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Welcome, THB Class of 2006

Truly veteran readers of this blog may recall last year’s incarnation of this post [1], and so know that THB stands for “The Holy Books.” In which case your geek-proximity alarms just went off and you’re backing slowly away.

Everybody else, here’s a quick refresher: I have a pair of binders, dubbed The Holy Books by Greg, that contain a baseball card for every Met on the all-time roster. They’re ordered by year, with a card for each player who made his Met debut that year: Tom Seaver is Class of ’67, Mike Piazza is Class of ’98, Jose Reyes is Class of ’03, etc. There are extra pages for the rosters of the two World Series winners, including managers, and for the 1961 Expansion Draft, with the latter including the only man to appear in THB who neither played for nor managed the Mets. (Answer at the bottom.)

When a player has a Topps card as a Met, I use that unless it’s truly horrible — Topps has been around a decade longer than the Mets, so they get to be the card of record. No Met Topps card? Then I look for a Tides card, a non-Topps Met card (Upper Deck gets too excited about rookies, which is good for THB), a Topps non-Met card, or anything.

Topps had a baseball-card monopoly until 1981, and minor-league cards only really began in the mid-1970s, so cup-of-coffee guys from before ’75 or so are a problem. Companies like TCMA and Renata Galasso made odd sets with players from the 1960s — come on down, Jim Bethke, Bob Moorhead and Dave Eilers! A card dealer named Larry Fritsch put out sets of “One Year Winners” spotlighting players with mayfly careers: Welcome to the books, Ray Daviault, Ted Schreiber and Dennis Musgraves!

But even those efforts don’t cover everybody. Brian Ostrosser got a 1975 minor-league card as an Oklahoma City 89er that looks like the intern made it with a photocopier. Leon Brown got one of those (1975 Phoenix Giants) and an Omaha Royals card issued by the police department (yes really) that was equally bad and printed in a nonstandard size to boot. But they’re lucky compared with seven Mets — Al Schmelz, Francisco Estrada, Lute Barnes, Tommy Moore, Bob Rauch, Greg Harts and Rich Puig — who have no cards whatsoever. (Greg thinks Tommy Moore’s 1990 Senior League card with the Bradenton Explorers should count, and maybe it should.) In fact Al Schmelz — whose name is apparently German shorthand for “aluminum smelter” — never even had a decent color photograph taken while wearing his Met uniform. Believe me, I’ve looked — I even wrote to him to ask. (He ignored me. I’d have ignored me too.) Those seven plus Ostrosser and Brown are the legendary Lost Nine. Who aren’t really lost, but whose existence in THB depends on scrounged photos and my touch-and-go Photoshop skills.

Today’s Schmelzes and Puigs don’t fall through the gaps: Between the various big-league sets and innumerable minor-league team sets, most any player who signs a pro contract has a card somewhere. As THB keeper, during the season I scrutinize new card sets in hopes of finding a) better cards of established Mets; b) cards to stockpile for prospects who might make the Show; and most importantly c) a card for each new big-league Met. At season’s end, the new guys get added to the binders, to be studied now and then until February. When it’s time to pull old Topps cards of the spring-training invitees and start the cycle again.

For anyone who didn’t have the crap scared out of them by that admission, here’s the Class of 2006, THB-style, in order of matriculation….

Paul Lo Duca — Today Lo Duca is beloved by us for his grit, smarts, blunt interviews and general pissiness. A year ago, he was the guy looking possessed at the Christmas party/Anna Benson Farewell whom few of us thought had the skills to be a No. 2 hitter. But he did have a 2006 Met card. For decades Topps has used graphics trickery to put guys in new uniforms, but the trickery didn’t used to be so tricky. In the 1960s traded players were recognizable because their cards were head shots without caps, and in the 1970s they were notable because they looked like people sticking their heads through backdrops at state fairs — if those backdrops had been painted by prisoners with only a nodding acquaintance with baseball-team logos and their proper place on caps. Today things are better: Lo Duca’s Topps ’06 card shows him in Marlins road gear, mask on, standing and ready to throw. Tweak colors in Photoshop and stick the slightest hint of a K under the chest protector and he looks like a Met all right. Unfortunately, this passable Lo Duca card meant he didn’t get a new one in the Updates set. With any luck, next year he’ll no longer be an anonymous catcher in a Marlin uniform.

Carlos Delgado — More Topps Photoshop trickery gave Delgado a fairly convincing Met card last winter, the illusion betrayed only by the impossibility of a photo existing of Delgado batting in our pinstripes, particularly with a background of Marlins in their home unis. Incidentally, when a new Met hits the roster, I also pull all their Topps cards and stash them in a box. (Why yes, there is more geekiness.) I’ve got every regular-issue Topps card since ’91, so this is normally no big deal. But there are prospect cards that can have two, three or even four players — and over time it’s inevitable that multiple prospects from a single card become Mets, forcing me to go buy another copy of that card. I mention this because Carlos Delgado shares his 1993 TOP PROSPECTS: CATCHERS rookie card with Mike Piazza, momentary Met Brook Fordyce and a ’92 Yankee draft pick named Donnie Leshnock. Having acquired this card for a third time in ’06, I’d like to ask Omar Minaya to just go ahead, sign Donnie Leshnock and let him catch an inning.

Xavier Nady — Alas, poor X. He was never quite as good as we thought he could be, but his exile to Pittsburgh seemed cruel when the rest of the Met pen stepped up and made adding another reliever (at the time an utterly defensible move) look unnecessary. X got a nice card from Upper Deck showing him slapping hands after a victory. He didn’t get to do that much as a Pirate.

Jose Valentin — Think Move X by General Manager Y is ridiculous? Before you call sports radio, think of Stache’s 2006 campaign. Nobody on God’s green earth liked bringing Valentin aboard in February, March or April. If any of us had been GM for a day then, we’d have pink-slipped Stache before you could say “Gerald Williams.” So this winter Omar of course went for double or nothing. Back when I was still calling him John, Jose got a Topps rarity for ’06: a Met wrapper around a photo of him in Dodgers garb. Yecch. I went with an Upper Deck card showing him in the proper uniform — unfortunately, it’s a horizontal card. Yecch. To be put right in ’07, one hopes.

Julio Franco — Having every Topps card back to ’91 means even adding veterans to the Box o’ Mets is no big deal. Except Julio Franco’s first Topps card came in 1984, when I was 15 years old and just three years removed from collecting cards as an actual child. Julio’s ’06 Topps Series 2 card shows him in those strikingly awful St. Lucie black/blue/orange togs — a common fate for players in their first year with new teams. He looks competent and old. In other words, he looks like Julio Franco.

Billy Wagner — Wags also came with a well-faked ’06 Topps Met card, in full Mets pinstripes hurling a pitch. Show-offy of Topps.

Brian Bannister — In the minor leagues he looked like a gutty control artist. In the majors he issued an ungodly number of walks but somehow Houdini’ed his way out of mess after mess, only to be felled by his own baserunning. It would have been interesting to see what 2007 would have revealed: Rick Reed or Rick Baldwin. Now it’s up to the Royals to find out. Bannister goes into the THB (probably for keeps) with a decent, no-frills portrait from Topps’ ’06 Rookie Debut insert set.

Duaner Sanchez — Middle relievers are the bane of THB. Nobody says a LOOGY or a seventh-inning specialist is their favorite player, so they stay stuck in card limbo with backup catchers and pinch hitters. Duaner’s flamboyant ways and great numbers earned him a card in Topps’ second series, which made me happy — until the card appeared and it was a shot of Sanchez without his goggles. Or at least I assume that’s who it was, because I couldn’t pick a goggleless Duaner Sanchez out of a police lineup. Upper Deck came to the rescue with a goggles-and-all card.

Jorge Julio — Looked so much like Armando Benitez that he got booed when introduced on Opening Day, never having thrown a regular-season pitch as a Met. Those of you who loathe Met fans’ predilection for abuse, that will serve as a trump card for at least three or four years. Went into THB with an Upper Deck card in a Met uniform.

Chad Bradford — Sad he’s gone, but the Orioles are insane to give any setup guy a three-year deal. Upper Deck’s card captures his submarine, knuckle-scraping delivery perfectly. Just looking at the position Bradford’s in will give you back pain.

Endy Chavez — Got a Met card in Topps Updates. And a highlights card of that play where he…well, you know. Really, The Catch should just be his baseball card for the rest of his career.

Darren Oliver — Another exhibit in the Trust Omar Hall of Fame. Good, solid Upper Deck card in a Met uni.

John Maine — For a while it looked like he’d get stuck with half of an old Orioles prospect card. But then he survived a finger injury, his own anonymity, Met indifference and gopher balls to push his way into the rotation and record the last Met W of 2006. Topps honored him with a card in the Updates set, showing him pitching in spring-training garb. Which I guess proves he really did pitch in spring training.

Jose Lima — A Tides card. What is this doing here? Jose Lima never pitched for the Mets. What’s that? No, he didn’t. No, I won’t look it up. He didn’t. I’m not listening to you.

Jeremi Gonzalez — 2004 Topps card in the uniform of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. There’s a joke in there somewhere. Unfortunately, it was on us.

Alay Soler — Sent collectors into paroxysms when Topps slipped a last-minute card of him into Series 2 with the odd number RC1, no place on the checklist, and mysterious rumors that less than 1,000 had been printed. I got in early and paid only a moderately absurd amount of money for mine. THB uses an Upper Deck card in which he’s wearing spring-training colors and looks like he doesn’t want to throw this next pitch. Sad to say, that’s probably the right card for him.

Orlando Hernandez — Jorge Julio got a Topps Updates card as a Diamondback, but El Duque didn’t get one as a Met. Bizarre. For now he’s a 2006 Topps Diamondback. In some parallel universe’s Faith and Fear in Flushing, I’m explaining how I broke my own rule and used his 2006 World Series Game 1 Highlights card as his regular card, because when a guy comes back after a leg injury like that, shuts out the Tigers and sets the tone for our third title, you have to honor it.

(I’m going to go off and stare at the wall for a while.)

Lastings Milledge — Got a whole string of cards from Topps, which loves hometown rookies. I chose his oddball Mets team-set card, which shows him digging for third with ambitions about the plate. As opposed to, say, a card of him falling down at Fenway or looking at the latest sign some veteran has hung in his locker. Patience, folks. He’s still a baby and very talented. I will now flip back to my THB card for Alex Escobar and scream “NO JINX! NO JINX!” (By the way, Alex Escobar looks like the next Albert Pujols on his 2001 Topps Mets card. NO JINX!)

Eli Marrero — 2005 Topps, Kansas City Royals. Hey, they had to make some Royals.

Henry Owens — Former catcher, late bloomer, studying to be a doctor, Lo Duca carried his bags in during spring training. Divine numbers in AA. Rather back-to-earth numbers in the Show. The Marlins agreed he was an interesting story. Bowman 2006 card, looks like a spring-training shot.

Mike Pelfrey — 2006 Bowman Draft Picks card, shows him at an actual start at Shea, looking determined and very tall. Calls him Michael Pelfrey. In a few years this could look oddly formal and force me to recall that Mike Pelfrey was just a raw kid then, not a household name. Or I might find it bitterly amusing that I ever thought anyone would care what first name appeared on one of the few Mike Pelfrey baseball cards.

Ricky Ledee — 2005 Topps, a Dodger card. I don’t like other teams’ uniforms in THB, but sometimes I wind up hoping things don’t change: Because for there to be a 2007 Met card of Ricky Ledee, Ricky Ledee would have to be a 2007 Met. See also: Offerman, Jose.

Michael Tucker — Tides card. The box seats behind Tucker are nearly empty. No wait, there’s a man applauding wildly. He’s wearing an I LOVE MICHAEL t-shirt and a Braves cap. Hey, it’s Angel Hernandez! Christ do I hate Michael Tucker.

Dave Williams — Tides card, possibly to be rectified in 2007.

Guillermo Mota — A Met card from Topps Updates, rather improbably. From the grip, looks like he’s throwing a change-up. Obviously this is not the fucking pitch he fucking threw to Scott Fucking Spiezio.

Shawn Green — A legit Met card from Topps Updates. Man does his swing look long. Trust Omar. Trust Omar. Trust Omar. Trust Omar….

Oliver Perez — No matter what he does, I’ll have a soft spot in my heart for him for being about as good as any Met fan could possibly hope in Game 7. 2006 Topps Updates card.

Philip Humber — A surprise as the final Met of 2006 (and the 799th all-time) and a surprise as a baseball card. Turns out he was featured on some random insert card stuck into a 2005 Topps factory set, photo taken before the injury that made us wonder if we’d ever see him again. Here’s hoping we do, in cardboard and as part of the starting rotation.

* Oh yeah, the answer. Lee Walls was drafted by the Mets on October 10, 1961 and traded (with $100,000) to the Dodgers on Dec. 15 for Charlie Neal and a player to be named later, who turned out to be Willard Hunter. You could look it up [2].