Billy Wagner didn’t have a Hall of Fame career, but he was a pretty good closer for a long time. In a 16-year career, Wagner earned 422 saves and went to the All-Star game seven times.
So I was a little surprised to find a pair of autographed baseball cards in a five-for-$10 box along with the likes of Jorge Toca and Geoff Getz at the collectibles shop I visited in Pennsylvania earlier this month.
Wagner’s first certified autograph came in the 1994 Signature Rookies set, released a year after the Houston Astros made him the 12th overall pick in the amateur draft. Can you believe Signature Rookies asked him to sign 8.650 of these cards?
Tim Byrdak, one of two current New York Mets players older than me, has had an odd pro career.
A fifth round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals in 1994, Byrdak made his pro debut for the Eugene Emeralds that summer. In 1998, he made his major league debut with Kansas City, but after three seasons with the Royals he didn’t return to the big leagues again until 2005.
Beginning in his 30s, Byrdak found steady work as a lefty specialist. In 2011, he pitched just 37.2 innings for the Mets despite appearing in 72 games.
As you might expect, Byrdak has not been a regular in major league baseball card sets. His rookie card can be found in the 1999 Fleer Tradition Update set (#U58 ) and Upper Deck included him in its 2009 set (#659). That’s been it, though Byrdak does have some minor league cards.
But thanks to Signature Rookies, a company that pioneered the idea of including an autograph in every pack, Byrdak does have a certified autograph issue from 1994. I found a copy in a dealer’s dollar box at a card show last spring, and it will remain in my Mets autograph binder unless Topps decides to give me a Mets card to try to get signed.
Even the most fanatical of Mets fans might be forgiven if they don’t recall Juan Castillo, a member of the 1994 team’s pitching staff.
A native of Venezuela, Castillo signed with the Mets organization at the age of 18. He spent six years in the minor leagues. In 1994, he went 11-2 in 18 starts for the Double A Binghamton Mets.
That July, the Mets called him up and Castillo made two starts. His major league debut was on July 26 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Castillo allowed five runs in five innings, earning a no-decision in a game that the Mets went on to win 10-9.
His turn came up again five days later at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Castillo held the Pirates to four runs in 6 2/3 innings, but did not factor into the decision as the Mets won 6-4 thanks to a ninth inning rally.
Castillo never pitched in the major leagues again. During the 1994 off-season, the Mets included him as the player to be named later in the deal that brought Pete Harnsich from Houston to New York. Castillo retired after the 1996 season.
Signature Rookies included Castillo in their 1995 set, likely on the strength of his 1994 Double A record and his brief major league call up. The photo appears to be an airbrushed shot from his time with the Binghamton Mets, even though Castillo was a part of the Astros organization by the time the set came out.
His autograph is a bit puzzling. The printed “Juan” is easy to make out, but I can’t tell if the rest of it is supposed to be his last name, a Biblical reference or something else entirely.
If Upper Deck gets the credit for introducing the baseball card-collecting world to the autographed insert card, then Signature Rookies sets are the ones that got us to where we are today.
Upper Deck included signed Reggie Jackson cards in 1990 that were so limited that most collectors never got to see one in person. In 1994, Signature Rookies featured an autographed card of a minor league player in every (expensive) pack. Quantity over quality, right?