After receiving positive feedback on my last “Junk Wax” effort, I thought I would revisit the era and take a look at another group of cards. As a card collector, I have always been intrigued by the rookie card. Most collectors are but I have always found it interesting that a player, who has, in some cases, never taken a step on the big league field, could be more valuable on the card market than an established veteran. Perhaps it’s the scarcity in the cards available of the rookie but it’s never really made sense to me. It’s speculation at its best. And as the cycle goes, those values generally come down and stabilize over time unless the player is Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Ken Griffey Jr. or someone of that magnitude. Everybody wants the hot rookie but the market almost always cools. And in many cases, the players themselves cool significantly. Established veterans have a proven track record and are reliable. But reliable isn’t always sought after.
Let’s take Cal Ripken, Jr. for example. With Cal, in the late 90’s, you knew what you were getting. He was a gold glove short stop/third baseman that played everyday, hit for average and power, won silver slugger awards and was a perennial all star. His 1989 Donruss could be had for about $1.00. Meanwhile, Pete Harnisch and Tom Gordon were booking higher in 1989. It was more profitable to own the cards below than to own a Mark McGwire or Jose Canseco in 1989. There are many collectors who focus only on the reliable and they buy the rookie cards when the players (and the prices) have stabilized. But the chase is getting that Mike Trout rookie card before the price blows up. Unfortunately, there are 100 Tyler Pastornicky’s that don’t pan out that you can invest in during a rookie season as well. Believe me, I know the difference in the two players and the various hype attached when they hit the scene but I’m using examples here.
So with that said, I decided to go back and look at several of the cards in the prime years of 1989-1991 that I just had to have in my collection. I remember opening packs and hoping on hope that one of these would be pulled. Remember too that for a 12-13 year old, value is defined as $3-$10 and this was before the introduction of the autograph and relic cards that carry the most value now. There were no 1 of 1’s available in packs then either that I recall. The inserts were All Star Cards and Diamond Kings. The base rookie carried the weight in most cases during this time. We would get introduced to autographs and Elite inserts that carried $100 value in the early 90’s but I’m reserving this column to pre-$100 cards, which would exclude vintage as well. Again, the list is in year and set order and is not a reflection on the heat the player was getting at the time.
1989 Bowman Jerome Walton – A Georgia native (Newnan), Walton was one of the ’89 Bowman that I had to have that wasn’t named Ken Griffey Jr. I really liked the 1989 Bowman set at the time although it turned out to be a nightmare to keep in mint condition thanks to the oversized cards. Bowman had been out of the game since 1956 and the resurrection in 1989 brought a “new” player into the game to compete with Topps, Donruss, Fleer and Upper Deck (also a newcomer in 1989). Bowman was a throwback set that harkened back to the old days with facsimile signatures and retro card backs. The ’89 set has not held up but I still have fond memories. Jerome Walton was a center fielder for the Chicago Cubs that made his debut in April of ’89. He won Rookie of the Year that year by batting .293 with 24 stolen bases. I had to have his cards and this one was my favorite. He was destined to be a sweet investment. He would never repeat the numbers of that rookie season and lasted 10 years on the majors. He finished with a career .269 average, 25 career homeruns and 132 RBI. That is one season to some superstars. And Jerome never became one after that stellar start. The investment was a bust but as you will see from this list, it was far from the only one.1989 Topps Future Stars Gregg Jefferies – Jefferies went on to have much better career than Walton, even though the bar had been set low. He made his debut in 1987 with the Mets and while he had other ’88 rookie cards, the one I remember wanting a piece of was the ’89 Topps Future Stars card. I have had an affinity for the Future Stars subset since the Bo Jackson card in 1987. The card was colorful and just screamed “Big Potential”. I mean, it was a FUTURE STAR after all so the name kind of speaks for itself. As much as I treasured the card, Jefferies would go on to have a good but not “star power” career over 14 years. He was voted in to the all-star game in 1993 and 1994 but that is the extent of his career highlights. He finished that career with a .289 batting average (not bad at all), 126 home runs and 663 RBI. Again, his career was good but not spectacular – much like my feelings on Topps over the years. I know they are the grandfather of cards and I am in the minority but I have never been real excited for the set, aside from the sweet 1990 set I got for Christmas when I was 13. But, I remain a fan of the Future Stars.1989 Score Dwight Smith – I was a fan of 1989 Score at the time, even though it didn’t include the aforementioned Ken Griffey Jr. 1989 was the sophomore season for Score and I had easy access through my local Wal-Mart. I also liked the packaging of the cards because it had gotten away from cello packs or wax packs. It turns out that it was not a very good set in the long run at all. Again, most ’89 sets are important to me because that was the year I started collecting. Don’t judge. Dwight Smith was another rookie outfielder for the Chicago Cubs and he would only be bested in the rookie of the year voting that year by his teammate Jerome Walton. He hit a smoking .324 as a rookie but that would stand as a career best. He played only 8 full seasons but had a tad more pop than his teammate Jerome Walton. He would finish his career with a .275 career average, 46 home runs and 226 RBI. Not exactly a hall of fame career. He did experience one highlight that Walton did not and did so with my home team Atlanta Braves. He joined the Braves in 1995 and has a World Series ring to show for it. Another interesting tidbit is that he is the only rookie in MLB history to sing the National Anthem prior to a game in which he would play. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make his ’89 Score worth more than about .15 cents.1989 Score Ramon Martinez – Another ’89 Score on the list is the rookie card of Ramon Martinez. Martinez actually had a very serviceable career and the low value of his cards has more to do with the ’89 card sets than his performance. He pitched mostly for the LA Dodgers (10 years out of 13 years) and finished with a very good 135-88 career, 3.67 ERA and 1,427 strikeouts. He was also an all-star in 1990 as a part of a 20 win campaign. He would finish second in wins that year and second in the Cy Young voting. He also threw a no-hitter in 1995. He suffered a torn rotator cuff in 1998 after 10 seasons with the Dodgers and never was able to completely come back. He also wasn’t even able to become the best pitching Martinez in his immediate family as that honor would go to Pedro, his younger brother. I had a ton of Ramon and not enough Pedro because my collecting had tapered off when he hit it big.
1989 Upper Deck Jerald Clark – 1989 Upper Deck was the flagship set for the brand and came out with a bang. It introduced all sorts of bells and whistles like “tamper proof” packaging and holograms for authenticity. Of course, those die hard shysters figured out the collation of the boxes and many 1989 Upper Deck boxes are floating around with the Ken Griffey Jr. packs missing. But in 1989, there was Griffey and then there was everyone else. One of the “everyone else’s” was Jerald Clark, a rookie for the San Diego Padres. I remember I was one of the few in my circle that thought highly enough of Jerald to trade for him. To be honest, I don’t even know why. I just remember wanting his cards because I thought I knew something no one else did. I guess everyone else knew that he would play 6 seasons and finish his career with a paltry .257 average, 44 home runs and 208 RBI. I guess you could say that the numbers are better than a certain Rookie of the Year in Chicago.1990 Donruss Ben McDonald – I am a little peeved that I even had to bring 1990 Donruss into this blog but I’ll try to make this one brief. ’90 Donruss was a truly abysmal set in design, production numbers and rookies. One of the good ones at the time though was Ben McDonald. While he is a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame and a Gold Medal winner in the 1988 Olympics, his professional career never really took off. He was the original “Big Ben” at 6’7” and was the #1 overall selection in the 1989 Draft. He was previously drafted by my home Atlanta Braves in 1986 in the 27th round but chose to go play college ball, which paid off with that #1 selection 3 years later. In 1990 he was a member of a solid rotation that included other young guns such as Pete Harnisch, Curt Shilling and Greg Olsen. He wrapped up his career after just 8 full seasons thanks to shoulder problems. His final numbers were 78-70 with a 3.91 ERA and 894 strikeouts. Not only was investing in ’90 Donruss a mistake but investing in Ben McDonald rookie cards was just as problematic.1990 Score Draft Picks Chuck Knoblauch – 1990 Score was another favorite of mine, coming off of my high from ’89 Score. I liked the design of the draft pick cards and, at the time, the checklist was strong, as evidenced by my next selection as well. Knobby even actually had a pretty decent career until he totally forgot how to throw a baseball 45 feet. He had a solid career and could have been a star second baseman had his issues later in his career not cast such a pall. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1991, a 4x All-Star, a 4x World Series Champion, a Gold Glove winner and a two time Silver Slugger. That’s a really good career when you put it all together. He amassed a career .289 average with 98 home runs, 615 RBI and 407 stolen bases. He developed “Steve Sax Syndrome” in 2000 with the Yankees and was completely unable to throw it to his first baseman. It reminded me a lot of the catcher in Major League 2. And Knoblauch tried multiple solutions to try and get him out of his funk but must’ve never tried the ole Victoria’s Secret catalogue trick. He once hit Keith Olbermann’s mother in the head in the stands for crying out loud. It all came to a head when he made 3 throwing errors in just 6 innings of play and pulled himself out of a game. That must’ve been absolutely embarrassing. He eventually was moved to the outfield when he was never able to cure his ailment. If that weren’t enough, he was named in the now infamous Mitchell Report for HGH use in 1997 and would later be charged with physically abusing not one wife, but two (he was married three times total.) Chuck’s undoing started on the field with throwing issues but continued off the field, thus destroying any hope of a future payoff for me and my ’90 Score.1990 Score Draft Picks Mo Vaughn – Another enigmatic player is outlined in my second ’90 Score Draft Pick card. Maurice “Mo” Vaughn was a behemoth of a man that could hit the ball a country mile. He also was not well like by Red Sox brass and the media. I’m not going to take up for the media but Mo probably wasn’t very accommodating based on some of the snippets I’ve seen. He played college ball with Craig Biggio at Seton Hall and came into the major leagues with a bit of fanfare. This was not so much as speculation on my part as wanting to be in on the sure thing Mo Vaughn. And for a while, he was a sure thing. In 1993, which is considered his first full season (152 games); he hit .297 with 29 home runs and 101 RBI. He would go on to hit 26 or more home runs for 9 consecutive seasons, topping 35 five times and 40 twice. He also had a 5 season streak of hitting .300 or better in that stretch so he hit for average as well. All told, he would finish with a career .293 average, 328 home runs and 1,064 RBI. It is quite rare these days for a 40 home run hitter to also hit .300+ but Mo did it a few times. Ultimately, his ability to rub teams the wrong way and his inclusion in steroid accusations killed the value in his cards. Well, that and the fact that he was in his prime when baseball cards were churning out by the millions. Still, Mo was a pretty solid investment at the time and one I don’t really regret now.1990 Upper Deck Kevin Maas – Here we go. This may be the biggest got to have card that turned into a bust of my generation. The baseball world was abuzz when Kevin Maas hit the scene and 1990 Upper Deck was the sophomore season for the company that totally burst onto the scene in the card industry with their ’89 sensation. He was drafted in the first round by the New York Yankees and was set up to be the next Don Mattingly. His cards skyrocketed when he became the quickest rookie to ever get to 10 home runs, then 13, then 15. He would go on to hit 21 home runs in just 79 games in 1990. Needless to say, I, along with the rest of America, needed all the Kevin Maas cards we could get. This guy was destined for stardom. He would finish second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Sandy Alomar, and again, only played in 79 games. He went on to hit 23 home runs in 1991, but in 500 at bats and with a .220 average. The destined to be superstar was out of the league by 1994 and playing in Japan. How it happened so quickly, I’ll never know but he went from the highest valued cards in sets to trash bin fire starter in less than 4 years. That is an unbelievable accomplishment in and of itself. He would finish his short career with a .230 average, 65 home runs (44 in his first two seasons) and 169 RBI. This story still makes me sick to my stomach. What a crushing fall from stardom. 1991 Classic Brien Taylor – Kevin Maas wasn’t the only “can’t miss” kid for the Yankees in the early 90’s. I remember hearing about Brien Taylor for a couple of years before he ever was drafted thanks to the Classic brand that provided college and four sport cards. He was the 1st overall pick in 1991 and would spend seven seasons in the minor leagues. This dude never pitched a game in the major leagues. He had several MLB cards like Topps and Stadium Club, to name a couple but he never threw a single pitch in the majors. This wasn’t even a fall from stardom like Maas. He never even got above AA. He was the true definition of speculation and potential in the card market in the early 90’s. He did have some shoulder trouble in the minors but that was thanks to a fight, not pitching. He finished with a minor league record of 22.30 and a 5.12 ERA. Life after baseball has been just as rough as his time in the minors. He has been arrested for child abuse (for leaving 4 of his children home alone aged 2-11) and later for trafficking cocaine. He spent 38 months in the pen from 2012-2014. And I don’t mean the bullpen. However, I am extremely confident that the majority of card collectors were riding the Brien Taylor wave in 1990-1991.1991 Upper Deck Todd Van Poppel – Todd Van Poppel was another pitching superstar in the making and Upper Deck was continuing to outclass the field in the card world in 1991. Another first round selection, Van Poppel is another player that has a tie in with my Braves. And what a tie in it is. In the 1990 draft, the Braves had the #1 overall pick and were dangerously close to selecting Van Poppel. Instead, when Van Poppel told them he would not sign if they selected him, they moved on to some guy named Chipper Jones. I think we all know how his career went. How different would the Braves 1990’s run have looked with Van Poppel instead of Jones? It scares me to consider it. Thank you Todd Van P for being stubborn about signing with the Braves. How did that Oakland A’s career turn out? He was one of four starting pitchers taken by Oakland that year and by all accounts turned in the best career of the group. Only Van Poppel and one other ever made the major leagues. From potential 1st overall pick by the soon to be 14 consecutive division winning Braves to a 40-52 career with a 5.58 ERA. I think he sank his own career, and his card value, if you ask me.Side Note – 1989 Score Luis De Los Santos – This was not a must have but it has to be mentioned. I had more of his cards than any other player in 1989. Card companies now state odds on their boxes like “1 insert in every pack” or “3 autographs per box on average”. I imagine that 1989 Donruss and Score could have put “1 Luis De Los Santos per pack on average” and it would have been a reasonable statement. Having all those cards of him never paid off either as he would only play parts of 3 seasons and clout zero home runs while hitting .209. Sheesh.
So there you have a list of cards that I just had to have when I was 12-13. My daily trading consisted of trying to score one of these cards to add to my collection. I had visions of being in a much higher tax bracket by now with all of my Jerald Clarks that everyone else was sleeping on. This may have been more painful to write had the cards of that era turned out to be valuable. Their lack thereof has made this a more amusing trip down memory lane. I’m sure we all had those rookies that we wanted. Most of them are on this list but we all had our own personal Dwight Smith’s too. But this post makes me wonder even more why you can pick up veteran stars all day long for .25 cents but you have to pay an arm and a leg for a guy that hit .320 in AAA and might get called up next year. Speculation is still fun I suppose.