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The Bad Baseball Card Tournament: Day 3

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It's time to tackle the most difficult bracket of all, from a competitive as well as a visual sense.

That 1986 Topps Don Mattingly box bottom actually used to be worth something
That 1986 Topps Don Mattingly box bottom actually used to be worth something
Patrick Dubuque

We've officially reached the toughest bracket in the tournament: the insert cards, where card companies really let their designers explore the space. We are, in case you've somehow just joined us, on a mission to decide, as a People, which is the Worst Designed Baseball Card of the post-Gerald Ford era. In doing so, we will conquer our demons. We will forge common bonds. We will make jokes.

Unlike the first round, where the favorites swept with relative ease, we saw major upsets yesterday. Six-seeded 1986 Sportflics took down the clumsy #3 1989 Bowman with relative ease, surprising the latter's bitter enemies. But the story of the day was the the valiant triumph off the Little Mac of the tournament, 1990 Topps, which I included at the last moment after deciding its writeup was funnier than 1994 Topps Stadium Club. It soundly defeated a weak one-seed in 1979 Topps, leaving haters of an older generation to wonder if they really understand the societal values of the younger, hipper America.

But we must move forward. You know the rules: vote for the ugly card, not for the ugly player. This one shouldn't be so hard, because in many cases the player is an afterthought. For today we consider cards designed to be Valuable.

#1: 1995 Fleer ProVisions vs. #8: 2011 Topps Black Diamond

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Let's just put it out there now: you’re going to see a lot of Fleer on this list. Fleer is the mullet of baseball cards, and their inserts are definitely the party in the back. ProVisions are justifiably Fleer’s most famous insert set, a belated imitation of Donruss’s Diamond Kings, steeped in the glorious excess of the nineties. They’re beyond any sense of irony or sarcasm. They’re the Ed Hardy shirts of baseball.

In the beginning, the earth was without form, and void. But the sun shone upon the sleeping Earth and deep inside the brittle crust massive forces waited to be unleashed. First, there was the baseball card, humble, constructed of cardboard and gum stain. Then came the glossy cards. Then the gold cards, their foil shining proud in the midday sun. And last of them all was the black diamond card, glittering like an angry song, proving once and for all that everything, everything, goes too far.

#4: 1997 Fleer Moonshots vs. #5: 1994 Fleer Ultra All-Rookie Team

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The trouble with content is that it actually has to be something. The whole allure of wealth isn’t that it provides subsistence, but how it doesn’t: gilding a candlestick doesn’t make it any better at candlesticking, but it makes the guests totally jealous anyway. It’s the same thing with insert sets: you look at the wrapper, find out the odds of getting Super Insert Card A are 1:108, and you feel the high of probability as your number comes up. What goes on the card is secondary. But card companies kept having to think of new designs anyway, ultimately wearing out their thesauri. That’s why there were sets in the late 90s called "Goin’ Yard" and "Goin’ Jake", which isn’t even a real phrase, such that when you google it all that comes up are "Goin’ Jake" cards. In this case, it’s a Moonshot, so let’s throw in a picture of a moon and mutilate a game-worn jersey – one that honest to god made contact with an undershirt that made contact with Nomar Garciaparra. Oh, and let’s make him stand on a scoreboard laying on the ground for no reason.

So the first thing you’re probably going to notice about the 1994 Ultra rookie subset is the grid. Grids were huge in 1982, back when lasers were cool and Tron had just come out and people were sitting in arcades playing Tempest and suffering from migraines. Why Fleer suddenly leapt on this particular light cycle a dozen years later is beyond guessing. But the real artistry in these cards are the volcanos, hovering in the background like Mount Fuji in a Hokusai woodblock: a home that can never be returned to.

#3: 1996 Fleer Headliners vs. #6: 1993 Fleer Ultra All-Stars

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Headliners are one of Fleer’s oldest insert sets, and one of the better-looking ones by relative standards. By 1996, however, we’d hit season nine of How I Met Your Mother stage, where the company had obviously run out of creative energy. It’s the sort of thing a person could empathize with if they had to, say, write 4,000 words worth of jokes in four days. Regardless, by the end they’d mulled over the word "headliner" so often that it lost all meaning, and they began just pasting it over and over in Photoshop, slamming Ctrl+V over and over, like a madman scrawling at the walls of his prison, before the last cruel talon of sanity finally released him to a life of peace.

And if the inevitable outcome truly is madness, one can hardly blame the lead designer who typed a couple of words into Photoshop, changed the fonts and the colors around, and then got the hell out to a golf course by ten in the morning. This card is what we really should be learning from: that caring is for losers. It’s doubtful that Fleer sold one less pack of cards because of this pathetic, slapdash middle finger of a card. Nothing was changed by how little he or she tried. Fleer Ultra wants you to understand that the vast majority of human effort is wasted. All your attempts to bring order out of chaos, to find beauty in the clutter of existence die with you. In the meantime, at least you’ve got this photograph of Tim Salmon.

#2: 1999 Skybox Thunder Dial 1 vs. #7: 1995 Pacific Crown Prisms

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Look, I don’t know. Why a phone? I guess phones were exciting in 1999, the way that bulletin boards and Ross Perot were exciting in 1992. Why Dial 1? Is this a Moonshot thing, where we’re dialing the number one because a baseball has just been hit a long distance? Why not Dial 9? All I know is that this subset would be have been the greatest ever made, if only the photographs actually showed the players on their late 90s cell phones, a la Banknotes Harper. The worst is so often a hair's breadth from the best.

I’ve always hated space. Frankly, I don’t really see why you people get so excited about it: it’s black, and it’s empty, and it’s cold, and it’s silent, and it goes on forever. This isn’t the edge of the world Patrick O’Brien shit we’re talking about, where on the other side of the horizon are exotic birds to throw into cages. The thing on the other edge of space is more space. Forever. This is the definition of hell.

Unless 1995 Pacific Crown Prisms are the true hell: the same endless vacuum, the same floating prison of senselessness, except instead of blackness, we’re surrounded by prismatic light, so bright and so much that our brains explode every moment taking it all in. Maybe that’s hell. Man, this was a rough thousand words.

Tomorrow marks the final day of the first round, featuring subset cards novelty issues, and one card that makes me giggle uncontrollably every time I see it.