Saturday, March 31, 2012

Last Day of March Means First Baseball Post of the Year

The Big Free Agent Signing for the O's - Wilson Betemit

Well I guess I’ve put it off long enough.  I’ve tried to avoid writing this post for about a week now. Quite frankly, I haven’t paid too much attention to baseball as of yet.  Watching and writing about the Lightning has been a little more time consuming then I had planned.

Also, my mom always said, “If you can’t say something nice, keep your god damn mouth shut.”  As of right now I don’t know how many nice things I can say about the 2012 Baltimore Orioles.  Let’s see:

1.       20th Anniversary of Camden Yards.  Really? It’s been 20 years?  Wow.  The nice thing is that the organization should be spending most of the season reminding us about the better days the ball yard has seen. 

2.       Matt Wieters – The 25-year-old catcher is entering his 4th season with the Birds and many have this year tagged as his breakout year.  He didn’t have a shabby 2011 garnering a Gold Glove award and playing in an All Star game.

3.       Adam Jones – The centerfielder is in the midst of a contract year- which usually means good things.

4.       Nick Markakis should see some power return after undergoing surgery for an abdominal issue that bothered him last season.

5.    And the bestest news of all?  Well, the cartoon bird making it's return to the uniforms, of course!

Who wouldn't be happy wearing that hat?

Opening Day is only a week away and I want to be optimistic about the upcoming season.  After all, this is The HOPEFUL Chase, not The Pessimistic Chase (which would be a stupid title) so I want to believe that they will be the surprise team of the year. That’s what Opening Day is all about.  Everyone has an equal shot at winning, because everyone is starting with the same record.  Even the Mariners and Athletics (they just get to start with the same record earlier). So next Friday should be exciting, the possible start to a championship season!

Unfortunately I just can’t see it.  The bullpen is a mess, Zach Britton, arguably their best pitcher, is on the shelf for at least the month of April after receiving a Platelet Rich Injection (sounds vaguely illegal doesn’t it) in his throwing shoulder, the starting shortstop is also having issues with his throwing shoulder and third base is still an issue defensively.  Oh and they don’t have a true leadoff hitter and their backup catcher has a bad back. Throw in the fact that their second baseman is recovering from a concussion he got from hitting himself with a bat 3 seasons ago and things look pretty bleak.

The offense should be fine, of all the things on the team the offense is the one I worry the least about. They are returning pretty much the same lineup that ranked 4th in the AL in Home Runs and 6th in Batting Average last year. I know all of you neo-statisticians scoff at those old fashioned numbers, but hey they’re good looking numbers and frankly I don’t want to depress myself further by clicking on the “more numbers” link. The only two major differences in the line-up will be at DH (Wilson Betemit replacing Vlad Guerrero) and left field (Nolan Reimold getting a chance to be the every day starter).

Their defense will probably be middle of the road, strong up the middle and weak at the corners. There was some hope that they could find a better option than Mark Reynolds at third base, but for now they’re prepared to go into the season hoping his bat makes up for his defense.  He supposedly dropped about 40 lbs. in the off season so perhaps that will help with his mobility at the hot corner (optimism engaged).

The pitching staff is going to be the biggest question mark, which in the offense-happy AL East isn’t a good thing. With perennial ace Jeremy Guthrie now in Colorado it appears that Jake Arietta is the Opening Day starter by default. The hard-throwing right hander has shown better control throughout the spring, but hasn’t been exactly lights-out.

Following him in the rotation appears to be Wei-Yin Chen, Jason Hammel and Tommy Hunter. In other words three starters who weren’t with the team last April.  The battle for the fifth starter is coming down to Brian Matusz and Tsuyoshi Wada, although Wada may stay behind for extended spring training if he struggles again in his outing next week. The pitcher that doesn’t get the starting spot could also be sent to the bullpen, which might not be a bad option for Wada.

As undefined as the starting rotation is, the bullpen is an even bigger mess. There will probably be a total of seven bullpen jobs to fill and as of right now 11 folks have a shot. My best estimate as to how it ends up is this:

1.       Jim Johnson (R) – Closer

2.       Matt Lindstom (R) – Set up

3.       Zach Phillips (L)

4.       Luis Ayala (R)

5.       Pedro Strop (R)

6.       Troy Patton (L)

7.       Darren O’Day (R)

Notice anyone missing? Like a certain high-priced closer? I have a feeling that General Manager Dan Duquette will find a taker for Kevin Gregg (even if he has to eat a large portion of the contract) before spring training is over.  It’s been a rough couple of weeks for closers with Ryan Madson and Joakim Soria both getting shut down for the season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team picking Gregg up as an insurance policy, especially if they can do it on the cheap.

The O’s waived Alfredo Simon on Saturday throwing some more confusion powder on the bullpen and gives Buck Sholwalter some interesting options.  Chris Tillman was sent down as well despite having a semi-decent spring.

Pat Neshek has a shot at making the team as he hasn’t allowed an earned run in the nine innings of relief he’s thrown this spring. However, he has an option left so the Orioles can send him to Norfolk without the risk of losing him on waivers.  Could one of the starters who miss out on the last spots in the rotation be placed in the bullpen?  Possibly, but it would be more beneficial for them to get regular starts in the minors.

Two lefties in the bullpen? Sure why not. I’m sick of this lefty-bias where teams only carry one southpaw and he’s only allowed to face lefties.  The O’s aren’t in a position to be choosy when it comes to their bullpen. If Phillips and Patton are the best options, then they’re the best options match-ups be damned.

No matter how it sorts out the pitching staff isn’t going to remind anyone of the 1966 Orioles.  At best I see this team having another 70-win season. Now having said that I guess I can’t complain when they plod through the season the way a 70-win team does.  You know, win one – lose three. Then win three and lose four. 

On the other hand, the Red Sox didn’t really do anything to make themselves better and a black cloud seems to be making its way to Tampa Bay. The young pitchers might turn the corner and the Asian imports might beguile American League hitter for at least one season.  The offense is pretty good and if he gets enough at-bats Reimold could be a 30+ HR guy. They were coming on strong at the end of last year (suck it, Red Sox!) and there is that extra playoff spot available.  Who knows, maybe, just maybe this could be the year.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

We're Throwing This One Back - Lightning Card of the Week

Enrico Ciccone 2002-03 Fleer Throwbacks Stickwork Relic

What a fantastic card.  It’s from the pre-cup era (yes I’m defining Lightning history in eras now, a la the Star Wars expanded universe.  Deal with it), it has a piece of a hockey stick on it and it features Enrico Ciccone.  Perfect card?  Close, but not quite (needs more shiny).

I’m not sure Throwbacks qualifies as a retro-set, more like a “hey we don’t have a players’ license so let’s feature a set of retired players,” but it did do a good job of showcasing some older players for a new generation of fans.  It gave collectors a chance to pick up relics from retired players such as Dale Hunter, Dirk Graham and Bernie Federko.

The best part about this card is that it was totally unexpected.  It was part of a stack that Tim from The Real DFG had set aside for me and intended on giving me at the Sun Times Card Show a couple of weekends ago.  I was a no-show at the show (you liked that didn’t you?) so he left them with Sal.

Having nothing better to do on Saturday I met up with Sal at Tim’s Baseball Card shop to drop off an autograph for him and pick up my bounty from both Sal and Tim.  As usual, those two went way above and beyond what I was expecting. 

The Ciccone card was on top of a stack of about 67 Lightning cards of which I think I had maybe one.  It’s so delightful to get cards that I haven’t seen before since most of them pre-date my collecting career. My hockey collection is quite sporadic. It includes a lot of stuff from 1992-95(you know, the super cheap wax days) and then a lack of cards until about 2009.  There are a lot of delightfully horrific players from the Lightning’s past slapped on pieces of cardboard that I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on.

Does Enrico Ciccone fit in that category of “delightfully horrific”?  I’m not sure.  He was good at what he did – get into fights.  Despite only playing 135 games a Lightning uniform he is 4th all-time in penalty minutes with 604.  To put that in perspective The Little Ball of Fury, Steve Downie, played 79 more games in a Lightning uniform and still trails Ciccone by 50 minutes.

Granted it was a different time, a less-civilized time, when Ciccone wore the Silver, Black and Blue for the Lightning. Still, averaging almost 4 and ½ penalty minutes a game is impressive.   More importantly, it was fan-friendly.

Let’s face it, hockey in Florida started as a gimmick. The Lightning, not exactly playing in a thriving hockey market, needed something to gain fan interest.  In the early days of the club fighting, more than goal scoring or even winning, helped bring the fans in. On the 1995-96 team, Ciccone led the team with 258 penalty minutes. Four other players (Shawn Burr, Michel Petit, Chris Gratton and Roman Hamrlik) had over 100 penalty minutes as well. That team also was the first Lightning team to make it to the playoffs.  Coincidence? Probably.

Ciccone would be dealt to Chicago in March of 1996 for Igor Ulanov, but would find his way back to the Lightning a little more than a year later and play a handful of games in the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons.

Never a big scorer (his career high for goals in a season was 2) he still managed to play in parts of 11 NHL seasons and he was well-liked in most of the towns that he played in.  In Tampa he was a fairly frequent guest on The Bubba The Love Sponge Show (yo yo yo yo) and provided the epic third-person sound clip of “Chico’s on the ice. Chico will take care of you”.

Players of Ciccone’s sort are being phased out of the NHL game. The brawlers, the intimidators, the protectors, the enforcers, whatever you want to call them are a disappearing breed as the league tries to dissociate itself with its violent past. There is still fighting in the league, but now it’s being done more and more by guys who can also chip in 15 goals a season.

It makes for a better game, skill should always trump brute force, but still there is a sense of nostalgia when I see cards of players like Ciccone and Bob Probert.  Oddly enough, it’s nostalgia for a game that I only have seen on YouTube or read in books since my real hockey involvement didn’t begin until around 1996.   Is it possible to fondly remember a type of NHL that I didn’t watch? I guess so.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

El Cheap-o Box Break : 2002-03 Pacific Vanguard Hockey

A box of card for $20 including shipping?  Sure why not!  Last week, in addition to the Heritage baseball break I also ripped some Mylar on hockey.  Atlanta Sports Cards was running a special on old boxes of Pacific hockey so I took a gamble.

I had no recollection of this set whatsoever.  I had no idea what the base sets looked like, who the key rookies were or if there were even autographs or memorabilia cards in the box.  So I was buying blind.  How did I do?

Not bad.

Rather than give you a full recap, he's a sample back that I busted open.  And to make it more enjoyable let's play "6 Degrees of Lecavalier".  The challenge is to connect the player with the Lightning captain in less than six teammates.

Here we go!

Michal Rozsival Pacific Complete.

Yup, Upper Deck wasn't the first company to mix sets inside of other sets.  Pacific did it as well. Can we trace the Penguin to Lecavalier?  Quite easily:

Rozisval's last team was the 2011-12 Phoenix Coyotes which featured a player named Radim Vrbata. As mentioned before on this site, Mr. Vrbata played on the Lightning in 2008, even found himself on Vinny's line from time-to-time.

Bobby Lu in his Panthers' gear.  You know, back before he took long walks on the seawall and caused riots in Vancouver. As for his connection with Lecavalier:

Played with Lukas Krajicek in Florida. Krajicek played in Tampa with Vincent from 2008-2010.

Chris Gratton.  Former Bolt captain! Shown here in his Buffalo gear before being traded to Phoenix for Daniel Briere.

He played with Vincent two times, first in 1998-99 and then again in 2007-08. 

Advertisement for the 2003 Calder Collection Rookie Set Offer!  For the low price of $24.95 I could own a 10-card serial numbered set of rookies such as Alex Frolov and Chuck Kobasew! Former Lightning great Alex Svitov was also part of the set. 

Nikolai Khabibulin.  Cup winning goaltender. That is all.

Jay Bouwmeester "Vanguard" parallel. Oh yes, a pointless parallel, limited to 450 cards. Bouwmeester was one of the top rookies in the set along with Rick Nash and Henrik Zetterberg.  Well at least he was when the set came out.  Now he's a "solid" player in Calgary.

As for Vinny?  Bouwmeester's junior team was the Medicine Hat Tigers.  On that team was an 18-year-old Martin Cibak.  Don't remember him?  Well check the Stanley Cup 'cause his name is etched on their along with Khabibulin and Lecavalier as part of the championship team.

Patrick Elias.  Do you know that there are currently no former Lightning players on this year's Devils squad?  It's true, it's true!  So I had to connect him through linemate Daniaus Zubrus who was once traded for Timo Helbing who played 9 games on the 2005-06 Lightning team. He had one point in 9 games with Tampa Bay that year, it was an assist.  Who scored the goal?  Vincent Lecavalier, of course!

I like the set, but if anyone is trying to complete it let me know I'm not keeping the base.  I did get three memorabilia cards - the world smallest jersey patches of:

Brendan Morrison - Vancouver
Pavol Demitra - St. Louis
Mark Messier - Rangers

They might be part of a trade bait post in the future.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lightning Card of the Week - Autograph Prospects

OK.  This is starting to get downright uncanny.  On Sunday I got this.

That’s right, baby! It’s a hand-signed Steve Konroyd 8x10! He was signing at the Blackhawks game, there was a line, and I like standing in lines.  So I got an autograph.  Konroyd had a decent career in the NHL and now works with Blackhawks media.  It’s always nice to add a NHL autograph to the collection, but that’s not the reason I’m posting this.

You may remember that the last two times I picked up an in-person autograph of a former Blackhawk I ended up getting a Through-The-Mail autograph the next day.  Surely, that wouldn’t happen again would it? 

After working on a piece for The Hockey Writers I went downstairs to check the mail slot and low-and-behold I saw one of my self-labeled envelopes amongst the advertisements for and Comcast Cable (Hey Comcast, how about you match up your mailing lists? I just switched over to you).

Inside the envelope was this:

Brendon Mikkelson 2008-09 ITG Heroes and Prospects signed with what appears to be a small paintbrush.  Well at least there was no smudging on it this time.

Mikkelson was picked up by the Lightning in January for Blair Jones and has played fairly well since then.  The big, smooth-skating defenseman just picked up his first NHL goal in the 3-1 loss to St. Louis Saturday night and now has 3 point in 30 games with the Bolts. Though his ice time has dropped a little recently, he’s been playing around 15-17 minutes on a pretty regular basis.  Not bad for24-year-old with limited NHL experience.

A Restricted Free Agent after this season, I fully expect he’ll be brought back (and hopefully signed to a multi-year deal) once the CBA is figured out.  He’s not that flashy with the puck, but he can handle it, has decent speed (always a bonus) and has shown a proclivity for staying calm in the sometimes chaotic Lightning defensive zone. 

I guess I have to check the Internet and see when the next signing is happening in Chicago if I want to see any of my other TTM cards come back.  As they say in Norfolk, “Three isa fluke, four is a streak”.

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned my love for the ITG products in the past, and 2008-09 Heroes and Prospects was the first product I ever busted from them.  It's nice to rummage through around when the Lightning pick up players so that I can send the cards off quickly for autographs.
Showing him in his junior's uniform is kind of fudging the whole "Lightning Card of the Week" gimmick, but frankly I didn't want to subject you to back-to-back single card posts.  Aren't I a kind and benevolent blogger?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Recap Windy City Fight Night 22

The air outside the UIC Pavilion rumbled with thunder and lightning as the building on the outskirts of downtown Chicago played host to Windy City Fight Nights 22, an 8 Count Productions event cosponsored by ESP, INC. The big draw for the night’s fights was undoubtedly Andrezj Fonfara, the Polish titleholder with the large fan base.

Let’s take a look at how the fights went.

Raeese Aleem (1-0-0, 1 KO) vs. DeWayne Wisdom (2-2-0, 1 KO)

The opening match of the night featured a couple of featherweights who didn’t mind mixing it up a bit. Aleem, in his second pro fight, was the aggressor during the entire match often landing three punches to everyone that Wisdom did.  “The Beast” also dominated the ring, spending most of the match pushing Wisdom (who took the match on only two days notice) against the ropes and into the corner. 

It wasn’t close on the scorecards as Aleem won by unanimous decision with all three judges’ scorecards reading 40-36. Personally I had Wisdom winning the third round when Aleem seemed to take a break and Wisdom was able to land three lunging power rights.  In the end the decision went to the boxer who landed more punches rather than the one who landed bigger punches.

Clifford McPherson (2-7-1, 1 KO) vs. Chad McKinney (Debut)

McKinney, a Chicago-based fighter, was making his debut in this contest, and he made it a memorable one.  For four rounds he beguiled his opponent by switching from a southpaw to an orthodox stance. Throughout the four rounds, McPherson’s corner exhorted their fighter to use his right hook more to and to pressure the less-experienced fighter.  Even though the opening for the right hook was there (McKinney kept his left low no matter what style he was fighting in) McPherson never threw it and wasn’t really able to mount any offense at all.
Chad McKinney lands a jab on Clifford McPherson as Ref Dave Smith looks on

By the fourth round McKinney was landing punches at will and walked away with a unanimous decision in his debut by sweeping all founds on the judges’ scorecards.

Adan Ortiz (Debut) vs. Ricky Lacefield (0-3-0)

Another Chicago fighter fighting in his first professional fight, Ortiz didn’t need four rounds to pick up his first win. Lacefield had shook off a couple of big punches earlier in the round, indicating that Ortiz couldn’t hurt him, however the fighter out of Lincoln, Nebraska ended up taking a knee at the 2:44 mark of the first and wasn’t able to answer referee Dave Smith’s ten-count and Ortiz had his knockout.

The punch that did the damage was a left hand that staggered Lacefield who dropped to his knees after Ortiz followed up with a glancing right hand.

Paul Littleton (2-0-0, 2 KOs) vs. Guy Packer (4-35-2, 1KO)

Following a 10-minute intermission the boxing resumed with up-and-coming Paul Littleton faced off against the experienced Guy Packer.  Packer had more than 40 professional fights coming into Friday night. Unfortunately for his career he lost 35 of them.

Littleton, coming off a first-round knock out last month, is building a fan base in Chicago and was clearly the better fighter. He won the first round by patiently waiting for his chances and landing solid punches when they presented themselves.  In the second round he would land a solid left to Packer’s gut that would end the fight at the 1:17 mark.  With cheers of “Paulie, Paulie” reigning down from the crowd the ref stopped the it and Littleton had the third win of his career.

Andrzej Fonfara (20-2-1, 11 Kos) vs. Byron Mitchell (29-9-1, (22 KOs)

For the USBO Light Heavyweight Championship

This was the main event of the evening, even if it wasn’t the last fight of the night.  Fonfara has a tremendously vocal following in Chicago, especially among its Polish population.  Mitchell, although on the downside of his career at the age of 38 was no slouch as he could claim two WBA Super Middleweight titles on his resume.

The crowd was in full voice during the playing of the Polish national anthem and during the introductions.  Rhythmic cries of “An-DRE FON-FAR-A” reigned down as the fighters were announced.

Once the bell rang, Fonfara didn’t disappoint his faithful followers.  He overwhelmed his elder opponent early and often. After the first three minute were up Mitchell would find himself on the canvas twice courtesy of powerful combinations from The Polish Prince.
Fonfara lands one of the numerous powershots he threw against Byron Mitchell

The second round was more of the same as Fonfara proved to be the quicker and stronger fighter.  He was able to work the body and the head, landing his punches at will against Mitchell.  The former champ tried to mount a bit of a rally and was able to land a few shots against Fonfara, but it wasn’t enough. With two rounds finished the only question remaining was how quickly Fonfara could finish his business.

In the end it would be Mitchell’s corner that decided their fighter had had enough.  After Mitchell weathered a minute of Fonfara’s combinations to start the third round they would throw the towel in.  When referee Celestino Ruiz didn’t see it (he was watching Mitchell hit the canvas) the downed fighter’s trainer would actually step into the ring to make his intentions known.  At the 1:03 mark Ruiz called a halt to the fight and Fonfara had his ninth straight victory, all of them by TKO or KO.

It’s an important time in 24-year-old’s career. He has won those 9 fights since having to forfeit a TKO against Skyler Thompson in 2009. However, his competition hasn’t been the top of the class. Nor has he traveled to take on opponent as 8 of the 9 fight have been at the UIC Pavillan.

If he wants to contend against the top light heavyweights like Antonio Tarver, Chad Dawson or the ageless Bernard Hopkins he’s going to have leave the Windy City and fight in hostile territory.  Does he have the talent to complete on that level?  That’s to be determined, but he has displayed the hand-speed and the power to be competitive.

His defense is still a little shaky.  Despite being outclassed for the entire fight, Mitchell was still able to find holes in the Polish fighter’s armor.  He just couldn’t take advantage of it.  Fonfara does look a more comfortable fighting at 175lbs then he did at the 160lb. weight that he fought at earlier in his career.  The added weight does let him absorb big punches easier.

It’s no secret that the Mitchell fight was a test.  If Fonfara had struggled against the former champ his chances of finding the big paydays on ESPN or on HBO and Showtime undercards would have dried up. Now that he has done what he has had to do it will be interesting to see who his next opponent (and where the location) will be.

Viktor Polyakov (11-0-0, 6 KOs) vs. Derrick Findley (18-7-0, 11 KO’s)

For the USBO Middleweight Championship

The final fight of the night (and billed as the co-main event) featured another fighter rebuilding his career in Polyakov and the last man to beat Fonfara in the ring in Findley.  After the raucous event that was the prior fight the Polyakov/Findley contest was a rather tame affair.

With the subdued crowd seemingly mildly interested in the outcome the two boxers traded punches for 10 rounds.  Polyakov was a hair faster on the exchanges allowing him to frustrate his more experienced opponent.  Findley, known for his power left hook never found the chance to land it and experienced his only success when he doubled up his right hook.

Unfortunately, Findley did not discover that combination until late in the 10th round and by then Polyakov was well on his way to a unanimous decision. Both fighters were evenly matched and despite landing fairly solid punches throughout the match neither showed signs of being hurt. Two judges scored the fight 99-91 for Polyakov while the third had it a bit closer at 96-94. I had the Ukrainian winning 97-93 on my unofficial card.  According to Findley’s promoter there was a rematch clause in the fight contract and it will be interesting to see if Findley invokes it as he was visibly upset with the decision after the fight.

It was another entertaining night of fighting for Dominic Pesoli’s 8 Count Productions.  Check into their website to see when their next event will be held.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Chicago Photo 13 - Spring Time Is Early

Ahh... Spring time in the Windy City, it's not a bad part of the year.  Hopefully, this isn't a false Spring and the 70+ degree weather sticks around for a little bit longer.  I snapped this one a couple of days ago when I went for a little walk.

It was the first day of the tempatures rising about 70 and there were plenty of folks taking advantage of it.  All along the Lakeshore trail people were running, biking and rollar blading.  Yes, people still rollarblade - and yes they do look like people who thought the 90's were a very good decade and don't want to leave it behind.

Today is Saint Patrick's Day and we breifly discussed heading downtown to watch the dying of the river, but a late night at the fights along with a bad night of sleep quashed that idea.  Hey lady screaming outside on the street at 3 in the morning - tone it down a notch.  We don't care what happened to your car and I doubt squealling about it at the top of your lungs helped the situation.

Well, time to shut the computer down and enjoy this weather.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Topps Heritage - I Have No Clever Title

As 2011 turned into 2012 I made a resolution, no a declaration, that I would only chase two sets this year.  No longer would I waste money that I don’t have on packs at Target on sets that I’m not going to complete.  Nope, I would be strong, I would be resolute and stick to my guns.  So far I’ve done that. 

To reward myself for my self-control I went to the Local Card Store and bought myself a box of 2012 Topps Heritage.  That’s right, why chase a base set when I can chase a more expensive one with a ton of short prints?  My parents would agree that common sense was never my strong point (much like the proper use of commas).

John at Elite Sports Cards got his shipment of Heritage in on Wednesday and promised to hold a box for me till Thursday.  So, I jumped on the El and headed up to his shop (by the way if you’re on the North Side, check his shop out.  He has a pretty decent selection of boxes and packs for sale and his prices are reasonable. I walked out paying a fair price (cheaper than online when you factor in shipping costs) and headed home to rip some wax, paper, whatever they’re sealed in these days.

Here’s what I pulled in.  First up the regular base cards:

Mirrored on the 1963 Topps set, this year’s Heritage features a nice use of bold colors on the bottom edge. Several cards have funky backgrounds that off-set the mostly posed pictures of the players.  The images have that nice faux-painted look that collectors seem to enjoy.  Jeff Samardzija is going for which look:

A.      Swashbuckler

B.      Tow-Truck Driver

C.      Guy bumming a cigarette at the bus stop

D.      Over-rated middle reliever

Players on new teams do get the airbrush treatment as new Oriole DH Endy Chavez shows:

Look at the hat!  So glad it’s back!

Everyone loves floating heads for rookies:

As you notice, Wasteland Hall of Famer Michael Taylor is featured on two different cards.  Apparently, this is a nod to the original 1963 set.  It’s cool with me, I guess.

Some rookies got their own card and the big All-Star Rookie Trophey is back:

I have at least four cards in the set with Jared Hughes on them.  I have no idea who he is.  On the other hand big trophies are awesome.

I have no problem with manager cards and team cards, either:

Now we move on to the inserts.  Most Heritage collectors don’t bust boxes looking for hits.  Sure, they have some nice on-card autographs (spoiler I didn’t get any), but they are rather hard to pull compared to other sets and it’s hard enough to put together just the base set.  I couldn’t imagine someone wanting to do a master set.

First up News Flashes and Baseball Flashes:

JFK cards usually move well on the secondary market and who doesn’t smile when they pull an Ernie Banks card.

There is shiny:

I pulled two Chromes (numbered to 1963) and one Refractor (the unflattering portrait of Zach Greinke) which was numbered to 563.

There is the “meh”

Two New Age Performers and a Then and Now.  Not really feeling those inserts.


I pulled three of these and have resisted the urge to stick them on anything so far.

The “Hit”

A grey swatch of Nick Swisher’s jersey.  A certain editor for a certain Collectibles magazine may be interested in this card.  Twitter-negotiations are underway.

Oh and then there was this.

At first I thought it was just another base card, it would have been my only duplicate, and kept sorting.  Something in the back of my mind made me look closer.  Let’s compare the two.

Regular Base


Hey wait, they have different color schemes.  Did I just pull a super short print color swap of the Yankees captain?  As Lana Kane would say, “Yuuup”.

I did what any unemployed blogger would do - post it on eBay as fast as possible.  Then I went shopping with the Duchess.  By the time I got back my “Buy it Now” price had been met. The final price easily covered what I paid for the box with a little left over to spend how I feel fit (totally spending it on cards). So I would say it was a decent box.

Even without the Jeter short print I would have been happy with this break (which is what everyone says when they actually make back their investment).  People who collect Heritage will be happy with it even with all of the variations and “error” cards.  I’ll probably throw some more money at it in the form of jumbo packs, but one hobby box is enough for me. Much like the 2009 set I’m sure I’ll be chasing this until I die.  For those other unfortunate souls chasing this one I’ll have a “wants/haves” list posted sometime soon.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Lightning Card of the Week - Mike Smith 2009-10 UD Victory

There is a 78% chance Smith is going to turn the puck over in this photo.

2009-10 Mike Smith Upper Deck Victory. Back to back Victory cards and back to back current Phoenix Coyotes.  Wow, two posts into this gimmick and I'm already in a rut. I like the Victory cards because they usually don't try to be anything more than a basic set. No need to be fancy with the design or photos, just make sure you have the logo, player name and team name on the front and throw a white border around it. Works for me.

How do you remember the Mike Smith era in Tampa? Colossal disappointment? Unfulfilled potential? Have you ever dated someone who was perfect for you, but for some reason it just didn’t work out? Despite the fact that you laughed at the same jokes, she tolerated Star Wars and you didn’t mind Titanic, something was still off.  Either she was coming off a long-term relationship or you were an axe-wielding psychopath, the relationship just didn’t work so you parted ways and wished the best for each other.  To me, that was the Mike Smith experience in Tampa.

Things were rocky from the beginning for Smith in Tampa.  He was the centerpiece in a deal that saw one of the most popular players in Lightning history shipped out because the new ownership group couldn’t afford him.  He was behind the 8-ball from the beginning with some fans because he was traded for Brad Richards and could never live up to their expectations simply because he wasn’t Richey.

On paper he was as close to a perfect prospect for a goaltender. He was big (6’4” 215), athletic, and successful – as the understudy to Marty Turco in Dallas Smith posted a 24-14 record with .909 save percentage and a 2.35 goals against average over two seasons with the Stars.  Most importantly to the ownership group he was young and he was cheap.

There were some good times, his 43 wins places him fifth all-time on the Lightning wins chart and he did post 6 shut-outs through his 3+ seasons with the Bolts. Heck, he even had a shining moment in the 2010-11 Stanley Cup playoff run where he replaced a struggling Dwayne Roloson in Game 4 and stopped all 21 shots he faced on the way to the Lightning’s come-from-behind 5-3 win.

He was a well-liked guy in the clubhouse, Nate Thompson called him “one of our favorite guys” and there was considerable glumness in the clubhouse when he was demoted to Norfolk during the 2010-11 season. There was also his undeniable on-screen chemistry with Ryan Malone.

Unfortunately, in the end there was too much inconsistency.  For some reason he could never grab the number one role no matter how many times it was on the table for him.  He would play well for stretches and then disappear, losing starts to Johan Holmqvist, Karri Ramo, Dan Ellis and finally Dwayne Roloson.

He had pockets full of talent, but perhaps a little too much enthusiasm.  He loved to play the puck, but was so bad at it I advocated chaining him to his goalposts at one point.  He was big and athletic, but technically a bit unsound.  My sister has a dog.  When he was a puppy Milo’s paws were disproportionally huge compared to the rest of his body and he wasn’t the most coordinated animal ever created.  He tended to crash around the house more then run or walk. That’s what Mike Smith was  – a giant puppy crashing around the crease.

Injuries played a large role in his struggles in Tampa, the biggest example being the concussion he hid from the coaching staff for six weeks. The concussion would eventually cost him the last 32 games of the 2008-09 season. During his tenure with the Lightning he would miss time with various knee and neck injuries as well.

When Tampa made it clear they had no intentions of re-signing him in the off-season most fans wished him good luck while others snickered when Phoenix signed him to a 2-year/$4 million deal.  Now that the season is winding down it’s obvious that the Coyotes are the ones laughing as Smith has 30 wins under his belt and is a goalie reborn under the tutelage of goaltender coach Sean Burke.

From the handful of games I’ve watched, he’s calmer, better positioned and under control when making saves.  There is a lot less flailing and desperate scrambling.  Being reunited with Dave Tippet’s defensive system (Tippet was his coach in Dallas as well) seems to agree with his style more so than whatever Barry Melrose and Rick Tocchet put on the ice. Even Coach Boucher’s system puts a lot of pressure on the goalie when it’s not executed correctly by the team in front of him.

He’s only 29-years-old so there is still a chance he can string together a good career in the NHL. Perhaps, the demotion to Norfolk last year served as a wake-up call. Now maybe with a little bit of maturity and discipline he can establish himself as a number one goaltender in the league. It’s a shame it won’t be in a Lightning uniform, but sometimes a change of scenery is best for a young player.

To go back to our earlier analogy I guess now Smith is the ex-girlfriend you stayed friends with and are glad that she’s doing well, but it still pisses you off that she met a doctor and is driving around in a Mercedes.  Especially since at this point the Lightning are still the axe-wielding psychopath still looking to meet the right girl.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

State of The Blog

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post there are going to be a couple of changes on this site.  Most notably, the content on the Lightning is going to go way down.  That’s because I just picked up a gig writing for The Hockey Writers, and quite frankly, I’m way too lazy to come up with original content for both sites.  I will be linking to my articles over there, so if you’re interested you’ll just have to click one more link.

I will still be doing the Lightning Card of the Week here as well as Raw Charge’s Question of the Week.  Other than that I think I’ll be getting back into writing more about baseball. I haven’t caught the spring training bug yet, but once the season starts up I’m sure I’ll have some random Orioles and Cubs opinions to spout.

Despite the lack of page views they generate, I will be posting more about boxing, both local and national.  After all both Mayweather and Pacquiao are fighting this year (sadly not against each other) so I will spout off about those boxing contests.

There will be a couple of box breaks coming up. I treated myself to a $16 box of Pacific Vanguard from Atlanta Sports Cards and Heritage should be released in the next week or so.  I’m sure there will continue to be card-related topics to talk about as the year rolls on (maybe Rally Squirrel gets a spot in Heritage? Heads will as-plode!)

I’m going to make a conscious effort to post more about this great city I live in and will bring back the Chicago photo series, maybe at some point I’ll take a picture that I actually like.

So I guess things aren’t going to change that much.  Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Question of The Week - What Would You Do?

Coming up soon I’ll have a quick post about some changes regarding this here blog – that’ right I’m going to start charging for it.  $99 bucks for a year’s subscription!  Just kidding, this site will always be free, because frankly that’s what this content is worth. I mean who wants to pay to read lame jokes about hockey cards?

Now, it’s time for the good ol’ Raw Charge Question of The Week!  This week it’s a nice general topic about the NHL in general. 

Antennas optional
Make the players wear the Great Gazoo’s helmet.  Boom concussion problem solved. Now everyone can get back to watching their favorite players without wondering if the next hit will force them to spend the rest of their life in a dark room. That was easy enough, eh?

Actually, as I think about the question and scroll over some of the other folk’s answers I keep coming back to an idea I’ve been kicking around for a couple of seasons.  Pretty much since I returned from my one year protest following the lock out:

Make the playing surface bigger.

According to Rule 1.2: “the official size of the rink shall be two hundred feet (200’) long and eighty-five (85’) wide.”  The rinks have generally been that size since the NHL began play.  Some of the older barns like the Boston Garden may have had slight variations, but now, as the new buildings become more uniform, most of them play to those regulations.

According to Wikipedia (where this picture is taken from) The Garden measured 191x83

The problem is, while the rinks have stayed the same, the players have gotten bigger.  When the Toronto Maple Leafs won their last Stanley Cup in 1966-67 their biggest everyday skater was Frank Mahovlich who was listed at 6’ 205lbs.  Last season’s Bruins team featured 13 players on the roster bigger than that with Zdeno Chara logging an impressive 6’9” 255lbs.

1940's player meets 2010's player

Add in two referees and two linesmen and that’s a lot of human flesh cluttering up the ice. Even with some of the rule tweaks that were instituted post lock-out it’s easy for defensive minded teams to clog up the neutral zone and choke off entry into the offensive zone.

Any time widening the playing surface is mentioned the immediate outcry is that owner won’t go for it because it’ll eliminate too many expensive seats along the glass. That’s true, but at least it’ll give them an excuse to raise ticket prices as opposed to doing it for no apparent reason.  Or, maybe they can see past the short term loss of revenue to the long term benefit of strengthening the game.

Smart owners will find ways to recover the revenue lost from removing a couple rows of seats.  After all, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik made the audacious move of removing luxury suites during the latest Ice Palace renovation and hasn’t suffered from it.  In fact, he’s received nothing but praise (and boosted attendance) for the recent makeover.

Expanding out to full international ice (210 x 98) might not be the answer, but adding 2 or 3 feet of width on each side will make it hard for teams like the Lightning to stack the blue line with three or four defenders to prevent the opposing teams from skating freely into the zone.  Of course, with the way the Lightning defenders have been letting the other team into the zone uncontested all year that really hasn’t been a problem yet.

Wider ice surfaces might not be a cure all for the concussion rampage that is currently sweeping through the league but it can’t hurt either.  Space equals time in the NHL.  Making a defender skate an extra foot or two to deliver a crunching hit along the boards could be the difference between Sidney Crosby suffering another brain bruise or him slipping by and scoring a goal.

Some critics complain that games played on international ice by European professional teams are low-scoring and boring.  That the large ice surface makes the game resemble soccer more than the high-impact, rock ‘em-sock ‘em NHL hockey they’re used to watching.  Well, yeah of course it’s not the same – they’re not using NHL-caliber talent.  While they’re pretty good, they’re not the best. Moving to larger ice won’t eliminate hitting, but players will have to be more conscious about making sure they are in the proper position to make the hit.

The league has a lot on its table this summer.  From negotiating a new CBA, to realignment, ownership issues, concussion problems and a serious decline in the quality and consistency of officiating the last thing they’re thinking about is redesigning the ice rink. However, as the game moves forward and the players keep getting bigger and faster it is an issue that will require more attention.

Gonna keep postin' 'em! AP David Zalubowski

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dustin Tokarski Gets The Call

An extremely bad Photoshop I made earlier in the season for Twitter (based on a billboard in Norfolk)

If you’ve read any of my hockey stuff over the past year or so, you know I’m a bit of a mark for Dustin Tokarski.  Heck, he’s even one of the folks on my Personal Collection list, so you know I’m a fan.  Even back in 2010 I thought he’d be something to look forward to.That means I’m super excited about the news out of Channelside that he’s been promoted, right?  Not really.

The Tampa Bay Lightning organization hasn’t exactly been a hot bed for goaltending prospects over its 20-year history.  As a matter of fact, it’s been more like the place where young goalies go to disappear.  Every regime that has come through the Tampa Bay Area has had their “Chosen One” who would lead the team in net for the coming years. Names like Evgeny Konstantinov, Gerald Coleman, Riku Helenius and Zack Bierk (aka Sebastian Bach’s brother-in-law) have all been pitched to the fan base as a potential hot young goalie in the system.  The combined number of NHL games for them in a Lightning uniform – 31. The number of wins – 5 (all of them by Bierk).

If you look at the Lightning’s history of goaltenders that they’ve drafted, it’s not pretty.  The all-time games leader for Tampa Bay drafted goalies is Karri Ramo with 48, that is barely over a half of a season’s worth of games. Even for a relatively young franchise that’s pathetic.
Ramo did have one of the best masks in Lightning history - BRAINS!

Most likely it is because the organization has never concerned itself with using top picks to draft goaltenders. In the sixteen drafts that the Lightning have used their first round pick (they traded away their number one picks in 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2007), only once have they used it for a goaltender.  That was for Helenius in 2006 when he went 15th overall (with Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth still available). Only Tyler Moss (2nd round 1993) and Konstatinov (3rd round 1999) have been drafted in the top 3 rounds.

With that lack of top-end talents in the prospect pool it’s no wonder that they’ve never developed an elite starting goaltender in the NHL.  They have also had a tendency to rush whichever prospects they do have through their system and throw them into the fire with horrendous teams in front of them. Ramo was 20 when he appeared in his first game, Bierk was 21 and Coleman was 20 when he appeared in two games before being shipped out to Anaheim in the Shane O’Brien deal.

Tokarski has been in the organization since 2008 when he was drafted in the 5th round by the Bolts.  There was a lot of excitement about him early in his career as he dominated his last season in junior hockey, winning the Memorial Cup MVP and the Hap Emms Memorial Trophy as the top goaltender.  He was also the starting goaltender for Team Canada at the 2009 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships where he led them to their 5th straight goal medal (even if his play was uneven at best).
I have this card! Well not this exact one, but one just like it!

He immediately made the jump to the AHL where he won 27 games in his first year at Norfolk while sharing playing time with Helenius and Jaroslav Janus.  Tokarski would win 21 games in 2010-11 and seem to take a step back on the prospect depth chart as Janus and newcomer Cedrick Desjardins would look like they might have higher potential.

This season, with Desjardins out of the system, the battle for the future of the organization has come down to Tokarski and Janus. After splitting time earlier in the season, Tokarski has wrestled his way to the starting job and has matched his career best with 27 wins, 8 of which have come in his last 8 starts. The Admirals are in the midst of the playoff hunt in the AHL, mostly due to the outstanding play in net by their two keepers.

Before Tuesday night’s game it looked like the plan was simple.  Despite the uneven play of Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon, Tokarski would stay in Norfolk and wet his teeth on AHL playoff pressure. Roloson will most likely be gone next season and Tokarski could enter camp with the chance of battling for the number one position with Garon or any other goalie brought in by Mr. Yzerman.  The kid, he is still 23, wouldn’t be rushed nor would he waste away on the bench.

Then, at about 7:47pm EST, Garon deflected an Erik Karlson shot with his glove. In doing so he shredded his groin like our cat shreds a newspaper. Immediate thoughts on the Twitter-verse were that Mr. Yzerman would be putting a call into the league and swooping in to take Marty Turco off of waivers.  Alas, it wasn’t to be.  They waited for the diagnosis and on Wednesday morning, in the shadow of the news that Peyton Manning was being released by the Colts, announced that Tokarski was getting the call up.

How much the young netminder plays in the next 3-4 weeks hasn’t been determined yet.  With the Bolts only 4 points out of a playoff spot, one has to think that the team will rely heavily on the veteran Roloson.  There are only two sets of back-to-back games left on their schedule (March 26,27 and April 4,5) so they may try to ride him down the stretch.  However, his play has been spotty at best throughout this season so there is a slimmer of a chance that Coach Boucher will give the younger goalie a shot.