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Greatest baseball cards: Pack 4

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  February 14, 2011 01:55 PM

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. . . and a long overdue Pack 4 at that, given that Topps has already revealed 47 of its top 60. With apologies to Michael Ian Black, Mo Rocca, and the rest, let's call this one the "I Love The '80s" version since it features the cards of five of the best hitters of the decade. Dig in . . .

boggswadefinn.jpg1983 Wade Boggs

Maybe it's because he made greatness seem routine, or that his most remarkable skill -- getting on base at a prolific rate by any means necessary -- is far more appreciated today than it was in his '80s Red Sox heyday. Or maybe it's just because as a fickle teenage fan I preferred his teammates named Evans, Rice, and -- it really was a long time ago -- Clemens. Maybe it was the limited power, or the perception that Boggs would prefer two hits in a loss to going 0-fer in a win. It's also possible that I formally declared him Dead To Me after this. Whatever the reason, there's no denying that I've had a longstanding habit of overlooking Boggs, something I was reminded of again recently when I filed the introductory essay/overview for the Maple Street Press Red Sox Annual. Breathlessly writing about the damage Adrian Gonzalez could do at Fenway, I noted that he could make better use of the Monster than any lefty batter since Mo Vaughn . . . and if not Maurice, well, then all the way back to Fred Lynn. I believe my editor's note in the margin was rather succinct: "Wade Boggs?" I appreciate that the sentence didn't end with a comma followed by a "you moron." Well, of course, Wade Boggs. There shouldn't have been any question. From 1983-88, Boggs won five batting titles in six years, never batting lower than .357 in the years he won the crown. His career on-base percentage with the Sox was .428, with a high of .476 in '88. And at Fenway? A .369 average, a .464 on-base percentage, and a .991 OPS in his career. Amazing. I'll do my best not to will him invisible from now on.

mcgwiremark87finn.jpg1987 Mark McGwire

Man, he sure was skinny, wasn't he? Not quite Giambi skinny, but skinny nonetheless. I have to admit, it's images and recollections of the young and Not-So-Big Mac that leave me conflicted about his career and how to put it into proper context. He did hit a rookie-record 49 home runs and slug .618 in '87 while looking essentially like he does here; McGwire's presumably pre-steroid power was otherworldly, even in a rookie season in which the baseballs supposedly had the juice of superballs. After that superb start to his career, it got weird. He batted .201 at age 27 in 154 games, saw his career nearly meet an abrupt end because of injuries as he turned the corner to his 30s, hitting just 18 homers total in 74 games in 1993-94. And then . . . beast mode. Thirty-nine homers in 104 games in '95 . . . 52 homers in '96 . . . 58 in '97 . . . and, well, you know. The feats of McGwire and Sammy Sosa in the summer of '98 proved fraudulent -- in retrospect, this book reads like a satire -- yet I can't help but remember the whole spectacle as great fun. I suppose if I were a member of the Maris family I wouldn't feel that way -- talk about being cheated and misled. But the more time that passes and the more knowledge we gain about the prevalence of performance enhancers in that era, the more I wonder if the individual punishments to the confirmed PED users exceed by a large margin any stain that they left on the game. Does McGwire belong in Cooperstown? I'm still not sure. I'm just not. He's trending the wrong way, receiving just 19.8 percent of the vote this year, his low in his five years on the ballot, so I guess others have made up their minds. Me, I just look as his baseball-reference page and see a spectacular and spectacularly weird career. (His final season: .187 average, 364 plate appearances, 23 singles, 4 doubles, 29 homers, 105 adjusted OPS. I mean . . . what?)

hendersonrickeyfinn.jpg1980 Rickey Henderson

I've read that the Rickey Rookie -- one of the few enduring cards in terms of value and popularity from the '80s -- is virtually impossible to find in perfect condition. If true, cool. I think we've probably made it clear that we're more interested in the warm sentiments that they bring rather than any possible cash reward, and besides, pretty much every card I had in that era was either irreparably dented by an elastic band or had a corner chewed off by my cat, my kid sister or both. I'll take childhood nostalgia over vacuum-sealed perfection every time, thanks. As for the wholly original ballplayer on this particular piece of cardboard, every time I consider his career or peruse his numbers, I'm reminded of the Bill James observation that I've paraphrased here a couple of times . . . and, surprise, will do again right now. If you split Rickey Henderson's career in half, you'd have two Hall of Fame players. Look at the numbers: It's true. He's first all-time in runs (2,295), first in steals (1,406), second in walks (2,190) and -- this is becoming one of my favorite stats -- fourth in times on base with 5,323. (Pete Rose is first at 5,929, while Yaz, somewhat surprisingly even with his longevity, is fifth at 5,304). There is no true comp for Rickey in history. Craig Biggio is No. 1 on his list, but the similarity score is low. It should be noted, particularly for those of us who believe the Hall of Fame is incomplete without this ex-Expo, that Rickey's most similar player every year from ages 24-39 is none other than Tim Raines. Of course, as transcendent as Rickey was as a player, he was an even better quote. His greatest hits can be found here or in this terrific string of Rickey anecdotes in the guise of a feature by SI's Tom Verducci. Our favorite is the John Olerud helmet story. And yes, I know Rickey says it never happened. I'm still going to believe it. Because, you know, it would be such a shame for a story like that to be apocryphal.

puckettkirbyfinn.jpg1985 Kirby Puckett

After sitting here staring with a blanker look than usual at the screen for 20 minutes, I guess I have to admit it: I don't really know what to think about Puckett, let alone what to write about him. I can't recall another a star, a superstar, who played with more joy, who was more universally beloved by fans and his peers. And if you believe all of the allegations and revelations in this 2003 SI bombshell by Frank Deford -- and there is no reason not to, beyond reading the story and thinking, "Damn, this is not the Kirby Puckett I thought I knew" -- it's apparent that his perpetual and easy smile served as one hell of a mask. Adding the confusion is the perception -- a fair one, I think -- that his sunny persona and the sudden, seemingly unjust ending to his career contributed to his induction to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. After all, his career totals and accomplishments (207 homers, 2,304 hits, one batting title, a .318 lifetime average) don't scream mortal lock; what they scream is Puckett Was Basically A Stumpy Don Mattingly, Albeit One Who Played A Dazzling Center Field and Won Two World Championships. (OK, maybe they just suggest that.) We'll never know the answer to this, but if Puckett's rep had been damaged before his playing days ended -- or even if his career ended with a slow fade, rather than because of glaucoma that cost him the sight his right eye -- would he have been a first-ballot selection with 82.1 percent of the vote? Would he have been inducted at all? We'll never know. Sadly, what we do know is that his sordid tale became -- well, a tragic one, and certainly a cautionary one -- with his death in 2006 from a massive stroke. He was just 46 years old, putting one more sad twist on his legacy. He was he second-youngest Hall of Fame player to die after he'd already been inducted.

murrayeddiefinn.jpg1978 Eddie Murray

Hit like Dave Winfield, looked like Jules Winfield. While comp to the former is particularly accurate -- Dave Winfield is his No. 2 all-time statistical comp -- we're going to presume that any slogans etched on his wallet would not tout his badness, but his incredible consistency. Murray was a regular for 20 of his 21 major league seasons (1977-97), and never did he hit fewer than 16 homers or more than 33. He drove in 100 or more runs six times, and 92 or more another six times. His career-low RBI total as a regular was 76 at age 38 in 1994, and his second-lowest, 78, actually led the league during the strike-shortened '81 season. He never won an MVP award, but finished second twice (including to teammate Cal Ripken Jr. in 1983) and in the top six seven times, including six straight years with the Orioles from 1980-85. If that wasn't enough to make Earl Weaver appreciate him way more than he ever did Terry Crowley, there's this: Murray hit 65 three-run homers in his career.

Previously in this series: Pack 1: 1952 Mickey Mantle, 1969 Nolan Ryan, 1978 Dave Winfield, 1956 Ted Williams, 1975 Oscar Gamble.

Pack 2: 1960 Carl Yastrzemski, 1952 Gus Zernial, 1956 Willie Mays, 1987 Barry Bonds, 1978 Reggie Jackson.

Pack 3:1993 Pedro Martinez, 1957 Sandy Koufax, 1973 Vida Blue, 1968 Bob Gibson, 1985 Dwight Gooden.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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