Growing up just a 40 minute drive away from Yankee Stadium, Joseph Aloi was a huge New York Yankees fan. The team was – as he called it – a very big part of his family's soul.
The North White Plains native recalled attending 15-plus home games every season throughout his childhood, each trip to the Bronx an "otherworldly" experience. Born in 1970, he lived through back-to-back World Series titles before his ninth birthday and worshiped the '78 team. To this day, Aloi can rattle off the Bombers' starting lineup verbatim from that historic season – Thurman Munson out to Reggie Jackson.
His father even played for the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate back in 1959.
Of all his connections to baseball's most storied franchise, this self-proclaimed "Yankees nerd" was a sucker for baseball cards. His father had a massive collection and he traded them with friends, slowly accumulating a complete set of all of his favorites in pinstripes.
Now, a multi-disciplinary visual artist known as JK5, Aloi is one of the renowned and influential artists to headline Topps' brand new collection, Project 2020.
One of the most eclectic projects in Topps' nearly 70-year history, Project 2020 showcases 20 cross-generational cards reinterpreted by 20 different artists. All 400 cards, unique in their own way, will be offered to the public on a day-to-day basis – a process that began on Wednesday. Two new cards will be released each day, available for a 48-hour period from the time each is introduced.
"The idea and concept of the project is we are translating and interpreting these classic vintage cards, the graphic design, aesthetic of the card and ultimately illuminating the soul in our own expressive way of the individual player," Aloi explained. "It’s this great challenge of coming up with a really cohesive series of 20 original works of art that will scan and translate vividly with clarity at a really small scale."
The group of cards – including the game's biggest stars ranging from 1952 to the present day – feature two legendary New York Yankees: Don Mattingly and Mariano Rivera. Mattingly (a 1984 edition) is photographed in ready position at first base while Rivera (1992) – in a polo and white khaki pants – leans comfortably on a pillar.
Although he hasn't begun working on these specific pieces yet, Aloi assured that as a diehard Yankees fan, recreating those two cards specifically will be an incredibly special experience.
"I’m going to go off on Mattingly and Rivera, who’s on deck right now, pun intended," he joked. "I don’t know exactly how, but my love of the Yankees is going to shine through and transcend the other cards. Or, they’ll just be a very distinct kind of style or love letter to the Bronx and my history with the Yankees."
Aloi isn't the only local artist with an opportunity to inject their creativity into these Yankees classic cards.
Andrew Thiele, who lives in Harlem, also grew up in a Yankees household. Even for someone who has previously worked with Topps, as well as Major League Baseball, the ability to work on a project that directly infuses his love for specifically New York sports and art is an opportunity unlike any other.
"Intersections when your interests meet are when your best work comes out," Thiele said. "I always look at every opportunity as my chance at bat. Every opportunity is your chance to hit it out of the park and that’s what I’m trying to do on each and every single [card]."
Thiele explained that each individual card requires at least five-to-ten hours of work. With a past of collecting cards and inspirations rooted in the game of baseball, it's easy to devote days at a time to crafting the perfect piece.
"Art and design was always something that I’ve been focused on since I was a little boy," he recalled, reminiscing back to when he would barter and try to swindle his friends out of the cards he wanted. "You say to yourself, you could turn back time and tell the 10-year-old you that one day you’re going to be making your own baseball cards. It sounds nuts – you can’t take that for granted when you get those opportunities."
The Harlem native's reinterpretation of Rivera's card included No. 42 entering the field at Yankee Stadium from the bullpen behind where he leans in the original. Thiele told SI.com that he completed this version of the Rivera classic in under 48 hours, putting in some extra work just so the card could be shown to Yankees fans as soon as possible.
For design artist Sophia Chang – a native of Flushing, Queens – the process of redesigning these cards has been "like drawing over a Mona Lisa."
"I do a little bit of research on each person," she said, running through her design technique and the steps that precede drawing and composing. "I try to include that step of their story visually and components about each individual on their cards as illustrated whenever the cards are for each person."
In Chang's rendition of the Rivera card, she also superimposed a Yankees uniform over the closer's body, ensuring the historic logo and pinstripes would be in the piece. Then, with eye-catching typography, she incorporated key words, quotes and images that defined Rivera's career.
Even for someone who wasn't much of a baseball fan growing up, Chang recognized the cultural impact in New York that the Rivera and Mattingly cards will have.
"These baseball cards are so prominent and not only culturally but such a collectible and such gems for people to own and understand that kind of collector culture," Change explained, relating card collecting to sneaker culture and cherishing each new item in an individual's collection. "To be able to have the opportunity to create our own version – for me as an artist, obviously I'm making sure I’m paying homage and then capturing the proper storytelling."
Although these artists have been a part of this project for several months, working and finalizing their first few cards in secrecy, the collection's launch comes in a time of crisis. During the week that was supposed to host Major League Baseball's Opening Day, the novel coronavirus pandemic has all sports completely shut down.
By releasing a pair of cards each day, with a lineup of MLB stars that flawlessly represent the sport, fans are given something to look forward to. It stretches beyond the confines of diehard fandom as well, connecting with all age groups and audiences.
For Aloi, who recently finished crafting his edition of the 1958 Ted Williams card, it brought him back to playing catch with his dad in the backyard over four decades ago.
"Really heartwarming to show these cards, my original pieces with the cards themselves, to my father and my uncle because I knew they would flip out and really appreciate it," he said, describing the moment he showed his family the classic Williams card. "And of course, they recognize a lot of the classic cards."
As the rest of the collection – especially the Rivera and Mattingly cards – are unveiled over the course of this project, Aloi's family won't be the only ones to recognize the original cards while still admiring these new, captivating creations.
To see the cards from this collection that are available right now, go to topps.com/project2020.
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