Chuck Cottier is confused.
Well, not now, maybe. Probably not now.
He’s too busy these days being one of baseball’s elder statesmen and wrapping tales about his historic professional debut — and his historic Major League debut — around the hours he spends as a consultant with the Washington Nationals.
But on his 1986 Topps baseball card, Chuck Cottier is confused.
I mean, he looks like maybe a Seattle seagull just dropped its load a few feet from his head, and Chuck is still in the middle of, um, digesting that fact.
Or maybe like he just got dropped into the pilot’s seat for a team that had never posted a winning season and wouldn’t for another five years.
How did I get here?
… and …
You expect what?
Take a look at the card and you’ll see what I mean …
And why wouldn’t Cottier have a bewildered look on his face?
After all, he was a baseball lifer who began his pro journey in 1954 and didn’t stop until his Achilles blew in 1969.
Even then, he was only just beginning … beginning his minor league managerial climb in 1971, that is.
By 1982, he had made his way back to the Majors, this time as the third base coach for the Seattle Mariners, an expansion team in 1977 (along with the Toronto Blue Jays).
The M’s had been bad — really bad — during their entire run up to that point, but manager Rene Lachemann ratcheted them up to a 74-88 record in ’82, something of a minor miracle.
Especially considering that they catapulted to fourth place in the old American League West.
But baseball miracles have a way of fading, and 1983 was a disaster in the Pacific Northwest. Despite hopes for further improvement entering the season, Seattle crashed to a 60-102 record, and Del Crandall stepped in for Lachemann when the skipper was fired.
A little over a year later, Crandall’s crew stood at 59-76 when he, too, got the ax. But who was on-hand, available to guide the team for the rest of the season?
Yep, that would have been Chuck Cottier, finally getting his first shot a Big League job.
He and his charges made the most of it, too, “streaking” to 15-12 down the stretch, and Seattle retained Cottier for 1985.
Despite all the losing, it was an exciting time for the Mariners, due largely to a crop of youngsters that included 1984 AL Rookie of the Year Alvin Davis, hotshot pitching prospect Mark Langston, and a bevy of others, like Harold Reynolds, Mike Moore, Phil Bradley, Jim Presley, Spike Owen, and a still-developing Dave Henderson.
Results on the field were almost identical in 1985 and 1984, though — a 74-88 record both years, a fifth-place finish in ’84, sixth in ’85.
But spirits remained somewhat high, and Cottier remained at the helm, even though you know he was starting to feel some pressure.
We’ve got all this young talent. Our record should be improving. Something better move, big-time, in 1986, or …
And that’s pretty much the environment Cottier found himself in as the new season dawned and the new baseball cards debuted.
Am I supposed to be winning or developing the young players? Or … both? Oh (gull) crap.
The overall result was a 67-95, last-place finish.
Williams never turned Seattle into a juggernaut, either, and was fired just 56 games into the 1988 season, a fact which might have provided Cottier with some cold comfort were he as shallow as I am. But he’s probably not.
And cold comfort — probably cold, confusing comfort — is a good way to describe the place that 1986 Topps card of Cottier’s occupies for collectors of the day.
See, like the Mariners, we entered the new season flush with hope and excitement.
The game was teeming with budding superstars, and every new baseball card set was bursting at the seams with rookie cards that would — now or someday soon — be worth a lot of money.
Every wax pack was like playing a lottery where the odds were stacked in your favor.
The 1986s looked to hold a lot of promise, too, with names like Jose Canseco, Paul O’Neill, Kal Daniels, Cecil Fielder, Fred McGriff, and others sparking Cooperstown visions before any of them had done much of anything on the field.
So, we tore into those new packs like gangbusters and stashed away our RC treasures as they emerged, certain that we’d be awash in riches by summer.
Well, it turned out that Topps wasn’t much into speculation in those days. Sure, we had been treated to Eric Davis and Roger Clemens cards in 1985, but that’s because those guys were rookies the year before, along with Alvin Davis and Gooden.
The relative weakness of (Eric) Davis’s and Clemens’s freshman campaigns, along with the dazzle of the others, made it feel like they were new discoveries, but Topps was already well-acquainted with them.
Very little dazzle at the top provided scant little hiding place for first-year players who were just getting their feet under them.
And that left us with a Topps set that had to lean on Coleman, Guillen, and Fielder as its top RCs. Considering that Cecil was still a few years from glory, it was not an awe-inspiring group.
Don’t get me wrong — some of those guys turned in fine careers, and the Mets duo made some waves en route to a World Series championship that year, but there was no one who really tweaked our imaginations.
Spark plugs, fire hydrants, relief pitchers, and good-glove-no-hit dudes have never moved the cardboard needle much.
We were left, then, to get our speculative jollies with Fleer and Donruss, and Canseco’s power exploits that summer helped elevate those sets above their staid and steady competitor.
But as prices for Fleer and Donruss rose, and as the supply of those issues seemed to dry up, collectors — especially kids — had to turn to our old standby.
And, like a trusted friend, or Mom and Dad after you’ve spiked the ball of life in their faces only to find out that you’re young and clueless, Topps was there to welcome us back with open (if waxy) arms.
So we ripped pack after pack of those black-and-white-bordered, mushy-brown-stocked cards and cursed their sameness while reveling in their reliability.
Even among the Big Constant that was 1986 Topps, there were certain cards that were even more constant than others. I pulled the Chris Pittaro card from roughly one out of every three packs that summer, for instance.
Another collector recently told me that — yes — Chuck Cottier was a card that eluded him for the longest time as he tried to complete his ’86 Topps set.
The last card he needed to finish the thing, in fact.
Strange how these things work, because , I had (have) plenty of the Cottier pasteboards — but not enough Wayne Krenchickis.
You know what, though? I appreciated Pittaro … and Cottier.
It was comforting to see a familiar face in a world of change, even if that face was slightly confused, and maybe slight confusing.
Yep, him again. And, should you happen onto a 1986 Topps Chuck Cottier card anytime soon, just enjoy that confusing comfort.
Because, just a few short years later, Cardboard Chuck had totally and utterly had enough of your crap …
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