In the jewelry world, Ben Yang, better known as Ben Baller, is a huge deal. His clients include the likes of Kanye West, Drake and Snoop Dogg, who pay handsomely for his designs. He’s what’s known in the business as an “influencer,’’ though he doesn’t particularly like the term.
You’d hardly expect Yang to be associated with, of all things, baseball cards. Yet his futuristic take on Ichiro’s 2001 Topps card was the kickoff of a unique project by Topps in which pop artists from such diverse fields as graffiti art, street art, tattoo art, jewelry and many other eclectic milieus put their 21st-century stamp on good, old-fashioned baseball cards.
For Yang, 47, the project resonated from the start, despite the apparent disconnect from his normal world. For one thing, he has a strong affinity for Seattle, despite being born and raised in Southern California. He married a woman from here, started a nonprofit that was headquartered in Sodo, purchased a downtown condo and has even been a Seahawks die-hard and season-ticket holder since 2012. You want more Emerald City bonafides? One of Yang’s best friends is Apolo Ohno.
For another thing, he was an avid baseball-card collector as a youngster. But most importantly, as a Korean-American and former athlete — the first Asian-American to play football and basketball at San Francisco State — Yang has always related to Ichiro and the challenges he faced as the first Japanese-born position player in MLB.
“For the most part, growing up, I was always the odd-man out in sports and everything,’’ Yang said in a phone interview from his L.A. home. “Being Asian was a little bit of a struggle, and also very challenging for the things I like to do in my life. With the adversity and everything I faced, when I looked at the list of 20 people, I said, ‘Hey, man, this has to be the first one I do.’ ”
When Topps brainstormed its “Project 2020,” which involved 20 artists each re-imagining 20 of the company’s most iconic baseball cards, it had no idea that the year 2020 would be the most disruptive imaginable.
But the project forges ahead, and the periodic reveals of the artists’ handiwork is another reminder that nostalgia is one of the salves in this harrowing time. And also that creative forces are still at work while much of the world is shut down.
Besides Ichiro, the project includes another Mariners legend — Ken Griffey Jr., an absolutely no-brainer choice based on the massive popularity of his baseball cards. The cards that were turned into artists’ canvases are from their rookie season — 1989 for Griffey, 2001 for Ichiro.
They join such luminaries as Willie Mays (1952), Jackie Robinson (1952), Sandy Koufax (1955), Bob Gibson (1959), Rickey Henderson (1980), Nolan Ryan (1969), Don Mattingly (1984), Mariano Rivera (1992 Bowman), Cal Ripken Jr. (1982 Topps Traded), Tony Gwynn (1983), George Brett (1975), Mike Trout (2011 Updates), Mark McGwire (1987), Frank Thomas (1990), Dwight Gooden (1985), Roberto Clemente (1955) and Ted Williams (1954).
Each of the 20 artists will put their unique spin on all 20 cards, which then are made available for purchase on Topps.com for $20 each (plus 20 “artist proof prints” for $100) for just 48 hours. The rollout of two cards per business day began March 25, though the schedule moving forward is a little in flux because of the effect of the virus on some artists’ production.
Jeff Heckman, Topps’ global director of e-commerce, said there were no restrictions placed on artists. They were encouraged to “go wild” in the admittedly limited canvas of a 2.5-by-3.5-inch piece of cardboard.
For Yang, it took some tinkering before he found the proper aesthetic for Ichiro. He initially went “full-blown animation,” only to conclude, “OK, this is no longer a baseball card; this is a Pokemon. I need to tone this back, big time.”
Calling upon such disparate influences as architects Frank Lloyd Wright and John Lautner, the design of the Porsche 911 Carrera, Nike’s Galaxy Foamposite shoe for Penny Hardaway and director Ridley Scott, Yang found his sweet spot.
“I didn’t want to do too much,” Yang said. “I just gave it, I wouldn’t even say a face-lift; I just think I enhanced it to give it that Blade Runner, post-modern midcentury, futuristic look without taking too much away from Ichiro and Topps.”
One Ben Baller touch is the placement of a diamond in the lower right-hand corner, a nod both to the shape of the baseball field and his status as a renowned jeweler. Another touch is the enhancement of Ichiro’s trademark Oakley sunglasses to look like what Yang calls “apocalypse goggles.”
The feedback, Yang says, has been overwhelmingly positive — even from his Dodger-loving friends in Los Angeles. His artist’s proof sold out in five minutes, and the card sold 1,334 copies during its 48-hour run.
“Most of the time, I don’t have a bleep about what anyone thinks about me,” Yang said. “I don’t care what anyone says. But this time, although I didn’t come in thinking that way, I felt so relieved people liked that I represented Seattle really well.”
For Raheem Saladeen Johnson, known in the art world as King Saladeen, the assignment of Griffey was a thrill despite a sports background that was basketball-centric. Saladeen was even a recruited hoops player in Philadelphia until a serious car accident pointed him toward art instead.
“Oh, my God — Ken Griffey? If I knew any baseball player, it was Ken Griffey,’’ Saladeen said via phone. “He was like the Michael Jordan, the Mike Tyson — he was in that group of superhero sports players.
“And he was young, African-American, he wore his hat backwards. It was just so relatable. And he made people introduced to baseball really pay attention. I played basketball because that was what was around me. There weren’t many baseball fields and things like that in the inner city. He made people want to go play baseball in a football field. He was just different, man. For me to have him as my first card, I said, I have to really start this off with a bang.”
His goal with the Griffey card, Saladeen said, was to “create somewhat of a time capsule, put that same energy of when I found out about him, how I was feeling. I wanted the card to just pop, you know?”
Griffey’s appeal remains strong in the collecting world — the card sold 2,504 copies during its 48-hour run. Among the touches Saladeen put on his Griffey card was a representation of his nickname, “The Kid,” and a wrap over the bat that details his career total of 630 home runs.
“I thought, hmm, if it looked like the bat was a scroll, that would be pretty cool,’’ he said. “Because you almost think, how many other records are wrapped around this bat?”
Another defining touch in this Griffey card is the American flag in the upper right-hand corner.
“I wanted to put the flag back there to represent strength, togetherness, opportunity,’’ he said.
In embracing this project, Saladeen said, “I just wanted to go back to that feeling as a kid, being amazed by all of these amazing grown-ups who played sports.”
It’s a well-timed goal amidst the uncertainty of our current times.