Back in the 1980s, rookie card mania hit the hobby … hard.
You can blame Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose and Don Mattingly and Jose Canseco.
Those dudes and a bunch of others caught collectors’ attention just as baseball cards started to go mainstream, and everyone had to get their hands on those first-year pasteboards.
Prices went up, up, up, and card companies noticed …
Donruss brought us Rated Rookies …
Fleer brought us Major League Prospects …
Topps brought us Future Stars and Rookie Stars.
There were Traded sets, Update sets, The Rookies sets, box sets devoted to rookies and prospects … rookie cards were everywhere!
And every player was a prospect, a guy who might turn into the “next” somebody, a rookie card waiting to explode.
So you had people “investing” in up-and-comers like Tim Pyznarski, Tommy Dunbar, Joe Hesketh, Randy Kramer. If there was any chance you could see a Major League field within the next five years, someone was going to give you a rookie card, and collectors were going to stock up on you.
But even then, there were guys who sneaked up on all of us.
Guys like Jose Mesa.
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The future Indians’ closer began his professional baseball life when the Toronto Blue Jays signed him to an amateur free agent contract out of the Dominican Republic in 1981, when he was just 15 years old.
Joe Table then spent six long years in the Jays minor league system, working almost exclusively as a starter and topping out at Double-A Knoxville in 1987.
That summer, though, the Blue Jays were fighting for an AL East Title, and they traded Oswaldo Peraza and a player to be named later to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for starter Mike Flanagan.
In September, the clubs agreed on the PTBNL — one Jose Mesa.
While the Blue Jays fell short of their playoff aspirations, the Orioles pretty much fell short of being a Major League team, finishing the season at 67-95.
Why not bring up their new youngster?
So they did, and Mesa made his Big League debut on September 10, 1987. He logged six total appearances that month — five starts and a relief stint — and crafted a nifty 1-3 record with a tidy 6.05 ERA.
Normally, such a stout showing would have led to an avalanche of rookie cards, but only Donruss bit on Mesa as an Oriole for their 1988 set.
As you can see above, Mesa himself did not seem all that impressed by the meager outpouring of cardboard respect. And collectors pretty much felt the same way — I sure don’t remember anyone hoarding thousands of Mesa RCs with their sights set on an early retirement.
The Orioles themselves didn’t help build any Mesa hype, either, sending him back to the minors in 1988. That worked out well for them, seeing as how they finishedat 54-107 after a historic 21-game losing streak to start the season.
Having Mesa on-hand would have been so much worse … right?
Apparently, because the O’s kept him down on the farm until the last month of 1990, when he came up for good.
And it wasn’t until the next year, 1991, that Upper Deck and Bowman finally gave that 1988 Donruss Jose Mesa rookie card some company. It wasn’t until the O’s traded Mesa to the Cleveland Indians, though, and until the Tribe moved him to the bullpen, that any of his cardboard really mattered.
By that time … well, you probably had to trudge through some dusty commons bin to find Mesa’s true rookie card.