Has there ever been a baseball card that better demonstrated how collectors felt about a player, and at least how we perceived that player felt about the game, than the 1990 Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr.?

Here, take a gander in case you’ve forgotten that one (#156):

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A year after christening Upper Deck’s monumental inaugural 1989 set, Griffey was back, but with an entirely different status within the game, and within the hobby.

Sure, Griffey had been about as hyped as a 19-year-old could be entering his rookie season (1989) with the Seattle Mariners, thanks to …

  1. A stellar high school career that led to …
  2. The number-one overall selection in the 1987 MLB Draft.
  3. A quick rise from Low-A to Double-A in 1987 and 1988.
  4. His baseball pedigree — being the son and namesake of a Big Red Machine cog is definitely not nothing when it comes to building expectations.

But, even with all that, Junior was still largely unproven, and there was no guarantee he’d make it to the majors, let alone stick, in that summer of ‘89.

And there was all sorts of skepticism about Upper Deck that first year …

Too expensive.

Too gimmicky.

Too expensive.

Too late — we don’t need yet another new set.

Too expensive.

And yet, even grizzled and grouchy old hobby men had to admit there was something special — magical, even? — about that marriage of The Kid who might be the next Willie Mays, or who might be the next Joe Charboneau, with the prettiest card in the land … and the first of those pretty cards, to boot.

Griffey made the M’s Opening Day lineup and pretty much stayed there all season.

The numbers were just OK, but still promising for one so young — .264, 16 home runs, 61 RBI, 16 stolen bases.

That line was sapped by a July, um, shower-related incident that left him on the disabled list.

Still, Griffey landed third in voting for the American League Rookie of the Year Award, behind hurlers Gregg Olson and Tom Gordon.

The Mariners’ young hope smiled through it all, at least as far as we could tell from the outside, and I’ll be darned if that grin on his 1989 UD rookie card didn’t seem to spread the more we saw Griffey play, and the more we realized just how much grace and joy he brought to the diamond.

Along the way, collectors warmed to Upper Deck, $1+ per-pack price tag and all, marveling at just how good they were and, most of all, at their foresight in slotting smiling Griffey at card #1 of their first set.

And, so the mental images were set in place, and then embellished by Junior’s promising debut … by his joie de jouer … by UDs’ growing hobby profile.

Ken Griffey, Jr., was baseball sunshine.

Upper Deck was where Junior cards lived.

By association, Upper Deck was where hobby sunshine lived.

And they reinforced that idea early in 1990 when that beaming Griffey card up there splashed across ads throughout the hobby, and in the mainstream.

The future was sunny for Upper Deck … for The Kid … and for hobbyists, by implication.

Heck, the theme even carried over to the back of the card.

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Now, all these years on, we know that UD ran into some problems and, especially, some fierce competition.

We know that Junior lost some primetime limelight to the Home Run Diaries of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

He lost some of that glow, too, especially during his “homecoming” to Cincinnati.

But, even today, if you want a pure shot of baseball and baseball card joy, you won’t find a much better elixir than the 1990 Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr., card.

It’s a ray of Spring Training sunshine and hope, right in the palm of your hand.

1990 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr #156 Mariners (B) M626

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1990 Upper Deck #563 Randy Johnson PSA 10 Gem Mint HOF

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1990 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr #156 Mariners (A) M626

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1990 Upper Deck #24 Ken Griffey Jr.

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