Chaos and Kanji is the blog where I write about my adventures through Japan!

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Saturday, May 2, 2020

2020 BBM 1st Version

Let's tackle this monster.
BBM's 1st Version came out in early April following the same basic formula that they have been using for the past few years. The base set is 336 cards: 324 player cards and 12 team checklists.
 Base cards have a radioactive cloud in one corner. Depending on the photo, I find it distracting due to the bright colors; otherwise, it's not a bad design. The backs are pretty standard.
 Let's talk parallels:

  • Silver Signature (unnumbered, above left)
  • Gold Signature #/100 (above center)
  • Holo Signature #/50 (above right)
  • Red Signature #/25 

  • Rookie Parallel #/200 (foilboard)
  • Rookie Parallel #/100 (holofoil, seen above)
  • Rookie Parallel #/50 (foil stamp)
There are also 12 "secret" and 12 "super secret" photo variation parallels. 

As always, the set includes 12 team checklists. Photos on the front appear to come from this year's spring training. Overall, I didn't find the photos to be too appealing compared to prior years.

 This year's theme for the cross-brand set is Cross Blossoms, and the design has an image of cherry blossoms at night with a gigantic full moon in the background. There are two parallels for this set: a foilboard #/100 version and a 1/1 holofoil verison.
 One player from each team can be found in New Age Stars. The foil design looks better in person. A #/100 parallel with a lamé finish can be found.

 Japonism returns, and has a definite traditional Japanese theme for 12 cards, one per team. Regular inserts have gold, there are also pink #/100 and sky blue 1/1 parallels.
3D Cross Blossoms is pretty self-explanatory if you've read everything up to this point. This 12-card set is #/25.
Finally, a 12-card foil autograph version of the Cross Blossoms set titled Cross Foil Signing rounds out the insert offerings. These are #/15.

Moving on to special cards, there are three memorabilia cards: M1 and M2 are single-jersey relic cards while M3 is a dual-jersey card.
 As always, the cross-brand set has Cross Signature parallels in single and dual-player versions. There's also a Special Cross Signature set.
The 10-card Japonism Signature set gives a horizontal variation on the insert design, leaving space for the sticker autograph.

Finally, four players also have buyback autographs in the set; each player has 10 autographs spread across differing numbers and quantities of cards.

Friday, May 1, 2020

2020 BBM Icons Fireballer

What, at first, appeared to be a one-off box set has turned into an annual staple. The Icons series hit shelves in late March, focusing on fastball pitchers this year.
My sample base card is Yudai Ohno, who first came onto my radar when Zippy Zappy pointed out how fun it is to say his name. He's proven to be a decent pitcher for the Dragons, and he even threw a no-hitter last year.

A full 36-card base set can be found in each 4000-yen box along with one "special" card. I don't have a special card yet, but here are your options. Total print run comes to 3500 sets.
Foil Cards, 6 cards, #/30 each, 180 total cards
2020 Rookies, 6 cards, #/60 and #/30 holofoil parallel, 540 total cards
Print Autographs, 12 cards, #/90, #/60 holofoil parallel, #/30 red foil parallel, 2160 total cards

Autographs, 29 cards, various print runs, 620 total cards (approximately 18% chance)

Because I enjoy themed sets, I've been collecting the Icons base set for its entire run. I just wish BBM would be a bit more original with their designs. This year's special cards look nice, though; I'm sure the Fireballer foil insert looks better in person.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

2020 BBM Rookie Edition

Every year, BBM issues a set showing the rookie class in typical studio shots. The newly-drafted players put on their jerseys, take a couple photos in front of a blank wall, and end up on a trading card in February.
Each eight card pack retails for 400 yen, with 15-pack boxes running 6000 yen. Japan doesn't really believe in bulk pricing. The base set has 120 cards. Cards 1-107 are rookies, #108 is a list of the draft picks, and the remaining 12 cards make up the usual subset.
 The base cards this year use octagonal backgrounds. The backs have photos showing all of the draftees for each team and a write-up about the player's career before being drafted.

There are several partial parallels in this year's set. If not noted below, the parallels essentially cover each team's top five to seven picks.

  • Silver Signature /100
  • Gold Signature /75
  • Green Signature /50
  • Red Signature /20
  • Sky Blue Signature 1/1 (First Draft)
  • Holofoil /20 (First Draft)
  • "Secret" Photo Variations (First Draft)

The 12-card Early Days subset features a veteran from each team, pictured when their career was just beginning. The back shows their team's draft class when they were picked; Aoki here was the Swallows fourth draft pick in 2003.
The Next Generation insert set has one younger player from each team. That's twelve cards.
And as customary, the previous year's Rookie of the Year winners get their own gold foilboard insert.

There are several autograph sets to be found in this year's release.

  • Early Days Signature, an 8-card parallel to the subset
  • First Draft Pick Signature (12 cards)
  • First Draft Pick Silver Signature (12 cards /30, not a parallel)
  • Prospect Signature (42 cards)
  • Fresh Stars Signature (7 cards)
  • Rookie Signature Boards (107 autographed signature boards, all 1/1)
BBM didn't release any promo images from the autograph sets, and I don't have any in my collection at the time of this writing.
You made it this far. Here's an image of one of the players who threw his jersey on over his high school uniform. I'm guessing it's his high school uniform. Or perhaps, in Yuki's case, his college uniform (yes, for some schools, that is a thing). I can't imagine him, or any of these players, owning many white shirts and neckties. Perhaps he bought it just for the draft event.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

2020 BBM Retirement Set (Farewell Ballplayers)

By my count, by the time this publishes, BBM will have issued nine baseball card sets for the 2020 card year. The first two came out before the New Year: the retro-themed Time Travel 1985, and the ultra-premium Glory. In January, BBM released its annual set honoring players who called it quits after the prior season.
Each 7000-yen box comes with a 36-card complete set and one autograph. And that's really all the release contains.
The base cards use the same basic design as always; the diamond in the center basically translates as "Regret at Departing Ballplayer". Several of the cards depict the players retirement ceremonies, holding flowers or being tossed into the air. I love this image of Tanaka; hands-down it's the best in the set.
Thirty-two of the 36 players in the base set have autographed cards as well, with print runs ranging from 10 to 120 copies. Totaling them up reveals that 3000 sets were made.
There is a somewhat interesting story in this set with Shintaro Yokota. He was drafted out of high school by the Tigers in 2013, and spent 2014 and 2015 with the minor league team. After a very good spring training in 2016, he made the opening day roster, but struggled in the regular season and by the end of June he was back with the ni-gun team.

He again was practicing with the big club during 2017 Spring Training, but left due to recurring headaches. Eventually it was discovered that he had a brain tumor, but after surgery the cancer was in remission. He wasn't able to play successfully after that due to vision problems from the tumor, though he spent the 2018 and 2019 seasons training with the team.

He announced his retirement on September 22nd, and a ceremony was planned following the September 26 game. After three seasons off the field, he played center field for the ni-gun team as a defensive replacement, throwing out a runner at the plate in the eighth inning. So, after six seasons, Yokota hung up his cleats.

Yokota only played in 38 games, all in 2016, for the Hanshin Tigers top ballclub, batting .190.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Book Review: Wally Yonamine

One last book review from March. Seriously, I read four books and never wrote about them! Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball by Rob Fitts came to me through a Mercari purchase of all things. It's the first book by Fitts I've read, though I also have his book Mashi: Masanori Murakami, which I picked up when both Fitts and Murakami made an appearance in Tokyo a few years ago. He's written a few more books on Japanese baseball, collects Japanese baseball cards, and sells cards on eBay, too. (Not right now, due to stay-at-home orders. But usually.)
Wally Yonamine is a man of firsts: he was the first Japanese American to play in the NFL (for the San Francisco 49ers) and the first American to play baseball in Japan after World War II, for the Yomiuri Giants. He was the first foreign manager in NPB, with the Chunichi Dragons. He brought more-aggressive baseball to Japan, playing for the strongest, most popular team in Japan. He won countless awards and was inducted to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994 - the only American in the Hall as a player.

This book is the definitive record of Wally Yonamine's life. Fitts did his homework, interviewing players, friends, family members, and Yonamine himself. Fitts is most concerned with Wally's baseball career, but he also talks about his upbringing, his football career, Pearl Harbor, and stealing watermelons. We read about his efforts on the diamond and his relationships with his wife and children.

Overall, this book is extremely well-written. It is a passion project, that is obvious. My only minor complaint is the change in style in the last chapter, titled Hall of Fame. For the first 20 chapters of the book, Fitts talks about Yonamine as a third person, telling the story of his life. Chapter 21 continues that story, but this is the point where Yonamine enters Fitts' life, and the book turns first person for a while. And from history to praise. I only wish Fitts had split that chapter in two, talking about Yonamine's post-baseball life (which never really ended; he was involved with the Master League even in 2008, in his 80s) in a chapter, and sharing his personal story and Yonamine's legacy in an epilogue or afterword. It's still a great book.
I have a few Yonamine cards laying around, but no definitive card. As I've been doing with other players I've read about, I'm on the lookout for a good card to represent the book. I've got my eyes on some vintage cards, but until then, here's a card of him sliding in to home.

And with that, I've gotten caught up on books. I haven't been reading these past couple weeks, so I have some catching up to do. My vacation starts tomorrow, so vacation #1 is traveling back in time over 100 years, again.

Until next time...

Book Review: The Mick

The first autobiography I can remember reading since... college? The full title here is: The Mick: An American Hero, The Legend and the Glory. It's written by Mickey Mantle himself, with Herb Gluck.
I'm not that old. Mickey Mantle is another one of those old Yankees stars that I didn't really know about. I knew he was a switch-hitting power hitter during the Yankees 1950s dynasty. I knew he had bad knees and was a spokesman for Upper Deck in the '90s.

This is the smallest book I've read so far this year. It has 260 pages, but it's smaller, and written in a very casual, simple way.

It's Mickey Mantle, telling his story. As such, there's a good bit about Mantle's life behind the scenes. Mickey talks about his childhood and teenage years in Oklahoma. He talks about his pastimes, schooling, girls, and his family's financial difficulties.

As he moves into his career, he talks a lot about his teammates and life off the field. He mentions his performance on the diamond, but he approaches his accomplishments with a self-deprecating attitude.

He comes across as a good ol' boy, and I'm not sure if that's who he really was or if it was an image created for the book or publicity in general. Mantle talks about partying and hanging out and generally having a fun attitude, and based on what I read in October 1964 I have to believe him. So maybe he really was a fun-loving simple guy who loved to play ball.

I think I finished this entire book in just two days, with about two to three hours of actual reading time. So it's very easy to read. But like the other books I've been reading, it has a good narrative and it's possible that Mickey wrote his own movie; I could see this book turned into a biopic. The only problem - Mickey tells some interesting short stories, but there are fewer scenes than summaries here.
It is a New York Times bestseller, written back in 1985. Thirty-five years later, there isn't much new to add to Mantle's life. Mantle shows he is a product of his time, though; there's a lot here that might not be published in a book today.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Book Review: You Gotta Have Wa

A surprisingly easy read, You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting examines life as a foreign baseball player in Japan.
This book was first written in 1989, and it is still being printed today. That tells you how good it is.

Life in Japan isn't easy for foreigners. We are often considered temporary visitors here to serve a specific role. I'm an English teacher, and as such not considered to be someone who would live here permanently. The Japanese way is considered difficult for foreigners to udnerstand. And it is; likewise, the American way can be difficult for Japanese people to get used to.

Foreign baseball players in Japan also serve a certain role. Many times they are called "suketto", which basically means helper. A player like Cecil Fielder is expected to hit the long ball. While foreigners have taught a thing or two to Japanese players, game strategy and practicing style remained unique to Japan.

Have you seen the 1992 movie Mr. Baseball, starring Tom Selleck? It's almost forgettable, but there is a lot of truth in what you see in the movie. Selleck's character receives uniform #54, because that is how many home runs he is projected to hit. The manager hits one of his players in the head for making a mistake. The team doesn't know how to have fun; baseball is war. Some players know a little English, but improperly use it or only know catchphrases and insults. The team practice is grueling; at one point Selleck's character is training but isn't allowed to hit. And of course, he has difficulty off the field with customs and culture.

That movie was probably written based on You Gotta Have Wa. Whiting tells stories, as he attempts to help the reader understand life and baseball in Japan.

Japanese managers hit their players. Physical abuse still exists in the workplace and at home; I've had a parent give me permission to hit their child if they misbehaved, and I've seen a grown man repeatedly hit another on a train.

Saving face is important here. The manager is the boss and not to be questioned. Sensei knows best.

Practice in Japan is an exercise in exhaustion. Literally. Players are forced to undergo drills until they collapse from exhaustion. Thousand ball fielding drills, running drills, throwing drills, hitting drills.

There are lots of customs here foreigners might not know about - pouring drinks for others but not yourself, bathing etiquette, chopstick etiquette...

Japanese baseball philosophy is rooted in its history. Until fairly recently, Japan was a country of fighters: samurai, shoguns. Sumo wrestling is Japan's only real sport. And many of Japan's earliest baseball players had this fighting spirit and a focus on morals, constant work, and will. "Indeed, the emphasis on 'making the effort' was so strong in Japan that how hard a man tried was considered by many to be the ultimate measure of his worth. Results were almost secondary."

Japanese workers go to the office and work long hours, but a recent article suggests that they don't really do much at the office. It's about showing you are at the office as long as the boss is, not how much work you actually do. Many employees right now are having difficulties working from home because they have mastered looking busy, but don't actually do much, or can't work on their own.

As someone who has been living in Japan for over eight years, I can relate to many of the difficulties and cultural clashes experienced by ex-pats playing ball here. But at the same time, I can see that a lot has changed in Japan. 1989 was the middle of Japan's bubble economy era - a time of great growth in real estate and the stock market, when Japan felt it was better than everyone else. Actually, that sentiment still remains with many.

But in recent years, the number of foreigners living in Japan has increased. The internet and an increase in international business has brought western culture into Japan as more than just a novelty. And where even twenty or thirty years ago the idea of a pitching rotation didn't exist in Japanese managers' minds, they use a six-starter rotation now.

The book is thirty years old and as such is a bit outdated in terms of modern Japan, but that doesn't mean it's not still valuable as a cultural tool. And for those interested in Japanese baseball, it's a must read. I'd love to see a follow-up to this with a look at how Japanese baseball has changed since 1990. Whiting also wrote The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, so I'll have to keep an eye out for that.

Book Review: Willie Keeler

One of the greatest things about reading all these sports history books is my increased interest in players from before my time. As I learned about the ballplayers of 1964, I started picking up cards for the ones who interested me. And Red Smith's book may not have been the most appealing, but I still gained a bit of appreciation for some of the stars found in other sports. Satchel Paige was always some mythical legend to me, but after reading about him I really appreciated his love of the game.

Last month (boy, that was long ago), I shot through about one book per week. March involved long commutes by train, so I had plenty of time for page turning. So, after finishing the Red Smith compilation, I turned to Willie Keeler: From the Playgrounds of Brooklyn to the Hall of Fame, by Lyle Spatz.
This book is quite long, especially for a biography of a player who was on the field over 100 years ago. Lyle Spatz works for SABR, and has written several other baseball books and articles. You're looking at three hundred pages, and this is no pulp novel, either.

The book is broken up into five parts, representing his time before and after baseball and the three teams he played for.  But despite the title of the book, only about 20 pages are given to Keeler's upbringing and early life, and another 20 pages about his life after retirement. So you're looking at a lot of baseball.

Spatz writes a great deal about the teams Keeler is on, and the book follows several characters throughout Keeler's career, as many of them come back after changing teams or leaving baseball altogether.  Not only are you reading about Willie Keeler, but you're also learning about John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, Joe Kelley, and other members of the 1890s Orioles. And the early history of the Superbas (later the Dodgers) and the Yankees, as Keeler was on all of those teams.

One thing Spatz does throughout the book is discuss individual game results. There is a lot of detail here, as these singular events help the reader understand Keeler and his teams better. It took some getting used to reading what amounts to 100-year-old play-by-play accounts, but as I got deeper into the book I started to appreciate how they helped tell Keeler's story.

There is a lot of reverence in Spatz's writing, and while he admits the 1890s Orioles were a rough team, he glorifies the violence. Granted, much of what he wrote about continued on for the better part of a century, or continues to this day. Keeler is set aside as a gentleman, though, one who generally didn't play such dirty baseball.

Another thing you will find in this book is a lot of general history. Keeler played during the days of the American Association, the formation of the American League, and the Federal League. There is a lot about how these leagues affected the game and the teams Keeler played for.

I certainly appreciate Keeler now; he was just some old player who had the longest hitting streak before DiMaggio.

Honestly, this is a long read. If you are interested in turn-of-the-century baseball, then definitely pick this one up. I learned a lot about Keeler, the early Orioles, Superbas, and the beginning of the Yankees, plus baseball history in general. Not my favorite book, but it was interesting enough to keep me reading until the end.
I picked up this Keeler relic for my collection after reading this book.

Get ready for three more of these posts! All that reading means a lot of writing! See you in 12 hours...

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Should It End? Thoughts on 2020 Topps Gypsy Queen

This year's rendition of Gypsy Queen marks the line's 10th edition.
Do you remember 2011 Gypsy Queen?

After a lackluster response to National Chicle in 2010, many dealers weren't interested in stockpiling the next throwback issue. This resulted in a fairly limited print run overall.
However, the set was an instant hit. Scarcity played a part in the release, but the set had a decent design. Many collectors turned away from the bright colors of Chicle, but Gypsy Queen had earthy tones with an authentic-looking grainy filter to the images. The minis looked good and came in a few parallels, and there were full-size unique framed parallels as well.
On-card autographs didn't hurt, either. Memorabilia cards look nice, and the checklists for hits showed a lot of star power. The inserts were themed appropriately, even though they were simple themes - future stars, home run hitters, great-fielding outfielders. A super-limited set had fictitional gypsy queens.
2011 Gypsy Queen had something for almost everyone, looked great, and was tough to find.

As the years have gone by, the set has kept the same basic formula - minis, hits, and a few insert sets. But in recent years, Topps has been making the same changes as their other sets - image variations, an increase in gimmicky parallels, and arguably a less-appealing lineup for the hits.
What I really loved about early Gypsy Queen sets were the inserts. The gypsies only appeared in 2011 and 2012, but topical inserts lasted through 2016. In fact, the only insert set I haven't finished is the Basics of Baseball mini set, which is one of the best insert sets found in Gypsy Queen.
Do you remember that 2011 Gypsy Queen had mini versions of their inserts?

In 2017, Gypsy Queen moved away from inserts themed to the type of players in them. That was the first year of the Fortune Tellers, which are interesting but not themed. Now, there are Tarot of the Diamond, too. Nice... not themed.
So what are we left with in 2020? The tenth version of a throwback set, with none of the fun pieces that made 2011 so appealing.

I argue that Gypsy Queen has reached the end of its shelf life. Allen & Ginter will hit 15 this year, but A&G has variety - unique subjects found in the base set and inserts.
I like the GQ design enough, but it feels so uninspired after ten years of the same thing. Topps would need to go back to fun themed inserts to change my mind. You can keep Fortune Teller and Tarot, but bring back sets like Sticky Fingers and Moonshots.
Or retire the design and start new with another throwback design. (Yes, A&G's design is getting tiring, too; Topps could port this concept to a different old multi-sport set starting next year.)

American Caramel. Bazooka. Hostess. Exhibits would be cool for A&G. Diamond Stars, DeLong Gum. Zeenuts PCL. Have we had Old Judge? I don't remember seeing a full Old Judge set. Seriously, so many choices.

I just know that I'm bored with Gypsy Queen. Even Cardboard Connection doesn't know what to say about it. "Take another retro-inspired cardboard journey with MLB stars";  "Keeping to the standard format...". Yawn.

What do you think? Should this be the end of Gypsy Queen?

2020 Gypsy Queen images from Cardboard Connection.