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Top 60 Topps, Pack 5: Jeter, Cal, Yount ...

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 7, 2011 02:27 PM

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In this installment of our overly nostalgic homage 12-part series on the greatest Topps cards of all-time -- which, naturally, will conclude long after the cardmaker's own countdown -- let's hit a few grounders to shortstop . . .

yountrobinfinn.jpg1976 Robin Yount

I understand if you wonder why we didn't go with Yount's most famous and pricey card, his 1975 Topps rookie, even though it had a color scheme so gaudy it looked it must have been picked out by a young Vinny Testaverde. (He's colorblind. Get it? Oh, never mind.) We prefer the '76 in large part because Yount looks like Jeff Spicoli if he'd run with Jefferson and the jocks rather than hanging out in the van with the burnouts. With the references just getting timelier and timelier around here, let's move this thing along and take a poke at a baseball question. It's a fun one, I think:

Which player had the better career, Yount or his longtime Brewer teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Paul Molitor?

My guess, before checking the stats, is Molitor, who started faster and played at a supreme level longer, but because of injuries didn't have the consistent greatness in his prime that Yount did. Let's hop in the baseballreferencemobile and find out:

In his 21 seasons and 12,160 plate appearances, Molitor -- the third overall choice in the 1977 draft -- had 3,319 hits, scored 1,782 runs, hit 234 homers, drove in 1,307 runs, went .306/.369/.44 with an .817 OPS and a 122 OPS+, and is tied for 68th all-time in BR.com's version of WAR (74.8).

In his 20 seasons and 12,249 plate appearances, Yount -- the third overall choice in the 1973 draft -- had 3,142 hits, 1,632 runs, hit 251 homers, drove in 1,406 runs, went .285/.342/.430 with a .772 OPS and a 115 OPS+, and is 61st all-time in BR.com's version of WAR (76.9).

The objective verdict: Too close to call. Our subjective pick: Molitor by a headfirst slide, though anyone who prefers Yount's durability and defensive superiority certainly does not need to provide an explanation. And if you're curious, the players who fall between Yount and Molitor in WAR, from 62d to tied at 68 are: Eddie Plank, Bill Dahlen, Frank Thomas, Pete Rose (a logical comp for Molitor), and Frankie Frisch.

jeterderek52.jpg2001 Heritage Derek Jeter

Yeah, this is a bit of a cop out, using Jeter's 2001 Heritage card instead of something from one of Topps's more conventional sets, such as his 1992 draft pick card in which he appears to be wearing a Yankees uniform culled together from a shopping spree at the Sports Authority.

But we can justify using this card with the 1952 design, since to a Red Sox fan it seems like Jeter has been with the Yankees since '52, and it's clear he has no intention of moving from shortstop until 2052. I am amused by the notion that he can move to center field when he's ready just as Yount did.

Jeter will turn 37 in June. Yount made the transition to the outfield in 1985 at age 29 and retired when he was 37 after batting .258 with 8 homers and 51 RBIs. His OPS in his final season was .705 and his adjusted OPS was 90. Jeter went .710 OPS/90 OPS+ last year. We shouldn't be wondering if he can make the same positional change as Yount. We should be wondering if he'll have to make the same career change.

It's going to be fascinating to see how far Jeter's rebuilt swing carries him beyond 3,000 hits -- he has 2,926 now, tops among active players.

One last Jeter note: He has more Gold Gloves (5) than three of the other shortstops mentioned here -- Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken, and Yount -- combined (4). Of course, Ozzie Smith has four more than all of them combined.

ripkencalfinn.jpg1982 Traded Cal Ripken Jr.

This question might sound insane, especially in the greater Baltimore area, but it's really not: Would Cal Ripken Jr. have been a Hall of Famer had he played, oh, 153 games per year on average? Or even taken a maintenance day or two each summer?

I think the answer is a relatively easily concluded "yes," but I wouldn't go so as to say he would have been a first-ballot mortal lock, and he certainly wouldn't have received close to 98.5 percent of the vote, as he did in 2007.

In Bill James's black ink and gray ink metrics that gauge a player's likelihood of making the Hall of Fame based on how often he led the league in certain categories and how often he finished in the top 10, Ripken falls well short of the average Hall of Famer.

In fact, on a year-to-year basis, he looked a lot like Vern Stephens, who was Ripken's most similar comp at each age from 22-24 and 27-30. Over the last 18 seasons of his career, in the led the league in exactly three other categories other than games played and at-bats: total bases (368 in '91), sacrifice flies (10 in '88), and double plays (28 in '96). In his final 10 seasons, he had an adjusted OPS above 97 just three times. But when you show up for work every day for 17 years and do more than anyone else to erase the stain of the '94 strike, the fact that you hit into two games' worth of outs via the double play one season is pretty damn trivial.

Speaking of which, now that we've sufficiently annoyed Orioles fans, here are two Ripken trivia questions:

  • Who started at third base for the Orioles on September 20, 1997, the day he ended his streak of consecutive games at 2,632.

  • And: What do Robert Boyce, Larry Sheets, and Edwin Hook have in common?

    The first answer is Ryan Minor, who batted .177 in parts of four seasons. (He was also drafted by the Sixers in the NBA. Wonder if he ever played in any of Ripken's legendary pickup hoops games.)

    As for the second answer, Boyce, Sheets, and Hooks were the three players the Orioles chose ahead of Ripken in the 1978 June draft. The man who would become Mr. Oriole was a second-round pick.

    bankserniefinn.jpg1962 Ernie Banks

    "Let's play two."

    Seems to me the famously sunny Mr. Banks, whose legacy is not only his fondness for doubleheaders but his 512 homers and those back-to-back MVP awards in '58 and '59, is on a short list of players whose persona can be instantly recalled with a simple recitation of one of his own quotes.

    A few others that come immediately to mind, excluding everything Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel ever said or supposedly said:

  • "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

  • "A man has to have goals -- for a day, for a lifetime -- and that was mine, to have people say, 'There goes [you'd better know the answer], the greatest hitter who ever lived.' "

  • "Lou Brock was a great base stealer but today I am the greatest."

  • "Luck of the Irish, I guess."
  • The answers, as you surely know unless you arrived here by some Google misdirection play, are Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson, and Troy O'Leary (who uttered his quote after his two-homer, seven-RBI performance in Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS). If you're presuming that one of those names doesn't belong in such exclusive company, well, you're right. Gehrig never played for the Sox.

    smithozzifinn.jpg1979 Ozzie Smith

    We touched on this a bit in episode one of this series, but about the only Padres to survive the brown-and-yellow '70s with some semblance of cool and style intact were Dave Winfield, Oscar Gamble, and the wonderful Wizard here. (It's honorable mention for you, Jerry Turner.) Despite the "meh" design -- Topps was in the second to last year of its monopoly in '79, meaning there was no competition or inspiration -- this Ozzie rookie card is among the most iconic of the decade.

    The player became iconic too, winning 13 straight Gold Gloves (1980-92) with an unmatched combination of grace and flair. Early in his career he had a wholly deserved spectacular-field, no-hit label (he had an OPS below .600 in three of his four years in San Diego), but he became a dependable offensive player in St. Louis (I love that '87 season: .303 average, 89 walks, 75 RBIs, not a single home run).

    I was curious what the immediate perception of Smith was when he arrived in the big leagues in '78. After all, he played just one season in the minors, at Single A Walla Walla in '77, where he hit .303; the next season, he played 159 games at shortstop for the Padres. Obviously, his glove mesmerized the San Diego decision-makers immediately, but I wondered whether there was one moment or a certain amount of buzz around him that made baseball take notice. So in search of the answer, I do what I always do when I can't find it in one of Bill James's annuals: I poked through the Globe archives with a search for "Gammons Sunday Baseball Notes."

    Man, let me tell you, what an awesome place to get lost. The first reference to Ozzie came in the October 15, 1978 edition of the Sunday Globe, with this quote:

    Sox scout Lefty Lefebvre says Padres shortstop Ozzie Smith "might be the best I've ever seen."

    OK, maybe it's not the most earth-shattering observation, though you do have to wonder how long it took for him to drop the "might be." But the column itself . . . I mean, it was just a treasure-trove of rumors (many of which proved prescient) and observations, a baseball time capsule that reminds you why Gammons's stature within the game was so great and why you looked forward to stealing that sports section from your dad every Sunday. Here's are a few of my favorites:

    Steinbrenner may be the only owner who has the resources, tradable talent and market to afford Dave Parker, and while everyone categorically denies the Thurman Munson-Parker trade right now, it could come up again . . . Angels manager Jim Fregosi on rookie third baseman Carney Lansford: "He's so good I might not even trade him for George Brett" . . . Jim Palmer has been rumored to be going all sorts of places . . . The Orioles believe that if they can get Chet Lemon, Sixto Lezcano, or Dan Ford they can win . . . Detroit figures it is a year and a healthy Mark Fidrych away from a run at the pennant . . . Pete Rose reportedly is deadly serious about wanting to go to Philadelphia. He feels the Phillies need leadership, and he could play left field for three years, then perhaps manage them . . . The Cardinals have told the Angels they want to wait on the Garry Templeton-Frank Tanana trade . . .

    And look at the that. We've lumbered around long enough to accidentally find the appropriate was to wrap up this column. For not only was Templeton never dealt for Tanana, he was swapped to the Padres for the one and only Ozzie Smith three seasons later. And like Banks, Templeton also owns a rather famous quote, explaining his reason for refusing to play in the 1980 All-Star Game as a reserve.

    "If I ain't startin', I ain't departin'."

    Pack 6 should be posted in a week-ish. For now . . . we're departin'.

    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.

    Pack 4: 1978 Eddie Murray, 1985 Kirby Puckett, 1983 Wade Boggs, 1987 Mark McGwire, 1980 Rickey Henderson.

  • 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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