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The year: 1992. Paul Tsongas is the Democratic frontrunner in the upcoming presidential election. Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper is taking over Friday night television and a nation’s heart. And Pinnacle Brands, with its Score trading cards, is the fifth-place sports card manufacturer on the market, behind the old standbys Topps, Fleer and Donruss, and the upstart Upper Deck. Fifth wasn’t a terrible place to be, really; baseball card popularity was unparalleled, the sport was going strong, and kids and investors alike were amassing their future fortunes. Score, only in the market since 1988, was considered the cheapest alternative, less lucrative for collectors. So the company released a new set with glossy photographs, reinforced card stock, and vibrant colors set against a striking black background. They called it Pinnacle, as if this were the true realization of their vision, and sold it at an MSRP of $1.99 per pack.

Kirby Puckett was their spokesperson, of sorts.

[Side note for those too lazy to click: The commercial features Puckett throwing out a strikingly Rickey Henderson-ish baserunner tagging up. What impresses is that as the ball travels home, a “camera” zooms in on it and supplies several numerical readings without units: height (begins midthrow at 15, ends at 4, fair enough), distance (begins at 73, ends at 80 somehow, yards?), and velocity (begins at 300, decelerates to zero before(!) hitting the catcher’s mitt). These were numbers that were obviously never meant to be seen, and if so, never recorded. It is interesting that numbers themselves, just meaningless numbers on a screen, tie so closely to the aesthetic and desirability of the baseball card.]

The set is attractive, and all 660 cards can be purchased online for a princely $8 plus shipping and handling. But what we’re interested in is an insert set, randomly included in packs, entitled “Team 2000”. An 80-card subset with title embossed in timeless gold foil, this was Pinnacle’s attempt to look into the future and portend which players would dominate that most fascinating of times for a citizen of the '90s: the year 2000.

So how did our experts, the ones collectively rating our rookies and starring our futures, perform? The answer is… not well.

Nine of the 80 players provided negative WARP in 2000; another 28 were out of baseball. Two, John Smoltz and Tom Gordon, happened to miss that year with injury. And out of it all, only nine players from 1992’s Team 2000 actually qualified for 2000’s Team 2000. In fact, despite the obvious attempt to pick young and upstart players whose best days would be far in the future, a better title for them would be Team 1993:

So what happened? Was Pinnacle really that terrible at picking winners?

A couple of obvious factors stacked the odds against them. As readers may have already concluded, the idea of guessing who will be the best players in baseball nearly a decade in the future is madness swirled with hubris. Of the 80 best players in the right-hand table, more than two-thirds (55) hadn’t yet made their debut. Essentially, by projecting so far out, and only using players with major-league experience, they were limiting themselves to a spectrum of players who would be 30 years and older, well past their prime, by Y2K.

But then to make things even harder on themselves, Pinnacle used a cutoff of age 25 for their eligibility. It makes sense that you’d want to use exciting young players for your sample, and one can imagine that the marketing power of it could even outweigh the accuracy of the mission. Still, anyone 35 or over in 2000 failed to make the cut, disqualifying the likes of Bonds, Clemens, Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez.

So if we accept these arbitrary restrictions, and only include major-league players in the set 25 and under, did Pinnacle do okay? It depends on your definition of okay.

Pinnacle hit on 60 percent of the players based on their own restrictions who qualified in the top 80. Part of this is due to some surprising down years: Robin Ventura, Jim Thome, John Olerud, and Pudge Rodriguez are players you would rightfully expect to be in a set like this, but they each failed to make the cut in that particular year. But some of it is just plain missing on rookies: we’re treated to such luminaries as Monty Fariss, Kevin Morton, and Kyle Abbott instead of Darryl Kile, Jeff Kent, and Pedro Astacio. But rookies are rookies; the real failure on Pinnacle’s part is taking chances on established young players like Al Leiter, Curt Schilling, and Tom Glavine. Leiter can be forgiven; at that point he appeared to be behind his brother’s career path. But Schilling was given a rotation job right out the gate in 1992, before these cards were published. And Glavine… well, someone must have misread his birthday.

Of course, one of the best things about any insert series is the flavor text. Baseball card copy is a little like thank you notes to grandma: no negativity, regardless of the source material. Combine that with the fact that Pinnacle already talked about these players on their regular cards, and you have a tough task. Still, our anonymous writer may have been a bit too exuberant at times. Here are some samples of why each player would be millennium-pertinent:

  • Travis Fryman: “Detroit won’t have to search for a shortstop when veteran superstar Alan Trammell retires…” (note: Fryman gave up shortstop around the same time Trammell did.)
  • Pat Kelly: “hitting should improve with another 500 or so at-bats in the majors…”
  • Mike Mussina: “combines intelligence and intensity with a 90-plus-mph fastball…” (note: this isn’t false, just kind of an amazing piece of praise to consider 25 years in the future)
  • Tim Naehring: “the Red Sox believe he can develop into a Cal Ripken Jr.-type shortstop…”
  • Sandy Alomar: “he should resume hitting and throwing like he did in 1990 when he earned the AL Rookie of the Year Award…”
  • Luis Mercedes: “there’s little doubt Luis will become an excellent hitter in the majors…”
  • Chuck Knoblauch: “knows how to hit-and-run and doesn’t make mental errors…”

Despite their embarrassing failure, Pinnacle gave it another shot in 1993 with the less catchy Team 2001. This time they chose only 30 players, and for it they performed much better. Only six were out of baseball, eight were 4+ WARP players, and the roster peaked in 1997 rather than the next year. Still, faced with an increasingly uninteresting title, Pinnacle wrapped up the theme that year.

In a perfect world, we would have been treated to a real Team 2000 set in the year 2000, with every player reconsidered, even the retired players included to update their biographical information. (“There’s little doubt that Luis Mercedes will become an excellent vice president of sales…”) Tragically, we never got it: Pinnacle never recovered from the 1994 strike, and went bankrupt in 1998. Even card companies can be busted prospects, in a way.

Thank you for reading

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Ah, Monty Farriss. I had so many of his cards and yet I had completely forgotten he existed.
Psst: It was Paul Tsongas. He was an important conservationist in addition to being a failed presidential candidate.

I enjoyed seeing Bartolo Colon in the right-hand column of the first table, just between Vladimir Guerrero and Sammy Sosa. Who would have picked him as the last man standing among that set of players?
Fixed, thanks. On the bright side, we're talking about Paul Tsongas today! Everyone should share their memories.
Fond memories of Phil Plantier, 8th in rookie of the year in 1992.
Surest way to get me to click on an article is to include a vintage photo of Ken Griffey Jr.

Glad I clicked.
In the Puckett video, he fields the ball in front of the Metrodome center field fence -- you can tell by the "408 FT." in the background. Everything else takes place in the Coliseum. It looks like they got Kirby Puckett (and possibly Brian Harper) to show up for an actual video shoot in Minnesota, but had to settle for a simulated Rickey.
I thought Luis Mercedes was gonna be awesome, but in my defense, I was 13. I just saw a guy who hit over .300 in the IL with a bunch of steals.
Nothing but nothing will ever make me doubt the efficacy of WARP than seeing Glendon Rusch, 11-11 and a 4.01 ERA, with a 5.86 WARP in 2000, ahead of Ken Griffey, Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell.
To be fair, it's pretty impressive for a guy to post a four ERA facing lineups full of guys like 2000 Ken Griffey, Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell. (The NL had a 4.64 ERA as a whole that year.)