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.