Between the 2008 and 2009 seasons, the Atlanta Braves went out and claimed a lefty off the waiver wire. The young man had a disastrous season with Seattle in 2008. In just under 7 innings of action, he gave up 15 runs. His time in AAA was little better as he posted a WHIP near 2.00 and an ERA near 5.00. No matter, the Braves clearly saw something in him and put in their claim. The Braves would install him as the team LOOGY in 2009 and he was very good in the role. An injury would limit his time in 2010, but when he pitched, he was even better than the year before. This year, stepping up in the face of an injury to Peter Moylan, Eric O'Flaherty has established himself as one of the best relievers in the sport. I think it is safe to say that there is no better "7th inning" guy in baseball. He's part of the vaunted O'Ventbrel group, and has been every bit as good as his counterparts Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel.
Yes, I realize that I'm pointing out things that are obvious to your typical Braves fan. We've all recognized for sometime now that EOF is an important player for one of baseball's most visible teams. Yet, somehow, Eric O'Flaherty has never appeared on a baseball card as a member of the Atlanta Braves.
The 2009 sets came and went with no EOF. Oh sure, Topps was able to find spots in their base set for Ruben Gotay and Jorge Campillo, just not for the Braves resident LOOGY. James Parr, he of 13 big league appearances, had, including parallels and autographs, at least 27 separate cards in the 2009 sets. The late season 2009 update sets, where players who had unexpected good years often get their cards, featured AAAA players Diory Hernandez and Barbaro Canizares, and no EOF. Perhaps, you would think, the lack of EOF appearances in the 2009 sets is more related to his prior bad year with Seattle than anything else. Well, no.
Even after establishing himself, Topps did not deem EOF worthy of a card in 2010. Sure, Reid Gorecki gets a 2010 Topps card. Michael Dunn is featured across the sets despite spending most of the year in the minors. Jordan Schafer wouldn't set foot in Atlanta in 2010, yet Topps gave him a card in the second series. Before disappearing from baseball card manufacturing in the wake of scandal and lawsuits, Upper Deck saw fit to include cards for both Parr and Gorecki in their 2010 set. How little did Topps regard EOF before this season? In the first series of their 2011 base set, Topps included a card of Rick Ankiel in a Braves uniform, but no EOF. Topps deemed a guy who had already left Atlanta as deserving, but not the lefty. To understand how that is possible, you have to look at how the baseball card hobby has changed over the years.
There was a time, many years ago, when a baseball card set served as a sort of history of the game. If you wanted to piece together the details of a season, all you needed to do was grab a binder with the set from that year and start flipping through the pages. In the 1980s though, the hobby began a series of changes. It started with the rookie card craze which would infect every detail of every set. More and more cards were devoted to rookies at the expense of the more veteran players. (Actually, many of the cards, technically, weren't even rookies as the players would never find their way to the majors.) Speculators scooped up huge numbers of cards from the late eighties and early nineties thinking they would flip them one day to pay for their retirement or their children's education. Sadly for them, rampant overproduction and the 1995 player's strike would decimate the value of their "investments".
In 1989, Upper Deck would introduce the concept of the "premium" set. It started with cards featuring full bleed photography on glossy stock. In a game of never-ending oneupmanship, the manufacturers would produce more and more expensive sets. Upper Deck begat Stadium Club and Ultra which begat Finest and SP and Sweet Spot and Triple Threads and a hundred other brands. Cardboard was gone and the card stock became glossier and thicker, even for the base sets. Foil would appear on nearly every card of nearly every set. Manufacturers began inserting cards that weren't a part of the base set into their packs. These gave way to pre-autographed cards and the so-called relic cards which featured pieces of memorabilia embedded into the card. As a result of these developments, the sets were smaller which meant fewer players could be featured. The most prominent collectors were now player collectors. No longer limited to just a few cards of their favorite stars each year, these collectors were in hog heaven. After all, the best players would feature on literally hundreds of cards each year. This led to players who weren't stars becoming more and more marginalized by the card manufacturers.
Recently, MLB and the MLBPA have taken steps to reduce the number of available sets. They decided to limit the manufacturers to only Upper Deck and Topps, and later to just Topps. Additionally, they limited the number of sets that could be produced each season. One of the first casualties was Topps Total, a set printed on cardboard, that was affordable and that included the majority of the players to pass through MLB in a season. Ignoring their own history as the standard bearer for preserving baseball history through card collecting, Topps has set the "set collector" adrift. There are no longer any products solely produced for this type of collector. Even the base Topps set is overloaded with multiple cards for each star throughout each series as well as rare variation cards that are more the province of the player collector, and in even the most recent past, the more expensive brands. Not to mention the endless cards of rookies without regard to whether they will ever have a future in the game.
As far as the hobby is concerned today, there is a single truth. That truth is that the only players who matter are the stars, established veterans on big market teams, and young kids who've only played a handful of games in a big league uniform. The days where a set represented a snapshot of the game of baseball at any moment in time is over. Talented major league players are no longer important enough to be featured on their own cards. Role players like the middle innings reliever, the setup man, the utility man and the pinch hitting specialist have never been less likely to appear on a card. It's a shame and it should be considered a missed opportunity on the part of MLB, the MLBPA and Topps.
I am happy that I can end this with potentially good news. It would seem that putting up numbers superior to most closers has finally made Eric O'Flaherty worthy. In 2011 Topps Update Series, EOF is scheduled to appear on card US271. The set will ship in early October. Congratulations to EOF! It's about damn time.