If you were in the market for a Roger Clemens baseball card during the peak years of the hobby boom, the spring of 1990 would have been as good a time as any to find a bargain.
After two “warm-up” years in 1984 and 1985, The Rocket had streaked across the baseball firmament in 1986 with a 24-4 record, 2.48 ERA, and 238 strikeouts. He followed up that Cy Young and MVP award-winning season with another Cy Young in 1987 and a top-notch campaign in 1988.
Then, his booster rocket fell off in 1989 and his ERA “ballooned” all the way to 3.13 while his record fell to a “paltry” 17-11. Clemens, always a polarizing figure in the hobby, bounded up the “Cold List” in the old Beckett Baseball Monthly while also clinging to the lower regions of the “Hot List.”
It was an odd combination of adoration and disdain that’s reserved for the sport’s elite because a player must, at some point, be good enough to be “hot” before anyone cares enough to mark him “cold.”
That Hot/Cold pairing almost always meant softening card prices, too, and those dreaded “down arrows” began appearing next to the vaunted Clemens cardboard.
Clemens rebounded in 1990 and, of course, went on to a storied career that, if you leave aside his extra-curricular activities, ranks as one of the best we’ve ever seen from the mound.
More than 25 years later, though, it’s interesting to note that a card issued during that dim period between Roger’s first stumble and his baseball resurrection would be among the few pasteboards issued during the “junk wax” era to hold much value on the secondary market today.
Food, Folks, and Fun — and Big Plans
At the dawn of a new decade, the world was caught in a kind of cultural limbo, almost ready to let loose of the leg-warming, Cyndi Lauper excess of the 80s but not quite ready to embrace the Jerry Springer, Too-Legit-to-Quit excess of the 90s.
Something we were always prepared for was more fast food, especially if it slid out from beneath a pair of Golden Arches. Never mind that, in 1990, McDonald’s seemed to be torn between Pee Wee Herman and The Little Mermaid with its advertising campaigns:
Maybe a bit, but it was undoubtedly truthful.
You had your food (allegedly): Big Macs, French Fries, Fried Apple Fritter Critters.
You had your folks, who were almost always the ones to take you to Mickey D’s.
And you had your fun: Happy Meals, heartburn, indoor playgrounds, Ronald.
And if you lived in a particular corner of the Pacific Northwest during a particular three-week window in the Spring of 1990?
Well, then you had more fun at McDonald’s than even the rest of the nation did, especially if you were a baseball fan.
Because, as teams and owners finally came to an agreement that sprung Spring training after a 32-day lockout that would ultimately push back the start of the season by a full week, Score and McDonald’s teamed up on a 25-set of some of baseball’s biggest stars.
If you were lucky enough to find yourself at one of 11 (select) McDonald’s restaurants in rural Oregon and Idaho as winter retreated into the mountains, your order of fries and a soft drink would have netted you a four-pack of the blue-bordered beauties and a chance to win a trip the 1990 World Series, which suggests that the two companies might have had bigger, broader plans in the works.
You also had a chance to pull, among others, Rickey Henderson, Ryne Sandberg, or Robin Yount.
Or … Roger Clemens.
Knowing what we do now about Clemens’ propensity for physical fitness and healthy eating, it’s a bit jarring to see the red and yellow arches blazed just above The Rocket’s powerful right arm on his 1990 Score McDonald’s card.
Aside from that bit of dissonance, the Clemens card feels very much like a Score product and is similar to his base 1990 Score card in layout and pose, with border color, uniform (home v. away), and photo angle being the main differentiators.
The back of the McDonald’s card also is very Score-esque, with a full-color headshot, complete stats, and a biographical writeup.
Of course, the main difference between Clemens’ 1990 Score card and his 1990 McDonald’s Score card is availability.
While the base set was sold in packs across the nation for a buck or less ALL season long, the McDonald’s cards were available for less than a month in 11 restaurants in bucolic climes.
Not surprisingly, the Arches card far surpasses the regular Score card in value today. While you can pick up the latter all day long for well under $1, that McDonald’s pasteboard will set you back at least $10 and more like $100 if you’re looking for a really high-grade slabbed copy.
So, not only is the 1990 Score McDonald’s Rocket scarce and condition-scarce, it’s actually among that rarest of cardboard slices — a 1990-ish Roger Clemens baseball card that has retained (and added to) its value over the years.