One of the very best parts of modern Spring Training is finally getting to see players in their uniforms after a winter full of trades and free agent signings.
Thanks to the internet and the thousands of television stations vying for our eyeballs, you can find pictures or even videos of just about any player you want in their updated togs within a matter of minutes or seconds.
But in the old days, when I was a kid, we had to wait …
Wait for local the 11-o’clock news, which might flash a few frames of the hometown team’s happenings in camp.
Wait for the Sunday newspaper, which might have a story or two about Spring Training.
Wait for the season to start, and the Game of the Week.
Wait for the new baseball cards.
Especially the new baseball cards.
For a kid growing up in the 1980s, there was no better or more readily source of diamond information than our baseball cards. And, at least for me, I usually saw a player in his new uniform first on a two-and-a-half-by-three-and-a-half hunk of cardboard.
Here in Day 19 of my 2019 Spring Training Baseball Card Challenge, though, I’m thinking about the tweeners. You know, those cards that purport to show a player in his new uniform but that do so through trickery.
Yes, I’m talking about airbrushed cards.
Now, there are plenty of famous airbrushed baseball cards that I could lambaste here … 1978 Topps Greg Minton comes to mind, as does 1971 Topps Dick Williams … and 1973 Topps Vincente Romo … and 1977 Topps Sal Bando … and ….
Well, there’s a bunch of them.
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My choice today, though, hits a little closer to home and has the distinction of falling very late in the “glory days” of airbrushed cards — it’s the 1988 Topps Traded Buddy Bell.
I always appreciated Buddy Bell as a player and thought he looked like a friendly sort of dude based on his cards with the Texas Rangers, which popped out of packs in the early-to-mid 80s on a fairly regular basis.
Then, the Reds traded for the third baseman in July of 1985, and he helped build them into a solid contender who finished second in the old National League West for four straight seasons.
In that fourth summer, though, June of 1988, general manager Murray Cook shipped Bell to the Houston Astros in exchange for Carl Grovom.
Um, yeah … second place, here we come!
Truth is, Bell was struggling pretty bad, even though he had hit 17 home runs the year before. But with Age 37 staring you in the face, you just don’t know when a slump is really The End.
And it was pretty much The End for Bell, who picked things up just a tad for the Astros that summer, then spent an abbreviated swan song back with the Rangers in 1989.
In between, though, there was the business of getting Bell on some Houston cardboard.
Fleer and Score did the prudent thing and waited until 1989, when Upper Deck joined the fray and changed the hobby forever with their little photographic masterpieces.
But Topps couldn’t resist going to their drawing board — or airbrushing board, as it were — to squeeze Bell into their 1988 Traded set.
And so it is that Buddy Bell found himself standing or sitting in front of some dark, weathered wooden background, smiling big like he always does — though maybe with a hint of discomfort. “You aren’t going to post this, right?”
Oh yeah, Buddy. They posted it.
But not before adding a hovering, gloppy, rainbow-y yet somehow midnight-y Astros hat and jersey over your noggin and chest.
It’s like Grandfather of Snapchat, except both much more glorious and much more horrendous.
And we were there to see it all.
Check out the entire series of 2019 Spring Training Challenge posts here.