(This is the 19th in our series of posts about the best baseball cards from the 1980s. Check out the rest of those posts here.)

Last year, when I chose the best baseball card from each year, the 1986 Topps Don Mattingly came out on top.

I recently posted a link to that article on Twitter, and one of my followers, @MSUBeastLansing, reminded me there were other great cards from 1986, even from that same Topps set:

Faced with this evidence, I was forced to reconsider (yes, again) my self-imposed restrictions for this series — limit the number of catchers, limit the number of Cincinnati Reds chief among them.

But this is a card I somehow haven’t seen often in my life, and it’s quite striking.

1986 Topps Bo Diaz

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Diaz has thrown off his mask and is knee-deep in a home-plate dustup as Tom Herr of the St. Louis Cardinals slides in feet-first. The bright red Cards and Reds helmets look almost identical to each other, since we can only see the backs, and you might think the two combatants toiled for the same team if not for Diaz’s slightly grayer uniform.

One of the great things about looking through old baseball cards in this electronic age of ours is that it usually takes only a few keystrokes to find out a whole lot more about what’s going on in the pictures that were such mysteries to us as children.

Now, if you’re the type who doesn’t want to see behind-the-scenes snippets from Star Wars because it will spoil the illusion, you should probably stop reading here.

But if you’re interested in the context of this Diaz-Herr play, I can provide some likely insight …

On September 4, 1985, the Reds were in St. Louis to take on the Cards at Busch Stadium in the last of a three-game set.

The Card were in first place in the NL East, and the Reds were fighting to stay in the NL West race. Their 69-61 record entering the game was a minor miracle compared to the mess they had been since 1982, but they needed help to catch the Dodgers.

They wouldn’t find that help in St. Louis.

After the Reds managed only a Max Venable single against Kurt Kepshire in the top of the first, the Cards loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom half of the frame.

Herr had provided a large helping of the early heroics, singling against Andy McGaffigan and then stealing second. Terry Pendleton singled to left to score Vince Coleman from third, and Herr decided it was worth the gamble to try and make it 2-0.

It didn’t pan out, because Venable’s throw found Diaz waiting right where he should be, and that’s where we come in with our 1986 Topps card.

Herr was out.

In the end, though, that one-run margin held up as the Cards won 3-2 on a Mike Jorgensen single to score Pendleton in the bottom of the ninth.

St. Louis, of course, went on to lose a controversial World Series to the Kansas City Royals, while the Reds made a late push but came up 5 1/2 games short in the division.

You couldn’t lay too much of the blame on Bo Diaz, though, as the veteran catcher hit .261 with three homers and 15 RBI after coming over from the Philadelphia Phillies on August 8.

Over the next few seasons, Diaz became one of my favorite Reds (which admittedly is a bit like “favorite cookie”), and it was sad when they didn’t re-sign him after the 1989 season.

1986 Topps Bo Diaz (back)

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Even sadder was that ugly day in 1990, just over a month after the Reds completed their World Series sweep of the mighty Oakland A’s, when I saw the news in the sports section.

On November 23, Diaz had been adjusting a large satellite dish on his roof at home in Venezuela when something went wrong — the apparatus slipped or shifted or just fell, and it crushed Diaz’s neck and skull, killing him instantly.

Knowing and remembering these dark details is one of the hardest parts of being a baseball fan, but that’s what happens when you are immersed in a team and in its players.

And it also makes the bright points so much sweeter and more poignant.

Bright points like the 1986 Topps Bo Diaz card, with a cameo by Tommy Herr — it’s the best the set has to offer.

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(This is the 19th in our series of posts about the best baseball cards from the 1980s. Check out the rest of those posts here.)

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