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.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Divide and Conquer!

Big news in this issue, gang. Big and sorta sad news. Warren Worthington III, better known to comic aficionados, as the Angel has changed his uniform. He’s back to wearing his new classic uniform, though this time it’s red instead of blue.

(I don't know where the halo is in the above costume, it's usually in the middle of his chest, but it's not there. The Angel looks like a bit of an asshole here, doesn't he?)

It’s about damn time Angel looked presentable. He looked like an asshole flying around, chest showing, headband on in his yellow and red Ronald McDonald togs. Seriously, he looked like this:

I for one am glad that we don’t have to look at this monstrosity of a uniform anymore. But, you know what, you guys? I’m actually a little sad too. That ketchup and mustard creation really brought home the spirit of the Champions. The spirit of the 1970s, the Me Decade, where if it felt good, you did it. Extra wide bell bottoms, garish shirts, cocaine addictions, sloppy sex in bathrooms? Whatever man, just keep on truckin’ and we’ll let our kids pick up the pieces.

Let’s give it up one last time for the Baby Boomer generation, they had the fun and passed along the check to us! And oh yeah, now they’re super scared of everything, so they elected a monstrous sentient Cheeto to really bring the whole shithouse down. You fucked up drugs, casual sex, rock and roll, the economy (TWICE!), might as well fuck up the entire government on your way out! Thanks again guys. Great work.

Anyway, Rampage shows up at the Champions headquarters armed with photos of the Titanium Man hauling Black Widow and her former mentor Alexi Bruskin AKA The Commissar* somewhere. This really pisses of Ivan**, who despite almost dying at the hands of Rampage decides to go for round two. He hit him pretty hard. Rampage was popped so hard that Hercules was pumped for Ivan.

(Would you look at how god damn thrilled Hercules is in this pic?) 

* I wish that this story was written in the early 80s, just someone could have said, “Don’t turn around. Uh-oh! Der Kommissar’s in town! Uh-oh!” After the Fire, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

** There’s a number of strange things about Ivan: he looks like a French Stan Lee for one thing. But the other thing is that his voice doesn’t match his personality. What I mean by this is that Ivan is Russian as the Kremlin, but he’s written in such a thick American East coast way. Like he lived all his life in Brooklyn. He uses idioms like “pal” and “dough” and “ain’t”, I’m surprised he hasn’t yelled, “It’s clobberin’ time” yet. And that’s fine, Russians—all foreigners—assimilate into the US and use the day’s slang. But not in comics, especially not in comics from 1976. Ivan is Russian, so he would speak in a bastardized version of the mother tongue, like the X-men’s Colossus. Lots of “da’s” and “nyet’s” and his syntax isn’t peppered with slang. The lack of racism (probably not the right word, but you get what I mean) in Ivan’s speech is kind of off putting.

Ramapage decides that he’s had about enough of this bullshit and hits his self-destruct button, which is a gigantic red dot on the middle of his yellow uniform. He’s been hit in the chest a bunch of times, but he’s never exploded. I’m not sure why this time is any different. But it is! And he blows up. But it appears that Griffin and Darkstar had something to do with this, so Rampage isn’t totally crazy.

The Champions kick Rampage when he’s down (vocally) and Ivan tries to get him to spill the beans about the Black Widow, but Rampage dies. Sort of. Not really because the Ghost Rider yells at Angel for being a rich prick (“You don’t know what it’s like to be broke – what it can do to you!”) and then takes their fallen foe to the hospital.

After GR bolts, Champions PR man (I think they called him the team’s financial manager two issues ago, but whatever they’re the same job, right?) Richard Fenster is all like, hey we have a big launching thing to do in a few hours, what are we going to do? Angel says, “Now might not be the time to do that, Dick (no offense meant, that’s his name!)” and Ivan loses it. He thinks that Angel wants to break up the Champions instead of look for Natasha.

Which, to be fair, sounds like an Angel thing to say but Ivan leaves to find his “tsarina” on his own. Hercules grabs a file cabinet and Ice Man grabs a broom to tidy up, while WW III bitches about his ripped costume. The rich are different than us, indeed. Anyway, Hercules tells everyone not to worry, the team launch is going to be awesome “especially if there are ladies in the audience” because the Prince of Power is going to be there too.

I fucking love Hercules.

Cut to: the villains in their liar who have just spilled their plans to Natasha. Griffin wants to kill everyone, especially the Angel (can’t say that I don’t blame him). Titanium Man tells him to chill out when another Russian super villain makes his entrance by blasting TM. It’s the Crimson Dynamo and he’s the son of Ivan Petrovich. YES! The same Ivan who speaks like he’s from the Boogie Down and who just cold-cocked Rampage. It’s just like Huey Lewis says, it’s a small world after all.

While this is going on, Ivan (yup, Crimson Dynamo’s dad!) has figured out where Black Widow is by reverse engineering the black pearl that they got last issue (don’t ask) and Ice Man is tagging along. Remember what we talked about a few entries back about how weird it is that everyone keeps calling Angel and Ice Man “kids” or “youths” or “young ones”? Bobby Drake has finally had it up to his icicles and told Ivan to knock it off.

Ghost Rider drops Rampage off at the hospital and now he’s talking like a demon again and NOT like Gene Autry. There’s a lot of inconsistencies in voice in this issue, which is a bit distracting.

The Angel gets his new uniform and it looks pretty good, though he says that it reminds him of when he was with the X-Men. Awwww. At least Dick is in a tuxedo. Hercules is just chilling in a skirt and sash.

I’m not sure whether the comics had anything to do about this or whether I was just used to red being their primary color and blue being an accent, but in the mid to late 1990s the Angels baseball team were purchased by Disney (who also own Marvel) changed their name from the California Angels to the Anaheim Angels. When they changed their name, they changed their uniforms. They were pretty damn ugly, but their main color scheme went from red with dark blue accents to periwinkle with red accents. It looked like shit and a few years later, they went back to a uniform that was more red.

(Above is Chuck Finley and the upper image is how I remember the Angels looking the most. The second image is sorta like a two or three season look, which I liked but it's not the "traditional" Angels uni.)

(This is Mo Vauhgn in that shitty Anaheim Angels look. Man, I loved Mo Vaughn and was pretty bummed when he went to California. He was a horrible free agent acquisition by them.)

(This is Mike Trout in their most current uniforms. They won a World Series in 2002, so I doubt that they'll change these togs any time soon. But, that was 15 years ago. It doesn't seem that far away. I remember being on a plane to a conference to Vegas when the pilot told everyone that the Angels won the World Series.)

Those periwinkle uniforms sucked (those aren’t even real vests, those are just blue sleeved jersey) and the Angels teams weren’t very good either but I could never get past the blue uniforms. They didn’t look like the Angels. And WWIII doesn’t look like the Angel in his blue togs either, he just looks like the Angel clad in red. Which is kind of weird because if you think of the color red, you think of fire. Angels aren’t in fire, that’s where the devil and his demon horde hang out. Angels live in the sky, so they should be more in tune with the color blue.

Yet for both the baseball team and the comic book character, I think that they look best in red. Weird.

Anyhow, Angel and Hercules go out and meet the people of Los Angeles. California Governor Jerry Brown is pissed that only two of the heroes are there, “I understood that there were five of them!” and things are going pretty well. Until Titanium Man, Crimson Dynamo and the Griffin show up. This is a nice cliffhanger because shit’s going to hit the fans next issue, kids.  

All-in-all, not a bad issue. It kept me interested and laughing. Can’t ask for more than that. The cover was sort of a dud, but the color scheme was cool. I also like that they showed Rampage blowing up and sending Champions everywhere. Update: the vest rating system will stay despite Angel's new uni. Three vested Angels out of five.