Thursday, October 28, 2010

Baseball Card Spotlight: Donruss Diamond Kings

One of my favorite subsets as a kid just getting into baseball cards was the Donruss Diamond Kings. I started collecting in 1991 which was the last year that the cards were a part of the main set. In 1992 they became inserts. The way the Diamond Kings worked was this: each team would have one player who had a good year the year before. Donruss apparently had some rule though that individual players should not be Diamond Kings too often or consecutively, which lead to some really bizarre picks sometimes. Boston was relatively lucky with this though and only had a couple of headscratchers.

Here's the complete list and brief analysis of Donruss Diamond Kings for the Red Sox, through 1996, when they became significantly more complicated.

1982 Dwight Evans. Evans had basically become the best player on the team by this point and lead the league in walks and total bases and tied for the league lead in home runs the year before. He was also an All Star, Silver Slugger, and won the Gold Glove.

1983 Carl Yastrzemski. This was more of a tribute to an aging superstar. Yaz was still pretty decent in 1982, even appearing in the All Star Game, but I believe this was more meant to pay tribute to the player. Not really a headscratcher when you consider that reason.

1984 Wade Boggs. In 1983, Boggs won the first of five batting titles and had the first of seven straight 200 hit seasons. He was certainly worthy.

1985 Jim Rice. Rice did not have a great season in 1984, but the star slugger still hit 28 home runs, drove in 122, and had a .280 batting average. Tony Armas probably should have gotten this one.

1986 Tony Armas. The first headscratcher. Yes, Armas should have been the 1985 Diamond King when he lead the league in home runs and runs batted in in 1984. But in 1985, Armas only played in 103 games with 23 home runs. I remember not knowing for a long time who was the 1986 Diamond King and trying to guess. My guesses were Rich Gedman, who had a great 1985 and Oil Can Boyd who won 15 games the year before. Either one would have been a better choice than Armas.

1987 Roger Clemens. Clearly deserving. Won the Cy Young Award and MVP the previous year.

1988 Dwight Evans. Apparently Donruss ran out of ideas, so they decided to repeat a player. Still, Evans was fantastic in 1987, one of his best seasons ever, as he hit .305 with 34 home runs, and 123 runs batted in, and lead the league in walks.

1989 Mike Greenwell. Seems odd now, but Greenwell was the runner-up in the AL MVP vote in 1988. He hit .325 with 22 home runs, and drove in 119. He also stole 16 bases and looked like a young superstar. Greenwell turned out to be a good, but seldom great player over the rest of his career.

1990 Ellis Burks. This is an odd one. Not that Burks never deserved to be a Diamond King, but he did not deserve it in 1990 for his 1989 season. He only played in 97 games with 12 home runs. But he did steal 21 bases and possibly could have had another 20/20 season if he stayed healthy. He also had a .303 batting average. He was good for the time that he played, but he did not play often enough. By Donruss's parameters of hardly repeating players, I would have picked Nick Esasky, who hit 30 home runs and drove in 108.

1991 Roger Clemens. Again, clearly deserving. He won 21 games, struck out 209 and lead the league in ERA with 1.93. He should have won the Cy Young, but voters were blinded by Bob Welch's 27 wins, even though his other stats were not nearly as impressive as Clemens's.

1992 Wade Boggs. The first year the Diamond Kings were an insert. Boggs had a very good season in 1991, right in line with his previous years. He was starting to look like a lock for the Hall of Fame. He did not do anything extraordinary, but it was not a great year for Red Sox players.

1993 Roger Clemens. Since the cards were inserts now, Donruss abandoned its preference for not repeating winners, although they still preferred not to make them consecutive. Clemens was basically the only player to have a good enough year for the Red Sox, leading the league in ERA and shutouts, while winning 18 games for a terrible Boston team. This is the first Diamond King card I do not own.

1994 Mo Vaughn. The young slugger had a breakout year in 1993, leading the team in home runs and RBI while posting a good batting average and ability to take a walk. He was clearly the best player on the team.

1995 Scott Cooper. Headscratcher #3. Cooper had mostly pedestrian numbers, .282 batting average, 13 home runs, 53 RBI, and only 30 walks. Sure it was a strike-shortened season, and Cooper had been an All Star each of the previous two years, but he was hardly a good player. He was an All Star by default and not really deserving of the honor. It should have gone to John Valentin, Mo Vaughn, or Roger Clemens.

1996 Mo Vaughn. Won the AL MVP in 1995 while leading the league in home runs. Justified.

So there you have it. Three headscratchers, three borderline calls, and the rest are fine. Even among the headscratchers, Armas and Burks deserved the honor in other years, just not the year chosen. Cooper is the only outright surprise. If I was making the decisions, here is what my list would have looked like, following Donruss's perceived parameters:

1982 Dwight Evans
1983 Dennis Eckersley
1984 Wade Boggs
1985 Tony Armas
1986 Rich Gedman
1987 Roger Clemens
1988 Dwight Evans
1989 Mike Greenwell
1990 Nick Esasky
1991 Ellis Burks
1992 Jack Clark
1993 Roger Clemens
1994 Mo Vaughn
1995 John Valentin
1996 Mo Vaughn

Still, the Red Sox have had better luck than other teams. The following is a list of players who were Diamond Kings for inexplicable reasons:

Len Barker
Mike Norris
Roy Smalley
Richie Zisk
Floyd Bannister
Britt Burns
John Castino
Jim Clancy
Matt Young
Charlie Lea
Rich Dotson
Rick Mahler
Chris Brown
Greg Walker
Keith Moreland
Rick Rhoden
Glenn Hubbard
Scott Fletcher
Shane Rawley
Dave Schmidt
Gerald Perry
Jeff Robinson
Bryn Smith
Chris Bosio
Dan Gladden
Ed Whitson
Jim DeShaies
Mike Bielecki
Pete O'Brien
Kurt Stillwell
Scott Sanderson
Greg Swindell

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