Thursday, June 30, 2011

Blunder Down Under

Some trifectas were made just so perfectly conceived that you’d swear heaven was triangular. The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Magic, Kareem, and Worthy. Tinker to Evers to Chance. Dodge vs. Chevy vs. Ford. Chico, Harpo, and Groucho. Moe, Larry, and Curly. The French Connection line. The three Godfather movies. Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Bacon, lettuce, and tomato.

And then there are accumulations of three that make you wonder whether the prophets at Schoolhouse Rock had it all wrong, and three is indeed not a magic number. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. The three Porky’s movies. Wade and Bosh and LeBron. The K cars. That three-wheeled Chernobyl made by the Company Formerly Known As Ski-Doo. Pat Listach to Scott Fletcher to Franklin Stubbs. Moe, Larry, and Joe Besser. Bacos, lettuce, and tomato. And last but not least, Australia, James Donaldson, and baseball.

And yet these things happen and continue to happen. The Brewers persist in trotting out a DP combo of Yuniesky Betancourt to Rickie Weeks to Cecil Fielder, an assemblage that is to slick fielding what Michelle Bachmann is to reasoned political thought. National Treasure 3 is in production. Alabama is back together. And not too long ago, Donaldson promoted Australian baseball through the mercifully short-lived Australian Baseball League set.

Once you break through the realization that this is one ménage a trois that’s really a ménage, it’s fairly easy to draw lines between any two of the three. Australia and baseball is logical enough. Baseball is sort of equidistant between cricket and Australian Rules Football, that aboriginal aberration played by sides of 18 that find Brian Urlacher too much of a sissy-boy for their tastes.

Australia and James Donaldson is doable. The former Washington State big played there after a 10-year NBA career where he moved more glacially than a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s. Baseball and Donaldson is a bit of a stretch until you realize they’re both mortally slow sports. It’s connecting all three that’s the reach. Yet there they all are in the Australian Baseball League set, linking arms and singing “The Kookaburra Song” while the dingoes howl in the distance.

Triangular logic notwithstanding, it’s hard to fathom how a continent whose No. 1 contribution to the National Pastime was David Nilsson, a catcher who couldn’t catch and couldn’t stay healthy enough to hit, merits a set of cards for its incestuous minor league, a sort of multicity crumb tray for all ANZAC players worse than Trent Oeltjen.

On the other hand, in the Handful O’Landfill Era every league that didn’t have the name of a towing service plastered across the fronts of its uniforms was prime territory for a card set. It just so happens that this league was about 50,000 miles away from its target market, with no network broadcast contract and no way of engaging its potential audience other than a set of baseball cards whose most recognizable name got beat out of a starting job by Mark Eaton.

With that said, the ABL cards are a pretty patch in a semipro sort of way. Fronts are clean, photography is right-side up, and backs are no worse than Sally League quality if a little too influenced by the Star Company for their own good.

The real question now, looking back at this set through the crystal-clear lens of retrospection, is what the plan was, how this set was going to do anything for anyone. The logistics – the big leagues are way over here, and the ABL is way over there – were just too heavily stacked against the ABL. The league was positioned as a low-level winter league, the winter equivalent of an upper-echelon independent like the American Association. While it was certainly possible that someone would take a path to stardom that ran through the ABL, the odds were against it. It was much more likely that someone would bounce from the Cape Cod League to the Northern League to the low minors to the upper minors to the bigs, with stops at Maracaibo and UPS and 50 games off for what they swear was an over-the-counter allergy medicine.

It was asking far too much of ABL cards to elevate such a turkey, and the cards' murky distribution – no one in my vast network of gainfully employed former card geeks can remember seeing these cards anywhere except in my file cabinet – ensured that no one would make money on the deal and the printer would be running hard after someone, holding aloft a sheaf of official-looking papers and reeking of acetone.

Ah, but the ABL had a secret weapon: James Donaldson. He shows up in the set, certainly not as a player or manager and not really as a general manager or owner. Seeing as the Donaldson card shows the big man bereft of any mascot clothing, he apparently was just lending moral support to the operation, which needed all the help it could get.

Here's how bad off the ABL was: When it finally gave up the ghost (and the Paramatta Patriots) in 1999, Dave Nilsson bought the entire league, lock, stock, and James Donaldson, for $5 million. MLB now owns 75 percent of the operation and runs it as a trading-card-free, fundamental-stressing South Asia developmental league, which is what it should have been all along.

The Australian Baseball League may not have merited cards, but it got 'em. But so did Dinotopia and Campbell's soup. At a time and place where they were still called baseball cards, it probably deserved them.