What’s in the Cards? A Random Journey through Baseball

“The Phillies and the Rays are the two most random teams to be in the World Series!”

That was what a girl in my intermediate high school Spanish blurted out after “la pelota” came up in the lesson. This was not a very smart thing for her to say, not only because she lost participation points for using English, but also because the Phillies and Rays being in the World Series wasn’t random at all. Rather, it was the result of a structured selection process that involved skill, strategy, and… okay, yeah, some luck. But what she meant was that, to her sabermetrically challenged and New York-centric brain, it was hard to imagine anyone other than the Yankees or Mets being there. Improbable, maybe, or surprising, but not random.

But you know what is random? The contents of baseball card packs. I assume so, anyway. I don’t know much about cards, but I doubt there’s a guy sitting in the Topps factory, watching the assembly line creak along, and inspecting each stack before it’s foiled and boxed.

“A Mike Trout and a Billy Hamilton rookie card? Not so fast. Hey Toby, pass me an Ivan Nova and a Mr. Met!”

Theoretically, you could get the entire NL All-Star starting lineup in your pack if you were sufficiently lucky. It might require a few million purchases, but with a little effort you could get it done before the Cubs’ next World Series appearance.

There isn’t enough data to establish a pattern, but based on my prior habits, I should be expected to purchase baseball cards once every 13 or 14 years. I remember sitting in the back seat of the family Nissan, cards and their ripped packaging strewn from window to window. Some tumbled underneath the front seats, where they would stay for the rest of the car’s natural life. This was where I learned that Lenny Harris was a great pinch hitter, that Robinson Cancel was the “next big thing” for the Brewers at catcher (this didn’t exactly come to pass, and Cancel is notable only for having a nine-year gap between his first and second MLB seasons), and that being named Woody was just a small part of why Woody Williams was worth rooting for.

The cards are long gone, probably several yard sales removed from their original owner. This sounds like the perfect setup for a column about how I miss my cards and how future generations are going to be deprived of the magic of baseball cards thanks to their computers and iPods and magic porn machines, right? No. I do not wish to inflict any of that on the world. The good news is that baseball cards are alive and well, and are on the shelves of at least one grocery store in the United States. And I bought some!

At this point in our journey you might be compelled to ask me, “Dustin, why would you buy a pack of baseball cards when you can look up anything you could possibly want to know about baseball for free?” The appeal of baseball cards goes back to randomness. It’s like listening to the radio. I carry my favorite music around in my pocket, but the possibilities are predictable and finite. Sometimes I’ll still listen to FM radio, because despite its tendencies to turn phone numbers into songs and ambush me with Miley Cyrus or Foreigner at any time, it’s unpredictable, and holds the promise of a new musical discovery that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. Maybe a pack of baseball cards will teach me a fun fact that I never would’ve thought to Google, or maybe I’ll be introduced to a player I hadn’t even heard of. So now, without further Steve Trachseling, we’re at the point in our random baseball journey where I tell you if any of those things happened. (Note: uninteresting cards have been omitted from this journey. If you care to test your mental health by reading a paragraph about Andre Rienzo, I will write one just for you and send it to you in an e-mail).

Card #1: Seth Smith


A good one right out of the gate. I’ll forgive the fact that, although these are 2014 cards, Smith is depicted as an Oakland A (he was traded to the Padres in December of last year). Sure, Smith is not a household name (except in the household of Bob and Judy Smith), and he’s never reached 500 at-bats in a season, but he’s a solid performer against right-handed pitching. Plus, as the card notes, he leads MLB pinch hitters with a .315 career average, distinguishing himself as a rare player who performs better in a pinch than in the starting lineup. Smith dropped off a bit the last couple years, but his 2014 with San Diego has been a rebirth. He’s on pace for his highest batting average ever, and his highest OPS since 2009. He was also a backup quarterback at Ole Miss but never actually played, because some jerk named Eli Manning decided to hog all the snaps.

How do I feel about this card? I shall treasure it for at least a few days!

Card #2: Justin Ruggiano


After sorting past Dan Straily and Hector Santiago, I found another interesting player in Ruggiano. Part of the reason he intrigues me is that he’s one of the few remaining veterans of the Devil Rays era in Tampa Bay. Or maybe, like Seth Smith, he taps into my heretofore unrealized love of Southern corner outfielders born in 1982. Also like Smith, Ruggiano changed teams this offseason, moving from the bad-last-year-but-now-first-place-somehow Marlins to the bad-last-year-and-bad-always Chicago Cubs. Their 2014 stat lines are where Ruggiano and Smith finally start to diverge; Justin went just 5-for-39 before being placed on the DL April 24 following a hamstring injury suffered in left field.

How do I feel about this card? Meh, having a former Devil Ray is nice, but I wish I could’ve gone all-in with someone like Dewon Brazleton.

Card #3: Matt Harvey


Here’s the undisputed ace of the deck. Since Tommy John surgery has snatched Harvey’s brilliance away from baseball fans for the duration of the 2014 season, it’s nice to be reminded of him, and to remember that the Mets actually have non-awful pitchers not named Jeurys Familia. Harvey boasts a sub-1.00 WHIP for his career, and although two abbreviated seasons of work don’t leave a lot of numbers ripe for the crunching, Harvey seems poised for a decade or so of great pitching, provided his right arm decides to stay loyal to its master.

How do I feel about this card? I like it! It might be worth something someday, if I keep it unbent and free of Oreo stains (not likely).

Card #4: Chia-Jen Lo


Remember how I said the radio could help me discover songs and artists I knew absolutely nothing about, or had even heard of? Nothing illustrates baseball cards’ radio-like qualities better than this Chia-Jen Lo rookie card. I guess I should forgive myself for not knowing a late-season addition to the league’s worst team, but I feel like this 28-year-old Taiwanese pitcher with a 2.18 career ERA in the minors should’ve at least been on my radar. Lo is back in Houston’s minor league system to start 2014, where he has a 2.87 ERA but a 1.65 WHIP. But given the limited requirements for being a pitcher on the Astros’ roster (bipedalism), it wouldn’t surprise me to see Lo in Houston’s snazzy blue-and-orange uniforms soon, where he’ll go something like 0-6 with a 0.92 ERA and a million strikeouts.

How do I feel about this card? The jury’s going to be out for a while, but I’m optimistic.