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If there was a single trend that defined baseball cards and the hobby in the 1980s, it was the explosion of the rookie card.

We began the decade with the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle (not-really-a) rookie card stirring long-dormant poetry in the hearts of thickening and balding Baby Boomers, and we ended it drooling over the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr., (true) rookie card.

In between, the 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly rookie lit the hobby on fire and stoked our imaginations … how great would Mattingly become? How high would his card prices rise?

That same year, Donruss rolled out an innovation they called “Rated Rookies” that really wasn’t an innovation at all. Borrowing from Topps’ old “Future Stars” and “Rookie Catchers” concepts, Rated Rookies was Donruss’s attempt to let collectors know which young players were really going to be something, someday.

And, of course, to cash in on the burgeoning rookie card craze as best they could.

1986 Donruss Jose Canseco

Through the years, Donruss Rated Rookies gave us gems like this 1986 mugshot of Jose Canseco with his puberty ‘stache and a still teen-greasy Greg Maddux the next year.

But not all of Donruss picks made it big.

In fact, some of them were pretty much busts.

Just like big brother Topps!

The great thing about busts, though, is that they are often more fun to rehash than the guys who became great.

So, if you’re ready for some Rated Rookies fun, here are Donruss’s 10 worst picks, one for each year from 1984 through 1993.

Sit back and enjoy the show, because these are some great cards … just don’t expect much in the way of gaudy stats or resale value …

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1984 Donruss Rated Rookies

1984 Donruss Rated Rookies Chris Smith

The hobby was really just starting to pick up steam when the first Donruss cards of 1984 rolled off the press, and there wasn’t nearly the amount of pre-release information available as there would be even a few years later.

So, for many collectors, the “Rated Rookie” logo that appeared on some of the cards sliding out of our wax packs was confusing.

Rated by whom?

Rated on what scale? And where were the scores, the ratings themselves? Certainly not on the cards anywhere that I could find.

Still …

These were rookie cards … they said so right there on the obverses.

And they were rated, somehow, which seemed like it had to be better than not being rated.

So, we definitely wanted these babies, and the inclusion of Kevin McReynolds gave the subset a gravitas it might not have had otherwise. Even in those prehistoric days, McReynolds had received plenty of advance press, and we all knew — knew — he was going to be a huge power hitter.

When you looked at Tim Teufel or Dion James or Mike Stenhouse, and he had the same waving RATED ROOKIE banner that Kevin Mac had … well … you knew you were looking at another special player. A future star, even.

Donruss did pretty well with their picks, too. I mean look at the RRs from that first group who would eventually go on to be All-Stars:

That’s a pretty solid list, even if McReynolds is a notable exclusion. To be fair, he did bang 211 home runs in a 12-year career and finished third (behind Kirk Gibson and Darryl Strawberry) in the 1988 National League Most Valuable Player vote.

So Donruss didn’t really whiff on him.

Also missing from that All-Star list is Chris Smith.

By the time Smith was a Rated Rookie, he had appeared in 31 games for the Montreal Expos and San Francisco Giants over the course of three seasons (1981-1983). He was also 26 years old and, despite a solid .328/.403/.493 for San Fran at the end of 1983, Smith never appeared in another Big League game.

He is our “winner” here in this inaugural version of Rated Rookies.

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1985 Donruss Rated Rookies

1985 Donruss Rated Rookies Russ Stephans

By the time Donruss went all 1971 with their black-bordered 1985 set, collectors were getting the hang of this Rated Rookies thing.

We were ready.

And Donruss rewarded us with solid guys like Danny Tartabull, Larry Sheets, Calvin Schiraldi, and Shawon Dunston.

They all had some degree of success in the Major Leagues.

Donruss also rewarded us with Russ Stephans, a 26-year-old catcher in the Kansas City Royals farm system. He had spent five years working his way toward the Majors, landing with the Triple-A Omaha Royals in 1983.

Unfortunately, he would stay in Omaha through 1986 without ever tasting the Bigs.

That’s a whiff-winner on Donruss’s part if you’re scoring along.

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1986 Donruss Rated Rookies

1986 Donruss Rated Rookies Dave Shipanoff

The 1986 Rated Rookies subset is the one that really put the brand on the map thanks to a slew of sluggers: Fred McGriff, Cory Snyder, Andres Galarraga, Paul O’Neill (slugger light), Danny Tartabull (again), and (of course) Jose Canseco.

Snuggled in there among all the bash muscle was 23-year-old Chicago Cubs pitching prospect Johnny Abrego, who made six appearances on the North Side in 1985 but would never return to the Majors.

Dave Shipanoff nearly mirrored Abrego, as the rightly logged 26 appearances with the Philadelphia Phillies in his only Major League action in 1985

Shipanoff gets the nod here since he was already 26 by the time his RR card made it to collectors.

And, more deliciously, because his name sounds an awful lot like “ship ‘im off,” which is exactly what the Phils did after 1985, Donruss’s mysterious rating system be darned.

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1987 Donruss Rated Rookies

1987 Donruss Leaf Rated Rookies Bruce Fields

Card #46 of the 1987 Donruss set was the Mark McGwire Rated Rookie and, as Big Mac heated up that summer, his RR climbed through the stratosphere.

He dragged the rest of the subset along with him, and soon collectors were stockpiling guys like Pat Dodson, Jerry Browne, and Duane Ward.

While those players never developed into superstars, Donruss did alright for itself that year.

In addition to McGwire, Donruss hit it big with Rafael Palmeiro, Greg Maddux, Benito Santiago (who was revered for awhile), and slightly lesser lights like B.J. Surhoff, Terry Steinbach, and Randy Myers.

Then you had Ken Gerhart, who was nearly 26 years old when his Rated Rookie hit the hobby and who lasted just through 1988 — in a part-time role with the Baltimore Orioles — before disappearing from the Majors. He did smack 14 bombs in 1987 and 24 overall, though.

And then you also had Bruce Fields, an outfielder and pinch-hitter for the Detroit Tigers who was already 26 years old in the spring of 1987. Although Fields played in 16 games for the Bengals in 1986, he was a MLB no-show in 1987. He did make it back to the Majors for a total of 42 games with the Seattle Mariners in 1988 and 1989, but that was the end.

For his diminutive career totals — 31 hits in 58 games — and for his disappearing act the year his RR was released, Fields is our guy here.

(And, yes, that’s a Leaf card up there, but Donruss didn’t get it any more right with their Canadian version than they did in the States.)

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1988 Donruss Rated Rookies

1988 Donruss Rated Rookies Shawn Abner

The 1988 Donruss set was no fun, really.

First, they had those funky blue-red-black-white-undulating borders that just made/make you feel sad in the worst 1980s sort of way.

Then, they coupled that design with cardstock they made from the pages of discarded Bibles.

Happy with their handiwork, Donruss proceeded to produce enough of each 1988 card to fill the entire Astrodome and even build a little flag on top.

And, on top of all that, they sort of aced their Rated Rookie list, in the most boring of ways.

Here are the dudes on that checklist:

Alomar was great, a Hall of Famer.

Grace was good-to-great.

Meyer could blast baseballs a long way, sometimes.

McDowell won a Cy Young award.

And Al Leiter is on TV now.

But who flamed out?

Nobody, really. Not many of the rest of these guys were All-Stars or anything like that, but they all had long Major League careers, ranging from 3-4 year all the way up to way over a decade.

So … who to pick?

I’m going with Shawn Abner here simply because he was supposed to be a superstar but ended up collecting just 191 hits in over six seasons in the Majors.

Such are the perils of being the overall #1 pick, as Abner was in 1984, especially when the pickers are the New York Mets.

As a bonus, Abner was once traded for McReynolds (sort of, in one of those my-mosh-pit-for-your-mosh-pit mega swaps.)

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1989 Donruss Rated Rookies

1989 Donruss Rated Rookies Alex Sanchez

Alex Sanchez was the 1987 first-round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays, and he lit up the minors for two years, striking out 343 batters in 305.1 innings.

That performance earned him a Donruss Rated Rookie card, and a Triple-A slot to start the 1989 season. After logging 141 more Ks to go along with his 13-7 record, Sanchez got the call.

In just under 12 innings pitched with the Blue Jays, Sanchez went 0-1 with an unsightly 10.03 ERA. He was terrible but young, so another shot at the Bigs was in order, right?


Sanchez bounced around the minors until 1995 and had a stint with a couple independents in 1998 but never made it back to The Show.

He’s also doing a pretty good Aaron Rodgers impression on is Rated Rookie card.

And thus, he wins our 1989 award.

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1990 Donruss Rated Rookies

1990 Donruss Rated Rookies Brian Dubois

The 1990 Donruss set is often dubbed the “Red Menace” thanks to its garish, bloody borders. A (very) few collectors love the look, but most cringe when they see the cards.

Still, Donruss banged out a few hits with their 1990 Rated Rookies selections: Robin Ventura, Todd Zeile, Sandy Alomar, Delino DeShields, and others were all solid (or better) Major Leaguers.

And then, well, there were the foul tips.

Brian Dubois was 25 years old in 1990 and went 3-5, 5.09 in his second taste of the Major Leagues with the Detroit Tigers. Then … well … he was done, never to appear in the Bigs again. Donruss liked his chances, though, as evidenced by this Rated Rookies card, which maybe buoyed Dubois’ confidence enough to keep pushing in the minors through 1996.

Dubois takes the cake here, but …

Alex Sanchez made a return appearance as a Rated Rookie, too. Donruss just couldn’t give up on the dream.

1990 Donruss Rated Rookies Alex Sanchez

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1991 Donruss Rated Rookies

1991 Donruss Rated Rookies Kevin Belcher

Donruss pretty much had their rookie-selection muscles in prime working order by the time they pushed out their 1991 set.

Among the Rated Rookies who made the cut that year were Tino Martinez, Bernard Gilkey, Hensley Meulens, Derek Bell, Jose Offerman, Moises Alou, and Ray Lankford. All of those gents enjoyed at least a few successful seasons in the Big Leagues, with Martinez and Alou flirting with superstar status on occasion.

But no matter how good you get at picking out future stars, baseball prospecting is risky, tricky business. It’ll trip you up even when you seem to be standing on flat rock.

The flat rock — and the tripping foot — for Donruss in 1991 was Texas Rangers speedster Kevin Belcher, who stole enough bases and hit enough homers in the minor leagues to get a call to the Bigs just after his 23rd birthday in 1990.

In 15 at-bats for the Rangers, Belcher hit just .133 but did draw two walks.

Donruss was convinced.

Texas was not.

And so, Belcher joined that exclusive club of players who not only did not appear in the Major Leagues the same season they appeared on a Rated Rookie, but who also never appeared in the Bigs after they appeared on their RR card.

Belcher spent 1991 and 1992 split between Double-A and Triple-A, then wrapped up his professional with the Chicago White Sox‘s Triple-A team (Birmingham Barons) in 1993.

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1992 Donruss Rated Rookies

1992 Donruss Rated Rookies John Ramos

In 1992, Donruss got fancy, adding high-gloss glitz to their cards (all over) and full-color player head shots to card backs. They also dropped Diamond Kings from the base set and turned them into inserts.


That shifted Rated Rookies from their customary two-hole into the leadoff spot, garnering a bit more limelight for future solid Major Leaguers like Mark Wohlers, Ryan Klesko, Roberto Hernandez, and Eddie Taubensee, and superstar Kenny Lofton.

They also got bitten by the D.J. Dozier bug and included the gridiron star in their RR lineup even though he was already 26 and had put on a good but not great showing with the Triple-A Tidewater Tides at the end of 1991.

Dozier made 25 appearances with the Mets in 1992 and then was done.

John Ramos was also 26 years old in the spring of 1992, and he was coming off his first cup of coffee with the New York Yankees in 1991. In 10 games, the catcher and designated hitter batted .308 with a walk. Not spectacular, but he was a Yankee and they were Donruss, so we got the Ramos Rated Rookie.

He never appeared in the Majors again, though he did hang around the minors until 1996

For his 17 days on an ML roster — all before his Rated Rookie card was ever born — Ramos is our winner here.

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1993 Donruss Rated Rookies

1993 Donruss Rated Rookies Fernando Ramsey

Donruss continued to trounce all over tradition in 1993 when they busted up their 22 Rated Rookies cards and scattered them throughout the 792-card base set (hmmmm, now why does that number sound familiar?).

Among the players included in that disjointed subset were recognizable names like Eric Wedge, Tim Wakefield, J.T. Snow, Tim Salmon, Bret Boone, Mike Piazza, Damion Easley, Dmitri Young, Chipper Jones, and Javier Lopez.

That’s some major talent who produced some pretty awesome Major League numbers, and you could probably have won a lot of games with a roster of only those 10 guys.

Of course, not every player can be a world-beater, so Donruss decided to also make Rob Maurer a 1993 Rated Rookie.

Maurer was a 26-year-old first baseman and pinch hitter for the Texas Rangers who hit .063 in his first call-up with the big club in 1991, spanning 13 games and 19 plate appearances. He also made it back to the Majors in 1992, raising his BA to .222 in eight games. As with Kevin Belcher, Donruss was more impressed than the Rangers were, and Maurer was done in the Big Leagues.

But, as specious as Maurer’s Rated Rookie case was, our 1993 winner is Fernando Ramsey.

Ramsey was a speedy centerfielder for the Chicago Cubs who had made 18 appearances in the Majors in 1992 and batted .120. He was also 27 years old in 1993 and would never see the Bigs again. He edges out Maurer here because of his age and because he tallied four fewer plate appearances in his Big League career (25 to 29).

Amazingly, both Ramsey and Maurer racked up 25 total at-bats in the Major Leagues, and both collected exactly three hits for a cool .120 career batting average.

Rookies don’t come much less rated than that!

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