Thursday, June 30, 2016

1997 Pinnacle X-Press: the X-Men of Summer

Hey, remember the ‘90’s? When everything was X-treme and X-citing and X-plosive and nearly every product or event figured out a way to feature a big, red, bleeding X that looked like it had been scratched out by a bobcat? XFL, X-games, most of the bands on the Surge Soundtrack (probably) – freaking everything had an X in it. Dudes in white college baseball caps driving pickup trucks with the requisite “No Fear” and Calvin-peeing-on-something-stickers would roam suburban neighborhoods blaring Jock Jams and subjugating their unfulfilled girlfriends, snacking on Gushers Xtreme Kiwi Xplosion and Mountain Dew, comforted by the fact that most brands fully approved their X-treme way of life. I guess what I’m getting at is that big, stupid X’s were everywhere, and it was embarrassing.

But somehow when Pinnacle did it, it wasn’t so bad.

While it is one of the many forgettable one-and-done sets of the late 90’s, 1997 Pinnacle X-Press actually did give us a handful of memorable cards. The base set is just okay, but overall X-Press is a testament to the effort that Pinnacle put into their inserts and parallels.

1997 Pinnacle X-Press #7

The bold, uncluttered base cards are reasonably attractive, sporting a pair of photos, plenty of team color, and just the right amount of gold foil. The back, however, is a lot more interesting.

Well, okay, so the Griffey is not all that interesting. Case in point: an action photo taken from an abandoned stadium. Where the hell is everybody? Is this really the best shot they could have used? And is it wrong to complain about a relatively large, full-color photo on a card back?

Pinnacle chose to forego quantitative career stats for a month-by-month performance breakdown, a unique and kind of ballsy way of doing things. It’s pretty costly in terms of space, so there is no room for a blurb. Altogether this back is a lot like the front: attractive enough, but far from all that and a bag of chips (‘90’s!).

1997 Pinnacle X-Press #7 Men of Summer

Men of Summer is a parallel done right. Where some companies slap a foil stamp on a card front and call it rare, Pinnacle completely changed the look of the card here. I especially like the addition of a shining gold sun in the right border. Sure, it’s just a bit of papery foil for the most part, but I believe this parallel rivals Pinnacle’s exclusive Dufex-printed Starburst insert parallel in terms of attractiveness.

There’s also an indicator of the parallel on the card back. You see that a lot now; not so much in 1997.

1997 Pinnacle X-Press #139 Peak Performer

Junior’s Peak Performers subset card from this set is actually pretty brilliant. This is some solid use of team color and the perfect quantity and placement of gold foil. My favorite parts are the big opening day banner in the photo and the way the Mariners logo appears to shoot diagonally across the card, barely missing the Kid’s knee.

1997 Pinnacle X-Press #139 Peak Performer Men of Summer

Here’s another perfectly-executed Men of Summer parallel. With the placement of the sun element, this card has Junior looking like the second coming (and in terms of guys named Ken Griffey, he literally was). It only made it onto these two cards, but Men of Summer is one of my favorite parallels of the ‘90’s.

1997 Pinnacle X-Press Far & Away #14

This card looks like it should be made of clear acetate, but it’s really more of a Chromium effect. I like the card back alright, but the front is a bit text-focused for my taste. And the film Far and Away starring Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise was released a full five years before this card debuted. That’s hardly topical.

There was a home plate-shaped hobby box you could buy that in addition to a bunch of cards contained one of 20 Metal Works cards ingots. And when I say ingot, I mean it. Say hello to my heaviest Griffey:

1997 Pinnacle X-Press Metal Works #1 Bronze

It really is my heaviest card, even more so than the giant 19” x 25” oversized Griffey I got from Upper Deck last year. I keep it in a super-thick top loader not to protect it, but to protect all the other cards around it. You literally could give someone a concussion with this thing.

These ingots also came in silver and gold versions in runs of 400 and 200, respectively, but the bronze ones are far more common. I guess you can call Metal Works cards “inserts,” but they weren’t really inserted in the strictest sense. They were distributed one per home plate box. How else could you do it? Otherwise these would have been the easiest pack-searches in history. Just buy the one that goes CLANG when you drop it on the floor.

1997 Pinnacle X-Press Melting Pot #6 Sample

No, this is not the real deal. It is a sample because the real card is very much a gray whale: gettable, but for just a little more than I’m willing to pay. They’re numbered out of 500, a tiny run for 1997, so they aren’t very cheap. I think the patriotic aspect adds to the demand a bit as well.

Design-wise there’s not a lot going on here. Junior’s portrait is superimposed over an American flag with all the white bits done up in silver foil. The nameplate is as simple as they come while the back is fun and colorful, featuring the flags of many nations. In the Disney World that is Pinnacle X-Press, this card is EPCOT. There’s also a very brief blurb about the fact that Junior is American, something most of us gleaned from the giant flag on the front (and from, you know, just knowing things).

The funny thing about these is that I believe there are far more than 500 of the sample card floating around. Is that not a little strange to you guys? There being more of a sample card than of the actual card being sampled? And on top of that they created samples for every player in the checklist? So there are in reality literally thousands more samples than actual Melting Pot cards?

Overall, this is a very strange, offbeat insert card with few similar cards to compare it with. Maybe that’s why I haven’t gotten around to landing one. It’s just too darn weird.

1997 Pinnacle X-press Swing for the Fences Game Card

Like "You Crash the Game" from Upper Deck’s Collector’s Choice brand, Pinnacle’s “Swing for the Fences” was based on real-life stats from that year, namely who would lead each league in home runs. Winners could exchange cards for an array of prizes, one of which was a 10-card pack of upgraded versions of the Swing for the Fences game cards. The intricacies of the contest are just a little outside the scope of this blog, but you can read about them here.

Now, if I am interpreting this right, if you have the Griffey card and you win the contest, you can redeem the Griffey for a pack of cards that more than likely does not contain the Griffey? Ouch. The upgraded versions are really stupid, too: the Swing for the Fences logo on the front is gold foil, and that’s it. No other differences. Even the back is identical, game rules and all.

Call it a protest, but the upgraded exchange Griffey remains absent from my collection to this day. I need one, and I want it, I guess, but I am not actively pursuing it. I hate to end this post on a negative note, but there it is.

Here are the Griffeys I still need from 1997 Pinnacle X-Press:

Melting Pot #6 #/500
Metal Works #6 Silver /400
Metal Works #6 Gold /200
Swing for the Fences #26 Upgraded Winner Redemption

There are better one-and-done sets from the late ‘90’s, but there are many far worse ones. Despite a handful of missteps, I’m happy to give Pinnacle a pass here for the prodigious parallels and ingenious ingots they gave us.

"Hey, there are actually some pretty good songs on here" - Me in 1996

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

1995 Ultra: the Medallion Stallion

This is the Ultra product I bought the most of when I was a kid. I still have some of the cards I pulled from packs.

1995 Ultra gave us something new: a parallel that applies to every single card, not just the base set. That means every insert, even the rarer ones, was available in the 1-per-pack Gold Medallion parallel. This characteristic of Gold Medallions made for some infamous cards the following year like the 1:2880 Hitting Machines and 1:720 retail-only Thunderclap. That year Gold Medallion inserts were about as common as a team logo on a Panini card. I  considered titling this post "The Medallionator," but that distinction definitely belongs to the '96 set.

In 1995, the first year of Gold Medallions, they were still pretty gettable. The most difficult GM pull was the 1:370 Power Plus with Hitting Machines and Home Run Kings just behind at 1:80. Not that 1:370 packs is an easy pull, (1:2220 for a specific player when you factor in the six-player checklist), but in terms of market value there seems to be some overshadowing of the ’95 Gold Medallions by the super-scarce ’96 ones. Case in point: at the time of this post the rarest Gold Medallion insert in 1995 Ultra can be had for around five bucks. Visually it may be missing the die-cut sizzle of ’96 Hitting Machines, but it’s still a heck of a value.

I happen to have a lot of the inserts from this characteristically ‘90’s set, but this one is the best:

I remember the first time I pulled one of those Strikeout Kings cards – I thought it was the coolest pitcher-based insert I’d ever seen. I still do. The only insert you won’t see here is RBI Kings which Griffey was not in and which I’m not all that crazy about anyway.

STOP. Griffeytime:

1995 Ultra #101

Griffey’s swing is not a swing as I considered it back when I played little league (1991 Girard Playground 9-10 champions, y’all!), which was as a means to punch the ball at the right moment and angle to launch it…well, anywhere, really. Anywhere is good, so long as I hit it. Griffey’s swing doesn’t look like that. It’s looks more to me like a calculated placement of the ball. It’s almost like slow-motion. You can watch the bat gently take possession of the ball and carry it to where Junior decides it ought to be, which was often over the right field wall.

This picture captures that well, I think. The focus, the twisting torso, the angle of the bat – you can see him aiming to give that ball as much lift as possible. Textbook Junior.

As for the back, I’m a fan of the multicolored foil, the team-colored shading, and the photos. And I can tolerate the abbreviated stat box. But fella, there is room for a blurb here. Give me a sentence, anything.

Here’s the Gold Medallion version:

1995 Ultra #101 Gold Medallion

This is the set that for the first time made me question the whole idea of parallels. There were some cool ones in the 90’s: Topps Gold, Finest Refractors, and Upper Deck Electric Diamond to name a few. But something about Gold Medallions always seemed wrong. I mean, it’s just a little stamp. A foil stamp over an already foil logo. It’s got no real comparative advantage with the base card – it’s simply there or it isn’t. Heck, some Gold Medallions aren’t even gold. Even as a young teenager I resented this parallel.

1995 Ultra Award Winners #6

This is just a brilliant card. It’s a rare horizontal design from Ultra with its own ideas on what makes up a color palette on a baseball card: pink and white punctuated with gold foil. And it works! Who knew? The blurb on the back is also damn entertaining with its touch of alliteration, rare use of the word “lithe,” and cunning use of commas for dramatic effect. Bravo.

1995 Ultra Award Winners #6 Gold Medallion

And of course, the medallion thingy.

1995 Ultra All-Star #7

The positive/negative effect of the photo/color field in the text mirrors that of the foil in the base card name plate. Plus we get three nice photos on one card and a decent blurb on the back. Overall a solid All-Star insert.

1995 Ultra All-Star #7 Gold Medallion

My only complaint is that silver Gold Medallion. You can’t tell me there wasn’t some debate about that at Fleer headquarters. It was probably a money-saving measure as there is already silver foil on this card. Not to sound like a Polly Pickypants, but it just doesn’t look right.

1995 Ultra Hitting Machine #6

Now we’re talking. This would become one of the great insert series of the ‘90s, usually involving intricate die-cutting, textured foil, or both. This first iteration of the insert is not terribly fancy, but it did signal better things to come (including one of the rarest Griffey pulls of the ‘90’s).

This year it was just the large, stately text backed by the gears and machinery that would be the focus of later Hitting Machine designs. That’s definitely the inside of a wristwatch, by the way. You can tell by the ruby-colored synthetic jewel on the left half of the “A,” a component they add to the mechanism to reduce friction in automatic watches (you didn’t know The Junior Junkie was an amateur horologist, did you?).

1995 Ultra Hitting Machine #6 Gold Medallion

I'll have a higher-quality scan of this one soon enough. Consider this one a placeholder.

1995 Ultra Home Run King #1

The photo works perfectly here with the vertical insert name. Check out the images in the colored boxes: “40” in the home box, home plates in the run box, and crowns in the king box. And the blurb has some fun alliteration and a great Frank Thomas quote. Fleer put some real thought into this one, and it shows.

1995 Ultra Home Run King #1 Gold Medallion


1995 Ultra Power Plus #2

While not the prettiest card on Earth, at 1:370 packs this is the rarest insert of’95 Ultra and the real beast of this set. Strobing rainbow does it for me (see also: my 1989 Donruss addiction), but there’s really not too much to this design. It’s just rare. That gold foil team logo at the bottom makes a cameo on the Award Winners insert.

1995 Ultra Power Plus #2 Gold Medallion

I usually like to gush just a little (sometimes a lot) about how rare a particular card is when I’ve chased it for months (sometimes years) and finally have one to show you; but I can’t really do that here. Sure the card is rare, but it’s also the most affordable 1:370 ‘90’s card you may ever see. The demand just isn’t really there for one. But I do recommend you hurry up and snag one before other people read this post!

As parallels evolved Fleer did eventually figure out Gold Medallion and even added the ultra-rare Platinum Medallion variation which continued well into the next century. And any fan of 90’s cardboard knows how much progress was made with the Hitting Machines insert. While not terribly popular, this was actually a groundbreaking little set for Fleer. Well done.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Two and a Half Men or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Bust Some Packs

No, not the unwatchable sitcom everyone else seems to like. I mean in terms of active players on 40-man rosters, that’s all I collect: two and a half men. From my PC list:

1. Ken Griffey, Jr.
- Vida Blue
- Jay Buhner
- Will Clark
- Bryan Clutterbuck
- Larry Doby
- Dock Ellis
- Chuck Finley
- Johnny Giavotella
- Marquis Grissom
- Felix Hernandez (just hits)
- Ron Kittle
- Javy Lopez
- Aaron Nola
- Austin Nola (active but with AAA New Orleans Zephyrs)
- Rusty Staub
- Dan Wilson

I don’t even collect non-hits of Felix (not seriously at least), so I’m calling that a half for a total of 2.5. Of the 1200 players in MLB, I collect 0.2%. So, is this really the hobby for me?

Let’s be honest: it’s the Griffeys and prolific use of retired players in inserts and some base sets that keep me coming back, and I know I’m not alone. Now for 2016 one of the themes we will see across several Topps products will be the career of Ken Griffey, Jr.; so yeah. I’m still on board. I don’t buy Heritage, but pretty much every other brand has something I will like, this year more than most.

Hold the ketchup

I only bring this up because I bought a blaster of 2016 Archives, and in it were two Griffeys: his base card and the Father-Son insert. Those two cards, which I could have gotten on eBay for less than two bucks apiece, made the $20 blaster a "success." The fact that soon after I pulled them I dropped both Griffeys into a big puddle of ketchup probably didn’t add to that success (I licked it off pretty quickly, an act of which I’m glad there isn’t video). My point is that I shouldn't be spending $20 on a blaster when such a small cross-section of cards could make it worth my while.

And yet...

It’s hard to rethink the way I buy and bust packs in this, the year Griffey gets his due from the Hall of Fame and from Topps alike. I went ahead and bought a box of Finest in the hopes of pulling one of those cool Finest Career autographs (I did not) or at least one of the unsigned die-cuts (again, nada). And I have a hobby and jumbo box (one of each!) on hold for me at my LCS when Series 2 drops Friday.

God bless the aftermarket

Now with the Hall of Fame induction and plethora of Griffey-exclusive inserts (and parallels thereof), this is going to be the biggest year of box-busting for Griffey fans there’s been since the 90’s and probably ever will be again. If there ever was a year for we Griffey collectors to splurge on new product, this is the one.

I'll let you know how it goes. In the mean time, send all your Tribute to the Kid insert cards to me!