Two days from now, my town will be filled with senior citizens decked out in all manner of American flag apparel. I know this, not because it's the 4th of July, but because it's a Monday. Utilizing rational deduction of possibilities, it'll either be an American-flag inspired button-down or a Hawaiian short-sleeved monstrosity. Seriously, you have no idea how many people in my town wear Hawaiian shirts on a daily basis. It's obscene. You would have thought Tommy Bahama was born in my town with all the quilted jungle patterns and pineapples floating around people's backs out here.
Regardless, this 4th of July I'll be spending a quiet night at home with The Angel, probably watching some marathon on The Food Network.
But in doing so, I wanted to honor something truly American. Something from my youth that summed up everything good, great, and slightly horrific about the country that I love so much. There were many possibilities, and above all else, I wanted to explore something complex. Something that wasn't particularly easy to discuss because of the mixed feelings it may bring out. Something controversial.
War? Religion? Racism? Politics? All exciting possibilities, but I needed something even more polarizing. Something sure to cause people to experience an emotional and visceral experience that they'd be left thinking about for days.
I chose Donruss Diamond Kings of the 1980's.
Donruss was the upstart bad boy of the 80's baseball cards. They were my card of choice. Topps was the traditional powerhouse that you could count on, but their quality and design mechanics seemed to wane around 1985. It wasn't just the gum that was stale, it was Topps as a whole. As for Fleer? The guys making Fleer baseball cards probably snacked on Pop Rocks and skipped around the office listening to REO Speedwagon. Fleer was way too bright and glossy for the dark underworld of baseball card trading. I'd just as soon collect My Little Ponies than call myself a Fleer guy.
Enter Donruss. Donruss walked into the baseball card coliseum and immediately kicked ass. They were fresh, with dark and gloomy colors that exuded something straight out of Star Wars and the Imperial Empire. No better year exemplified the bad ass attitude of Donruss than 1985, a year when the ultimate man's man pitcher Roger Clemens spat out a rookie card emblazoned with the Donruss logo.
Donruss might as well have been the guy that walked into the bar with nothing more than a pissed off demeanor and ten bucks in cash, only to leave with a slight buzz and your first girlfriend's purity. Donruss flipped you off while busting your head in. And somehow, you respected them more afterward. Donruss was Dos Equis before there was a Dos Equis.
And despite all of its Michael Bay-esque bravado, Donruss was most remembered for it's soft side. All good bad boys have one aspect of their personality that makes them irresistible to men and women alike. It's usually a sensitive side rarely seen. In the case of Donruss, it was their Diamond Kings. A sorta subset within their yearly offerings that showcased the artsy side of Donruss. Using beautiful, hand crafted paintings by the talented Dick Perez, Donruss Diamond Kings were everything cool about Donruss, and they only further showed why Topps had lost it's edge.
Fuck a Golden Glove or Silver Slugger, receiving a Donruss Diamond King was the ultimate distinction for a player. They were supposed to represent the best of the best, even if at times, that best was inexplicable in its application.
The Diamond King was a hallowed treasure for my friends and I, as every year brought out a new round of hypotheses as to who the Chicago Cubs would have featured as their Diamond King that year.
What Dick Perez did with the artwork on Diamond Kings is nothing short of extraordinary. And although Diamond Kings lasted for a longer time than the 80's, it is that decade that solidified the power of Donruss. It is that period of work that brought out the classic Diamond King imagery that every young boy is familiar with.
So it is with that preface that I present to you, in one man's opinion, the year by year account of the worst examples of the best cards in the history of baseball cards. To make sure there is no confusion, I am honoring these fantastic cards. Dick Perez will forever be a part of my youth, and his work will continue to live on in not only museums, but more importantly the minds of little kids everywhere. I may be making fun of some of these images, but I am definitely not making fun of Diamond Kings or Dick Perez.
Diamond Kings were made for each team in baseball, with the theory being that the best player from the previous year would be represented. Shockingly, or maybe not so, there was an abundance of mustaches from this golden era, and I have counted them dutifully here.
Diamond Kings ruled, but celebrating the best ones isn't nearly as much much as looking at the embarassing ones. I'm talking about the irrefutable bad stares and bad players that somehow got through the cracks.
Join me as I take a look back at the worst Diamond Kings ever. Here are my picks for the most awesomely awful Diamond Kings of the 80's, and why...
Mustache Count: 12 mustaches total.
WORST DIAMOND KING: TIE (Carlton Fisk & Ozzie Smith)
Lets' start with Fisk.
First off, the look on his face. Look at that guy's face. Tell me that guy isn't the same guy slipping you a date rape drug in your third vodka-tonic at the local T.G.I. Fridays. His face says it all. He sits there with that shit-eating grin, all the while knowing he's fucking you over in some way you can't put your finger on. That look... man, Fisk is the guy you split the bill with, only to find out he stiffed the waiter on a tip. And do I need to point out the obnoxious collar he sports on that sad-sack excuse of a uniform? Come. On.
Fisk wearing that collar with that ass-clown smile is artistic napalm. They should have foregone Fisk's face and inserted Randy Quaids instead, circa 1987.
Then there's Ozzie Smith.
Jesus, where do I start? First off, I know Ozzie started on the Padres and there's no conceivable way that Perez would have known he'd forever be linked with the Cardinals, but it's still strange to see Smith sporting the shit-stained colors the Padres sported in the early 80's. And speaking of, I'm not really a toilet humor kind of guy, but is it just me or is Smith's stance less likely to be one awaiting a ground ball and more like a guy peering over to check out a really bad pile of horse manure?
"Oh damn, is that a giant pile of horse crap over there?"
The other thing that chaps my ass about this particular Diamond King is the expression on Ozzie. Look, I'm a Cubs fan, so naturally I loathe all Cardinals. But even I have to acquiesce and admit Ozzie Smith came across as pretty much the nicest guy to ever play the game. The backflips. The smile. The nickname the Wizard of Oz. Hell, I still laugh at Ozzie Smith falling endless into a black hole on The Simpsons. Smith is so unfailingly kind and appealing, he's still featured on national baseball commercials. He's become the mascot for all that's fun about the game of baseball.
Do you see that in this portrait here?
I don't see the kid-like excitement of Smith, instead I see a guy barely holding it together. That's not a pensive stare, it's a "I'm going to kill someone if they so much as say hello to me right now." He looks more like Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction than he does Ozzie Smith. Everything about this Diamond King is wrong.
Mustache Count: 12 mustaches total.
WORST DIAMOND KING: JIM SUNDBERG
For starters, Sundberg has roughly 47 chins in this picture. He looks like your fat uncle, not a Diamond King. Which actually might explain why they gave Sundberg a Diamond King. It certainly couldn't have been his blistering statistics from the year before. He hit 10 home runs with 47 RBI and a batting average of .251. Now granted, the Rangers were woeful the year prior (64-98), but someone could have been chosen other than Sundberg. Hell, even a repeat of Buddy Bell would have made more sense. Sundberg looked as surprised as we collectively were at his appearance in this portrait. And believe me, I can't believe I'm going there AGAIN, but tell me Sundberg doesn't look like he just smelled a bad fart? Think that over, then look at the picture.
Am I right? No Jim, that isnt the silent-but-violent release of ace pitcher Frank Tanana's ass, it's your 1982 statistics that somehow got you immortalized in Diamond King lore.
Mustache Count: 8 mustaches total.
WORST DIAMOND KING: BOB HORNER
To be honest, this year's Diamond Kings were virtually flawless in my estimation. The background showcases the epic scale of Perez's work, and the players selected seem almost universally worthy. Horner was a tough call, but here's why I chose him.
His pale skin tone and subsequent blonde Hulk Hogan-like locks make it difficult to discern where his face stops and head starts. Instead of a fitting portrayal of one of the greatest beer-league softball players to ever actually play MLB, we're left with something that looks like a wrinkled, 6 days past its prime, grapefruit. Horner should use this Diamond King as a headshot and get it over to Peter Jackson's office ASAP. Surely this guy could play a background Hobbit or Orc with that mug. Seriously, he looks like Lenny from Of Mice and Men. He's confused. No, he's stupid? He's confused and stupid. I don't know.
Mustache Count: 14 mustaches total.
WORST DIAMOND KING: TIE (CARNEY LANSFORD & MIKE MARSHALL)
Fuck Carney Lansford.
There's really no need for him to be on this blog. His Diamond King is quite nice actually, and his athletic stance only enhances its magic. But I don't like Carney Lansford, so fuck em'.
I have no reason to dislike Carney Lansford. By all accounts, he had a fine career and seems to be an affable fellow. You kind of have to be with that mustache. It's the mustache that says, "hey, I'm not a porn star or pedophile, I'm just a goofy guy." Lansford played for the Athletics, which only exacerbates the confusion of my disgust for Lansford. They certainly aren't a rival of my beloved Chicago Cubs, but with Lansford I learned a valuable lesson at a very young age.
Sometimes, for no reason whatsoever, you're going to dislike a person strictly based on face. For me, that person was Carney Lansford. His stupid, happy-go lucky, puppy-dog face can go fuck itself. He sucks.
As for this guy...
This entire Mike Marshall visage completely defines his career. Marshall was a prominent home run slugger that hit balls 500 feet. He also struck out. A lot. And when he wasn't doing that, he was popping up Bruce Sutter splitters ten feet down the third base line and in foul territory. Which if you look closely, is what he seems to be doing here.
"Shit. Looks like I got under that one. I can't believe I stranded another runner at third with less than two outs. Lasorda is gonna be pissed."
Moreover, this Diamond King really does get the worst tag because of the size of Marshall's melon in said portrait. Calling Marshall's head a bucket-head doesn't do it justice. You need TWO Diamond Kings to fully encompass that thing. He's like a human bobble-head with Sesame Street Burt's eyebrows to boot.
Mustache Count: 14 mustaches total.
WORST DIAMOND KING: JERRY KOOSMAN
Once again, Perez was fairly perfect this year. The selection of Koosman has virtually nothing to do with the artwork, but rather, the absolute abomination that occurred when Koosman was selected as a Diamond King. Kossman must have been sleeping around with some high-up Donruss execs to get this beautiful painting commissioned.
Koosman was 6-4 the year before, with a 4.62 ERA. Hardly mind-boggling statistics for a starting pitcher, and certainly not Diamond King worthy. Remember, the King selection was supposed to go to the previous year's best player, or at the least its most influential. Koosman? I'm pretty certain the Phillies' ball boys had more to do with their sub-.500 record than Koosman did.
Look, I understand that you don't want to put the billowing hair of Mike Schmidt on every year of the Phillies' Diamond Kings, there just aren't enough shades of brown and light brown in the painting palette. But come on. Even Ozzie Virgil had more of an impact than Koosman did that year. And what if you're Kevin Gross? That guy must be sitting in the suburbs of Philly plotting unheard of revenge on Koosman. Gross was also a starting pitcher on that staff, only he went 15-13 with a 3.41 ERA. You know, he ACTUALLY MADE A DIFFERENCE. Koosman couldn't hold Kevin Gross's jock, yet he gets immortalized and Gross doesn't. Just a horrible stain on the legacy of Diamond Kings everywhere...
Mustache Count: 8 mustaches total.
WORST DIAMOND KING: KEVIN MCREYNOLDS
McReynolds. Or as I like to call him, Zoolander. The arched eyebrow. The perfectly coiffed hair. The widow's peak that suggests just a hint of Count Chocula. Even his hat looks like an accessory here. McReynolds was spray tan before spray tan, and this image exemplifies that. If his parents saw this Diamond King first, they would have named him Blair or Hayden. Certainly not Kevin. Kevin is far too rugged for the crystal blue eyes and smoldering stare of Kevin McReynolds. Honestly, the artwork looks like it was airbrushed and photoshopped... even though it's... you know, art. McReynolds was the athlete's version of James Spader.
Kevin McReynolds. You're probably a nice guy, but if this Diamond King has anything to say about you, it's this... You're an asshole.
Mustache Count: 8 mustaches total.
WORST DIAMOND KING: TIE (KAL DANIELS AND IVAN CALDERON)
I'm going to put these two back to back first before explaining why they're hilarious.
Shockingly, Daniels totally deserved the Diamond King selection as he had a helluva year. Look at this stat line...
In just 430 plate appearances, Daniels hit .334 with 26 HR and 64 RBI. He also stole 26 bases. In today's day and age, with those numbers, he'd have a huge multi-year contract to look forward to. Instead, he flipped a coin with Reds' owner Marge Schott over a $25,000 pay raise and won (true story). So what makes this and Calderon's inclusion so bad?
They look totally and utterly confused, as if they have no idea what the fuck they're looking at. Making matters worse, both of their backgrounds serve to enhance the state of madness going on in their head.
"Me? A Diamond King? What is that? And what are these lightning bolts coming out of my head. Are they my thoughts? Damn."
Daniels looks lost, while Calderon just looks scared.
I can't speak for Daniels, but Calderon might still be recovering from the shock that he hit 28 home runs the year before. He'd never get that close again, having successive years of 14, 14,14, and 19.
The confusion twins are two of my favorite paintings from this era.
Mustache Count: 15 mustaches total.
WORST DIAMOND KING: CHRIS SABO
It's fitting that Sabo wins the worst Diamond King of 1989 just as the decade was coming to an end. It's also ironic that Sabo made it onto my list, especially in the year which featured the most mustachioed ball players bearing Diamond Kings.
Sabo was a gimmick before he even stepped onto the field. That doesn't mean he wasn't good or deserving. It only means that he was the harbinger for what was to come.
Sabo and his flashy rec-specs were a brand before there was branding. Sabo could have hit .244 (he did years later), and he still would have been a star. The glasses alone guaranteed it, which is why it makes his diamond king the worst of 1989. It signaled a new era.
The mustache count would drop, as would the innocence of what the Diamond King would represent.
Just one year later, in 1990, we'd get this...
Look at that. Look at what Diamond Kings had become. The 90's signaled a new era of Donruss Diamond Kings, and Jim Deshaies might as well have been the poster boy.
Never in the existence of modern-day baseball has there been a more boring face than Jim Deshaies'. He not only looks like a high school science teacher, but he throws like one. That form is pathetic. Yes, he had solid statistics the year before. But this Diamond King epitomizes what was happening at the time.
With it's Heathcliffe Huxtable Cosby Show sweater background and red-version of David Robinson pump Nike shoes bordering that, we became a society of flash and arrogance. It's things like this that led to The Decision by Lebron James.
Whoever thought these wild and wacky patterns would be aesthetically pleasing must have also thought Limp Bizkit was a good idea.
Before there was Ed Hardy, there was the 1990 Donruss Diamond Kings.
A few years later, Donruss would effectively destroy the warmth of Dick Perez Diamond Kings by going to tasteless watercolors that made it difficult to discern between BJ Surhoff and Cal Ripken.
The edgy originality of Donruss was now extracted. Diamond Kings, once rich with darkness and light, had ceased to exist. Where once Diamond Kings had seemed like The Empire Strikes Back, they now had become The Phantom Menace.
I looked in the mirror.
I had grown up.
For a complete gallery of ALL DICK PEREZ DIAMOND KINGS, go here. They're magnificent, and I hope this blog brought back the fond memories of collecting baseball cards for you as much as it did for me.
Happy fourth of July