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A trip down memory lane, with Dodgers ‘future stars’ baseball cards

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I was looking through old baseball cards over the weekend, and was drawn to a series of “future stars” cards from 40-plus years ago.

The baseball card industry has changed greatly in the decades since, but it’s still fun to look back at these cards, for a few reasons. First, let’s look at an example, this one from the 1979 Topps set.

On one hand, putting three players on one card increases the chances of at least one of them making an impact. In this case, Pedro Guerrero is the star, one of the best hitters in Los Angeles Dodgers history. At the time of this card, he had all of eight major league plate appearances, though to be fair he was 5 for 8 with a triple. Future fashion police detective Joe Simpson played in parts of the previous four seasons, totaling 67 PA, while Rudy Law batted 13 times the year prior.

It’s also fun in some cases to see the positions of each player. Guerrero is listed here as a first baseman, the position he played in all but two games over the previous three seasons. I’m not sure I necessarily associate Guerrero with first base, though it’s the position he played the most in his career. He had a wild career, one in which it was clear his best position was batter, and the Dodgers tried to move him around wherever they had an opening. Guerrero started over 200 games in his career at first base, third base, left field (where he famously slammed his glove down in Game 6 of the 1985 NLCS), and right field, plus 99 starts in center field and nine more times at second base.

Not all the cards live up to the promise of delivering “future stars,” but still include notable players. The 1980 Topps card with three Dodgers rookies included pitchers Dave Patterson and Joe Beckwith, plus an unheralded outfielder named Mickey Hatcher, whose Dodgers legend would be forged only after playing five years in Minnesota before returning.

Beckwith was a very effective reliever with the Dodgers, though missed all of 1981 and some of 1982 after multiple eye surgeries. He died last May.

Sometimes these tri-player cards are notable for the imbalance between the haves and the have nots, for lack of a better description. Perhaps the most famous Dodgers-related card of this nature was in 1973 Topps, when the future star third basemen (from three different teams) grouped were Mike Schmidt, Ron Cey, and someone named John Hilton, who played four years with the Padres but was more known — at least on Baseball Reference — by his middle name David.

Cards like these remind me of when comedian George Gobel surveyed the set when on the Tonight Show in 1969, surrounded by titans Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin. “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?” Gobel quipped.

You might notice I did not include a picture of this card from my own collection, because at a few hundred dollars this is out of my price range. But a much cheaper card that is in my binder is this 1981 Topps card, with poor Jack Perconte grouped with Dodgers legends Fernando Valenzuela and Mike Scioscia.

Valenzuela won National League Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award the year this card was released, and Scioscia has the most games caught in franchise history. Both were a part of two championship Dodgers teams in the 1980s.

Perconte was a second baseman who hit .319 while averaging 103 runs scored and 56 stolen bases over the five previous minor league seasons through 1981, but was traded that December to Cleveland because he fell behind the depth chart to someone on this 1982 Topps card.

This was a power-packed card at the time, especially with Mike Marshall named the minor league player of the year by Baseball America after hitting an eye-popping .373/.445/.675 with 34 home runs and 137 RBI for Triple-A Albuquerque in 1981.

Sax won Rookie of the Year in 1982, and both he and Marshall were lineup fixtures for most of the rest of the 1980s with the Dodgers. Both were starters on the 1988 championship team. Roenicke played for six teams in his eight major league seasons, and later managed the Brewers and Red Sox. He has also coached on the Dodgers staff at different times and served as a special assistant in the front office.

This was an especially fruitful time for the Dodgers farm system. They won four straight Rookie of the Year awards from 1979-82, including Valenzuela and Sax who were featured on these cards. Rick Sutcliffe and Steve Howe were the ROY winners.

The 2022 Topps set is a different animal than its counterpart four decades ago. When Series 1 comes out in February 16, it probably won’t have a Dodgers card with three “future stars.”

But what if it did?

Looking back at the four examples above, all 12 players appeared in the majors before appearing on the cards. Most were cups of coffee, and 11 of the 12 made their major league debut in the season immediately before these cards. Only Joe Simpson, who appeared in four seasons before his 1979 Topps card, had more experience, but even that only totaled 67 plate appearances.

If we’re to make a 2022 Dodgers “future stars” card, some candidates stand out. Nine different Dodgers made their major league debuts in 2021, but six of them — Edwin Uceta (D-backs), Zach Reks (Rangers), Jake Reed (Mets), DJ Peters (KBO), Josiah Gray (Nationals), and Conner Greene (Orioles) — are no longer around.

The three other 2021 debuts came from Andre Jackson, Luke Raley, Justin Bruihl. Raley already had a rookie card in the 2021 set, so he’d be less likely to be included in a “future stars”-type card, but Jackson and Bruihl fit the bill.

If we expand our list to include folks who played briefly in 2020, Mitch White and Alex Vesia would likely be ruled out because they had standalone rookie cards in 2021. But we also have Phil Bickford and Garrett Cleavinger, who could totally be included in our tri-player card.

So in our proposed 2022 Topps Dodgers future stars card, let’s include Andre Jackson, Phil Bickford, and Justin Bruihl. Then we can check back in 40 years to see how they fared.