Friday, September 24, 2010

Do You Have Jim Abbott In The Can?

If Don McLean can pinpoint the Day the Music Died, I’m pretty sure I can pinpoint the Day the Baseball Cards Died.

It was the day Pinnacle put cards in cans with Pinnacle Inside.

I know it may seem like untoward Pinnacle-bashing to subject a dead company to my rib-tickling scorn two weeks running, but you need to consider that 1) any company that puts baseball cards in cans has it coming and 2) I was part of the team that put the cards in cans to start with.

I can safely say from my padded cell inside my cozy little insurance company that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Neither, presumably, did any of the other members of the development team. In fact, I have no idea how cards in cans got past joke stage. I’m pretty sure no one on our team had the idea spring full-blown from their forehead, like Zeus birthing Athena. I don’t remember a product meeting where someone came out of the bathroom and said, “Hey, guys – let’s put cards in cans!” Meth on a stick I remember. But not cards in cans.

I’m guessing the way it happened is the way a lot of things happened in trading cards in those days. Once Upper Deck hit the scene, printers pretty much called the shots in the card business. If you were a printer and had a special technique for embedding diamond dust into football cards, Fleer was sure to be on line one and Pinnacle on line two. And Playoff was in the lobby, fishing around in its pockets for a dime.

Companies that owned their own printing plant had a leg up in this trading-card space race, unless they printed BP gushers of cards like Pro Set, or only printed in colors dogs could hear, like Upper Deck, or were so all-in on one funky technology that they couldn’t cope with anything else, like Action Packed and Sportflics.

I’ll bet my co-worker’s farm that the way cards in cans happened was that some printer simultaneously printing cans and cards messed up and accidentally put the cards in the cans.

It was one of those chocolate-and-peanut-butter moments where the guy with the cards and the guy with the can looked into each other’s eyes and said, “Let’s call Pinnacle!” And Pinnacle said to us, “Make it collectible, boys.”

Lord knows we tried. I mean, we had plenty to work with in an abstract sense, Gremlin-era butt-ugliness and Kim Jong Il autograph-model illogic notwithstanding. We had cans that could show the same image printed differently in varying levels of scarcity. We had a chase called "Duelling Dugouts," which I'm pretty sure I had nothing to do with. We had the most self-evident product name in trading-card history. And we had cards inside the cans that ranged from one-in-ones up to one-in-83s. The elements were easier to manipulate than a Republican Congress; as a collectiburger it had the Arch Deluxe beat eight ways to the golden M.

However, as noted card expert Junie B. Jones would say, yeah, but here’s the problem: It’s Dare to Tear all over again.

For the life of me, I don’t know how we could have let Pinnacle believe that destroying one collectible to save another was not the card-biz equivalent of invading Afghanistan with a dumptruck full of asphalt and a road roller.

Collectors have never, ever, ever seen the logic in destroying one thing to get at another. They don’t eat eggs for that very reason. They won’t even take a fingernail to their Kohl’s mailer to unleash their 15 percent discount. And I am dead-on certain that somewhere in this great Hole-Digging Mutant-Weasel State a collector is hoarding unused four-year-old lottery tickets because they might be valuable someday and, hey, the gold smears really make those cartoon billiard balls pop.

And furthermore, cans have never been a big part of the sports-collecting oeuvre. There are all kinds of soda cans from the ‘60s and ‘70s featuring athletes, and they’re about as collectible as a macramé kit. Why? They were never a part of anyone’s essential childhood memory package; they were just cans with guys’ pictures on them that were floating around for a little while. And I can tell you from personal experience that no one bought a can of Dr. Pepper because it had Carmen Fanzone’s picture on it.

So what you have with Pinnacle Inside really is an extremely tangible non-collectible with marginal collectibles sealed inside. And a company bankrolled by The Money Guys Who Brought You Enron not understanding why the heck these puppies aren’t flying off the shelves like brisket sammiches.

Oh, yeah, this too: We never gave people an easy way to get into the cans.

I can take my Olympia Beer “It’s the Water” can opener and punch a hole in the lid, but when I do baseball cards do not pour out. There is no opening tab, easy or otherwise, that grants you access to the golden succor waiting within. What I have to do to my can to get at the baseball cards inside my can is grind a clamp-and-twist can opener across the top, peel back the jagged metal, and resist the urge to scrape it across my wrist as I withdraw the cards.

Sure, I could cop out and use a Sawzall, but if you’re relentlessly old-school enough to collect baseball cards you’re not going to use an seven-horse power tool on the stinkin’ wrapper. You’re going to open it by hand, even if results in five stitches in your thumb.

(For the record, hand tools like crosscut saws, splitting mauls, or railroad spikes driven just below the lid with an eight-pound hammer also do the trick.)

Hard to believe, but I had forgotten about cards in cans until last week. Blocked it out of my memory entirely. But now that it’s back I am suddenly struck with a powerful urge to return to those halcyon days … of last week.

I know how to go make it happen, too. Just move the spike a little more to the left … a little more … just a touch … there. Now … SWING!

Ahhh. That's better.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Can't Bear To Tear

I was going to write about non-sports cards this week and for several weeks after, since non-sports cards are like uranium 235 for people who write about wretched trading cards. You just need a small amount and you can go on forever. And then you discover you can’t even bury the waste in a mile of concrete without defiling the territory in a hundred-mile radius.

However, this noon as I was buying a hockey puck for my son to autograph with a silver Sharpie I also had to purchase, I remembered a sports card set so surrealistically counterintuitive, so virulently anti-collectible, so Marilyn Mansonesque in its appearance and so much like a Jennifer Lopez movie reduced to trading cards that to not write about it would be like watching the Concorde take off and not saying, “Mommy, look at the big airplane.” Even if you were watching it take off with a group of 55-year-old men. During your job interview.

And the greatest surprise about this set is that it was not designed by Jeffrey Dahmer and the Unabomber during Choice Time but by a group of reasonably sane and mature individuals that included … well, me.

This set is, of course, Pinnacle Zenith.

I have to specify which Pinnacle Zenith I’m talking about, since Pinnacle Zenith, like every good and true trading-card brand created during the Great Proliferation, was worked over more times than Yosemite Sam on a pirate ship.

Pinnacle initially created brands to a certain logic. Score was at the bottom, the card set for the masses. It might be worthless, but it was quality worthless, with chase and color and readable backs. Score was the card set you’d find at the checkout at the Gas ‘n’ Gulp if you were only going to be finding one.

Score Select was a smaller set, more restricted clientele, but still Score -- like a McDonald’s that took reservations. I once told Pinnacle’s vice president that Score Select was like mid-grade gas, and who buys mid-grade gas? He was a packaged-products guy; he got it, and even repeated my line for the higher-ups. But Pinnacle kept making Score Select anyway.

Pinnacle was upscale but not up-upscale – Cape Carp instead of Cape Cod. You can spend $7 for an ice-cream cone there but you won’t see any Kennedys.

(True story: When Pinnacle was bought out by the Bass Brothers and moved to Dallas, the name changed from Major League Marketing to Pinnacle Brands because Jerry Meyer, Pinnacle’s president, said, “I always wanted to run a company called Pinnacle.” I wonder what would have happened if he had wanted to run a company called Zenon Andrusyshyn.)

Pinnacle Zenith was theoretically at the top of the Pinnacle ziggurat. Now, don’t ask me how you can fit a zenith on top of a pinnacle, and make room for Score Summit besides. I’m lucky if I can keep a pop can upright on a table until it’s empty. Zenith took its cues from Fleer Flair and Stadium Club, so it was about a dozen cards to the hundredweight, and more encrusted with gold than the lead table at the Boca Raton Bridge Club.

So far so good. Score-Select-Pinnacle-Zenith: Nice progression. Would have made the boys from GM proud. But then a green little greed reared its head, and while it looked exactly like Larry King, spray-on hair and everything, it was actually an IPO. Pinnacle wanted to fatten its bottom line and then go public, so the Bass Brothers and their brohams could cash in their massive payday and pay Ross Perot his latest installment of shut-up money.

The way Pinnacle chose to get to the payday was to open the cardboard floodgates. More products at each level, and more of each. If Select did 20,000 cases before, the new print run was 40,000 cases, and find a way to sell them in so they still look collectible. Oh, and you have to buy 20 cases of cards in cans (if you don’t remember, don’t ask) for every case of Zenith.

Maybe the trolls who hid art treasures from the Nazis in a salt mine could have buried those 20,000 cases of Select, but neither Pinnacle’s sales force nor its customers could. Pinnacle’s fortunes turned like T.O. on Donovan McNabb. Within 18 months the company was on its last legs, holed up in the bunker, and reaching for cyanide capsules designed as last straws. The straw it chose for Pinnacle Zenith was dubbed Dare to Tear.

The concept behind Dare to Tear is fiendishly simple: Seal a collectible card inside a super-high-quality envelope tarted up as a trading card. Have levels of collectibility for the envelope-card and the cards inside the envelope-card. Present collectors with a conundrum: Do I destroy the envelope-card to get at the card inside, or keep the envelope-card intact and never know what riches may lay beyond?

Wow. Randomly sticking five cards and a slab of gum inside a piece of wax paper looks pretty chintzy compared to that. Except for one thing: Collectors don’t like being put in a situation where they have to pay four bucks so they can destroy one card to get at another card. It’s like someone trapping your mother and your wife in a burning house, and telling you you can only save one. And charging you $25,000 at the door.

Collectors were barely over their moms tossing their ’52 Mantles, and now Pinnacle was taunting them with a super-sized nightmare card you have to rip in half to find … what? Junior Felix dolled up like Joan Rivers? A Jeff Blauser holofoil? It was too much for their fragile constitutions to handle.

Of course Dare to Tear was a debacle. It was Pinnacle’s Little Big Horn. After Zenith the only person left at Pinnacle was Jeff Morris, who wandered from office to office turning on and off lights to make it look like there was business afoot. But here’s the funny thing: What made these cards so unpopular also made them collectible. Are there still extremely valuable (by the compromised standards of ‘90s trading cards) cards sitting inside jumbotronned Charlie Hayes and Chuckie Carrs? Unquestionably. And did people destroy reasonably valuable, and huge, Biggios and Pizzas so they could baste in the glory that is a base-level Jeff Fassero? But of course. The relentless logic behind Dare to Tear ensures collectibility for both levels, and the fact that two-thirds of the press run went to exacerbate global warming is frosting on the beater. Its only drawback – and it’s huge – is that Dare to Tear takes the premises of collectibility to their most uncomfortable extremes. Zenith laid bare for collectors the basic forces behind scarcity and value, and they couldn’t decide any longer to ignore the man behind the curtain. It may have been the most cynical product in the long cynical tail-off of the trading-card industry into its current doddering insignificance, but Pinnacle Zenith was also the most honest.

And I think I said the same thing, minus the doddering part, back when the product was being kicked around the table by bright folks like Morris, Chris Dahl, and Dean Listle. And I think they agreed with me. But you can’t lay down in front of a steamroller, you can’t stop time, you can’t pull the mask off the ol’ Lone Ranger, and you can’t argue with Texans with a bankroll. Dare to Tear became flesh – well, cardboard. And here we are.

All the way around, the world’s a better place because Dare to Tear didn’t take off. It wouldn’t have taken trading cards in a good direction.

Hey, reach over and hand me that Honus Wagner card, willya? I’m thinking there’s a Peek-A-Boo Veach inside.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Becooz. Just Becooz.

There is a trading-card equivalent to practically everything, including trading cards. The trading-card equivalent of trading cards is trading cards, and the trading-card equivalent of trading cards that are the trading-cards equivalent of trading cards is trading cards, and the trading-card equivalent of that is Sean Hannity beating on your skull with a hammer.

Yes, Virginia, there is even a trading-card equivalent to the age-old question, "How long after a breakup is the right time to start seeing someone else?" The correct answer to that question is 10-15 minutes, which is not the same as the answer to the trading-card equivalent of that question, which is, "How long after someone is retired or dead or good as dead (i.e., hitting below .270) is the right time to issue a set of cards showing no one else but them?

Just as there is an infinite range of answers to the first question, provided you have an atomic stopwatch, there is an infinite range of answers to the second question.

When the subject of the set is Sam Horn, the correct answer is there is no correct answer. Never is the right time for a Sam Horn set. For Star Company, the Sam Horn set was a spurned suitor who chooses a life of celibacy over more heartbreak, which brings to mind a fantasy-baseball story.

Scheduling issues had made it so the Krause Publications fantasy-baseball draft was to be held on opening day. Though this was in Iola and long before the ascension of the sports bar, there was a TV set above the bar at the Lakeview, and the drafters were paying attention to the game, the Red Sox and the Orioles, between picks.

This game just so happened to be the solitary game when Sam Horn transmogrified into Babe Ruth. He cranked three homers that day, prompting one of the Krauseites to jump on Horn in about the third round.

Naturally, that was it for Sam Horn for the year, but the picker remained defiant. He had gotten enough home runs out of Sam Horn to win his matchup for the week. He was happy and secure in the knowledge that everyone hated him anyway, even without dragging Sam Horn into it.

When the same thing happened even more inexplicably with Tuffy Rhodes, a Krauseite picker was all over him, too. But that person eventually regretted his choice. Besides, no one hated him.

Focus, Kit, focus. The reason this question is asked is not Sam Horn but someone who was as far removed from Sam Horn as you can get without leaving town. This player was epochally great, a winner, bald, and old. We are of course referring to Bob Cousy.

In Boston the right time to issue a Bob Cousy set is ... what time is it now? Bob Cousy and Bobby Orr are all the Beantowners need for life besides beans. And for Fenway Park to remain the charmingly anachronistic dump it is now, with bathrooms that make Adrian Beltre yearn for the slums of San Pedro de Macoris. And another world championship for the Celtics over the Lakers right now. Wait for basketball season, my eye. Oh, and something involving a Kennedy, any Kennedy, even Ian.

Sorry; back to Cousy. Bob Cousy has never been shy to admit that Bob Cousy was the greatest thing to happen to basketball since they booted the women in bloomers off the court. In this regard he is the basketball equivalent of Bob Feller, who we wish a speedy recovery while also noting that he never met a baseball that he didn't think could be improved by the addition of his signature. And that'll be 55 bucks, sonny.

Therefore, a Bob Cousy commemorative set – commemorating what? Oh, any old thing – is in Cousy's mind a capital idea.

In all fairness the set was not positioned as a commemorative set but as the "Bob Cousy Card Collection," which implies that it contains as many cards as my collection, which is somewhere in the millions, even if you leave out the Star Sam Horn set, which suffered fatal injuries by throwing itself in front of a rogue shredder, sacrificing its life to save the lives of its fellow (and much more valuable) cards, including its special friend, the Aurelio Monteagudo Traded card.

And seriously, the fact that this set is devoted to Bob Cousy means there are highlights aplenty, as opposed to the Sam Horn set, which by card three is delving into Horn's exploits with sunflower seeds in Pawtucket.

The Cousy cards are not unattractive, if you like rummage-sale signs. The fact that this card is a numbered specimen from the "Preview Edition" means its value has appreciated from nil to twice nil.

Listen: Cousy was a great basketball player – one of my favorites, truth be told. There would have been a Pete Maravich had there not been a Bob Cousy, but we would have deprived the ill-informed of the opportunity to say otherwise. But the question resonates like the bells in the Old North Church: Why Cousy? Why not Mantle or Mays or Orr or Russell or Williams (who, in all fairness, had his own card company) or Schmidt or Killebrew or Aaron or anyone but Cousy?

Simple: 'Cause someone with a little bit of money convinced Cousy it'd be a good idea. That's how it usually works, and that's how it worked here. That's how it worked for Sam Horn, too. And that's where the similarity ends – even in Boston.