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.

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