium Man being a bigger deal than this. He used to go toe-to-toe with Iron Man and he was drawn as a bigger, more menacing villain than he is here. According to the Internet, he's over 7'1" and 425 pounds. He doesn't look like it here.  I don’t want to say that he’s used here for comic effect, but he’s not the hulking presence that he usually is. Though I guess if you have to fight the Angel, a writer can’t have WWIII fight the toughest dude from Siberia.

(Look at this dude. He should be able to make borscht out of the Angel.)

Titanium Man’s fall gets Ghost Rider’s attention, which allows the Griffin to get a jump on him. He slashes GR in the back and now Johnny Blaze is snuffed out. What’s strange is that Johnny Blaze’s head turns into a skull when he transforms into the Ghost Rider, why wouldn’t the rest of his body turn into a skeleton too? And if it did, then being slashed really shouldn’t do much, right?

Whatever. The Angel gets blasted out of the sky by Crimson Dynamo.

The weird thing about this whole fight is that the good guys were beating the crap out of the bad guys. They knocked them out numerous times, but like Chumbawumba, they always got back up again. On the other hand, as soon as the Champions get knocked to the ground, they are down for the count. I get that you have to make the villains a tough out, but this is a bit beyond the pale.

As the story moves on, Ivan and Ice Man are still on the trail of the Black Widow—via a black pearl (don’t ask). Ivan is all piss and vinegar about getting his Natasha back and freaks out when Ice Man suggests that they scout out the warehouse where BW is. He goes completely off the collective and accuses Ice Man of running out on his teammate. Ice Man is like, “The fuck are you talking about? There’s like a 30 foot drop from here to the warehouse, I just wanted to warn you about possible bad dudes and make an ice bridge. But if you want to figuratively and literally jump, fucking do it, Pops.”

At this point Titanium Man, the Griffin and the Crimson Dynamo show up with the three knocked out Champions (which seems like kind of a dumb name to call them right now, right?). They kick Ice Man’s ass pretty easily as Ivan uses the ice bridge to get to the warehouse.

Meanwhile, Black Widow and her former teacher, Alexi Brushkin, have broken free of their ropes and have gotten the drop on their captor Darkstar. They fight. And when Ivan breaks in through a skylight, they kick her butt. Unfortunately for them, the bad guy cavalry busts in with their smashed up friends. It’s then where the Crimson Dynamo rips off his mask and reveals that he’s Ivan’s son, Yuri Petrovich.

Not so talk-y now, are you Ivan?

For the second issue in a row, Bill Mantlo assumed the writing duties, putting Champions creator Tony Isabella on the sideline. I don’t want to rip the guy, but it’s for the better. The issues move a little bit quicker, a little smoother. There isn’t as much clunky exposition and it’s just a better book.

But I don’t want to be too hard on Isabella. For one thing, these books were coming out every other month and weren’t meant to be binge read. So, if you’re reading this book every two months, you’re going to need some reminders as to what happened in the last issue. Also, this is a new book filled with C-list characters, so the shortcuts that are in established books like the Avengers or the Fantastic Four or the X-Men aren’t there. Third, there’s an unwritten rule that every comic is someone’s first comic, so you have to thoroughly explain what’s going on every issue.

Some guys are deft at this, while other guys are a bit more clunky. Isabella did a pretty decent job of establishing the Champions’ universe—which is in Los Angeles while most teams usually make New York City their base of operations. So all-in-all; good job, Tony Isabella.

In terms of how this cover stacks up with others, it’s pedestrian at best. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t have the same panache as the others do.

Three out of five vested Angels.