Despite their popularity among fans, Donruss's Diamond Kings subset (and later, insert set) wasn't included in the company's debut set in 1981. The '81 Donruss set was riddled with errors, and missed out on some of the key rookie cards of the year, like Kirk Gibson and Fernando Valenzuela. But then again, it was the first baseball set that the company had ever made, and these errors were expected.
1982 brought more innovations to Donruss, including one that would become the company's hallmark during its existence: the Diamond Kings. The Diamond Kings were designed to highlight the best players in the league, and instead of the typical posed shot of the player that populated nearly all baseball cards up to that point in time, the Diamond Kings featured paintings done by artist Dick Perez. The cards immediately were a hit with collectors, and were a hallmark of the company until 1996.
In this piece (and one more coming tomorrow), and I'm going to look at the best and worst Diamond Kings from each year. This post will cover the 1980s, and tomorrow, we'll look at the 1990s. Now keep in mind, I'm not looking at the art on the card. Say what you want to say about Perez's art, but the man clearly has a gift for art, and did a solid job on most of the pieces.
The Diamond Kings were supposed to highlight the best of the best, yet sometimes, they missed the mark. Here are the best and worst Diamond Kings of the 1980s.
Best: Gary Carter
The late, great Carter was one of the best catchers of all-time, and his 1982 season with the Expos was his best. Carter was worth 8.3 fWAR, OPSed .891, and hit 29 homers. This wasn't just the best season of Carter's career, it was one of the more complete seasons for a catcher of all-time. He finished second in fWAR among hitters to just Robin Yount of the Brewers. Naturally, Carter was 12th in NL MVP voting, even finishing below three pitchers. Yeesh. You can't even blame the Expos being a bad team, because they finished third in the NL East, just six games behind the division champion Cardinals. Oddly, some justfiable stars (Yount, NL MVP Dale Murphy, Mike Schmidt) weren't included in the first set of Diamond Kings.
Worst: Mike Norris
I actually had to research who Norris was, because I had never heard of him prior to writing this article. In 1980, Norris won 22 games, had a 2.53 ERA, and was worth 6.0 fWAR. During the strike-shortened 1981 season, those numbers dropped to 12 wins, a 3.75 ERA, and 0.7 fWAR. Things completely fell off a cliff in 1982, as Norris won just seven games, had a 4.76 ERA, and a negative fWAR. He started just 16 games in 1983, and was out of baseball until a 14 game relief stint in 1990 at the age of 35. But just like that, his career essentially ended at age 28 after a fantastic age 25 season. Thankfully, pitchers don't throw 284 innings in a season anymore, which is what Norris did in that fantastic age 25 season.
Best: Rickey Henderson
1983 was close to the time when Rickey was at the height of his powers. He stole 108 bases. Think of that for a minute: 108 bases. It's insanity. Henderson would finish 24th in AL MVP voting that year, despite 7.4 fWAR. I honestly don't know how some of the players that received more votes than Henderson even got them...but whatever. And just think, the best was still to come for Henderson. Hat tip to Dale Murphy, snubbed from the initial DK checklist, who won his second MVP award in 1983. '83 also featured a few baseball legends in the twilight of their careers, like Johnny Bench, Willie Stargell, Carl Yastrzemski, and Jim Palmer.
Worst: Jim Sundberg
When talking about the older players featured in this set, I couldn't possibly include one on the worst list, just because of their status in baseball history. But while Sundberg was an older 32 in 1983, he would still play until the end of the decade, so I can't absolve him just based on that. Sundberg's 1983 season was dreadful. It was his final year with the Rangers, and he hit a pathetic .201/.272/.254 in 131 games. I can't blame age, I can't blame small sample size....it was just a really bad year. Sundberg never really was a superstar either, with just two seasons in his 16 year career over 4.0 fWAR.
Best: Eddie Murray
While 1984 featured the Diamond King debut of Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, I had to go with Murray, who was just a little better overall in 1984 than Phillies' great Schmidt. Murray had a .919 OPS and 29 homers in 1984, accruing 7.4 fWAR. Schmidt was a hair behind at 7.3 fWAR, also OPSing .919 with 36 homers. I gave the nod to Murray based on the fact that he played in all 162 games, and he finished fourth in the AL MVP voting, compared to seventh for Schmidt. Both men were worthy Diamond Kings. Also, look at that afro. COME ON! That's Oscar Gamble stuff right there....well done, Eddie. Not to mention, the fantastic smiling bird on the hat....can't wait to see that in action again this year.
Worst: Ray Knight
Knight would become a playoff hero two seasons later, but in 1984, which he split between the Astros and Mets, he was pretty terrible. Knight had a .578 OPS in 115 games, and was worth -0.9 fWAR. That's just brutal. There were a lot of "nameless" Diamond Kings in 1984 (guys like Leon Durham, Andre Thornton, and of course, John Castino), but no one was worse than the now well-known Knight. Extra negative points for the horrendous orange uniform worn by Knight in this painting. I know I wasn't going to judge these DKs based on the art, but that is just a hideously ugly uniform. Imagine if the Knight and the Mets wore all orange in the '86 World Series.
Best: Don Mattingly
This was Mattingly's second full season in the majors, and he posted a .938 OPS with 35 homers and just 41 strikeouts. He'd become an icon in New York over his career, and his 1985 MVP season was a big reason why. The 1985 set was the most star-studded at the time, with no player featured in the set being worth a negative fWAR for the season. It was also the DK debut for stars like Mattingly, Ryne Sandberg, Cal Ripken, and Tony Gwynn. Yeah, not bad. The pitching crop was mediocre overall, but Bert Blyleven was actually worth more fWAR than Mattingly. Mattingly's completely 80's mustache would be one of those things that gets him over like a rock star in 2012, instead of just being a dime a dozen in 1985.
Worst: Jesse Orosco
There really wasn't a BAD choice in this set, but I'll go with Orosco by default. He only made 54 appearances out of the Mets' bullpen (compared to 84 for someone like Dan Quisenberry), and saved just 17 games. That's part-time closer stuff in this day and age, and his season only was worth 0.9 fWAR. The 2.73 ERA was really nice, but....he's a middle reliever who finishes a game from time to time. His co-closer in New York, Roger McDowell, also had 17 saves, but threw 50 more innings than Orosco. Blah. Orosco was actually only 28 during the 1985 season...for fans used to seeing him in his ageless years, this might be a little jarring.
Best: Dwight Gooden
Gooden would help lead the '86 Mets to a World Championship, though his season was a little disappointing in comparison to previous ones. The 4.8 fWAR he posted was a shadow of the 8.6 and 9.0 marks he posted during his first two years in the league, and his 7.20 strikeout rate was nothing to bat an eye at. But still, he threw 250 innings of 2.84 ERA ball. That's pretty special. Gooden is the standout of an overall middling '86 DK class. There really wasn't a consideration for the top slot in this year's batch. So why not go with the best pitcher, who took the league by storm in his first two seasons, on the World Champions? Yeah, that sounds about right. Oh god, I sound like an MLB awards voter....
Worst: Tony Armas
This isn't Tony Armas Jr, formerly of the Expos. This is Tony Armas Sr, a low walk, high power outfielder that played primarily with the Red Sox and Athletics. The downswing to Armas's career started in 1985, when he hit 23 homers (down from 43 in 1984) and OPSed just .812 (thanks to a .298 OBP). In 1986, it hit the fan for him, as his homer total dropped again to 11, and his OPS fell to .714. In his final three seasons with the Angels after '86, Armas was worth just 1.0 fWAR in 208 games. He fell off, and he fell off quick. Armas was out of the majors at age 36. In his prime, he had a pair of fantastic seasons with the A's. He actually finished with 251 career homers, and somehow, a career .287 OBP.
Best: Roger Clemens
Dale Murphy misses out again, but the Rocket was just on another level in '87. En route to winning the '87 Cy Young award, Clemens piled up 9.3 fWAR, had a 2.97 ERA, pitched 281 2/3 innings, and struck out 256 batters. From '86-'88, Clemens piled up 27.3 fWAR. Is that even possible anymore? Even before all the steroid talk started surrounding Clemens, he was unbelievable. Imagine the rivalry that could have grown between him and Gooden if Doc didn't fall in love with cocaine. I almost thing Clemens is at the point where he's underrated, just because of the steroid cloud surrounding him, and all the bad publicity he got in New York. This guy was a BEAST.
Worst: Chris Brown
No, this isn't the dude who beat up Rihanna. Brown only played six seasons in the majors, mostly with the Giants, and racked up 6.5 career fWAR....or, 30% less than Clemens' 1987 season. Sounds fair. Anyway, Brown had back to back 3.0 fWAR seasons in 1985 and 1986, and looked to be entering his prime going into 1987. He ended up OPSing .693 for the year and getting traded from the Giants to the Padres in a seven player deal that brought Kevin Mitchell and Dave Dravecky to the Bay Area. He OPSed .578 for the Padres in 1988, and .449 in 17 games for the Tigers in 1989, and that put a wrap on his career.
Best: Andy Van Slyke
Van Slyke was the veteran in center field for the late-80s, early-90s Pirates in between budding stars Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla (well, early in his career, Bonilla was the Pirates full-time third baseman, but he moved to right in 1990), and he was actually pretty damn good early on in his Pittsburgh career. 1988 was one of his finest seasons, as he hit 25 homers and stole 30 bases with an .851 OPS, putting together a 6.5 fWAR season that would lay the groundwork for the mini-Pirates dynasty that would come to a crashing halt when Bonilla left town after the 1991 seasons, and Bonds left town after the 1992 season. But it was fun while it lasted! In case you're doubting this choice, just remember: I could have gone with Kal Daniels.
Worst: Shane Rawley
Remember those Phillies teams that came along when Mike Schmidt started to get old and Steve Carlton left town? Well, Rawley was on a few of them, and he wasn't great at all. In '88, Rawley went 8-16, struck out 87 while walking 78, and had a 4.18 ERA (back when that was considered terrible). He threw 145 innings for the 1989 Twins, and that was it for his career. It's not as if his 1987 season was much better, with the 4.39 ERA, 123 strikeouts, and 86 walks. Rawley only had two seasons in his 12 season career that were worth more than 3.0 fWAR. But, here we are. Shane Rawley: Diamond King. Weren't the 1980s fun?!
Best: Fred McGriff
Due in part to his awesomeness for the mid-90s Braves, Fred McGriff is a player that I will forever have a soft spot for. But man, he was great with the Blue Jays in the '80s. In '89, McGriff would hit 36 homers (one off of his career high of 37 set in 1993), OPS .924, and put up 6.9 fWAR, the second highest total in his career. He finished sixth in the AL MVP voting, including (inexplicably) behind teammate George Bell, who had an OPS 136 points lower than McGriff's....but because he hit .299, was somehow more deserving. OK then. 1980's baseball, you make me so angry sometimes. McGriff is probably the most underrated player I've seen during my life.
Worst: Gerald Perry
As a Braves apologist, it pains me to include a Brave on this list...but Gerald Perry was just a really bad player. In '89, Perry only played in 72 games, but was horrible in them, OPSing .675. For his career, Perry accrued a *total* of 1.5 fWAR. I think there was a week or two last year where Jose Bautista was worth that much. Somehow, he parlayed this into a 13 year career, mainly with the Braves and Cardinals, and over $6 million in salary. Did I mention that Perry was a first baseman, and he somehow only had a career ISO of .111? Man, if I was an aware fan in the late-80's, I wouldn't really be a happy camper if I saw him playing first base for my team...
So there's a look at the Diamond Kings of the '80s. Tomorrow, I'll take a look at the Diamond Kings of the '90s. If you think that Donruss got wiser as the next decade came along and the DKs shifted to an insert set....ohhhhhh, you're very sadly mistaken.
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