The Bigger They Come, the Harder They Fall

The 1988 card calendar saw Topps releasing a new major set for the first time since 1981, when it had introduced its Traded and Stickers sets. Unlike those sets, which were standard (Traded) and smaller than standard-sized (Stickers), this new release took on a different shape, as well as a different look and feel.

1988 Topps Big #107 Steve Trout

Paying homage to the 1956 Topps set, Topps Big was considered the first ‘Premium’ set the company produced. Featuring bright white card stock and a high gloss finish, Big was the first all-horizontal set since the iconic ’56 set was released thirty-two years earlier (the 1960 set was primarily horizontal, but did have a few cards with vertical layouts).

Like the vintage ’56 Topps set, Big came in at 2-5/8″ by 3-3/4″, larger than the standard 2-1/2″ x 3-1/2″ size that was introduced in 1957. This increase in the size of the cardboard hurt the set’s popularity among collectors, who found the cards too difficult to store.

1989 Topps Big #38 Mickey Brantley

 

One of the only shortcomings of the 1956 set is that, other than Luis Aparicio, there is a conspicuous absence of key rookie cards. This is also a problem with each of the three Big offerings. In fact, there are no rookie cards in the ’88, ’89, or ’90 sets. Because of the smaller number of cards on the checklists, Topps reserved space for only established players. As a Mariners fan and collector, I can’t help but think how much I would like to have a Big Junior rookie card in my collection.

 

1990 Topps Big #266 Dave Valle

 

Now that we’ve pointed out a couple of negatives things about the set, let’s look at what’s praise worthy.

By the time Big was release, the fun-element had been slowly phased out of the hobby. Tamper-proof packaging and counterfeit-proof cards were being introduced, signaling that this was no longer a kids pastime. You don’t get that with Big. No inserts. No high price points. No short prints. What you do get is a small, affordable set with plenty of color, cartoons that hearken back to Topps’ earlier days and simplicity that has sadly disappeared from the industry.

One final nod to vintage cards: distribution. Like its predecessors, Big came in multiple series. Remember, the flagship product at this time was released in one 792-card set, but this new set was released in three different series. For its Big debut, Topps offered three series, each featuring 88 cards. The card giant offered larger sets for the ’89 and ’90 sets, with 110 cards in each of the three series.

As far as my collection of the Big team sets, I have just eleven of the 34 Mariners cards issued between the three seasons.

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(Re)Discover

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I remember the joy of first discovering baseball cards. It was the bicentennial summer of 1976 and I made a trip to Buttrey’s- a grocery store located in the Karcher Mall- with my mother. Having caught the baseball bug only a year earlier at the age of six, the red wax pack with a baseball jumping off the front of the pack caught my eye. Curious, I asked mom what it was and she explained the contents, to my bewilderment. I asked her to buy me a pack, to which she obliged. I was her baby- how could she say no?

That same summer, a pitcher in the Mexican League posted a remarkable season in which he finished 20-4 with a 1.89 ERA while striking out 239 batters over 233 innings. With an arsenal that included a good fastball and equally impressive screwball, Enrique Romo had helped lead the Mexico City Reds to the 1973, 1974 and 1976 league championships. And with 50 new jobs on the horizon due to Major League Baseball’s expansion, it was only a matter of time before someone signed the Reds’ ace.

Romo had actually attracted the attention of Mariners GM Lou Gorman when the executive was still with the Kansas City Royals and remained on his radar for the next few years. Gorman, acting on a tip from a scout who told him that Enrique was major-league ready, contacted Reds owner Angel Vasquez, whom he had dealt with previously, and was able to work out an agreement to purchase Romo. It was a coup for an expansion team looking to add cheap talent. Players taken in the expansion draft cost $175,000; Romo reportedly cost the Mariners only $75,000.

Enrique’s arrival at spring training 1977 was delayed because of visa issues and when he did arrive, did so with a slightly pulled hamstring. There were also questions about his true age. The Mariners media guide had him listed at 29; Enrique stated he was 27; others around the sport said he was more like 31. Whatever his age, there was no denying the righty was going to be a welcome addition to the staff.

Once the season began, the fiery righty was slotted in the #2 spot in the rotation, right behind the Ancient Mariner, Diego Segui. Unfortunately, his hamstring injury would force an early exit from each of his first three starts. After his third start was cut short, the team placed Romo on the 21-day DL. Upon returning to the team on May 10, Enrique found himself in the bullpen. Yes, he had thrown well as a starter- but the team desperately needed relief pitching and by limiting his innings they could nurse him back to health. The move paid dividends. Enrique became the Mariners top reliever- and one of the best firemen in the American League. In fact, once the offseason arrived, Gorman received a number of inquiries about the availability of his diamond in the rough. As tempting as it might have been to move him for depth, Romo wasn’t going anywhere. Not yet, anyway. Club officials (as well as manager Darrell Johnson) considered Romo one of the game’s elite relievers and were underwhelmed by the offers they received. And so he

Enrique reported to camp in better shape for the 1978 season but would still battle back and hamstring issues early in the year. Unfortunately, the pitcher also encountered early season struggles on the mound, something those close to him attributed to all the trade talks involving the mercurial right-hander. Despite an improved disposition once the trade deadline passed, Romo’s struggles continued and he would finish the season with significantly fewer strikeouts per nine-innings and more walks/9 than the previous season. Also up were his home runs allowed per nine, going from 0.6 in ’77 to 1.0 in ’78.

Having failed to maximize their return while his trade value was at its peak, the Mariners jettisoned Romo to the Steel City following the 1978 season, getting back pitchers Odell Jones and Rafael Vazquez and infielder Mario Mendoza. There had to have been regrets about not pulling the trigger earlier; Jones and Vazquez each lasted one season in the northwest (and were abysmal), while Mendoza (yes, he of the “Mendoza Line”) contributed a career worse -1.7 WAR to the 1979 Seattle squad.*

The trade worked out really well for the Pirates, who entered the 1979 season short on left-handed relievers. Though Enrique was a righty, his screwball was a great neutralizer on left-handed hitters and he allowed the team to reduce the workload of its primary left-handed reliever, Grant Jackson. As a strikeout pitcher, Enrique was a nice complement to the ground ball-inducing Kent Tekulve.

 


I rediscovered the joy of collecting in 1991, after a seven-year absence. A lot had changed since the cards of my childhood. New brands (Leaf, Score, Sportflics and Upper Deck), the concept of insert cards, autographed cardboard. Even the packs were- for the most part- different than the wax ones I had purchased in 1983. There was so much to learn about this new endeavor. I can’t imagine how confusing it would have been for me if buybacks were a part of those first packs I opened up in the spring of 1991. An old, worn out card from 1979 in a pack of 1991 Topps? That would have confused the hell out of me.

* The shortstop was better in 1980, his second and final season in Seattle, hitting for a career-high .245 batting average and improving his WAR to -0.6

1991 7-Eleven Coins: Northwest Region

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At one time, our humble little town of (what was at the time) 17,000 residents had three different 7-Eleven convenient stores. Two store closures and the buyout from a locally-owned corporation has left us with zero. What was the last 7-Eleven in Caldwell is now a Jacksons. Hell, they also own what were the Circle K’s, Chevron, Shell stations, etc.

And while a local ownership may have a greater impact on our local economy, there’s a bit of sadness in the realization that a Big Gulp or a Slurpee isn’t just a couple of miles away. Call me nostalgic. It was at one of the three 7-Eleven stores where I discovered a new brand of baseball card (Donruss) that Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1981. And, as weird as it sounds, it was a great place to get a slurpee on a Sunday morning after tying one on the night before. The sweet, cold drink seemed to help a hangover. Don’t miss hangovers- but like I said, I’m nostalgic.

Anyway, on to the coins…

The 1991 7-Eleven Coins were produced by Score and were available in the company’s Slurpee drinks. Like 4 of the 5 previous Slurpee offerings (the inaugural release in 1983 being the exception), the ’91 set was released regionally. This year’s set stretched out over 8 different regions (Atlantic, Florida, Metro Northeast, Midwest, Northern California, Northwest, Southern California, Texas), each having a distinctly colored border and consisted of 15 discs. In total, there were 81 different major league players spread out over the 120 coins.

1991 7-Eleven Coins Seattle Mariners

3 Alvin Davis

4 Ken Griffey Jr./Ken Griffey Sr.

5 Ken Griffey Jr.

6 Erik Hanson

9 Randy Johnson

11 Edgar Martinez

12 Tino Martinez

13 Harold Reynolds

15 Mike Schooler

 

I won a lot of 16 coins on eBay for $1 plus shipping (a couple bucks). All were from the red-bordered Northwest Region set and included eight of the nine Mariners players featured in the set. The one missing coin- Erik Hanson- is on its way, thanks to a Twitter trade for the Ryne Sandberg that was included in my eBay purchase.

Unnecessary

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I was a little perplexed with the Mariners acquisition of Ryon Healy from the A’s during the 2017 offseason. His low OBP and high strikeout numbers didn’t square with the team’s mantra of ‘controlling the zone’- and his defense (at first base anyway) was considered suspect at best. Plus, let’s face it: the team had Daniel Vogelbach waiting in the wings to take over first. And Seattle had given up a pretty good arm in Mike Montgomery to acquire the power hitting/high OBP first baseman (not to mention suspect defense) from the Cubs. Healy- in my opinion- was unnecessary.

Speaking of unnecessary things… 2018 Topps Holiday edition is the third edition of what appears to be an annual release. As reluctant as I was to buy any of the cards from this set, I felt compelled to trade for the Ryon Healy. And so I did.

Why trade for such an unnecessary card? Well, it wasn’t because of Healy; instead, this is the one card I can think of where the snowflakes don’t seem out of place. The hitter with his long sleeves; the distorted figure in the background sporting a team jacket; the fan on the right side- just above the dugout- who appears to be wearing a beanie. It all works well with the wet, white flakes. And just as ridiculous as the team signing Healy is the fact that the whole cold-weathered setting is juxtaposed with a water slide.

Refunds and Returns

Like many Boise State and Boston College fans, I tuned in to Wednesday’s First Responder’s Bowl game with great anticipation. While I don’t consider myself a big college football fan, I do try to tune in every time my Broncos are playing. That the game was played with an 11:30 am (Mountain Time) kickoff didn’t faze me; I just logged in to ESPN at work and figured if nothing else, I’d listen to the play-by-play. My excitement was put on hold briefly as BC struck for the first score. And then, once again, as the weather delay took effect. Nearly two hours later the game had not yet resumed and the announcement was made: the game was canceled.

Two irony’s struck me. First, the sponsor, SERVPRO, is known for cleaning up after disaster strikes “Like it never even happened.” Unfortunately for those who traveled for the game, the disaster of lost travel and lodging expenses is something that SERVPRO can’t cleanup. Secondly, the day the game took place (or was to take place?) is known for being the busiest day of the year for retail returns. The only return/refund those fans are getting back is the ticket price- if purchased through the schools. Sucks for them.

All of this led me to ask myself: what is the one card I purchased (or traded for) in 2018 that I would like to return? I will occasionally suffer from buyer’s remorse- but that typically comes from opening a box (which I rarely do anymore). To find a single card took a little bit more thought.

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If there is a set that screams Buyers Remorse, it’s Topps Now. Watching an event, getting caught up in the moment and then riding high off of last night’s emotions certainly can drive collectors to overpaying for a card from said event. But that’s not the reason I chose James Paxton’s No-Hitter Topps Now card as the one I’d like to return. Instead,  I somehow had a brain fart and bought a second one about a week after my first purchase. In fact, the duplicate arrived before the first one I had purchased. Not to mention, Topps included basically the same damn thing (the lite version, if you will) in the Update Series as a checklist card. Same photo, with an abridged copy of the text.

Trade, anyone?

Favorite 2018 Card

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The proliferation of trading cards the past few years has turned a lot of collectors off from new products. While I don’t consider myself one of those who are put off by the deluge, I do find it difficult to keep up with all that’s released- especially the on-demand products Topps has been putting out. One such set contains what I’m submitting as my favorite card of 2018, a contest sponsored by P-Town Tom over at Waiting til Next Year.

I was totally oblivious to this set until someone on Twitter mentioned a new lenticular card they had received in the mail. As soon as I saw it, I checked the Trading Card Database and discovered that Seattle had three players (Felix, Nelson Cruz and Dee Gordon) included in the 100-card set. A press run of 269 sets was surprisingly low in my opinion and, because I had decided to start a collection of one card from as many sets as possible, I decided I had best get over to eBay as quickly as possible.

The reason for choosing this as my favorite card of 2018 is purely nostalgic- it takes me back to my childhood. I ate a lot of cold cereal as a kid and those Kellogg’s cereal boxes from ’78 through ’83 provided me with my morning breakfast as well as a treasure trove of information on what was- and what will always be- my favorite sport.

When the card arrived with a rubber band holding it in the top loader, it was yet another reminder of my youth (although I always ran the rubber bands from side-to-side).

Now if only Felix could rediscover the stuff of his earlier years in the majors.

Mall Rats

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I called my daughter in to my office the other night, hoping it would be a surprise. Someone had tweeted a link to the Stranger Things Season 3 trailer and because she hadn’t mentioned it yet, I thought the video would be a source of excitement (it was). To call it a trailer is a bit of a misnomer, I suppose. The near-70 second clip was nothing more than a teaser that included the titles of each of the eight upcoming episodes, which are set in the Summer of 1985.


I was 15- going on 16- back in the summer of ’85 and while we didn’t hang out at the Karcher Mall much (certainly not enough to be called ‘mall rats’), my friends and I would usually make a weekly run to Musicland. Once we were finished browsing the aisle for tapes we would mosey on over to B. Dalton bookstore and check out the latest music rags: Rolling Stone, Circus, Hit Parader.

During one particular trip to the mall that summer we made our usual stops and strolled past the sports card shop. I wasn’t collecting at that point in my life (I had bought a couple of packs in 1984 and wouldn’t get back in to the hobby until 1991), but if I had been, I would have probably been scrambling to get Dale Murphy and Alvin Davis cards (and stickers!). Anyway, right as we were in front of the card shop, a female security guard passed us. My friend, Marc, couldn’t help himself. *makes a pig-like snorting sound*

The “mall cop” wasn’t going to be subjected to such treatment from a group of young smartasses. “Get out- right now!” she yelled, “and if I see you around here again I’ll arrest you for trespassing.” We were on our way out anyway, so we nodded and let her have her glory.


Unlike her old man, my daughter is respectful and far more mature than I was as a teen. I wish we shared an interest in sports and even in collecting sports cards. I did get her some of the Allen and Ginter mini Man’s Best Friend cards a few years ago. Perhaps Topps’ Stranger Things release would be something we could break together. From what I’ve seen online, it reminds me of the oddball stuff from the 80s. Yes, even a little reminiscent of the stickers Topps put out during the summer of 1985.

Stats

I seem to be in a funk. Ideas for blog posts come and I start the research, start the drafts- but then… I get stuck in the mire. So, instead of grounding into the shift, I think I’ll go oppo.


The Winter Meetings are taking place and, like most fans, I’ve been following my team, hoping some nice complimentary players are added to this rebuild that is taking place. Heading into 2019, my only expectations are 90+ losses.

One player I don’t expect to see traded is Kyle Seager. Unless he’s attached to Mitch Haniger in a deal (ala Robinson Cano), Kyle and his meager slash line isn’t going anywhere. It’s been quite the fall for the likable Seager, who’s two years removed from a career year, where he finished 12th in the MVP voting. Kyle’s precipitous fall can be attributed to The Shift.

According to to the 2019 Bill James Handbook, Seager faced the monster more than any other player last season and had the second-lowest average (.188). For the season, 70.4 percent of Kyle’s plate appearances came against a loaded right-side of the infield, costing him 19 hits (second in the league to Kole Calhoun’s 21). Understandably, Seager has lost patience at the plate and has begun to swing more often, registering the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate of his career in 2018. On grounders and short line-drives, he hit only .188. Two common suggestions to beat the shift, “go oppo” and “hit it over the shift” weren’t a part of Kyle’s plan at the plate: balls hit in play to the left side of the infield were the lowest of his career and he had the second fewest fly balls hit in his career. At this point, I don’t know if Seager will ever be a productive hitter again.


As a collector, I’ve been evaluating some different numbers with an eye towards 2019. These stats have to do with my run of Topps baseball sets. I’m currently working on a run of flagship sets dating back to 1976- my first year of buying packs. One of my new year’s resolutions is to finish off some of the sets and put big dents into the want lists of others.

1976 Topps: 587/660– 88.9% complete

1977 Topps: 638/660– 96.7%

1978 Topps: 715/726– 98.5%

1979 Topps: 668/726– 92%

1980 Topps: 706/726– 97.2%

1981 Topps: complete

1981 Topps Traded: 129/132– 97.7%

1982 Topps: 789/792– 99.6T

1982 Topps Traded: 127/132– 96.2%

1983 Topps 785/792– 99.1%

1983 Topps Traded: 19/132– 14.4%

1984 Topps: 785/792– 99.1%

1984 Topps Traded: 39/132– 29.5%

1985 Topps: complete

1985 Topps Traded: 29/132– 22%

1986 Topps: complete

1986 Topps Traded: 126/132– 95.5%

1987 Topps: complete

1987 Topps Traded: 27/132– 20.5%

1988 Topps & Topps Traded: complete

1989 Topps & Topps Traded: complete

1991 Topps & Topps Traded: complete

1992 Topps & Topps Traded: complete

1993 Topps: complete

1993 Topps Traded: 131/132– 99.2%

1994 Topps: complete

1994 Topps Traded: 131/132– 99.2%

1995 Topps: 588/660– 89.1%

1995 Topps Traded: 164/165– 99.4%

1996 Topps: 439/440– 99.8%

1997 Topps: 492/495– 99.4%

1998 Topps: 502/503– 99.8%

1999 Topps: complete

1999 Topps Traded: 119/121– 98.3%

2000 Topps: complete

2000 Topps Update: 134/15– 99.3%

2001 Topps: complete

2001 Topps Update: 215/265– 81.1%

2002 Topps: complete

2002 Topps Update: 130/275– 47.3%

2003 Topps: complete

2003 Topps Update: 274/275– 99.6%

2004 Topps: 605/732– 82.7%

2004 Topps Update: complete

2005 Topps: 0% Need Entire Set

2005 Topps Update: 260/330– 78.8%

2006 Topps: complete

2006 Topps Update: complete

2007 Topps: 0%– Need Entire Set

2007 Topps Update: 0%- Need Entire Set

2008 Topps: complete

2008 Topps Update: 329/330– 99.7%

2009 Topps: 659/660– 99.8%

2009 Topps Update: complete

2010 Topps & Topps Update: complete

2011 Topps: complete

2011 Topps Update: 329/330– 99.7%

2012 Topps and Topps Update: complete

2013 Topps and Topps Update: complete

2014 Topps: complete

2014 Topps Update: 311/330– 94.2%

2015 Topps and Topps Update: complete

2016 Topps: complete

2016 Topps Update: 297/300– 99.4%

2017 and 2018 Topps and Topps Update: complete

 

New Era

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I bought the card on a Sunday night and little did I know what the next few days would have in store for a franchise that has been bogged down in futility for the better part of four decades. By the time the card arrived five days later, two separate news stories about the Mariners had been reported- one, hinting at the new era that is about to begin; another, suggesting that perhaps a new era in organizational structure is needed.

A week prior to my purchase, photos of the signage at Safeco Field being taken down began surfacing online. Less than a week later, Forbes reported that the naming rights to the home of the Mariners was going to T-Mobile, prompting responses about the team already having bad Servais. While neither party has confirmed the report, it’s only a matter of time until a new partnership (whoever it may be with) is announced. After twenty years, it will be tough to refer to the ballpark as anything other than Safeco.

On Monday- the day after purchasing the Cano New Era card- Dr. Lorena Martin, former Director of High Performance (another source of online laughter) for the team, dropped a bombshell on her Instagram account, alleging sexist and racist remarks from GM Jerry Dipoto, manager Scott Servais and Director of Player Development Andy McKay. The organization was quick to deny all accusations and within a couple of days released a statement announcing that an internal investigation was conducted and that all of the accused were cleared of any wrongdoing. Even if Major League Baseball- which is currently conducting its own investigation- clears the three accused, the whole incident leaves the organization with a black eye. And, I might add, leaves questions about Dipoto’s judgement. The GM had loudly sung the praises of Dr. Martin upon her hiring and she didn’t even last twelve months in to a three year contract. For all the questions that remain, one thing is clear: the team had given Dr. Martin a number of responsibilities and, with little internal support, basically set her up for failure.


If those two bits of information don’t signal a new era, the player turnover the past three weeks certainly does. Mike Zunino- gone. James Paxton- gone. Edwin Diaz- gone. And, amazingly, Robinson Cano- gone. While I’ve long questioned Jerry Dipoto’s competency as GM, there is no doubt that he pulled off the unthinkable and was able to move Cano. And for that, I salute him.

So yes, a new era has arrived in Seattle. And yet it isn’t really anything new- just one more in a long line of disappointment for Mariners fans.

Tension

The 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot was released this week, headed by newcomers Mariano Rivera and the late Roy Hallady. Included on that list, of course, for the 10th and final time, is one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all-time, Edgar Martinez. Having received 70.4% of the vote last year, Edgar is considered a cinch by many experts to obtain the 75% needed for election. But this is the Mariners we’re talking about (well, an iconic Mariners player and coach) and we all know that the organization is star-crossed. The whole thing has me a bit anxious.

It seems like I’ve seen a number of collectors comment online about the struggles they’re having with their collection- namely, what do I want to collect? This tension is something I’ve been struggling with for months, for a number of reasons. The continuous run of Topps flagship sets- dating back to 1976 (my first year of buying packs)- is a given. Mariners stadium giveaway team sets and Topps Retail team sets is a given. After that, my mind has changed like the weather.

Part of that internal struggle is due to there always being that one card I have an interest in, but comes from a set that I don’t care to collect. And being a set/team set collector, I find it hard not wanting to put together the rest of the team set. The answer to this dilemma, I believe, is to start an Exemplar Collection- 1 card from each set. So now those cards with unique photos, ones with a story behind them etc. will how have a home in my collection.


It never really dawned on me.

With the focus of this card being Mariners legend Edgar Martinez, I simply never took the time to really examine the rest of the composition. Now that I think of it, it’s almost as if Edgar is as oblivious to the situation as I was at first.

In an interview conducted with CBSSports radio in St. Louis following the 2015 season, Andy Van Slyke (who served as outfielder instructor and first-base coach, as well as the assistant hitting coach under Howard Johnson, until the latter was fired) went off on Robinson Cano, no holds barred.

Blaming the Mariners second baseman for the lack of the team’s success, as well as for the firing of GM Jack Zduriencik, manager Lloyd McClendon and his coaching staff, Van Slyke had a number of harsh words for Cano, whose 2015 was a down season (to be fair, he had suffered from a hernia and was not good the first 3 months of the season):

  • Despite hitting in front of Nelson Cruz, whom AVS called the “most dominating hitter” he had ever seen over a four-month period, Robbie “had probably the worst single year of an every day player that I’ve ever seen in 20 years at the big league level”
  • When the radio host commented how it couldn’t be due to a lack of effort, Van Slyke replied, “He [tries] sometimes”
  • Cano was so bad during 2015 he couldn’t “drive home Miss Daisy if he tried”
  • Robbie played “the worst defense I’ve ever seen at second base”

Van Slyke finished slaying Cano by saying, “Robinson Cano cost the GM his job. The hitting coach got fired because of Cano. And the manager and coaches got fired because of Cano. That’s how much impact he has on the organization. He was the worst player and it cost people their jobs in the process.”

When asked whether the organization forced McClendon to fire Howard Johnson, Van Slyke responded by saying that Edgar wanted to get back into baseball and that a number of teams showing interest in him as their hitting coach. And because the offense struggled for a year, upper management had no choice but to bring him in as hitting coach because he’s Edgar Martinez. He even went as far as saying that Martinez “will have a job in Seattle as long as he’s breathing air because he’s Edgar Martinez.”


Perhaps I’m just reading the tea leaves here, but considering everything Van Slyke said in the interview, I can’t help but see tension when look at this card. It’s almost as if Andy is looking past Edgar, gazing at Cano with a look of frustration.