*PING!* Topps Goes to College

College baseball doesn’t feel real most of the time, a perspective that I ascribe to the weirdness of metal bats. Perhaps it’s the metallic “ping” that punctuates the air each time contact is made. Perhaps more so it is the lack of baseball cards for players. You’re not a “real” ballplayer unless your picture is on cardboard.

One of these cards that seemed to find a spot in every binder I had as a kid pictured a player running out a hit for Oklahoma State. This wasn’t some low quality issue produced by a university booster group, but rather a legitimate part of Topps’ 1989 Major League Baseball set. Seeking a way to differentiate its cards from a growing number of competitors, Topps included a card highlighting each of the players taken in the first round of the 1988 draft. Almost every player in this subset is pictured in their college uniform.

The player pictured on this card wasn’t just any college player, he was arguably the best. Robin Ventura played three years for Oklahoma State, leaving school to take his chances in the MLB draft. Before doing so he won pretty much every award imaginable, including the Golden Spikes Award denoting the NCAA’s best overall player. He authored a 58-game hitting streak that remains a college record. He also happened to rack up a gold medal as a representative of Team USA in the 1988 Summer Olympics. College stats are always a bit flukey and inflated, but there is no way to write off what Ventura did on the ballfield. Check out his NCAA career stats annualized into a 162-game format:

Figures highlighted in orange would be single season records. Those appearing in blue represent all-time top-10 finishes.

Ventura didn’t finish school and went on to play for 16 years with various teams. He did, however, return to OSU in 2020 and finally graduated this past month.

As is plainly visible above, Ventura was a highly capable ballplayer beyond the collegiate level. He averaged more than one grand slam per season and ranks fifth among all MLB players. He almost had 19, hitting a bases loaded pitch into the stands in the 1999 postseason but was carried off the basepaths by celebrating teammates, making his “home run” a bases clearing single in the record books. Ventura made up for it by managing to hit two grand slams inside a single game.

Despite that reputation for bases loaded magic, the Cleveland Indians somehow thought it wise to issue an intentional walk to Darren Lewis (career OPS+ of 73) and pitch to Ventura in a July 1996 game. The pass to Lewis loaded the bases in a 3-0 game. Ventura promptly scored Lewis and two additional runners with a base clearing double.

An underrated aspect Ventura’s 1993 Finest card is the way Topps showed both the home and away Chicago uniforms. Ventura was Chicago’s second most recognizable player wearing #23 during the 1990s with Michael Jordan ruling the city’s sports scene.