The Beckett Blog

Aflac baseball card set a quick turnaround for Topps by Chris Olds

The West squad's Christian Montgomery works away at his stack of cards to sign on Saturday in advance of today's Aflac All-American High School Baseball Classic.

By Theo Chen | for Beckett Baseball

Hurry up and wait. That’s the name of the game for Topps each year when the company produces its highly sought after Bowman cards featuring players in the Aflac All-American High School Baseball Classic.

The Classic is today at Petco Park in San Diego.

Jim McKenna, Topps’ assistant brand manager for baseball, has helped plan the company’s Aflac effort for the past four years and said it starts with coordinating the player schedules with the event’s organizers. And then, after that, there’s one key aspect — finding a printer in San Diego who can turn around the entire job on a lightning-fast schedule.

“We get bids from printers weeks in advance – they like the notoriety of saying they worked with Topps,” McKenna said. “Then we have our photographer set up at the hotel to take photos of the players as they arrive on Thursday and are fitted for their uniforms. We choose the best pose to fit the card design and do color correction.”

Topps is one of several corporate sponsors of the game, but Aflac runs the show, and the players have a busy four days once they arrive in San Diego including meetings, practices, a children’s hospital visit, an awards dinner and other events.

In some cases, though, there is time for the players to have input on their particular cards. For example, Philip Pfeifer — a pitcher some scouts compare to Gio Gonzalez — wanted to be shown with his bat, and Topps obliged.

“It’s a lifelong dream for some of these guys to see themselves on cards,” McKenna said. “It’s a special moment for them, so we want them to be happy with their cards. Some guys, especially those who are both pitchers and hitters, ask about their poses.”

Technology has helped make the Aflac cards a reality faster than similar projects in past years. The cards will be given away to fans at today’s game and a number of cards are signed by the players for inclusion in future Topps products.

“In the old days we used slides, but the digital era has made things a lot easier,” McKenna said.

It’s so easy, in fact, that the photos taken of all 38 Aflac players on Thursday appeared on large stacks of cleanly cut Aflac cards ready to be signed by the players yesterday afternoon. For about an hour, a medium-sized hotel meeting room was filled with 38 of the country’s best high school  players seated at long tables, working their penmanship with fine point blue Staedtler markers.

Last year, was the first time that Topps skipped using ultraviolet coating on the cards, not because of potential streaking (Staedtler markers are much less streak-prone than Sharpies) but because of timing.

“With UV coating, it would take an additional day to print the cards, and we need them done in timely fashion because we have such a small window for players to sign them,” McKenna said.

Ironically, as Topps jumps through hoops to produce the cards in less than two days, the company must stash these highly sought after autograph cards for at least a year, and sometimes longer before they are inserted in packs. They can’t be released until the player signs a pro contract and also sign a deal with Topps.

In the case of players like Matthew Purke (Aflac Class of 2008), who opted to play for TCU in 2009 and 2010 instead of signing with the Texas Rangers, Topps must wait and see if he signs with the MLB team drafts him in 2011.

Collectors, however, can obtain the unsigned cards almost instantly if they attend the Aflac game. The cards the players sign are exactly the same as the unsigned cards given to fans at the game. Even though the cards have obvious value, Topps is allowed to distribute the cards at the game through Aflac because they are giveaway items — just like the team posters produced each year.

Topps is well aware of the cards’ appeal at the event, too.

“We know a lot of collectors go to the game just for the cards,” McKenna said. “We make sure the distribution is completely random. Each person gets just three random cards. We don’t want a [small] group of people to go to the game and be able to put together a complete set.”

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