Card photographer is the Topps dog in the business

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The big league talent scouts didn't know he even existed. Why would they?

He was 5-foot-6½, 170 pounds. He went to tiny Northwood University in Midland, Mich., where he had a 2.75 GPA, not a 2.75 ERA. When he finally got discovered, he was 29 years old and working the drive-thru at a fast-food restaurant in North Carolina.

Let's face it, absolutely nobody gave him a chance to reach The Show. But here he is, one of baseball's great success stories.

"I'm living a dream every day," says right-hander Gregg Forwerck. "I can't believe I get to do this for a job."

A few quick things you should know about Forwerck: His fastball tops out at, oh, 66 mph; he couldn't hit major or minor league pitching if you gave him 1,000 swings and told him what was coming; 18 months ago he suffered (and recovered from) a stroke.

But if you've bought a Topps baseball card in the past 19 years, chances are you've got a Forwerck. And if you do, you've got one of the greats.

Forwerck is sort of the Annie Leibovitz of sports trading card photographers. By his own estimates, he's shot more than 10,000 baseball card photos, been to about 100 different minor league ballparks, nearly every major league stadium, and spends close to 100 days a year on the road. I met him just before he drove to the Texas Rangers camp to do a Topps shoot with outfielder Josh Hamilton and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

"I call this, 'my prison term in paradise,'" says Forwerck of his annual spring training swing through Arizona.

Forwerck owns more than 100,000 cards. Not one of them features his name. Sportswriters get bylines. Newspaper and magazine photographers get credit lines. Trading card photographers get anonymity.

"By and large, they're unsung," says Tracy Hackler, associate publisher of the bible of card collecting, Beckett Baseball magazine. "They don't get a lot of acclaim, but the photo is what people see first. It's what compels them."

Forwerck followed your usual path to trading card stardom: accounting minor and marketing major at Northwood, help run some pizza joints, enter a fast-food restaurant management program, suddenly realize you'd rather stick a ballpoint pen in your eyes rather than sell hamburgers, pester a Topps photo director until he throws you a photo bone.

"Yeah," says Forwerck, "that's exactly the natural progression."

His first Topps gig was in 1989. It paid $100, plus expenses.

"And I would have done it for nothing," he says.

Forwerck wasn't supposed to go on the field, but he did it anyway, standing almost next to Andres Galarraga as the Montreal Expos All-Star took throws at first base. Topps liked the photos. Plus, the new guy showed some stones.

Topps gave Forwerck another gig. Then another. Soon he was out of the burger business.

His most bizarre work is featured in the 1992 Bowman rookie card collection (Topps owns the Bowman line). It's right next to this column.

There's Manny being Manny at -- and most people won't guess this in a million years -- the Duke University chapel. Ramirez, then in the Cleveland Indians organization, was in Durham for a game. Problem is, you don't know if he's a ballplayer or a theology student in an unfortunate striped shirt. (Little-known fact: Manny actually asked for an enlarged copy of the photo.)

Meanwhile, then-Durham Bulls minor leaguer Chipper Jones went with the Tommy Hilfiger/prison rodeo look for his photo shoot with Forwerck.

"His wife bought that shirt for him," says Forwerck.

You mean, someone charged her for it? And the belt too?

Forwerck's pride and joy, the card that found itself on the Beckett Baseball monthly Hot List, was Cliff Floyd's imitation of Michael Jordan's Jumpman logo. In purple shorts.

Topps began selling its flagship baseball card brand in 1951. Upper Deck, its rival, began in 1989. They're the only two MLB/MLB Players Association-licensed companies to survive the post-boom era of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Forwerck was there during the craze, during the collapse and now during the slow renaissance of the business. According to Hackler, more than 128,000 "unique" cards were produced in 2007.

Forwerck knows all about unique. A Mark McGwire card features a Forwerck photo of the St. Louis first baseman diving for a line drive. Look hard and you'll see the company artist took out the umpire in the background, but forgot to take out the umpire's shadow.

Roger Clemens owns a Forwerck photo taken about 10 or 11 years ago in Dunedin, Fla., when Clemens was with the Toronto Blue Jays. Forwerck saw Clemens' young son, Koby, dressed in oversized catcher's gear and decided to take some pictures. He tossed the roll of film to then-Blue Jays catcher Charlie O'Brien. Seasons later, Forwerck introduced himself to Koby.

"You shot that?" said Koby, now a Houston Astros minor leaguer. "I've got that picture in my room, and my dad has that photo on his desk."

But unique doesn't always come easily. Former Indians star Albert Belle angrily went after him when Forwerck took a photo of Belle and teammate Omar Vizquel on the bench. And Forwerck swears Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, now the Rangers president, threw a ball in the dirt and past the catcher, just so it would scatter the card photographers clicking away during his warm-ups.

"His 'purpose pitch,'" says Forwerck. "Nobody got hurt."

Barry Bonds promised 30 minutes for a Topps shoot. Instead, Forwerck got him to stay for more than two hours. Turns out Bonds is a huge photography geek.

"Of all the big-name athletes I've shot, I've never met anyone more personable or interested in what I did than him," says Forwerck. "I love Barry. He's my hero."

The two go way back. Forwerck took Bonds' card photo when Bonds still played for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"He was a lot thinner then," he says.

Chicago Cubs Derrek Lee is one of his all-time favorites. "Great guy," says Forwerck.

Except that when Forwerck was getting ready to shoot Lee at an interleague game at U.S. Cellular Field, a bird pooped on the first baseman's arm.

For a line of cards meant to convey an old-school feeling, Forwerck asked then-Cubs pitcher Greg Maddux to try a 1940s-ish huge windup/big leg-kick pose. The no-nonsense Maddux did it. And Milwaukee Brewers starter Jeff Suppan liked the look so much, that he recently asked Forwerck if he could pose like that too.

Hall of Famers. All-Stars. The famous and infamous. Forwerck has shot them all.

But the guy he's rooting for the hardest is a former Marine corporal who served two tours of duty in Iraq. His name is Cooper Brannan and he suffered a wounded left hand that required amputation of his pinkie and part of the hand. Last February the San Diego Padres signed the right-handed pitcher to a minor league contract.

Forwerck saw the story in the newspaper. He eventually approached Brannan with an offer.

"The Topps Co. would be honored to have a military hero on a trading card," Forwerck said to Brannan, as he handed him a standard, nonexclusive contract.

Brannan looked at the contract and then looked at Forwerck.

"How much do I have to pay?" said Brannan.

These are the moments Forwerck remembers. It figures. He loves it when the no-names make good.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.