Sunday, November 21, 2010

Floppsy, Toppsy, And A Rotten Tale

I feel like Steve Goodman being taken to the woodshed by David Allan Coe. I did not write the perfect country-and-western song because I didn't say anything at all about mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting drunk. And what's worse, I wrote about the so-called funny baseball cards of the Handful O'Landfill era and didn't say anything about Flopps.

Flopps were a product of Pro Set circa 1992, when the company was well on its way to world domination through pictures on cardboard. It already had the official cards of the National Football League and the National Hockey League, it had the NBA dead in its sights, it had sold hockey cards with a Canadian Nut Goodie so it could sell practically anything, it had an opulent corporate headquarters that seemed to be made entirely of light beams and Walter Payton statues, and it had a corpulent CEO guaranteed to make a thousand Marie Claire editors go “ick!” The only thing it was missing: a baseball license.

In those days the real money in the card biz was still in baseball, because the NFL and its players’ association (the whole “official card of the NFL” thing notwithstanding) gave away licenses to anyone willing to make a seven-figure donation to their respective labor-unrest war chests, and hockey and basketball were still hockey and basketball, no matter what Michael Jordan said.

Major League Baseball had kept a pretty tight lid on things, meaning it had only five licensees making six products each. This was before baseball cards in cans, so almost all those sets made money. And Pro Set wanted a piece. Very badly.

That was one aspect to Pro Set – “good” Pro Set, if you will. Then there was the Sarah Palin operation, Pro Set gone rogue, mainly under the leadership of trading-card deep-thinker Victor Shaffer. The Pro Set skunkworks made Desert Storm cards and Young Indiana Jones cards and Little Mermaids cards and Dinosaurs cards and racing cards and other non-mainstream sets, and badly wanted to get into the comic end of the non-sport biz.

(There was another level to Pro Set, the money-skimming “evil” Pro Set, but that’s a topic – and a federal investigation -- for another day.)

Somehow the skunkworks got tangled up with the desire for a baseball license and determined the way to get into comic cards and get a baseball license was to use a comic set to slam Topps and many of the superstar baseball players it depicted. The result was Flopps.

Flopps was not Pro Set's finest hour. It was not even its finest couple of seconds. There was nothing about Flopps that was not done elsewhere – and not simply "done better elsewhere," because ha-ha-told-you-so satiric baseball-card sets have never been done well by anyone.

Here are the contents of the promo packs distributed to the media and dealers: Wade Bugs of the Boston Sweat Socks; Stickey Henderson of the Oakland Ughs!; Ken Groovy, Jr., of the Seattle Mindwarps; Barry Bones of the Pusburgh Packrats; and Lance Perishable of the California Airheads.

Laughing yet? If you're not now you never will be, because that's all there is.

The Calvin Coolidge-like lack of humor of the promo cards aside – and remember, promo cards are supposedly the best of the best – the aforementioned Flopps cards point up a bigger problem: sustaining the humor over the course of a set. The promo cards have players hailing from Boston, Oakland, Seattle, California, and Pusbergh. That would be like creating a Garbage Pail Kids set consisting of Adam Bomb, Busted Bertha, Smelly Kelly, Bea Sting, and Glenn Beck. (Yeah, I don't have a problem with it, either.)

And then how big a set do you want? Keeping the knee-slapping mirth going over a handful of superstar cards is one thing; when you get down to cards 466 and 467, Bean Figueroa and Bill Grisly, who's still paying attention? And what, oh what, do you do with Archi Cianfrocco?

The bottom of the theoretical Flopps barrel is the stuff EC Comics were made of: Paul Faires as Paul Fairies. Juan Agosto as Juan Disgusto. Kevin Appier as Kevin Disappear. It would take James Thurber, Dave Barry, and Mark Twain alternating sentences on the back, and Gary Larson and Bill Watterston doing the art, and it still wouldn't come off half as good as a run-of-the-mill Odd Rod.

And that didn't happen. The art has a day-glo sketchiness that makes a Wacky Package look like a DaVinci, and the writing on the back rarely rises above streetwalker level.

"Lance is not a good long-term investment for any team," reads the back of the Lance Perishable card. "Although he's got it together by the early season, by mid-summer he just falls to pieces. Most agree that Lance stinks because he's just plain rottin.'"

There's a perverse, oh-my-God-she's-wearing-that? fascination to Flopps cards. It's like watching your buddy from accounting trying to do karaoke to "Vision of Love" after going four rounds with chocotinis. But that doesn't mean it's something you want to return to time and again.

Rarely has a set been as broken in so many ways as Flopps, so it's probably a good thing it never made it past the promo stage. Why it didn't is a matter of conjecture.

“What we believe happened is that Topps got wind of it and complained to MLB," a former Pro Set staffer says. "The MLB told Pro Set: If you produce Flopps, you will never get a baseball license. Pro Set had every right to produce Flopps; they just realized that it was not worth it to ruin any chance of ever getting a baseball license."

“I remember a giant yawn from the non-sport community when dealers were artificially rigging promo card prices on these weak cards," contends Don Butler, Pro Set expert and former non-sport-card-magazine editor. "I think we received a cello pack -- Wade Buggs was the top card --with an announcement of the set, then it was abandoned either from the threat of a lawsuit or – what I think – the worse threat of no sales."

Whatever did or didn't happen with Flopps, it points up the eternal lesson: Make lemonade when life gives you lemons, but if insist on making your own lemons, don't expect it to taste like Minute Maid.

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