Friendly Fire at the Kingdome

Baseball conspiracies aren’t exactly a new concept. Late into Jose Canseco’s career, as he was just one healthy season away from 500 career home runs and a then guaranteed trip to the Hall of Fame, Jose couldn’t find a job to save his life. The White Sox, a loser organization if there ever was one, released him. The Yankees signed him, just to bench him. The Montreal Expos, who were so bad they don’t even exist anymore, released him during Spring training. His last ditch effort with the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he offered to play for free, ended in Jabba the Hut Tommy Lasorda calling Jose fat in the media. It was clear that MLB put a bounty out on Canseco’s career due to the information he had on dozens of beloved superstars. MLB needed a scapegoat and they found the least likeable baseball player, perhaps in the entire history of the game, in Canseco.

The same thing happened to MLB’s *Home Run King, Barry Bonds, and he wound up suing for collusion when he suddenly found himself out of work. Bonds and Canseco didn’t invent performance enhancing drugs nor were they the game’s first and/or only cheaters but they were despised and Bud Selig knew they would garner little to no sympathy. Canseco and Bonds both had time left but were pushed out of the game and as it stands today, will likely never be enshrined in Cooperstown. There were other players who cheated, multiple times even, but all was forgiven because their popularity alone brought fans into the stadiums. There were even great ball players with monstrous physiques that were putting up ungodly numbers but again, MLB officials turned a blind eye, due to popularity and ticket sales.

One such player was Ken Griffey Jr.

By the start of the 1997 season, “The Kid” was the biggest star in baseball, hands down. By age 26, Griffey Jr. was the American League’s premier slugger and a 7-time All-Star. Around this time, people started to take note that his home run totals were starting to pile up and thus began the Hank Aaron Chase, which at this point in his career, was almost a guarantee, if only he could remain healthy for another decade and a half. Griffey Jr., like Canseco, McGwire, and Bonds, packed on quite a bit of mass and seemingly went from a 25-home run type player to a 45-50 home run slugger seemingly overnight.

While Junior made the big leagues at age 19, there was a prospect named Jose Cruz Jr., who struggled to make the show. Jose was much smaller than Griffey Jr. in height and weight. He also suffered from a bit of a hole in his swing which ultimately became his downfall in the latter part of his career. However, none of that mattered as he was called up in 1997 to join the Mariners, who were contenders for the AL West. While Cruz Jr. was expected to develop into a 5-tool player with time, what Seattle got was the shot in the arm they desperately needed as Cruz Jr. managed to outplay Griffey Jr. in the 49 games he suited up with the Mariners.

Not only did Cruz Jr. out homer his much more famous Junior teammate, who would end up as the 1997 MVP with 56 home runs, he was clearly and perhaps surprisingly way more popular with the fans in Seattle. The Mariners had a line-up of Griffey Jr., Edgard Martinez, Jay Buhner, Alex Rodriguez, and Jose Cruz Jr., who in a month and a half, was on pace for 40+ home runs and Rookie of the Year honors.

Unfortunately, what happened July 31st was a travesty. Somehow, the team’s greatest asset of the 1997 season up to that point, Cruz Jr., was traded for relief pitchers, Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric. Not surprisingly, Cruz Jr.’s trade to Canada upset his meteoric momentum and his bat ultimately cooled off as he finished the year with just 26 home runs and 2nd in the Rookie of the Year voting. In time, Cruz Jr. put up some big numbers for Toronto, including a 30-30 season, but sadly, he was never the same player and never played a full season again after the age of 30.

My question is why would the Mariners, who were desperate for a playoff run, trade their hottest player? Not only was Cruz Jr. their best player through 49 games but being in his rookie season, he was also their least expensive one to hang on to. Jay Buhner was old and incidentally, 1997 would go on to be his last great season. Edgar Martinez had a few good seasons left but he too was easily replaceable at DH. Why trade away what was basically looking like a younger, cheaper Ken Griffey Jr, for two unheralded relief pitchers?

I don’t pretend to be a Ken Griffey Jr. fan and in my only interaction with him with the Cincinnati Reds in 2008, I was shocked to see how unfriendly and unhappy he appeared to be publicly. I remember watching him jog to his team bus after a game (long before the Autograph Hound craze) and ignore children and young fans. I mean, not even a glance our way. Meanwhile, 85% of his team went on to sign and pose for photos for 15-20 minutes for the opposing team’s fans. I had always heard the narrative pushed down my throat that “The Kid” loved the game, played it the “right” way, and most of all, loved his fans. That hot Florida day in 2008, made me question those media generated statements.

Just like Canseco, Griffey Jr.’s body began to break down in the later stage of his career. I would imagine he was miserable knowing that he was baseball’s chosen one but would fall very short of Aaron’s home run crown. Thanks to the 1994 baseball strike, he even missed out on the single season home run record and got to watch it fall to Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and later, Barry Bonds. Ken Griffey Jr. was a legendary baseball player that reached great numbers and accomplished much in his career but he never truly lived up to expectations. That day in 2008 made me wonder what he was really like back in 1997, at the top of his game with some younger, let’s face it, better-looking kid, suddenly getting all the attention and admiration from the Seattle fans.

My conspiracy theory is that with Griffey Jr. being on top of the baseball world, certainly did not appreciate the fans turning on him for a younger Junior with seemingly the same power and pushed for the organization to ship Cruz Jr. at the trade deadline. Please give me ANY OTHER POSSIBLE explanation to trade away your hottest player (not to mention the American League’s) to Canada for nearly nothing in return? The Griffey Jr. I encountered was a malcontent and nothing at all what baseball had sold us all throughout the 90s.

One thing is clear, on paper, Ken Griffey Jr. had his career year in 1997, winning the MVP, a Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, and a trip to the All Star Game, while leading the league in home runs, RBI, and slugging percentage. After 1997, he was never that dominant again and by 2001, injuries began to plague Junior’s career. Would he have been that great in 1997 had it not been for Cruz Jr. being shipped away? We will never know. We also will never know how being traded in his first season after finding so much success at the plate, mentally affected Jose Cruz Jr., who also never seemed to reach his true potential after one of the hottest starts in baseball.

In 2012, I reached out to Jose Cruz Jr. and presented him with this exact narrative. His response? “Interesting…”. He then followed up with a tweet saying he gave his all to baseball and was proud to have never appeared on any steroid lists. I don’t expect someone still involved with the game to come out and tell his side because as we all know, what goes on the locker room, stays in the locker room. I still couldn’t believe he responded as he did and certainly didn’t deny my statements and even brought up performance enhancing drugs.

In the end, I will always feel disappointment for what Jose Cruz Jr. could have been whenever I run into his early year baseball cards. This was a kid being compared to Hank Aaron who ended up, at the end of his career, fighting for his life on an MLB roster before hanging up his cleats at the young age of 34. Meanwhile, Griffey Jr., while falling short in many record books, made it into the Hall of Fame, almost unanimously, with 99.32% of the votes and is as beloved today, maybe even more so, than he was during his playing days when he was staring down a record he could never truly catch up to.

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The Man in the Mirror

I’ve spent an unordinary amount of time on this website defending the greatness that is Bowman’s forgotten love child, Bowman’s Best. During the Bowman Chrome age, especially as pack inserted, certified autographs of young teenage boys took over collecting, it appears Bowman’s Best was inexplicably left in the dust. I never quite understood the masses in their thinking because in 1997, the year Bowman Chrome made its debut, the checklist carried exactly ZERO autographs, while 1997 Bowman’s Best was loaded with them, including a legendary Derek Jeter autograph.

Not only did Bowman’s Best, well, best Chrome in the autograph department but it also beat them to the punch in having the first parallel of a parallel. Up until that point, we had refractors in Finest, Best, Topps & Bowman Chrome but we had no level beyond that until Bowman’s Best introduced the beautiful Atomic Refractor. It’s sad that in today’s world of collecting, all that matters now are parallels but in 1996 when they were still a new thing, pulling an Atomic Refractor was just about the most amazing thing that could happen to you.

Bowman’s Best hasn’t always lived up to their name, though and eventually the product took a long nap for nearly a decade before its return, where once again, it’s not getting the attention it deserves and probably rightfully so. Anyway, one of their big inserts were Mirror Image, where a veteran was paired up with a prospect that had some sort of chance of being as good, if not better than the veteran. Unfortunately, some prospects were paired up with once in a lifetime players and just never stood a chance. One such conundrum is the poor saps who had to live up to what Ken Griffey Jr. was doing in the mid-90s.

Let’s take a look and see how the prospects faired against Junior.

1995 Bowman’s Best – Mirror Image (Griffey Jr./T. Greene)

This one here is bizarre for many reasons. For one, Greene was a catcher that stood just 5-10 and had a stocky 200 lbs. frame. Griffey Jr. had speed and grace and was as dynamic as they come out in the outfield. That being said, I was excited for Todd and saw him as potentially a bigger, more powerful Mike Piazza, maybe.

As you can imagine, things didn’t quite work out. In 1996, Griffey Jr. hit 49 bombs, was an all-star, won a gold glove, as well as a Silver Slugger. Greene managed to hang on to an MLB job for 11 seasons but never managed to hit more than 14 home runs in a single year. He did manage to earn just under $4,000,000 playing a game so kudos to him.

1996 Bowman’s Best – Mirror Image (Griffey Jr./B. Grieve)

This one here almost holds up. Ben Grieve was a talented kid that could have used a little muscle. Still, he managed to win the Rookie of the Year award in 1998 and had a little pop in his bat for a couple of seasons. In Jose Canseco’s book, Juiced, Jose talked about offering advice on steroids to Ben, who had no interest in it. In 2009, I tweeted to Ben regarding his comments and he told me that he is proud of his career and that he played the honest way every day he suited up.

Unfortunately, during the Steroid Era of baseball, class and dignity didn’t take you very far and Ben managed to play in just 9 seasons, bouncing around in the latter half with Tampa Bay, Chicago Cubs, and even in Milwaukee. He did manage to earn over $14,000,000 during his playing days so I am sure Ben is living his best life today and hey, not many players have a Rookie of the Year trophy to hang on their shelf.

1997 Bowman’s Best – Mirror Image (Griffey Jr./J. Cruz Jr.)

Folks, this one here is personal. I was all on board the Jose Cruz Jr. hype train and in early1997, Jose outhomered Griffey Jr. and was getting way more attention then Junior was until he was mysteriously traded to the Blue Jays, something that truly makes zero sense. My belief, and give me a second to adjust my tin foil hat, is that Cruz Jr. was shipped to Canada because Griffey Jr. didn’t like his spotlight being taken away by a younger and seemingly better player.

I tweeted my insane conspiracy theory to Jose Cruz Jr. and shockingly he tweeted back and I quote, “That’s an interesting theory.”. You can read about it HERE.

As for Jose’s career, he put up some really great numbers but didn’t live up to his 1997 start, which was interrupted by a trade to Canada. He did end up with over 200 career home runs and a gold glove, but I always wonder about what could have been if he played the entire year, uninterrupted, in Seattle. In a multiverse, Cruz Jr. is the Hall of Famer and Griffey Jr. ended his career early due to injuries.

1999 Bowman’s Best – Mirror Image (Griffey Jr./R/ Mateo)

There was no new Mirror Image of Ken Griffey Jr. (officially) in 1998 but in 1999 we had yet another attempt, this time with future great, Ruben Mateo. Now, I’ll be first to admit by 1999, I was growing tired of Bowman’s Best and needed a little break. The entire industry in general was out of control with 10-15 releases each from Pacific, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Topps. It would have been even more had Donruss/Leaf/Pinnacle not filed for bankruptcy in 1998. I just needed a break.

This time around, we got a Ken Griffey Jr. “mirror image” named Ruben Mateo. If you’re hoping he somehow would fare better than Greene, Grieve, and Cruz Jr., have I got some news for you. Unfortunately, due to a career altering injury, Mateo only played 295 games in the Majors, hitting 21 home runs. He did play professional baseball for 18 seasons, however, hitting 241 career home runs with just a little under 1,000 runners driven in.

The point is that for Bowman’s Best, one of Topps’ above average products in the mid-90s, there just wasn’t anyone who could fill Ken Griffey Jr.’s shoes, except maybe Cruz Jr. and despite four strong efforts, none of the players chosen to represent came anywhere close to it, career-wise. Let’s just face the fact that Ken Griffey Jr. was just a once in a generation type talent and Bowman’s Best, from 1995 through 1998, was one of Topps’ best rookie themed products, even if no one remembers.

How Texas Killed My Childhood

Often, when I let someone know that I collect Jose Canseco baseball cards, I expect to be immediately be judged. Believe it or not, this began way back when Jose was still a baseball God and continued throughout what ultimately became a wasted career and very sad, often tragic, life after baseball.

When my mom accidently bought me a box of 1990 Topps Ames, well, first off, I was upset. I had gone into Ames looking for Classic WWF cards and when I could not find them, I figured a pack of playing cards would be a nice consolation prize for the long ride home. I didn’t even know what baseball was nor could I name any of the 30+, mostly boring looking players featured in the photos.

One guy, however, easily stood out from the pack. It was a young slugger with a determined look on his face and muscles bulging through his uniform that grabbed my attention and my imagination for the next three decades and beyond. Standing at 6 feet 4 and weighing 240 lbs., he could have easily been confused for a WWF mid card talent hailing from parts unknown.

1990 Topps Ames

I decided that day, that I would try to find more baseball cards of this fella, named Jose Canseco. Little did I know, Jose was the biggest and most famous player in the game at the time and with Ken Griffey Jr. still a few years away from taking over, Jose was also the game’s most talented star.

Unfortunately, Jose was a star burning out at a rapid pace. I spent the next two years obsessing over Jose’s cards and his televised games, as that’s all we really had pre-Internet. By 1992, the tide was turning as I was tuning into Oakland home games on ESPN to discover Jose was regularly being booed.

That year, 1992, Jose’s stats weren’t the usual all star numbers and aside from being booed every game at home and away, rumors began to swirl about Jose’s conduct with his teammates, coaches, fans, and even his wife. Simply put, Jose was a supernova on the verge of exploding and it would happen that very year.

By the end of the season, Jose would be a Texas Ranger, something that Jose himself wrote in his book, Juiced, almost drove him to suicide and really, who could blame him? By the beginning of 1992, Jose was a superstar. A good looking, rich, talented monster baseball player. By the end of the season, he had shrunken in stature and would never again be special.

One can study Jose’s early baseball cards and find a bevy of iconic images. For a few seasons, the man was truly larger than life. By the time his Rangers cards started leaking out in late 1992 and 1993, the mystique was gone. It also didn’t help that from that point on, Jose was a damaged human being and more injury prone than Mike Trout is today.

I was only truly was able to enjoy two years basking in the sun of being a Jose Canseco collector. Two, wonderful years when everything was Canseco’d, if you will. From 1992, into 2023, the man has been labeled at worse a rat to at best, a walking, talking caricature and a joke. Sadly, that’s the atmosphere I felt every single time I walked into a card shop asking for Jose cards and things have only gotten worse.

For most of my life, being a Jose Canseco fan was the equivalent of telling someone your favorite music artist is Kanye West, your favorite actor is Kevin Spacey, and your favorite Naked Gun film is 33 and 1/3. It’s telling that the most famous Jose Canseco super collector, Tanner, is best known for building the greatest Canseco collection only to sell off a year after. Jose Canseco collectors come and go, so I’m quite proud of my 33 years.

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The Panini Shit Sandwich

I don’t think you’ll find a bigger anti-Panini America collector on the Internet than myself. For years, maybe even a decade, I’ve been speaking out on Panini’s destruction of our beloved Donruss brand, their trash employees, ridiculous customer service, and flat out scam-like tactics when it comes to redemptions. At some point, I realized I was basically yelling at the clouds day after day while collectors, unaware of this site, kept spending thousands of dollars per day to be essentially, kicked in the balls by Panini.

Well, finally, something so egregious happened that everyone in this hobby took notice. A collector found the unthinkable, a cardboard crime the likes we’ve never witnessed before. Someone pulled a Babe Ruth cut signature featuring a sticker autograph of none other than a man known for pooping his pants and cheating with pine tar. I don’t know about you guys, but I’d rather pull the autograph of a guy who ate himself into a hot dog coma over George Brett but hey, that’s just me.

A few days later, something amazing happened. A collector pulled a George Brett card with Babe Ruth’s autograph on it. That’s the equivalent of pulling a 2022 Topps Jose Canseco, low-tier autograph and finding George Washington’s John Hancock on it instead. Maybe I am being too tough on Brett but honestly, the guy has always creeped me out. I don’t know how anyone else feels but Panini America would have to kill me in order to get back their missing Babe Ruth autograph.

There’s a lot of things I’d trade for in order to receive a George Brett autograph. I’d give a jury duty summons, a hang nail, paper cut, and a Norah Jones CD from the thrift shop … but no way in hell would I trade a Babe Ruth autograph. Sounds to me, if the person who pulled the Brett/Ruth has any brains, that Panini will have to give the original jilted collector a second Babe Ruth autograph and let the other guy enjoy what is essentially the greatest baseball card error card ever produced.

This is a reminder to collectors, that as bad as Topps is and has been since becoming the MLB Monopoly, it could always get worse. In this case, much worse. That is why it’s better to spend with the official because like we’ve seen, if you have an MLB license and decide to pull shenanigans, MLB will come down harder than Michael Vick with his new puppies. Boy, that’s a dated reference. Just saying, MLB has a history of “fuck around and find out”, as the dying Upper Deck company knows all too well.

The Snake Will Always Bite Back

In the late 90s, I watched a documentary on the behind the scenes aspect of professional wrestling. In that program, a wrestler, best known for his interview skills and accompanying pet snake that he’d utilize to scare his opponents, talked about life on the road with an endless supply of groupies and how damaging it was to his marriage. Basically, once you’ve been with thousands of women and involved in threesomes & orgies, having marital relations with just one woman just didn’t do it for him and he’d eventually end up divorced.

That’s me, I am the Jake the Snake of Jose Canseco baseball card collectors. With more than 3 decades under my belt, I am tired. Certified autographs, game-used jerseys, serial numbers, and parallels just don’t do it for me anymore. I have now reached the point that missing cards from the 80s and 90s is what I really desire. If you’re a longtime reader, you probably can guess that I’ve covered all my bases with Topps, Panini, Fleer, and Upper Deck but Pacific Trading Cards is one company I was never fond of and never made an effort to collect.

Today, I want to show off two cards I’ve recently acquired. One is an “oddball” and the other, a forgotten insert. Neither is worth much and 9 out of 10 collectors today would likely pass them up at a show but for me they represent something really special. These are two cards featuring eras of Jose’s career that just don’t receive a lot of coverage anywhere, especially in baseball cards.

The first is this lowly, bottom of the barrel unlicensed card back when people didn’t care about lawsuits and used team trademarked colors and logos. This card came up by accident when searching for Pacific Trading Cards as it was mass produced in the mid to late 80s by a company called Pacific Cards and Comics, which produced many awful Canseco oddballs during that era and had no connection to the gaudy Pacific Trading Cards we all know and love from the 90s.

Still, as far as oddballs go, this one is great. It features an excellent and very rare photo never to be used again on another card. The jersey is rarely seen in Canseco cards and is from his 1986 season. What’s interesting is this card is from 1989, which typically use 1988 images but going back into the archives works extremely well and makes this oddball stick out from the pack more than 30 years after it was produced. I paid $3 for this card and it’s worth every penny.

The second card I picked up, I wasn’t even aware existed. Jose’s time with the Yankees for me was a depressing time as I realized, maybe even before Jose did, that the writing was on the wall. There would be no 500 career home runs, no great comeback story, and definitely no Hall of Fame speech. The Yankees signed Jose to keep him from going to a contender and then happily placed him squarely on the bench for his remaining time. It was heartbreaking to see and was the beginning of my hatred for Major League Baseball. Since Jose’s retirement over twenty years ago, I’ve watched less than 10 full baseball games.

By the late 90s and into the early 2000s, Pacific Trading Cards were pumping out many sets with extremely rare parallels and inserts. Since my boy was struggling to stay afloat, I too began to stray from collecting and missed many different Pacific cards from this era, including this amazing Yankees crown die-cut. I have other Pacific crown die cuts of Jose with the Rays, Red Sox, Rangers, and Blue Jays BUT this is the ONLY Pacific crown diecut from Jose’s short time with the Yankees.

This card here (the unnumbered version) landed into my collection for $12. I will continue to grab missing Pacific cards of Jose needed to complete my collection but for me, none will top this Yankees diecut for many reasons, including that it somehow managed to evade me for over twenty years and stay off the radar of a true, Jose Canseco super collector.