2006 was a year of transition for The Hobby, and for the most part, the changes worked out pretty well. So, without further adieu, here are my picks for The Hobby's best and worst for 2006. The 2006 Gummie Awards.
Best Insert Set: Bowman Prospects (a.k.a. Blues)
It's the insert, that not really an "insert." Hamstrung by the MLBPA's new "Rookie Card" guidelines, Bowman did an end-run around the new rules by labeling all those scores of minor leaguers as inserts. But that's not why I honor the Bowman Prospects as best insert set. I do so because Topps had the good sense to print and seed the "Blues" in roughly the same quantity as the base set cards. Thereby making the set collectible for those who still consider the Blues part of the base set. Well, sort of, as we shall see later.
Best Autogamer Set: Topps Allen & Ginter Framed Relics/Autographs
Beckett gave TA&G it's overall "Product of the Year," and it was Topps' best offering of the season. Although it came up bit short (see below) in that category, I nonetheless give the two-per-box Framed Relics and Autographs the nod for best autogamer set of 2006. The simple fact that Topps got that Japanese guy who eats all those hot dogs to sign for this product, makes this the winner.
Best Retro Product: Flair Showcase
I know what you're thinking. Is this guy nuts? Flair Showcase? Best Retro product of 2006? Over Allen & Ginter? Who in their right mind thinks Flair Showcase is a Retro product anyway? Give me a paragraph to explain.
"Retro" isn't just about recycling old designs, it's about recycling old concepts as well. By that standard, 2006 Flair Showcase is a throwback to the multi-leveled, multi-fractured base sets of the mid-90s. Ergo, it's a retro product.
You do remember fractured base sets? Like, for example, 1997-99 Flair Showcase. Not every collector liked their base sets fractured, and the gimmick faded with the emergence of serial-numbered rookies and autogamers. But UpperFleerDeck resurrected the gimmick from the dead in 2006, and The Hobby is better for it.
Although not a perfect clone of its late-90s namesake, '06 Flair Showcase is, nonetheless, a nod to a distant, but familiar era. And if you still consider set design as part of the "Retro" criteria, well, is does kind of look like a late-90s-era premium base set. Doesn't it?
Best Rookie Card: 2006 Bowman #219: Kenji Johjima
With the new MLBPA guidelines, this year's rookie card crop was noticeably diminished. About the only "true rookie" that made any impact this year was Kenji Johjima, and much of that action was from overseas. Johjima's '06 Bowman RC wins this award by default.
Hobby MVP: Ryan Howard
Move over Mr. Pujols, there's a new king in town. Ryan Howard is now officially "The Man" in The Hobby. Its funny what a steroid-free (we think) 58 HR season will do to a man's rookie cards.
Hobby ROY: Kenji Johjima
Again, the MLBPA "ROOKIE CARD" rules give Johjima this category in a walkover.
Hobby Top Prospect (TIE): Cameron Maybin and Alex Gordon
On the other hand, these two guys (along with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Justin Upton) should make the rookie card class of 2007, the strongest since 2001.
Best Idea: MLBPA revoking Donruss' License.
See, that wasn't so bad now, was it? Donruss went away, and The Hobby somehow managed to survive -- even thrive -- without them.
Look, I understand that many were upset when the news came down that Donruss was out for '06. But give the MLBPA credit. They had the courage to step back, take a look the state of The Hobby, and took action when they didn't like what they saw. You don't go from being a $1.2 billion to a $260 million industry overnight -- actually it takes 13 years (1991-2004). The MLBPA took the long-run view and concluded that change needed to be made. And that meant Donruss had to go.
But why Donruss? You're not going to get rid of Topps, are you? Or Upper Deck? But that's not the only reason. Try this experiment. If you're like me, then you probably have friends you grew up with who collected baseball cards. But then, for whatever reason, they stopped. Now, try to explain to him the concept behind 2004 Diamond Kings Baseball -- with the 79 different versions of each base set card. Or try to explain base level products that have short-printed rookie cards (i.e. 2001 Donruss baseball).
Donruss was leading The Hobby in a direction that it didn't need to go: total oblivion and complete irrelevance. The MLBPA knew it, and to their credit, took action.
Worst Idea: The MLBPA's changing of the "ROOKIE CARD" definition in mid-season.
The second best idea was the MLBPA's cross-brand "ROOKIE CARD" icon. Unfortunately, it was muddled by a silly decision to change the criteria in mid-season.
Looking back in retrospect, I understand why the MLBPA did what it did. Topps, Upper Deck, and Hobby dealers wanted "Rookie Cards" of actual 2006 season rookies -- regardless of their true RC status. But it still doesn't mean I have to like it.
But what really bugged me, was the secretive manner in which the PA made the change. You didn't think that anyone in The Hobby wouldn't have noticed that strange foil stamped "ROOKIE CARD" logo on the front of Jonathan Papelbon's 2006 Topps card? I don't think I'm asking for much, but a little transparency on the PA's behalf would have gone a long way.
Most Short-Sighted, Boneheaded Decision: The inclusion of autographed base set cards in Bowman.
Words to live by: If it ain't broke don't fix it. Bowman wasn't broke, but Topps decided to fix it anyway with the inclusion of autographed base and autographed Prospect "insert" cards -- not to mention "bundling" Bowman with Bowman Chrome.
The inclusion of autographed cards in Bowman was a really stupid idea that, unfortunatley, looks like it's here to stay. So good-bye Bowman. You were that rarity, a product with a crapload of true rookie cards, that could actually be collected. Now, just like SP Authentic, SPx, and Finest before you, you're just another product with autographed rookie cards.
Worst Insert Sets (TIE): Topps Barry Bonds and Mickey Mantle Home Run Histories.
For those of you that don't know, I live in Southern New Jersey. As such, from time to time, I bump into the occasional Yankees fan at a card show. Now you would think that Yankees fans (who are amongst the most fanatical of card collectors) would be chomping at the bit to build the Mickey Mantle Home Run History insert set? Right?
You would be wrong. I have yet to meet a single hobbyist in my area who is even attempting to complete the Mantle Home Run History set. In fact, until I opened up page 17 of the February 2007 Beckett, I had no idea that anyone was actually even trying to collect either the Mantle or the Bonds sets. So congratulations to Greg Ashman of Sacramento, California. The only person in The Hobby gives a damn about Topps' Home Run History insert sets.
OBTW, as a post-script, 2007 Topps will add a similar Home Run History insert for Josh Gibson. Which makes perfect sense since that the exact number of homers Gibson hit is completely unknown.
Worst Base Set and Most Meaningless Product: Fleer Tradition
I'm still trying to think what the whole point of 2006 Fleer Tradition was. Wasn't this product made redundant with the re-introduction of Fleer baseball?
A bland, faux retro design, coupled with a skimpy 200-card checklist also makes it the worst base set of the year.
Worst Product: Topps Turkey Red
For everything that went well in The Hobby in 2006, there's still a lot of crap that needs to be weeded out. Crap like Turkey Red.
This set represented everything wrong with The Hobby before the MLBPA's purge of Donruss. The over reliance on "Retro" themed designs? Check. The random and arbitrary nature of short-prints? Check. And add to that rookie card back-logoing!
But Turkey Red took the BS one step further with the introduction of a new gimmick that, I think we all agree, should never, ever, be repeated again. That would be, of course, the concept of the "living" card set -- which make about as much sense as another paper-based "living" entity: the "living constitution."
and finally the awards you've been waiting for....
Card of the Year: Topps #297: Alex Gordon
The card that spawned 500 conspiracy theories -- which is about many copies of this card that made their way out of Duryea. Is it a really a true "Rookie Card?" Why did Topps pull it from the set? Why does this card seem to only be appearing in Wal-Mart blaster boxes? Why is the infamous, deplorable, Keith Olbermann seemingly cornering the market on this card? And why is he paying four times Beckett HI for this card on eBay? And hey, doesn't the infamous, deplorable Keith Olbermann do consulting work for Topps on the side?
Best Base Set and 2006 Product of the Year: Upper Deck
At over 1000 cards, split between two 500-card series, 2006 Upper Deck baseball was easily the most comprehensive base set of the year. And that was before UD tacked on an additional 250 card update set.
But comprehensiveness (if that's a word) wasn't just the only reason Upper Deck Baseball is being honored as the best base set. Just by opening up a few packs, and thumbing through the cards, it became obvious that Upper Deck put a lot of time, effort, and (dare I say) love, into their flagship brand. It was easily was the company's best baseball card set in over a decade, and over time, should take it's place alongside the landmark '89 set in Hobby history.
The competition for this award wasn't even close -- which is saying a lot since 2006 was a pretty good year for the set collector. But hands down, the best of them all was Upper Deck baseball.