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.

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