Card Corner: Topps’ top 60 and Brian Jordanby Bruce Markusen
December 03, 2010
There are only so many places to take photographs at the ballpark. Foul territory often provides the site for posed photographs. Then there’s the batting cage, the dugout, perhaps even the bullpen. Action shots can be snapped from the camera wells beyond the dugouts. Or a baseball card photographer could get creative and pose a player in the stands, at least when there are no fans in the ballpark.
And that’s about it. By the 1990s, the Topps Company decided to do something different with its backgrounds. Rather than rely solely on the ballpark and its ambiance, the creative people at Topps began to tinker with doing some of their photography in the studio, or in other indoor locations, while using unusual props. That became evident with the release of Topps’ 1998 set. Topps issued several cards that had been snapped in studio locations, including Bobby Abreu and Jeff Montgomery, the latter holding a fire extinguisher.
The most effective example of studio use can be found in Brian Jordan’s card, which uses a landscape arrangement for dramatic effect.
Jordan is seen taking a practice swing, not at a baseball, but at a football, which is suspended from an imperceptibly thin piece of wire. This was not the first time that a baseball card displayed a football; Nolan Ryan can be seen throwing one on his 1989 Upper Deck card. But it was the first card in which the player was seen taking a bat to the football. In this case, the reference here is clear: at one time, Jordan starred as a safety for the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League.
By the time that Topps issued his 1998 card, the burly Jordan had voluntarily ended his career in the NFL, but the connection remained pertinent. After starring for the Falcons from 1989 to 1991, Jordan had decided to quit football and concentrate his efforts on playing baseball. Perhaps there is something symbolic about the Topps card, with Jordan figuratively swatting away his football career with the help of the baseball bat.
It was the kind of career move that the more celebrated “Neon” Deion Sanders had never been willing to make, but it made Jordan the better guy from this baseball fan’s perspective.
Jordan was willing to make the full commitment to one sport—and one team. Meanwhile, Sanders was grandstanding as he split time between the Falcons and Atlanta Braves, even missing parts of important playoff games with the Braves because of his obsession with being a two-sport star. Sanders did the split-shift with his other teams, including the Yankees, with whom he debuted in 1989. For Sanders, that meant always interrupting the baseball season to move on to his preferred sport of football.
Although Sanders was a more dominant football player and a greater self-promoter of his own celebrity, Jordan was by far the better baseball player. Sanders had speed and a lightning quick bat, but he hit with little power, showed almost no patience at the plate, and struggled with a below-average arm in the outfield. In comparison, Jordan displayed his own free-swinging tendencies, but he had much more power and a stronger throwing arm. Jordan played seven mostly productive seasons with the Cardinals, emerging as a solid right fielder and offensive contributor.
Jordan put together his finest season in 1998. He achieved a career-high OPS of .902, hit 25 home runs, and stole 17 bases. Using that season as his springboard, Jordan cashed in on free agency, leaving the Cardinals to sign a lucrative five-year, $35 million deal with the Braves. It was there that he took on an unexpectedly greater role. A diagnosis of cancer left the Braves without cleanup man Andres Galarraga. Jordan stepped into the lineup breach, reached the century mark in both RBIs and runs scored, and slugged a respectable .465. In midseason, Jordan earned selection to the National League’s All-Star team.
Jordan saved some of his finest play for that postseason. Playing in the 1999 Division Series against the Astros, Jordan batted .471 and collected seven RBIs, accounting for more than one-third of Atlanta’s run total for the series. Jordan then hit two home runs against the Mets in the Championship Series before slumping in his first and only World Series appearance.
After remaining with the Braves through the 2001 season, Jordan found himself heading to the West Coast in 2002. The Braves packaged him and left-hander Odalis Perez, sending them to the Dodgers for star outfielder Gary Sheffield.
Jordan played productively in his first season with Los Angeles, but injuries began to cut into his effectiveness the following summer. Jordan became a free agent and signed with the Rangers, but a series of injuries once again stifled his season. He then returned to the Braves, putting in time as a part-time player for two seasons before calling it quits at the end of the 2006 season.
So what is Brian Jordan’s legacy? His pro football career lasted only three years, so it’s unlikely that he will be remembered for the gridiron. So it must be found in baseball. Jordan was not a great baseball player, just a good one. His 1998 Topps card, however, deserves a place in the pantheon of baseball cards.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.