They are the Schrödinger's cat of trading cards -- Topps cards from the 90's with the plastic protector still on them.
They are cards that are out the pack and yet you truly don't know their condition because there is that second sheet of plastic. When I can't get to sleep, sometimes my mind turns to the card collector's unanswerable existential question: Can there really be a mint Topps Finest card when the protective coating is on the card?
Just like the cat in Schrodinger's box that is either alive or dead, the card can be mint or damaged by the plastic protector and there is no way to know without ripping that sucker off.
To me it is like grading a card still in the wrapper. You don't know the condition of the card until you open the pack, just like you can't really know the condition of the card until that annoying plastic coating is removed.
For years, I've been doing just that in a series of posts I've called "Free the Finest." Sometimes it turns out great like in the Warren Moon card above. Other times it is not so great, like my experience with David Ortiz's 1999 Topps Finest card.
Here's the "before" version of the more than 20-year-old card.
After removing the "protector," it is clear through the passage of time that it has actually damaged the card and lefts a permanent film where the text was sitting.
Here's the vertical view. I wish I knew when the tipping point was in having the lettering affect the card. Was it a decade? 15 years? My guess is maybe high temperature play a part in the issue. Maybe cards stored at higher temperatures lead to the sheet and card "becoming one." I'm just spitballing here.
I ripped the Warren Moon protector a couple years ago and as you can see that was survived without the damage.
I have also recently freed some NBA cards which had the text run diagonally. All three of these turned out fine and I think the Olajuwon is a great example of why the sheet should be removed. The chrome is just so beautiful.
I think really my problem is just how bad the text looks with the protector attached and seeing what is happening to some of the cards when it is left on, I wish they went with a protector like they used with the Diamond Die Cuts. [side note: those Diamond Die Cuts came out early a decade ago, now do you feel old?] But even though I had a problem with!
At least I'm consistent.