More than any other game, baseball attracts zealots.
Some might say geeks, but I wouldn’t. We are zealots. We keep scorecards. We track stats. We pay attention to logos and uniform design. We dive into trivia and scrutinize the game’s ephemera. Were we to watch our own health as deeply as we attend to baseball, we would all have six-pack abs and live to 104.
This year, much to my pleasure, a new object of baseball wonder entered my life via FedEx.
I’m a Cubs season ticket holder. After the ticket books arrive each year, I fold and separate the perforated tickets from their books and distribute them to the men and women with whom I share the bounty (or, some seasons, the burden). Over the years, the tickets have changed, and baseball fans notice such things.
In 2005, for instance, the team started printing UPC bar-codes on the tickets so they could be scanned rather than torn (which, if you think about it, makes the corporate name “StubHub” a bit of an anachronism).
In 2011, season tickets were printed on heavier paper stock than the regular sold-at-Wrigley tickets, and were larger, with each ticket containing a different photo of Wrigley.
This year, once again, each game gets a unique ticket design. Only now, instead of photos of Wrigley, tickets show baseball cards for Cubs players from Ernie Banks to Phil Cavaretta to Starlin Castro.
Cool, I thought. Comments zipped around Twitter, where people complimented the Cubs on the design or boasted of their own baseball card knowledge. Darren Rovell, of Sports Biz on CNBC, tweeted, “The Cubs have the coolest ticket this year. Players on their Topps cards.”
— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) March 22, 2012
But as I sorted the tickets, I began to notice odd patterns. The cards chosen seemed to mean something. The White Sox series featured players who’d played for both the Cubs and Sox: Steve Stone, Ron Santo, and Steve Trout. A nice touch. Then I saw the Red Sox series: Bill Buckner, Nomar Garciaparra, and Dennis Eckersley. And one of the St. Louis series tickets featured Lou Brock. Hmm. These selections seemed edgy, thoughtful, beyond the obvious.
Something was up.
So I contacted Brian Garza, the Cubs’ Director of Ticket Sales and Service, and Public Relations and Marketing Specialist Kevin Saghy to discuss this year’s design.
Ticket design is constrained by practical matters, they told me. Tickets must clearly delineate game date, opponent, and seat location. But, I pointed out, the best tickets will also be aesthetically pleasing, miniature works of art, on par with other collectible souvenirs of the game.
Garza (no relation to Matt) agreed.
For instance, after the 2010 season, operations managers (who oversee the ushers and the ticket-takers at the gates), were asked how ticket design could help make their jobs easier. They said that the season tickets should have unique images for each game, hence the 2011 re-design. This feature makes it easier for a ticket-taker to instantly recognize that day’s image, rather than having to read the game number or the date. Such aspects of smart design speed up the lines, and prevent people from mistakenly using a ticket from another date.
But beyond security concerns, Garza set out to make the tickets beautiful, collectible souvenirs of a day at the ballpark. Looking at what other teams had done with their season tickets, Garza saw that the Reds used baseball card images in 2010, but their images repeated. Garza—who of course collected cards as a kid—set out to create a set of 82 unique images, featuring a different Cubs baseball card for each game of the season plus a potential playoff (Hey, it’s his job!). Topps executives Mark Sapir and Colin Butler assisted Garza and the Cubs in finding the images they wanted.
I asked Garza about some of the decisions.
Was Buckner, for instance, a poke at Red Sox fans, a reminder of that Game 6 through-the-legs play that some fans (falsely) blame for the ‘86 World Series loss to the Mets? “No,” he said. “We chose Buckner because he had played for both teams, and is now coaching with the Boise Hawks in the Cubs minor-league system.”
People in the Cubs front office did worry that it might appear to be an insult to the player or the Red Sox organization. So Garza met Buckner at this year’s Cubs Convention and asked him if it was OK. Buckner said he’d be honored.
Other Cubs players whose cards appear on this year’s tickets felt the same way. Garza and Saghy say that as players like Jody Davis, Rick Sutcliffe, and Ferguson Jenkins have passed through town, they’ve not only signed sets of the ticket blanks, they’ve requested souvenir sets for themselves.
What about Lou Brock on the April 24 Cardinals game? Isn’t that a bit of salt in the wound to Cubs fans, a reminder of perhaps the worst trade in baseball history, future-Hall-of-Famer Brock for Ernie Broglio?
“It’s history, 60 years ago now,” Garza said. “Time to let it go, and to remind people that Brock played for the Cubs too.”
(Personally, I wish the two Phillies tickets had featured Ryne Sandberg and Jenkins, two Cooperstown-bound players the Cubs got in trades from Philadelphia, rather than Ken Hubbs and Mark Grace.)
What about Sammy Sosa, who appears on three tickets? Given the controversy over steroids, the corked bat incident, and his currently chilly relationship to the team, should he have been left out?
“We don’t want to shy away from history and perceived contention,” Garza said. “Sammy Sosa was a huge part of this team for years, put many fans in the seats, and put up historic home run numbers. These tickets recognize that history.”
Besides players who were on both teams, the cards celebrate anniversaries of historic events. Rick Monday was featured on April 25, the date in 1976 when he famously saved an American flag from being burned in the Dodgers Stadium outfield.
Other cards commemorate the anniversary of Ernie Banks’s 500th home run, or Milt Pappas’s Almost-Perfect No Hitter. But others are more obscure, including Gene Baker on September 22, to commemorate the date in 1953 when Baker and Banks became the Major Leagues’ first African-American double play combo.
July, as All-Star Month, features only Cubs who were All-Stars, which ruined one of my pet theories. Dave Kingman is on the ticket for this Sunday’s game against the Diamondbacks. Kingman was known for his cold-blooded relationships with the fans. Was someone calling him a snake? Or was it a reference to Route 66? Kingman, Arizona? No such conspiracies; he was an All-Star in 1980.
It is possible to over-think these things.
Or maybe not: Garza informs me that even the cards that don’t fit the categories of playing for both teams, historic anniversaries, or the All-Star game have a deeper meaning. Not one card is random, including Mark Grace on the Game 82 card in case of a playoff, as last happened in 1998.
But part of the fun of baseball collectibles and trivia is the quest to figure it out for yourself. So, if you’re a season-ticket holder, or just have a few tickets you’ve picked up from one, check the image and think about history, what team the player played for, and (in July) what year he was an All-Star.
If the card fits none of those categories, try to figure it out. Why is Andre Dawson on the 18th game of the year, against Atlanta? Why is Kerry Wood on the June 25 game? And why is Mark Grace on the potential Game 82 card? If you know, tell us in the comments below.
But don’t get upset if someone calls you a geek.
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SABR member BILL SAVAGE is teaching his baseball literature and film course, “Casey, Shoeless Joe and the Naturals,” at the Newberry Library of Chicago this summer. He may have to add a session on baseball cards.