Celebrating the Global Game
Tasked with preserving a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning of the World Baseball Classic’s championship game, Shohei Ohtani stared 60 feet and six inches away from home plate and his Los Angeles Angels teammate, the indomitable Mike Trout. It was the storybook ending baseball fans had been praying for, and inside Miami’s LoanDepot Park, every fan was already standing in anticipation.
But through it all, Ohtani looked remarkably calm.
As Trout assumed his imposing batting stance, Ohtani looked calm.
Ohtani unleashed a few fastballs that broke 100 miles per hour – explosive pitches that drew hacks from Trout but no contact. Ohtani looked calm.
As Ohtani snapped off a full-count slider, an unfathomably nasty and deceptive pitch that Trout helplessly waved at as it slipped suddenly out of the strike zone. Ohtani looked calm.
But the moment Samurai Japan’s victory set in, he exploded, stretching out his arms, screaming towards his dugout, and flinging his hat and glove in celebration as the crush of teammates engulfed him on the infield.
“It’s like you’re watching the World Series every night,” said Fox Sports analyst Kevin Burkhardt on the World Baseball Classic, the international tournament that brought these players together. The moment was baseball at its absolute finest — Trout as Captain America trading blows with a “mythical unicorn god,” in the words of Chicago Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman.
And within hours, it was a card.
For the second time, the best moments of the World Baseball Classic were featured in TOPPS NOW, the trading card series commemorating the most exciting sports snapshots as they happen. Throughout the tournament, cards featuring the WBC’s highlights, like Munetaka Murakami’s walk-off in the semifinal or Team Czech Republic’s Cinderella story, went on sale the next day, with an exclusive purchasing window of only one day before sales closed.
Let’s take a closer look at this year’s set and Topps’ history with the World Baseball Classic.
Right Here, Right Now
When people think of Topps (or even baseball cards in general), they’re most often thinking about the card sets that are released annually and seasonally. The approach to creating TOPPS NOW, a card set that is released continually — and immediately — is different.
“You gotta pace yourself,” said Pat O’Sullivan, the brand manager for TOPPS NOW. “We’re working seven days a week for the duration of the season. There are obviously some crazy moments, but we get excited for them.”
In addition to baseball, other sports and entertainment franchises, like the MLS, F1, and Star Wars, feature in TOPPS NOW. Each year of Topps Now features a design template that’s matched across all entries in the series, and it’s redesigned annually during the baseball offseason. It’s like how Series 1 ushers in a new design for Topps’ flagship baseball brand every February. In 2023, the World Baseball Classic was one of the events to introduce collectors to the 2023 ToppsNow design.
One of the unique challenges that the WBC set presented to O’Sullivan and Tom Regan, a senior graphic designer for ToppsNow, was the unfamiliarity with non-MLB players from around the world.
“We just don’t get a chance to see some of these players very often,” said Regan. “But these are still really talented baseball players that don’t get the same kind of spotlight as the rest of MLB.” He highlighted Team Nicaragua pitcher Duque Hebbert, the 21-year-old who had most recently pitched in the Nicaraguan Winter League. Called upon to face the heart of Team Dominican Republic’s star-studded lineup in the group stage, Hebbert struck out superstars Juan Soto, Julio Rodriguez, and Rafael Devers; an hour later, he inked a minor league contract with the Detroit Tigers.
At the same time, that unfamiliarity is what they loved most about the WBC series. It was a chance to embrace the heroes that most fans had never met, like an extreme version of a rookie card.
“For someone who plays in the minor leagues or outside the country, it’s fun to consider what their very first card can be,” said O’Sullivan.
Of course, the card featuring Ohtani’s game-clinching showdown with Trout highlights the entire set. In its one-day window immediately following the championship game, the card was ordered over 42,000 times, making it the most popular TOPPS NOW card of the year, so far. It even cracked the top 10 of the biggest print run in ToppsNow history.
The Ohtani-Trout card is also unique because it features an angle not often seen on cards, with the photographer positioned behind home plate; most often, photographers set up in the wells along the first base and third base lines.
“When we found that photo, it really jumped out to us because it captured the full moment,” O’Sullivan said. “We knew that had to be the one.”
Though the 2023 tournament represented the apex of World Baseball Classic excitement, it’s not the first time Topps has created WBC cards. The pairing dates back to 2009, the second edition of the tournament. The most memorable card from years past was the one from 2017 that captured Team USA outfielder Adam Jones’ home run robbery of Team Dominican Republic third baseman (and Baltimore Orioles teammate) Manny Machado.
More Than a Game
Even before this year’s World Baseball Classic had ended, Trout committed to the next edition of the tournament in 2026. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred encouraged American teams to be more flexible with their pitchers so that the next time, pitching rotations might be as stacked as the lineups were this year. The WBC is undoubtedly growing as an international phenomenon — just look at the television viewership numbers in Japan.
Over time, we might see the WBC approaching World Cup hype, and collectors can experience that through the card sets. Consider how the tournament has evolved as seen through the first 2017 TOPPS NOW releases and this year’s cards.
More stars than ever joined forces in 2023, and the crowds brought an energy many players said they’d never experienced. Flags were waving, horns blowing, and it was a party from the first pitch to the final out.
“What this did for the game of baseball, I think it’s really special,” O’Sullivan said. “And to be able to make a commemorative, tangible token that captured a little bit of that spirit, I think it’s so much fun.”